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The Invention of Patriarchy - Or, the Impact

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Victor Cohen

on 14 November 2013

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Transcript of The Invention of Patriarchy - Or, the Impact

The Invention of Patriarchy - Or, the Impact
of the First Economy on Gender Relations in Sumer and Mesopotamia

Sumerian civilization did not have a currency as we know it today (no coins, or dollar bills changing hands on a daily basis) - temple or palace workers were paid in units of barley that were measured in silver "shekels," an unworked chunk of silver.


One silver shekel = one "gur" - a bushel of barley
One silver shekel was divided into 60 "minas"
One mina = one portion of barley
One silver shekel = 60 portions of barley


Why the math? There were 30 days to a month, and temple workers were paid 2 rations of barley a day.
In this stage of civilization - 3,500 BCE - this system was used by temple or palace bureaucrats to calculate debt - what they owed to someone, or what someone owed to them.
Though these shekels did circulate a bit - mostly they just sat around the temples and palaces in the treasury, carefully guarded, for sometimes up to thousands of years.
Sumerians did have the technology to standardize and stamp the shekel - but chose not to. Why not?
While debts were calculated in shekels - or silver - they did not have to be paid in silver. In fact, debts could be paid with more or less anything.
Peasants who owed money to the palace or temple seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley - which is why fixing the ratio of silver to barley was so important.
But - it was perfectly acceptable to show up with a goat, or furniture, or lapis lazuli. Temples and palaces were huge industrial operations - they could find a use for almost anything.
Merchants in the Sumerian marketplaces relied on the value of silver to price their goods - but here, too, credit was how goods were purchased.
Ordinary people buying beer from "ale women" or the local innkeeper did the same - they ran up a "tab" (or were given a line of credit) that was then settled at harvest time in barley, or anything they might have at hand.
This history has a few interesting implications:
1. Credit and debt - as an economy - came before the invention of money, and was sophisticated enough to sustain a civilization. This also means that the social ties were quite strong - trust was what enabled this system to function.
2. This was not a "barter" economy in which goods were traded for other goods - there was a single economic unit of value - the shekel - used to calculate all goods and services.
3. The first writing - Sumerian "cuneiform" was invented to keep track of debt - who owed how much to whom, and for what.
The city-states of Mesopotamia were dominated by vast temples: gigantic, complex industrial institutions staffed by thousands - including everyone from shepherds and barge-pullers, to spinners and weavers, to dancing girls and clerks.
Sumerian rulers rarely went so far as to declare themselves gods, but sometimes they came close. When they did act as cosmic rulers, they did so by canceling private debt.
By at least 2,700 BCE - rulers began to imitate them, creating palace complexes just as vast.
We can't say for sure when or how interest-bearing loans came into being - lending money to be paid back in full, plus an extra percentage - since they appear to predate writing.
Most likely, temple administrators invented the idea to help finance the caravan trade, since the Mesopotamian river valley, while rich in food and livestock (and thus wool and leather), was lacking in anything else. Stone - wood - metal, even silver used for shekels - had to be imported.
Temple functionaries would advance goods to local merchants, who would go and sell them abroad. However - once the principal of interest-bearing loans was established - it quickly spread.
By 2,400 BCE - it was common for local officials and wealthy merchants to advance loans to peasants who were in financial trouble. These peasants would "put up" their possessions for "collateral" - essentially trading their possessions for credit - which would be lost to the merchant or official if they were unable to pay back the loan + interest.
The appropriation of a debtor's possessions usually started with their grain, livestock and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, and ultimately family members. In extreme situations, even the borrower himself would be taken by the lender.
These people would become "debt-peons" - not quite slaves - but close. They would be forced into perpetual servitude in the lender's household or in the temples or palaces themselves.
In theory, any of these people - or objects - could be "redeemed" as soon as the borrower repaid the loan, but for obvious reasons, the more a peasant's resources were stripped away, the harder that became.
The effects of this system of credit and debt threatened to rip society apart. If there was a bad harvest - and threat of famine - large portions of the peasantry would fall into debt-peonage.
Families would be broken up, lands abandoned as farmers fled to the country for fear of being turned into debt-peons, becoming semi-nomads on the desert fringe of civilization.
Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian - and later Babylonian kings - would periodically announce a general amnesty, or a "clean slate" for all debtors.
Such decrees would typically declare all outstanding consumer - or peasant debt - over, return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families.
Before long - it became more or less a regular habit for kings to make such a declaration on first taking power, and many kings were forced to repeat it periodically over the course of their reigns.
In Sumeria, to end all debt, the kings would make "declarations of freedom" - and it is significant that the Sumerian word "amargi," the first recorded word for "freedom" in any known human language, literally means "return to mother," since this is what debt-peons were literally allowed to do.
Historians argue that Mesopotamian kings were able to do this because they had god-like pretensions: in taking this power, they saw themselves as literally recreating human society, wiping away all preexisting moral obligations, which is what a debt is - a moral obligation to return something borrowed.
So - what does any of this have to do with "patriarchy," or the "rule of fathers"?
In the very earliest Sumerian texts, those dating from 3,000 to 2,500 BCE - women are everywhere. There appears to have been a female ruler (Kug-Bau - who ruled around 2,500 BCE), but women were also well-represented among the ranks of merchants, scribes, and public officials - and were generally free to take part in all aspects of public life.
There was not full gender equality - men still outnumbered women in all these areas. However- these early texts suggest a society not so different than ours.
Over the next 1000 years or so, all this changes.
The place of women in civic life erodes, and gradually the more familiar patriarchal pattern emerges, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, the disappearance of women's role in government and professional life, and the loss of women's independent legal status, making them "wards" of their husband or father.
By the end of the Bronze age, around 1,200 BCE, we begin to see women hidden in the home, and in some places, subjected to obligatory veiling.
Why? What brought about this change?
Some historians suggest that in Sumer - its urban world was gradually taken over by pastoral nomads from the surrounding desert, who always had more patriarchal beliefs.
Yet - former nomadic tribes had been willing to adapt to all aspects of urban life - why not gender equity?
Other historians explain this shift by pointing to the growing scale and importance of war, and the increasing power of the state that went along with this. As a society became more militaristic - its laws tended to become harsher towards women.
Anthropologists suggest another explanation. As the explosion of credit and debt turn all humans into potential objects of loan collateral - it created horrified reactions on the part of the male heads of the households. These men felt forced to go to greater and greater lengths to make clear that "their" women could in no sense be loaned out, bought, or sold.
Naturally - this was an issue more for the poor than the wealthy. Family members of the poor were always in danger of being taken away in hard times, or just "hired out" to a wealthy household in exchange for a loan.
This issue becomes even more complicated when we turn to the role of prostitution in Sumer.
In fact - "prostitution" is not entirely the right word to use when we talk about Sumer. Sumerian temples appear to have housed priestesses, for example, who were considered to be married to the gods.
What this meant in practice varied - some remained celibate (like a nun - forsaking sexual relations), some were permitted to marry but not have children, others were expected to find wealthy patrons but not marry.
Still others were expected to make themselves sexually available to worshipers on certain ritual occasions.
One thing early Sumerian texts make clear is that all such women were considered extraordinarily important. In a civilization whose entire economy existed to support the temples, these women were the physical embodiment of civilization itself.
Temple priestesses and spouses of the gods were the highest human incarnation of life.
But as early texts also show - from the earliest times, Sumerian temple complexes were surrounded by a "red light district" full of bars with dancing girls, and an great number of prostitutes.
Most seem to have doubled as entertainers. Many were slaves put to work by their masters, or women working off debts, or debt bondswomen, or women escaping debt bondage with no place else to go.
Over time, many of the lower-ranking temple women were either bought as slaves or debt peons as well, and there might have often been a blurring of roles between priestesses who performed erotic rituals and prostitutes owned by the temple whose earnings added to the temple treasuries.
Since most everyday transactions in Sumer were not cash transactions, it is safe to assume the same was true with prostitutes - like the tavern-keepers (many of whom seem to have been prostitutes), they developed ongoing credit relations with their clients.
However polite this ongoing relationship may sound - it should not obscure the fact that these non-elite prostitutes were the children or wives of impoverished farmers, who had taken on loans in order to survive periods of famine - leading to debt-peonage.
By the middle of 2,000 BCE, prostitution was well established as a likely occupation for the daughters of the poor.
This difference - between the wealthy and poor women - created a deep social anxiety - how could one tell the difference between a woman who was "respectable" or "more valuable," and one who was not?
This should tell us two things:

