The Gendered History of Learning Old English.

Mary Dockray-Miller (Professor of English at Lesley University) has a JSTOR Daily post that features a bit of history hitherto unknown to me:

The male professors who led the field of Anglo-Saxon studies in the late nineteenth century emphatically defined English Philology—the study of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English—as a scientific, empirical subject that was also (appropriately) masculine. The study of Anglo-Saxon thus allowed nineteenth-century women to engage in quasi-objective processes of grammatical description and translation, as opposed to more belletristic appreciation of literary texts, a potentially emotional and “feminine” activity considered better suited to the parlor than the library or classroom. […]

Women’s colleges that sought to prove their academic rigor thus offered Anglo-Saxon. Girls’ academies and seminaries that sought to become full-fledged colleges added Anglo-Saxon to their catalogs. Some of these women’s colleges did “feminize” the Anglo-Saxon class: They included the Anglo-Saxon “women’s poems”—Judith, Juliana, and Elene—in their curricula. (Those texts were not part of the syllabus at the equivalent men’s schools.) Before World War I, at least 32 women’s colleges throughout the United States offered Anglo-Saxon; these range from Smith College in Massachusetts to the Florida State College for Women (now the coeducational Florida State University) to Mills College in California. Many graduates of these colleges became classroom teachers in K-12 schools, providing staffing for the growing numbers of public schools throughout the U.S.

Female college graduates and advanced-degree holders who had expertise in Anglo-Saxon were able to enter the female professoriate as English professors, though they were employed almost exclusively at women’s colleges. The growing number of coeducational colleges and universities at the end of the nineteenth century actually worked against the development of women faculty, since women were only very rarely hired to teach men, while men were routinely hired to teach women. Women faculty hired by coeducational universities in the U.S. were confined to teaching in the “ladies” or “domestic science” departments; women who wished to teach natural sciences, history, mathematics, or Anglo-Saxon had to do so at colleges exclusively for women.

Isn’t that interesting? (I regret to say that, less surprisingly, there is a racist aspect to the study of “Anglo-Saxon”; you can read all about it at the link.) Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. Greg Pandatshang says:

    But Ethelbert Barksdale was born in 1824, a counterexample to the point the author was making.

  2. elessorn says:

    Indeed, I’m surprised essays like these are not greeted with more skepticism. One can wholeheartedly share the author’s very clearly signaled personal politics while lamenting the fact that they are so clearly signaled: if we agree that power can corrupt the wisest, surely it’s easy to see how even the wisest politics could corrupt scholarship.

    This, for example, seems extremely doubtful to me:

    The study of Anglo-Saxon thus allowed nineteenth-century women to engage in quasi-objective processes of grammatical description and translation, as opposed to more belletristic appreciation of literary texts, a potentially emotional and “feminine” activity considered better suited to the parlor than the library or classroom.

    There’s no particular reason to uncharitably doubt the author’s representation of trends in nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon studies. And though it’s certainly not my field, my layman’s sense (thinking of Tolkien’s The Monsters and the Critics here) is that for the n=1 of Old English literature, literary appreciation of the core texts did indeed lag their use as grist to the philological mill. (A common enough pattern, really, for literatures without a receptive tradition continuous to some modern society, cf. Egyptian or Sumerian.)

    Granting all that, as perhaps the tortured hedging in “potentially” inadvertently hints, the idea that “belletristic” appreciation was coded and deprecated as “feminine” in the nineteenth century as a whole seems wildly off the mark.

  3. My response to Elessorn:

    Everyone has politics. Don’t you think that signaling them is better than hiding them under the cloak of some ostensible objectivity?

    Also, did you read the whole article? It seems to me to support its points quite well.

    In general, however, I am sympathetic to the argument that oppressive ideologies are often reified rather than dealt with in their diversity and historical specificity. (I agree with critiques of Said’s Orientalism, while also being extremely glad he put it out there, for example).

  4. Thank you; you said what I wanted to say better than I would have said it.

  5. SFReader says:

    I found this bit strange:

    “A recent historical novel for young adults, Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, features a diverse trio of teenagers: William is the mixed-race son of a French knight and a North African woman; Jacob is Jewish; and Jeanne is a peasant. It won a Newbery honor in 2017, suggesting that the multicultural Middle Ages have reached the mainstream. ”

    Surely Sir Walter Scott did exactly that with Ivanhoe in 1820? The novel is as multicultural as it gets with Jews, Saxons, Norman French and some Saracens in the background.

    Though I suppose unlike Sir Walter, modern authors would be more politically correct and have Ivanhoe marry Rebecca instead of Lady Rowena…

  6. David Marjanović says:

    modern authors would be more politically correct

    I doubt it. Even in Star Trek, the skin tones of couples tend to be identical.

