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  • Starkey and female historians (part 1)


    by Rumbold
    8th April, 2009 at 12:01 pm    

    Recently, David Starkey accused female historians of having ‘feminised’ the subject:

    “”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. Unhappy marriages are big box office.”"

    This was in relation to his view that undue prominence had been given to Henry VIII’s wives; he also felt that women shouldn’t be considered as “power players” in pre-20th century Europe. There is a lot wrong with what Starkey said, and how he said it.

    Firstly, there is the assertion that female historians have somehow distorted the subject by writing about women, because there is no way that women could be “power players” (what an ugly term) in their own right. To be nice to Starkey, let’s examine a short period of time (the 16th century- his main period), and confine our analysis to three countries; England, Scotland and France. Oh dear. England had two queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I, ruling in their own right. Scotland had Mary (Queen of Scots), while in France, the most powerful individual for much of the second half of the 16th century was a woman, Catherine de Medici. Other women also wielded plenty of power, from the matriarch of the Guise noble family in France, to Mary of Guise in Scotland, to Anne Boleyn in England. These examples only represent a small number of the total. Thus, Starkey’s comments at best demonstrate a deep ignorance of the history of Europe, and at worst a deliberate attempt to malign female historians for the sake of it.

    Secondly, there is the suggestion that female historians tend to concentrate on people and events that will impress other women, and boost their sales. Let’s take a look at Starkey’s old alma mater, Cambridge, to see if any female historians there write anything other than fluffy pieces. There are plenty of female historians in the faculty, but I picked three at random; Drs. Anna Sapir Abulafia and Betty Wood, and Professor Rosamond McKitterick. Dr. Abulafia offers us clearly girly works like Christians and Jews in Dispute: Disputational Literature and the Rise of Anti-Judaism in the West (c. 1000-1150). Dr. Wood can only manage efforts like The Origins of American Slavery: The English Colonies, 1607-1700, while Professor McKitterick, one of the world’s leading experts on the Frankish kingdoms, has the chick-lit The Frankish Church and the Carolingian reforms, 789-895 on display. Now, once again, these women represent a small proportion of female historians at one university alone (albeit one considered to have the best history faculty in the world). There are hundreds more professional female historians working on important topics and producing valuable research. So, like his comments about “power players”, Starkey is either guilty of ignorance or malice when he attacks female historians.

    Tomorrow I will look at why Starkey behaves the way he does.


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    Filed in: History,Sex equality






    32 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs
    1. pickles

      New blog post: Starkey and female historians (part 1) http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/4110


    2. Starkey and female historians (part 1) | Free Political Forum

      [...] Original post by Rumbold [...]


    3. Britblog Roundup No 217 - Philobiblon

      [...] into the arts and humanities side, on Pickled Politics Rumbold tears into David Starkey’s views on the insignificance of women in the 16th century. Elizabeth I anyone? (Actually imagining Starkey in that court is quite fun - somehow I don’t [...]




    1. The Common Humanist — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:06 pm  

      Couple of three word sequences:
      Eleanor of Aquitaine

      Catherine the Great

      Ahh you’ve done Catherine De Medici.

      I like Starkey but he is off the reservation with those comments.

      “Thus, Starkey’s comments at best demonstrate a deep ignorance of the history of Europe, and at worst a deliberate attempt to malign female historians for the sake of it”

      It is the latter I suspect. Not good all round.

      Rumbold…..lets have more history stuff….please!!!

    2. Rumbold — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:10 pm  

      Thanks TCH. I hope you will enjoy my take on TV historians tomorrow.

    3. Jaime — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:19 pm  

      I thought the point he was trying to make was that, whilst there are women ‘power players’ in history, you can’t re-write every historical event so that women are shown as having power?

      (Although I’ll have to watch it to decide if that’s right or if he’s just being a prick)

    4. The Common Humanist — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:26 pm  

      Rumbold
      looking forward to it.
      I suspect we share a similar anorak regarding history?

    5. chairwoman — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:27 pm  

      Although I find Starkey quite amusing, he has a very Lancastrian view of the Tudors (Red Rose good White Rose bad).

