In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her “Green New Deal.”
These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the “Dark Ages” but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.
There is a lot that we can learn from the Middle Ages on how to manage the Great Transformation: it will be “Middle Ages 2.0”. Here, I am reposting a text I originally published on my other blog, “Chimeras” that’s relevant on the subject. Expect more posts on this subject, the more I think about that, the more I tend to think that the Middle Ages could provide us with a true blueprint for the great transition.
The war of the sexes: the origins of gender inequality
The story of Scheherazade of the 1001 Arabian Nights is the quintessence of the “war of the sexes” and of how women tend to lose it. It is said that King Shahryar would have a new lover every night and every morning he would have her killed. He stopped only when Scheherazade started telling him stories. It shows, among other things, that males behave much better when they listen to females. Picture: Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880
Some time ago, I was chatting at home with a friend who is a researcher specialized in “gender inequality”. I asked her what were the ultimate origins of this inequality but we couldn’t arrive at a conclusion. So, I happened to have in a shelf nearby a copy of the “Malleus Maleficarum”, the book that Kramer and Sprenger wrote in the 16th century on the evils of witchcraft. I took it out and I opened it to the page where the authors dedicate several paragraphs to describe how evil women are. I read a few of these paragraphs aloud and my friend was so enraged that she left the room, without saying a word. Later on, she told me that she had done that to avoid telling me what she thought I deserved to be told just for keeping that book in my shelves. Maybe she was right, but the question of the origins of gender inequality remained unanswered (BTW, later on, we became friends again).
Why are women so commonly discriminated in almost all cultures, modern and ancient? Of course, there are plenty of studies attempting to explain the reasons. It is an interdisciplinary field that mixes history, anthropology, psychology, social studies, and even more; you can spend your whole life studying it. So, I don’t even remotely pretend to be saying something definitive or even deep on this subject. It is just that, after much thinking on this matter, I thought that I could share with you some of my conclusions. So, here is a narrative of how gender inequality developed over the centuries in Europe and in the Mediterranean world. I hope you’ll find it something worth pondering.
Let’s go back in time, way back; when does the phenomenon that we call “gender inequality” starts? You probably know that Marija Gimbutas has been arguing for a long time that the pre-literate ages in Europe were characterized by a form of matriarchy and by the predominance of the cult of a female goddess (or goddesses). That is, of course, debatable and it is hotly debated; there is very little that we have from those ancient times that can tell us how men and women related to each other. However, when we move to the first examples of literature we have, then we see at least hints of a different world that involved some kind – perhaps – if not female dominance at least a more assertive role of women. Indeed, the first text for which we know the name of the author was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna at some moment during the second half of the third millennium BCE. From these ancient times, there comes a very strong voice: the voice of a woman asserting the rule of the Goddess Inanna over the pantheon of male Gods of her times, hinting at an even larger role of female goddesses in even more ancient times.
If we follow the millennia as they move onward, it seems that the voice of women becomes fainter and fainter. In Greece, we have Sappho of Lesbos, renown for her poetry, but she comes from a very early age; the seventh century BCE. As the Greek civilization grew and was absorbed into the Roman one, woman literates seem to dwindle. Of the whole span of the Western Roman civilization, we know of a modest number of literate women and there are only two Roman female poets whose works have survived to us. Both go with the name of Sulpicia and you probably never heard of them. As poetry goes, the first Sulpicia, who lived at the times of August, may be interesting to look at. The second one, living in later times, has survived in a few lines only because they are explicitly erotic. But the point is that it is so little in comparison with so much Greek and Latin literature we still have. Women of those times may not have been really silent but, in literary terms, we just don’t hear their voices.
On the other side of the sexual barrier, note how the “Malleus Maleficarum” bases its several pages of insult to women largely on classical authors, for instance, Cicero, Lactantius, Terence, and othes. It is not surprising for us to discover that from the early imperial times to the early Middle Ages, most writers were woman-haters. They thought that sex was, at best, a necessary evil that one had to stand in order to ensure the perpetuation of humankind; but no more than that. Chastity, if one could attain it, was by far the best condition for man and woman alike and, for sure, sex with a woman was only a source of perversity and of debasement. An early Christian father, Origen (3rd century CE) is reported to have taken the matter to the extreme and castrated himself, although that’s not certain and surely it never became popular.
With the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, there appeared something that had never existed before: the monastic orders. Never before so many men and women had decided that they wanted to live in complete separation from the members of the other sex. Read a book such as the “pratum spirituale” by 6th century CE the Byzantine monk John Moschos, and you get the impression that everyone at that time, males and females, were obsessed by sex; how to avoid it, that is. Chastity had never been considered a virtue before and, yet, now it had become the paramount one. At least, however, it seems that women had gained a certain degree of independence, seeking for chastity in their own ways and with a dignity of their own. Reading documents from that age, you get the well-defined impression that men and women had somehow decided that they wanted to avoid each other for a while. It was a pause that lasted several centuries. But why did that happen?
