“Modernity” And Its Impacts

Giulia, The High Heeled Papergirl, has an intriguing post in which she shares her take on “feminism and gallantry” in our 21st century. It is worth a read. She concludes by noting:

…we are not living the medieval era anymore, women could be knights today, so why not cease the double standards.

…And that statement in particular – bringing up the “medieval era” and “knights,” and therefore distant history – got me thinking, too… which, as you may also know, is usually dangerous.

[Depiction of a hoplite. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

The Ancient Greek hoplite phalanx of 500 BC relied on brute strength. Every man held his position on the battle line, his spear or sword in his right hand, his shield overlapping and protecting the exposed right side of the man to his left. If every man did not do his duty, they would all be killed, their town sacked, their crops burned, and their children and women taken as slaves by the invading stronger men. Virtually no woman could cope with such necessary physicality. Weaker men were not wanted either.

In the world before artificial birth control, men also wanted to know their children were in fact their offspring. Quite often sex led to children, which was why childbearing age girls and women were segregated from men and dominated often in the first place not so much by those men, but by older women looking to “protect” those women from predatory, and strong, men. Weaker men, perhaps unable to provide for a wife and children, often died unmarried and without ever having had intercourse with a woman.

[Bors’ Dilemma – save his brother or save the maiden – from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

During the height of Roman imperial power – from about 100 BC until AD 300 – the interior of the empire was free of outright war, but routine life for “ordinary” people was not free of danger and violence. Roman streets at night were terrifying. There were no police. One did not go out after dark without sword-wielding escorts.

As imperial authority began to give way, even that “veneer” of “imperial peace” began to crumble. Civil wars, local feuds, and “barbarian” rampages became the norm. It was not for another 800 or so years that European societies once again became more broadly secure as nation-states started to arise.

Men, particularly the well-born (“knights”), still prepared for war; but by the 1100s they were now at home more, and thus had more leisure time for various peaceable, even “romantic,” pursuits. Well-born women, who usually had “help” around the house and manor, had time as well. Troubadours (men) and trobairises (women) who often sang of “romance” and “heroic exploits” became increasingly common entertainers. Tales of courtly love began to make their appearances.

Héloïse. d. 1164. World-noted Women, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

In the 1100s, in his Historia Calamitatum, Frenchman Peter Abelard wrote of his troubled love for Héloïse – now one of the most famous “tragic romances” of all time.

In 1327, Petrarch first saw a married “Laura” in a church in Avignon and afterwards spent years writing love poems “to” her that came to dominate his work, Il Canzoniere. (They probably never spoke.)

The Black Death in the 1300s began also to weaken the hold of the Church as many abandoned worship of God during the calamity for which the Church had no explanation or cure and turned their attentions to more decidedly earthly concerns. Around 1350, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a collection of novellas in which seven young women and three young men trying to avoid the plague flee Florence for two weeks to a villa in the remote countryside, and each member of the mixed group tells a story each evening – including romantic ones.

[A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]
Shortly after came Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It includes the now famous “The Knight’s Tale,” in which two knights who had been cousins and friends become rivals owing to both pursuing the same “idealized” woman. Upon merely seeing her, both fall wildly in love with her.

The notion underscoring the “idealization” of women – “gallantry,” if you will – was that “chivalrous” strong men needed to protect weaker women physically in the often violent world. And that belief was not entirely unreasonable, for society outside of one’s front door was often indeed truly dangerous. Even the 1820-written Ivanhoe, by Scotsman Walter Scott, would have resonated with its 19th century readers in its medievalism in ways it probably would not for us in this sense. Both 1194, the year the novel is set, and 1820 are relatively alien to us, whereas 1194 would have seemed much more “familiar” to readers in 1820. For as in 1194, in Scott’s time physical prowess was still occasionally needed for survival in ways it no longer usually is for us – men or women – in the 21st century.

Even an 1800s musket required pretty good physical strength just to lug it around. (Yet certainly some women could do it – and did. It was rumored that among the Confederate dead of Pickett’s Charge at the American Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, victorious Union soldiers discovered the body of a woman.) Today, vitally, guns are lighter and easier to use than ever. Nearly any woman can now load, aim and shoot a firearm as assuredly as a man – and with it kill even a much bigger and stronger man, thus creating an “equality” that same woman could not have managed in hand-to-hand combat with that same man five centuries earlier. Sexual “equality” developed mostly due to 19th and 20th century technological advances which reduced the need for physical prowess to underpin ordinary daily life.

