Here’s an example of why it’s getting harder to sit through mainstream media programmes without either being indoctrinated into woke ideology, or if one has the slightest insight into the ideology, being exasperated to the point of switching off.
The case in point is a potentially excellent series of archaeology programmes called Digging for Britain, starring a pink-haired Dr Alice Roberts (we’ll perhaps forgive her that, as she first gained the attention of TV executives by being the attractive digger on Time Team with the bright red-dyed hair long before it became a flag for gender-queer folk: she is in fact married and a mother, as well as an academic, TV personality and sometime President of the British Humanist Association). The series airs annually on the BBC, reviewing significant discoveries in archaeology in the past year. Apart from the usual science-documentary drone-views of the presenter strolling mistily through beautiful scenery not necessarily related to the stories, this is all good, and indeed very valuable to all lovers of our past.
But one story from a recent episode demonstrates how programme makers just won’t leave post-modern ideology alone, even when they’re talking about the deeply pre-modern past. The dig was a relatively minor one, but interesting for all that: it was at the Benedictine nunnery of Ankerwycke Priory in Berkshire, founded in 1160 and dissolved when Henry VIII dissolved everything with his universal acid. The evidence from the ground was augmented by a useful document in the archives of Lincoln diocese, in which it once lay, recording an episcopal visitation.
This document tells the human story of a house apparently mismanaged by its corrupt prioress, to the extent that six of the thirteen nuns had absconded. As the programme suggested, the records may suggest that the prioress’s replacement with one of the nuns who gave the best account of the abuses, a couple of years later, was a result of the visit. The interest largely lies in the transcripts of the individual accounts of each of the remaining nuns, evidently gathered in confidentiality and treated seriously when compared, say, to whistleblower accounts of child-rape gangs nowadays.
Now, what the research actually seems to show is, from the archaeology, some interesting insight into daily life in a mediaeval nunnery – articles of apparel, a few coins and so on. From the historical documentation comes the record of a conscientious bishop not only going through the motions of his duty of annual visitation, but acting decisively to reform abuses as a result. The prioress comes across as an unworthy appointment (compare the recent experience at Yale University!), and the nuns as being willing to present their case to the bishop, and being heeded when they did.
But the way the story was told on TV leaves a subliminal message that the really important thing is the rich, white, male patriarchy suppressing the voice of women. We began with scenes of the nearby field of Runnymede, which of course has a much more celebrated story about a little thing called Magna Carta. But after sketching that episode, Alice Roberts seemed to suggest that it is well known because it’s very much a male story, and that we ought to be interested in the next dig because it tells women’s story. Now, I may be a poor historian, but I’ve always thought the importance of Magna Carta is that it laid the first foundations for a State that supports the individual rights of men and women against arbitrary rule. It surely takes a rather jaded mentality to see the most important issue of Runnymede as the fact that the barons and the king were all male.
After all, not long before the anarchic period of the Empress Matilda’s bid for the throne had shown contemporaries that she was of “the stock of tyrants.” It might easily have been a queen needing to be constrained by the barons.
If one thought this feminist slant was accidental, the impression was reinforced by Alice saying, as she looked at the excavated ephemera such as a small clothing pin, that the finds were particularly poignant because these women “don’t have a voice.” Now, it ought not to be news to an archaeologist/anatomist that scarcely anybody who has been dead for six hundred years has a voice. That’s kind of what death is about. As some wise soul pointed out, every grave is eventually unvisited, if we exclude the pyramids at Giza or the Holy Sepulchre.
And in this case, as the programme itself went on to show, these particular women have an unusually well-preserved voice in their personal accounts of the state of their nunnery. In fact, the main lesson of the visitation is that the views and experiences of women were taken seriously by rich and powerful middle-aged white males like the Bishop of Lincoln.
There isn’t much about money in the story, in point of fact. But the insinuation common in Digging for Britain, that things religious are really all about money, turned up early. When a small coin or two were found in the dig itself, Alice observed sagely that the priory was not just about spiritual things, but was involved in business dealings as well. Now I’m unsure how much Benedictine nunneries generated wealth when compared, say, to Cistercian monasteries, which certainly did become big business by dint of innovative and energetic land-use. But the fact that the corrupt prioress was accused of wearing gold rings and so on, at the expense of the nuns being denied decent habits and the younger novices missing the education required by the Rule, suggests that it was scarcely a lucrative business.
The mention of this accusation against the prioress seemed to be what piqued the interest of the mandatory DEI black presenter on the team (they also have a mandatory DEI disabled presenter), who was up in Lincoln. This is not the first time in the series he’s latched on to the revenues of the mediaeval churches and monasteries as if it were the secret key to their existence, rather than some unlikely idea that people were actually religious.
In this context, the total impression given was that, in some mysterious way, a dishonestly acquisitive senior nun was somehow the inevitable outcome of a male-dominated society. It shouldn’t really need pointing out that Ankerwycke Priory ought to teach us something more nuanced: of nuns who knew right from wrong and were willing to complain about it when one of their number was in the wrong; of a bishop who took his pastoral duties seriously even when what was at stake was only the welfare of half a dozen poor Benedictine women several days journey away; of the existence of free education for poor women; and of the undercurrent of true piety that existed despite the shortcomings of mediaeval theology and praxis.
All of that (and I’m sure I’ve missed some) might give us a broader vision of the way men and women related in a far-off age, rather than everything being squeezed through the sieve of phase-3 atheistic feminism, albeit at a somewhat subliminal level.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”(L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between).