“Lock her up!”: Women, power, and (medieval) history

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Current mood

This time last year, I was more hopeful. I was sure Hillary Clinton would be our forty-fifth president (there’s a twitter handle that propagates this alternate reality). In many ways, the past twelve months and the seemingly global, conservative male backlash that shaped much of what made 2016 the worst has re-shaped the focus and purpose of my research because it’s made it scarily more relevant.

Generally speaking, “relevant” is a dirty research buzzword for people who study the Middle Ages because most people perceive the medieval past as irrelevant to modern society. For us, this is fine; it’s fun to study a pre-modern society and delve into lives lived six hundred or more years ago. Arguably as a culture, we’re still intrigued by the medieval – the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones (which is basically just medieval history with the names changed to protect the guilty) is testament to medieval history’s staying power even in modernity. Although, to be fair, the 2016 elections were about as unpredictable and shocking as a GOT series.

For me personally, I chose to study elite women in late medieval Scotland because their lives mattered to me, and how they operated in spaces dominated by men inspired me. And this purpose was enough for me – I hardly found my study of these women to be in any way political or feminist. I was an historian, pursuing a PhD on a research project that I found interesting, exciting, and somewhat removed from modern political woes.

However, the chant that Lieutenant General Michael Flynn started at the Republican National Convention last July, changed how I thought about women and their relationship to power. Galled that a woman would dare to run for the highest political office in the United States, he led chants of “lock her up” as he called for her to drop out of the presidential race. “Lock her up” would become a commonplace chant amongst Trump supporters for the remainder of the campaign because, for the ardent among them, Clinton wasn’t just guilty of being a woman, she was guilty of being a traitor to her country. On the night of November 8th, as a Trump victory became certain, chants of “lock her up” filled Trump Tower as the Republican candidate and his supporters celebrated. Since the election, Clinton has not been tried for treason, but Flynn and Trump may yet be found guilty of that crime.

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Attempting to find humour in the “changing order of things” during a seminar paper at the University of Edinburgh’s Gender History Network Seminar, 5 April 2017.

Now what does Clinton, Trump, or Flynn have to do with a gender researcher who studies women who lived more than six hundred years ago? The theoretical dot connector is the famous French philosopher of power, Michel Foucault. Although ever-present in the minds of academics, Foucault’s conceptualisation of power has become increasingly relevant in the current political climate. In a recent essay, Colin Koopman argued that Foucault’s theory of power is perhaps more relevant than ever, given the “changing order of things.” For Foucault, power was dynamic; it was something exercised rather than possessed. In his 1975 seminal work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, he argued that there were always tensions in power, as people sought to assert authority over each other.[1] In the medieval context, the re-balance of power, then, was the public spectacle of the scaffold.[2]

And this is where my work on elite women and power in late medieval Scotland intersects with the current political climate. Late medieval kings asserted their dominance over oppositional family groups through trials, execution, and imprisonment. During this period, women that were part of these oppositional groups, such as the Albany Stewarts, were imprisoned, often for long periods of time. One duchess, Isabella of Lennox, was imprisoned from 1424 to 1437. She was kept in Tantallon Castle and, later, Stirling Castle.[3] To put it simply, the best way to deal with an oppositional, powerful woman was to lock her up.

As Flynn’s words became the rallying cry for Trump supporters everywhere, it became my call to arms. The continuity of the patriarchal male response to oppositional, powerful women unsettled me. Suddenly, my research on women in late medieval Scotland, needed to be feminist research on women in late medieval Scotland. In particular, I need to put forward and assert the political influence and clout that elite women had in late medieval Scotland because women matter, their history matters, and their accomplishments need to be incorporated into the historical master narrative. As discouraged as I sometimes feel in 2017, we can all be empowered by the women that came before us and the women that will come after us, who have challenged and will continue to challenge the structural inequalities created by the patriarchy. Subjectivity in history can be powerful and, if anything, the last twelve months have made the force of my arguments in my thesis stronger, as well as, sadly, more relevant.

Rachel Davis

Lead Image of Tantallon Castle, an imprisonment location of Isabella, duchess of Albany and countess of Lennox: © Rachel Davis

Image 1: © Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: © PGRNS’s Rian Sutton

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan (trans.) (London, 1991), 26-7.

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 47-58.

[3] Walter Bower, Scotichronicon, vol. 8, D.E.R. Watt (ed. and trans.) (Aberdeen, 1991), 243; George Burnett (ed.), The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vol. iv. (Edinburgh, 1880), 591; Michael Brown, James I (East Linton, 1994), 63.

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