In medieval Castile, between about 1050 and 1300, local municipal lawcodes, or fueros, looked to the body for proof of rape. These fueros provided detailed and practical sets of laws and privileges to newly founded or conquered towns before the advent of centralized royal law, and they were intended to encourage settlement and establish civic order on the expanding Castilian frontier. Although the fueros set harsh penalties for rape, a valid claim hinged on the woman’s own actions of public self-mutilation. In order to prove rape, a woman had to appear publicly within three days of the assault and rend her cheeks, tearing at her face with her fingernails until it bled. If the woman did not appear carpiendo y rascando, “tearing and scratching,” she was not to be believed, according to texts like the Fuero de Alba de Tormes.
The physical action of cheek rending is not unique to these Iberian lawcodes, as it was also part of a larger Mediterranean practice of ritual mourning, in which mourners raised loud laments and tore their hair, faces, and clothing.
These self-mutilating actions were especially associated with women, however, and women’s mourning bodies were understood within a framework that linked bodily expressions of emotion with unrestrained sexuality and self-mutilation. For example, John Chrysostom suggested in a homily that women tore their bodies and clothing not to demonstrate grief, but to show their bodies and attract lovers. Because Iberian women tore their cheeks both as part of ritual mourning and as proof of rape, however, what little scholarship mentions cheek rending as proof usually explains it away in terms of grief and emotion: Distraught women tore their faces in grief at the shame and dishonor of rape. While this could explain why an individual woman might rend her cheeks, it does not explain why the legal system would require torn and bleeding cheeks as proof.
In thinking about cheek rending as proof of rape, I propose that we think of it first as a real, physical action, not just as a ritual or cultural performance. The municipal fueros themselves are very practical legal codes, without overt ideological goals; they deal with everyday life on the Castilian frontier, and they regulate such mundane things as which days Jews and Christians could use the bathhouses or how bakers should be fined for heating their public bread ovens badly. The stipulations on rape and cheek rending should be read within this straightforward framework. The verbs used in Latin and Romance to refer to cheek rending—including rascar, grafinar, mesar, carpir, desfacer, cortar—signify real physical violence; the mourners scratch, rip, tear, cut, and strip their faces. The thirteenth-century Primera Crónica General describes women mourners as tearing and scratching their faces (tornandolas en sangre et en carne biva), stripping them back to blood and to open wounds. Alfonso X’s great royal legal code, Las Siete Partidas, condemns excessive mourning and refers to cheek rending as disfiguring. Moreover, it forbids priests from administering the sacraments to mourners until they had healed from the marks they had made on their faces. This suggests that cheek rending left real visible marks on mourners’ faces, that their bodies were literally marked, and possibly even scarred, with grief. Images of mourners rending their cheeks bear this out, as many show bloody red lines on the mourners’ faces. A medieval medical text on treatments for women, included in the Trotula collection, even describes an ointment which the women of Salerno used to treat the marks on their faces which they made in mourning for the dead (contra maculas in facie quas faciunt salernitane pro mortuis). If women tore their cheeks both in mourning and in rape, would widows and raped women then have the same facial marks or scars?
Because cheek rending was a bodily action performed through real, bleeding bodies, I further suggest that any examination of cheek rending as proof of rape should consider larger questions of how bodies, and especially women’s bodies, functioned before the law. Scholarship on emotion and gestures suggests that weeping was seen as a sign of sincerity, and cheek rending as proof of rape suggests a similar connection between outward appearance and internal mental state. The definition of rape in the fueros hinges on intent, consent, and believability, and in many fueros the cheek rending requirement falls under the heading “What woman should be believed concerning rape[?]” (Qual mugier deue seer creyda por forçada). Cheek rending might actually go further than just proving intention and sincerity, however, as many of these same towns also used the ordeal of hot-iron and the physical bodies of women to prove guilt or innocence. This ordeal was used only with women and only with women accused of certain kinds of bodily, secretive crimes, including poisoning, abortion, prostitution, and witchcraft. For these crimes, the law bypassed the woman’s testimony to access the truth directly from her body.
