MIA: Library: Mary Beard, Woman as a Force in History, 1946

Woman as a Force in History. Mary Beard 1946

Woman in the Age of Faith:
“Judge of Equity”

HOW essential the thought of justice and humaneness – the sources of equity – was to the people of France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and how intimately it was related to feminine force is explained in Henry Adams’ account of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, first privately printed in 1904 and then published for general circulation in 1913. In an introduction to this intensive study of that time and that society, Ralph Adams Cram, architect and enthusiast for the period, declared that this volume represented a fusion of “all the theology, philosophy, and mysticism, the politics, sociology, and economics, the romance, literature, and art in that greatest epoch of Christian civilization.”

More concretely Henry Adams affirmed in this volume that “in order to feel Gothic architecture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one must feel first and last, around and above and beneath it, the good faith of the people, excepting only Jews and atheists, permeating every portion of it with the conviction of an immediate alternative between heaven and hell, with Mary as the only court in equity capable of overruling strict law.”

To Our Lady of Pity, whether called Virgin or Mary or Madonna, were built in those centuries scores of churches and cathedrals in a spontaneous outburst of French ardor for a feminine arbitrament of cases requiring a sympathetic response to appeals for aid and comfort. In the designs and decorations of these churches and cathedrals every detail expressed the infinite respect and adoration for the Virgin which moved the people. At Chartres the rivalry of great families for dynastic supremacy was painted into the very windows – evidences that their claims, contentions, and sanctions were being submitted to Mary for adjudication. There Pierre de Dreux and Blanche of Castile, regents and guardians for heirs to the scepter of State, “carry on across the very heart of the cathedral,” Adams said, their struggle for power, while Mary, high on her throne, holding her Holy Child on her knees, presides over her court, listening calmly, serenely, to pleas for justice, mercy, or favor in behalf of their sons.

Thus the Virgin signified to the people moral, human, or humane power as against the stern mandates of God’s law taught and enforced by the Church. As such, her position made trouble for the Church; but the Papacy, if it had been so minded, could scarcely have suppressed the urge of the people to Virgin worship, however successful it was in excluding women from the priesthood and the musical services of its choir. In the popular devotion to Mary was asserted a passionate attachment to the feminine qualities so directive in the long history of the human race.

“Without understanding movement of sex,” Henry Adams declared in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, written in 1905 and published in 1918, “history seemed to him mere pedantry.” By what process had Adams come to this conclusion? Its inner nature is veiled, but some hints may be obtained by a study of his life and letters.

Adams taught history for several years at Harvard and after his retirement from that institution he wrote many volumes on American history, without displaying in any of his pages this particular interest in woman as force in history. In 1893, in the midst of a great panic that threatened the disruption of American capitalism, Henry Adams renewed his intimate associations with his brother, Brooks Adams, who was then working on the manuscript of his The Law of Civilization and Decay. Brooks’ volume was a study in history as force or energy directed by human qualities, such as fear and greed, and in this history woman appeared as force in the rise and fall of human societies. After spending days and weeks on Brooks’ manuscript, Henry Adams likewise became absorbed in both force and woman in history.

At his home in Washington he observed the representatives of American society, urban and rural, engaged in politics, and the army of government employees, men and women, running in and out of offices. Supplementing his previous travels in the Old World and the Orient, Henry went on almost endless journeys in the Americas, in Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, studying human beings at first hand and reading books and documents that recorded the doings of humanity. Amid such circumstances and experiences he reached the conviction that history without woman was pedantry and that the force of woman in history was a subject deserving all the solicitude that critical scholarship could give to it.

By 1905 when his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, was written, Adams had come to this conclusion: “The task of accelerating or deflecting movement of the American woman had interest infinitely greater than that of any race whatever, Russian or Chinese, Asiatic or African.... He [Adams] was studying the laws of motion, and had struck two large questions of vital importance to America – inertia of race and inertia of sex. He had seen Mr. de Witte and Prince Khilkoff turn artificial energy to the value of three thousand million dollars, more or less, upon Russian inertia, in the last twenty years, and he needed to get some idea of the effect. He had seen artificial energy to the amount of five-and-twenty million steam horse-power created in America since 184o, and as much more economized, which had been socially turned over to the American woman, she being the chief object of social expenditure, and the household the only considerable object of American extravagance. According to the scientific notions of inertia and force, what ought to be the result?”

Henry Adams believed that no result of the artificial pressure on Russia was discernible in his time, “because of race and bulk,” but he thought that the results of artificial energy spent in America on women were “evident and undisputed.”

