History records women as absent

Queen Elizabeth 1 gets a one-line mention in The Shortest History of Europe. Perhaps they ran out of space?

Archive from 2012.  These days, women record their own history, via the internet.

The short-sighted history of Europe

Lately, I’ve been doing some research about medieval history for a play I am writing, and coincidentally I have come across a curious thing.

Despite the advances of feminism and the general acknowledgment of women’s contribution to all facets of modern life, it is still possible to write a book about the history of the world and barely mention women.

The book in question is The Shortest History of Europe by respected Australian historian John Hirst.

No doubt it would have been longer had it included more than a passing reference to the other half of the human race.

The book has no index, as it is a type of extended essay, so it is not possible to check how often women rate a mention other than to read it thoroughly and take notes – which I attempted to do.

For a start, there are 22 images in the book, 11 of which consist solely of men.

There are no images solely of women, but there are two in which women appear incidentally.

These include a painting of Eve, wife of Adam, and paintings in which the weeping but nameless sisters of dead soldiers of the Roman Empire are used to demonstrate the “weakness” of women compared to the stoicism of men.

Three other images are ambiguous. One is of peasants paying tax during the Roman Empire. They appear to be men, but it’s hard to say.  The seven figures are similarly attired and all curly headed. Another is of peasants harvesting, which appears to include one woman, but once again this isn’t clear.

The remaining images are of maps and places.

This is a sombre indication of what is to come.

The book begins with Ancient Greece, where Hirst states that “All male citizens gathered in one place to talk about public affairs, to vote on laws and to vote on public policy.”

What were the women doing while the men decided their futures? The washing? Hirst doesn’t say.

Women don’t fare much better in the reference to Roman times.  We learn that a Roman sent his son to Athens to university or hired a Greek slave to teach his children at home.

What were the daughters doing while the son went to university? The cooking?

The book then tells us of German warriors, who thought fighting was fun. What were the German women doing? Presumably breeding and raising the future German warriors?

I accept that Ancient Greece and Rome were misogynistic societies in which women were not allowed to participate in government, but I find it strange that there is no acknowledgement or discussion of this, or indeed much reference to women at all.

Hirst goes on to tell us that the German warriors turned themselves into kings and that their friends became nobles.  Over the centuries, warriors changed into knights, whose job it was to honor and protect “ladies.”

This, we are told, evolved into gentlemen respecting women by standing when a woman entered the room.

Incredibly, this is what feminism was all about according to Hirst.

“Feminists in recent times fought against this respect. They did not want to be honored on a pedestal, they wanted to be equal,” he writes.

It was this degree of respect that made it easier for feminism to be accepted in western culture, Hirst says, because Western women then had the advantage of “height” or respect.

Forgive me, but as a woman, I thought feminism was the fight against being denied citizenship, voting rights, property rights, the right to leave your husband if he beat you and to keep your children, not to mention the right to equal pay for equal work.

Some women did object to the fact that these outward customs of respect did not translate into basic human rights, but objecting to being put on a pedestal was not what motivated women to become feminists.

It’s page 22 and this is the only specific reference to women so far.

On page 28, we find the first woman mentioned by name – Eve – in painting in which Adam is blaming Eve and Eve is blaming the serpent.

And so it goes on. We read about the “men of the Renaissance”, “men of the Enlightenment” , “the men of the Romantic movement”,  “man and society ”, “men of the woods”, and for two centuries “men debating the achievements of the ancients”, to name a few. There are also numerous references to sons, but none to daughters.

At last, on page, 47, there is another reference to a woman – in a hypothetical interaction between a female student and tutor using the Socratian method of questioning. Incredibly, Hirst names the student “Amanda.”

Lucretia, a Roman wife and rape victim who later takes the blame and kills herself, is the first reference to a real woman – on page 74.

The next reference is on the following page in a painting where the “weakness of women, weeping over their loss,” is contrasted with the stoicism of Brutus, who doesn’t flinch as his sons are flogged and beheaded in front of him for taking part in a conspiracy.

But perhaps I am not reading it right.

In his introduction, Hirst admits “Many people and events that get into other history books don’t get into this one.”

I decide to Google some reviews – which are overwhelmingly positive. One reviewer, also called Jane, effuses: “It’s all here. Not names and dates and stuff: themes, the reasons why it matters, how it’s affected the way that you think and live.”

I get that it’s a broad brush and that the focus is themes, but it’s not true about the names. There are many men mentioned specifically in fact, but very few women.

Here’s a tally, including the manner to which they are referred and the order in which they appear:

Newton, the great 17th Century scientist

Jesus, the founder of Christianity

Paul, the great early missionary of the church

The Emperor Constantine, 313 AD, who became a Christian.

