In my youth I admired Catherine Deneuve in ways I can’t discuss here for fear of causing offence. However, as we both, and especially I, have aged, my esteem for the actress became more cerebral if somewhat less fervent.
Cerebral it remains, but the intensity has grown since Miss Deneuve led a group of 100 prominent Frenchwomen to write a letter saying that les anglo-saxons have gone mad with their neo-puritan hysteria about sex harassment.
The letter points out the difference between rape and flirtation, and the fact that it needs pointing out is a ringing denunciation in itself. “Rape,” explain the Frenchwomen, “is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”
True, French women, rather than being offended by male attention, welcome it and, should it get out of hand, so to speak, handle it with aplomb. They accept this as a normal interplay between the sexes.
We, on the other hand, equate hand-on-knee flirtation with ‘medieval oppression of women’, a phrase much bandied about. The underlying assumption is that the Middle Ages, the period roughly demarcated by the collapse of the Roman Empire at one end and the Renaissance at the other, were the epitome of obscurantist savagery.
Now one can’t realistically expect things like erudition and intellectual rigour from militant feminists or, dare I add somewhat controversially, any political activists. But the truth is rather different from the popular mythology.
For it was the Middle Ages that gave us great cathedrals and universities, restraints on absolutism, small central government, musical notation, the printing press, sublime thinkers and theologians, magnificent religious painting and sculpture.
And, relevant to my theme, women during the Middle Ages enjoyed a status and freedom they gradually lost pari passu with the demise of Christianity and advance of modernity.
Even without going into historical facts, anyone with a modicum of intelligence unsullied by ideology should realise there wasn’t much room for oppressing women during a period practically defined by the worship of the Virgin. Also venerated as much as their male equivalents, and often more, were women martyred for their faith, such as St Agatha, St Cecilia, St Agnes and many others.
Medieval queens were no strangers to political power either, routinely governing their countries when their husbands were away fighting foreign wars, ill or dead. It was during the Middle Ages that French queens were crowned side by side with their husbands, and some queens, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile were dominant political figures.
Women were also prominent in the Church, this without the abomination of female priesthood that today is regarded as a sine qua non for empowering women. It was often through the Church that women – and not necessarily high-born ones – acquired tremendous power.
Abbesses, for example, were not only equal to abbots in status and learning, but also, like them, were often feudal lords, in effect governing their provinces and imposing tithes and other taxes on the locals. And, in dual monasteries, where nuns and monks had their own wings, it was often the abbess, not the abbot, who was in overall charge.
Everybody knows the story of the great theologian Abelard and Héloïse. As a result of their love affair, Abelard fell victim to a certain enforced surgical procedure, but Héloïse’s lot is less well known.
In fact, she went on to found the Abbey of the Paraclete and became not only one of the best-educated persons of her time, but also one of the women who acquired religious and consequently secular power in the Middle Ages.
Both monasteries and convents were at the time centres of learning, and women were among the most outstanding figures. The abbess Herrad produced the famous twelfth century encyclopaedia, while Hildegarde of Bingen – abbess, philosopher, writer, composer and general polymath – was a true Renaissance woman, something she wouldn’t have been able to become during the actual Renaissance.
For the Renaissance was the birth cry of modernity and therefore the first dying gasp of Christianity. What was reborn in the Renaissance was the culture and ethos of pagan Hellenic antiquity, which was bad news for women among others.
We think of the Renaissance mostly in terms of paintings depicting plump babies sucking rosy-cheeked breasts, testifying both to the technical mastery of the artists and the creeping secularisation of sacred subjects.
But also re-born at the time was Roman law, which, by ricochet, has since done untold damage even in countries like England, which stubbornly stuck to their own jurisprudence.
Roman law was pagan and therefore centralising. It established and protected the primacy of the central state over local government, that natural offshoot of the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, devolving power to the lowest possible level.
As a result, monasteries and convents gradually ceded their position as centres of learning and certainly of secular power. The former was shifted to steadily secularising universities; the latter to the royal court.
A medieval king was merely a superior feudal lord, primus inter pares. But when Roman law came off the mothballs, kings gradually became monarchs who, as the word’s etymology suggests, concentrated more and more political power in their own hands.
Their queens were no longer crowned with them – like women in ancient Rome they became their husband’s chattels, kept in the background. In fact, the king’s current mistress often enjoyed much greater power, which was coextensive with her tenure in the king’s bed.
Step by step, women lost the freedom they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. More and more they were seen as men’s property, of which men – their fathers, brothers or husbands – could dispose as they saw fit. Women were no longer seen as equal if different. They became different and strictly subservient.
That situation changed in due course, but the dynamic of intersex relations was for ever destroyed. Feminism appeared as a belated reaction, or rather overreaction, to any inequalities, both extant and extinct.
Women no longer wanted to be just equal to men – they now strove for the impossible goal of becoming identical to men. Hence the modern neo-puritanism of attacking flirtation ostensibly as sexual harassment, but in fact for emphasising the eternal difference between men and women.
For neo-puritanism to exist, there had to be old puritanism in the first place. That’s strictly a feature of Protestantism, especially its reformed version. Hence the current Walpurgisnacht is at its most virulent in Protestant countries.
The residual Catholicism of southern Europe, specifically France, has overcome the toxic effects of Roman law and modernity to preserve normal, human relations between the sexes. And we must thank Catherine Deneuve and her friends for pointing this out.
P.S. To keep things in balance, I’ll write a companion piece tomorrow, entitled We Know Something the French Don’t.