But why only women’s bodies? If men were dishonored, they proved their civil cases through character witnesses and testimony, not through self-mutilation and bleeding cheeks. I am only beginning sustained research, but I suspect that there’s something about the body itself, an understanding that bodies – and especially female bodies, which were seen as more material and less spiritual than male bodies – could somehow demonstrate truth. In cheek rending as proof of rape, women mark and even mutilate their bodies to make visible the internal violence and dishonor of rape; in ordeal, perhaps, the body speaks for itself.
Rachel Welsh is a doctoral candidate in Medieval History at New York University. Her dissertation focuses on ordeal and the use of the body as legal proof in medieval Iberia, and she is interested more broadly in medieval medical, theological, philosophical, and legal understandings of the body as a potential conduit of truth.
Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.
I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.
I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.
I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”
Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.
One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.
Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.
An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.
There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)
The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.
The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. Thereisalwaysaconversionnarrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”
Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.
by guest contributor Jonathan Kearns in collaboration with Brooke Palmieri
Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight? These which were realities to our fore-fathers, in our wiser age —
— Characterless are grated
To dusty nothing.
— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts,” London Magazine, 1824
Literary canon in general, and the canon of weird or speculative fiction in particular, is haunted by half-remembered absences. We think we know the details of all of the high points: Frankenstein (1822), The Vampyre (1819), Varney the Vampire (1847), Dracula (1897); the works of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), or Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). But in reality, we’re just glossing over all the places where we weren’t paying attention: namely, the vast catalogue of stories written by women over the centuries that play a formative role in the creatures and creeping feelings of horror that we take for granted as canonical. An important chapter worth writing in women’s history, and in the history of women writers, is that which considers the particularly feminine perspective that has imagined into existence some of the weirdest works of literature.
For example, there are stranger early modern alternatives to Shakespeare than Virginia Woolf’s portrait of his sister Judith. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Duchess of Newcastle, scientist, philosopher, poet, patron of all things strange, was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society and get annoyed with Hooke, argue with Hobbes, and raise an eyebrow at Boyle.
In 1666 she published two works together: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which argued against the most popular scientific worldview of its time, mechanical philosophy; and The Blazing World, equal parts utopia, social satire, and straight-up weird fiction. It’s a masterpiece of fish-men, talking animals, and submarine warfare—written significantly earlier than Jules Verne, despite including a journey to another world, in a different universe, via the North Pole. Should we not describe his works as Cavendishian? Scholarship more frequently cites Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Underground Travels in connection with Verne, although that too bears clear hallmarks of Cavendish’s influence. Cavendish’s dual publication of a work of natural philosophy with a work of speculative fiction have arguably only met their synthesis in the twentieth century, when scientists admit the influence of science fiction in their research, and “hard science fiction” like that of Kim Stanley Robinson has fully blossomed as a sub-genre. In other words, re-conceiving the canon of science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, and weird fiction begins with reconsidering their muddled origins in works like those of Margaret Cavendish, the foremother of so many strange ideas, imagined and real.
The industrious half-beast, half-human characters populating Cavendish’s Blazing World—the bear-men philosophers, the jackdaw-men orators, the spider-men mathematicians—translate the myths, the folk tales, the monstrous births and miraculous occurrences of a declining world of superstition into new centuries, with new narrative possibilities. Alongside their afterlives in the realms of science fiction, their hybrid forms are also a starting point for horror and considerations of the supernatural.
The immovable object of women in speculative fiction is obviously Frankenstein (1818), first imagined two hundred years ago this past June at the famous Villa Diodati. Nobody nowadays really argues with Mary Shelley’s pre-eminent position as the mother of all reanimated corpses. John William Polidori (1795-1821), also present at the first telling of the story, probably features fairly strongly in the role of medical advisor, especially with his experience in the dissection theaters of Edinburgh and considering his academic preoccupations. Taking the staples of weird, speculative, horrifying, and supernatural fiction as a whole, most of the major tropes were the product of female authorship. Frankenstein’s Monster—scientific aberration, stitched-up King Zombie, vengeful revenant—is only one such pillar: a hybrid in the style of Cavendish’s Blazing World, yet a ghost in his own right, ruthlessly haunting his creator.
