• How do men dominate women?

    One shorthand description of a patriarchal system is one in which men dominate women. A slightly more sophisticated version of this description is one in which “men as a class” dominate “women as a class”. But I’m interested in how patriarchal systems have changed over time, so what I want to look at in more detail is which men get to dominate which women and the methods by which they do that.

    In particular, I’m focusing on how patriarchy interacts with socio-economic status. So this is an initial attempt to look at the different mechanisms for male domination and think about which men can take advantage of them. I’m still trying to refine such categories of dominance, so there are some overlaps here and I’d be very happy to receive comments on any categories you think I’m missing or that need to be changed.

    I’d also add that all of these mechanisms are opportunities for dominance; individuals can choose not to take them. The rich person can choose to give their money away; the physically stronger person can choose not to use violence; the powerful can choose to dedicate themselves to the protection and advancement of the weak. But some people (and historically it’s been men) have had more options to dominate others and it’s important to see what these are.

    Alfred and Eliza Doolittle

    1) The use of wealth to dominate others. This takes varying forms: classic ones include owner/slave and employer/employee. But wealth can also be used to dominate others in purely market transactions. The rich customer can make outrageous demands on the poorer provider desperate to keep their business. The seller rich enough to purchase/retain a scarce good can make a killing, whether it’s accumulated grain in time of famine or the renting out of a house.

    Any mechanism which tends to make men wealthier than women thus enhances their opportunity to dominate them. Such mechanisms include job segregation (with “male” jobs then better paid or with better prospects for advancement), unequal pay/promotion opportunities within the same occupation, unequal inheritance rights and unequal control of household income.

    2) The use of violence to dominate others, whether socially sanctioned or not. Such violence can be subdivided according to the closeness of relationship between the perpetrator and victim:
    a) domestic violence against those within a man’s household
    b) violence against friends/colleagues: date rape is the obvious example, but sexual harassment at work would also be included
    c) violent crime towards strangers within your own society
    d) warfare – violence against those from other societies

    3) Male dominance of the political/judicial system is clearly crucial to the enforcement of patriarchy: specifically a preponderance of men in law-making, law enforcement and court decision-making. It is this that enforces or allows discriminatory practices and sanctions or fails to prevent some forms of violence.

    4) More generally, any male-controlled or male-dominated institutions/organisations allow discriminatory practices against women within such institutions to thrive: such institutions include churches, modern universities, medieval guilds, many businesses, traditional trade unions.

    5) The extreme version of this is all-male institutions: male-only bureaucracies; medieval universities, social clubs, schools, pre-twentieth century parliaments, etc. To the extent that these provide power to those men/boys in them either directly or via enhanced opportunities for social advancement, they help entrench male domination.

    6) Ideological control has always been important for male dominance and takes place at two levels:
    a) intellectual theory (scientific, theological, political etc)
    b) popular thought (where the key point is who has the “loudest voice”, whether that’s in terms of media control or just the people who are able to dominate discussions).

    7) A desire by girls/women for the approval of a man/a group of men is also an important part of patriarchal dominance and one that crops up in a wide range of settings. (Such emotional power can also be used to the advantage of women and children: I will discuss that in a future post). A wish for it can appear in settings where men/boys otherwise have a disadvantage in socio-economic power over women/girls: i.e. when a girl from a prosperous family wants the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks to like her. But it’s also common in settings where there is equal social status (you want your male co-workers to like you) or there is a power imbalance, i.e. a daughter want her father’s approval, a female student wanting a male lecturer’s approval, or a woman in a religious setting wanting approval of her behaviour as devout.

    Using this typology, to what extent are men from lower socio-economic groups able to dominate those from equal or higher socio-economic groups? Obviously, in situations where the rich dominate the poor (1), a poorer man can’t dominate a richer woman.

    In terms of violence (2), men of any social status can commit crimes in times of war. Crimes against strangers can also be committed by men of any socio-economic status, but such crimes by low-status men against high-status women are more likely to be prosecute and harshly punished. It is still high treason to sleep with the wife of the king, for example, and in the US, black men accused of the rape of white women have always been liable to injustices. Men “marrying up” may be able to carry out domestic violence on higher-status partners, but are also more liable to retaliation from their partner’s family.

    The judicial system (3) allows limited opportunities for some lower-status men to dominate higher-status women: essentially, there are opportunities for police officers and prison guards to do so.

    In male-dominated organisations (4), the men at the top of the organisation can obviously dominate all the women within it (as well as the men lower down). But the extent to which men at lower levels can dominate women at their own level varies greatly between organisations. At one extreme you’ve got guilds which would allow a few women in, but specifically exclude them from all senior roles and thus make them firmly second-class members. At the other are organisations which are formally non-discriminatory, but in which policies/procedures/prejudices still exist which disproportionately hamper women from getting to the top (such as in modern universities).

    All-male institutions (5) offer the greatest opportunity for lower-status men for at least some domination over higher-status women: however rich and powerful these women may be, they don’t get to be a freemason, etc. In terms of ideology (6), intellectual control is difficult for most lower-status men to achieve, although there are a few examples of clever men rising socially to do this, such as Jerome. Lower-status men, however, can sometime manage to “shout louder” than women of the same or higher-social status.

    Finally, lower-status men are not often in a position to try and gain approval (7) from higher-status women. However, it is an option for low-status men who are sexually attractive or charismatic in some other way (one obvious example would be Rasputin). Because the need for approval by family members tends to be inculcated at an early age, lower-status men may also be able to use the tool of giving or withholding approval as a way of dominating higher-status wives and daughters. Alfred Doolittle may be part of the undeserving poor, but he can still sponge off Eliza Doolittle, despite her increased social advancement.

    So overall male dominance of women doesn’t necessarily assist low-status men. Even if men are on average richer than women and more likely to be at the top of institutions, that doesn’t help you if you’re a poor man or at the bottom of an institution and not likely to be able to move upwards.

    Men of lower socio-economic status who cannot rise socially are therefore more reliant on a relatively small number of opportunities for dominance. Traditionally, they have been able to lord it over the women within their household and they could enjoy the benefits of all-male institutions. Some male-dominated institutions have also given opportunities for dominance even to those men not at the top. Apart from that, their options have effectively always been limited to “shouting louder”, relying on female need for approval, and possibly using varying forms of harassment and violence (although these are more risky options).

    During the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of all-male institutions disappeared. A large number of male-dominated institutions survive, but formalised equal opportunities within these lessen the options of domination for men near the bottom. Men’s control over households has also been considerably reduced, by a combination of easier divorce, domestic violence being taken more seriously and more economic independence for women.

    If you think of it in those terms, you can start to see why many in the modern Men's Rights Movements and similar groups use the particular tactics they do. Such men mostly aren’t at the bottom of the heap, but they’re not in dominant positions within society. If they feel the need to dominate women (although obviously not all men do), partners/families are their main option. Such men are likely to be frustrated if these aren’t available for them and women either choose not to be with them or leave them. The power of male approval over women’s behaviour, meanwhile, has always relied heavily on supposed male solidarity: “if you do this, none of the men will like you”. The support of some men for feminism has broken such solidarity down: if MRAs do not like a particular woman, she can still find men who do. With a large number of traditional methods for ensuring male dominance removed or weakened, it’s not surprising that lower-status men who are desperate to demonstrate domination focus on ideology (insisting that women are inferior to men) or toy with the possibility of violence.

    It’s hard to claim that patriarchy has disappeared when the vast majority of those at the top are still men. But the forms of patriarchy have changed over history and are continuing to change, and I think there is evidence that patriarchal dominance by lower status men is becoming considerably harder for them to achieve in the modern West.

  • Transwomen, class and feminist solidarity

    I started this blog just over ten years ago by talking about a feminist article I’d read. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by looking at another one, dealing with an issue that seems to have become a hot button topic within feminism. How can trans women be fitted into a feminism that focuses on patriarchy? I’ve come across an article by Jane Clare Jones, who expresses anti-transwomen views in such a context, but tries to argue that this is a moderate position. Jones discusses various kinds of oppression, focusing on what she sees as the function of the oppression:

    Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group.