Undoubtedly, he declared, the American woman had been “set free.” But was she happy? She was not, he affirmed. Women were as “hungry for illusions as ever in the fourth century of the Church; but this was probably survival, and gave no hint of the future. The problem remained – to find out whether movement of inertia. inherent in function, could take direction except in lines of inertia. This problem needed to be solved,” he asserted, “in one generation of American women, and was the most vital of all problems of force.”

He defined it in this way. Behind all the “shifting visions” – “swarms” of tourists encountered in all the resorts of the world, on floating palaces and in the streets of Paris or Jerusalem, and other swarms like the “grave gatherings of Dames or Daughters” at the American Capital – “behind them in every city, town, and farmhouse, were myriads of new types – or type-writers- telephone and telegraph girls, shop-clerks, factory-hands, running into millions of millions, and, as classes, unknown to themselves as to historians... . All these new women had been created since 1840; all were to show their meaning before 1940.”

Yet when it came to the issue of understanding the modern American woman, Adams confessed that he was baffled. While he realized that American women, especially of the middle and upper classes, occupied a peculiar position in history and were in conflict with traditions, he could “draw no conclusions” respecting them as force and “suggest nothing” to them or about them, he said. Nevertheless he did in fact decide and suggest – that “the Marguerite of the future” could only choose “whether she would rather be victim to man, a church, or a machine.”

Of woman’s force Adams had no doubt: “The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a paleontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at. . * ‘ One’s studies in the twelfth century, like one’s studies in the fourth, as in Homeric and archaic time, showed her always busy in the illusions of heaven or of hell – ambition, intrigue, jealousy, magic.” At times, he confessed, he wondered whether woman’s force, like that of man, could not be brought under the mathematical formulas of thermodynamics – generalizations concerning physical force which interested him intensely.

Convinced that she was a, if not the, determining force in the rise and decline of civilization, Adams fumed against the kind of history-writing which prevailed in his time. “American history,” as he knew it, “mentioned hardly the name of a woman, while English history handled them as timidly as though they were a new and undescribed species.” Since written history, in the prevailing American and English style, scarcely mentioned women, Adams pronounced a critical judgment on this literature: “The study of history is useful to the historian by teaching him his ignorance of women; and the mass of this ignorance crushes one who is familiar enough with what are called historical sources to realize how few women have ever been known. The woman who is only known through a man is known wrong.... The American woman of the nineteenth century will live only as the man saw her; probably she will be less known than the woman of the eighteenth; none of the female descendants of Abigail Adams can ever be nearly so familiar as her letters have made her; and all this is pure loss to history.”

Deeply cognizant of his own ignorance of woman’s force in history and stirred by the neglect of the subject among professional historians, Henry Adams took up the study of woman in historymanifestations of her power in every relation, from economy and social affairs to war, politics, and philosophy. His search for knowledge led him far afield into paths “long and tortuous,” drawing him at last into “the vast forests of scholastic science.” His quest seems to have started in earnest at the great Exposition in Paris in 1900 where the power of the machine was almost fiercely exhibited. From that point in time he went far back into time, far beyond the capitalistic age, into the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries of French history, looking for another kind of power in history – the force of woman. In his volume on Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres he set forth his discoveries, illustrated and supported by a fabulous wealth of details.

As if to provide a true historic setting for his consideration of woman as force in the middle ages, Adams opened with a study of Mont-Saint-Michel, that massive testament to the man of war, to his militant Archangel whose sign of force was the uplifted sword. In every line of that huge structure, masculine force and warlike aspirations were typified. In every stone of the knight’s great hall, “the masculine, military energy of Saint Michael lives still,” Adams wrote. Here the “warlike emotion” is incarnate. Lines, curves, and upward thrusts, lights and shadows, every “centimetre” of the work, reflects it. The very Chanson de Roland, associated with the time and the spirit of Mont-Saint-Michel, “is so masculine” that, despite its length of four thousand lines, only one Christian woman is mentioned – Alda, the betrothed of Roland – and perhaps this is a later fabrication. In Mont-Saint-Michel, man the warrior, a masculine principle, Church and State militant, were symbolized in stone and form for the age of William the Norman Conqueror.

To this part of his volume Adams devoted forty-five of his three hundred and seventy-seven pages. For his purposes that was enough. In other writings, both Catholic and Protestant, man militant had been profusely celebrated. Adams could be sure that the men and women who read his pages were reasonably familiar with man as force, in man’s feuding world.

