56 – Telling the Full Story (a Bonus Episode)

So I’m doing a short midweek episode because something’s been irking me. I’ve heard repeatedly from a variety of people that history is a guy thing. And that’s f#*king stupid. I mean, you could say that just on sheer mathematics, 51% of history is a female thing. But that’s not the truth of it. The truth is that history is a human thing. These are everyone’s stories and while there were a ridiculous number of biased primary sources who focused on almost exclusively on men, it is our job to rise above those sources because if you are ignoring over half of the population you are ignoring the majority of our shared history. But unfortunately, many historians and narrators don’t rise above it. The easy path is to just speak about the men of society because the great man approach has been a historical trope since at least the Roman era. But it’s incomplete.

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  1. Never one for gender discussions or judgements, I have always defined myself first and foremost as a historian. It would always surprise me how few women were in my history classes and of those women, how few spoke up in class and were actively engaged in the discussion. I figured that women were turned off of history because for so long it stayed firmly in the realms of politics and war. But to me history is the story of people, sociology, culture, food, clothing, and entertainment. It is a beautiful and rich tapestry of the life people just like you and me have lived and how they have been shaped by circumstances both beyond and within their control.

    I ended up writing my thesis on women in colonial africa and how their little documented efforts helped cement the intangible idea of empire in their fellow colonialists.

    Just because women didn’t make it into your text book doesn’t mean they weren’t there, doing what women have done best for centuries: making history.

    Thank you for this. We need more of it and I absolutely love your podcast.

  2. As a woman and self described history nut, a male-centric view doesn’t turn me off. I think it is that really for most of history the men got the big stories; the battles, etc. But women got what I call the small stories: how to live day to day. Battles are a much easier story to tell, as opposed to which herbs are the best cure for a fever, or which bread does your Lord prefer, or the best ways to stretch last fall’s harvest through until next harvest. That being said, I appreciate that you have thought of this and are trying to change the narrative.

  3. Thank you so much, everyone! I was really nervous when I put this one up. I was worried there was going to be a backlash, and I’ve been really pleased to see such a positive reaction from a wide variety of people. As it’s an issue that I’m quite passionate about, this has put a huge smile on my face.


  4. Great podcast! I find the Roman description of Celtic women fascinating. Their lack of femininity contrasts with the stereotypes of Scots in the 12th century– they are described as barbarians and feminine in various contemporary sources.

  5. I was particularly struck by the example of the British noblewoman who lopped the head off the Roman Centurion who had raped her, and comments attributed to her. That makes me wonder if that provides an insight to the social mores of the Celtic British at the time? The Romans seemed to have no problems with taking liberties with subject women, but apparently Celtic women not only regarded that as a hideous offense, but one that merited a public execution.

  6. When I was graduated with an honors degree in history in 2000, I was one of five women majoring in history out of approximately 50 total graduates in the field. Quite happily, my ranking was #2. Sadly, history is still thought of as a male field. It is one of the only disciplines in the humanities to be thought of thusly. Thanks for posting this, Jamie!

  7. Jamie, the fact that you would cover women Celts in a short bonus episode, heard by, at least initially, only members instead of covering the topic more extensively within the mainstream due to “lack of time” or because it is “outside the scope”of the podcast indicates that you are only paying “lazy” lip service to wanting to tell the “whole” (read majority) story.

    I shall continue to listen to see if this changes. Until then, I shall remain part of the twenty percent gap you find between your male and female members.

    Disenfranchised and only recently (nominally?) considered human,
    Celia Jane

    1. Celia, the reason why the female Celt episode was outside of the scope is because it focuses on people outside of Britain. It deals with the continental Europeans and even celts in North Africa.

      I’m somewhat hurt that you would imply that my efforts to cover women outside of the island is somehow disenfranchising. Especially since I spent an entire episode explaining why I think covering all of history (rather than just kings) is important. I’m an ally.

    2. Jamie,

      I have been following your podcasts in order. Up to this podcast I have seen little evidence that you are giving equal treatment to 51 percent of humanity.

      I would not have commented had you not “laid it on with a trowel” about how women are ignored in history. Such a statement may make you feel better. It has not changed the content of your podcasts.

      How about instead of spending “an entire episode explaining why I think covering all of history (instead of just kings) is important.”, just doing it. That is what an ally would do.

      This may seem harsh, but it is real.

      Celia Jane

      1. Celia,

        I share your frustration more than you’re aware. The unfortunate reality for this project, particularly in the Romano-British era, is that all of the available written materials from where historians can draw from are written by groups of people and cultures that generally barred women access from positions of power and actively wrote them out of their records.

        The fact is, no matter how much women were involved in every aspect of life during Roman Britain (and they were, no doubt), there is precious little written record of any of it. Hence why I had to go to continental Europe to find further material on the subject, and that I had to rely on an epistimologicaly focused monologue to point out the hole in the record. Originally, this monologue was in response to another podcaster openly saying that history was “a guy thing.” I wanted to try to address that directly and contemporaneously.

        However, the fact remains that the best I can do with this period is be honest about its incompleteness. I cannot actually go back in time and make it complete. I have done my best to highlight the few known individual women in the record (such as Cartimandua and Boudicca), and I scoured sources far and wide to make that possible, but unfortunately the Roman sources were little interested in writing about women and once Romanization fully took root, we no longer had the Queens that we did of the Celtic era.

