Bodleian New History Books: December 2019 – Marginality

Bodleian New History Books: December 2019: Marginality

In a working paper on the root causes of extreme poverty, Gatzweiler et al. (2011) define marginality as “an involuntary position and condition of an individual or group at the margins of social, political, economic, ecological, and biophysical systems”. Any individual or subgroup located outside the predominant socio-economic, geographical or even biological systems of a society, or anyone who appears to deviate in any way from the perceived norms of the “mainstream” or “core group” of a population, may thus become marginalised, and subject to social exclusion.

The reasons for such marginalisation, social exclusion, and resulting alienation, are copious and varied, ranging from a person’s race, skin colour, and ethnic origin, to their religious affiliation, sexual preferences, educational status and social class, way of life, political opinion, physical appearance or bodily and mental health, all the way to age or gender. It thus affects groups as diverse as racial, ethnical or religious minorities, LGBTQ+ people, the working class, drug users or sex workers, ex-convicts or institutional care leavers, people with a disability or simply divergent body shape, the elderly of both genders, or women of any age.

Individuals or groups affected by such social exclusion are prevented from participating fully in the economic, social, and political life of the society in which they live – in Dworkin and Dworkin’s Minority Report (1982) the two main characteristics of “identifiability” and “group awareness” of such societally marginalised minorities go hand in hand with two more characteristics of “differential power” and “differential and pejorative treatment”. However, continued pejorative treatment of a marginal or minority group by a society can also result in active opposition against such exclusion – in the form of protests, demonstrations or lobbying, or, in extreme cases, violent resistance, revolts, revolutions, and anarchism.

Minority studies have a firm place in both sociological and historical studies – for one, what exactly a society, whether contemporary or historical, considers its “mainstream” norms or “core groups”, as well as how it treats non-conformists, marginal groups, and outcasts, can be highly informative and enlightening for sociologists and historians. For another, there is a long overdue and welcome movement to acknowledge the importance – or, if you want, the centrality – of marginal groups for our understanding of history. With Black History Month (1st-31st October) just past, and Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December) ongoing, it seems certainly fitting to highlight in this month’s blog some of our new history books which discuss humans, whether individuals or groups, on the margins of historic societies – marginalised because of the state of their mind or body, because beliefs they hold are considered heretical and unorthodox, because of their gender, or because they do not fit (or want to fit) into a certain political or societal system.

Marginalities of Mind and Body

Throughout the course of history, sadly up to and including the 20th century, societies have for the most part not been kind to anyone with bodily or mental disabilities, or mental disorders. In Viewing Disability in Medieval Spanish Texts Connie L. Scarborough looks at examples of disability in relationship to legal precepts, medical knowledge, and especially theological teachings in Spanish medieval miracle narratives, hagiographies, didactic tales, and epic poetry. When viewed through the lens of religion, disabled individuals would usually be seen as “disgraced”, the disability viewed as an outward sign of inward corruption – but also occasionally as “graced”, when for example a miraculous cure showed evidence of divine intervention. A similar exception, where an unorthodox mental state translated into a “graced” rather than a “disgraced” state, exists in the case of medieval mystics such as the ultimately self-marginalised anchorite Julian of Norwich: Amy Laura Hall’s Laughing at the Devil examines Julian’s calls to scorn rather than fear the devil, thus fostering hope, solidarity, and resistance instead of dread in her contemporary audience.

A rather different treatment was accorded to those individuals with mental health issues who were inmates of the infamous Bedlam: London’s Hospital for the Mad over the first 700 years of its long history. Paul Chambers traces the hospital’s administrative, political, and medical  history from its founding in the 13th century through its popularity in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century to a modern institute of the NHS today. A final volume on the topic of marginalities of mind and body treats a group of individuals who are strictly speaking still marginalised due to “bodily differences” – Caroline Callard’s Le temps des fantômes tries to identify the place of the “corporeally challenged”, of ghosts or spirits, in the society of the Ancien Régime of the 16th and 17th centuries. Having survived the advent of natural philosophy, a belief in ghosts continued to form part of human existence both in everyday life and in scholarly and political discourse, forcing the living to engage with the dead – whether in order to banish unwanted hauntings, to communicate with deceased with valuable information, or even to encourage the continued presence of lost loved ones in their lives.

Marginalities in Science

Just as with unorthodox states of body or mind, unorthodox ideas have historically clashed with the norms of society – and innovations of science particularly have a long history of conflict with the teachings of established religions, resulting in the persecution, banishment, imprisonment, excommunication, or even execution of the scientists who promoted them.

