Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Our second special series on Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages.

Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How Museums Hide Women’s and Queer Histories in Plain Sight

This is Part 16 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Kit Heyam. You can find the rest of the series here.

When you look at the picture on this bowl, what do you see? Is it two people in a close—but slightly uncomfortable-looking—embrace? Is it a pair of conjoined twins? Is it a fantastical creature with two heads, two arms and four legs? Or is it something else?

Design on bowl, from Must be credited © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the early 1930s, Sir Leigh Ashton—then director of London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, where this bowl is currently on display—knew what he saw. The museum had been offered the bowl by an antiques dealer, and Ashton was keen to acquire it. He wrote enthusiastically to the V&A’s ceramics curator Bernard Rackham, describing the bowl as

a fine example of a late Byzantine bowl with sgraffito design of a hermaphrodite, probably from Cyprus.

In seeing the figure (or figures) on this bowl as a “hermaphrodite,” Ashton revealed his elite private-school education, which would have left him familiar with classical literature. He was not referring a person we would now describe as intersex. He was, instead, referencing a Classical-era story told by the character of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.

Plato’s androgynes, by Dr Tom Stockmann, from

According to Plato, the earliest humans were round, with two heads, four legs and four arms. They existed in three types: the children of the sun, who looked like two men joined together; the children of the earth, who looked like two women; and the “androgynes,” the children of the moon, who were half-male and half-female. Eventually, fearing the power of these spherical humans, Zeus cut each one in half, dooming them to roam the earth searching for their other half. This explained humans’ capacity for romantic attraction to one another—and also inspired the song “The Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

This myth also had the handy side effect of explaining homosexuality and heterosexuality – which might help to explain why the story stuck in the mind of Sir Leigh Ashton, who was himself gay. So when Ashton looked at this bowl, he drew on his own knowledge, expectations and personal experience, and saw one of Plato’s androgynes.

In fact, what this bowl shows is not an androgyne—or a “hermaphrodite”—but a wedding ceremony. In the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, an independent principality established in 1198 by refugees fleeing the Turkish invasion of Armenia, a traditional wedding ritual that involved the couple wearing one upper garment between them. The conjoined couple on the bowl represent this ceremony, and the ears of wheat they hold are a symbol of fertility. This bowl was made in early fourteenth-century Cyprus, where the tradition was probably imported from Cilicia as part of the two states’ intimate trading relationship.

So Ashton’s interpretation of the bowl’s design was wrong. But he was—and still is—far from alone in jumping to conclusions based on what was familiar to him. Every time we look at an object in a museum, we make gendered assumptions about what we are seeing, whether we realize it or not. And these assumptions are always based on our own backgrounds and experience.

Gender-tinted Glasses

Comb, from Must be credited © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This isn’t just about a classically educated curator seeing a Plato myth in a Cypriot bowl. It’s also about the way that gender stereotypes and norms of our own day affect how we look at objects from the past. It can be hard to avoid instinctively looking at museum objects through gender-tinted glasses. For example, if you saw this beautifully carved wooden comb in the V&A, you would be forgiven for assuming it was made for a woman. After all, beauty products today are separated rigidly into binary gender categories; anything that’s advertised as “for men” is usually as plain and unadorned as possible.  Fragile masculinity couldn’t possibly handle the vicious assault from a decorated comb.

When it was made in the early sixteenth century, though, this comb was gender-neutral. It was intended as a love token. The French inscription it bears translates as “Of a good heart [I] give this”—but these could be given by women as well as men. Elaborate combs were simply used by everyone. Similarly, because we live in a society that is (far too) heteronormative, it follows that many would assume that the Cypriot bowl shows a wedding between a man and a woman.

Even if we could get away from projecting modern gender-based stereotypes about the use of medieval objects, we also have stereotypes about the medieval period more broadly to contend with. Most popular representations of the medieval world present it as strictly patriarchal—so we might look at this bowl, or this comb, and assume that it was made by a man. Because, we may have been told in ways large and small, medieval women didn’t have access to those professions.

