Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth

Lady Godiva
by Adam van NoortHerbert
A detail (inset) of this 1586 painting may
show Leofric checking his wife’s
progress. Later viewers may
have taken him for Peeping Tom.
STAGGERING beneath the yoke of oppressive taxes, the medieval residents of Coventry, England, pleaded in vain for relief. Ironically, deliverance would come from the wife of the very lord who scorned their pleas. Lady Godiva repeatedly urged her husband, Leofric, to lessen the people’s tax burden, and time and again he refused. Yet she persisted, and one day in exasperation he told her he would lower taxes when she rode a horse, naked, through the streets of the town at midday. When she took him at his word and set out on her famous ride, the highborn Lady Godiva became an instant heroine to the common people of Coventry.

A fascinating piece of history. But as it happens, most medieval scholars agree the ride never took place. Professor of English and American literature and language Daniel Donoghue examines the origins and cultural significance of the myth in Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (Blackwell), and offers insights into how that myth has evolved over the centuries. “The story,” he notes, “was based on the life of Godifu, a real woman who lived in Coventry in the latter part of the eleventh century and was married to one of the most powerful men in England."

Contemporary historians did not consider Godifu particularly noteworthy; what little was written about her at the time mentioned her merely as the wife of a famous man. But Donoghue points out that “two centuries after her death, chroniclers in the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans inserted a fully developed narrative into their Latin histories” and the legend of Lady Godiva was born. “Nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name,” he says, “but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry. At the end, Count Leofric seals the agreement about taxes with his own seal."

One of the myth’s most interesting subplots involves the role of “Peeping Tom,” who doesn’t even appear in the story until the seventeenth century. According to legend, the people of Coventry, as a gesture of respect and appreciation for Lady Godiva’s actions on their behalf, stayed indoors behind shuttered windows to preserve her modesty as she passed. Everyone, that is, except Tom, whose lustful curiosity compelled him to gaze at her and who was then, according to various versions of the legend, struck either blind or dead in punishment.

“Over time, Tom would become the scapegoat and bear the symbolic guilt for people’s desire to look at this naked woman,” says Donoghue. Tom would also become a compelling figure for artists and authors. In A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27), Daniel Defoe visited Coventry and spoke of “the poor fellow that peep’d out of the window to see her…looking out of a Garret in the High Street of the City.” Tennyson’s “Godiva” was a poem that, more than any other literary or historical work of its time, created a standard—and highly romanticized—version of the legend for the Victorian era. In the poem, Tom was blinded: “…but his eyes, before they had their will,/Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,/And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait/On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;/And she, that knew not, pass’d…."

Given the sexual tension that the appearance of Tom creates between the observer and the observed, the prurient and the chaste, the punished and the rewarded, Donoghue writes, “Their pairing anticipates Sigmund Freud’s clinical definitions of scopophilia and exhibitionism in terms of one another so well that he almost seems to have Peeping Tom in mind for the former and Lady Godiva for the latter. Only in recent years has Peeping Tom become extricated from the Godiva legend to the extent that it is possible to mention one without calling to mind the other.”

The Godiva myth is filled with contradictions. The lady is obedient to her husband, yet boldly challenges his position on taxes. She rides naked through the streets of the city, yet remains chaste. She is a member of the ruling class who nonetheless sympathizes with the plight of ordinary people. Like other myths, this one offers ways to resolve—symbolically, at least—such conflicting social and sexual dynamics. Myths have also traditionally done what Donoghue describes as the “cultural work” of passing down history, tradition, and shared values. Now movies and television have essentially taken over that role from written and spoken tales. “One reason I decided to write this book was that the legend is dying out,” says Donoghue. “ Our children know about Godiva Chocolates, and they may have a visual image of a naked woman on a horse, but really know nothing about the story.”

By Charles Coe
July-August 2003 
Found at

Monday, June 23, 2014

Penelope Barker (1728-1796)

"We, the aforesaid Lady's will not promote ye wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed." ~Penelope Barker

 Penelope Barker is famous for hosting the Edenton Tea Party in Edenton, North Carolina, to protest unfair British taxes in 1774.