    In contrast, she sees “the restrictions on homosexuality” as a variant of patriarchal oppression, part of a wider system of heteronormativity predominantly designed “to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies”.

    Based on this, Jones goes on to argue that while trans people are oppressed, they are oppressed as the result of patriarchy and not by women. To her, discussions of cis-privilege are wrongly positioning non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people:

    There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement.

    It’s certainly perfectly possible to see some of the oppression of trans people as resulting from patriarchal systems. The problem is that it’s hard to see the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a hotbed of patriarchal thought. Some strands of feminist thought are also hostile to or exclusionary of trans women, and pretending they’re not isn’t very helpful. It also isn’t simply a matter of the old claim that trans women embody stereotypes of femininity. What we’ve seen as more trans people come out is how varied they and their experiences are: no-one’s going to put Deidre McCloskey on the cover of Vanity Fair. So I want to go back to Jones’ question: to what end are non-trans women/cis women invested in the oppression of trans-women?

    In one way that’s the wrong question to ask, because systems of oppression don’t actually require much investment by most people. Race-based oppression (especially in the US) may have started as being structured around the extraction of resources of land and labour from particular races. But racism is still a structural problem in the UK and the US (in different ways), even though many white people aren’t deeply invested in it. Instead, such structural racism in white-dominant societies relies on relatively small groups eagerly enforcing white superiority and the much wider indifference/passivity of most white people (in which I’d include myself), which means that the system doesn’t get changed. In the same way, I don’t think most cis women are actively oppressing trans women. But there are a small group that are and I think the end for much of this is paradoxical: they’re trying to maintain feminist solidarity.

    I’d argue that feminism has had more problems with solidarity than any other social movement. The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and yet feminist movements are a very recent phenomena. And the main reason for this is class: women from higher classes have not felt they have much in common with women from the lower classes and vice versa.

    The historical evidence suggests that class is the primary division blocking solidarity between women, not race or sexuality. In particular, feminist movements didn’t grow up substantially more quickly in societies that were relatively racially homogeneous (such as nineteenth-century Britain) than in ones that were more racially mixed (such as the US or New Zealand). And while arguments over sexuality did divide the women’s movement in second-wave feminism, they weren’t prominent before then. BAME women or lesbians can still feel alienated by the priorities of modern day feminism. But I’d argue that class is still by far the most difficult issue in feminism (and in social justice circles generally).

    The key problem is that for a feminist campaign to have real political impact, it needs to deal with issues that matter personally, if not to all women, at least the majority of them. In particular, a lot of all forms of political activity is carried out by students and middle-class professional women. They have the combination of the skills and networks to get political attention and also (often) more free time for campaigning than working-class women.

    This doesn’t mean that working-class women can’t play an important role in feminist movements, but I can’t think of many feminist groups that were/are predominantly working-class. And the most successful feminist campaigns have tended to focus on issues that affect both middle-class and working-class women.

    The classic example of an issue that cuts across class lines is women’s suffrage. Campaigns for sexual discrimination laws have also been able to draw on cross-class solidarity. But there are other feminist campaigns that have gradually run into the sands, at least partly because of class differences. The most obvious one is equal pay. Yes, it’s discriminatory if bankers who are women don’t get the same multimillion pound bonuses as their male counterparts do. But it’s hard to feel solidarity with women who miss out on that (or on being in the boardroom) when you and all your male friends/relatives are working in minimum wage jobs.

    Campaigns about childcare have also tended to run into issues of class. Available childcare for middle-class women is increasingly about ensuring that their career path isn’t blocked; an alternative option is simply not to have children or to have them relatively late in life. My impression is that in contrast, childcare for working women is more about being able to hold down any job in order to earn a little more money. And there’s also the hidden issue of who is doing the childcare: in most cases, it’s done by poorly-paid working-class women, because it’s a low-status feminised job. Solidarity around this issue is hard to maintain across class lines.

