Friday, October 31, 2008


McGinn, Thomas A. J., Widows and Patriarchy: Ancient and Modern. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. vii, 230. $50.00. ISBN 9780715637432.
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge (

Tom McGinn's now considerable body of work on Roman law in respect of sexuality (around the topic of prostitution) and the family earns him plenty of authority to advise social historians of the West on research findings to date on the main lines of difference, change and cyclicity within social life scripts for widows. The present book (prompted by the arrival of two daughters: Preface) requires readerly trust, since it is pitched as intermediary between primary research across three distinct cultural contexts and ourselves. M achieves compact evenness of treatment by rigorously abstaining from parading all spectacle, curiosity, or horrorshow throughout, in favour of directing us instead on through 1278 footnotes (to 164 pages of text). Successive Widows of Ephesus and invocations of Jerome and choice loci from the New Testament aside, M pays particular figures and diktats but one visit each, and mentions, but refrains from re-telling, tales along the way, no matter how juicy, rending, or otherwise graphic they may be. The sole scurrility proves to be the combination of volume epigraph from Walpole with the jacket illustration (the only pic, repeated on the back cover -- just where a 'poor widow' should stare out at us): on, and of, 'the indomitable Bess Hardwick, . . . second wealthiest, and arguably second most powerful, woman in England after Elizabeth I'. But to find out more about this First Lady of Chatsworth, her four marriages, and her 'ambitious programme of building that relied on iconography largely drawn from antiquity to advertise her virtues as a wife and widow', off you must go--to, or round, the library, to chase up the endnote refs. (p.61). Thus if you feel tantalized by the next exhibit, 'Lady Anne Clifford commissioned a painted triptych that in a manner granted her both male and female attributes and emphasised her role within her own birth family, eclipsing her two husbands, one dead, the other estranged' (or. . .escaped?) -- get used to it. Readers must imagine 'the famous Pompeian funerary monument erected by Naevoleia Tyche for her deceased husband. . .: more about her than about him' (p.34) and 'the 1436 autobiography of Margery Kempe, which recounts in detail her entrepreneurial (mis)adventures' (p.65) . . .; nor will you be meeting up with 'Perhaps the most egregious [instance of "merry" widows hunting for new mates], the Florida widows who provoked a scandal through alleged war profiteering' (p.152). Instead of stooping to my sort of level, M deliberately commits himself to insistent re-formulations of the riff: 'The precise mix varied according to time and place', and never lets us forget it, spelled out, and flagged up, thus: 'a range of factors helped shape the personal choices available to widows, above all, wealth, rank, age and personality. An obvious point is worth repeating. Widowhood was experienced differently by different women' (p.65 bis). He tells us in no uncertain terms why it's worth hammering away like this, first in his 'Introduction' (pp.1-17), last in the 'Conclusion: Widows in history' (pp.156-65). The terse clarity of the latter drives the point home and makes the book matter--makes sure it does.

M is out to use his position as authority on ancient (i.e. Graeco-Roman) experience of law as instrument of, and guide to, the dynamic economies of classical patriarchy to rub our noses in the 'highly unpredictable, almost infinitely flexible and adaptive' record of patriarchy 'as an historical form . . .: complex, varied and resistant to broad evolutionary trends' (p.164). His approach is pinned to 'the modest aim' of 'develop[ing] criteria that allow a broad comparison of gender hierarchy in different historical contexts' (p.3). The Scylla is specialist microhistory and the trap of ahistoricism is Charybdis, i.e. wariness pilots this helm: 'There are some obvious cautions to raise, however'. Before all, 'While political engagement has been a great strength of feminist scholarship it must in the end yield to careful scrutiny of the historical record' (p.4 bis). After all, therefore, 'All the same, there is hope our understanding of it can improve' (p.164). I confess I don't see why, or that, 'our' historical understanding deserves to prevail over political engagement--'in the traditional phrase "kiss or kick"' (p.110: 'must' vs. 'yield'), but I'm aware that the very idea of 'the record' makes cicada types like me glaz-z-ze over.

Three parallel 'case study' chapters synthesise the picture for 'Classical antiquity' (pp. 18-48), 'Late medieval and early modern England and Germany' (pp.49-104: 1350-1650, featuring the Reformation), and 'Modern England and the United States' (pp.105-55: 1850-1925, or the Industrial Revolution). And they are truly parallel, since M follows the fivefold divisiones proposed at the outset scrupulous as can be: 'numbers of widows; widows and private law; widows and economic privilege; widows and freedom of movement; widows and remarriage'. Six times we get the run down, so cross-comparison is in effect mandatory, even obligatory: for Greece, then Rome; England, and Germany; England, plus the United States. In fact the coverage allowed for the dyad on antiquity is just 30 pages in total -- of which pp.41-8 dwell on Jerome. Pretty well all the judgments--and caveats--persuade, and family historians will find this strictly self-monitored survey both usable and useful. Inevitably, though, the teases come thick and fast: 'As with Greece, it is clear that "widow" was not an independent legal category at Rome and it is disputable whether it even qualifies as a sociological type' (p.29) or ''a pastoral epistle attributed insecurely to Paul ... begins with an injunction to honour . . . the "real" or "true" widows' (p.38). Such inviting praeterita!

M proves that generalising about either continuity or change for widows in the West requires extreme caution (p.156), and convincingly warns others that Roman historians should not sponsor claims for a 'family life in antiquity. . . , if not quite "modern" in its lived experience, far less harsh than it was once argued, or simply assumed, to be' (p.162). And his take on modernity must be salutary, too: 'Revolution is to be rejected as a model for change', but 'it is even more important to reject the alternative of evolution' (p.139). As I see it, M's presentation of widowhood in its imbrications with wives, divor├žees, deserted wives, and the never-married, and through its role in the syntax of lives prescribed for women, fully vindicates the importance of this supplemental category of ?'woman-plus'? (p.2) as he sets about scotching a flurry of wild notions. Whether the strategy of intently flat rhetoric really pays off as pledge of seriousness in underlining such 'important truth' I leave to others: 'It has perhaps ever been the case that some men have derived greater advantage from gender hierarchy than others' (p.72); 'There is a strong possibility that the valuation which women, at least women married once before, placed on marriage changed over time' (p.77); 'The experience of widowhood could vary considerably over time and from culture to culture, as well as within a culture' (p.162). Wouldn't the lesson register better if we ran into some haggard 'sorrowing widows' and some large as life 'merry' specimens along the way?

In quality of production, the volume lives up to the attractive and meticulous standard you expect from Duckworth in every respect. (On p.83 '. . . operated to the consistent disadvantage of women, whose alleged inferiority was used to justify even the few privileges they were granted' can't be quite what's meant, but I noticed no errata).

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