Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Was religion feminised in the 19th century? Part 2: Romanticism

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Clergy and servers at the Ecce, Agnus Dei in High Mass at the SCT Summer School.
In the last post in this series I set out the thesis of Callum Brown (in his The Death of Christian Britain): that around 1800 religion began to occupy the feminine realm, with men being described as 'heathens', male pastimes regarded with suspicion, and femininity and religiosity being understood in terms of each other: to be feminine was to be religious, and to be religious was to be feminine. This state of affairs carried religion in the UK - the focus is on Evangelical Protestantism, understood in a broad sense - for 160 years, with considerable success, with indicators of religious practice and affiliation rising throughout the 19th century and, in the 20th, recovering strongly from the disruption of the two World Wars.

Brown has nothing to tell us, however, as to why religion took this surprising turn in 1800, or why this 'discourse' suddenly collapsed in the 1960s. Nor does he have anything to tell us about how the Catholic experience differed. At one point he says that Catholic attitudes were very similar to Evangelical ones. Well, up to a point. I want to deal with the first question in the post, and the second in the next, after a short intermission.


The feminisation of piety at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries is, on the face of it, surprising, because as the feminists remind us, Christianity is a patriarchal religion. It was led by male preachers and clergy in the centuries before 1800, and this continued after 1800. The Protestant critique of female delinquency before 1800 was very marked: indeed, to say it represented a lack of balance would be an understatement. An interesting side-issue Brown notes is that women were preserving vestigial Catholic rituals, notably 'churching' after childbirth, which were condemned as superstitious. So what happened?

Looking at the wider intellectual and cultural situation, the change is not so difficult to understand. What happened at the end of the 18th century is the rise of the Romantic movement, and the model of female piety at work in Evangelical circles after 1800 is a recognisably Romantic model. Romanticism has a complex relationship with the (rest of the) Enlightenment, but at least in popular terms it can be seen as a reaction against Enlightenment Rationalism. It emphasises the role of the emotions, it privileges spontaneity and authenticity over formalism and the intellect. Rationalism was not friendly to religion in the 18th century, and the arrival of Romanticism was in many ways a relief for Christian thinkers, even if it wasn't exactly orthodox itself. It was a particularly good fit for Christians at the 'Low Church' end of the scale, who had always minimised ritual and emphasised religious emotion and subjectivity. It is not surprising, therefore, that they allowed themselves to be influenced by it.

The Romantic reading of Rationalism was that Reason is masculine and was destroying the world; emotion and authenticity and love are feminine and can save the world. This is very clear in Romantic fiction, such as Goethe's Faust, in which the innocent and self-sacrificing Marguerite saves the dried-up intellectual Faust. (This is a complete innovation in the Faust story compared to Marlowe's 16th century version.) Examples could be multiplied. Female heroines abound in the folk tradition, of course; what is new is the idea that females will save the day simply by being female, which is to say, by being emotional, irrational, feeble, self-sacrificing, spontaneous, and so on. It isn't the mulier fortis who saves the day - it's not Joan of Arc - it's the shrinking violet. As well as putting femininity to the fore, Romanticism gives us a very specific, and problematic, conception of femininity.

With what level of self-consciousness I do not know, but under this influence Evangelical writers stopped talking about rebellious, superstitious, over-emotional females, who needed to be kept in check by restrained, upright men, and started talking instead about sweet, quiet, pious females, who themselves needed (gently, of course) to keep in check the rough, rebellious, drinking/ gambling/ womanising men. What happens is not just a reappraisal of the relative merits of the sexes, but a new conception of what it is to be pious. Being pious became understood in feminine terms. To be truly feminine, a woman had to be pious. To be pious, a man had to take on female qualities, and restrain his masculine ones.

Brown shows that as the 19th century wore on, the problem of putting men off religion was noticed among evangelicals, and 'muscular Christianity' in the mid 19th century was a response to this. It held up King David as a model for boys, and tried to use sport as a way of allowing boys and men a masculine outlet. Unfortunately sport was itself attacked by other evangelical voices. We can add to this the Public School movement, or the more idealistic end of it, which at precisely this moment incorporated sport as a key element in a masculine Christian environment, and the Anglo-Catholic movement, with its emphasis on ritual and reason - this of course it had its own public schools. These latter two phenomena are missed by Brown's focus on the evangelicals, but his point remains that even together they did not overturn the basic conceptual shape of Christian discourse, or the emphasis on masculine sins. Indeed, I'm not sure how clearly they saw the problem, and how explicitly they strove against it. In his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, Betjman recalls the boys being told, in his grim pre-Great War public school, by a visiting old-boy Anglical bishop, 'Never do anything of which your mother would be ashamed'. The public schools may have been masculine in terms of staff, they may have had military-style discipline and plenty of rough sports, but they generally failed to offer their pupils a non-sissy spirituality.

All this time, evangelical activists were trying to close public houses, keep off-course gambling illegal, stop boys playing football on Sundays, and get men to kneel down and weep for their sins in public. Brown quotes a female activist lamenting the difficulty of getting soldiers at Aldershott to express religious emotion. 'Many a man would rather encounter the enemy's fire in open line, "than be laughed at in the barrack-room".' That, dear reader, is precisely the problem.

The next question is: was this equally a problem for Catholics?

A little footnote on off-course gambling, which was illegal but still widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I came across a fascinating discussion of this which made the case that, as commonly used, it was actually a form of saving for working-class families. Mathematically-minded fathers of families would make careful study of 'form' (of racehorses), and every week place a very small wager on an 'accumulator' bet. This is a type of bet which uses the proceeds of one successful wager as the stake in a bet in another race, and the proceeds of that on another, and so on. The odds against winning the whole thing are huge, but so is the reward if you do. So, from this small weekly outlay, there would occasionally come in a tidy sum, like £5, enough to pay for a daughter's wedding. For people without easy access to the banking system, and subject to constant temptations to fritter away savings before they've matured, this is actually a perfectly rational approach to paying for occasional big-ticket items, conceptually very similar to the 'Christmas clubs' and the like common at the time, but also an intellectual challenge and a lot of fun. Blanket opposition by evangelicals to gambling, like blanket opposition to the demon drink, was really wrong-headed.

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