    If you look at the hot feminist topics of the moment, meanwhile, they’re abortion (in the US), sexual harassment and sexual violence. These, again, are experiences that affect all classes of women and that also have resonance across boundaries of race, age and sexuality. It’s not surprising that feminists in the media tend to focus on them.

    And it’s here that issues about trans people come up: what are the bases on which such cross-class solidarities rely? Abortion as an issue relies very heavily on the distinctiveness of female bodies: women can get pregnant and men can’t. In fact, that’s a simplification, but a lot of female solidarity has always been based on shared bodily experiences. Trans people, by indicating that being a women may not be based purely on body sex, are potentially a threat to this solidarity.

    Does the inclusion of trans women in feminist groups/movements threaten the ability of all women in them to be able to talk about shared bodily experiences? That seems to be at the basis of a lot of feminist hostility towards trans women. But I think, as with lesbians before them, what trans women speaking out reveal is that not all women have the same experiences. Lesbians speaking up within feminism reminded straight women that not every woman’s life involved sexual desire for men. Similarly, trans women aren’t the only women whose bodily experiences are ‘atypical’: there are ‘born women’ who from an early age know they’re infertile or don’t have periods etc. We need to work towards a feminist solidarity that can cope with both common and unusual bodily experiences via empathy: this specifically may not have happened to me, but I can imagine how positive/negative it would make me feel if it did.

    The significance of sexual harassment and violence to the feminist movement, meanwhile, is another paradoxical reason why some feminists are hostile to trans people. Some definitions of patriarchy put such violence at the heart of it, such as this one by bell hooks:

    Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

    But hooks goes on to show this theory as something taught to her by both her mother and her father. The perpetrators of patriarchy are not just men. And those suffering patriarchal-based “terrorism” and violence are not just women: Jones herself admits that gay men and trans people also suffer from this.

    The problem is that political campaigns need both to simplify their aims and to solidify their supporters. A binary between those suffering from the patriarchy and those benefiting from it can’t be easily summed up in a slogan. So just as fights against capitalism become simplified to being about “workers” versus “bosses” (or the 99% versus the 1%), a fight against patriarchy as a system which focuses on sexual harassment and violence become simplified to women as victims of harassment and men as perpetrators. The logic is summed up in the hashtag #YesAllWomen. All women are supposedly subject to misogyny and sexual violence and this becomes their defining experience. Following binary logic, therefore, men/some men are the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence.

    The experiences of trans women, however, don’t easily fit into this simplified understanding of patriarchy. They are regarded socially as male (at least in their early years) and yet they’re also subject to patriarchal violence. And again, the enforcement of their masculinity is often done by their mothers as well as their fathers.

    Trans women are therefore a complicating element in the simple political binary of them-and-us radical feminism, in which #YesAllWomen has implicitly become #YesOnlyWomen. A feminism supposedly based on shared experience of sexism ends up having to deny the experiences that trans women and cis women potentially share. Yet as with bodily experiences, it ought to be possible to find enough overlap of social experiences to build bonds of solidarity which includes trans women within a feminist movement. It’s not just trans women, after all, who stuff their bra to give themselves cleavage or get the wrong sort of toys taken away from them.

    As I’ve said earlier, feminism has always found solidarity difficult, but the movement has nevertheless over the years achieved something not just for middle-class women, but also working-class women, black women and lesbians. In the same way, despite all the current fractiousness over the role of trans women in feminism, I expect that more and more they will come to be accepted as part of it: we just need to remain aware that the necessary simplifications of political slogans don’t match the messy complexities of real life.

  • Ideology, enforcement and arseholes

    Since I research what could be broadly described as early medieval cultural history, I’m used to intermittent objections to this approach by proponents of socio-economic history. Ideology, to them, is secondary: people are motivated primarily by their own material advantage. While historical materialism is predominantly Marxist, there are also non-Marxist strands of economic/political history that also regard ideology as merely propaganda, simply fine words concealing self-interest. I want to argue, however, that even if you take a self-interested view of people’s motives, there’s a considerable need for ideology/propaganda in any non-democratic society, whether medieval or modern. (I’ll leave aside modern democratic societies for the moment, because there are potentially different dynamics there).

