Monday, 18 June 2012

Aldhelm and A Confederacy of Idiots

Anglo-Saxon religious manuals don't often feature on the pages of the Daily Mail, but today I read this article:

The only way is no sex: Book of advice from 1,300 years ago shows even then the church had concerns about 'untamed impulses of bodily wantonness' among Essex girls

Essex girls don't exactly have a reputation for being paragons of virtue - and it seems 1,300 years ago that was no different.

A book of advice issued to nuns in the 7th century has revealed that even then the church had concerns about their conduct.

The book shows a senior cleric's disgust at the amount of flesh the nuns of Barking Abbey put on show and their relationship with the opposite sex.

It warns the congregation to dress appropriately and to avoid garments which 'set off' the body before giving a series of pointers to the girls on the benefits of virginity and how to avoid the sin of pride.
The author of De Laude Virginitatis [In Praise of Virginity] is the Anglo-Saxon cleric Aldhelm, who goes on to say he is ashamed of the nuns' 'bold impudence' and 'stupidity'.

He tells the nuns that abstinence from sex is not enough - their 'stainlessness of bodily virginity' must be accompanied by a 'chastity of the spirit' if they are to avoid the 'untamed impulses of bodily wantonness'.

Sigh. The actual news story buried among all the nonsense is that Sotheby's is selling four pages from a manuscript of De Laude Virginitatis, a Latin text written in the seventh century for the nuns of Barking by Aldhelm, one of the greatest scholars Anglo-Saxon England ever produced. It goes without saying, I hope, that there is no substance whatsoever to the 'sexy nuns' interpretation put on this story by both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and international news outlets who have subsequently copied them (large parts of the Mail and Telegraph stories are word-for-word identical, so either one of them is copying and pasting from the other, or else they both plagarized the same source without giving credit; nice to see the very highest journalistic standards at work here).

So let's deal with the facts quickly: is Aldhelm's text a 'rule-book' telling the nuns not to dress so sexily? Of course it isn't. That's insulting to Aldhelm, to the nuns of Barking, and to the intelligence of us all. It's not a rule-book or a rant, but a treatise written in praise of the principle of virginity, addressed to women who had already made vows of chastity - standard Christian doctrine and practice, then and now. Aldhelm explains why virginity is valued by the Church; he cites examples from the lives of saints; he considers the dangers of sexual misbehaviour, including immodest dress, to society and the individual soul. He's not lecturing; the nuns doubtless already agreed with him, as would every orthodox Christian from the seventh century until this day.

But this would not make for a story in the Daily Mail. In fact, auctions of medieval manuscripts are not very headline-worthy, and so I can only assume it was someone at Sotheby's who decided 'No sexy outfits for nuns' was a good spin to put on the story, and one which would get them some publicity. The journalists reporting the story demonstrate remarkable shallowness of mind, but idiotic and insulting as the 'Essex girls' twist is, the real distortion here comes from the person who fed the quotes from Aldhelm to the press. Someone knew Aldhelm's work well enough to quote it and describe him, but thought it was OK to misrepresent him and the nature of the text. I hope I'm not alone in finding that reprehensible.

Presumably that person wasn't Timothy Bolton, who is quoted in the article doing his valiant best to explain the facts in a way which is both interesting and, you know, accurate:

Timothy Bolton, a specialist in western medieval manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said: “Aldhelm’s work is remarkable because there simply aren’t any texts by English authors addressed to women before this.
"He expects the nuns to study and understand his sophisticated writings, raising the bar of education for women to the same level of men, becoming the first English feminist author.”

To anyone with a scrap of intellectual curiosity, this is far more intriguing than the newspapers' version. The truth is always better than a cliche! To call Aldhelm 'the first English feminist author' is a tiny bit of a stretch, but yes, it is remarkable that in seventh-century England a group of nuns could be expected to understand Aldhelm's difficult Latin. Aldhelm was a great scholar (one might estimate his brain-power at approximately 60 Daily Mail journalists): he knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew and wrote poetry and prose of astonishing complexity, and the subjects he is known to have studied (at Canterbury in 670-3) included Roman law, the 100 different types of poetic metre, the technicalities of marrying verse with chant, mathematical calculation and astronomy.* Can you do any of that stuff? I can't. And this is in seventh-century England, an era most people still call the Dark Ages, and in a period when only a tiny minority of people could read or write.

