Historical Misinformation

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 19 December 2013

Sometimes I feel lied to.

I'm still trying to formulate more coherent thoughts on this, but I recently read Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies and am reading their Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. Both talk about women, their roles in their societies, and the like, although obviously the latter focuses more on general topics with some references to women's contributions to technology and the effects of technological innovation on women's lives.

Christine de Pizan: from WikipediaChristine de Pizan: from Wikipedia
The more I read, the more I feel lied to. My primary and secondary school education all focused on the limited role of women particularly upper class women. It primarily focused on their reproductive roles and often, if not always, left out their roles as overseers of the household and often of the estate when their husbands were not present. It left out their education, the importance of the arts they produced, and more. Furthermore, while it mentioned the dowery system, it left out that many girls and younger women worked to earn their own doweries, thank you very much.

In addition to just leaving out the lives of women lived, it left out many of the philosophical movements at various times during the Middle Ages that advocated for better lives for women, for education, for seeking their council and the like. It left out that there were in fact women's guilds and that women could be members of mixed or men's guilds, especially after the death of their husbands. It left out that women at times could be apprentices and could take on apprentices themselves. It tried to masculinize the women they called exceptional while leaving out hundreds if not thousands of women who also threatened the tidy narrative.

When I got to college, it was not much better. We read the works of what were called the early feminists. They talked about things that would have been important to those medieval women, sure, but they also left out that many of these same ideas had been uttered before. That this hasn't been a struggle of the last 150 years or so but one of many thousands of years.

Now, some might say, "Tracy, these books are so new, how could you possibly expect people to have known?" The problem with that line of reasoning is that the book on medieval women had a first edition printing of March 1978. It's also decently sourced with other books and papers, meaning that the scholarship behind it had gone on for a while. Christine de Pizan wrote about women's contributions to society during her career that spanned from 1399-1429. Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The histories of many of the women in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism have long been known. Much of this research was available during the fairly early years of D&D and definitely would have been available when my later elementary, middle, and high school textbooks were all written.

Today I live in a world where we constantly find new "exceptions" that lead, at least me, to question what I was told was the status quo. Yes, the society was patriarchal. Yes, men were favored over women except for in limited circumstances. But this fallacy that it was due to women's nature or lack of women's skill or interest is, in my opinion, being shown for the farce that it is. It's important to recognize this when we try to give excuses for others behavior. Yes, they might not know about these books or this research, but that is on them. It's there to find it if they want to. But it's more convenient, I think, to hold on to false notions of historical accuracy than it is to question one's education and upbringing.


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