Having dealt with man’s warlike energy symbolized at Mont-Saint-Michel, Adams took up his main theme – the symbolization of woman as force in cathedrals, songs, and writings, honoring the Virgin, and the role of women in the making of French history during two eventful centuries. Fearing that American readers steeped in the Protestant tradition might regard his entire report as coming under the head of religious imagery or even “superstition,” Adams endeavored to make it clear that he was concerned with far more than “the last and greatest deity of all, the Virgin.” He insisted and demonstrated that he was also portraying living and working men and women, with their ideals of woman, with their interest in the man and woman relationship, with their conceptions of the feminine principle as a mighty force. He explicitly stated that “the study of Our Lady ... leads directly back to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex.”

For the realities of social and economic life in those centuries, Adams relied partly on the writings of modern authorities but chiefly on original sources of the time. Out of his researches he evolved fundamental conclusions, such as the following. In that age men and women were more alike in manners and conduct than they are in the modern age. Women could swear and talk in ribald language; men, without shame, could weep “like a woman.” On the intellectual level, “women appeared distinctly superior.” They were grave and clever and not in the “rude state of civilization” to which men belonged. They were less impulsive, more given to controlling momentary passions. If on the whole they were more Christian in habits, they could be even more perfidious than men in the arts of crime. In the education of sons, the influence of women was powerful, often predominant, and the superiority of some men over their contemporaries was frequently due to maternal influences.

After studying exhaustively the poetry of that time, Adams found that “always the woman appears as the practical guide; the one who keeps her head, even in love... . The man never cared; he was always getting himself into crusades, or feuds, or love, or debt, and depended on the woman to get him out. The story was always of Charles VII and Jeanne d’Arc, or Agnes Sorel. The woman might be the good or the evil spirit, but she was always the stronger force. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of history – these Plantagenets; these scholastic philosophers; these architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods and Marco Polos; these crusaders, who planted their enormous fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and barrens yield harvests; – all, without apparent exception, bowed down before the woman. Explain it who will! We are not particularly interested in the explanation; it is the art we have chased through this French forest, like Aucassins hunting for Nicolette; and the art leads always to the woman. Poetry, like the architecture and the decoration, harks back to the same standard of taste.”

Yet Adams in fact proffered several explanations, not so defined. “Without Mary,” he said, “man had no hope except in atheism, and for atheism the world was not ready. Hemmed back on that side, men rushed like sheep to escape the butcher, and were driven to Mary; only too happy in finding protection and hope in a being who could understand the language they talked, and the excuses they had to offer.”

Skepticism, he went on to say, would have shattered French society at that time: “The thirteenth century could not afford to admit a doubt. Society had staked its existence, in this world and the next, on the reality and power of the Virgin.” She was no creature solely of the imagination: “How actual Mary was, to the men and women of the Middle Ages, and how she was present, as a matter of course, whether by way of miracle or as a habit of life, throughout their daily existence” was attested by the “enormous money value they put on her assistance, and the art that was lavished on her gratification.” It was also signified in “the casual allusion, the chance reference to her, which assumes her presence.” French society “had invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual, and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate.”

Yet another essential feature enters into the explanation of Mary’s enthronement as the judge of equity. This is the fact that she was closest to the common life as the Great Mother: “To the Western mind, a figure Eke the Buddha stood much farther away than the Virgin. That of the Christ even to Saint Bernard stood not so near as that of his mother.” Abelard stated the case this way: “After the Trinity, you are our only hope; ... you are placed there as our advocate; all of us who fear the wrath of the judge, fly to the judge’s mother, who is logically compelled to sue for us, and stands in the place of a mother to the guilty.”

It was to the Virgin, as the greatest humane force, that the minds and hearts of French men and women paid tribute in this period of the middle ages; they sustained their ardent faith in her against all the strenuous efforts of powerful men in the Church hierarchy to uphold, as superior, masculine conceptions of God, the trinity, the law, and theological systems. It is true that no small part of the Virgin’s hold on the people came from the firm belief that, as mediator with God and Jesus Christ, she could more easily open the way for eternal salvation in the world to Come.

Yet that was by no means the whole source of her power. An immense, if immeasurable, portion of it sprang from the fact that she was regarded as the most convincing expression of civilized aspirations and ways of life, in the feudal ages which followed the breakup of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions of Mediterranean regions. At all events she steadily gained mastery as a civilizing force during mediaeval times, while barbarism was being brought under the sway of Christianity.

This advance in the power of Mariology, Adams pointed out, can be traced in the documents of the succeeding centuries, after the launching of Christianity, and graphically with dates in M. de Fleury’s Iconographie de la Sainte Vierge. Admitting that those Americans, who had a penchant for literal exactness, would want proof, Adams indicated where it could be found. As “God-mother” and “Pathfinder” and under other names, the Virgin was “the chief favorite of the Eastern Empire.” In the royal chapel at Byzantium,

at the head of processions, and on the walls of hovels and cottages, her picture or image was to be found from generation to generation. In the West she was increasingly worshiped and in the age of the crusades “she began to overshadow the Trinity itself.”

