Over the past few months, medieval studies has been subject to sudden scrutiny regarding the presence of white supremacists: in terms of who is appropriating medieval studies for racist purposes, and in terms of the dangers of pretending that the former problem is a fringe issue and not one that should worry our field. Prof Dorothy Kim has been particularly outspoken about both of these issues, and in an excellent guest post on In the Middle urged scholars to step up to the plate and take responsibility for racism in our midst.
Since then, Kim has been subject to attacks by, firstly, a well-established tenured scholar, and then by the right wing media. I have been heartened by how many people, from within medieval studies and outside it, have come to Kim’s defence. Dorothy is not in any way incapable of defending herself – but as a scholar with integrity and intellectual merit she deserves every bit of solidarity she gets.
This morning my attention was drawn to this screenshot (I have blanked out the names) that was taken from the comments section on one of Brown’s public facebook posts.
I have limited time today, but this visual image struck me so very strongly that I wanted to record a couple of thoughts about it. Prof Kim has been criticised online for being a “fake scholar” and for supposedly lacking specialist knowledge – and yet the proposed solution here is to silence her, not ask her to participate in scholarly discourse (which of course she is already doing!). Which in turn made me think of a passage in my book on the role of silence in narratives of father-daughter incest.
…within medieval narratives, silence is a female virtue, and a father’s authority seems absolute. In these texts, the moments at which women speak – or choose not to speak – can be particularly important in understanding the power relationship between fathers and daughters. At the moment when it might seem that a woman gains her own voice, her function is to reassert the essential rightness of patriarchy against a father who is losing his own paternal identity because of his selfish lust.
In late medieval society, not only were women meant to be submissive to men, but children were meant to submit to their parents. As Gratian put it: ‘It is the order of nature among human beings that women obey man and sons obey their parents, because it is justice in these matters that the lesser obey the greater. Thus it could be considered that the father-daughter dynamic is the familial relationship with the greatest difference in power. The father’s role is to govern, whilst the daughter’s is to obey. Moreover, the daughter should obey in silence, or at least with little speech, as ‘idle talk’ is something for which medieval women were often chastised. Women were meant to be meek and guided by the head of their household, be it father, husband or master. The narrator of the fifteenth-century poem How the Wise Man Taught His Son recommends that the son seek a ‘meeke and good’ wife who will serve him ‘weel and plesauntly’, while in the previous century the poem How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter advises that the reader should with ‘sybbe ne fremde make no jangelyng’. Women talking with other women was particularly dangerous, because as Karma Lochrie puts it, it shows a ‘troubling disregard for authority, institutions, and masculine reputations.’ Preventing women talking to other women is a means for men to control not only female speech, but female dialogue.
Writing on incest in medieval literature shows the reader the consequences of the abuse of paternal authority. What it does not do, though, is question that authority; indeed, these stories reinforce the essential value of it. Incest’s principle horror is not that it violates a woman, but that it subverts the meaning of fatherhood, and what it means to be a ruler. If a man lusts after his daughter, he does not truly control her; he becomes a slave to his passions, and so the natural order of governance is upset. No wonder incest was used as a familiar trope to describe bad rulership. In these stories, daughters are heavily restricted, their function that they belong to either father or husband. Their obedience is not only expected but demanded. They have the right to speak only when what they are asked to do threatens their fathers as well as themselves. Whilst these stories feature heroines who appeal to our sympathies, their mistreatment at the hand of their fathers is not intended to undermine patriarchal modes, but instead to signify the importance of the proper implementation of these models.
From Rachel E. Moss, Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts (2013).
In that chapter, I give a number of examples of female characters who are silenced by powerful men in the service of patriarchal desire, such as the daughter of predatory Antiochus in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, who is advised by her well-meaning nurse to remain silent in the face of rape because there is no other option available. Despite her blameless state, she dies alongside her father in an act of God by form of lightning bolt. Current far right-wing discourse is very keen to demonstrate that they have women as spokespeople. When it comes to women who raise their voices against oppressive hegemonic structures (particularly women of colour!), patriarchy’s supporters would prefer their lips duct-taped, or their bodies struck down.