Slaves of History

From Jori Lewis at Aeon magazine:

It started a few years ago, with a conversation I had with my then-boyfriend, a Senegalese agronomist, first about peanuts and then about slavery. He lived in the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal, a four-hour drive from where I lived in the capital, Dakar. I was writing about the history of peanut agriculture, Sine-Saloum’s main crop, so I was often there.

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Our Egalitarian Ancestors

So men and women were equal, so say anthropologists who have studied contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Never mind the problematic equation of modern hunter-gatherers with hunter-gatherers from several tens of thousands of years ago, it’s certainly food for thought about the way in which natural selection can elicit cultural as physical adaptations (and to what extent those are defined separate from each other is of course another question).

It makes sense that the unequal distribution across the genders of relative strength, energy consumption and reproductive abilities would result in the various forms of patriarchy in an environment where cultivating the land becomes key. I’d be interested in hearing more about what proposed environmental changes would have pushed our ancestors into farming, as these theories are constantly changing though unfortunately tend to take a rather linear view of development.

Of course being the Guardian, you get the predictable stuff about male-deity centric religions being to blame which is funny considering the most virulently misogynistic ancient religions had goddesses and priestesses aplenty as well. A clash of narratives, perhaps. C’est la vie.

Related Links:

What is a hunter-gather settlement? An ethno-archaeological and interdisciplinary approach

Living out the Past

I came across a post called ‘A Practice in Practicality, doing housework 1910s style’ from the Dreamstress, one of my favourite historical clothing blogs which I regularly check out. I always like posts related to exploring the realities of living in clothing – as someone fascinated by the intersection of everything, I love the way that understanding how a person in a different time period felt like can often impact the way we form our theories, our narratives, to make sense of the hard data available.

For example, in Medieval studies, everyone knows there are a lot of popular cliches about Medieval people being downright disgusting which is then used to explain why epidemics like the Plague ran rampant. It’s also part of a general framing of pre-modern European hygiene as something severely lacking and backward. Then you discover that actually, the Medievals did tend to bathe quite a bit and understood the importance of cleanliness. In fact, the experience of the Plague is what impacted ideas of public hygiene and cleanliness by contributing to the demise of the public bath, a social institution that is a common feature of urban life across continent and culture alike.

The detangling of perception and narrative from data frequently leads to interesting new theories and a re-examination of the data. In the case of the Plague, the most recent idea is that the disease was airborne which better fits the rapid spread when placed against our knowledge of the way people actually lived at that time.

But back to clothing!

When I was a bit younger, I was really into tight-lacing (I think at one point I had day dreams of becoming a part-time fetish/costume model). This meant wearing a corset all the time, everywhere which, though at some points uncomfortable, actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined with my head filled with the ideas of historical clothing – and corsets in particular – that I as any young woman of the 20th-21st century had been inundated with.

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That’s not to say the Rational Dress Movement was completely unnecessary. Not at all! In fact, I’ve always greatly admired comfortable elegance and the revolutionary fashion of early designers such as Chanel. Although household names, almost cliches in their own right today, their aesthetic was as much a reflection of their politics and views of how women should be perceived by and allowed to interact with their society at large.

68b2e1665f4ffa7b17c5f48f8ea2e3a4However, it did help illuminate the living experience of a corset wearing woman from the previous centuries. If I who was attempting an extreme hour-glass figure could still move and eat with a degree of discomfort that never bordered into outright pain, nor led to me feeling faint (though short of breath), it made the experience of the average woman who was probably not wearing a corset for tight-lacing, but rather the way most of us wear a bra – for support – a little more understandable. It made sense of why women would wear them and even how they must have evolved.

Practical Archaeology, whether done through building using materials of a particular era, trying to recreate hairstyles, or recreate technologies of the past, is such an amazing aspect of archaeology. With the technologies we have now, there’s almost no reason not to. I wish it got a bit more attention – I think it’s a better way of teaching History in schools, for example – particularly when it comes to analysing the lived experience of marginalised/less-documented social groups.

Laura Bassi

Laura Bassi – Italian 18th century woman physicist

It’s always fascinating reading about women scientists, philosophers and academics of the past. My usual sphere of interest is Medieval Europe, but I enjoy reading about figures from the Enlightenment era, especially those outside of the usual trio of Britain, France and Germany.

The writer is at work!

I’m currently working on a few short stories for some anthologies, so the fiction output on this blog will be limited.

At the moment I’m reading ‘The Lords of Humankind’ by V.G. Kiernan which is – as it should be for any decent popular history – turning into a simultaneously fascinating and disquieting read. It focuses on the attitudes of the coloniser and the colonised, though mostly from a perspective critical of the former (I find it telling that the majority of the West African experience is devoted to slavery and there is none of the detailed discussion of the contemporary and pre-colonial society that the writer affords to India, for example. This is often the case, and is actually quite a boon because it means I have to read more!).

Like I said, it’s a good enough read, though it will be interesting to find other critical perspectives, especially those that focus more on the social complexities of the colonised nations. The book was published in the late 60’s and the writing (and biases) occasionally shows it’s age!

I’m still transferring a couple of blogs into this one. I have created a new blog section for posts and links concerning my independent research into pre-colonial Nigerian technologies and their intersection with all things interesting (gender, sexuality, religion, disability etc. The usual!) and in the meantime will hopefully remember to get some more of my essays and critical pieces up as well.

Hearing Through the Silence – additional thoughts

About a month ago, I was asked to write some thoughts on WWI by the parish priest at the church I attended when I lived in Manchester. My short article is available to read on the church blog.

I’ve decided to reproduce the article here, with additional commentary. True to form, there were some things I had in fact misunderstood and only got to clarify once I’d told her about the short blog post I’d dedicated to Great Uncle George. It’s always funny how that happens.

Continue reading Hearing Through the Silence – additional thoughts

The History of Prosthetics Reveals a Long Tradition of Human Cyborgs

The History of Prosthetics Reveals a Long Tradition of Human Cyborgs

A lost city reveals the grandeur of medieval African civilization

A lost city reveals the grandeur of medieval African civilization