Because physical strength has become far less necessary in the wider society, a woman can also earn her own money and support herself using her own brainpower. Moreover, in the 20th century, due to the invention of female-controlled birth control, the sex act ceased to be merely mostly about reproduction and has become far more of a “social activity”; in the reproductive sense, no longer does a young woman need to be shielded by a father, or brothers, or a husband, or even post-menopausal women, from sexually “eager” men: she can look after herself. Thanks also to the daily increasingly ever-more sophisticated security technology of the modern nation-state, the streets, and the night, are no longer nearly as physically threatening. Unlike her Ancient Greek sisters, when she closes her eyes each night in her 21st century home, she has no fear of a neighboring town’s hoplite stronger men invading her town at dawn, overpowering and putting to the sword her husband, or her boyfriend, and all of her town’s hoplites, and then enslaving her and any children.

A boy born in our 21st century attains consciousness not yet appreciating we no longer live in 3,000 BC Sumer, or 500 BC Athens, or 1300 Paris. Soon enough we “teach” him – particularly in school – as he’s running around pretending to wave a sword: “No, no, you don’t need to be able to do that in order to protect the town and win a wife.” Similarly, we tell girls: “You may wish to play with a baby doll, yes, but you can fly fighter jets now, too.”

The last 200 years have been the most revolutionary time in all history. “Modernity” – its electricity, instant communications, machines, firepower, and medicines, including especially birth control – is what has been most responsible for the end of restrictive millennia-old roles allotted to women, and that process is ongoing. However, we also see a great deal of fiction today increasingly based on “bad a-s” women pummeling obviously physically bigger and stronger men. Naturally that latter is mostly a sheer – and dangerous – fantasy, yet such fantasy clearly stems from our “modernity” and its having fostered the idea that we are all fundamentally “equal.”

So women can indeed be “knights” today, but in fact nearly no unarmed “ordinary” woman can stand toe to toe with even an “ordinary” man and physically subdue him in 2018 any more than one could have in 1018. If we strip away the facade of our “modernity” – meaning if its electricity, instant communications, machines, firepower, and medicines, including especially birth control, disappeared suddenly tomorrow – we would as people and societies probably revert to the “survival of the fittest by our bare hands” existence that our ancestors lived prior to about 1800. With that we would almost certainly be forced to resume the sex roles that had been the norm throughout humanity’s previous history and pre-history.

Have a good day, wherever you are in our modern world. 🙂

UPDATE, March 19: This was originally posted yesterday. I don’t normally post on a Sunday in that way. So I have reposted it here this morning.


  1. By her focusing exclusively on only two of the five definitions of gallantry, the author of that blog post exposes her bias.

    As the parent of both male and female offspring, I have no doubt that brains and bodies exposed to high levels of testosterone develop and function differently than do brains and bodies exposed to high levels of estrogen and progesterone, although there is a lot of overlap. Males and females do experience the same range of emotions, and the ways they express them can vary somewhat, while their problem solving patterns are much more characteristically divided: most women tend to be better at contingency planning, while most men tend to see only one viable option (demonstrating “blinkered” or “tunnel vision” decision-making). The assertive-aggressive continuum cannot be generalized: none of my three sons ever enjoyed sports (the traditional sublimation for aggression) either as participants or spectators, whereas my daughter is one of the most dangerous persons on earth, with her having earned three levels of black belt in martial arts (plus having obtained a lifetime permit to carry a firearm). And when I was in nursing school, I was taught how to “take down” an obstreperous patient of any size, preparatory to applying restraints. (Back when I was not yet disabled, it was funny to demonstrate to my sons that even though they had grown to be a head taller than their mother, she could still impose physical discipline!) But the skills that my daughter and I learned depend on knowing how to rely on other anatomical parts than the weak female shoulder girdle, and arms whose bones are shaped differently to those of the male, as well as how to use the laws of physics to our advantage (knowledge that is not very widespread). And even men have had to invent force multipliers (the long bow, stirrups, the machine gun) in order to achieve victory against their physical peers.

    Thus, the waters can be muddy; nevertheless, your observations on history and the uncomfortable truth that underlies “modernity” are sound. I enjoyed reading your posts on this topic.

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    • Thanks for that. Naturally I was writing in 2000 year old generalizations. It’s a blog post, not a doctoral dissertation.😊

      Of course there have always been some few women stronger (and/or more physically adept) than some men; but most men have always clearly been physically stronger than most women. And, indeed, men constantly also aimed to invent ways better to overcome other men – such as with the crossbow and explosives.

      I do feel that the bulk of the reason men have dominated women has been owing to physical prowess. It seems pretty clear that as the need for physical strength has receded in societies over the centuries, we have gradually seen more and more sexual equality.

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      • Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are always ready to throw spanners into the works, but I’ve always felt that in general, “equal (politically) but different (physically)” is the best way to regard the situation. Unfortunately, some men have trouble accepting the first part, and some women have trouble accepting the second part – both being tyrannical attitudes that cause grief for the civilized majority. And although “civilization” has never been more than a veneer over human behavior, it’s the only way to make the best use of human capital, no matter what form the coinage takes.

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