And ghost stories too have a place in women’s history: Elizabeth Boyd’s Altamira’s Ghost (1744) describes a disputed succession adjudicated over by a spirit. Although supernatural in content, it is essentially a commentary on social injustice narrated by a ghost and dealing with the famous Annesley succession case, in which an orphan’s inheritance rested upon proof of his legitimacy. One peculiarity of the case is that a maidservant named Heath, claiming James Annesley illegitimate, was found guilty of perjury on one occasion, then acquitted on another, effectively allowing James to be ruled both bastard and not bastard simultaneously. Boyd was primarily a paid “hack” of notable skill, but it should be mentioned that her openly supernatural works (“William and Catherine, or The Fair Spectre” (1745) being another) fall thematically into the fantastically interesting category of female apparition narrative, in which female ghosts appear in order to provide insight into male wrongdoing and most notably domestic violence. A ghost woman can talk about things a live woman may not, and thus assist in the administration of justice. At one time an accepted literary device in its own right, this seems to have been forgotten along with Boyd and her contemporaries.
The pattern has a tendency to repeat. But the women of nineteenth-century weird fiction after Mary Shelley were more interested in giving their ghosts a body, much like the monster of Dr. Frankenstein. In 1828, only ten years after Frankenstein, Jane Loudon produced The Mummy! Or A Tale of The Twenty-Second Century (published by the piratical Henry Colburn, who published Polidori’s Vampyre under Byron’s name in 1819). Both of Loudon’s parents were dead by 1824, when she was 17, and she was forced to find some way to “do something for [her] support”:
I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive.
Already well-traveled and with several languages under her belt, Jane Loudon was clearly not without either smarts or skills. Her husband-to-be sought her out after writing a favorable review of the novel, believing her, naturally, to be a man. Once the shock of her femininity had worn off, they were married a year later.
Loudon’s resurrected Cheops is a sage and helpful corpse, granted life maintained by a higher power rather than by human error and hubris. Loudon’s twenty-second century is an absolutely blinding bit of fictional prophecy, on par with William Gibson’s Neuromancer for edgy prescience. The habit of the time was to view the future as the early nineteenth century, but with bigger buildings and with the French in charge, but Loudon’s 2126 AD goes for women striding about independently in trousers, robot doctors and solicitors, and something that’s not too far from an early concept of the internet. Her strange, wild story, in which corpsified Cheops helps rebuild a corrupt society, addresses much of the underlying horror of Shelley’s Frankenstein with a more redemptive take on the reanimation of dead flesh. It was also a definite influence on Bram Stoker’s better-remembered “Jewel of The Seven Stars,” published in the 1890s, and possibly even on Poe’s “Ligeia” in 1838, in which a man painstakingly wraps his dead wife in bandages prior to her burial.
There’s an argument for suggesting that writing weird fiction, at least in the form of ghost stories, became something of a fashionable exploit for nineteenth-century ladies. The Countess of Blessington (“A Ghost Story,” 1846), Mrs. Hofland (“The Regretted Ghost,” published in The Keepsake in the mid-1820s) are just two examples. On one hand, they might be seen as a natural evolution of the legacy of the Gothic giants Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, alongside Jane Crofts’ hugely successful (and frequently necessarily anonymous) forays into the profitable world of Gothic novels and chapbooks (“The History of Jenny Spinner, The Hertfordshire Ghost,” 1800) and C.D. Haynes (“Eleanor, Or The Spectre of St. Michaels,” 1821). On the other, there is something innately rebellious, hinting at manifest destiny, in the feminine colonization of weird fiction as a form in which women can express themselves.
Women who were already making a living as authors of anonymous romances and social sketches bent their efforts to the weird and supernatural with no apparent intent of turning a profit, but apparently more as an endorsement of the genre as something inherently theirs. Mrs. Riddell, Mrs. Oliphant, the Countess of Munster and Mrs. Alfred Baldwin were all successful, comfortable women with no particular need to deviate from a working formula, but they all ventured into what they clearly considered a darkness to which they had a right, and produced some of the very best weird stories of the nineteenth century.
Mrs. Riddell’s (1832-1906) Weird Stories, published by Hogg in 1882, is one of the rarest and most beautifully written collections of supernatural stories of the last two hundred years.
Mrs. Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) wrote an incredible body of work—numbering over 120 published novels, historical works and collections of short stories—from the 1840s until the late 1890s, spanning almost the entire Victorian age in all its manifold weirdness.
The Countess of Munster, Wilhelmina FitzClarence (1830-1906), Scottish peer and illegitimate granddaughter of William IV, only became a novelist later in life. She published her Ghostly Stories in 1896, displaying a tremendous talent for the weird.
