I have put off writing this article a thousand times today, for I have had a thousand different things I want to say about Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course by Roberta Gilchrist and I can’t find the right approach. The book is a wonderful bringing-together of archeology with standard history. A few months ago I waxed enthusiastic about Elisheva Carlebach’s book on the shapes of time in the Early Modern Jewish world: Roberta Gilchrist’s Medieval Life is its equivalent for the Medieval life cycle. It’s not quite as stunning as Carlebach’s book, but it’s solid and full of fascinating perspectives and useful information. It takes what we know from a number of disciplines and it fuses it all together. The end results aren’t as sophisticated and complex as I’d like, but this is a solid building block of a book and one that will bear much use and will lead to much thinking.
But what do I want to tell you about? I told my mother about the appendices. I talked her through them “grave good by grave good,” with my enthusiasm mounting and my explanations and deductions becoming more and more detailed. The grave goods (the objects buried with people, used by archaeologists as evidence for a culture, for a life ) are important and they offer evidence of many things, including an odd interpolation of non-Christian burial practices in the middle of the most Christian period of the most Christian part of the world. There’s something more important I want to talk about, however, and the underlying reason why I couldn’t find one particular thing I wanted to say but was swamped by choices when I read this book. What I need to say is not about Gilchrist’s book at all, but the opening that books such as hers are giving to history that ought to have been standard fare a long while ago.
History is full of silences. History is full of silencing. Many people are overshadowed by the way events are recorded and the views of those who report them. Sometimes we can see ourselves clearly in the eyes of others. Mostly, however, who we are is changed by the way we are seen. We’re not measured by how tall we are, but by how tall we are in relation to them: they might look down on our shortness from their lofty height, or hurt their necks as they look up. When a whole sub-culture writes about how short we are or how sore their necks are, then, even if we’re the perfect height in our own mind, the world sees us as the wrong height. Or negligible. Or non-existent. Or dangerous. Or accessories. Our view of ourselves becomes very much secondary to a view of us that has been promulgated and standardised.
This is women’s history. Until recently, the history of women was interpreted through the prism of men’s history. Even now, with nearly a half century of scholarship, it still is. It’s slow and difficult to change cultural defaults. Books like Gilchrist’s help.
I’m typing this at the Australian National University. I’m waiting for my students to arrive. It’s an evening class on Medieval Women and tonight we’re talking about the history of writing and writers. We’re also talking about evidence and lives and how we have trouble knowing about the overshadowed, those whose lives are only rarely reported by others. One major source for lives that are unreported in the written records is the archaeological record.
Roberta Gilchrist brings archaeology into play very strongly when she looks at the lives of people in the Middle Ages. In bringing archaeology to the fore as a major source of evidence, she loses one layer of the prism of gender. Among those grave goods are badges of milkmaids carrying pails, and rings given as love-gifts or for betrothals. She still has her own and her own education and assumptions, so it’s not neutral, it’s just less weighted towards the normative as male than it would be using Medieval records written by men. From her standpoint, however, and in her work, the interpretations give us a wider view than if the archaeological evidence were left out. She can access more evidence and from more perspectives.
This is important. Bringing archaeology into play as a key part of historical interpretation changes our understanding of the past and of ourselves, if we’re strict about how we go about it. Cross-disciplinary work breaks down some of the biases of each discipline involved, when done well.
When I’m ready I’ll talk about all the other ideas I had when I read the book. This fortnight’s column is short, however, because it’s full of thinking, and I want to take some of that thinking away and pursue it further.
Books mentioned in this column: