Gender in Early Medieval Europe

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Gender is an underlying structure of everyday life. Anthropological and archaeological studies of gender emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of issues raised by the feminist movement. Sociocultural anthropologists came to realize that women had been either subsumed in the study of "man" or simply ignored altogether. Thus, these new studies emphasized the presence of women in current and past cultures in order to correct for androcentric biases and the previous neglect of women. In the 1980s, with the understanding that women could not be the exclusive focus of research, the field of inquiry turned to gendered studies, dealing not only with women's roles and women's issues but also with the interaction of women and men in society. At the same time, an increasing trend toward alternative issues, such as queer studies, performance studies, and embodiment (particularly its focus on the corporeal aspects of the body), brought about more diverse viewpoints in the fields of archaeology and anthropology.

Archaeological research was somewhat slower than research in anthropology to get on the bandwagon, and early medieval research was slower still, although historical research on women and gender flourished for the later medieval periods, which had plentiful documentary evidence. The seminal publication of Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector's 1984 work on gender and archaeology was followed by a number of studies focused on trying to find women in the archaeological record, often through differentiation of labor. Spurred by the development of new theoretical perspectives within the framework of post-processual archaeology, the 1990s saw an increased focus on gender rather than women, but a truly unbiased outlook has been difficult to come by. Masculinist as well as feminist perspectives are needed to produce a holistic interpretation of past lives because women cannot be investigated to the exclusion of men. There are also many archaeologists who believe that gender is not something that must be dealt with in a research design. This attitude seems a bit odd, given that in Western society, and indeed any known society, differentiation between sexes and genders are critical components of social, political, and economic activity and of culture and knowledge.

Although it is agreed that gender is culturally constructed and sex is biologically determined, some scholars consider that the concept of a biological distinction between male and female also has a cultural component that guides the outward expression of biological sex. For the purposes of this discussion, however, sex will refer to the biological aspects of the body, whereas gender will refer to the expression of the individual culturally. Biological sex is determined by two chromosomes, X and Y. Normally, a female has two X chromosomes and a male has an X and a Y chromosome. In rare instances, biological sex may not fall within a standard XX or XY chromosomal pattern, or the phenotypic (outward) appearance may not match the genetic designation. There may be a chromosomal designation, such as XXX or XXY, or a situation where an XX fetus is exposed to male hormones in the womb, which can result in the individual having male genitalia. In such a case, the biological sex of an individual does not fit within the norm and may not correspond with the expected gender.

In addition, work in anthropology has demonstrated that most gender systems are not dualistic; that is, there may be a category of individuals in a society who take on a cultural role that differs from the expected role. So while the typical masculine and feminine genders are in the majority, there may be instances where those who do not fit within the expected social identity create other genders, or other identities are created for them. Although it may be difficult to accept that there is, and has been in the past, a multiplicity of genders, it seems likely that gender identities lie on a spectrum of existence rather than existing as discrete categories. Given that biological sex does not always fall into distinct and identifiable categories, it is logical to assume that genders would be just as variable, if not more so.

social identity in burial contexts

Gender cannot be analyzed to the exclusion of other aspects of identity or its role in determining societal structures. Gender is inextricably linked with age, status, and power. The complexity of a society may also affect the way in which gender is expressed. The more complex and hierarchical a society is, the more positions within the society are more rigidly defined, and so men's and women's roles may be highly circumscribed.

Status. Understanding the gender structure of past societies seems to be easiest to analyze in a burial context. Burials contain not only bodies, which can give information about health, but often material culture in the form of grave goods. In addition, the landscape of a cemetery (such as where burials are in relation to others and the location of a cemetery within the local topography) may give important clues to a community's view of social identity. It is possible that the spatial relationships of burials to other burials and to the landscape reinforces social hierarchies and social differences within a community. Post-processual and social theory approaches have led to the realization that the social identity of an individual (including gender, status, and power) is not directly reflected through the burial because the individual's representation in death is formed through others in the society who perform the preparation for burial and administer the burial. However, the social structure of a society may be echoed in some form through the representation of its members in death, and so it provides us with many clues that can help to reconstruct it.

Gender in early medieval society has only since the 1990s been approached using archaeological methods and almost exclusively in a burial context. Most information specifically regarding the role and position of women during this period has come through textual information, such as laws, although these often have more to do with women possessing a certain amount of wealth or status. Documentary evidence, such as wills, reveals that medieval women could hold and distribute property, but it is not known if this was common through all social classes. The laws of Aethelbert of Kent, from the seventh century, indicate that women had a number of rights. According to these laws, prospective husbands had to pay a dowry (morgengifu), but it went to the bride herself, not her family. This money or property was then hers to do with as she wished. The seventh-century laws of Wihtred of Kent said that a woman was not financially responsible for her husband's crimes if she had no knowledge of them. However, if she participated in any crimes herself, she would have to give up her money and property. Sixth-century Frankish laws only sometimes mention women; they do so in reference to marriage and to criminal activities by women and against women.

Where documentary evidence is scarce or non-existent, trying to determine such rights through archaeological means can be difficult. The analysis of grave contents shows that the things buried with men and women varied between and among them. Women were often buried with as much wealth as men were, but whether or not the items in a woman's grave were hers during her lifetime or were bestowed upon her in death cannot be known. The same can be held true for men, however.

