In her new article, now published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Victoria Leonard analyses the letters of St Augustine of Hippo, and demonstrates how their ‘silences’ convey the erasure of gendered violence and queer sexuality in antiquity.
Here, Victoria draws on her research to demonstrate how an absence of primary source evidence can be just as informative as an abundance; and how historians can use these silences to gain deeper insight into the past.
Victoria’s Open Access article, ‘Gendered Violence, Victim Credibility and Adjudicating Justice in Augustine’s Letters’, is now available – Open Access – via the FirstView section of the journal’s website.
Historians work with evidence. They analyse ideas, structures, objects, and texts that have been transmitted from the past into the present. But that transmission means the prominence and visibility of the surviving evidence is not neutral, and neither is the absence of evidence. Absence, loss, and silence in the past have traditionally held less appeal – what is meaningful about evidence that is not there? The standing stones of prehistoric henges exert a unique cultural influence, but the postholes left in the ground by long-vanished wooden structures show that what is not evident is ordinarily overlooked.
Inductive reasoning that derives information from absence may seem non-sensical. But it is, in fact, a critical aspect of human understanding. Returning to a silent house could suggest the absence of occupants, the lack of flourishing growth that a plant is suffering from deprivation. The variety of interpretation that the space provided by absence enables can appear intimidating, unsecured, and unscientific, but the historian is uniquely equipped and well-practised in reading between the lines and filling in the gaps. Susan A. Crane’s recent monograph, Nothing Happened: A History (Stanford, 2020), illuminates the value of absence, of the uninteresting and the inevident, on a large scale.
Until a problem becomes impossible to ignore, narratives, critiques and conversations addressing sexual violence and harassment are largely absent.
Of course, Crane’s way of seeing nothing is not entirely original. Silence as a historiographical approach is a long-held aspect of feminist and gender-orientated history. With the increasing diversification of historical studies away from narrow and monolithic interpretative approaches, historians can shift their focus, considering traditionally unobserved but ever-present aspects as well as the lack and loss that pervade historical evidence. Sexual abuse and violence have always been a fundamental aspect of ancient societies, but critical approaches to these overlooked topics are a relatively recent development. Representations of same-sex acts and sexual violence are usually tightly controlled and deliberately erased in the historical evidence. Until a problem becomes impossible to ignore, narratives, critiques and conversations addressing sexual violence and harassment are largely absent.
Because of the repression of sexual violence in the ancient past by writers like Augustine of Hippo, my open-access article, ‘Gendered Violence, Victim Credibility and Adjudicating Justice in Augustine’s Letters’, is necessarily concerned with missing critiques and missing conversations – about what and who is missing – as well as what is more plainly evident. This article reaches new understandings, applying critical methods that centre gendered violence, victimisation and harm to reach beyond previous approaches. The article engages with a case of sexual abuse between two men intrinsically, and as a uniquely available point of comparison with sexual violence perpetrated by men against women in the early fifth century CE.
The central objective of this research article is to examine how sexual violence is gendered, in Augustine’s response, in the adjudication of cases, and in the behaviours and expectations of both victim and perpetrator. I argue that Augustine’s blaming of female victims for the sexual violence and domestic abuse perpetrated against them is an end-point conclusion within a thought-system of patriarchal entitlement and hostile misogyny where women are not entitled to acknowledgement and redress. Even raising an accusation of harm against a man is a dangerous transgression of the boundaries of gendered societal expectations. This system is so complete in Augustine’s fifth-century North Africa, as elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean, that only through comparison of the response to a male victim of sexual harassment can we see how polarised the conceptions of female and male victimhood are.
About the Author
Victoria Leonard is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a David Walker Fellow at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. She is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at Coventry University, and at the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.
Victoria specialises in gender, historiography, violence and religion in the late antique and early medieval western Mediterranean. Her monograph, In Defiance of History: Orosius and the Unimproved Past, was published by Routledge in 2022.
ABOUT TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Transactions is the flagship academic journal of the Royal Historical Society. First published in 1872, Transactions has been publishing the highest quality scholarship in history for 150 years.
The journal welcomes submissions dealing with any geographical area from the early middle ages to the very recent past, and is interested in articles that cover entirely new ground, thematically or methodologically, as well as those that engage critically on established themes in existing literatures. Recently published articles are available on Cambridge UP FirstView.
Transactions welcomes proposals from all historians. If you’re currently working on a research article or a think piece, please consider Transactions as the journal in which to publish your work.
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HEADER IMAGE: ‘St Augustine of Hippo’, Carlo Crivelli (c.1435–c.1495). Available under an open licence, Wiki Commons