Abundant evidence indicates that the rise of the Virgin in prestige and power was to a large extent due to popular forces outside the hierarchy of the Western Church. “Papal Rome,” says Adams, “never greatly loved Byzantine empresses or French queens. The Virgin of Chartres was never wholly sympathetic to the Roman Curia.” Some part of her force was due to the fact that “she was popularly supposed to have no very marked fancy for priests as such; she was a queen, a woman, and a mother, functions, all, which priests could not perform.” Nor was Mary supposed to care much about the theology and scholastic system-making which engrossed so many learned men of the Church and awakened grave criticism among the “mystics,” notably St. Francis, who had doubts about the ability of the human mind to unravel the riddle of the universe.

Whatever may have been the orthodox conception of Mary’s place in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical power, her popularity with all classes of the people of the time was indisputable. Many monks and monastic orders were warmly attached to her. The gilds, says Adams, “were, if possible, more devoted to her than the monks.” In French cities, the bourgeois manifested their attachment by lavish gifts of money to her monuments. “Most surprising of all,” Adams continued, “the great military class was perhaps the most vociferous.” It seemed to Adams that it was almost blasphemous for men to call on the Queen of Mercy and Pity to lead them into battle; but the fact was undeniable. For at least five hundred years warriors, in innumerable combats, invoked the aid of Notre Dame. Even the soldiers of the Pope were said to cry, “Notre-Dame-Saint-Pierre!” At length scholastics bowed to the clamor and conceded that Mary “possessed perfectly the seven liberal arts.” At Chartres all the fine arts including music were identified with her protection. For a time it seemed as if innumerable French men and women were bent on “making the Mother the Church, and Christ the Symbol.”

Women – Earthly Queens

In his wide-ranging examination of mediaeval documents, searching for the manifestations and nature of woman’s force in history, Henry Adams also discovered earthly women of great power in the government and civilization of France and chose three of them for special treatment. Attracted by their personalities, energies, qualities, and activities he studied the source materials bearing on their lives and times and undertook to give an account of their characters and operations in the age of the Virgin Mary’s great ascendancy.

The first was Eleanor of Guienne who was born in 1122 and died in 1204. The second was Mary of Champagne, 1145-1198, the daughter of Eleanor by her first husband, Louis VII, king of France. The third was Blanche of Castile, 1187-1252 -grand-daughter of Eleanor by the line of her second husband, Henry II, king of England.

As Eleanor began her active public life when she was fifteen, on her marriage with Louis VII in 1137, and as her granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, wife of Louis VIII, king of France, mother of Saint Louis, was actively wielding her imperious scepter in France till the time of her death in 1252, the era of their regal influence extended over a century of demiurgic history in France and England – a century fateful for the relations of France and England in ages ahead.

Although these women, whom Adams calls “The Three Queens,” engaged in sturdy contests with men and other women in the quest for, and the maintenance of, power in the State for themselves and for their families, they were not mere duplicates of the fighting men celebrated at Mont-Saint-Michel. All of them, Adams declared, in a statement disclosing his own sense of refinement ‘ employed both terror and tenderness “to tame the beasts around them.” This they did in part by dedicating talents and strength to formulating and establishing codes of manners and morals, and to enforcing the codes in their school which they called their “Court of Love.” In their search for high sanction to sustain gentler manners and more civilized practices, they paid tribute to the Virgin, invoking her aid in their struggle against the barbarism that still flourished in the age of Mary’s high command over French faith. For example, in verses of the time inspired by courts of love, Count Thibaut called upon the Virgin to intercede with God for mercy, and thus protect mortals against the wrath of His stem justice. It seemed as if “the three queens” could attain their aims only with the help of a woman above them – “the Queen of Heaven.”

How could the force of the three queens in the private and public affairs of Western Europe be measured or appraised? That it was pronounced and wide in its ramifications was scarcely to be questioned. But measurement was difficult. Adams remarked at the opening of his chapter dealing with them: “The proper study of mankind is woman and, by common agreement since the time of Adam, it is the most complex and arduous.” So he confined himself to a sketch in thirty-two pages which, valuable as it is, presents only fragments of the story narrated in the documents.

