Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On Medieval Shrimp Factories

Saw this little gem on today. If I may quote the article about working conditions in (predominantly) Thai shrimp factories:
The plant, Ranya Paew, "was more like a fortress than a factory, with 16-foot-high barbed-wire capped walls, an armed guard force, and an extensive internal closed-circuit television system," the Solidarity Center alleged, citing Thai police reports.

"Behind the walls, the police found a scene that one report described as 'little short of medieval,' with hundreds of workers literally trapped inside the compound, living in squalid conditions, forced to work long hours, and subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual intimidation and abuse. Workers who angered the employer were often 'put to shame' in front of others by having their hair cut or shaved in patches. Women and girls were stripped naked and publicly beaten as a form of discipline." [my emphasis]

Apparently, the Middle Ages were worse even than this. Although I don't know as much as I should about medieval peasant society, I'm pretty sure this is actually worse than a typical manor. Granted, you don't hear the voice of the underclass much in medieval texts but the forcible imprisonment and public torture (just to take the most egregious examples here) seem to me beyond anything to be expected in a typical medieval village.

So, why use "medieval?" (Granted, I'm stepping on LLCoolCarl's shoes but that's my thang...) This is an entirely different use of the term -- and memory of the period -- than I've written about before. Even if the CNN/ Thai definition is a bit closer to my perception of the period, it's nonetheless a little troubling to me -- I happened about this article earlier today and it's stuck in my craw since then, compelling me to write something about it. I'm still not sure what the problem is though.

Maybe I'm bothered because the article simply throws the word out there without a whole lot of thought behind it. I mean, they're probably thinking about a dungeon, right? Whips, chains, iron maiden, etc. But maybe not. Maybe it's just an adjective that means "other," an uncritical, englightenment perception of a darker past that we, generally, have moved beyond. And generally, I might like to agree. The problem, then, is that this kind of thinking asserts that such behavior -- torture, kidnapping, etc. -- are aberrant in our society, when in fact they're really not. Certainly, all that stuff was there in the Middle Ages too. The thing is though, it never left. I hope I don't need to go into examples.

So, maybe the solution to dealing with all these problems is simply to be aware that they're out there and that they're actually more common than we might like to think. Maybe we all should acknowledge that good stuff and bad stuff happens to all people, at all times, in all places. It's not just confined to the "medieval." Personally, we might find such violence abnormal but there are, unfortunately, plenty who don't. We might (unfortunately?) stop being surprised when this stuff happens but we also might be able to stop it earlier, since we (reluctantly?) concede that it's indeed going on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The irony here is that within medieval manors, there were actually cases (such as at Yorkshire in 1304, to name but one example of many) in which peasants took their lords to court - and won - merely because the lord raised the amount of labor required on specific days. The late-medieval system was based on rigidly defined arrangements which even the nobility could not legally change. It was not an anarchic system of unregulated power, but quite the reverse in most respects. Yes, the nobles could often get away with a lot - as is true of the ruling elites in any society, including our own - but there were laws which attempted to tightly regulate even basic things such as work requirements.
So if the shrimp factory in question had been medieval, the owner would not be able to even require longer hours in a shift, much less engage in the type of abuse described in the article.