Florence Marryat’s (1833-1899) The Blood of The Vampire, published the same year as Stoker’s Dracula and now shamefully almost forgotten, is a nuanced and complex (albeit erratic in execution) look at nineteenth-century male-dominated societal norms, race, sexuality, gender, and xenophobia, couched in the terms of the supernatural. Its mixed-race heroine is exploited by men and rejected by other women; the fact that she might be infected with vampirism is a secondary (and never actually resolved) possibility when placed alongside how she is treated, regardless of supernatural influence. Marryat wrote over seventy published works, toured with the D’Oyly Carte company, had her own successful one woman show, ran lecture tours preaching female emancipation, and, during the 1890s, ran a women’s school of journalism.
It’s almost inconceivable that the “stuff of extrapolation” has preserved Klim, Polidori, Stoker, Le Fanu, Rymer and their legions of successful cohorts as the manifest summits of weird fiction in the nineteenth century, and yet rarely even mentions Jane Loudon, Mrs. Riddell, or even Mrs. Oliphant, who had a body of work larger than that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Mary Shelley’s 1824 essay “On Ghosts,” which began this post, had at its heart two main questions: “What have we left to dream about?” and “[I]s it true that we do not believe in ghosts?” The catalogue of weird fiction produced by Shelley and those after her shows that women had a great deal left to dream about. Female weird fiction frequently deals with minorities and outliers: wronged gypsy women, beaten wives, revenant witches, overly prescient children, the occasional voodoo priestess, and a preoccupation with the righting of wrongs, the application of a certain balancing justice. Unlike in the masculine variants, the menaces and threats are more often laid to rest or propitiated, or indeed left to float off on an ice floe—rather than being chopped up, burned up, stabbed up, or staked up by a gang of bros armored by either science or God, the two being interchangeable when fighting darkness.
One thing is for certain: the influence of women writers, whether anonymously, writing under male pseudonyms, or under their own names upon the landscape of the weird is not only significant, but momentous. If one can identify a trope or a device, the chances are that if one goes back far enough it originated somewhere in the untended and rarely-visited forest of female writers of the irresistibly odd and disturbing. As for Shelley’s second question, it is now their ghosts which haunt literary history and which must be remembered. Yet to believe them, requires that they be seen.
Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.
I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.
Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.
Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.
But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).
Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.
The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.
The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.
The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.
Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.
The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.
If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.
Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!
Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.
by guest contributors Marcelline Block and Barry Nevin
World War I represented a loss of youth, innocence and ideals unparalleled in the twentieth century. Its initiation of mechanized murder and trench warfare laid waste to patriotic ideals, dismantled empires across Europe, plunged ill-equipped societies into a traumatized stupor, and formed a prelude to the unbridled ferocity of the Second World War. Diverse and multifaceted in its execution of warfare and in its consequences, World War I continues to haunt collective memory and to inspire imaginative endeavor in various forms of art, including poetry, fiction, music, and—most significantly for our purposes—film.
Modris Eksteins writes that World War I’s “agony is with us still. We cannot forget, nor can we ever truly comprehend” it (317). Building on Eksteins’ assertion and current writing on the relationship between WWI and cinema, we produced an edited volume, French Cinema and the Great War: Remembrance and Representation, in order to provide the first English-language book-length study devoted to representations of the First World War in French cinema from wartime society to the present day. It spans nearly one hundred years of filmmaking, from Léonce Perret’s Une page de gloire (1915) to Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël (2005).We are interested in the various ways in which film mediates and transmits personal and collective memories and trauma of this crucial historical catastrophe through filmmakers’ engagement with contemporary political thought. Considering developments and deviations within the war genre, as well the relationship between the war and aesthetic style in French cinema, allows us to treat the relationship between French social, political, and cultural spheres throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and, by extension, to address evolutions in historical memory and the cathartic role of film in the expression of post-war trauma and memory.