I think there are reasons, but to understand them we must go back to Roman times and try to understand what was the relationship between men and women at that age. And we may find that it was deeply poisoned by a sickness that pervaded the society of those times: social inequality and, in particular, the institution of slavery.
The Roman Empire based its wealth on the work of slaves. Their number is variously estimated as around 10% of the population, but it was larger in the richest regions of the empire. Probably, during the 1st century CE, some 30%-40% of the population of Italy was composed of slaves (1). Slavery was an integral part of the Roman economy and one of the main aims of the Roman military conquests was capturing of large numbers of foreigners, who then were turned into slaves.
Now, most slaves were male and were used for heavy or menial work, in agriculture, for instance. But many of them were female, and, obviously, young and attractive slaves, both male and female, were used as sex objects. Slaves were not considered as having rights. They simply were property. Caroline Osiek writes that (2).
To the female slave, therefore, honor, whether of character or of behavior, cannot be ascribed. The female slave can lay no claim to chastity or shame, which have no meaning. In the official view, she cannot have sensitivity toward chastity. Her honor cannot be violated because it does not exist. .. No legal recognition is granted to the sexual privacy of a female slave.
To have a better idea of how female slaves were considered in Roman times, we may turn to a late Roman poet, Ausonius (4th century CE) who had gained a certain notoriety in his times. He was not only a poet but an accomplished politician who had a chance to accompany Emperor Gratian in a military raid in Germania. From there, he returned with a Germanic slave girl named Bissula. He wrote a poem in her honor that says, among other things,
Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas, barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas, Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae, horridulum non solitis, sed domino venustum.
that we can translate as
Delice, blandishment, play, love, desire, barbarian, but you baby beat the Latin girls. Bissula, a tender name, a little rustic for a girl, a little rough for those not used to it, but a grace for your master
It is clear that Ausonius likes Bissula; we could even say that he is fond of her. But it is the same kind of attitude that we may have toward a domestic animal; a cat or a dog that we may like a lot, but that we don’t consider our equal. Bissula was no more than a pet in terms of rights. It is true that her master was not supposed to mistreat her, and we have no evidence that he ever did. But she had strictly no choice in terms of satisfying him sexually. In this sense, she had no more rights than those pertaining to a rubber doll in our times. In modern terms, we can say that she was being legally raped. And nobody seemed to find this strange; so much that Ausonius’ poem that described this legal rape was considered wholly normal and it was appreciated.
If we can still hear Ausonius’ voice, we cannot hear that of Bissula. Probably, she couldn’t read and write, to say nothing about doing that in proper Latin. So, what she thought of her master is anyone’s guess. Was she happy that she was getting at least food and shelter from him? Or did she hate him for having been one of those who had, perhaps, exterminated her family? Did she ever dream of sticking a hairpin into Ausonius’ eye? Perhaps; but we have no evidence that she ever did. If she had done something like that, by the way, she would have condemned to death all the slaves of Ausonius’ household. The Roman law practiced a strict interpretation of the principle of common intention and when it happened that a slave killed his/her master, it required that all the slaves of that master were to be executed. And we know that this law was put into practice on several occasions.
So, we cannot hear Bissula’s voice, just as we can’t hear the voice of the millions of sex slaves that crossed the trajectory of the Roman Empire, from its foundation to its end in the 5th century CE. Exploited, without rights, probably turned to menial work whenever they got older and their masters lost interest in them, their voice is lost in the abyss of time. But, perhaps, we can get a glimpse of their feelings from their reflection on the other side; that of their masters who, in Imperial times, dedicated pages and pages of their writings at insulting women. Yes, because the silent side, that of the slaves, was not without weapons in the war that the masters were waging against them. The masters may have expected gratitude from them, perhaps even love. But they got only hatred and despise. Imagine yourself as Bissula. Do you imagine she could have loved Ausonius? And can you imagine how could she have taken some revenge on him? I am sure there were ways, even though we can’t say whether Bissula ever put them into practice. No wonder that so many men in these times accused women of treachery. In the war of the sexes, the women had to use guerrilla tactics, and, apparently, they were doing that with some success.
