Friday, May 17, 2013

Don Herzog"s "Household Politics"

Don Herzog is the Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Household Politics: Conflict in Early Modern England, and reported the following:
Today, dear reader, we turn to early modern England for our ominous bedtime story. Once upon a time, men ruled their families – and their authority was unquestioned. People thought it was natural or necessary, part of the woodwork of the world. Indeed men’s authority was invisible, thanks to the public/private distinction: women and the family were private, and nothing private is political. So people staggered through life in a big sleep: that’s how ideology works. Good night and sleep tight.

That’s the fairy tale that I cheerfully demolish in Household Politics. Sure, you can line up centuries-old sermons and fancy works of political theory that preach the subordination of women. But these texts were blather. There’s no point insisting that women are inferior, that men ought to rule, unless other people deny it. And plenty of men and women alike did deny it. They rolled their eyes in caustic disdain at the putative wisdom of the sermons and political theorists. They knew that the authority of men was contingent and political, that members of their household were locked in conflict. I look at diaries, handbills, jokes (more than a few about excrement), letters, newspapers, novels, pamphlets, parliamentary debates, periodicals, plays, proverbs, servants’ manuals, songs, trials…. And I deliberately blur or ignore the distinction between intellectual and social history. I’m not interested in any contrast between “discourse” and “material reality.” I’m trying to reconstruct a social world that’s funny, ornery, nauseating, and lethal.

Page 99 finds me scrutinizing some eighteenth-century dictionary entries on public and private and beginning to canvass claims that the household is a “little commonwealth” or that a husband is a “Monarch for life.” Not as fun as the poop jokes, I guess. But not as bloodcurdling as the husband who beat his wife to death for not dutifully succumbing to Scripture, or as the women who murdered their servant girl and made their servant boy eat shit, either.
Learn more about Household Politics at the Yale University Press: website.

--Marshal Zeringue