      I stopped taking him seriously when he started damning that excellent Yorkist king and law-maker, much loved by the serfs-in-the-lane who knew him, Richard III, and portraying him as the evil nephew slayer he probably wasn’t (as made popular by Sir Thomas More and W S Shakespeare).

    6. Golam Murtaza — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:34 pm  

      Nice one Rumbold. Another no nonsense female historian from Cambridge University (New Hall) is Christine Carpenter, who specialises in late medieval England. She could eat Starkey for breakfast and ask for seconds.

    7. soru — on 8th April, 2009 at 12:40 pm  

      The chances of Starkey being unaware of the existence of Queen Elizabeth have to be fairly small.

    8. fugstar — on 8th April, 2009 at 2:55 pm  

      not sure why dick starkey should even matter….

    9. halima — on 8th April, 2009 at 3:08 pm  

      Well it’s clear David Starkey stopped taking his day job seriously a long time ago … and right now, he’s putting out controversial statements to publicise his work in the hope that it will create a media storm ….

    10. fugstar — on 8th April, 2009 at 3:59 pm  

      and they are complying according to the script… still a good idea to headline female historians…

    11. halima — on 8th April, 2009 at 4:20 pm  

      Fugstar.. true, there’s a positive side to this …

    12. Rumbold — on 8th April, 2009 at 4:46 pm  

      Jaime:

      I don’t think so. He said that a history of Europe was a history of white males.

      TCH:

      Yes- we are both historical anoraks, as are many others on this site (especially Jai).

      Golam:

      Agreed. I could have picked out well over a dozen female historians from Cambridge alone who could eat Starkey for breakfast.

    13. Katy Newton — on 8th April, 2009 at 10:53 pm  

      Oh, Starkey. He’s a publicity-sucking fool, as this sort of wildly inaccurate announcement demonstrates. You’d think he’d never heard of Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville, Cicily Duchess of York, Margaret Tudor in the Wars of the Roses - strong women and key players. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were both key players in the development of Protestantism in the UK as well as fostering art and culture in their courts. Any number of medieval to 18th century French royal mistresses who influenced political events as well as again being central to art, literature and culture. Not to mention archives like the Lisle Letters and the Paston Letters, both of which contain various examples of strong matriarchal women who ran vast households like clockwork and regularly were asked for and volunteered their opinion on work and politically-related matters to their husbands. And a huge amount of further examples that I can’t be bothered to list. Feminisation of history, my arse.

    14. Roger — on 9th April, 2009 at 6:05 am  

      ” He said that a history of Europe was a history of white males.”
      So it is, as Starkey defines and writes history, with very few exceptions.

      Women weren’t “power players” for most of European history because they weren’t allowed to be. One reason Henry VIII was so obsessed with having a son was that he didn’t think a woman would be allowed to reign in peace. The examples Rumbold gives- Mary I and Elizabeth I, Mary (Queen of Scots), Catherine de Medici, Mary of Guise and Anne Boleyn- help confirm Starkey’s claim. Only Elizabeth was a successful long-term “power player” in her own right and all of them were in the positions they were because of whose daughter, mother or wife they were. There could not be female equivalents of William Cecil or Martin Luther or Hernando Cortes- people who rose from obscurity and became “power players” by their abilities and fortune.
      There are two attitudes to history. Starkey’s, which accepts these facts as a given and works from there, and one which looks at what the effects of those and comparable facts were and how people tried to get round tham.

    15. justforfun — on 9th April, 2009 at 8:32 am  

      Oh dear.

      My specialist age is 1965 to the present day.

      Margaret Thatcher …… er Margaret Beckett….. er … Shirley Williams …… er struggling here - help me out someone ……

      Jackie Smith , Jade Goody, Madonna?

      If our present day shows few women in positions of power , so why for goodness sake do you think the 16th century was any different?

      I think David Starcky has a point.

      Reading only the Telegraph article I can’t see the point your making Rumbold. You distort the points he makes.