  7. Indeed. Benjamin Sisko’s romantic interests, even non-human ones, were all black, which on reflection highlights the fact that “white” tended to be the default for everyone else. I also recall an episode of Enterprise where the Andorians use “pinkskin” as a generalized slur against humans, which… I think the writers really didn’t think through as much as they should have.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    There were in the same time period probably rather more American women who studied Latin/Greek in college or grad school before pursuing careers teaching Latin/Greek to high school students and/or in women’s colleges. Did they bring a more quote female or quote ladylike or quote bellestristic approach to classical texts than male scholars of the same time? (About a hundred years ago, one of the few black alumnae of Radcliffe was teaching Latin at the only high school open, under Jim Crow, to black students in the county I grew up in some generations later. Even under Jim Crow, until c. 1920 Latin was mandatory at that particular school for anyone who wanted a high school diploma.)

  9. Elessorn says:

    Thank you; you said what I wanted to say better than I would have said it.

    I hesitate to challenge our gracious host, but–are you really grateful for a post accusing a fellow commenter of arguing in bad faith? I’m happy to be challenged–even harshly!–but I can’t see how discussion prospers when we assume that our interlocutors must also be false if we think they’re wrong.

  10. I wasn’t assuming you were false, I was really and sincerely asking whether you were reacting to specific points in the article or merely Hat’s summary of it. It sounds like others have also found fault in the author’s argument, and have been quite specific with their critiques.

  11. I didn’t get the sense that you were accused of arguing in bad faith (and I certainly didn’t think that); I thought this was well put:

    Everyone has politics. Don’t you think that signaling them is better than hiding them under the cloak of some ostensible objectivity?

    It took me a long time to figure that out myself, but I finally got it through my head.

  12. Everyone has politics. Don’t you think that signaling them is better than hiding them under the cloak of some ostensible objectivity?

    Even better, would be to try and compensate for it.

    I, for one, read the whole article and found it unconvincing. That said, I know zilch about Old English studies in America (and elsewhere) and I can see that people who know more don’t need extensive explanation, but might know what is going on by a few hints.

  13. SFReader says:

    It’s time to write gendered history of languagehat. Should start with something like

    “The male participants of Languagehat discussions emphatically defined linguistics as a scientific, empirical subject that was also (appropriately) masculine…. “

  14. elessorn says:

    @Deb

    Also, did you read the whole article? It seems to me to support its points quite well.

    This is disconcerting. In over a decade of posting at languagehat, can’t say I recall ever being thus accused before. Arguing on the intertubes ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes, but in my experience chez Hat even cranks and trolls are generally treated with a courtesy I am proud to associate myself with. In any case, I urge you to consider the (I should have thought fairly obvious) dangers of assuming mere disagreement derives from bad faith.

    [EDIT: I appreciate your later clarification, though at a loss to see my first post described as non-specific, but let it pass.]

    Everyone has politics. Don’t you think that signaling them is better than hiding them under the cloak of some ostensible objectivity?

    There is almost nothing I disagree with more strongly than this.

    (1) Above all I reject the hermeneutic of suspicion that underlies the metaphor. Will you really award the whole body to bias and make objectivity the merest slip of a cloak? Is that how you experience bias in yourself? Let him without regret for ever losing to his own biases be the first to correct me, of course, but I think we all repent bias in ourselves (and blame it in others) precisely because, against your suggestion, we see it as a temptation that might be resisted. That we often fail to do so is no more an argument against objectivity than human imperfection is an argument against good.

    If you’ll allow me a parochially American example, do you remember Americans’ collective shudder last year when (sigh) our President asserted Judge Curiel couldn’t give him a fair verdict in court because simply he was Hispanic (and purportedly thus biased against Mr. Mexicans-are-Rapists)? Did you sympathize with that shudder? If you did, you’ll surely see how it shouldn’t matter even if we could make an objective case that Curiel was strongly anti-Trump in political conviction: civil society cannot survive such a hermeneutic of suspicion, and neither can scholarship. That’s where this leads (if we haven’t arrived already).

    (2) And even if one were to hold to such epistemological fatalism, I think it’s an objectively terrible idea to signal political leanings in scholarship. At the least I hope you’ll grant that with the exception of total hacks, professional scholars maintain (and should maintain) some separation between their expert opinions about their specialty and their personal lay opinions about politics in general. But if I tangle the latter with the former in my work, it’s quite a task for my interlocutors to disentangle them in responding to me, no? And a bit rich for me to expect them to make the effort.

