04
Apr
09

Guest Post: I’m in ur historiography, emphasizin ur wimminz

David Starkey is a noted historian whose work in the Tudor Period of English History is pretty durn interesting. I particularly enjoyed his Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, an account of the years immediately before Elizabeth I came to power.

Unfortunately, he’s also a giant ass.

History has been ‘feminized’ says David Starkey

“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.”

Charming.

There’s already been one great takedown of the problems with his assertions at the f-word, Henry VIII ‘subjugated’ by female historians paying attention to wives

But I happen to have a close friend writing a thesis on Narratives of Medieval Queenship at Oxford, and since I figured she’d probably have some strong feelings about Starkey’s claim, I sent the news article to her and asked for a response.

And here it is, from the marvellous LaReineNoire:

“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.”

I’d had a reasonable amount of respect for David Starkey, but I think he’s just killed it.

The article points out — and rightly so — that more often than not, Henry’s wives are studied not because of anything they did in their own right, but because they had the misfortune of being married to Henry VIII. Anything else they might have accomplished is always secondary to that, even in works written by female historians, because that is all we have. In all the primary sources available from that period, Henry is centre stage. All six of his wives appear as blips on his radar, periodically interrupting his reign in generally inconvenient ways.

Now, I am not a historian and I’m perfectly willing to admit it. But I do work with historical texts and I have spent the past two and a half years attempting to unpick fragments of women’s narratives from medieval and early modern texts, and I can safely say that the last thing queens are doing is subjugating kings. Least of all Henry VIII.

Quite frankly, if your wives can be boiled down to a six-word mnemonic device — Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived — the last thing you need to be worried about is subjugation.

Look at any historical text from more than thirty or forty years ago, and you’ll see nothing but dead, white men. Queens were the subject of novels, horrid or otherwise, and the first ‘history’ of the queens of England, a mid-nineteenth-century series of tomes by Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland, reads more or less like a novel. That queens are being studied as valid, interesting, and worthwhile historical subjects is still a recent development and takes a great deal of skill to do well. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad biographies of queens out there — I’ve read my fair share of them. But I appreciate the fact that it is being done, that the primary sources are being uncovered and analysed, and that queens are getting the attention they deserve.

Has Dr Starkey not considered the fact that the reason people haven’t written recently about Henry VIII is because it’s already been done? Done and done again and perhaps even done to death? Why, one might ask, do we need yet another biography of one of the best-known monarchs in English history? Has Starkey found a new source, something we haven’t seen before? He’s done that in the past — indeed, he’s responsible for a lot of the useful work that’s been done on the Tudor court — and if it were the case that he’d found something new, of course he’d be entitled to write about it, perhaps even obligated to do so. But this is the reason he provides:

“This is Henry – wives appear simply to explain or complicate the story of Henry. This is his development, his psychology and, above all, why he matters.”

Well, bravo, sir. You’ve successfully regressed all the way back to the sixteenth century. I only hope you’re as entertaining to read as Edward Hall.

As for Henry suffering ’emotional incontinence’ from being raised in a household of women — I’m afraid that can only qualify as speculation and the applying of modern standards to an early modern subject, the very thing Starkey complains of in his diatribe against ‘feminised’ history. I am no less annoyed when people try to claim that women, even queens, wielded more power than can be justified by primary sources, but Starkey’s dismissal of women’s own networks and accomplishments — and, contrary to his claims, they do exist — quite makes my blood boil. We have proof that Katharine of Aragon was both intelligent and influential — indeed, she acted as Regent during Henry’s absences in France early in his reign — that Anne Boleyn played at least an indirect role in advancing the Protestant cause — though the extent of that role is unknown — and that Catherine Parr was nearly imprisoned for her own espousal of evangelical Protestantism. What we don’t know is how much these actions reflect on the women’s personalities, and how much everything we read about them in primary sources is coloured by the author’s own prejudices.

I am not arguing that there is a way to understand any of these queens as fully conceived psychological subjects in our modern sense. We cannot even do that for medieval and early modern kings, who by virtue of their sex are granted centre stage in all our primary material. But surely it is worthwhile and necessary to try?

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