I was honoured to be asked by Rachel Harley to be the respondent at the first (and hopefully not last) Sibling Studies Colloquium. This is the first time I’ve carried out such a role and it’s a big responsibility to draw together all the day’s papers into some coherent and useful remarks! Here is what I said today, written as I listened (though I did get to at least skim-read most of the papers ahead of time), and hope it serves as a useful record of a really fascinating day.
Siblings have always been part of my academic and personal lives. I have a brother, four and a half years younger than me, for whom in childhood I felt an almost maternal sense of care; I had an older brother, born sleeping, and who when I was teenager I sometimes imagined being a wiser protective presence I might have had in my life. My PhD, when I came to it, was on fatherhood, but is filled with brothers, who wrote about and to their fathers, who banded together and fell apart in the face of family challenges. I chose to have one child – an only child, as they are called, as if singleness has built-in loneliness that the existence of a sibling would assuage. And I have a sister-in-law, who as the sibling of my husband who died last year, has found a particular pain in the lack of space in society for the grief of bereaved adult siblings.
This is personal as well as professional. Of course it is. Lately I feel more and more the necessity of that – and perhaps in some way the morality of that, because if we are peeling open the lives of siblings in the past and present, their jealousy over smocked dresses, playing and fighting in locked-down houses during the Covid-19 pandemic, elderly women caring for even more elderly siblings – it seems to me we have an obligation to remember what it is we carry with us when we dissect others’ lived experience.
As my contribution to this colloquium, before I reflect on your work, I want to offer a brief vignette from my own research – an extract from a forthcoming article where I experiment with method to incorporate some creative writing alongside my more traditional close-reading of historical sources. That article is about homosocial relationships between related men in fifteenth-century England, and in several cases they are brothers. Here is one story.
This is a work of fiction and of history. Every event discussed here is real; every line of conversation recorded in italics is a direct translation out of Middle English. But although fifteenth-century letters are often more vivid and lively than their stodgy reputation would suggest, they are necessarily scant on the kind of detail that rounds out a story. These men wrote off-the-cuff, in the middle of business, and we are left with sketches that are full of personality but lacking fine detail. Having grown to know these letters over the past fifteen years, I use both contextual data and gut instinct to add colour and texture to the picture. As far as I am concerned, it is not so very different from any other kind of academic reading of a text; all of us put into our reading as much as we take out of it. Writing history has always been a form of narrative-making, and the postmodernist turn has meant we have firmly rejected the idea that there is one story, the story of ‘what happened’. What I am attempting here is merely another means of telling.
Context: The history of the Cely family is unknown prior to 1449, but their surviving correspondence begins in 1475, by which time they were a well-established family engaged in the wool trade. In June 1481, George Cely received a letter from his older brother Richard. Both men were at this point in their early 20s and were employed in the family business; Richard was in London with their parents, and George was in Calais, which city was at this time still a possession of the English Crown and was also a Staple port where much of the business of the English wool trade was carried out. George seems to have lived full time in Calais, and much of the correspondence is letters between the brothers, where amidst much hastily-written discussion of the intricacies of the wool trade we also find regular updates on the personal lives of themselves and their wider circle. On this occasion, Richard junior wrote to his brother that he and his father had met in their new orchard, and that they had talked extensively about George.
They always talked about George. When Richard was a boy, newly out of his uncle’s service, it was hard to come back to London with his northern qwhiches and ats and see George fussed over and adored by his mother; sometimes it was even hard to see him fussed at by their father, who fussed at everyone. George was fun in a way nervy Richard wasn’t. George danced; he made people laugh; they missed him when he was gone. Richard wrote to George about our friends, but if they weren’t George’s first they soon became his foremost. It’s hard to play second fiddle to your brother, harder when he’s younger, and hardest when despite all that he’s your best friend.
But he was all those things – a younger brother to be looked after, a friend to be protected – which was why Richard was walking in the early summer heat of a June afternoon in a London orchard, while his father sweated and fussed beside him. And because, even if they were once again talking about George, at least here in the ripening orchard, moving between the green spaces of trees, Richard had his father to himself. No servants, no messages, no noise from the street. Only the buzz of bees in their hives and his father’s persistent cough.
I told him all as it was, Richard wrote to George later, and that our father was right sorry for the death of the child. Not your child; not on paper, not even in a letter between brothers, because no correspondence is truly private in two busy merchant households or in the journey between them, not even when talking about the death of a baby born outside wedlock. There was no surety of a space for secret conversation within the Cely household, either, not even as they advanced in the world, expanded into a London townhouse and an Essex manor. Their homes were cluttered with apprentices and journeymen – and with women, servants and Richard’s mother. These conversations – about George, sometimes about their errant brother Robert, much more rarely about Richard himself – were conversations for men, moving through the privacy of the outdoors, matching strides.
