On my honeymoon, my wife and I were lucky enough to take a trip to Europe and visit cities and sites that meant a lot to us as Catholics. One of those stops included the Cathedral in Pisa Italy known for it’s proximity to the leaning tower.
When you visit spots like this on a tour, they will have a local tour guide show take you through and tell you about the area and anything interesting that you might want to know. Because we’re tourists, we give the guides the benefit of the doubt because we’re in a position of wanting to learn and they have the supposed knowledge, so there’s a considerable amount of trust that we place in them as we allow them to fill us up with information.
On this occasion, the tour guide was pointing out the typical aspects of a cathedral’s construction and describing the cast of characters involved in it’s history and then he slipped in a statement that I was so shocked by I didn’t have the wherewithal to protest as I wish I would have.
He said that at the time the Cathedral was built, the Church taught that women didn’t have souls and that’s why only men were involved with an immediate chorus of gasps from his dutifully attentive audience.
His claim is hilariously absurd considering we were standing under a dome with a fresco that depicted a heavenly vision that included multiple female saints and I honestly wonder if he just consciously made it up, which wouldn’t be a bit shock because people do that kind of thing all the time when it comes to the Catholic Church, or did he hear it from somewhere else and complacently recite it himself without ever checking to see if it was true.
Either way, the fact that most people in my group immediately accepted his claim, reinforces the fact that we all have this vague idea that western civilization’s more Christian heritage was a patriarchal and misogynistic society that conquered and replace other societies where women were likely treated equally and were even included in roles of leadership.
It gives off the impression that humans would naturally tend towards equality and that Christianity and other unsavory influences contributed to unnatural outcomes where men were able to advance and women were treated like second class citizens.
It may surprise some, as I’m embarrassed to say it did me when I learned that there has never been a matriarchal society in the history of human civilization. There are no records of societies in which women played the lead role. In every place and in every time, men have assumed the dominant positions of power.
We’re not even talking about most of the time, like 80% of the time men have been the dominant sex and 20% of the time women. It was men 100% and women 0%.
So at some point in human history, there had to have been a deliberate relinquishing of the power and control that men had because it isn’t something that just naturally occurs. If human beings are given enough license to do what they want and let the chips fall how they may, men will end up in control.
So for women to have ever made any strides towards having a say in how society conducts itself, it must have involved men being compelled to look to women for their influence and in the case of Western civilization, we have Christianity and the influence of the Catholic Church to thank for that.
Even if our understanding of the middle ages is full of prejudice and inaccuracies, one thing that is true is that it was a far more violent time than what most of us in Western Civilization are used to today. The nobility was composed of a military class and because that was something of a vocation for them, they found it irresistible to find reasons to fight each other, a lot.
But the Church, never one to go with the flow of trends and fashions, wanted to curb these inclinations among Europe’s elite, so they first tried to promote a peace movement, in fact the first ever peace movement in all of human history, called the Peace and Truce of God. Chief among its demands was the protection of non-combatant members of society such as the clergy, women and children, and the peasants class.
And while the movement enjoyed some success, it wasn’t enough to produce the full effect of what the Church had envisioned and the Church noticed something fairly obvious which was that this tendency towards violence was primarily a masculine tendency.
We often hear people say thing like, if women ruled the world there’d be a lot less war. Well, that’s pretty much what the Church thought too, so it continued to push this peace movement into what became the chivalric code or Chivalry.
And instead of imposing this code of behaviour through law, it was popularized through medieval literature, especially Geoffrey Monmouth’s tales of King Arthur.
Monmouth was a Catholic Cleric who wrote about an idealized brotherhood of knights who used their resources and aptitude for combat in the service of others and in the cultivation of virtue rather than as a vehicle for selfish ends – like the acquisition of wealth and land.
And this new code of behaviour placed an especially high premium on the deference of behaviour to the sensibilities and genius of women. Devotion and honor in the service of women is at the heart of chivalric codes.
It meant that if a Lord or a Knight was compelled to resolve some problem violently, they should first consult and honor their wives or ladies to decide the best course of action and that if violence was necessary, it should be conducted in an honorable and civilized manner.
And in a world in which women never had a say in politics, governance, or basically anything at all, this was a revolutionary shift towards a world in which the wisdom of women would be heard and able to balance out the sensibilities of men – offering a more completely human vision of the world.
Now maybe you’re inclined to say that this didn’t go far enough and women still don’t have the same rights as men. Maybe you have a point, but my point is, that if it’s true to say that at a certain time, even up until the last century, men exclusively controlled the government, the economy, and the military, what changed?