15 December 2022


No; Hector does not accept Helen's transgressive invitation to join her in the thalamos. You knew he wouldn't. Before returning to the battle, he goes back to his own house. But Andromache is not there. Standing ep'oudon, on the threshold, he demands an answer from the housewomen: "C'mon! Tell me the truth". He wonders if she has gone to visit her sisters-in-law, or to the Temple of Athene, with all the other well-haired women, to propitiate the goddess (in fact, she had gone, with chaperon and child, to a vantage point to watch the battle).

Observe that Hector, apparently, does not go beyond the threshold of even his own home. And notice that he is surprised that his wife is not where a wife might normatively be expected to be: at home. And don't let it elude you how few are the alternative possibilities which Hector, rather hectoringly, offers. To an extent which it is difficult for us to appropriate, pre-modern societies had very definite assumptions about this sort of thing. 

But think: even in the earlier twentieth century, women would not visit the billiards room in a gentleman's house. There was no rule; no notice on the door; it was simply assumed that women didn't go there. And I don't think it was expected that men would galumph at all hours around the Morning Room. In Rebecca the belle anonyme gets it wrong by trying to enter her own bedroom at the time when the maids expect to have it to themselves to get it straight. And the butler makes clear that it is very unexpected that she might wish to be in the library.

Ethnosociologists have written fascinating articles about the customs of instinctive, customary, gender segregation that still exist in traditional Middle Eastern societies. There are particular times when no man would dream of going near the village fountain because that is when the women go there to collect water ... and to do womanbusiness with each other ...  

We need to grasp how totally exceptional is our Western assumption that men and women just wander anywhere and mix with anybody at any time.  After all, it is still as a general rule true, in some Orthodox churches, that men are on the right side and women are on the left. A similar custom survived into mid-twentieth century Ireland. 

We've moved a long way, and so very fast, to reach the situation in which, not long ago, in an English university, a major row erupted when, exceptionally, it was proposed to have segregated seating in a lecture-room to accommodate the unusual preferences of a visiting lecturer.

I find it frankly frightening how readily we assume that our own habits, different, I suspect, from those of every other known culture, are a norm to which others ought to conform or to be forced to conform. 

I'm not suggesting starting a great campaign to return to pre-modern habits; I haven't quite lost all touch with reality. I'm simply suggesting that, since we are the cosmic Odd Men Out, the eccentric outliers, we ought to let just the tiniest smidgeon of humility enter our domineering treatment of others. But I know even this suggestion is a lost cause: so arrogant have we become. We are the great big global cultural bullies who know exactly how everybody else should behave, from Saragossa all the way to Sarawak, 24/7.

And how nasty we turn if the untermenschen worldwide are a bit slow jumping into line, our line.

The third and final Episode will bring us up to S Ambrose.


Grant Milburn said...

"Today the frontier of civil rights law is in forcing institutions to treat biological men as women if they identify as trans. It would be better if the momentum were in the other direction, not in forcing all-female spaces to admit biological men but in defending the right of single-sex institutions to exist at all. The relatively narrow range of spaces targeted by trans activists—bathrooms, saunas, prisons, sports teams—underscores just how few of these we have left."

Helen Andrews at the American Conservative on the decline of single-sex institutions in the West.


Albertus said...

In Catholic Lithuania, until very recently ( about ten, fifteen years ago), men and women sat/stood/knelt on the opposite of rhe church. In the 1990's i brought an italian priest friend to the Egzekvijos (exequies) to be chanted for the deceased of the local parish church of Griskabudis, Lithuania; he entered first to get a good place, but was quickly astonished when someone came to him and told him that he had taken place in the womens section and needed to move. Joining the European Union had a very negative impact upon the culure, religious traditions, and even the agricultural sector of Lithuania. Much of what had been passed down through the ages and had survived two world wars and even russian communist occupation and persecution, has now vanished.

wonastow said...