Two of these women, Eleanor and Blanche, who were queens in fact, have not entirely escaped the attention of professional historians. Some recognition is occasionally accorded to them in the general histories of mediaeval times, but the recognition so awarded is among the seven wonders of modern historiography. When Eleanor, Mary, and Blanche do appear, they do so usually as mere shadows accompanying Louis VII, Louis VIII, Louis IX, Henry II, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and John – the villain in the drama of Magna Carta – in their exploits, wars, state-building operations, and crusades. If the energies and power of Eleanor and Blanche are recognised, they are apt to be ascribed to their “masculine” qualities, as the sensibility of men is often ascribed to their “feminine” qualities. That is to say the existence and activities of the three queens are treated as accidents or incidents among the doings of men.

Take, for example, John Richard Green’s Short History of England, in which about forty pages are given to the period from the accession of Henry II, second husband of Eleanor, in 1154, to the conflict of the barons with her son, John, over Magna Carta, in 1215. In these pages Eleanor is mentioned four times. Note is made of the fact that, through his marriage with Eleanor, Henry, II “added Aquitaine to his dominions.” What Henry added with her rich dominions is left untouched. Note is made of the fact that Henry was luckless in a war to enforce by arms the claims which his queen, Eleanor, had on Toulouse. Green also granted that John, on his accession, secured Aquitaine through “its duchess, his mother,” and that on her death in 1204 the bulk of Aquitaine fell to Philip Augustus, king of France. But that was just that.

As a rule authors of large histories of France are considerate enough to treat Eleanor as a little more than an owner of valuable real estate – the greatest dowry any French woman had yet brought ,to the crown; but authors of smaller works can be very blind. For instance, Amman and Coutant, in their little Histoire de France for Cours superieur, Cours complementaire, and Ecoles superieures, make short shrift of Eleanor. Writing of the reign of her husband, Louis VII, they say: “On his return [from a crusade] he repudiated his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was a naughty wife; but all the provinces that she brought to him the king had to give he as her dowry ... and this was a great loss.”

After dismissing Eleanor as “naughty,” what do Amman and Coutant say about her granddaughter, Blanche, wife of King Louis VIII? “The new king, Louis IX,” they wrote, “being only twelve years old, his mother, Blanche of Castile, exercised the regency during his minority. This minority might have put in jeopardy the whole work of Capetian royalty, the great vassals profiting by the occasion to ruin the royal authority. Blanche was its savior; she was a remarkably strong queen, who had the courage of a man in the heart of a woman.”

If we turn from the portrayal of the three queens as in general histories, large and small, to the actual records pertaining to their history as lived and enacted, we get at sources of information, rumor, allegations, and recrimination respecting Eleanor and Blanche, abundant and realistic enough to reveal Eleanor and Blanche as dynamic and competent persons in their own characters.

Is it a question of State-form, powers, policies, actions?

Is it a matter of manners and morals?

Is it the great debate between the mystics and the humanists on the one side and, on the other, the hard and puritanical logicians seeking to turn Christianity into sheer theology and absolute law?

Is it the conflict between the male principle and the female principle that rages in the disputes over the Virgin Mary and efforts to subject her to Jahweh?

Is it a matter of arts and letters in their diverse forms of expression and the interests they represent?

Is it, above all, a question of civilization – the elevation of the capacities inherent in human beings to the modes, uses, and amenities of civil life?

If so, then every informed, comprehensive, or “balanced” history of the century under consideration must reckon with the ambitions, ideas, and activities of Eleanor and Blanche. As for Mary of Champagne, although she was no queen by title, she was, as Henry Adams said, “a queen in social influence,” especially in “the literature of courteous love.”

Readers may call extravagant many of the conclusions respecting the three queens which Henry Adams reached at the end of his study in the sources. They may resent his contention that “the scientific mind is atrophied, and suffers under inherited cerebral weakness, when it comes in contact with the eternal woman.” But the documentation of his brief is so full and so explicit that if Adams had gone further into the political and military history of the times – into the intrigues, wars, and settlements – he could have expanded enormously the narrative of Eleanor’s and Blanche’s deeds in relation to the making of great history. He could have described Eleanor stiffing up her sons in their rebellion against her husband, Henry II, and as “a political person of the highest importance” in shaping the careers of her sons, Richard the Lion-Hearted and John. He could have shown Blanche organizing naval forces at Calais in a vain design to conquer England for Louis after the death of King John in 12 16. Or he could have written the history of her reign as regent and guardian of her children, defeating the league of, nobles formed against the Crown, raising men and money for crusades and war, holding the kingdom of France together for her son against ambitious war lords who threatened a return to feudal anarchy.

But Adams went far enough to establish on the basis of the authentic documentation the fact that woman – both the earthly creature and the popular conception of her as divinity – displayed titanic energies in the making of everyday history and Great History.