“SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
þe bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez,
þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erþe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles.” –Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1-7
If you can’t read the above, you’re not alone. And if you can read it, I tip my hat to you because the text is in Middle English. I know I’m not the only one who grew up reading Tolkien-esque fantasy, or living in historical fiction novels set in the Middle Ages. I know I’m not the only one who went to sleep wishing I would wake up in the fourteenth century with a sword at my hip. I know I’m not the only one who never thought there would be language barrier. If anything, what I thought would have prevented me from a legendary stay in the Middle Ages was the accident of my sex and gender.
History provides two narratives for the lives of women in the Middle Ages:
- Women are victims: the uneducated property of men. At best, we are the beautiful wives of rich lords. At worst we are the impoverished women who work for the Lord, subject to any man’s sexual desires.
- Women are passive observers. We are not considered important enough to even name in the history books.
Pieces of these narratives are true. On the whole, yes, women lacked basic rights. And, on the whole, yes, few women’s names are recorded (aside from royalty and other members of the noble class). But, it’s important that we complicate this narrative.
What we call “the Middle Ages” of Europe, spanned from 476 A.D. (roughly the fall of the Roman Empire) to approximately 1500 (merging into the Renaissance, depending on where you were on the continent). That’s 1,000 years. A woman’s life in Venice in 1450 would be different than a woman’s life in England in that same year.
And just like today, there were women who did not try to upset the status quo. But these women had rich interior lives, dreams of their own, and they were people just as much as any Joan of Arc or another woman we have immortalized. Even the shyest most retiring woman might have stood up to any oppressors in her life through small rebellions. Women have always been people, even when history paints us as the pretty background to men’s narratives.
The novel, Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis focuses on female characters in 1348 England. I’ve already written about the hero, Kivrin as one of my favorite female characters, but Willis’ novel is full of fleshed out women. The family Kivrin stays with consists of Lady Eliwys, her mother-in-law Lady Imeyne, and her two daughters Agnes and Rosemund. Willis’ novel tells the stories history books do not know: the lives of women as full and intricate lives worthy of sympathy and empathy.
I was at the Bristol Renaissance Faire this past weekend with my mother and, while I know Renaissance Faires are not always the standard for historical accuracy of the Middle Ages, there are so many women there claiming a space in this history. These are women who, through a love of history and performing, remind us that women existed during the Middle Ages. Through loud and elaborate costumes, they claim their bodies. Through loud and elaborate performances, they claim history as theirs to shape. At Renaissance Faires, women live history and create the best historical fiction. This is the historical fiction that can take us back to those nights in bed dreaming of heroism.