Joyeux Noël’s treatment of real historical events that took place during World War I is just one example of how French film contains a complex repository of national collective memory and mourning about the Great War. It is also particularly amenable to reassessment due to its unique relationship with the trauma of war, alternately commemorating and stifling memories of the bloody combat in the years that followed the armistice. On one hand, films like Les Croix de Bois (Raymond Bernard, 1932), Le Roi de coeur (Philippe de Broca, 1966) and Joyeux Noël directly interrogate the war’s origins and consequences. On the other, in the decade of silent filmmaking that followed the armistice and in the twenty years following the end of the Second World War, French films were on the surface level conspicuously reticent regarding the Great War (with the exception of singular films such as Abel Gance’s 1919 J’accuse). But looking at the narrative setting and narrative style of cinematic representations of World War I allows us to interrogate the relationship between society and memory, and the former’s endless re-contextualization of the latter through time: in particular, through attention to gender, socio-political contexts, narrative style, and personal/collective trauma and memory of the First World War in French film. A wide range of filmmakers mobilized thematic and stylistic modes of expression to explore personal and collective memory of the war, creating texts that remain open to re-interpretation.
In the first instance, it is necessary simply to revisit and reassess many Great War narratives produced between the war years and the present day, some of which remain critically underappreciated. For instance, we bring renewed attention to Germaine Dulac’s use of newsreel footage in Le Cinéma au service de l’histoire (1935); the relationship between theatricality and power in Thomas l’imposteur (Georges Franju, 1965) and Le Roi de Coeur (Philippe de Broca, 1966); the dichotomy between physical and social space in Le Roi de Coeur; and how silenced, oppressed voices—forcibly conscripted colonial troops, members of the underprivileged social classes, and female victims of male violence—are represented in La victoire en chantant (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976), Capitaine Conan (Bertrand Tavernier, 1996), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004).
Of particular importance to our understanding of French cinema concerning World War I is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. Renoir’s film is a core concern for three particular reasons: firstly, it was made during the twentieth anniversary of the war, as Europe drifted inexorably towards another war whilst others clung desperately to a pacifist stance; secondly, Renoir himself had fought in the Great War, and stood as a living embodiment of post-war trauma; thirdly, and most interestingly, the film salutes fallen soldiers through its very portrayal of POWs and bereavement, but simultaneously challenges notions regarding commemoration through its dialogue and mise-en-scène. Because of the numerous stances embedded in Renoir’s complex narrative style, the extent to which the film alternately laments, commemorates and foreshadows war in a manner that demands reassessment.
In particular, a complex analysis of the narrative’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of gender, disability, and heroism can demonstrate how La Grande Illusion becomes a metaphor for the inherently problematic nature of commemoration. The context of the film’s production shows how certain elements of a filmmaker’s personal memory can enter into dialogue with collective memory, producing new reflective narratives that complement as well as challenge society’s exigencies.
We’ve edited our volume in order to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Great War. Its exploration of French cinema is timelier than ever since first-hand experiences of the war have now been definitively buried: Lazare Ponticelli, who lived to be 110 years old, was the last French poilu to die, on 12 March 2008; Harry Patch of the British Army, the last veteran to have served in the trenches, died on 25 July 2009 at the age of 111; and Claude Choules of the British Royal Navy died on 5 May 2011, aged 110. We aim to broach issues such as developments and deviations within the war film genre, the relationship between the war genre and aesthetic style and, on a broader level, the continued significance of World War I to contemporary French social, political, cultural and cinematic spheres throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Marcelline Block’s publications about cinema include World Film Locations: Paris (Intellect, 2011), Filmer Marseille (Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2013), and French Cinema in Close-up: La vie d’un acteur pour moi (Phaeton, 2015), which Library Journal named a Best Print Reference work of 2015.
Barry Nevin (BA, PhD) currently lectures on French and film studies at NUI Galway. His research on Jean Renoir’s La Chienne will be published in Urban Cultural Studies (Intellect) in March 2016, and his examination of Renoir’s pro-colonial propaganda will be published in Studies in French Cinema (Taylor & Francis) in July 2016.
Working my way through my most recent archival findings, it’s tempting to conclude that, in early-twentieth-century England, men’s visions for the future of higher education revolved entirely around conservative retrenchment, while women’s embraced exciting new progressive ideas including coeducation, curricular innovation, and education’s relation to international relations. To be sure, my sample size is small, my research as yet inconclusive; previous historians have done much to trace the transformation of liberally- and Liberally-minded academics in my period into publicintellectuals who pronounced on everything from social reform and imperial policy to the League of Nations.