    Many modern dictatorships or quasi-dictatorships show us in stark form the kind of dynamics that seem familiar from premodern European societies. The basis for power is a combination of wealth and office/political power. Office brings officeholders wealth via corruption; in turn wealth is used to ensure that the political and legal system continues to support the wealthy. And it’s also clear that in every society power and wealth rests ultimately on coercive force. This can take various forms, from the lord demanding dues from his peasants backed by a band of men on horses with swords, to the ‘pay this charge or we’ll send round bailiffs to seize your goods’. Behind even the most sophisticated political and legal system is ultimately the threat of physical violence from armies, police or militia.

    The question then becomes what motivates the enforcers. The first point to make is that coercion is rarely risk-free. At a certain point most oppressive societies have to deal with putting down revolts or rebellions and it’s these enforcers who are on the front-line.

    There are a few relatively risk-free way of coercing or punishing opponents, but these rely on being prepared to destroy the area you’re trying to retake: burning cities/villages (in pre-modern times) or bombing/gassing them (since the twentieth century). But if you want to keep most of the population intact, to use as a workforce, defeating opponents is potentially dangerous, especially if they’re tactically clever. As a lot of military history has shown, there are ways to defeat even elite weapons (such as heavy cavalry or tanks) on the right kind of terrain.

    Being an enforcer can be a dangerous job, but it’s rarely the ruling class themselves who are the sole enforcers. The medieval aristocracy may have led armies or raids, but they relied also on a lot of non-noble troops; the early medieval milites who became the knights were often originally jumped-up (literally) peasants. And in modern military dictatorships, while those at the top of army may be rolling in it, there are a lot of far poorer troops at the sharp end of military activity or policing.

    So what motivates such enforcers? The obvious answer is money: they get their pay or a share of the loot from their enforcement activities. In a society with some approximation to the rule of law that may be enough, but in non-democratic and corrupt societies, enforcers can get more on their own account than by staying within the system. Why don’t they keep the proceeds of the coercion themselves, rather than handing it over to their superiors? And to reduce it to the most basic level: if you’re a group of guards being paid by a king to guard his treasure and/or his person, why don’t you band together, kill him and split the treasure between you? If you’re faced with putting down a serious revolt, why don’t you instead switch sides and join it?

    All this suggests that relying on purely material factors is a bad move for a dictator/non-democratic ruler. It’s at this point that the arseholes come in. This is a phrase coined by the economist Dan Davies, who argued that every would-be dictator needed a reactionary citizens’ militia: “a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren't interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes.” Such people can be mobilised to put down revolts with relatively little training because their main role is to carry out group attacks on those who are individually weaker.

    To encourage such groups, Davies thinks the dictator should “concentrate on nurturing their sense that they, despite appearances, are the backbone of the country, and allowing them to understand that although rules are rules, there are some people who just need a slap.”

    Davies is talking about the specific case of modern, semi-industrialised countries (he mentions the Iranian basiji, eastern European miners and Zimbabwe ex-soldiers), but the general point is wider: what a non-democratic government really needs is people who are willing to help support it by force for “ideological” reasons as well as purely economic ones. His examples also show that these enforcers don’t need to be taken from a different class in a Marxian sense, those having different relations to the means of production. To take a modern British example, the police are also “workers” and have a strong trade union in the Police Federation.

    Marxists tend to see the main purpose of ideology as a peaceful means of keeping the oppressed down: provide them with ‘false consciousness’ so they accept their oppression peacefully. But maybe we need to emphasise more the role of ideology on the oppressors’ own side: encouraging feelings of superiority and solidarity both among themselves and with the group of (lower-class) enforcers, so that no-one’s tempted to defect. The general tactics of ‘divide and rule’ by the ruling class are well known from modern politics, but how was such ideology specifically targeted at enforcers in earlier societies? Arguably, such a technique is behind the original development of chivalry, which linked together ideologically everyone from the ruler to men who possessed nothing more than a horse and some expensive weapons, possibly only as a gift from their lord.