1. If most Sumerian and Babylonian kings had to cancel all consumer debt at least once during their reign, this suggests their societies were always coming to the brink of collapse.
2. Debt-peonage can be understood as a fundamental aspect of early civilization. Far from being an unusual event, falling catastrophically into debt is as old an event as civilization itself.
Of course, the deeper problem here was not only that the male head of the household felt unable to protect his wife or daughter.
The bigger issue was that these people (the man included) now saw themselves as objects of monetary value - a thing that could be valued like any other possession - and therefore sold, or even de-valued.
According to historian Gerda Lerner, this problem was solved dramatically towards the end of the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia through the imposition of the first known law enforcing veiling.
"Respectable" women - wives, daughters, widows and courtesans of free men - had to wear a veil when in public, while prostitutes and slaves were forbidden to wear one.
The implication? Veiling distinguished between women who could be bought or sold, and those who could not - and helped everyone to tell the difference. Wearing a veil signaled a woman's "respect" or value - not wearing one signaled a woman's lack of value - she had already been traded or sold.
So - how does this history help us understand the origins of patriarchy in Sumerian society in the Bronze age?
The veil, then, is a symbol of patriarchy - it stands for the claim of a father's (or husband's) right over the body of "his" wife, or daughter.
It is also a symbol of the economic system that has turned people - and women - into material objects, since it distinguished between women of greater or lesser "value."
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