Friday, July 15, 2011

Christianisation and women

There is a persistent myth that Christianisation—the process whereby Christianity became the dominant religion in a society—had overwhelmingly good effects. For example, Michael Giffin’s review in the Quadrant of May 2011 of Robert Royal’s The God That Did Not Fail repeats the common claim that Christianisation improved the situation of women.

It is true that Christianisation improved markedly the status of children, tended to improve the status of slaves and greatly expanded the operation of compassion, particularly charity. Since Christianity took everyone to be Children of God, moral significance became a universal characteristic.

So, for example, slaves became persons with souls not, as they had been in Roman law, entirely property with the equivalent status that pets have in modern law. Hence, when David Ellerman points to the contradictions in (pdf) Antebellum American slave law, he is not pointing to inherent contradictions in the notion of slavery but contradictions between Christian ideas of universal moral significance and slavery. (See brief discussion here.)

But the claim that Christianisation improved the status of women is, in matters legal, arrant nonsense.

In both Roman law and proto-common law, Christianisation undermined the legal status and rights of free women, the process proceeding in much the same way in both legal realms. First, free women lost control over their fertility by the banning of abortion and contraception. Rape—always a crime against the person in classical Roman law—came to depend on whether a woman was a virgin, or married (Christianisation legalised rape within marriage), and how she was dressed. In short, what to the Romans was a crime, and always the man’s fault since his state of mind mattered not only whether the woman had consented, in Christian law became a tort, permitting the apportionment of liability. Blackstone, the great English legal commentator—when contrasting the pagan Roman law of rape compared with that of his own, common law system—noted this characteristic:
[Women] whom the Roman laws suppose never to go astray, without the seduction and arts of the other sex: and therefore, by restraining and making so highly penal the solicitations of the men, they meant to secure effectually the honour of the women […] But our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honour of either sex, as to lay the blame of a mutual fault upon one of the transgressors only.
Treating the victim as a putative “transgressor” was not an improvement in the status of women.
Second, women lost the right to judge and exit a marriage by the severe limitation, and then (by Justinian) the abolition of divorce. Having lost any legal control over very basic aspects of their lives, the next (logical) step was that women, so spectacularly distrusted as decision-makers, lost property rights within marriage. By contrast, married Roman women under classical Roman law retained full property rights and legal capacity; they could also initiate divorce unilaterally on equal terms with men.

The Christian view that married persons were “one flesh” turned out to mean that the husband’s flesh embodied all the legal rights and authority: any legal appeal by women being to civil or church courts entirely made up of men under a religion which conceived God in masculine terms and where religious authority was male. This process culminated in the institution of coverture marriage, where married women lost their capacity to bring suit, own property and earn an income, a situation not remedied in England until 1882, with passage of the Married Women’s Property Act.

So authority was masculine, the feminine was what lacked authority. The veneration to Mary as mother of God was a limited refuge, given conception without sex was such an impossible standard of female perfection and the doctrine of Original Sin was used with particular intensity against women. St Thomas Aquinas morally parsing the severity of rape according to how much the rights and authority of any responsible male had been intruded on (Summa Theologica 2:2 Q.154) is sadly indicative of wider patterns.

This is why the process of the secularisation—that is, the de-Christianisation—of law over the last couple of centuries has seen dramatic improvements in the legal status and rights of women. Many conservative Christians are clearly frustrated that issues they thought settled in the fourth, fifth, eleventh or whatever century have been re-opened in Western civilisation and their perspectives have been losing. The biggest single reason for this has been the way capitalism and technology has been empowering women. (The empowering of women also appears to be what most outrages those purist monotheists, the jihadis, about the modern West.)

There was also nothing remarkable in women having pastoral and administrative religious duties in early Christianity. Women had important pastoral and administrative responsibilities within many pagan religions, particularly Rome’s and Egypt’s; helped by the fact that polytheist divinity could most emphatically be female: early Christianity was responding to a wider pattern in also giving women pastoral and administrative duties, a pattern it successively abandoned as it became more entrenched and has only (very partially) re-embraced as women have become more powerful.

For any form of monotheism to improve the status of women, a society has to be remarkably misogynist: which Roman society of the late Republic and early Empire was not. The more common pattern has been for monotheism to increase the level of institutionalised misogyny. For example, medieval Islam and classical Athens share many common patterns regarding the restriction of women and elevation of masculinity: Islam has however been even worse precisely because it is monotheist, so the de-legitimisation of the female is even more intense.

The notion that Christianisation only has good effects is a fairy tale that some find comforting, but it is simply not true and it is particularly not true for the status of women.

(I thank Skepticlawyer for her help with legal history in the above, an earlier version of which was published as a letter in Quadrant.)

No comments:

Post a Comment