A placid oxbow of the Snoqualmie River about a mile from home is a popular gathering spot for water fowl. The other day, the long neck and the school-marmish face of a Canadian goose rose out of the grass and followed me through 100 degrees of visual range, hissing as I passed. Looking down by the water, I understood the bird’s hostility: another adult goose, no doubt the female (these birds are monogamous, but unlike mallards, their sexes are hard to distinguish) held charge of five fuzzy goslings.
We humans talk about “silly geese.” But recalling that intact and mutually-supportive feathered family, I wonder if they talk about “irresponsible humans?” Or “silly college professors”?
A day or two later, I received a book from Amazon that I had been looking forward to reading, The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, by Eleanor Janega, who teaches Medieval and Early Modern History at the London School of Economics. The front cover was colorful and intriguing: Eve holding an apple in a tree, with Jesus on a cross and a human skull on different bows, and a serpent wrapped around the trunk, with women in colorful Medieval outfits, but also the Grim Reaper, on either side of her. Back cover blurbs praised the book as “witty, entertaining and learned,” “compelling and revelatory,” and combining “erudition and humor.”
But within a few paragraphs, I came to suspect that when it comes to sex, Dr. Janega is sillier than those two geese. And the western world is following not their wisdom, but her foolishness.
Following Foolishness, Not Wisdom
The introduction revealed the sort of gullibility you would expect from a duck who eagerly flies to a hunter’s call. Janega takes propaganda about the “gender gap” in wages between men and women for granted: it is, apparently, mostly fake news. Rather than humor and erudition, I detected some didactic hissing. She writes of “our desire to subjugate women,” as if she admitted to such a feeling herself. She speaks of complacency about supposed gender inequality as “rage-inducing.” Yet women live longer than men, earn more college degrees, and enjoy far safer work environments. Should positive imbalances that females enjoy induce “rage” among males? Or would it not be better to lower our beaks, and talk calmly about how we can support one another?
But it was Janega’s complaint about sex norms that made me appreciate the wisdom of geese: “An expectation that we will always look sexually attractive but engage in sex only with our correct and designated partners … ”
In other words, Janega bemoans the burden that Medieval women carried, of being discouraged from sleeping around. (Even if Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, and others, ignored such strictures.)
Let us soar on wings of biological good sense, and give this history prof a bird’s-eye view of what past generations called “the facts of life.” Because while birds and bees act by instinct, humans often listen to music, TikTok videos, and even sacred scriptures, before deciding whom to let into our nests, and how to raise offspring. Our choices are informed by instinct, but then diverge dramatically, as anyone who looks around the oxbow of western society these days can see.
The Facts of Life: Humans vs. Chimps
Sex sometimes leads to babies. Did you know that, Dr. Janega? Whether birds and bees grasp the connection, human beings had it figured out well before the Middle Ages.
Like other animals, human beings protect young ones they bring into the world, but tend to instinctively spend fewer resources on genetically unrelated welps.
Apes, supposed to have much in common with humans, do not form nuclear families. Males are much larger than females, and like kings or rock stars, a few Alpha males hog most of the females. This works for monkeys, because the female takes care of infants without male help. (Aside from guarding communal territory.)
But everywhere, human beings form nuclear families. Whether aboriginals in the Outback, hill peoples in Southeast Asia, Plains Indians, or riverside nations of Asia, human beings have universally adopted and solemnified the institution of “marriage.”
This for good reason. Human babies have big brains, and need many years to learn to use them. (As you may have noticed.) It is difficult for women to raise children over many years, without support of an interested male. Marriage “weds” economics to mating. It enacts a covenant which is hardwired into human nature: I will “forsake all others,” now please help with the bills.
Among chimpanzees, neither sex willingly shares food even with their own children, let alone visitors. Nor are close bonds formed between the sexes. Male and female chimps sometimes even kill babies that do not share their genes.
A woman’s exclusive commitment within marriage is what ensures she will have help in raising her children.
Men, like male geese, are naturally inclined to poke their heads above the grass, and hiss at intruders. Of course, we are a more dangerous animal: not only do we fly in flocks, we also sharpen sticks and band together to hunt and protect our nests.
But like most species, we are much less inclined to care for unrelated children. This is why child abuse is vastly more common from a boyfriend or second husband than from a child’s own father. Indeed, old stories of “evil stepmothers,” like Snow White or Hansel and Gretel, remind us that women, too, are less inclined to weary themselves over someone else’s brats. This makes biological sense, and bemoaning the fact is not going to turn us into Tinkerbell. (Who had a jealous streak too, as I recall.)
This is why Plato’s “communion of wives” in which no one knows who their children were, has never produced a happy and prosperous society. One anthropologist celebrated a region in Zambia in which women kicked husbands out by the half dozen, or let them slide back home, with no formal marriage or divorce. But that was one of the poorest districts in the country, and was later decimated by AIDS. Wantonness among women is not the path to freedom, but to control by a ruthless patriarchy, as in the Manson Family, the South Side of Chicago, or East Saint Louis. Or it simply spells doom for the next generation, who often winds up in prison or on the streets, a poor return for a double portion of labor that a single mother expends.
Wishing Misery Upon Our Ancestors
And so those who wish Medieval women could have fooled around more, are wishing misery upon our ancestors. Poke around western cities today, and despite welfare and state social workers whom Enlightened cads like Bertrand Russell thought would allow everyone to become promiscuous and careless, the misery has become manifest.
Women have a choice which is set by Nature even before Religion. They can mate freely, then ask whoever happens to be hanging around, or is paid for by the state, to help feed and care for the children that result. On average (aside from the occasional St. Joseph), such children will be treated worse and come out less-educated and sadder in every measurable way than those raised in a stable two-parent home. Or a girl can pick a boy she likes, and stick with him through better and worse, sickness and health, saying “no” to whatever inclination Merry Wives of Windsor have to sleep around. (If they have energy to cheat, after kids are fed, tears and dishes wiped, plants foraged or plowed, planted and picked.)
Humans have a unique cultural “override” (not off-switch) to our genetic programming. The problem is, our ideas are often worse than our instincts. Sexual revolutions are often battier than bats and sillier than any geese I have met. In some cultures, women’s toes were broken so they wouldn’t run off. In others, widows were buried with their husbands. Elsewhere, sex organs were cut, so women would feel pain in mating, and stick to their own beds.
A Gospel of Liberation
As I will argue in an upcoming book, nothing has liberated women more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christianity spelled great progress for women, by denouncing the double standard, ending foot-binding, seclusion, and human sacrifice, educating girls, and offering dozens of biblical portraits of women who taught, invested, sought love, bought and sold property, spoke for God, founded churches, financed the ministry of Jesus, and even led armies or saved their nation in its time of need.
But if Christ raises us above Nature, post-Christian ideologues turn us into silly geese, indeed. We have endured a Great Relapse into chimp behavior or worse. When we abort our own children, or deny the distinction between male and female, it is unfair to apes to say we are making monkeys of ourselves.
Christian theology recognizes the facts of human nature, then helps women get the best possible deal within natural constraints. (Even Janega admits that the Medieval Church allowed women to decline marriage and reproduction, if they so desired.) But how rare common sense is becoming, as a generation of professors and their flocks turn their backs on the Christian faith.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.
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