"There are particular times when no man would dream of going near the village fountain because that is when the women go there to collect water ... and to do womanbusiness with each other ... "

Robert Alter points out in his excellent translation of the Old Testament (would that he do likewise with the New), the village well was also a trysting place and as such a trope (cf. Jacob and Rachel) in Jewish storytelling. To the contemporary audience, John's account of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well would have had them rolling in the aisles.

wonastow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
armyarty said...

Sorry, Wonastow, I cannot agree with you. John's account WAS contemporary to the event, and there is nothing funny about it. It actually is, in a way "Jewish storytelling," but it is also of divine inspiration.

Besides, Jews are not Greeks, and modern Jews bear no resemblance to the folks in the Bible.

You have simply reduced a tremendously important and moving event, one that resonated so powerfully to hundreds of years of pre-feminist Christians, to a punchline.

Totally missing the point: Jesus is not just anyone.

Grant Milburn said...

In Jakarta the front section of the expresses buses is reserved for women.

I walk past a moque and I see the men standing at the front, or kneeling on the carpet (no chairs here of course.) The women stand behind them, envelopped in shapeless garments that reveal only the face and hands. Then I go to our SSPX TLM, where men and women sit together on chairs, and the women wear clothes that would be considered scandalous in a mosque but which are considered appropriate for mass, even an SSPX mass. That makes me wonder: if I went back in my time machine to 6th-century Egypt or Syria, prior to the advent of Islam, visited a Christian church and observed the congregation, would it more resemble my local mosque or my local TLM? I suspect...

At any rate, if PF thinks trads are indietrists, he should meet some Muslims, and I don't mean imams saying things that Westerners want to hear. (But I see that Rome, according to Wikipedia, is 82% Catholic and only 3.8% Muslim, the very opposite of Indonesia, 86% Muslim and 3.2% Catholic.) I have to warn the Holy Father that the things he dislikes when he sees them in a minority of Catholic churches are universal in Islam: the imam facing the mihrab with the congregation, non-vernacular worship, and to crown it all, a congregation not of elderly nostalgics but one dominated by young men.

GOR said...

"A similar custom survived into mid-twentieth century Ireland."

In fact even to the mid-60s in some rural parishes. I was reminded of this when staying with friends in rural Limerick, being advised before Sunday Mass as to which side I should position myself.

David J Critchley said...

Indeed, Father. Even psychologists have recently realised that their studies have so far almost entirely concerned themselves with a group of humans who are WEIRD, western, educated, industrialised, and democratic, totally atypical of the human race. And, one might add, for the most part totally ignorant of how atypical they are. All the more reason for them to read Homer at school.

wonastow said...

armyarty - yes, John's comtemporary audience.

Why should the Word of God be received only in lugubrious silence? God gave us human emotions, and joy and laughter are among them. In His actions and teachings Jesus would have spoken in the idiom of His day. John's written Gospel must have been preceded by decades of oral delivery. How better to preach the message than with occasional humour which draws on familiar cultural themes which in no way derogate from that message?

Jesus is certainly not "anyone" but His chatting up the woman at the well, like so many other actions recorded in the New Testament, is prefigured by events in the Old.

David J Critchley said...

Of course, the R in WEIRD stands for Rich. Apologies for the omission.

Cyril said...

Grant, You need not wonder, as still in Coptic churches women sit to the left (facing the altar) and men to the right. My former parish, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church still held this iconographically as the icons of all the female saints were to the left. I had a student ask about this, and then she confessed that when in Egypt, at a Coptic parish, all the women sat on the left, the men on the right. This is also mirrored in any iconostas, where the Queen on on "Thy right", meaning, to Christ's right (who sits at the royal doors facing the congregation, on their right), but the congregation's left. Of course at my parish we all sit hugger-mugger together.

armyarty said...


If you think that there was ever anything comic about the Woman at the Well, then I doubt your sanity.

Your earlier suggestion that some non-believer should do a new translation of the New Testament already had me scratching my head.