Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this is physically a very nice book. The copy I got was a small hard back with a blue cloth bound cover. Good paper, a nice weight in the hand but not too heavy, it endured a rather intensive reading and period of going back checking and rechecking facts, and is now something of a resource for me in my research, and it remains very robust and elegant little book in spite of all that heavy use. It is so rare these days to see a really nicely bound book, I enjoy just handling it. I guess that may be part of why it’s so expensive.
This is a book which one would probably not even be likely to find without already knowing something about Central Europe. Without writing a history dissertation, I’ll just summarize by mentioning that the Kingdom of Bohemia, which includes most of what is today the Czech Republic and Slovakia, plus some parts of what are today Germany and Poland, has a very interesting history.
One of the more economically and technologically advanced parts of Europe, and one of the few parts of Eastern Central Europe to avoid ravaging by the Mongols or major invasions from the Latin cultures of the West, the Czechs (et al) had a somewhat unique position in European history. Rather late to convert to Christianity, the Czechs retained many of their original pagan habits, notably in this case with regard to the role of women, and were resistant to changes which were enforced through much of the rest of Latin Europe. In the early 15th Century when a religious schism threatened to bring the Czechs in line with a series of Crusades, the Czech heretics defeated the invaders, and after a period of internal and external strife, achieved an uneasy peace with the rest of Europe which allowed them to retain some of their unique cultural and social practices into the 17th Century.
The Czechs came out of this period with a reputation for being a bit “Bohemian” in their cultural attitudes, in the sense of being a little bit outside of the European mainstream, and once perjoratively, later celebrated, as a place where women enjoyed more rights than in much of the rest of the world. This reputation is what John Klassen seeks to explore with his provocatively titled book. The revelations within this book are important, and challenging to the paradigm of how we in the English speaking world percieve our own history, since virtually nobody in the Anglophone (or Francophone, for that matter) world knows virtually anything about the Czechs. Which is a shame, since they have contributed many important things for better and worse to our culture, including the elevation of firearms to the dominant place on the battlefield which they hold today, but also in many more subtle, less ‘explosive’ but equally important ways.
The problem I have with the book (and the reason I give it 4 rather than 5 stars) is that presumably due to the rather surprising nature of some of these revelations, Klassen seems to have structured this book partly as a hard core, well sourced, summary of Czech history as it relates to women, with very good use of primary sources (notably court records, as well as private letters and some chronicles) both in terms of statistical analysis and presentation of the very interesting raw data.
On the other hand, it’s an argument in the field of Women’s studies or some related field, which intrudes throughout the book. Klassen seems to find it necessary to repeatedly condemn the patriarchal oppression and sexism of Medieval bishops, knights and burghers, and to rail against their insensitivity… in the 14th and 15th Centuries. He must have used the term ‘patriarchy’ at least 50 times. One gets the feeling of being part of a rather shrill debate in which Klassen is being attacked by a large group of rival academics for suggesting that there was ever any relief from the constant litany of male oppression across the length and breadth of history. He seems to be apologizing for pointing out that it wasn’t entirely true in the case of Bohemia. No doubt it would actually be valuable to introduce these ideas into discussion of feminism (as well as a variety of other subjects), in order to understand the social roles of women historically, but I think he might have done better by putting that part of his dissertation into another book, and using this one for a reference.
Some of the well-sourced details include: people frequently married casually, often as a result of Carnival liasons, and were joined together by a woman something like a midwife. Later they in many cases got a priest to record the event to make it official (for a fee), which is why we know the details of some of these arrangements as the Priest had them recorded. Well to do burghers and noblewomen recieved a sort of reverse dowry which ensured their financial security and gave them some power inside families they had married into, a practice that was abandoned in most of the rest of Europe (except possibly Poland) by the 13th Century but seems to have endured in Bohemia through the 16th at least. If a woman was kidnapped, she was allowed (in some cases, forced) to personally execute her kidnapper.
Noble women could in at least some cases remain unmarried and keep lovers on the side without too much trouble. Women of all classes above the level of serfs (i.e. most of society) could own property, run businesses, enter guilds, and manage households. In the towns particularly, women had significant legal rights, Klassen reports the details of one case from Prague in the 15th Century where a female bath-house attendant won a lawsuit on behalf of a deceased customer, against a squire who had the backing of a Duke. He even describes a sort of riot in Prague in the 1470s in which a woman killed several people with a sword. Klassen also tries to get to the bottom of women who fought in the Hussite armies during the early 15th Century Crusades, and he does find evidence that women fought in several of the key battles in 1419 and 1420, and that they even gave sermons as priests and participated in the ruling councils of the radical Taborites, but he claims that this had largely petered out by the later 1420’s (in this he is taking a more ‘conservative’ position than most military historians). In some ways the women of Medieval Bohemia seem more liberated and free than women today, in others they suffered from the ‘oppression of the patriarchy’ of their day.
All in all I think this is a really important book and I wish everyone I know interested in military history, the social role of women, historical fencing, or Central Europe should read it. For the most part the writing is good, though I had to put the book down a few times during segue’s into identity politics. What impresses me is how efficiently he was able to summarize the salient points of the history of this (to most Americans) very foreign time and place, making it accessible to a layman (sorry, lay person) and his hard data appears to be very good (I have checked quite a few of his sources). If he writes something else in this vein (and there is plenty of room to explore further) I hope he can leave the politics out of it a bit more and stick to presenting the data, as he does a very nice job of that.
The book can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Warring-Maidens-Captive-Hussite-Queens/dp/0880334258