    Dan Davies’ definition also suggest that what modern dictators really need for securing their enforcers is an ideology closely tied to elements of social class. To put it a different way, it’s possible to be an ex-Nazi or an ex-Communist or an ex-Baathist. One of the main factors determining whether a dictatorship survives is when its enforcers can’t easily change side when the revolution begins. If you have an ideology to which almost anyone in any social position can subscribe, it’s easier to switch away from it when the going gets tough, at least for the junior ranks. Take off your army uniform and you can be a revolutionary too (or at least pretend to be while you run away).

    In contrast, what’s been noticeable about recent Middle East conflicts is how tenaciously many people have been willing to stick to the ‘losing side’. The key point here seems to be the role of ethnic and religious identities, which can’t easily be changed overnight. If you’re an Alawite, you’re likely to stick to the Assad regime to the bitter end, because a Sunni government is going to be hostile to you.

    In most premodern European societies, however, the ruling class (and their enforcers) weren’t predominantly from an ethnic or religious minority. (The obvious exception is Norman England). I suspect that therefore there would have been more need either for a fine-grained class ideology (the people you have to put down are stupid and lazy, unlike you) or identifying those who need to be oppressed with outside threats to society (they’re all Catholics/Protestants/Communists/heretics/in league with the Jews). For the early Middle Ages we’re unlikely to be able to find many traces of such kinds of ideology/propaganda being addressed to the enforcers (who are essentially illiterate warriors), but for those working on later medieval periods, it might be worth exploring how the ‘good’ lower classes can be encouraged to repress the ‘bad’ lower classes.

  • Hincmar no-mates and Carolingian friendship

    There are a lot of themes that came up when I was indexing Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work, the collection of essays I’m editing with Charles West. But there’s one that didn’t: there’s no index entry for ‘friendship’. On reflection that’s interesting, because friendship is an important theme in many recent studies of the Carolingian intellectual and political elite, especially in the work of Gerd Althoff.

    Is the lack of index entries just a reflection of the topics covered in the book? It can’t be comprehensive, of course: we’ve got just over 300 pages, while Jean Devisse’s biography of Hincmar is almost 5 times as long. But searching the proofs finds one interesting passage. Hincmar says about his early life:

    After the brothers in the monastery of St-Denis, where I had been raised, had converted to a regular life and habit, I dwelled there for a long time, fleeing the world without hope or appetite for a bishopric, or any prelateship. Taken from there by friends (familiares) for the service of the emperor and the meetings of the bishops, serving from the obedience alone that was enjoined to me, after some years I sought again the quiet of the monastery. (Hincmar, Epistola 198, MGH Epp. 8, p. 210):

    So Hincmar had friends at least at that point, and it’s fairly easy to identify one obvious candidate: Hilduin, abbot of St-Denis and Hincmar’s early mentor. But Hilduin died in 840, while Hincmar survived until 882. Who were Hincmar’s friends during his archiepiscopal rule? There aren’t any obvious names. You can admittedly come up with a shortish list of people who weren’t actively hostile to Hincmar, such as Hrabanus Maurus and Odo of Beauvais (although Egon Boshof reckoned Odo didn’t always support Hincmar). And I have got an index entry for Hincmar’s political networks: several of our authors used Flodoard’s summaries of Hincmar’s letters to talk about those. But definite friends are far harder to trace.

    Is Hincmar’s friendlessness just a trick of the sources? We don’t have a huge number of complete letters of Hincmar preserved; we’re mostly relying on Flodoard’s summaries of them. Maybe he’s inadvertently misleading us: since his focus is on the history of Rheims, perhaps he’s omitted more personal letters or not reported that aspect of his letters? But even so, we have a large amount of Hincmar’s writings, including a substantial section of annals, where he could choose whom he wanted to discuss; you’d expect some evidence of any significant friendships to show up.