If slavery turned woman slaves into sex objects, the resulting war of the sexes must have had a negative effect also on free women. They were not supposed to be legally raped as the slaves, but surely they could not ignore what their husbands were doing (and, by the way, free Roman women were not supposed to rape their male slaves and, if they did, they were not supposed to write poems about how cute their male sex dolls were). Very likely, this situation poisoned the male/female relations of generations of Roman citizens. Thinking of that, we cannot be surprised of the avalanche of insults that Roman male writers poured on women (want an example? Seneca in his tragedies [11 (117)]: “when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil“)
That kind of poisoned relationship continued for a long time but, at a certain moment, not much later than Ausonius’ times, the Empire ceased to be able to raid slaves from anywhere, and then it disappeared. Slavery didn’t disappear with the Empire: we had to wait for the 19th century to see it disappear for good. But, surely, the whole situation changed and slaves were not any more so common. The Christian church took a lot of time before arriving at a clear condemnation of slavery, but turning people into sex toys was not seen anymore as the obvious things to do. So, things changed a lot and we may understand how during Middle Ages men and women were taking that “pause.” It was as if they were looking at each other, thinking “who should make the first move?” A shyness that lasted for centuries.
And then, things changed again. It was an impetuous movement, a reversal of the time of hatred between men and women: it was the time of courtly love. With the turning of the millennium, the Amour Courtois started to appear in Europe and it became all the rage. Men and women were looking again at each other and they were looking at each other in romantic terms: they loved each other. The love between man and woman became a noble thing, a way to obtain enlightenment – perhaps better than chastity. From the Northern Celtic tradition, the legend of two lovers, Tristan and Iseult, burst into the literary scene. And it was a dam that gave way. Lancelot and Guinevere, then Dante and Beatrice, Petrarca and Laura, Ibn Arabi and Nizham. West European and Mediterranean poets couldn’t think of anything better to express themselves than to dedicate their poetry to noble women whom they loved and respected.
And we hear again the voice of women: and what a voice! Think of Heloise, pupil and lover of Abelard, the philosopher, in a tragic love story that took place during the early 12th century. Heloise burst onto the scene with unforgettable words: “To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother; from his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abelard, from Heloise. And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if you be not ashamed, concubine or whore.” What can you say about this? I can only say that my lower jaw falls down as I utter “Wow!!”
It was a long journey from Heloise to our times. Long and tormented, just think that not much later than Heloise, the French mystic Marguerite Porete wrote her book “The mirror of the simple souls” in a style and content that reminds the works of the Sumerian Enheduana, four thousand years before. And Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for what she had written. And, some centuries later, the war against females continued with the various witch hunts, fueled by books such as “The Malleus Maleficarum” (1520). And think that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that women were generally considered smart enough that they were allowed to vote in general elections. But we have arrived somewhere, to an age in which “gender inequality” is considered something wholly negative, to be avoided at all costs. An age in which, at least in the West, the idea that women are equal to men is obvious, or should be. And an age in which using woman slaves as sex toys is (or should be) considered as an absolute evil.
And yet, if history moves forward, it also moves along a tortuous road and sometimes it goes in circles. The similarities of our times and Roman ones are many. Certainly, we don’t have slaves anymore, not officially, at least. But that may not be so much a social and ethical triumph but a consequence of the fact that our society is much more monetarized than the Roman one. The need for money can easily make a man or a woman the monetary equivalent of a slave of Roman times. We call “sex workers” those people who engage in sex for money; they are supposed to be free men and free women, but freedom can only be theoretical when, if you really want it, you have to pay for it by starvation. And while the armies of the globalized empire do not raid any more the neighboring countries to bring back male and female slaves, it is the global financial power that forces them to come to the West. They have little choice but to leave countries ravaged by wars, droughts, and poverty. In general, the social equality that the Western World had been constantly gaining after the industrial revolution, seems to have stopped its movement. Since the 1970s, we are going in reverse, social inequalities are on the increase. Are we going to re-legalize slavery? It is not an impossible thought if you think that it was still legal in the US up to 1865.
So, maybe the rich elites of our times would again turn women into sex objects? Maybe they are doing that already. Think of Italy’s leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Enough has been diffused of his private life for us to understand that he behaved not unlike Ausonius with his female toys, except that, luckily for us, he has not imposed on us some bad poetry of his.
So, is the war of the sexes going to restart? Are we going to see again the relations between men and women souring because of the deep inequality that turns women into sex toys? And maybe we are going to see the monastic orders returning and, perhaps, in a far future, a new explosion of reciprocal love? It is, of course, impossible to say. What we can say is that the world empire that we call “globalization” is all based on fossil fuels and that it is going to have a short life; very likely much shorter than that of the Roman Empire. Maybe the cycle will not be restarting, maybe it will; we cannot say. Humankind is engaged in a travel toward the future that is taking us somewhere, but we don’t know where. Wherever we are going, the path is something we create with our feet as we march onward.
h/t: Elisabetta Addis
1. Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425. Cambridge University Press, 2011,
2. Carolyn Osniek, Female Slaves, Porneia and the limits to obedience, in “Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue” David Balch and Carolyn Osniek eds. Wm. Eedermans publishing Co. Cambridge, 2003
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it