The Mediterranean Culture of Honor and Shame

It’s important to understand that many cultures outside of the Middle East had and have practices that make strong distinctions between men and women, between male and female, with unarguably difficult circumstances for women and more degrees of freedom for men. Through the cultures we are about to discuss, people are more happy if they have a boy, and that’s just the beginning of the story.

The term “Culture of Honor and Shame” was coined and made popular by anthropologist Ernestine Friedl.  Read her wikipedia biography, she was an amazing woman.

She found that, for a very long period of time, the cultures that ring the Mediterranean (North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain). Keep the European cultures in mind, because, well, we’re still living in a world heavily constructed by Rome (which of course is in Italy).

In all of these cultures, warfare and suspicion among cultures and societies was rife. Men had to defend their settlements and cities. Overpopulation was a big thing, people were hungry, armies were built, lands had to be defended. In light of this, walled cities were built and women were often made to stay inside the walls (vulnerable people are a huge liability on a battle field or are hostages just waiting to happen if they go outside). So the differences between men and women became enormous, in stark contrast to hunter-gatherer people.

Men were now warriors, not hunters. They may have had a secondary occupation, but if a city was under seige, all men were warriors. A great deal of time and money went into producing human-killing weapons, such as rapiers and swords, men were armed at nearly all times. There were many restrictive laws, tabus and customs, for everyone. Slavery was common and men were often the enslaved, so this was no walk-in-the-park for men.

Marriages, especially in the middle and upper classes, was highly regulated and age at marriage for women/girls dropped. Women started having as many as 12 or 14 or 20 babies, many of whom died. Many of the women died. Girls who get pregnant before 18 have a very difficult time with labor and delivery in the pre-modern world. But, with men dying so frequently in battle (or of malnutrition or mishaps while on campaign), having girls die frequently seemed normal.

Friedl coined the term “Mediterranean Culture of Honor and Shame” (CHS) because while many things vary within this culture (different forms of marriage, different religions, different languages), they are united by two persistent notions, those of Honor and Shame.

Honor is something only males can possess or acquire or bring to their families. Status is very important and families want honor. Men increase the value of their families by bringing honor, mostly through battle. Shakespeare immortalized this in Romeo and Juliet, where both the Capulets and Montagues have young men who are obsessed with street fighting (and gaining honor by winning). The entire point of the battle was to one up/seek revenge/gain or regain honor. It is extremely similar to gang violence in the US. Not surprisingly, Spain exported many aspects of this culture to the Spanish parts of the New World.

Women cannot bring honor to a household. They can only bring shame. A fine, upstanding, obedient and virtuous woman is just the norm. It’s unmarked. It is just the the way things are supposed to be. Nothing about this virtuous woman brings extra honor or power to the household, although she would not be marriageable if she weren’t virtuous. The concept of virginity at marriage becomes important throughout this region. No where else in the world is it as strong. Keep in mind that Roman culture will be exported throughout Europe during the first centuries B.C.E. and thereafter, first in the form of Roman conquest and then in the form of Roman Catholicism. Like Islam and Judaism, this religion could not have arisen in any other culture.

A woman who breaks the rules, therefore, brings shame to her house. Most of these cultures permitted capital punishment for women who brought shame to her house. The entire household was disregarded, derived of status, and no amount of honor brought in by males could wash it away. Therefore, women’s behavior had to be guarded, women were almost in prison (or, in modern terms, they were in fact imprisoned). Women were stoned, starved, and forced into marriage after marriage (if a girl married at 12, there was little chance she could dishonor her family by premarital sex).

Women wore veils and avoided the company of men. Women even suffered from nutritional disorders due to their confined lives and they were weak from lack of exercise. Social diseases contacted by being in crowds were brought into households by men (but this wasn’t known at the time). Measles, mumps, rubella, the various poxes, whooping cough, flus, etc affected everyone, but undernourished, Vitamin D-lacking women (and children) were especially vulnerable. Women were watched constantly to make sure they didn’t do the main things that brought dishonor.

The main thing that brought dishonor was sex. Women weren’t supposed to like it or seek it (although some did and of course, they became legendary for their badness, like Mary Magdalene). Women were supposed to have sex only with their husbands and only after religious approval was given for the marriage. Men were not expected to adhere to this rule, because an unfaithful man does not bring shame to the household. Only an unfaithful woman does that.

Women were supposed to be thrifty, scrupulous housekeepers and craftswomen. They were to demur and submit to their fathers, brothers and husbands (and husband’s father too).