    And if you agree that political issues tend to heat the blood a little bit more than esoteric intellectual debate, you can see how this has the entirely predictable secondary consequence that responses to such politically-tangled arguments will tend to sift and self-select by response to the politics and not to the arguments. And while this corruption of peer-review is bad enough, the problem is even worse, since the “space” of peer review affects not only how research is evaluated, but how it is generated. The Book of Sturgeon teaches us that 90% of everything is crap anyway. Good research is going to be crowded out by bad in any field, even guarded at its peak by constant vigilance against vectors of entropy. Giving even solid research a pass for bursts of politicized rhetoric is inviting chaos in through the front door. Unless you can think of a way to keep exceptions for some from becoming precedents for all, I urge you to reconsider your willingness to let our biases all hang out.

    I thought there was a cautionary enough tale in the Affair of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife blogged about here previously. Philologically the said “gospel” papyrus was pretty quickly identified as a forgery, but it wasn’t until an investigative reporter outside the academy tracked down the actual forger in a riveting Atlantic article that the original defender of the papyrus conceded (the possibility that) it was a fake. There were a number of ugly suggestions online that the whole dispute was basically political, the noxious simplification being that “liberals” were defending it, and “conservatives” attacking it because of the papyrus’ content. I personally find this really odious: without assumptions of good faith, we might as well just close up shop, and I resist the idea that any “side” (assuming those characterizations were accurate) in early Christian paleography has an advantage in technical ability. But the fact that such a narrative was even remotely plausible–and in a field presumably much less politicized than English studies–should really terrify anyone who hasn’t given up on the humanities yet.

    So no, I very much do not think openly signalling politics is a better idea, or a good idea, or less than a catastrophic idea. The fact that it will show through anyway is all the more reason to guard against it: the commons of scholarship requires constant tending. My personal feeling is that we should be particularly vigilant about politics we agree with–who better than a friend to critique?–but I may be naive: it may be true that only our opponents can see our flaws.

    It seems to me to support its points quite well.

    As for the article, no, to be honest, I do not think it very convincing at all. To be fair, it’s not quite right to critique it like an academic paper presenting original research. Genre is important, and while it’s more than a blog post, I think the author has some right to expect us to accept her selection of facts on good faith, as tidbits reflecting a much larger body of corroborating data she has no room to present in full. That said, throughout the argumentation seems very dubious to me.

    (a) The first generations of female students, however, took advantage of the academic respectability provided by Anglo-Saxon, with some leveraging the knowledge to enter the academic profession as faculty.

    This implication here has to be that a substantial number of earlier female scholars of Old English pursued it not to..study Old English…but as a likely vector for professional advancement. I imagine said scholars would not have appreciated this characterization. But let’s say that “leveraging” was simply a poor choice. She follows it up with: “Anglo-Saxon provided upper-middle-class white women with entry into the tiny ranks of female professors,” and maybe all she wants to say is that, in comparison to other specialties, Anglo-Saxon was notable for (proportionally?) how many more women were found among active scholars? If so she needs to gesture at some comparandum. She doesn’t have to whip out a table in this format, but she has to at least assure me that she has looked at the numbers. Like J.W. Brewer, I would also like to know how it compared to Latin teachers, a field that provided far, far more jobs in those days.

    (b) Female college graduates and advanced-degree holders who had expertise in Anglo-Saxon were able to enter the female professoriate as English professors, though they were employed almost exclusively at women’s colleges. The growing number of coeducational colleges and universities at the end of the nineteenth century actually worked against the development of women faculty, since women were only very rarely hired to teach men, while men were routinely hired to teach women.

    Again, some argument has to be made that women were more likely to get hired as Anglo-Saxonists than as scholars of other subfields. She doesn’t even bother to flatly state the case for us. The follow-up here makes little sense to me. Even If women were rarely hired to teach men, then the growth of coeducational facilities still works out to a net gain for female professors unless this (a) implies the conversion of formerly women-only institutions to co-ed ones (amid mass layoffs of female staff?), or (b) proposes the hypothetical that continued gender segregation would have necessitated the building of more women’s colleges over time. I think she means the second, but who knows?

    (c) Female college professors were unmarried, a testimony to the era’s unwavering cultural position that a marriage and a profession were incompatible for women. Despite their advanced degrees, these professors were referred to as “miss” rather than “doctor” or “professor,” so that both their gender and marital status would remain clear at all times. Anglo-Saxon, then, provided much-needed academic respectability and professional access to a segment of first-wave feminists in the U.S.

