Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bettany Hughes Divine Women - Part 3

Finally got round to my review of the last episode of Bettany Hughes Divine Women! This was a much better programme, more tightly focused, and moreover focused on historical women rather than speculation. We had the two wives of Mohammed, the Empress Wu, and St Hilda.

Mohammed's wives, it appears, were very important as teachers in the early days of Islam, especially after the Prophet's death. Hughes suggested that it was the rapid expansion of the faith by conquest that led to a downgrading of the status of women, especially as the cultures they took over were slave owning and the men became used to owning female slaves, and their lowly status helped to demote the position of women. But even here were gaps. If Islam begins with women teaching and making converts, where does the rapid expansion by military conquest come from? Is that there in the original template that they were teaching? If not, what were they teaching about that aspect of Islam, and why is there no sign that they were critical of it?

The same problems beset the Empress Wu, held up as a model of how far a woman could go - she had, as we are told, her chief rival, another Empress (Wang), locked up to die a slow lingering death. How did she rationalise this action with her Buddhist beliefs? Was it the case that the flamboyant display of Buddhism was divided off from personal morality?

With Hilda, and her part at Whitby, we are on surer ground. The period is well documented by the historian Peter Beresford Ellis, and also well presented as historical fiction with his alter-ego Peter Tremaine. Bede, who documents the life of Hilda, was born approximately eight years before her death; this is about as close as is possible for a historical personage. Bede wrote that " "All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace".

Bettany Hughes puts a good case for women being very powerful in positions such as Abbess, like Hilda, but then spoils it by suggesting that the rise of the Roman papacy, and the control of Rome downgraded their status. In fact, Hildegard of Bingen - who lived about 400 years later - was at least as powerful as Hilda. Hildegard wrote letters of advice to kings and bishops and admonished Popes very severely when she thought their actions warranted it. She was very highly respected and esteemed. Hilda's abbey did not decline because of Rome, as Hughes suggests - it was destroyed by Danish invaders in 867 which go unmentioned by her..

I enjoyed this episode more, but still found that she tended to be too selective with her history to make particular points about women being central to religions. Anyone who has read Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell - "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" and "The Women around Jesus" knows that there is plenty to say about their central role in Christianity, for example, if you look at the full historical picture; there is not need to select to prove a case.

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