      However that does not mean that history has not been masculinized over the centuries. Bronze age, Iron age, Steam Age …. get my meaning - good manly Ages? Can anyone tell me when textiles first became available? Its perceived a feminine subject, but was probably the greatest driver of the human expansion ,after fire. Inventor of textiles - probably a woman.

      … it is simply saying that our new world has its own set of prejudices, its set of distinctive lenses, and we need to be aware of them.”

      History has been used to promote an agenda and we should be aware of it. It is all around us.

      … very true. There is an agenda behind all written history. We should question everything that has been handed down by previous historians, but also be aware present day historians are also trying to peddle their own take on life. Few dare to break the mould with genuine insights into the past that make us re-evaluate the present order and our route to the present day. Most historians just pamper to our own ‘ancestor worship’ and try and make us feel we are part of god ordained narrative that is worth continuing to kill to preserve.

      Unfortunately, humans are hard wired to ‘ancestor worship’ and most religions are based on it. We improve our self esteem by thinking we have good ancestors, rather than doing good ourselves. Its just alot easier. Anything for any easy life. I know - I do it myself.

      But Starckey is right.
      “It is a great impertinence to impose our values on the past. It instantly reduces the people of the past from real people to mere straw men and women in our struggles.”

      Where in the article is he wrong?

      justforfun

      http://www.bettanyhughes.co.uk/ - Her series on the Spartans was strangly stirring - her next to all those nude Greek statues of men :-) - I had to watch on my own.

    16. The Common Humanist — on 9th April, 2009 at 8:59 am  

      “”” He said that a history of Europe was a history of white males.”
      So it is, as Starkey defines and writes history, with very few exceptions”"

      That is simply not the case at all. You can say that the majority, by a margin, of power players (oooohhh the macho penis references they do flow) were men but to take Rogers view and Starkeys is to make a similar mistake to the one they accuse a number of female historians of.

      Starkey is feeling his age, has a series out and book sales to think about……..

      Personally, lets not paint our values on the past but to extrapolate that to a wholly masculine view of history is both dangerous and myopic.

    17. Sofia — on 9th April, 2009 at 9:53 am  

      love this Rumbold! I feel like i’m back in my history class…good stuff

    18. Rumbold — on 9th April, 2009 at 9:57 am  

      Roger and Justforfun:

      Starkey is wrong. Yes, as TCH says, white males were on average more influential than white females, but it is such a general assertion that it is rendered pointless. You cannot have a proper history of Europe without looking at important female “power players”. To attempt to claim anything else is downright bizarre. It is like writing a history of science, but only referring to advances made by British scientists.

      Roger:

      ”All of them were in the positions they were because of whose daughter, mother or wife they were. There could not be female equivalents of William Cecil or Martin Luther or Hernando Cortes- people who rose from obscurity and became “power players” by their abilities and fortune.”

      I think that is too simplistic. Yes, most powerful women owed their position to being a wife, mother or daughter of someone, but they remained “power players” because of their own actions. Look at Catherine de Medici. Moreover, many powerful men owed their position to a relation, rather than their own merit, with a king being an obvious example.

      However, let’s accept your assertion. What does it matter in determine their import? History isn’t about assigning praise to a person for rising up in the world on their own merit, but rather assessing the impact they had.

      Justforfun:

      ”Reading only the Telegraph article I can’t see the point your making Rumbold. You distort the points he makes.”

      I really don’t think that I do. Starkey clearly says: “If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

      So he states that a ‘proper’ history of Europe excludes anyone who is not white and male. Which is demonstrably false.

      Starkey himself imposes his own values on the past, by dismissing women because he doesn’t like them. I agree that some female/feminist historians have an agenda, which we should be aware of. So do plenty of other historians, whether it is to push a particular interpretation of history (such as the Marxist emphasis on economics), or highlight a person or group whom they feel has been neglected.

      Ultimately history is about shining a light on the past so we can understand how we got here, without condemning or condoning it.

      Thanks Sofia.

    19. Jai — on 9th April, 2009 at 10:45 am  

      “If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

      A more accurate description would have been “…..predominantly a history of white males….”