    Which brings us back to Carolingian friendship. Recent studies have stressed that the language of friendship didn’t have the same meaning in past times that it does now. Beneath the enthusiastic and emotional rhetoric, it’s been claimed, friendships were more about social networking than the meeting of two minds, a facade of love over more instrumental relationships.

    So if Carolingian friendships are formalised constructions, pacts of solidarity, why didn’t Hincmar have them? He certainly could have profited from them in order to ensure the flourishing of his archdiocese and the attainment of his political goals. It’s possible that no-one really liked Hincmar (apart from Jean Devisse and a few others, a millennium too late), but if we say that that impeded his ability to make friendships, we have to readmit emotional connections into the equation. The example of Hincmar-no-mates suggests that we may have to rethink our wider ideas of what early medieval friendships involved.

  • What would Hincmar of Cologne do?

    I’m currently finishing off the introduction to the book version of the translation of De divortio Lotharii regis et Theutberga reginae that I’m doing with Charles West for Manchester University Press. So I’ve been rapidly re-reading a lot of scholarship on the case and its outcome. Most historians have seen the result (that Lothar failed to get the divorce he wanted) as due to the weakness of Lothar’s case for separation from Theutberga and remarriage to Waldrada and/or the influence of outsiders opposing him, with Charles the Bald, Hincmar of Rheims and Pope Nicholas I taking starring roles as the preventers of divorce. Letha Böhringer has shown this probably isn’t entirely fair on Hincmar (most recently in Letha Böhringer, "Das Recht im Dienst der Machtpolitik? Anmerkungen zu einer Neuerscheinung über die Scheidungsaffäre König Lothars II," Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 119 (2001), 146-154), but I want briefly to consider via a counterfactual an aspect that I don’t think any of the scholarship has explicitly asked (Carlrichard Brühl gets nearest in "Hinkmariana II: Hinkmar im Widerstreit von kanonischen Recht und Politik in Ehefragen," Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 20 (1964), 55-77). What if Lothar II had had Hincmar on his side?

    So consider Lothar II with the assistance of Hincmar of Cologne, a man who is a skilled and knowledgeable canonist/propagandist, loyal to his own king and moderately devious. How does this Hincmar in 857/858 deal with his ruler’s desire to divorce his wife of two years and return to his mistress, against the Christian rules of marriage and without alienating some of his own elites and giving his uncles in neighbouring kingdoms a propaganda coup?

    I think the key manoeuvre would have been trying to get Theutberga to co-operate right from the start of the procedure. Would that have been possible? Theutberga had to survive an accusation of horrible crimes against her (incest and ‘unnatural’ intercourse with her brother, then aborting the resulting child) via a judgement by ordeal in 858. In 860 she was coerced into confessing the same crimes. Lothar II was unrelentingly hostile to her and I think had hoped to have her executed if the ordeal had gone against her in 858. While she wasn’t necessarily infertile, she hadn’t born a child in two years of marriage, suggesting either she was at least subfertile or that Lothar was so unenthusiastic that he wasn’t sleeping with her frequently. (He eventually had at least four children by Waldrada, so any fertility issues must have been on Theutberga’s side). And there’d probably been a third person in their marriage from the start: it’s been reasonably assumed that Lothar’s involvement with Waldrada started before his marriage and continued after it.

    What if instead of the accusations, in 857/858 Hincmar of Cologne had come to Theutberga and offered her a deal: that she should voluntarily agree to give up the marriage and enter a convent, in return for getting all the prestige of a royal abbess? Would Theutberga have been prepared to take that? She fought long and hard to regain her position as queen, but how much was that about clearing her name from widespread ugly rumours? By 868 after a failed attempt at reconciliation, she said she’d rather "flee among the pagans that see the face of the glorious King Lothar". How hard would she have fought to stay as Lothar’s queen, if she’d been offered the change to be the next Radegund? I think there’s a reasonable chance she’s have accepted Hincmar’s offer.