    Her conclusion to the first part. This paragraph makes no sense to me. Discrimination in forms of address definitely reflects the gender expectations of the time, and certainly hints at why so many women struggled to enter the professoriate, but what was different for women who studied Anglo-Saxon? (Again, no comparison to women in other fields.) Were they addressed differently? It doesn’t seem so.

    It all goes back to the bit I quoted last time as the most relevant:

    The study of Anglo-Saxon thus allowed nineteenth-century women to engage in quasi-objective processes of grammatical description and translation, as opposed to more belletristic appreciation of literary texts, a potentially emotional and “feminine” activity considered better suited to the parlor than the library or classroom.

    In an 1884 essay in the journal of the newly formed Modern Language Association, H.C.G. Brandt, professor of French and German at Hamilton College, differentiated between “scientific” and “natural” methods of language study, explicitly equating “natural” instruction with “the mother” and “the nursery.” Brandt insisted that he and his colleagues were “modern-language-men” whose scientific methods allowed “our profession [to] gain dignity and weight.” Once they were able to access instruction in these scientific methods, women students of philology entered into and benefitted from this patriarchal culture.

    Set aside for a second the completely unprovided context of Brandt’s argument. Did any of us imagine Brandt was contrasting two methods of language teaching available to adults, the “natural” the “scientific,” associating them with men and women, giving “mother” and “nursery” as mere grounding examples of the latter connection? Were any of us unaware enough of 19th century assumptions about gender roles that we read “modern-language-men” as actively communicating to Brandt’s audience “…and not women!”–as if that was a polemical clarification he had to make in his day? I would guess no one. No doubt the fact that mothers are the default first-providers of language to children is not wholly biological, and has something to do with social regimes. And no doubt many men back then labored under the prejudice that women were less “scientific” (more “natural”??) than men. Let us grant all of that. None of it bears necessary logical connection with: “Once they were able to access instruction in these scientific methods, women students of philology entered into and benefitted from this patriarchal culture.” Indeed, we are informed that female professors were addressed as “miss” and forced to remain unmarried, presented with no evidence that philological or scientific disciplines (as opposed to “belleletristic”??) provided a prime entry point for women into academia, and no reason to suspect that among philological studies Anglo-Saxon was particularly friendly. These are all possibilities, of course, but she does not argue (or mention) them, and it’s hard for me to understand being convinced otherwise.

    This is already long enough, but I think I’ve made my point. If we claim the humanities are not, as detractors have it when they’re feeling particularly charitable, a fluffy mess of useless drivel, we have to care about these things. “That’s probably what they meant” is not good enough for the physical sciences, and it shouldn’t be good enough for the human sciences. I wouldn’t even bet on Dockray-MIller being mostly wrong, which is all the more reason to read her argument with the serious respect of doubt.

    ***
    As a side note for the interested, though I confined myself to reading the original article on the first pass, checking on Brandt’s essay through JStor confirmed my unease that no context was provided for it–always a red flag. Titled How far should our Teaching and Text-books have a Scientific Basis?, it has little to do with Anglo-Saxon studies at all. The part in question reads:

    By basing our instruction and text-books upon a scientific ground-work, our department and our profession gain dignity and weight. It has been often remarked,with how much justice I do not care to discuss that the still prevailing method of teaching Latin and Greek is old-fashioned, stale and stereotyped. The trouble with our teaching of modern languages is, that it is loose, random, unsystematic. This trouble is partly due to the fact, that our students come to us with such various objects in view. One wants to speak French only, the other to read it only, and only Prose at that, so that he can read French scientific books and journals. The third wants to study it thoroughly, the fourth wants its literature and its philology. We naturally vary our methods in teaching these groups of students. But we can go too far in this. The student who wants only to speak French, that is, to acquire a couple hundred phrases and a vocabulary to talk about the weather and all kinds of “small talk,” has little claim upon the instructor in a high-school, college or university. Even the natural method can hardly save him at his age. He should have begun in the nursery, when the mother as the “bonne” was all in all to him, primer, grammar, dictionary and literature. We cannot bring back to him in our class-rooms the conditions in which the natural method is the only proper one. The natural method can have no claim upon us. I distinguish between the natural and the oral method, which combined with grammar and exercises, is the best preparation for acquiring a speaking knowledge. It is even quite feasible to accustom a large class to the spoken word and train the ear as well as the eye. But the natural method we cannot use. For all other methods the ground-work should be scientific. I mean by that, that for instance the systems of inflection which the students learn should be such as can be traced to older systems, and be compared with those of related languages. Even if the student never study the language in its older periods, and only wants to acquire ability to read ordinary prose, the lowest purpose anyone can have. As another instance, taken from German, the terminology should be scientific, though we never go so far as to study the nature and history of Ablaut, Umlaut and other phonetic laws, the scientific terms can be used in the most ele mentary section of the grammar.