      There were obviously exceptions on both the “white” and “male” fronts, and the former becomes particularly blurred in some areas when you start talking about the classical worlds, especially the regions around or (fairly) near the Mediterranean, due to the historical contact with neighbouring non-European peoples and in some cases the subsequent influx and intermingling involved.

      As for the “male” angle, again that’s correct in the sense of a disproportionate number of power players being men, but there are also numerous exceptions as has already been stated (Elisabeth I etc).

      On both fronts, Starkey is making a huge generalisation and is also being somewhat myopic (I see that TCH has also made the same observation).

      It would be like someone saying “The history of the subcontinent during the past millennium is a history of male Muslims” and “the history of the subcontinent before that is a history of male Hindus”, in both cases neglecting to take into consideration the various exceptions and nuances which are required in order to describe a much more accurate picture of events.

    20. justforfun — on 9th April, 2009 at 1:59 pm  

      Rumbold
      Starkey himself imposes his own values on the past, by dismissing women because he doesn’t like them. If you say so. You obviously know him better than me or are you just reading his PR.

      Jai & Rumbold - Starkey is talking in generalities. What makes you think he isn’t?

      If you want to think he isn’t to make your point, then everything is up for grabs as there are not enough words wriiten or the time to read them to get every nuance you seem to want.

      “The history of the subcontinent during the past millennium is a history of male Muslims” and “the history of the subcontinent before that is a history of male Hindus” WORD COUNT = 29.

      Jai - In 29 words I think you have done a pretty good job of summarizing 1000 years off Indian history. Other people could perhaps come up with better in 29 words but its a good start.

      Perhaps we ought to have a PP Haiku history competition -

      16th England

      or

      India in the last 1000 years

      - my money is on Soru or Kismet coming up with the goods.

      I think Starkey is doing the same - summary , distillation, generality , broad brush etc etc.

      What makes you think 16th C England was not a white male dominated world? Apart from a bit of a tan, does anything make you think that a Talib would not feal right at home there - all those religious squabbles, heretics, schisms, boys on the side, women traded and kept at home etc. They’d be like pigs in shit in 16th century England :-)

      justforfun

    21. Rumbold — on 9th April, 2009 at 8:24 pm  

      Justforfun:

      But even if Starkey is talking in very vague generalities, that is not something to be defending. The diea that history can be boiled down into such a state is idiotic.

      I think the Talib might be more at home in 16th century France, or 17th century England- all that fire n’ brimstone and whatnot.

    22. Ingrid — on 9th April, 2009 at 8:32 pm  

      Good post. There is no reason to think that female historians write to satisfy women, such a generalisation is quite an insult.

      Also, while historically, the actual power players have been mostly male, surely their influences should be studied as well? What says that mothers, wives and female siblings haven’t played an important role?
      Focusing merely on the decision-makers seems a bit simplistic.

    23. Roger — on 9th April, 2009 at 10:34 pm  

      ““”” He said that a history of Europe was a history of white males.”
      So it is, as Starkey defines and writes history, with very few exceptions””

      That is simply not the case at all. You can say that the majority, by a margin, of power players (oooohhh the macho penis references they do flow) were men but to take Rogers view and Starkeys is to make a similar mistake to the one they accuse a number of female historians of.”- Common Humanist

      ” many powerful men owed their position to a relation, rather than their own merit, with a king being an obvious example.”- Rumbold

      I ma it plain, Common Humanist, if you had even read the second sentence you quote, that that is Starkey’s definition, not mine. European society- with its emphasis on male inheritance, the restrictions it imposed on women, the distrust of women inspired especially by christianity- made sure that there were many more men in positions of power through inheritance, made it very difficult for women to have any part in public life and made sure that there were far fewer opportunities for women to achieve anything. Compare Virginia Woolf’s famous example of Shakespeare’s sister with Starkey’s attitude. In European history up to the twentieth century how many women were able to gain power or influence through their own abilities? Very few; that is why we remember the ones who did like Jeanne D’Arc. As I said, Starkey with his view of history as “the outstretched shadow of a man” accepts that as a basis. I think- among other things that its causes and effects are interesting topics for historical study.