King Charles of the Franks (Charlemagne)

The god Hermes with the infant Dionysus by Praxiteles (artist)

Art historian Kenneth Clark

Eve, in a painting by Praxiteles – “Adam is blaming Eve; Eve is blaming the serpent”.

Michelangelo and the statue of David


Martin Luther, a monk and heretic

Charles Darwin,  who “advanced the view that we share a common ancestor with the apes”

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers


Emperor Justinian, who ruled the Eastern Empire

Odoracer, a German chieftain



Charles Martel, leader of the Franks and grandfather of Charlemagne

The Norman Duke William

Pericles, the leader of Athens

Athenian author Thucydides (male)

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

English Scholar and radical, George Grote

Alexander the Great

Tarquin the Proud

The Roman historian Livy


Tarquin’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, a rapist

Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, and rape victim, who blames herself and then commits suicide.

Brutus, nephew of the king

Julius Caesar

Jacques-Louis David, court painter to Louis XVI

Horatius and his three sons

Augustus, Caesar’s grand nephew and adopted son

The poet Ovid

Dioclectian and Constantine, Emperors

Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen,  in reference to her throne passing to James VI of Scotland at her death in 1603

James I

Charles I

Charles II

James II

Henry VIII

His first wife, Catherine

Anne Boleyn

Archbishop of Canterbury

Oliver Cromwell

King of France, Louis XIV

Dutchman William of Orange

Mary, his wife and who rules with him as a joint monarch

Anne, Mary’s sister and James II daughter, who ruled after them

Sophia, the Electress of Hanover in Germany, granddaughter of James I and the monarch which Parliament chose to rule but who died before she could take over.

George, Sophia’s son.

English author John Locke

Maximilien Robespierre

Mirabeau, leader of the French revolution in its early stages (picture)

Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

King Pepin, the Christian Frankish King



St Augustine, who lived in the last days of the Roman Empire

St Peter,

Pope Gregory VII

Henry IV

Renaissance artist Cellini

Frederick, the Elector of Saxony

The Hapsburgs, one of the great ruling dynasties

Voltaire, the guru of the Enlightenment

Josephine, Napoleon’s Empress

William Jones, an English judge resident in  India

Petrarch, the pioneer scholar of the Renaissance


Plutarch, author of Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Antony and Cleopatra, a work by Shakespeare

Copernicus, who first positioned the sun at the centre of the universe

Kepler, who formulated laws of the planets’ motion

Swedish botanist Linnaeus

Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s voyage

Pope Paul VI

That makes 72 direct references to men compared to nine to women. Of the references to women,  one – Eve – is arguably mythical and another –  Cleopatra –  only rates a mention in the title of a Shakespeare play, while Lucretia, as we have said, is a rape victim.

The others don’t fare much better.  Mary of Orange, and her sister, Anne, were rulers in their own right, but are only mentioned briefly.

Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Josephine are only mentioned in passing as wives of Henry VIII and Napolean respectively.

Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, is mentioned briefly as a conduit to the rule of her son, George, and Queen Elizabeth 1 gets one line – a mention as the virgin queen whose reign passes to James VI of Scotland.

Contrast this to the first collection of biographies in Western literature devoted entirely women, the aptly named Famous Women, written in 1362 by Giovanni Boccaccio, and translated by Virginia Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto.

Boccaccio’s collection also begins with Eve, and takes us up to the reign of Joanna, Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily in the 14th Century and who was the only female monarch in her time to rule in her own name. Never heard of her? I wonder why?

But it’s not just the fact that women are mentioned so rarely in Hirst’s book that bothers me. It’s the way they are mentioned: mostly as victims or chattels.

On page 56, under Invasions and Conquests Hirst writes: “The Germans brought their women and children with them and intended to settle.”

This is reiterated on page 62, where the next reference to women is contained in a broader reference to the Vikings who seized “food, horses, women”. The Norsemen also “brought their wives and children and settled permanently”.

And we are told that Henry VIII’s first wife, who is not named, “could not do what was required of her and produce a male heir”.

But some rulers apparently didn’t even need wives, as on page 106 we learn that : “It happened in France for a long time that all the kings produced able sons, so gradually inheritance became the sole means of determining who was going to be the French king.”

On the chapter on Languages, women rate a brief mention – in the negative: “Girls did not study Latin”.

Sexual terms were printed in Latin, so no one could understand them and be corrupted, Hirst says, then  gives the example of the word “pudenda”, which “refers to the sex organs, particularly women’s, and means literally ‘matters that are shameful’.”

Even in the chapter on the common people, there is only one reference to women: “Men ploughed, women and children harvested.”

And that’s it.

That’s how women are written out of history.

To fill in the gaps, you might like to check the following links: