The Whirligig of Time

Every once in a while, I come across something that seems at odds with the history I’ve learned. Admittedly I’m the product of an older, more gendered Zeitgeist, and in the intervening years, have struggled to accept what I might once have termed historical revisionism. Each epoch seems to want to believe its own version of the past and interprets artifacts -whether newly discovered, or housed in dark drawers in museums- accordingly. Traditionally, of course, history has been written by the victors -the powerful- and so it has always been a matter of conjecture how accurately ethnographical descriptions of the time, captured the lived reality of the era.

It is often tempting, either through lack of sufficient historically corroborative evidence, or currently prevailing attitudes, to denigrate the achievements of women in the past. Evidence of the contrary, must needs run a gauntlet of well-entrenched, and therefore not entirely impartial judges. The current of paradigms run deep and largely unnoticed until challenged, and the resulting turbulence, no matter how insightful and epiphanous, can nonetheless be unsettling.

How can history change if it has already occurred? Is it merely interpretational -like the apocryphal two people crossing the same bridge seeing different bridges? Or more nuanced, more coloured by our present day conceits than we would like to think -the hammer judging everything to be a nail?

Sometimes a sturdier explanation arises from evidence being viewed with modern and, hopefully, more objective techniques -techniques like, say, DNA, or perhaps, sophisticated chemical analyses which largely remove any subjective biases.

One such study I discovered while strolling through the various online magazines to which I am habituated, seemed unusually compelling. It was an article written by Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic that outlined how the analysis of dental plaque in the remains of a medieval woman revealed the existence of hitherto unexpected female scribes in what had been seen as an almost exclusively male profession.

A brilliant blue was found in the dental tartar of a 1000 year old woman buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. ‘It was ultramarine … a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts… [T]hese embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.’

Anita Radini from the University of York, and her co-author Christina Warinner, a microbiome researcher at the Max Planck Institute were actually looking for other things, but became captivated by the blue particles on the teeth.

Alison Beach, an historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes from 12th century Germany has cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production and she noted that ‘while most manuscripts with signatures are signed by men, the vast majority of manuscripts are unsigned. But a small number of surviving manuscripts are signed by women, and scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns about book production.’

The question about the lapis lazuli was obviously how it got into the woman’s dental plaque in the first place, though. Was it through some sort of medicine, or even from devotional kissing the of the manuscript? Both of these things were ruled out by knowledge of contemporary practices, and the fact that the particles were particularly fine suggested that ‘the stones were purposefully made into pigment.’

Finally, it was concluded that ‘two scenarios are most likely: The woman was a painter who could have ingested ultramarine paint while licking her brush to a point, or she breathed in the powder while preparing pigment for herself or someone else.’

Either way, though, the findings are certainly evidence of the largely unreported roll of women in medieval life -and the respect accorded them in their areas of expertise. Admittedly, in this case the scriptors and illustrators were nuns, and presumably more educated than the vast majority of feudal peasants of the time outside of their walls -and yet, so were most of the men in the grips of that same system.

Given the intellectual equality of the genders, I wonder how much more there is about historical women we do not yet appreciate. Since women were not usually allowed to sign the religious scripts on which they had worked, how many other things were they contributing that has been lost to time? I cannot believe that men when confronted with problems, whether in trade or everyday practical issues, would not consult with their wives for solutions -especially if survival was at stake.

Of course, special cases like Hildegard von Bingen spring all too easily to mind. She was a German Benedictine abbess living between 1098 and 1179, and so roughly contemporaneous with the lapis woman (whose bones were dated to between 997 and 1162). As Wikipedia describes her, she was a ‘writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.’ I have to admit that I only became acquainted with her because of her music, not her numerous other talents, but the very fact that she was able to be fêted in her own time despite her apparent lack of instruction in ‘the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages’ encourages me to think that others, albethey less well known, were also able to succeed along with her.

Still, I suppose we may have to await future discoveries to appreciate just how much women in less publicized arenas contributed to the well-being of their families, or the success of their husbands engaged in other endeavours.

But hurray for teeth, eh…?

Sheep in Wolf Clothing

I suppose it has always happened -there’s very little that’s really new around; I still wonder why it’s necessary, though. Even through the lens of my white male privilege –my through-a-glass-darkly upbringing- I continue to wonder about these things. Why, for example, do I even have a lens? Was it necessary simply because in the chromosomal lottery, I got the Y? Or is it rather because others lack one? Others? There’s a difference, I guess: one side brings children -even the Y’s- into the world, and nourishes them until they are old enough to be independent; the other side… what, fears  that ability, despite experiencing it themselves? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Call me naïve, but does that not make us interdependent? Partners in survival?