    As should be plain from this, the article is entirely about asserting that modern languages can be studied just as “scientifically” as Greek and Latin, with this “natural” bit coming up here in the entirely reasonable argument that the condition of child language acquisition cannot be reproduced for adult learners. I’m honestly still kind of at a loss to understand why this article was even cited. The “dignity and weight” has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast to the “natural” (feminine?) method, and everything to do with the then-universally-assumed inferiority of modern language study vz. classical philology. That said, we do have some tidbits that reflect 19th century gender assumptions, which she does not quote:

    When ” English ” meant, and too often still means a certain amount of orthoepy, elocution, style and literature, when we teach French and German as if they were accomplishments like dancing, fencing, or final touches to be put on (to) young ladies in their seminaries at an extra charge, and on (to) young gentlemen, who have not brains enough to get into college, our department is justly charged with affording no mental discipline. Let ” English” mean as it should and as it is bound to mean more and more, the historical scientific study of the language, Beowulf and Chaucer.

    This, by the way, is the first appearance of Anglo-Saxon studies in the piece. Continuing:

    Let “German” for students of the grade with which we have mainly to do mean an intelligent acquisition of its sounds, a drill in the various laws of its phonology, Ablaut, Umlaut, Grimm’s Law, English and German corresponderes and cognates, syntactical analysis of Lessing’s and Schiller’s Prose, and of the difficult parts of Faust and of Nathan der Weise, the reading of the masterpieces of German literature, speaking and writing the language, and we claim without presumption, that the discipline acquired by going through such courses, while different from the discipline afforded by the study of Greek is not inferior to it. More than that. Two sides of this discipline Greek cannot afford at all, viz.:
    I. That gained from the exact analysis and reproduction of foreign sounds or in the case of English of the Old English pronunciation. The Greek and Latin sounds are difficult to reconstruct.

    And that’s the last reference, besides a brief aside on Sweet’s primer (“It is to be regretted that Sweet in his Anglo-Saxon Primer and Reader does not state the laws in the Phonology.”)

    Brandt, by the way, seems to be a native German speaker.

  15. Thanks for that detailed analysis and for digging into the cited Brandt piece! You make excellent points (though I continue to disagree about objectivity).

  16. I can do no better than to give you the words of Herbert Butterfield in his seminal (ovular?) essay The Whig Interpretation of History (1931):

    The historian may be cynical with Gibbon or sentimental with Carlyle; he may have religious ardour or he may be a humorist. He may run through the whole gamut of the emotions, and there is no reason why he should not meet history in any or all of the moods that a man may have in meeting life itself. It is not sin in a historian to introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognized, and the reader is locked along with the writer in what is really a treacherous argument in a circle. It is to abstract events from their context and […] then to pretend that by this “the facts” are being allowed to “speak for themselves”.

    Disclosing one’s politics is like disclosing one’s funding: it proclaims a possible (not, of course, a necessary) source of bias which the reader is then forewarned about.

  17. An apposite quote and summary.

  18. Greg Pandatshang says:

    If I declare my source of funding or some other potential bias, that’s one thing. But what do you make of me if I actually fail to disclose my funding, but you’re able to put 2 and 2 together and figure it out anyway? That’s more like what’s going on in this article: nowhere does the author specify “I look at history in terms of such-and-such framework”, it’s simply an evident backdrop.

  19. Eh, a disclosure can be implicit rather than explicit, though explicit is better. When the author says her affiliation is with Google and speaks of what “we” have done, one can assume a Google bias. It’s when the bias is fully intertwingled with the choice of data that it becomes impossible to establish the bias.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure if “politics” is the most helpful synonym for the varied range of temperaments or approaches or emphases that Butterfield seems to be talking about in the quotation given.

  21. By no means, but it is called the Whig interpretation of history. Politics is certainly one of the subtypes of bias he had in mind.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    But the fact that such a narrative was even remotely plausible–and in a field presumably much less politicized than English studies–should really terrify anyone who hasn’t given up on the humanities yet.

    The paleography of early Christian times may well be “much less politicized than English studies”. But in the study of early Christianity, which included the study of the contents of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, you find Christian fundamentalists, atheists, and everything in between. Potential biases abound. In many countries, parts of that spectrum align with parts of the political spectrum in the strict sense of the word, too…

  23. Yvy tyvy says:

    in his seminal (ovular?) essay

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s really clever. On the other hand, ewwwwwwww.

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