Heliocentrism is a case in point – the nine essays in the collection Copernicus Banned thematise the causes, promotion, aftermath, and various philosophical, theological, political and cultural aspects of the discussions that arose around the decree issued by the Holy Office of the Catholic Church on 5 March 1616, which condemned De revolutionibus orbium caelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus 75 years after his death. Rather more directly affected by the decree was, 17 years later, another even more famous heliocentrist, whose nonconformist worldview similarly resulted in his societal marginalisation. The condemnation of Copernicanism is generally acknowledged to have been an essential element of the trial of Galileo Galilei, and the recent re-issue of Oppositori di Galileo, part of Antonio Favaro’s vast oeuvre, still offers the reader hints, insights and essential documents for the understanding of this fascinating figure more than a century after its first publication. Controversies and social exclusions arising from pushing the boundaries of medicine rather than astronomy in Reformation Germany are then discussed in Hannah Murphy’s A New Order of Medicine. Focus of her study are the careers of municipal physicians who practiced subversive anatomical experimentations, displacing apothecaries from their place at the forefront of medical practice, and establishing an elite medical order in the German city of Nuremberg.

Marginal Women

That living on the margins of, distanced, or largely closed off from society does not necessarily mean disempowerment is an issue raised by Steven Vanderputten in Dark Age Nunneries, which examines life and society in and around forty female monastic communities in Lotharingia in the years 800-1050. Vanderputten highlights the striving of these women for agency as religious communities, as well as for involvement in and influence over the attitudes and behaviours of the lay society around them. A similar struggle for female agency is documented by Lisa Hopkins in Women on the Edge in Early Modern Europe, which examines the lives of women whose gender impeded the exercise of their personal, political, and religious action, with an emphasis on the conflict that occurred when they crossed the restraints society placed on people of their gender – from the French chemist Marie Meurdrac, author of the women’s chemistry primer La chymie charitable et facile, en faveur des dames, to the alleged prophetess Anna Trapnell of 1650s England, to Queen Cecilia of Sweden.

Resistance against a denial of, and efforts to reclaim their political rights are also the issue for the women in Martine Lapied’s L’engagement politique des femmes dans le sud-est de la France de l’Ancien Régime à la Révolution. Lapied examines material from Provençal and Comtadine archives and local historiography to asses the role of women in public spaces in both Old Regime and after the turning point of the Revolution, when women patriots started to assert themselves and participate in the Revolution as well as in the politics of the Terror. Marginalized French women are also the subject of Patricia Tilburg’s Working Girls, which discusses female labourers in the garment trade of fin de siècle Paris, who faced political and sexual subordination. The working lives of these women, from the romanticised haute couture workers called midinettes to the over 80,000 real working women and their demands for better labour conditions, are vividly illustrated by primary sources ranging from letters to speeches, from union meeting minutes to travel guides, and from policy briefs to popular songs.

Marginalities in politics and society

Marginalisation through one’s position within a political system means being pushed to those margins through the neglect or disregard of those in political power – and occasionally taking arms against a sea of troubles through passive or active opposition against the system.

The essays collected in A Global History of Runaways discuss groups marginalised by race and geography as well as class and social status, but unwilling to tolerate this marginalisation and resulting enforced labour: slaves, indentured servants, convicts, domestic workers, soldiers, and sailors challenged the new economic order of emerging Capitalism by running away from their masters and bosses in the British, Danish, Dutch, French, Mughal, Portuguese, and American empires from 1600 to 1850. From escaped convicts in the Danish West Indies and Australia, to deserters in Bengal, French Louisiana and the Dutch East India Company, the essays chart the consequences of these movements for larger political events such as undermining Danish colonization in the 17th century, or igniting the American civil war in the 19th. More resistance by a marginalised group against the established political system, though here extreme and violent, is the topic of Nunzio Pernicone’s and Fraser Ottanelli’s Assassins against the Old Order. The authors chart the historical, social, cultural, and political conditions behind the phenomenon of anarchist violence in Italy around the turn of the 20th century. In an effort to expose the myth and discredit the exaggerated, demonic image of the anarchist assassin in the popular stereotype of an “Italian” armed with a bloody knife or revolver and driven to violence by a combination of radical politics, madness, innate criminality, and poor genes, Pernicone and Ottanelli strive to paint a rather more accurate picture of the intellectual origins, milieu, and nature of Italian anarchist violence with vivid portraits of some of the major players of the movement.

Suppression of marginal groups through exclusion from political debate, and their eventual demarginalisation through political re-engagement, is the topic of Sarah Haßdenteufel’s Neue Armut, Exklusion, Prekarität. The study raises the issue of the disappearance of poverty not in real life, but as a topic of political debate in the wake of economic growth in Germany and France in the second half of the 20th century, and with this disappearance the exclusion of citizens marginalised by poverty from the social and political agenda. Only after around 1970s the issue of “new poverty” despite the expansion of the welfare state, and its causes and possible remedies, re-enters political discussion, and Haßdenteufel analyses the semantics used and the idea of poverty and the poor presented in this new debate of a long-neglected topic. The final volume I would like to highlight in this blog deals with individuals marginalised and neglected by history, historians and historiography – in Vies oubliées Arlette Farge rediscovers these “forgotten lives” from snippets of information in archives ignored and rejected by historians, using these snapshots to reconstruct the social, emotional and political lives of priests, policemen, women, workers, servants, and artisans from the margins of history in 18th-century France, and revealing images of the human body at work or in pain, the human mind in care and in revolt, and words of love and desire, violence and compassion.

You can find more books on the topic on our virtual bookshelf on LibraryThing tagged with “marginalitiy” or “minorities“.