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Getting Medieval: Have We Really Progressed?

By Dr. Linda Mitchell, Martha Jane Phillips Starr Missouri Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

I had just finished writing an assessment of a new book on divorce medieval-style for the promotion file of a colleague at another university, in which she had described the kinds of spousal abuse that might lead to a legal separation or divorce in the Middle Ages as being “of astonishing violence.”  Indeed, this author had written a fantastic book on conflict in marriage in late medieval England a number of years ago in which she described the kinds of casual day-to-day abuse endured by wives of the period as a level of violence no modern-day woman in the developed world would tolerate.  And yet, this ubiquitous abuse was not just overlooked by the church, which was more interested in the stability of marriage than in the safety of the people within the marriage, but also by wives whose husbands were trying to dissolve their marriages.  Her estimation was that women were also concerned more with their financial security and social condition than, perhaps, their own safety.

I have heard this argument before: the period we know as “medieval” was 1) unusually violent; 2) prone to extreme levels of violence against women; 3) like nothing the West now experiences in terms of both phenomena.  And for a long time, I accepted this notion as a given.  As the years have gone on, however, I have wondered about the characterization of medieval violence against women as “nothing like” today.  And then there appeared an article in the New York Times of 18 August 2013: “A Call for Aid, Not Laws, to Help Women in Italy.”  Apparently, in the decade between 2002 and 2012, an average of one woman every two days was KILLED by her husband/partner/ex-partner in Italy.  These are not just poor women, or immigrant women, although the situation is very dire especially for North African refugee women.  This level of violence is just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the article, 32 percent (according to a UN report) of women in Italy experience daily abuse; 90 percent of rapes go unreported; there are only 500 spaces available in battered women’s shelters (instead of the recommended 5,700); and the most typical advice for women who are abused is that they should “stay home” because there are no services available to them to provide counseling, protection, or financial assistance.  Sounds pretty medieval, eh?

In one way Italy has progressed beyond the Middle Ages: The Italian government has decided to beef up the punishment for perpetrators of abuse.  Unfortunately, they have not addressed the real problem, which is that the laws that are already in place are overlooked, unobserved, and dismissed.  The notion that a man has the right to kill his wife or partner/ex-partner with impunity because he is “moved by passion” is still alive and well in Italy.

The article on Italy was horrifying, but how effective are laws against abuse, against bullying, against violence directed at women and children, against exploitation of women and children in the United States?  How many spaces are available in the USA for women in need of shelter against an abusive spouse or partner?  How willing are the law enforcement agencies—including those of the military—to address this persistent problem in ways that are actually helpful to women?  How often are women told that they are the ones responsible for the abuse they endure?  And, perhaps most importantly, how willing are family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and strangers on the street to challenge abuse when they see it; to confront the abusers; to take action to protect and support the victims?

As we begin this new school year, I wish that everyone even remotely involved in the life of UMKC would take a pledge not to look the other way when witnessing abuse or bullying.  We all need to LEAN IN: to reject the idea that uninvolvement is the best course of non-action; to challenge and confront such behaviors and demand that the victims gain the protection and advocacy they need; to reject social, cultural, and religious conventions that blame women for being women and that consider women to be inferior or exploitable.  This is what feminism is all about:  not just the revolutionary notion that women are PEOPLE, but also that no one in today’s world should experience the kinds of horrors discussed as so casually occurring in the medieval world.