‘The Prospect before Her,’ by Olwen Hufton

Back in the late 1950s, Olwen Hufton narrates, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas decided to give a series of lectures on 17th century women to students of the famous institution. «His colleagues found the subject bizarre and the students simply did not turn up.» Thomas had proved too hasty. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Women’s history was expanded massively over the ensuing decades – much penned by women themselves – but it still falls short of redressing the uneven balance in historiography. In «The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe: 1500-1800,» which was recently published in Greek translation by Irini Chrysochoou (Nefeli 2003), Hufton hails this expansion. But, as she admits, she does not always feel comfortable with the results per se. The Oxford-based historian claims that despite the significance of the contribution of cultural history which, under the influence of figures such as the radical French thinker Michael Foucault, dominated the 1980s, this kind of historiography is less illuminating than it purports to be. In contrast to postmodern theorists who tend to perceive the «second sex,» in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, as a social construct, Hufton remains skeptical of works constructing a theoretical or generic woman and does not hesitate to reaffirm the importance of biological differences between the two sexes. «In the early modern period, biology had to count for something. No one, for example, could plough a five-inch furrow in a condition of advanced or even early pregnancy.» Hufton’s history is what is often called «history from below.» She takes the focus away from the rich and famous to shed light on the forgotten masses, «the real people.» Her protagonists, men and women, live in miserable urban ghettos or filthy farmhouses – often next to their most precious piece of property: their livestock. The latter were barely cleaner than their owners. Besides, hygiene was not quite a top priority in those times. Not even among the elite. «There was something of a cult of bodily filth,» Hufton writes. «It was believed that the body produced fluids that were needful to good health and which should not be washed away but merely sponged to remove odor. James I never washed more than his fingers.» Not surprisingly, though not necessarily the result of poor hygiene, ill-health and early death were considered normal. As regards their social status, females were legally and economically subordinate to the other sex – be it their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons. On top of the material constraints, women were faced with social (aka religious) constraints as they were considered to be inherently sinful. Eve should have known better. Mosaic of portraits It was in this grim context, where the struggle for existence was often the paramount concern, that women’s obligations, limitations, and expectations were shaped. Hufton does not sketch some generic, early modern woman. She rather builds a mosaic of different, often conflicting, female portraits: Wife, mother, widow, mistress, prostitute, «witch,» servant, farm worker. She follows her characters from cradle to grave. This 710-page volume is a major work of synthesis. Hufton draws her material from an enormous variety of sources: judicial and police records, letters and diaries, novels, religious and scientific texts, popular literature, cheap prints and expensive works of art. She succeeds in weaving engaging details and vivid anecdotes seamlessly into her narrative yet does so at the service of no big, teleological claims that «womankind teetered on the brink of a great surge of consciousness, demanding emancipation.» Even the tremendously subversive French Revolution failed to give women due status. Hufton, a European history professor at Oxford, collected her vast material during her stay at the European University Institute in Florence. She is currently working on the sequel – concentrating on the life of women from 1800 to the present day. Indeed, a much better time to be a woman.