Born in North Carolina in 1728, she married John Hodgson at a young age. By age nineteen, she was widowed with two children of her own and raised three more from her husband’s previous marriage. She remarried a wealthy planter named James Craven. He died when she was twenty-seven years old and, as he had no other heirs, she inherited all of his estate and became the richest woman in North Carolina. She remarried again to Thomas Barker, who frequently traveled to England on business. While he was away, she managed their estates. She also bore three more children. 

Tired of the British taxing the colonists while not letting them have a say in the government (“taxation without representation”), Penelope wrote a public statement in which she endorsed a boycott of tea and other British products, such as cloth. Ten months after the famous Boston Tea Party organized by men, Barker led a “Tea Party” on October 25, 1774, in the Edenton Home of Elizabeth King. She and 50 other women signed the protest statement. At the meeting, Penelope said:

“Maybe it has only been men who have protested the king up to now. That only means we women have taken too long to let our voices be heard. We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the men in Boston did at their tea party. The British will know who we are.”

Part of the declaration stated, “We, the aforesaid Ladys will not promote ye wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed."

A British cartoon satirizing the
Edenton Tea Party Participants
Penelope sent the proclamation to a London newspaper, confident the women’s stance would cause a stir in England. British journalists and cartoonists depicted the women in a negative light, as bad mothers and loose women, and did not take them seriously. However, the Patriots in America praised the women for their stance. Women all over the colonies followed Penelope's lead and began boycotting British goods. She died in 1796.

Signers of the Declaration: 

Abagail Charlton, Mary Blount, 
F. Johnstone,
Elizabeth Creacy, Margaret Cathcart,
Elizabeth Patterson, Anne Johnstone, Jane Wellwood,
Margaret Pearson, Mary Woolard, Penelope Dawson,
Sarah Beasley, Jean Blair, Susannah Vail,
Grace Clayton, Elizabeth Vail, Frances Hall,
Elizabeth Vail, Mary Jones, Mary Creacy,
Anne Hall, Mary Creacy, Rebecca Bondfield,
Ruth Benbury, Sarah Littlejohn, Sarah Howcott,
Penelope Barker, Sarah Hoskins, Elizabeth P. Ormond,
Mary Littledle, M. Payne, Sarah Valentine,
Elizabeth Johnston, Elizabeth Crickett, Mary Bonner,
Elizabeth Green, Lydia Bonner, Mary Ramsay,
Sarah Howe, Anne Horniblow, Lydia Bennet,
Mary Hunter, Marion Wells, Tresia Cunningham,
Anne Anderson, Elizabeth Roberts, Sarah Mathews,
Elizabeth Roberts, Anne Haughton, Elizabeth Roberts, Elizabeth Beasly

Boston Coffee Party

In this excerpt from a 1777 letter, Abigail Adams describes for her husband, John Adams, how a group of women nearly rioted when they learned that a merchant tried to profit from the scarcity of goods during the trade embargo with England. Passive resistance became increasingly effective as the women colonists enacted boycotts of British goods.

Although tea was a very popular beverage in the colonies, as in England, America changed from a tea-drinking to a coffee-drinking nation in opposition to the tax on it. Women of the Revolutionary era refused to serve tea to their families or friends, usually substituting coffee, imported with no assistance or tax from England.

July 31 [1777]

"I have nothing new to entertain you with, unless it is an account of a New Set of Mobility which have lately taken the Lead in B[osto]n. You must know that there is a great Scarcity of Sugar and Coffe, articles which the Female part of the State are very loth to give up, especially whilst they consider the Scarcity occasiond by the merchants having secreted a large Quantity. There has been much rout and Noise in the Town for several weeks. Some Stores had been opend by a number of people and the Coffe and Sugar carried into the Market and dealt out by pounds. It was rumourd that an eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant (who is a Batchelor) had a Hogshead of Coffe in his Store which he refused to sell to the committee under 6 shillings per pound. A Number of Females some say a hundred, some say more assembled with a cart and trucks, marchd down to the Ware House and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver, upon which one of them seazd him by his Neck and tossd him into the cart. Upon his finding no Quarter he deliverd the keys, when they tipd up the cart and dischargd him, then opend the Warehouse, Hoisted out the Coffe themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off. It was reported that he had a Spanking among them, but this I believe was not true. A large concourse of Men stood amazd silent Spectators of the whole transaction."

Source: Adams, Charles Francis, ed. Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams During the Revolution (1876). Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.