It is important to look at how two different kinds of marriages emerged within these regions. The first are brideprice marriages (as with the Ancient Hebrews and the Wodaabe). In this system, a man can’t have a wife unless he and his family pay something for her (usually giving animals and perhaps some money once civilization is under way). This system is slightly more beneficial to women, but it means that fathers look at their daughters as commodity. It goes like this:

The men in the household establish that the household has high honor. A successful warrior will bring home spoils (gold, horses, tack, silver, well made weaponry, tapestries, rugs, wild animals, domesticated animals, plates, cups, etc). The house will become richer. The household will have the funds to enlarge the house. Interestingly, throughout the region, lower stories of houses rarely had windows facing outside (because the women might be caught looking at other men or just showing their faces, which would be an open invitation for strangers to cover her, which brings shame to the family). So, the women lived inside closed spaces, with rich women having a courtyard or a small garden in the center of the house, guarded against prying eyes and strangers. If a woman was allowed to go to the market (very rare), she was accompanied by a male relative and draped in veils so as to not invite prying eyes. A truly virtuous woman did not go to the market, she was part of an honorable family that had servants or retainers to do this.

These very virtuous (high born) women are sought after and some sort of price may be paid for them – especially outside of Europe. But in Europe, another system emerged.

The dowry system is one in which the bride and her family pay for the groom. Very rich, honorable, powerful men were sought after and the Roman/European model became one in which it was expected that a woman ( no matter how high born ) would pay the husband to become his wife. She was supposed to bring, at a minimum, all the common household items that the couple would use, plus some goods and animals. Usually, she brought land. So in this part of the world, women were no longer able to bring their fathers money through marriage, instead they cost money (and their status plunged).

Eleanor of Aquitane was a very powerful woman within the Roman Catholic system (the culture expands beyond the edges of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, where ever Catholicism is found). She was Queen of France and then Queen of England. Nevertheless, her husband (King Henry II of England) successfully imprisoned her for 16 years, barring all contact with her children, because she (outrageously) disobeyed him. She didn’t cheat on him (in Cultures of Honor and Shame, cheating is the worst thing a woman can do), she simply organized a battle against him (siding with her sons). She is the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, by the way. He adored his mom, but his older brother, who would have been Henry III, loved her even more and upon his death, Henry II finally allowed Eleanor out of the prison tower (but only because he wanted to claim land that young Henry’s family was claiming, on which Eleanor also had a claim).

Eleanor was, of course, the Princess of Aquitane (a Celtic kingdom that had barely embraced Catholicism and was not very much into this Culture of Honor and Shame). She was the only heir to her father’s kingdom and her father definitely left it to her (so she had an amazing dowry, which is how she became Queen of France – and then of England). She did undergo two Catholic marriage ceremonies, and bring two enormous dowries to her husbands (Henry II fell in love with her, her French husband was not fond of her, so the exchange was made). She is one of the most influential women in Medieval history (or, in history in general, really) but she still ended up imprisoned in a tower by her husband, for 16 years.

Her husband cheated on her many times, and openly kept a mistress (the fair Rosamund) and when Rosamund died (probably a suicide), Eleanor was blamed for it, even though she was locked up, pretty much incommunicado, in a tower far away from Rosamund. Eleanor must have been pretty inured to Henry’s infidelity, though, because that’s what all powerful and honorable men did (have lots of women). Visiting a prostitute brought no dishonor to the house; being a prostitute was the ultimate disgrace that a woman could bring to a house.

So, people with money sent their daughters to convents, instead. To get into a convent, the fathers had to give the convents money, so this was only for middle classes and upper classes. The upper classes could afford to lock up all their daughters (and so, keep the house from shame). Middle class girls often had to fend for themselves, and got themselves into compromised situations. Being a servant, for example, might mean that a girl or woman had to go to market unaccompanied (shame, shame, shame).

A version of this entire cultural complex is better known in American culture as the Madonna/Whore complex. Here’s a picture from the Uffizi:


The Madonna/Whore complex goes like this:

A man marries a virtuous woman from an honorable family, she has brought no shame on her house. He wants to have children with her. She is virginal and pure, like the Madonna. She is obedient to God, she adores her children, she teaches them nothing but virtue. She is what every woman should aspire to be (she’s also a virgin in the legend).

This is all great and wonderful, but…no honorable man wants to disturb this virtuous, virginal woman. He has sex with her because she is his wife and he wants heirs. If they are sufficiently honorable and virtuous, they will have a firstborn son (and many more sons, and if no daughters, well, that’s okay).

However, he cannot experience any sort of lascivious sexual desire toward this woman. Women who like sex (for any other reason than having a baby) are, in this view, whores and bring shame to the family. We see the remnants of this ideology all the time in modern American culture, wherein a man finds he has lost all sexual interest in the mother of his children (cheating when a woman is pregnant or has babies is one of the more usual times for cheating). If a woman enjoys (or tries to enjoy) sex, she is no longer the Madonna, but the Whore. Whores can be treated terribly (and should be punished, as they are shameful). It’s a no-win situation for women, but it persists.