    Hincmar’s problem then would have been squaring Theutberga entering a convent and Lothar remarrying with canonical traditions of indissolubility. While one-sided separation to enter the religious life had been OK in early sixth century Francia, there were a number of authoritative texts available to Carolingian authors opposed to this: Gregory the Great, in particular had rejected this. Either both spouses had to agree to enter the religious life or neither could. There were one or two canons which did allow the spouse remaining in the world to remarry, but they were less prestigious texts. Lothar could still have run into difficulties.

    But this is what he had Hincmar of Cologne for, a man who knew how to use authorities to get the result that he wanted. Gregory’s argument was that since husband and wife were one flesh, part of it couldn’t remain in the world while part didn’t. But in the 860 case of Count Stephen of the Auvergne, Hincmar came up with the first ever "canonical" justification for why an unconsummated marriage could be ended and remarriage allowed. With the same argument, he and Lothar could have come up with a rhetorically fairly convincing story to put before the bishops and magnates of Lotharingia.

    The argument would be that Theutberga had always wanted to lead a religious life, but had been forced into marrying Lothar by her brother Hubert. Lothar had, however, agreed to live in a chaste marriage with Theutberga, which they had secretly been doing for several years. Now, however, that was not enough for Theutberga: she wanted to leave the world completely. What was Lothar to do? Obviously, he wanted to support his wife’s religious calling, but if he did so, it would mean he had to leave the world as well, leaving the kingdom defenceless. What could a poor king do?

    With that dilemma placed before the magnates, Hincmar would then suggest his theory that because of non-consummation, Lothar and Theutberga had never really been one flesh, so the marriage could be ended (and he might even suggest the nice touch of the original dowry going to Theutberga’s new convent as well). I think that combined argument might well have convinced the magnates. In particular, Theutberga’s family and supporters would have got at least something of a payoff. They might be losing Königsnahe, but they would be getting access to a monastery (or maybe multiples ones) as a powerbase and source for precaria etc.

    Could this have worked? The most difficult part might have been making Lothar II looking like a pious young man and keeping him away from Waldrada for a decent interval afterwards. And it would still have been difficult legitimating their son Hugh, if he had been born before 858, which is quite possible. But if Lothar hadn’t made accusations against Theutberga, posing as someone of superior virtue, it’d be a lot harder to start pointing the finger back and making accusations against him. In particular, the charge that he couldn’t rule his wife/household wouldn’t have been available. And consummation as required for a valid marriage was probably something that resonated with Carolingian audiences. Charles the Bald (and even Gunther of Rheims) would have had a lot less material to work with than the implausible and contradictory claims from 860 that take up so much of De divortio.

    And what of the papacy? There’s been much stress on Nicholas I’s interference in Frankish affairs, but even Nicholas didn’t get involved unless he’d been appealed to. And if Theutberga had been squared, who was there to appeal to him? Charles the Bald might have complained, but Hincmar would probably have retorted that it wasn’t really his business. And if Nicholas had intervened, what would he have done? Dragged Theutberga unwillingly out of her convent, saying she had to return to her marriage? That would have been difficult logistically and would probably have been a PR disaster for Nicholas. Whatever his views, he may well have had to accept the situation.

    The only remaining problem, of course, would probably have been an epidemic of other husbands in the archdiocese of Cologne trying to divorce their wives in the same way. (Fulcric has already tried something similar in the early 850s). But this is Hincmar of Cologne we’re talking about: he could almost certainly have found some semi-convincing argument for why Lothar’s case was an example that absolutely no-one else should ever follow.

    So I think there’s a plausible argument that the loyal Lotharingian Hincmar of Cologne could have arranged for his king to marry the woman he really wanted. And after that? If Lothar II hadn’t had to keep trekking down to Italy to make his case to Rome, could he have avoided the illness that killed him in 869. Could Lotharingia have survived, rather than become a lost kingdom? That may be going too far. But I think there is a decent case to be made, that with Hincmar of Cologne on his side, Lothar’s divorce mightn’t have been a lost cause.


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