The postulated connection between plow-based agriculture and a highly inegalitarian system of gender roles that I was talking about in the previous post reminded me of another paper about plowing and gender in a very different context. This article, by Robin Ganev of the University of Regina, was published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 2007. It discusses the association of plowmen and milkmaids with a robust, healthy rural sexuality that was commonplace in British popular culture up until the eighteenth century in elite circles and even longer among the lower classes, as evidenced largely by the portrayals of these stock characters in collections of popular ballads from this period. Ganev situates the milkmaid and plowman in the context of competing attitudes toward sexuality especially during the eighteenth century, when the traditional view of the countryside as a place of healthy conditions, simple lifestyles, and wholesome values began to be challenged by an alternative view of rural areas as cultural wastelands full of ignorant peasants who could not control their base urges.
The sexual connotations of plowing and milking are pretty obvious, and I trust I need not dwell on the specifics. I find Ganev’s article particularly interesting in the way it shows the way two very different views of rural sexuality coexisted somewhat uneasily during a period of increasingly rapid change. The eighteenth century saw the beginnings of large-scale urbanization in Britain, and the move of large numbers of people away from traditional farm life and into the cities led to considerable debate among intellectuals about social issues. The traditional view of demography among policymakers and other thinkers had long been that the main problem the country faced was the threat of underpopulation, which might leave the farms without enough labor to feed the country and the army without enough manpower to defend it. During Elizabethan times the government made concerted efforts to keep peasants from leaving their farms to ensure that sufficient food would be produced. By the early eighteenth century increases in agricultural productivity had made concerns about insufficient farm labor somewhat obsolete, and rural people began to flock to the growing cities in increasing numbers. This was of concern to intellectuals who were still thinking in traditional terms, but they were comforted by the idea that at least the rural peasants were still sufficiently sexually active to keep the rural population up and counterbalance movement to the cities. All those plowmen and milkmaids were the salvation of the country, in this view. This type of elite discourse corresponded well to the way popular culture also portrayed rural sexuality in ballads about the plowmen and milkmaids and their various adventures. Importantly, both contrasted this healthy sexuality with the perceived problems of urban life, which was thought to be unhealthy in all sorts of ways, including sexual. The virile rural plowmen was often shown in ballads as superior to the decadent urban aristocrat. Ganev quotes one ballad that makes this contrast quite explicit:
Dear lady, believe me now,
I solemnly swear and vow,
No lords in their lives
Take such pleasure in their wives,
As a fellow that follows the plough.
For what they do gain by their labour and pain,
They do not to a harlot run,
As courtiers do, I never knew
A London beau, that could outdo
A country farmer’s son.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, as urbanization continued and new ideas began to arise among the urban intelligentsia, a very different view of demography and sexuality began to emerge. In this view, most famously associated today with Thomas Malthus, the main problem facing the country was not underpopulation but overpopulation. Since population growth had a tendency to outstrip resource potential, the unchecked sexuality of the rural poor bore the seeds of disaster in the form of famine, war, and other problems thought to occur once resources could no longer sustain the larger population. These ideas went along with a shift in values toward an emphasis on sexual decorum among the emerging middle class. From this perspective the sexual promiscuity of the plowmen and milkmaids was due to their stupidity and coarseness, rather than their embodiment of traditional wholesome values, and the literature of the middle class increasingly began to mock the peasants for their excessive sexuality rather than mocking the aristocracy for their sexual inadequacy. This view became dominant in the nineteenth century, but Ganev argues that the older idea of a healthy peasant sexuality persisted in the popular culture of the lower classes long after the negative view of the peasantry had become dominant among the elite. She also argues that this persistent popular value system contradicts some theories on the history of sexuality which posit that ideas on sexuality filtered down from the upper classes. I don’t know enough about the scholarly context of these debates to be able to evaluate these arguments, but the paper overall is interesting. In the context of the idea of gender inequality being associated with plow agriculture, the considerable agency of the milkmaids in many of the ballads Ganev discusses is problematic, but I think it can be reconciled largely by considering the fact that by the eighteenth century Britain was already moving beyond traditional cultural norms, and that northern Europe in general had never gone quite as far in the direction of cloistering women in the home as some other plow cultures such as those of the Middle East.
This article, which also contains a lot of interesting discussion of issues beyond those I’ve mentioned here, also shows the value of different disciplinary perspectives. Since there’s been much talk of what is and isn’t “science” recently, it’s worth pointing out that this kind of research isn’t science in any conventional sense. Unlike the paper I talked about in the previous article, it isn’t even social science. This is historical research of a very humanistic type. It is nevertheless serious, well-grounded empirical research. As part of the debate over whether anthropology is a science, one of my main points is that scholarship doesn’t have to be scientific to be taken seriously, and the kind of history represented by this article shows one way of achieving that goal.
Ganev, R. (2007). Milkmaids, Ploughmen, and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain Journal of the History of Sexuality, 16 (1), 40-67 DOI: 10.1353/sex.2007.0037