(*Unlike professional journalists, I cite my sources: Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury: Christ Church from 597 to 1066 (Leicester, 1984), pp.94-7).

That a scholar like Aldhelm was writing for the nuns of Barking is a great compliment to their intelligence. Anglo-Saxon nunneries were powerhouses of women's education: they fostered the education of women to an extent that was impossible in lay society, and to be a nun was to have opportunities for learning which were not to become available to most women for centuries. St Hilda is one excellent example of a woman widely respected for her learning and wisdom, and there are numerous others. What makes the 'Essex girl nuns' thing especially galling is that Barking Abbey had a particularly strong tradition of educated women throughout the medieval period: the nuns not only formed a responsive audience for sophisticated authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin but several nuns, in the post-Conquest period, composed their own poetry and prose, making them some of the earliest known female authors in England. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has described Barking as "perhaps the longest-lived, albeit not continuously recorded, institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history". Representing these nuns as a bunch of provocatively-dressed Essex girls is kind of sickening, actually. Who is denigrating women here - Aldhelm, who believed the women of Barking could appreciate a learned Latin treatise, or the twenty-first century media, who are only interested in the fact that he was talking to nuns about sex?

I wasn't originally going to post about this story, since my first thought when I read it was 'What do you expect from the Daily Mail?' (I did once expect better from the Telegraph, but its online edition is getting dumber by the day). I shrugged and moved on, but then I had second thoughts. A story like this goes around the internet, and people comment on it, and blog about it (under titles like 'Medieval dress code for nuns put up for auction', as if that's all it is!), and base arguments about the Church on it which are entirely inaccurate - because the basic premise is distorted. Does it matter? I think so. Remember that stupid pyjamas story I blogged about last month? That was based entirely on a misrepresentation of the situation, and contributed to a public view of Oxford that is false and damaging. The misrepresentation could have been easily corrected (yes, reader from a Daily Mail IP address, I saw you reading my blogpost half an hour before you posted your inaccurate rubbish), but it wasn't, despite the college's efforts, and the lie is more memorable than the truth. But the truth should at least be out there on the internet for someone to discover.

The public perception of medieval religion is, in general, mind-blowingly ignorant and inaccurate. A story like this plays into an utterly false narrative about the medieval Church's oppressive treatment of women, while also encouraging the objectification of nuns in a way that is repulsively sexist - and is, in fact, a wholly modern phenomenon (look at this treatment of the story, if you can bear it). The journalists churning out their stories should know better, but the really shocking behaviour here is that of the person who allowed this - encouraged it, even - by presenting the text to the media as a 'dress code for slutty nuns'.

This kind of thing is exactly how public engagement in academia should not be done. I'm all for promoting public knowledge of medieval literature; I think it's vital precisely in order to counter the widespread ignorance this story exemplifies. But if you do it in this way, by distorting the truth and encouraging sloppy mischaracterisations of the facts, you're doing everyone a disservice. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had never heard of Aldhelm now have an impression of him as a woman-hating slut-shamer, and think that the educated nuns of Barking were a bunch of promiscuous Essex girls who had to be lectured about their trashy behaviour. That's disgraceful.

Let me finish by quoting what a nun of Barking wrote, a few centuries after Aldhelm's death, in the introduction to a text she herself translated from Latin into Anglo-Norman (she is Clemence, arguably the first known woman author from England):

All those who know and understand what is good have a duty to demonstrate it wisely.

Every scholar should take this to heart. If you're lucky enough to have studied something really interesting, and you want to tell people about it, you have a duty to do so wisely, accurately, and honestly. You have no right to distort the truth for the purpose of getting headlines and hits in the Daily Mail, and if you do, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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