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I am hesitant to say the institution of slavery shaped the lives of young, elite women in the Old South; rather, I would argue it was the nature of the patriarchal society that shaped them both.
One must first understand the constraints placed on women by a patriarchal society. Men often used marriage to further their own economic status (Jabour 92). They championed a sexual double standard where women could not stray outside their marriage, yet men consistently engaged in extramarital affairs with both slaves and poor white women. In fact, white men believed slave women protected elite white women from men’s pervasive sexual appetites (91). Former slaveholders used their daughters’ debuts and the ritual of presenting them to society to reaffirm their own social status (118). The South’s “honor culture sanctioned hard drinking among elite men,” and spousal abuse stemmed from such behavior (91). Women had to prioritize their husband’s careers over their personal needs (175), and marriage pulverized women’s legal identities and economic rights.
After examining the plight of elite white women in the Old South, one can draw comparisons to the institution of slavery. While women were aware of their educational advantages and class privileges over enslaved blacks, both “were deprived of the fruits of their labor, their legal identity, control of their sexuality and rights to their children” (Jabour 10). Truly a theme of white male domination prevails in the antebellum South. These young women, like slaves, engaged in more covert resistance epitomized by their reluctance to come-of-age and “accept socialization into their assigned roles” (13). I would argue that just as the proslavery arguments were contrived by southern white men, so too was the myth of the southern belle; and both manufactured identities subverted slaves and white women into submissive positions.
In 9th century Al-Andalus, a Muslim-ruled area in the modern day south of Spain, Christian worshipers, or Mozarabs, were second class compared to their Arab counterparts. Many Christians underwent Islamisation, and as a result, more devout members of the Catholic church experienced an identity crisis. Forty-eight people, mostly clergy members and laymen (and women) with links to the monastery, martyred themselves by publicly denouncing Islam. A lecherous priest named Eulogius incited and chronicled the martyrs. Eventually the Muslim authorities put him to death.
In Martyrs of Cordoba, Jessica A. Coope presents a realistic thesis concerning the Cordoban martyr debacle using evidence primarily from two sources, the works of Eulogius and Paul Albar. Her theory underscores the Christian fanatic response to the increasing vibrancy of the Umayyad court (14). According to Coope, due to their marginalized position in society, Christians during the 850s, and the period leading up to it, found both social and economical reasons to adopt Islamic cultural components (3.) As a result of this one-sided assimilation, proponents of monasticism, particularly Christian clerics and laymen, found “the new dominance of a foreign cultural tradition devastating” (9). Hence the paranoid reaction of Christians to encroaching Islamic cultural ideologies was relegated to a specific subset of Cordoba’s Christian population.
Though Coope goes to great lengths to illustrate the Muslim-Christian tensions that consumed every level of Cordoban society (23), I wish she had spent more time analyzing the implications of religious power struggles within the confines of Cordoban families. For example, Nunilo and Alodia’s religious beliefs differed from their Muslim father, and later stepfather, so they were sent away, eventually exposed, and executed (23). Eulogius’ favorite, Flora, could not practice her faith because her brother was a Muslim. She fled, but he found her and brought her before the qadi. First she was beaten until the flesh on her neck was exposed. Six years later she was executed (24-25). Additionally, Rudericus, after trying to mediate between his Christian and Muslim brothers, was sold out by the latter brother. He was later executed for not renouncing Christianity (29). Coope concedes, “hatred between relatives in mixed families was one of the engines that powered the martyr’s movement” (29), but I kept wondering why. Perhaps the larger societal tensions that could not be expressed publicly manifested in private life. As the laws of physics demand, at some point that tension must release. Eulogius forcefully broke the ice and seemed to create an even more hostile environment where smaller, family ties buckled under amassing pressure.
Because Eulogius was clearly egotistical and manipulative (and after reading his Documentum concerning Flora, absolutely narcissistic (27)), I have an issue with Coope’s sources. True, she uses “other Latin and Arabic sources” to contextualize the martyr movement, but she admits most of her evidence stems from biographical accounts of Eulogius and Albar (xi). Coope seems to justify her dominant source due to the lack of progression in modern scholarship pertaining to medieval Spain (xi). In fact, in a review of Coope’s Martyr’s of Cordoba, Kenneth Baxter Wolf notes the lack of new data present in her argument (The Catholic Historical Review 307). Though Eulogius seemed to instigate the movement at every turn, Coope hardly focuses on his huge role. With the manner in which she presented her evidence, I am not convinced the Cordoban martyrs would have occurred in the absence of the meddling Eulogius.
With source-issues taken into consideration, as another review by J.N. Hillgarth maintains, Coope displayed a “valiant attempt” despite her source limitations (The American Historical Review 1531). I agree with her over-arching theme: “the public nature of Cordoba prompted Christians to think about their own religion in similar terms” (83), but I think her use of sources demanded too much supposition on her part as to the small-scale response of Cordoba as a whole. Sure, we can read Eulogius’ fanatical reactions, reveal whom he was reacting to and why, then work backwards; but if Coope is highlighting a societal trend, there has to be more evidence.
The historiography of art throughout the ages gives as much insight into the culture of the recipient as it does the lifestyle of the creator. A careful analysis of various art forms throughout time–whether dancing, painting, or sculpting–preserves the vitality of the human race in each of its stages as society continues its incessant march through time.
It is important to consume past art as voraciously as it is vital to indulge new creations. Why not connect with people who lived years, even centuries, before and explore the essence of what it means to be human; why we dance, why we sing, why we feel the need to capture life’s beauty on the rocky surface of cave walls. The message of Reed History is that we are all fundamentally the same. We have the same hopes, the same dreams and the same anxieties. No medium displays human-beings’ utter consistency better than art.
Check out some pretty fascinating artists, making history everyday.