It’s illustrated here by Titian (in the Borghese, in Rome):

titianprofane and sacred.jpg

The tempting naked woman sits to the left of the virtuous woman (as seen from inside the picture – to our right, as viewers). The man has a choice as he looks at this titillating picture. Supposedly (say many psychologists who’ve studied this), a healthy adult man can overcome this cultural dichotomy by seeing that “his woman” can be both sexual and motherly.

In today’s world, there’s tremendous pressure on young women to minimize the effects on their bodies of pregnancy (I could tell many stories from my own research about this, but this isn’t the main topic here). Returning to pre-pregnancy weight and looks is very important. Many women refuse to nurse their babies because they want their breasts to return (if possible) to a nearly pre-pregnancy, sexualized (not nurturant) state. Oddly, in the US, some people think it is sexual for a woman to nurse a baby and try to ban it in public. Women have cosmetic surgery to return their breasts to a pre-motherly state.

Modern couples try hard to live their lives (including sex lives) as if babies hadn’t happened. This was not the case throughout most of human time on our planet.

In hunter-gatherer societies, it was understood that a husband did not approach his wife sexually for at least a year (usually two years) after birth. There are good biological reasons for this (the woman’s body needs time to recuperate from one birth in order to successfully give birth to another child – but each subsequent child faces higher risks of being lower birth weight in hunter-gatherer societies, especially if the mother is still nursing). In a hunter-gatherer society, nearly all women are quite thin and nursing a 2-3 year old (because other foods are not available) takes her body fat to a level low enough to surpress ovulation. It is natural birth control. It doesn’t work in modern women, because we are too well-nourished (although some athletes and very thin women will find they don’t ovulate while nursing; anorexics will cease ovulating – which is not a sign of health).

In the hunter-gatherer world, children are spaced, therefore, 3-4 years apart, which is optimum for mother and baby. When agricultural civilization arise, and especially within the cultures of Honor and Shame, women may have one baby a year. Many of them will die. In some more enlightened families, the father would leave home for a year to travel, do battle, do business, so that there was at least 2 years between babies. In one notable example (Marquisa Isabella d’Este), the woman left home and traveled for a year (leaving her newborn daughter with a wet nurse). She and her husband actively avoided each other for at least a year between babies (she had 8 of them). She was married at age 15, but being from an educated, upper class family, it was by proxy. The couple didn’t actually begin marital relations until a year later, and he was gone a lot of the time. Her first child didn’t arrive until she was 20. This would not have been true for many other women of her day.

Her living children were spaced about 3-4 years apart. One of her children, born just one year after the next oldest, died in infancy (which is a common outcome in pre-modern times, of too-close child spacing; today, there would just be medical costs and birth injuries/defects). Isabella, of course, did not nurse her own children. Her husband, Francesco Gonzaga, was able to confine his sexual desire for her to a relatively few times a year (they went for long periods without seeing each other). However, like Henry II, he had lots of mistresses, probably visited prostitutes and one of the earliest Europeans in history to contract the new STD, syphilis, at which point he apparently ceased approaching his wife. His wife, after all, was not an object of sexual desire. She was a Madonna (and may have been painted as one), she was serene, wise, calm, artistic, virtuous, responsible and good. She was not for sex. Francesco’s main sexual fling came with his sister-in-law (Isabella’s brother’s wife), Lucrezia Borgia, who had been married to 3 men (without her consultation or desire) by the time she was 22. She was also openly accused of an affair (besides Gonzaga) and so, as a “fallen” woman, was subject to Francesco’s desires.

All cultures make distinctions between men and women, usually making them into (exaggerated) opposites, into masculine and feminine. But in the Culture of Honor and Shame, men and women are further divided into honorable and dishonorable men (with men who have sex outside of marriage not besmirching their honor one little bit; only cowardice on the battlefield or putting up with disrespect from another man can dishonor him – or having an unvirtuous wife or sister). Gonzaga besmirched Isabella’s brother by his affair with Lucrezia (Lucrezia’s husband was named Alphonso; he came from a very noble house, but was in the province that Gonzaga directly competed with – and so Gonzaga dishonored Alphonso).

Good women are motherly, do not desire sex, dress in a demure manner, manage the household. If the family is not rich, the women cook, entertain guests, organize all the ceremonies and parties (such as the first baptism celebration, especially of boys), host the husband’s family members, care for the sick, prepare and bury the dead. That’s a good woman. Her list of traits is in Proverbs, in the Bible. This same paradigm applies through the circum-Mediterranean region and then spread into various parts of Europe through Roman conquest and then Catholicism (with some areas embracing these notions far less than the Italians and the Spanish – the people of Spain were almost completely replaced/augmented by Roman-Italian migrants in the first few centuries C.E./A.D.)

For an interesting take on these issues, there is an important film set in modern Italy (late 1930’s, written later by Federico Fellini as an autobiography) and that is Amarcord.