Every voice counts

I heard a fascinating talk today by Martha Bayless, who is one of our university’s folklore professors, and whose CV is full of awesome things, like medieval humor and games, food, and magic. She also curated the ongoing exhibit on medieval magic at one of our local museums.

Today’s talk was about an Anglo-Saxon queen named Eadburh, whose reputation was thoroughly trashed by the (all-male) chroniclers of her time. Her name was pronounced something like “ay-odd-burra,” and Wikipedia tells me she lived in the late 700s.

As it happens, there are no instances of Anglo-Saxon women being written about in a positive way, unless they’d given birth to some important man or devoted their life to the Church.

Eadburh’s story was more typical. First, she was said to have deliberately poisoned one of her husband’s closest friends and her husband, the king, accidentally died too – poison being the womanly way to murder people. Then she visited Charlemagne, who offered her the choice of himself or his son, and she picked the son because he was closer to her own age (with the implication that, horrors, she might be interested in sex). Charlemagne replied that if she’d picked himself, she would have gotten the son, but having chosen the son she would get neither. (Charlemagne as trickster!) Finally, Eadburh was accused of having sex while running an abbey, and tossed out to beg on the streets until she died.

At least she wasn’t accused of being a fairy, out to ensnare men with her magical wiles.

Another story tells of a different Anglo-Saxon queen, Cynethryth, who invited a prince into her rooms to meet her eligible daughter – and thus caused him to fall into a dark pit where the women smothered him to death with cushions. As it happens, this queen was Eadburh’s mother.

We’re well familiar with the evil ways attributed to women of power in Western Europe and the lands it colonized. Catherine de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia were supposedly poisoning people right and left. Hillary Clinton was bizarrely linked to child sex trafficking.

Facts have an extremely difficult time competing with lurid stories. (Ask me how I know this.)

One lesson, especially for politicians, is not to let your enemies get the narrative upper hand. Tell your own stories, and make them relatable. Politics is about feelings and a sense of personal connection to leaders, far more than it is about rational analysis of policy positions.

The other lesson is for the rest of us, especially those of us whose people have that narrative upper hand – we need to listen to the other stories out there. It’s too late for Eadburh to tell us her own story, but it’s not too late to listen to our fellow Americans, those whose ancestors didn’t all come from Western Europe. There are so many wonderful memoirs, essays, and histories out there by Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Americans whose ancestors came from Asia and Latin America and elsewhere.

And yet, we currently have an entire political party trying to shut down those alternative voices, silencing other people’s valid experiences of these United States. A recent headline in The Onion makes the point: “School Calendar Jumps To March 1 After Critical Race Theory Ban Prohibits Month Of February.”

What can you do about it? Read. Listen to these voices.

So, what will you read for Black History Month?

P.S. If setting the record straight on royal women is something you, too, care about, be sure to see Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series on Longreads.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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