Yesterday I read “Favorite Books Of 2010: Peter Sagal On ‘Sex At Dawn’” over at NPR’s website:
If you are interested in evolutionary biology (as I am) and are interested in sex (as everybody is), eventually you seek out an evolutionary explanation of human sexual behavior. It always goes something like this: Men, eager to spread their genes (in the form of unlimited sperm) far and wide, are naturally promiscuous, and women, eager to provide resources for their genes (in the form of rare and precious eggs), are nesters, trading sex with men for security for their offspring. Thus, horndogs and housewives: Eliot and Silda Spitzer, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tiger Woods and his wife Elin Nordegren, ad, quite literally sometimes, nauseam […]
Which is why my favorite book of 2010 is Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s – it’s the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something. The “standard model” is, as authors Ryan and Jetha point out, as false as the Piltdown Man. Even worse, it is, as they call it, a “Flintstonization of Prehistory,” a way of mapping modern mores backwards onto our ancient past.
I’ve always known the ‘horndogs and housewives’ meme was bullshit, but it’s nice to have a book to point to for sceptics.
This backward projection of our own mores is something I wrestle with every day as I write my novel about seventh-century Hild.
My difficulty in a nutshell: from what we can gather from written and archaeological evidence, women and men of that time in the north of England had very strongly gendered occupations. Women wove. A lot. One estimate suggests women spent 65% of their waking hours on textile production. Men didn’t weave. At all. Men carried spears. If we believe the written record (essentially, Bede), then royal women were married out–sent to form alliances with kings of other realms. They were ‘peace weavers’. (Weaving…) In royal terms, women did not live independently; they married men. They had babies. And that’s all I’m prepared to say for sure about what we know of royal women’s roles.
So how do I construct a thrilling story about a historical figure without turning it into an arealistic exercise? What I’ve done is look for the thing that set Hild apart in her own time. She was well-regarded. She hosted and facilitated the Synod that changed the course of British (and so, to a degree, world) history, a Synod attended by a king raised speaking Irish, possibly some priests raised speaking Brittonic, monks and Bishops whose native language was Anglisc, and a Gaulish bishop. Her mother ‘dreamt’ she would be the light of the world. (Her mother was nobody’s fool; she knew how to make a place in the world for her fatherless offspring.)
So my Hild is great at languages. A brilliant observer, facilitator, and persuader. She is also a seer: casting light on the path ahead. But this isn’t a fantasy, so, essentially, she’s a royal advisor, able to predict behaviour–weather, politics–because of her acute understanding of people and the natural world. She is, of course, rich and powerful. And then I threw in ‘tall’. Height is often a marker, in the tales, of royalty, power, and prestige (not to mention good diet). So far, so good: as tall and forbidding seer and advisor, and preternaturally precocious, she gets to travel to all the nexus points of history and have a hand in events, even though she doesn’t fight in the shield wall or any other improbably amazonian nonsense. But being tall and strong, physically and politically, no one messes with her.
But then we come to sex. A royal woman’s value is, to a degree, determined by her marriageability. But I know 7th-century sexual mores were not like our own. That is, I assumed they would be different. But different how, exactly? Well, for one thing, while she was growing up, there was no Christianity in her life or the lives of those around her. So take off the table the notion of lesbian sex being a sin. Because I doubt that Woden or Eostre or Tiw or Thunor or Hretha cared a lot about that kind of detail. They didn’t seem to have anything against happiness. That is, I’ve decided they didn’t–we don’t actually have a clue.
So my decision is that women had a lot of fun sex, with men and with each other. If they were royal, they just had to be careful not to have the kind of sex that could make them pregnant.
And for my next trick, I’ll come up with appropriate words for all this sex. (‘Fuck’ is not an Old English word, for example.) I’m currently having fun being a writer…
But Hild would still have to get married. That’s going to be the Shocking Conclusion of book one. (Evil chortle.)