Friday, 14 October 2016

Sex and Sexiness in History

Society can move backwards as well as forwards. In the 14th century, a man would probably get a far harsher sentence for cutting down a large oak tree than he would for raping a woman.

This wasn’t because Edward III was a fundamentalist tree-hugger. It was because large oaks were cultivated and deliberately kept straight so the trunks could be used as rafters in large structures and as the masts of ships. Growing one took a damned long time, so if some pesky peasant cut down a tree your grandfather planted, the blighter would probably end up swinging from the nearest (intact) tree.

That explains the harsh penalty for arboricide. But if a man raped a woman, then (unless it was a nobleman’s daughter, in which case he’d probably round up a posse and hang the culprit summarily), it’s unlikely she’d bother reporting it. If she did, it would be unlikely to go any further. If it did, the man would probably not be found guilty. If he were, he’d probably be given a small fine. In short, being a nobleman’s daughter was a good thing to be.

Language is another area of drastic change over the centuries. A four letter C-word is one of very few to actually become considered more vulgar over time. Words like ‘mischief’ and ‘naughty’ are now so soft that any parent would use them in front of any child. However, way back when, they referred to things like going out on the rob, or an evening of rape. [Sadly, this sort of attitude still exists today. Recently, soldiers in South Sudan, in lieu of wages, were given permission to commit rape].

In fact, women had fewer rights under the Normans than they had centuries earlier under the Anglo-Saxons. Now, I’m not claiming there was equality in the 9th century under Alfred the Great, but there was a greater measure of it, for women, than they had under the Norman kings. Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, actually ruled Mercia in the early part of the 10th century. It sounds bizarre that society could move backwards, but this does happen. Progress is not a straight line, and nor is it an inevitability.

After the Normans came the Tudors, and their final monarch was Elizabeth I (some argue that this was actually the perfect system of governance, where Parliament had power but the monarch did too, ensuring a steady hand on the tiller whilst also enabling a democratic element. So, neither mob rule nor tyranny, but a combination of monarchy and democracy). During this era, women began to gain still more equality with exceptional individuals becoming doctors or writers. The proliferation of literacy meant many women started putting together practical books about cookery or medicine.

It should be stressed this was still unusual, but a combination of Protestantism winning the religious war over Catholicism (and Bibles being written in English) coupled with a strong female monarch helped to encourage female literacy.

A small aside: during this era showing one’s cleavage was considered absolutely fine (even Elizabeth I did it). However, a lady baring her arms or legs was considered beyond the pale. Only the lowest of the low (washerwomen) would do such a thing. So, a long-sleeved V-neck top would be fine, but a short-sleeved t-shirt would be considered a bit racy.

Showing one’s hair or covering it up is another area where modern fashion can be radically different to history. Hats were much more commonplace even 60 years ago, and centuries past they were ubiquitous. For women, this often entailed totally covering the hair. Loose hair could be seen as a sign of, ahem, paid-for friskiness.

So, where are we now? Not in the best of places. In many parts of the world (most particularly the shrinking territory of black flag lunatics) women are considered property, or slaves, and are forced to utterly cover up. Their rights in all areas are curtailed or utterly secondary to the whims of their husband/master. In the West, there are generally good standards, although there are still black spots (banning the image of a healthy woman in a bikini on the London Underground or the wearing of the burkini in France).

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  1. Replies
    1. Happens now and then. Not my fault if political candidates hold medieval views :p