Anyway, despite my anguished jeremiad, and notwithstanding my somewhat childish credulity, I love it that people have always pressed against boundaries. Crossed borders. Transcended gender constraints. Limits which have been arbitrarily imposed have been challenges from time immemorial.

Until we searched, records of past successes were unfortunately few in number -hidden, or at least difficult to access- not necessarily because they failed, but more often I would suspect because history is written by the dominant. Controlled by those who commanded the prevailing power structure and had greater access to whatever educational resources were available at the time. Military and church, after all, were predominately unisexual, so it seemed rare to read about females that stood out for things other than pandering to male needs, or gaining fame as consorts to royalty.

A few exceptions proved the rule, of course. To pick only a few of my favourites of the many historical examples we were once offered: the fourth century Greek mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia; Lady Li, an artist in tenth century China; the twelfth century polymath Hildegard von Bingen. She was not only a Benedictine abbess, but also a philosopher, natural historian and writer -and she first came to my attention for her musical compositions; Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer and pianist, the talented sister of the more well-known Felix. And then there was the nineteenth century novelist Georges Sand, albeit perhaps more famous for her association with Chopin (and other famous men of the time) than her writings.

The list has recently become much, much longer -and growing- as we begin to delve into historical documents more thoroughly. It would seem that our knowledge of the past is directly proportional to the prevailing ethos –the effort expended… There have always been women who’ve excelled, but there have not always been people who wanted to hear about it…

I do, though; I’m always inspired by anyone who is able to critically assess that which represses them, and come up with a solution. I suppose most of the answers are variations on the same methodology, and yet they still make me want to cheer. An article I found in the BBC news was particularly heartening I think –especially its little twist:

It’s the story of a woman in Tanzania who ran away from an abusive husband and ended up in the ‘small Tanzanian town of Mererani, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro – the only place in the world where mining for a rare, violet-blue gemstone called tanzanite takes place.’

Only men were allowed in the mine so, like in a fairy story, she disguised herself as a man and went to work. She called herself ‘Uncle Hussein’. ‘”I acted like a gorilla,” she says, “I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife like a Maasai [warrior]. Nobody knew I was a woman because everything I was doing I was doing like a man.”’

And, just like in a real fairy story, ‘after about a year, she struck it rich, uncovering two massive clusters of tanzanite stones. With the money that she made she built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister, bought herself more tools, and began employing miners to work for her.’

But, as in all parables like this, ‘her cover was so convincing that it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for her true identity to finally be revealed. A local woman had reported that she’d been raped by some of the miners and Pili [Uncle Hussein’s real name] was arrested as a suspect.’

Of course, the truth was soon revealed and she was released. ‘But even after that her fellow miners found it hard to believe they had been duped for so long. […] Pili has built a successful career and today owns her own mining company with 70 employees. Three of her employees are women, but they work as cooks not as miners. Pili says that although there are more women in the mining industry than when she started out, even today very few actually work in the mines. “Some [women] wash the stones, some are brokers, some are cooking,” she says, “but they’re not going down in to the mines, it’s not easy to get women to do what I did.”

She has married again, although ‘Finding a husband when everyone is accustomed to regarding you as a man is not easy, Pili found, though eventually she succeeded. “The question in his mind was always, ‘Is she really a woman?'” she recalls. “It took five years for him to come closer to me.”’

‘Pili’s success has enabled her to pay for the education of more than 30 nieces, nephews and grandchildren. But despite this she says she wouldn’t encourage her own daughter to follow in her footsteps. “I’m proud of what I did – it has made me rich, but it was hard for me,” she says. “I want to make sure that my daughter goes to school, she gets an education and then she is able to run her life in a very different way, far away from what I experienced.”’

I love the kind of story of someone encountering and then overcoming seemingly overwhelming odds. I suppose we all do –it’s a classic fable, isn’t it? A veni, vidi, vici episode to be sure. But I am still saddened that it has to be like this. Not that there have to be challenges, you understand –it would be a boring world that offered none- nor even that only a few manage to see it as an opportunity, a fence that needs climbing. No, I’m sad that after all this time, whether out of fear or mistrust, there are still walls like this.

And yet, I remember lines from a poem by William Ernest Henley –‘Invictus’: ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed’. And, more especially, the last stanza: ‘It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’

Let us all hope so…