        The argument you have about the Bonus episode on Celtic Women being squirreled away is valid. This is why I chose to correct it later. Originally I had taken it out of the main podcast because it was 1) about Europe and 2) it wasn’t focused upon what I saw as a continuous line of events (ie, tying Queen Chiomara into a story about Britain, when she had never been there nor influenced the events of the island, would have been difficult if not impossible.) However, I thought it was something that everyone should hear so I chose to make it publicly available later on despite those continuity based concerns.

        On your other point, as we have gone forward in the project, further material has become available to me and it’s allowed for a shift in tone and coverage. Additionally, as this show has transitioned from a hobby to a full time job, it has given me the time necessary to do more detailed and intensive analysis of the material. As the show progressed, and certainly by the time of the Scotcast, you can see me dip my toes into sources that are not traditionally included in a history podcast (namely, social theory and archaeological record). This is a non-standard approach to a history podcast, and was somewhat risky because I didn’t know what the listeners would be willing to accept. The typical approach, and what many History Podcasts follow, is essentially what was set down by Mike Duncan with his History of Rome. Namely, a heavy focus on the written record and the Great Man theory. The issue with such an approach is that merely looking at Panegyrics and other written records often leaves us with gigantic blank spots. I wanted to fix that, however I was unsure how much material the audience would accept and how far listeners would allow me to stray from the Great Man approach. This episode was about a lot of things, most of them had to do with being appalled by the history is a “guy thing” impression, but it was also signalling that the show was continuing to grow and mature and that it would be continuing to move away from the Great Man approach and why that isn’t a bad thing.

        I appreciate your strong feelings on the matter, and I recognize that my attempts at rectifying and addressing the issue have not been and are unlikely to be perfect. I hope to continue to get closer to the mark, however.

        In the meantime, I do thank you for bringing up your concern, I know it is not easy to stand up for proper representation in a public forum.

        1. One thing I would note, for what it is worth, that noteworthy things of the past are those things that were worthy of taking notes about, which was quite a different matter in antiquity than it is now.

          It’s easy to complain that historians of the past were unfair to women, or to one group or another, but those historians (who often were not historians, but rather a person acting as a scribe for some other reason) did not live in an era such as our own, when even absolute trivialities are recorded. If you lived in an era when you were part of the minority of the population that could write, and that everything associated with writing was expensive, you’d record only what was regarded as being necessary to record. That means the vast, vast, vast amount of data that’s currently recorded would not be.

          Take, for example, what we know of the battles of World War Two. For an American, British or Canadian unit we can determine, with some effort, the names of the men in the battle, their ranks, their pay, and who their families were. So, if we want to take a big event, like the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944, we can achieve that level of information should we wish to and have the time. And we can go beyond that and determine a great deal about those families.

          We cannot do that in antiquity. We don’t know the names or the backgrounds of individual combatants for the most part in any army of that time, or anything about their families, except what we can guess at.

          If that seems to slight the roles of women in antiquity, or if it omits the history of entire groups (were the Jutes really the Jutes at the time they crossed to Great Britain, were the Saxons a real tribe or simply a band of Frankish people who carried a Sax?) we can’t get too judgmental about it. There was no intent to omit the history of women at the time, but there was an intent to record the extraordinary, which was often male dominated. If that upsets us, that says more about us, than them.

          But before we get too far in being upset, we should realize that the very deficit we complaint about here is repeated by us, even now, all the time. We don’t record the history of the ordinary either, except by accident. Generally, no good history of an event can be written until about a half century from it has passed, at which time people can be objective about it, but by that time, much of what was regarded as ordinary and mundane will have passed out of knowledge because nobody thought it worthy of recording at the time. How many people now know that the German Army was mostly unmechanized during WWII and used more horses than they had in World War One? How many know that the U.S. Army used mules in Italy in that war. How many know that South Korean had just fought a civil war immediately prior to the Korean War. Not many, as nobody thought that noteworthy at the time, and most have forgotten it since.

          All the more so of the average aspects of life and the roles of men and women. Did your g-grandmother join the employment boom for women in WWI? What did your g-grandparents think of women being able to work as secretaries for the first time in the early 20th Century? What was segregated in your community during the segregation era (almost certainly something was, no matter where you live). Not man of us know, as we aren’t very good at noting what is not out of the ordinary at the time.

  8. Thank you. While I love history it’s because I grew up hearing about “history” (in the form of family stories, and those stories ALWAYS had people with whom I could identify doing things with which I could identify. I understand that the big male primates indulge in the constant battles for resources and power, and having done so they view THOSE as the only important or interesting acts but the rest of us don’t define our lives and memories by who we killed and why.
    War ISN’T something fascinating and endlessly enthralling to us. It may be necessary. It may have huge repercussions through a society, but it is most assuredly an evil and is not ALL HUMANS DO.
    The stories my grandpa told me weren’t about who fought and won out over whom for what, they were tales of buying a burger and fries for 25 cents; stories of playing with his friends; his favorite songs; my great-grandma running from the house in the middle of the 1906 quake in San Francisco, as well as how the family visited my great-grandpa when he was stationed at Presidio back in the 19-teens (THERE, there’s your “war” stuff, okay.) The truth is there are so many people and so much of life to remember beside the taking of it that when we ignore the common things that ALL of us experience we’re not telling history at all. We’re telling war stories.
    Food IS history. Child raising IS history and has every bit as much a bearing on the future as any war. How children are raised has much to do with how or even IF they come to wage war in the first place. CLOTHING IS history.
    People are history. They live it and they make it and I’m a “people” never been to war, never want to go, but without that great-grandMOTHER—who was a kick-butt baker, made cream puffs, and had a crush on Maurice Chevalier—running from the quake I wouldn’t be here to even listen to this podcast.

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