Sunday, April 05, 2009

Henry VIII without Women?

Victoria Coren: Carry on like this, Dr Starkey - and you'll be history | Comment is free | The Observer

There is a buzz over on CIF about comments on the feminising of history made by a leading TV historian, David Starky.

Well done, David Starkey, well done. It worked. Last week, while talking about Henry VIII, you said: 'One of the great problems has been that Henry, in a sense, has been absorbed by his wives. Which is bizarre. But it's what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience.'

You said this because you are promoting a TV series about Henry VIII and you thought you would wind up the feminists, flush them out to write irritably in the press and plug your show.

How are historians to remedy the silence about women in many traditional accounts of history? This question has received a number of distinct answers.

The first solution was to locate the great women of the past, following the lead of much popular historiography that focuses on "great men". The problem here is that just as the "great men" approach to history sidelines and ignores the lives of the mass of people, focusing on great women merely replicates the exclusionary historical approaches of the past.

The next solution was to examine and expose the history of oppression of women. This approach had the merit of addressing the life histories of the mass of women, but, since it has proved to be possible to find some degree of oppression everywhere, it tended to make women merely subjects of forces that they could not control. On the other hand, historians' focus on oppression revealed that investigating the structures of women's lives was crucial.

In recent years, while not denying the history of oppression, historians have begun to focus on the agency of women. All human beings are subject to some degree of social forces that limit freedom, but within those limits people are able to exercise greater or lesser degrees of control over their own lives. This insight applies equally to women even in oppressive societies.

Almost in all this discussion in CIF have focused on the issue on the theme of "great people" in history.

This is just simplistic.

Lets take a few, perhaps more helpful ways, of looking at the period of Henry VIII.

First it was a period in which for men *and* women, political power came from family and marriage. Henry VIII derived the limited dynastic legitimacy he had from his father's marriage. In his own life, his diplomatic power was enhanced in early years by his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, although in later years dynastic succession became important.

There is really not that much difference in how Henry got and maintained power - through descent and marriage - and the ways in which women of the period obtained power - such as Isabella of Spain, his own daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and slightly later Catherine de Medici.

Second, did Henry's reign alter the status of women. Economically many women were successfully active in running shops and businesses circa 1500, a period which represents a high point in wages and economic possibilities. For reasons that had nothing to do with Henry and a lot to do with either the influx of Spanish silver OR population increase, there was long term real inflation in the 16th century which reduced living standards.

What Henry's policies did do was severely limit some of the life choices and opportunities for agency of women. By closing down the monasteries and convents, Henry made marriage the only real goal for women, and destroyed literally hundreds of self-governing female religious communities.

On the other hand, the promotion of literacy by Protestantism may have helped a number of women access a life of the mind closed to them until that time.

There is every reason to consider women's history, and indeed the place of gender in history.

It would be fun to apply such considerations to David Starkey himself, but I shall refrain.

I maintain the Women's History Sourcebook to promote actively the idea that women's history is more than just about "great women".

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