Biographies of early medieval English women
June 15, 2021 2:45 AM   Subscribe

This is super Interesting, thanks wobbuffet, will take ages to digest.
posted by unearthed at 3:43 AM on June 15, 2021

Excellent. Maybe I’m greedy, but I’d love to see it pushed on a couple more centuries.
posted by Phanx at 5:04 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Wow, these are fascinating, thank you.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:29 AM on June 15, 2021

The piece on 'Two Black Women in Tenth-Century England' quotes the following WTF passage from a 1980 archaeological report speculating about the life of the North Elmham Woman:
Perhaps she was a full-time branded slave girl. Perhaps she was a waif bought by a local magnate who hoped that the charms of this little black pearl… would give him status as a collector of living ‘Faberge’ jewels by titillating the curiosity of his neighbours. Or maybe she was the fancy of a merchant bringing home ‘A Souvenir from Cordoba’ for his wife.
This is such an extraordinary passage to find in an archaeological report that it sent me looking for more about the author, Calvin Wells. It turns out there is a lot to find:
There is a much less attractive theme that also runs through Wells’ work, a constant preoccupation with the sexual behaviour of those he wished to bring to life. Thus, when putting forward some ideas for a book on the theme of the doctor–patient relationship through the ages, he writes to the publisher that ‘For sales purposes keep it as (“respectably”) pornographic as possible – emphasis on details of early gynaecology, contraception, etc. Illustrate with early obstetrics and primary things like amputations, castrations (penal and ecstatic, etc)’. On an undated postcard to Sonia Hawkes he asks of a female skeleton from Kingsworthy in Hampshire ‘Why didn’t you tell me that Inh 78 had been raped?’ and there follows a rather unpleasant exchange of views on the amusing nature of the act.
What a shit! And this isn't just some fringe figure, either: 'During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Calvin Wells was the best known palaeopathologist working in Britain'.
posted by verstegan at 7:52 AM on June 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

quotes the following WTF passage

Yep, just being real clear for folks dropping by here rather than following the link, Florence Scott puts a content warning in front of the quote before calling it out along with further examples of racism in the interpretation of medieval history.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:11 AM on June 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Wow, these are great reading. Subscribed.
posted by rednikki at 7:04 PM on June 15, 2021

The suggested readings at the bottom of "The North Elmham and Fairford Women" article seem pretty worthwhile, especially M. Rambaran-Olm's "Race 101 for Early Medieval Studies: Selected Readings," which is a bibliography--mostly composed of work from the past 10 years--that includes overviews of relevant historical details and also epistemic/historiographic perspectives on how the topic has been poorly handled.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:44 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

It might have been rare to encounter an Early Medieval person who had travelled from Africa to Britain, but Britons of African descent may have been more numerous than you’d think.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:10 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

(The lady of the ivory bangle was a little early to be covered by this, but I look forward to discovering the many stories which are.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:17 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

In fact, so would just about any real international trade ... I don't exactly understand the motivated reasoning or attempting to sugar coat history ... the chance of any villager encountering any international traders ever is pretty slim

Was there anything in Florence Scott's newsletter that said there was a great deal of trade or movement, or did you just drop in to say you didn't think anyone should pay attention to, like, race and world-systems theory in early medieval Europe, because ... your instructor said not to? One thing Scott did say is she's challenging "A racist belief that Black women do not 'belong' in early medieval England," and I think you should consider how similar it would be to say Black women in early medieval England don't matter.

Anyway, she covers indisputable evidence that should be of note to anyone who cares about the details--not to mention challenging white supremacist preconceptions about how history should be written. I'm not sure what you mean by "international" trade, but the closest Scott comes to talking about it is in a brief comment on Viking raids. I would suppose other evidence of that worth looking at includes "Islamic Coins from Early Medieval England" (inspiring the "Gold dinar of King Offa") or "The Winter Camp of the Viking Great Army, AD 872–3, Torksey, Lincolnshire" and its 124 dirhams.

If your instructor went lightly over the Viking Age, Khan Academy offers a relevant overview suitable for high school students, putting the Danelaw / North Sea Empire into basic perspective. Presumably, like the >200k dirhams found in Scandinavia, most of those found in England came over land from Viking territories in Eastern Europe, but (as Scott alludes to) Arabic sources also describe the Vikings' "Mediterranean Adventure" in what is now Morocco. I don't think it's sugar coating history to say these that these things happened or that European connections to Africa mattered to someone.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:16 PM on June 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

a representative story of the times

Is that really a universal standard of historiography? Are Scott's other biographies that generalized--in fact, how many biographies are? Typically the point of a biography is to focus on unique lives of individuals. Is it fair to ask why you've singled out those of two Black women as the ones that don't belong?
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:53 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

The only "WTF" in this thread is about some weird, racist language by a prominent scholar; not sure what you're attempting to respond to. I'm not entirely sure that two courses necessarily put you in a position to criticize the project that Scott is undertaking?
posted by sagc at 6:39 PM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

The implication that discussion of black people in early medieval Britain, rare or not, is “sugar coating history” or “not representative” and therefore not worth discussing is not really something that needed to be said so many times, I think. The once would have been more than enough.
posted by Concordia at 1:12 AM on June 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

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