History TV: Divine Women Deserve More

Recently, the BBC has come out with a three-episode series about the role of women in the world’s religions, titled Divine Women and presented by Bettany Hughes. As you might imagine, the scope of this topics is so great that one might struggle to cover it adequately with ten episodes, let alone with three, but the show manages to highlight some of the most fascinating characters in the history of religion’s women. They range in date from early female devotional statues over 12,000 years old to the ongoing worship of female goddesses in modern Hinduism, and many places in between.

As interesting as the series was, however, there were a few nagging issues with the presentation of the subject matter which became more and more difficult to ignore as the show turned to the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, the early part of the mediaeval period with which I am particularly familiar. In this episode, number 3: War of the Words, Hughes relates the stories of remarkable women who had a profound effect on the practice of religion in their community.

Mary in Hagia Sophia

The Virgin Mary and Christ Child in a haze of gold mosaic high in the interior of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

First was the Byzantine Empress Theodora, under whose patronage the idea of the Virgin Mary as theotokos, or the Mother of God, became overtly recognised as orthodox. Then she looks at Khadija and Aisha, both wives of the Prophet Muhammad who influenced the reception of his prophetic message and the perpetuation of traditions about his life. Wu Zetien, who ruled China as a powerful female monarch, features next because of her sponsorship of Buddhism as a means of consolidating her authority. Finally, the show travels back to Europe, where St. Hilda influenced the growth of monastic education in what is now northern England and brokered consensus over the celebration over the Easter festival–a contentious topic at the time.

Through this collective biography, Hughes hoped to demonstrate that women could and did define their religious atmosphere in what is usually considered one of the grimmest, most violent, and regressive eras in documented history. The net result of focusing on a few, extraordinary individuals, however, tended to obscure, rather than highlight, the widespread nature of female involvement in religious life at this time.

Both St Hilda and Wu Zetien, for example, participated to some extent in an specialist religious lifestyle. In the case of the former, her life as a nun was shared by hundreds of women throughout the mediaeval period who took holy orders for one reason or another. Most lived in dedicated female houses under the control of powerful abbesses, whether in western Ireland or eastern Germany. St Hilda might be a particularly prominent exemplar, but the programme erroneously implies that she is far more unique than is actually the case.

Whitby Abbey, where St Hilda presided over the acceptance of the Roman Easter by churches in England. (Wikimedia Commons)

In China, too, many women entered Buddhist nunneries, whether willingly or not. To focus on Wu Zetien (forced into retirement in a nunnery after a regime change at court) ignores the widespread and socially influential institution of nunneries as a whole in favour of a single exceptional case. The result is a programme that falls into the same trap that traditional histories of ‘Great Men’ have been criticised for–privileging the case of high politics rather than the lived experience and social dimensions of history.

Another glaring omission in this episode was the lack of consideration of the very widespread phenomenon of female sanctity in mediaeval Europe. Earlier in the programme, Hughes argued that the worship of female divinities became less common first in Greece and then in Rome, in favour of more masculine figures. The veneration of female saints (most notably the Virgin Mary) in mediaeval Christianity, however, argues against such a simple portrayal of female virtue and potential for divinity. These female saints, like nuns, demonstrate that the intersection between femininity and the holy did not end with paganism, and that their influence was far more pervasive in society than the biographical approach taken by Hughes can illustrate.

The real question, of course, is not ‘What did the show do wrong’ but rather ‘Could it have been done better?’ After all, women in religion is a monstrously large topic to tackle in an hour, even given a relatively small timeframe of several centuries. I certainly feel like Hughes and the programme would have achieved their stated aim–of demonstrating the ubiquity and influence of women in the history of religion–better by focusing on the typical rather than the extraordinary.

After all, Theodora wasn’t the only royal woman to benefit from the elevation of Mary in Christian theology, and Hilda wasn’t the only woman to lead her own religious community in a highly politicised environment. This case is more difficult to make for Islam (since women become much less influential after the first century or so), and I am too unfamiliar with the Chinese context to do more than point the way, but surely history should be written with the devotions of ordinary women, as well as the extraordinary, firmly within view?


8 thoughts on “History TV: Divine Women Deserve More

    • This research was in fact cited in the programme as a demonstration of the formative influence of women upon the preservation and propagation of early Islamic learning, exemplified in the Prophet’s wife Aisha. So far as I know, however, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to last, although that of course could simply be because no one has yet looked for these women scholars in later centuries.

      As for the broader question of female involvement in Islam, its difficult to make any generalities. I’m certainly not aware of any female Muslim saints, although the female companions of Muhammad would of course have received due respect. There were also no foundations corresponding to nunneries. Some very powerful Muslim women do emerge in politics (I’m thinking of the much later period of Turkish rule in the Near East, post-1200, with which I am most familiar,) and they must have existed elsewhere, but I can’t think of any with comparable profiles to the others featured on the programme.

      • I’m not entirely sure why this hasn’t become more well-known, even now that there is a tradition of revisionist work on early Islam in the Western scholarship. Its inclusion was certainly one of the high points of the show, though.

  1. Marissa – I agree with pretty much all of your arguement here. One point in defence.
    Bettany was probably had a lot more material to cover things in more depth but her series was insanely limited to just three episodes.

    However, Bettany is her own worst enemy now that she has developed this ‘full on sexy style’. A Nigella Lawson of history. Sometime she has now become more important that the subject matter (not so much the case in her earlier work).

    It is just how history is now presented these days on TV (contrast with Misha Glenny’s recently repeated history of Germay on Radio 4). Constant reprises for the amnesiac who cannot remember what happened before the last commercial break etc. We have come a long way from Civilisation!


    • Tom,

      I definitely agree that three episodes was not enough, and would very gladly have watched another two or three in exchange for a far wider and deeper view of such an important topic. I’m sure that, like you say, Hughes has a lot more material than was finally included.

      At the same time, social history has been making some headway on television. Right now, in fact, the BBC has Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans playing, which deals with all kinds of issues surrounding every day life in the ancient past. I don’t think all historical shows need to do ‘history from below’, but I was a bit disappointed that such a seemingly ground-breaking series as Divine Women ended up confining itself in large part to description, especially since it was made in partnership with the Open University!

      Anyways, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I hadn’t seen any of her shows before this one, so it was interesting to hear you compare this to some of her earlier work!


  2. Reblogged this on Byzantine Blog and commented:
    Despite being in rapture to the divine Bettany, I would agree with many of the points that Marissa makes here. Whether it is presentational style, or just not enough time (certainly true) this series was a bit of a disappointment.

  3. Pingback: The faces of TV archaeology | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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