Still, while schoolmaster-turned-Cambridge don Oscar Browning or American art collector-turned-Oxford benefactor Edward Perry Warren were working hard to defend the distinctly cloistered, masculine culture of the Oxbridge collegiate system, women’s educational community had grander and more outward-looking aims. Their vision marked a significant departure from that of men who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sought to use the residential college model and a broadly classical curriculum to inculcate morality and civic duty in their students. However idealistic some of these men might have been, their visions usually turned inward. By contrast, in a 1922 speech, the London English professor Caroline Spurgeon argued that an organization connecting university-educated women from around the world might prove a more successful vehicle for “international friendship” than the League of Nations (Caroline Spurgeon Papers, Royal Holloway PP7/6/3). I want briefly to tell the story of Spurgeon and some of the friends with whom she came to hold this belief—and to suggest, perhaps, a different account of early-twentieth-century elite higher education in Britain from the perspective that the Oxbridge men’s colleges offer.
Caroline Spurgeon, the daughter of an army captain, was born in India in 1869, and later went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and King’s College London. She received a doctorate in medieval literature from the Sorbonne in 1911. Margery Fry, born into a prominent Quaker family in 1874, read mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. Rose Sidgwick, born in 1877, was the daughter of a prominent progressive Oxford don; she attended Oxford High School for Girls and read history as an Oxford Home Student. Virginia Gildersleeve was also born in 1877, into a prominent New York family; she attended Brearley and Barnard, and did a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia. All four were “new” women: a generation who came of age in the 1890s, the first women for whom education opened doors to an independent, public life that would have been inconceivable to their mothers. They were committed to their fields of research, and to building institutions that could offer to women what university education had long offered to men—whether that meant residential colleges to rival Oxbridge and the Ivy League, or large coeducational institutions committed to offering a higher education in a wider variety of fields to anyone capable of doing the work.
For all this progress, most women who pursued a professional career were thereby making the choice not to marry. In her volume on women in British universities in this period, Carol Dyhouse offers the remarkable statistic that 79-85% of women academics at the turn of the century “remained lifelong spinsters” (161). Instead, women who worked in universities—like those in other professions, like social work, newly open to women—were emotionally sustained by the close friendships they formed with each other. Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry are a typical example: they met when teaching at Somerville College, Oxford early in their careers and became committed partners, moving together to Birmingham University in 1904 to start a residence hall for women there. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, speculate about whether a relationship like Fry’s and Sidgwick’s might have looked like what we would call “lesbian” today, the collection of Sidgwick’s letters and poems that Fry saved are a testament to the two women’s intimacy; ardent expressions of love from the 1900s give way to anxiety after Fry decided to join the Quaker ambulance corps on the Western Front in 1915. It’s difficult to do justice to this extraordinary collection of documents here. But through them it may be possible to tell a detailed and difficult story about the ways in which “new women” intermingled love and labor—of the kind which Seth Koven has begun to explore and which could benefit from more perspectives and forms of evidence.
As the higher education sector expanded, it became an important component of the cultural ties that intellectuals and politicians believed united the English-speaking world. As Tamson Pietsch has shown, universities were an important vector for communication across the settler empire; as early as 1902, Cecil Rhodes’s will evidences that the United States was imagined as part of this network as well. By the summer of 1918, when the end of the war was in sight and the British and American governments were both planning avidly for a new peacetime order, universities were part of their picture. The US Department of Defense invited the British Foreign Office to select a group of prominent British academics to tour US universities in a so-called “British Educational Mission,” a highly-publicized diplomatic event which would explore what higher education could contribute to a new Anglo-American alliance. The Foreign Office selected five men who were prominent in academic administration or in their research fields—and then, after these had already departed, they concluded that it was no longer appropriate for only men to participate in such an initiative. Hastily, they contacted Spurgeon and Fry, two of the more senior women then working in academia. Spurgeon, by then the first woman in Britain to achieve the rank of professor, accepted. Fry was exhausted from her wartime service and needed to care for an ailing father. She suggested that Sidgwick go in her stead.