Katherine Davies talked powerfully about temporalities. In my experiences of grief, and before that in living through lockdowns, I have thought a great deal about the non-linearity of our experience of time, how some moments in the distant past can feel close enough to touch, that some periods of time feel endless. Something I got from her paper was the key role siblings can play in anchoring a person to their own timeline; that the touchpoints of shared experience, shared upbringing, can stabilise people at disruptive moments in their life course such as the death of a parent. I know my sister-in-law has said she doesn’t know how she’ll face the death of her parents (hopefully many years away!) without my husband. There is a lot more to be done here, I think, and I’ll be interested to see where Katherine takes this next.
It’s easy for sibling relationships to be romanticised. As I’ve listened to the papers today I’ve thought about the pressures we bring to bear by idealising siblinghood as a site of mutual support and friendship. All the papers made clear that siblings are interconnected in multiple complex ways. Shawn Whitman discussed how contemporary adolescent siblings provide one another with sources of social comparison by which they compare their achievements, abilities, and the ways they are treated by their parent, which neatly replicates the relationships Katherine Davies looked at in a more historic context, the relationships recorded in the mass observation records. Of course, these comparisons can cause stress and strain, even while at the same time siblings could be a source of support and friendship to each other. Emre Deniz effectively articulated how the specific stresses of Covid-19 lockdown could put strain on sibling relationships, even while it might bring some siblings closer together. I also thought about how so much of our perception of siblinghood is mediated through parents, who may be treated like authorities on remembering how siblings related to and differed from each other, and how different those memories and understandings can be from the siblings’ own perceptions. Memory, much like time, is slippery, and in this way I think there’s a closer connection between the different disciplines in the room today than we might immediately think. There is very little “hard” data about siblings, and a great deal of data that is mutable, situational, unreliable – all the stuff of being human.
How do we make sense of that, then? One way, as Rachel Harley examined, is thinking about language. To what extent is the language we use created by the relationship, and to what extent is a relationship shaped by the language we use for it? Medieval society doesn’t consider “sisterless” a useful word; it’s not a lack in the same way “brotherless” is. But I am sure many medieval people mourned sisters lost just as much as they mourned brothers. Gaps in language often tell us more about the values of those in power rather than anything about real relationships. Though those silences are, of course, telling in their own way.
Thinking of silence, Nikita Hayden raised the issue that many siblings with intellectual and developmental disabilities are nonverbal. Within disability activism there is a lot of work being done to ensure that disabled people have a voice in discussions, and disabled people are often rightfully frustrated that their own voices – which may differ from the accepted norm – are drowned out by conversation about them, without them. We need to remember that siblings can only be studied intersectionally, taking into account axes of marginalisation like race, socio-economic status, gender and disability. This is significant in the context of Cati Coe’s Ghanan studies, where changing socio-economic norms around inheritance impacted on family dynamics, including expectations of responsibility for adult siblings.
Nikita, when talking about teasing and sibling relationships, urged us not to reduce relationships to binaries of positive/negative. That can be applied more generally to everything we discussed today. Of course, it’s an academic cop-out to say “it’s more complicated” but of course it’s true. Everyone thinks they understand siblinghood but, as I found when I started researching fatherhood in the Middle Ages, people assuming they understand a relationship leaves a huge lacunae in the literature. More importantly, as we have seen hinted at today, it can leave real, living people with less support than they might get if their relationships were better understood, facilitated and supported.
What next for siblings studies? I think today’s colloquium has been a sign of how useful it is to discuss these questions in an interdisciplinary context. Siblings’ voices are still often drowned out – by parents’ voices, by their abled siblings’ voices, by white middle class people, which I think it’s fair to say is the dominant group in this room, too. We need to cultivate an awareness of our own limitations and expectations in giving siblings space to speak. We can see many fruitful avenues of investigation opening up in considering social affect, caring, mental health advocacy, temporalities, memory and cognition, addiction, abuse, grief and friendship. After today I would also like to see more work on theorizing siblinghood or siblingness as cultural agents in terms of shaping our conception of the family, especially as our concept of what makes a “family” shifts and changes. This would make work considering sibling-adjacent and sibling-like relationships, such as blood brothers and step-siblings, more feasible, as it seems to me we still lack a shared discursive language about what siblinghood actually means. I hope that this meeting won’t be a one-off. There is so much still to discuss.