      It’s an old historical attitude. This poem, by A. D. Hope shows why I think it’s an attitude that deserves to be studied as part of history:

      Advice to Young Ladies

      A.U.C. 334: about this date,
      For a sexual misdemeanour which she denied,
      The vestal virgin Postumia was tried;
      Livy records it among affairs of state.

      They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
      The charge arose because some thought her talk
      Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
      Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.

      The Pontifex Maximus, summing up the case,
      Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
      To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
      She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.

      What then? With her the annalist is less
      Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
      Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare-
      I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,

      Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
      To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
      A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
      Had fair trial, then they buried her alive;

      Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark;
      A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
      Preserved the body they did not wish to die
      Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.

      How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
      Spirited girls who would not know their place,
      Talented girls who found that the disgrace
      Of being a woman made genius a crime.

      How many others, who would not kiss the rod,
      Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
      Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
      Husbands, St. Paul declared, rank next to God.

      Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
      That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
      Tacitus, writing after both had died,
      Showed that whole fabric rotten, through and through.

      Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
      Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
      From great defects of policy - perhaps
      The cause is sometimes simpler than they think.

      It may not seem so grave an act to break
      Postumia’s spirit as Galileo’s, to gag
      Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
      Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.

      Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
      For having shackled the enquiring mind,
      Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
      Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?

    24. justforfun — on 10th April, 2009 at 8:27 am  

      “The diea that history can be boiled down into such a state is idiotic.” I quite agree

      But sometimes there is not enough space to write it all in one go. Exam papers for example - from GCSE up to even doctoral level submittions. But even then one has to edit, but sometimes I think the opposite and people pack out their work with garbage and verbage.

      Why have you split your post into two parts for example? I presume because you felt that to say all you wanted to say in one post would be too much for us - I hope you are not dumbing down for us :-) .

      Same with the newspaper interview - He was probably only quoted for the juicy bits to create an interest.

      Journalists play to his persona - “The rudest man in Britain”. A pity he is not on the moral maze anymore - his point of view was alway worth considering.

      justforfun

    25. Jai — on 11th April, 2009 at 10:48 am  

      Jai - In 29 words I think you have done a pretty good job of summarizing 1000 years off Indian history.

      That’s the point — it doesn’t summarise it effectively at all, it just mentions the predominant power. There’s a massive chunk of Hindu and (in the north) Sikh history which was involved during that period too, and that’s before we even get to the more recent colonial period.

      The same applies to Indian history before the last 1000 years, for example the Buddhist period, or the Greek influences in the north (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Greek_Kingdom ) or the Kushan Empire (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kushan_Empire ).

    26. Rumbold — on 11th April, 2009 at 3:12 pm  

      Roger and Justforfun:

      Once again, we are not trying to deny that men had more of an impact on European history then women. But it is such a pointless generalisation. Thousands of postgraduate historians graduate every year, which means that vast multitudes of topics can be studied. Starkey seems to resent anyone who studies what he deems unimportant.

      Justforfun:

      Heh. I only split the post because I hadn’t written the second bit at that point.

    27. Odile — on 11th April, 2009 at 5:40 pm  

      The study of history as a list of biographies of white powerful males is so last century…

    28. Roger — on 11th April, 2009 at 7:39 pm  

      “we are not trying to deny that men had more of an impact on European history then women. But it is such a pointless generalisation. ”

      NO it isn’t. For one thing it isn’t true. Men had more of an impact on European history than women according to Starkey’s definition of history. That’s an assumption that is worth examining in itself, as is the very term “European history” and the areas- geographical and cultural- actually considered under that topic. As you say, one interesting thing- and a sign of Starkey’s deterioration, both as a person and as an historian- is that he regards his kind of history as the only one worth bothering with.

    29. Rumbold — on 12th April, 2009 at 8:14 pm  

      Roger:

      Good point. But that is my point to. His words are filled with such generalisations as to be pointless.

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