Sidgwick and Spurgeon set sail for New York in September, 1918. They were hosted there by Virginia Gildersleeve, by now Dean of Barnard and a member of the reception committee. Barnard became their base as over the next four months they toured colleges across North America: from the Seven Sisters to the universities of Michigan and Texas, and—making a brief sojourn for the sake of imperial relations—McGill and Toronto in Canada. While their male colleagues reviewed ROTC parades, they collected information about the ways American women undergraduates lived (Sidgwick’s travel diary records her surprise that Americans were more independent and outspoken than English women students, if not as learned) and promoted the idea of scholarships to send American women to do graduate work in Britain. In her memoir, Gildersleeve recalled that she, Sidgwick, and Spurgeon were all sitting perched on trunks in a tiny New York hotel room when they conceived the idea of an International Federation of University Women (IFUW), a body that would work for international fellowship and cooperation. For Gildersleeve, that moment was also the start of a decades-long relationship with Spurgeon: in addition to working on the IFUW together, the two women bought a cottage at Alciston in Sussex, where they spent summers until Spurgeon retired to Arizona. In strikingly modern fashion, they contrived to spend sabbaticals at each other’s institutions. For Spurgeon and Gildersleeve, as for Fry and Sidgwick, their relationship was always intertwined with their common work, in medieval and early modern literature and in bringing international university women together.
Fry and Sidgwick would have no such future. In December 1918, Sidgwick was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital. She died just after Christmas, a casualty of the Spanish influenza epidemic. Gildersleeve organized the academic equivalent of a transatlantic state funeral: a High Anglican service in the chapel of the only university in the Thirteen Colonies to have been founded by royal charter, with the coffin draped in a Union Jack and pallbearers including the British ambassador and the presidents of Columbia, Yale, and NYU. Effusive eulogies were delivered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Gildersleeve later recalled that “I felt that she had died as truly in the service of her country as had the thousands of her young countrymen who had fallen on the fields of Flanders and of France” (Many a Good Crusade 130). The British Educational Mission might in retrospect seem parochial, but Sidgwick’s death makes clear just how entwined it was with large-scale questions of international diplomacy.
So too did Sidgwick’s death galvanize Spurgeon and Gildersleeve to follow through with founding the IFUW in her memory. One of the organization’s first actions was to create a scholarship for American women to study in the UK, named in memory of Sidgwick. A benefactor donated a house in Paris—a symbolic place due to being the location of the Peace Conference—to serve as an IFUW clubhouse. Annual conferences were held in cities around Europe. Papers of the IFUW Council record discussions about paths to education and careers for married women, research statements from women whose scholarships the IFUW sponsored, requests for official recognition from the League of Nations (the League declined to take action on the IFUW’s proposals). In speeches in the early ’20s promoting the IFUW to women’s groups around Britain, Spurgeon argued that international relations were not just for statesmen. They were something everyone could practice by joining organizations like the IFUW that could facilitate the formation of friendships across national borders—like, perhaps, the friendship she had found with Gildersleeve. Drawing on ideas about women’s role in politics popular in both the British and American suffrage movements (whose gains were still a novelty), she suggested that this kind of affective connection was women’s version of peacemaking, equivalent and no less important to what men pursued in Geneva. In some ways, she went a step further than seemed possible in Geneva in the early ’20s: her papers include a 1926 cutting from a German women’s magazine which celebrates her achievements alongside those of women scholars and researchers from the German-speaking countries (RHUL PP7/8/2).
Like the rest of the interwar internationalist moment, the IFUW never again enjoyed the intense burst of enthusiasm it had between about 1919 and 1926. Due to blockades, delegates were not able to make it to an IFUW conference in Copenhagen in 1939, and after the war they did not resume the habit. Like the branches of the League Secretariat absorbed into the UN, the American and British branches of the IFUW still offer scholarships—but they are dwarfed by other, higher-profile initiatives. Along with liberal internationalism, the postwar period saw the decline of women’s education as a separate enterprise to men’s, which embodied a different ethics and sense of social relations and at times a different curriculum. The Cold War Anglo-American alliance was cemented with new, coed scholarships like the Marshall and the Fulbright; that imperial holdover the Rhodes finally admitted women in 1977—around the same time as most Oxford and Cambridge men’s colleges. The conservative men who in the early twentieth century had tried to protect the distinctiveness of their own domain were no more successful than were the progressive women who sought to enrich theirs. But Gildersleeve’s, Sidgwick’s, Fry’s, and Spurgeon’s story is a way into a world we’ve lost: one of extraordinary idealism in which the idea, however zany, that friendships engendered between the women university graduates of the world could prevent another Great War, had real and urgent currency.