Unquiet Women

Max Adams

Head Of Zeus, £20

Review by Susan Flockhart

THE 21st century is an era of record. Thanks to reality TV and social media, almost every aspect of ordinary people's lives is documented for posterity, though whether future generations will be remotely interested in the random thoughts, feelings and selfies that are incontinently shared online is doubtful.

We, however, are fascinated by the lives of people who existed thousands of years before computers, cameras or even writing implements were widely available. When in 1999, the coffin of a young Roman woman was unearthed at Spitalfields, London, some 10,000 people flocked to view her remains and BBC documentary-makers commissioned a forensic artists' reconstruction of her head, which offered a tantalising opportunity to gaze at the face of a woman who had lived around 1700 years ago.

Or did it? In his new book Unquiet Women, archaeologist Max Adams declares himself “sceptical of such blending of art and science” and cautions against “projecting the modern imagination onto the ancient subject”.

More reliable insight into the way long-dead women were viewed by themselves and their contemporaries might, he suggests, be gleaned from portraits found with Egyptian mummies, such as that of an unnamed woman from Hawara, thought to have died around 2000 years ago, which can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.

The portrait's beauty may, Adams admits, be “an objectified amalgam of her loved ones' fond memories and the flattering skills of the artist who painted her”. Nevertheless, “the result is alive with personality”.

Likewise, Unquiet Women seeks to put flesh, bones and personality onto the scant historical traces that remain of the 50% of the population who wielded neither power nor property, and were rarely even deemed worthy of being educated.

From grave goods, court-proceedings and scraps of written testimony, he sets out to reconstruct the life stories of the “unquiet women” who, against considerable patriarchal odds, cocked a snook at the expectations of their times and found ways to “tell their stories and negotiate access to power”.

Some became travellers, explorers, military strategists, authors or empresses. Others found more subtle ways to buck convention. The 11th-century Andalusian poet Wallada Bint al-Mustakfi, who refused to marry and had affairs with women and men, wore her rebelliousness on the fabric of her robe, which she embroidered with declarations that she would kiss whoever she liked and was determined to go her own way “with pride”.

In fact, with the machinery of power and communication generally controlled by men, the production and decoration of textiles was “the principal medium” of female control and agency, “as canvases on which to inscribe their own stories and identities”. True, only three of the 626 figures depicted in the 70 metre-long Bayeux Tapestry are female, and as Adams points out, that famous embroidery contains 60 times more horses than women.

Nevertheless, women exercised significant influence in the spinning and weaving industries and were capable of subverting their art to make their mark. The ability to support themselves through cloth production also gave medieval women a degree of independence, and in the Low Countries, some 12th and 13th-century females opted out of marriage, childbirth and family life by setting up communes or “beguinages” in which hundreds of women lived and worked as weavers, farmers and teachers of young girls.

Disappointingly, we learn little about life within these communities, but the accounts of later women such as the 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi are more detailed. Indeed, Adams speculates that Gentileschi's painting Susanna And The Elders – depicting the Biblical scene in which a married woman is falsely accused of promiscuity by two lecherous old voyeurs who watch her bathing – might nowadays be re-captioned #MeToo, since it “expresses the artist's solidarity with all women against all predatory men”.

It's fascinating territory, the narrative is lively and the author's reflections are illuminating and wise. Yet for some reason – perhaps my own patchy knowledge of past world events – I found it hard to fully engage with this book and struggled to absorb all the historical details needed to contextualise the 50-plus individual tales drawn from a vast period of history (“from the dusk of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Enlightenment”, as per the book's subtitle) and most parts of the globe.

Perhaps inevitably given the fragmentary nature of the available records, we hear only snatches of these women's stories and as Adams would doubtless acknowledge, the conclusions we draw from them may well be as unreliable as the Spitalfields woman's reconstructed visage.

All the same, this is an important book and Max Adams deserves credit for reminding us that women's role in historical events was far greater than the public record might suggest. He writes saliently about the way history favours the wealthy and powerful, as well as the male, pointing out that only well-connected females were likely to leave any trace at all.

Which means that for the most part, their poorer sisters remain as quiet as their graves are devoid of riches.