Other issues with the archaeological analysis of burials stem from assessing the sex and gender of the buried individuals. Traditional thinking, particularly in Continental and British archaeology, has held that weapons found in a grave indicate a male, and jewelry indicates a female. When osteological analysis of a skeleton has disagreed with the material culture found in the grave, the osteological sexing has generally been held to have been wrong. However, there is increasing evidence for occasional aberrations from the normal patterns of mortuary goods. Nevertheless, if a female skeleton has an accompanying weapon, it does not necessarily indicate that the woman actually fought with it. Indeed, Heinrich Härke believes that, even in male graves, the presence of weapons is more likely an indicator of status, power, ethnicity, or all of these. A woman might have been buried with a weapon (most likely a spear) as a mark of her own status in the community, or perhaps the weapon indicates her associated status as the wife or mother of a local chief.

Age. Age, too, might factor heavily in the gender specificity of certain items. Age is closely linked with gender identity. In some cultures, gender has a certain amount of fluidity through the life cycle. There is some evidence for the elderly no longer having such a rigid gender dichotomy in terms of mortuary material culture. Guy Halsall's study of sixth-century Merovingian cemeteries showed that older people tended to have non-gender-specific artifacts, as did children for the most part. A similar practice may be found at early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, where older male skeletons appear to be buried with very specific female-type artifacts (annular brooches) at certain cemeteries.

Few archaeological assessments of gender include childhood as a focus of interest, mainly because it is difficult to sex juvenile skeletons and hard to find gendered material culture associated with children. DNA analysis has been used to sex children in an Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery, but no gendered patterning in their grave goods was seen. There appear to be no items that are exclusive to children's graves in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. In addition, it is often difficult to delineate the period of childhood within a culture, particularly if no evidence of a rite of passage to adulthood can be ascertained. In a burial context, children are often identified as male or female if their grave goods fall within the standard typology of weapons or jewelry. Most often, however, children are buried with very little, although there are numerous examples of very lavish children's graves in Anglo-Saxon England. Knives, which are one of the most common items in both adult's and children's graves, do not follow any gendered pattern.

other sources of evidence

Osteological analysis, although sometimes unreliable in sexing poorly preserved skeletons, can give other indicators, such as general health, disease, or trauma suffered during an individual's lifetime. In some cultures these may differ among men and women. Wear indicators on bones have been used to identify possible occupations. Dental anomalies (enamel hypoplasia) caused by poor nutrition can demonstrate differences in access to food. Research in pre-Inca and Inca period Peru using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of male and female skeletons has shown that women and men had similar and then differential access to foods in those periods. Lead and oxygen isotope analysis is being used to try to differentiate the geographical origins of Early Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain and possibly determine whether or not males and females had different patterns of emigration.

When skeletons are poorly preserved, making osteological sexing difficult, DNA analysis can be used to determine biological sex. This technique has been used to look at issues of gender within the social structure of an Early Anglo-Saxon society at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire, where a fifth- to seventh-century settlement and cemetery were excavated by Dominic Powlesland and Christine Haughton. DNA analysis was done to learn the biological sex of forty-two individuals, and the results were then compared with the gender suggested by the grave goods of each individual. In addition, age, status, and particulars of the burial, such as the position of the body in the grave, were observed in order to produce a representation of the social identity of that person. The majority of skeletons that were determined to be biologically female were buried with jewelry, and the majority of biological males had weapons or no gender-specific goods. Because females tended to be buried with more types of gender-specific items, such as brooches and beads, it was perhaps easier to "see" them, but aside from weapons, which are not common, there were few other male-type goods. However, there were exceptions to the normal pattern. Of the twenty-four individuals buried with at least a spear, three were identified as female through DNA analysis. Another individual, of about eighteen, was found with amulets and jewelry and could not be osteologically sexed. DNA analysis identified him as male, although the grave goods indicate a female; it is possible that he was a spiritual figure within the community. With limited knowledge of the way religious beliefs played out in society before Christianity set in, archaeologists can only surmise the nature of shamanlike roles within communities. Burials found with amulets and other potentially symbolic goods may have signaled that the person buried there played a role as a healer or priest. Tania Dickinson labeled a woman found in one such early Saxon burial as a "cunning woman," a practicer of magic, healing, and divination.

It has been difficult to obtain evidence of gender structures from the archaeological analysis of settlements. Some cultures tend to have distinct segregation of work areas by men and women, and some do not. Some of the easiest gendered artifacts to see from the early medieval period are items having to do with textile production, such as needles and spindle whorls, which are doughnut-shaped objects used as weights when weaving. These are found in graves but are also found in domestic areas. In early medieval Ireland, the presence of these items in household areas indicates that a woman's area of work was directly involved with the home and that this may have been the place where women developed their own social networks. Evidence for gendering food production or food preparation is scarce, both textually and archaeologically. Later Anglo-Saxon texts indicate that lower-status women would have participated in such tasks. In rural farming villages, women would certainly have had to perform these duties, and whetstones are sometimes found in female graves.

Gender is critical to understanding the social structures of past societies. The place of women relative to men in early medieval society has been gleaned mainly from textual sources. These sources have many limitations, but these may now be remedied through archaeological and molecular approaches of study. A critical archaeological analysis of the ways in which gender structured early medieval societies needs to be taken up by researchers. Although there cannot be conclusions that cut across all cultures, at least in some societies women appear to have had a number of rights, many equal to those of men. Yet the ways in which power and status were visibly demonstrated varied between men and women, so one must recognize what these differences mean. One also sees evidence for individuals who did not fit within a conventional gender role. There is still much to be done with regard to understanding how these people negotiated their positions in society, but the first step is acknowledging the complexities of social identity in the past.

See alsoGender (vol. 1, part 1).


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Gender in Early Medieval Europe

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