But none of that is necessarily true. And if we manage to get beyond those stereotypes and assumptions, the truth is—rewardingly—a lot more interesting.

What Are We Missing?

What do we lose when we make those gender-based assumptions? First of all, we might miss what many medieval objects—including this bowl and comb—can tell us about medieval women. These objects show how medieval women were far from excluded from the mercantile world. While some trade guilds excluded women from membership, many did not. Even those with rules against female apprentices would allow widows to take over their husbands’ business when he died. The comb-makers’ guild in sixteenth-century France explicitly wrote this into their governance. Research into artisanal workers in medieval Cyprus has also suggested that women were likely to work alongside their husbands—after all, it made sense for both partners to contribute to the family income where they could. If you saw the film A Knight’s Tale, it’s rife with (sometimes wonderful) inaccuracies. But if you assumed the story of Kate, the talented, widowed blacksmith was one of those inaccuracies, you’d be wrong.

Both this bowl and this comb could have been made by female hands. But our assumptions about medieval gender relations mean those women—and all women like them—remain invisible.

Secondly, we might miss the queer and transgender possibilities within medieval objects. This bowl, for example, has a queer heritage that goes beyond Ashton’s interpretation. The most famous example of the garment-sharing ritual shown on the bowl is not an heterosexual wedding, but a bonding ceremony between two men. In 1098, Toros, the Armenian ruler of Edessa, adopted Baldwin of Boulogne as his co-ruler and heir using this ceremony. Toros and Baldwin didn’t have a romantic or sexual relationship (as far as we know) but what this does tell us is that the garment-sharing ceremony was used regardless of the gender of the participants. Toros and Baldwin’s bonding ritual would have, at the very least, carried associations with marriage.

Knowing this history means we should take another look at the genders of the figures on the bowl. And when we do, they aren’t as clear-cut as you might think. While it’s likely that they are a man and woman—only on the balance of probability—their clothing and hair don’t indicate their gender based upon the norms of the time. To both medieval and modern viewers, they are effectively a gender-neutral pair—or perhaps, a pair that the viewer could gender however they liked.

The gendered assumptions we carry around in our heads often lead women and queer people to become invisible in museums of medieval history. This is also affected by how museum curators have chosen to present medieval objects to us. Because we often misunderstand the medieval world as one of total male domination, if a museum label reads “people,” we’re likely to interpret that as meaning “men” unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise. Similarly, unless queer or transgender possibilities are mentioned, we’re likely to assume they didn’t exist. Some museum visitors (or directors, or curators) from marginalised groups might read between the lines and find the history of people like them. But for other visitors, if it’s not on the label, it might just not occur to them.

How To Re-gender, De-gender, or Queer Your Museum Experience

Bowl in situ in museum – photo by author.

A group of historians working with the V&A and Stockholm’s Vasa Museum are working to change this. Through a project called “Gendering Interpretations,” we’re researching the hidden gendered stories behind medieval and early modern objects at these museums. If you want to see more as the work develops, you can follow me or James Daybell on Twitter: you can also search “gendering interpretations” in the V&A’s Search the Collections database, where our research is starting to be made available. But just as importantly, next time you visit a museum or a historic site, why not think about how to re- or de-gender—and queer—your own museum experience? As a starting point, ask yourself:

  • Who made this object? Are you looking at evidence of an unequal economic marketplace, or of hidden female labour?
  • What is it made of? Even materials can have hidden gendered aspects. Museums will usually specify materials, but won’t give much detail about how the maker came by them. You might need to use your imagination a bit. For example, is the material something found in the country where the object was made? If not, then acquiring it probably involved contact between different cultures—which might lead us to ask…
  • Where did it come from, and where was it going? Many objects are evidence of contact between cultures. Every culture has its own understanding of gender and the roles associated with it. When European colonisers invaded Caribbean islands in the fifteenth century, for example, the strictly patriarchal gender roles and hierarchies of their Catholic culture clashed with the indigenous Taíno society, in which women played important political and economic roles at every level. So objects that are made in one culture, but use material sourced from another—like this tortoiseshell snuff boxhave often played a role in shaking up the gender dynamics of both societies.
  • Who is it for? Are there characteristics of an object that make it obvious it was designed for use by a particular gender? If so, what would happen if someone of another gender used it – how could they manage that, and how would they be perceived? Might your assumptions about who it was designed for be wrong—and what does that say about our assumptions of gendered objects now?
  • Does it tell other stories? Some objects, particularly luxury items, have designs drawn from mythology. What gender dynamics can you see in those stories?
  • What about individual motivations? Sometimes, a museum will tell you that a large group of people “cross-dressed” in particular circumstances (so that they could fight in battle despite being assigned female at birth, for example), or that large numbers of same-sex couples used to share beds. Museums have a tendency to generalise out of necessity. They may say that every soldier assigned female at birth (or AFAB for short) was simply a woman in disguise who, perhaps, wanted an exciting life. Or they may say that men shared beds because of “social convention.” But these people are individuals, not a homogenous group: is it possible that some of them had queerer motivations?
  • What kind of gendered glasses does this museum want me to look through? Every museum has to make choices about what kind of stories to tell about the past; usually these come with gendered assumptions. While many museums are now trying hard to highlight the experiences and voices of marginalised people, some still suffer from the kind of stereotyped assumptions about medieval gender that I mentioned above. Even in museums that try hard to challenge stereotypes, assumptions often remain. The displays might assume that every culture shares a Western binary view of gender. They might focus on communicating the gender norms of the past without highlighting how people could break those norms. Always ask yourself: what is this museum telling me about gender? What is it leaving out? What has it left unquestioned? What is unsaid?
  • Who can I talk to? Many museums will have staff or volunteers on hand who are bursting to tell you more about the history on display—and just because gender isn’t mentioned in the displays doesn’t mean they won’t know about it. Why not ask them some of these questions and see what you discover?

So when you look at the picture on this bowl now, what do you see?

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How One Medieval Nun Reformed a Devil’s Nest

This is Part 15 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Diana Dennisen. You can find the rest of the series here.

In the popular imagination, medieval nuns are often thought of as passive. If people think of them at all, they think of them as peaceful, reclusive, and ultimately marginal figures in society and politics. But, in recent decades, historians have shown that the lives of medieval nuns were more complex than this. Some were cloistered and reclusive, to be sure, but others were dynamic, outspoken, powerful, and more than willing to use their voice to demand change.

Alijt Bake was one of the latter.

In 1440 CE, a 25-year-old Dutch woman named Alijt Bake travelled from Utrecht (currently in the Netherlands) to Ghent (currently in Belgium) to become a nun in the convent of Galilea. Her life in Utrecht did not suit her very well, and she was ready for a change. And we know all of this because she wrote an autobiography. Alijt’s life story, entitled Boexcken van mijn beghin ende voortganck (“Book on My Beginnings and Progress”), begins when she enters the convent of Galilea and things do not exactly work out as planned. During the turbulent years between 1440 and when Alijt died in 1455, she faced great difficulties. But, she resisted these challenges with enormous strength.

Medieval nuns did not always have the same privileges as their male counterparts in the monastery. They could, for instance, often not study Latin from a young age. This may sound like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it limited their ability to participate in the religious life they had dedicated themselves to. Alijt complained that she did not understand enough Latin to follow the readings during the church service, or to participate in the reciting of the liturgical hours. Her text tells us that:

She did not recite as loudly and quickly as they [the other nuns] wanted. Therefore she often had to endure a lot from them. […] She read badly, because she did not understand what she had read. […] She let the others talk. She stuck to her beliefs and thought: “I do not understand the text of the lectures and therefore my heart cannot concentrate on it” [or in other words: I do not feel moved by it].

Despite this, Alijt wrote extensively. From her writing, we know a lot about her. She was not a passive or God-fearing nun—in fact she argued with God when she needed to. She was a reformer at heart; Alijt strove to be in a position of power so that she could change the things that she disliked in her convent. And she refused to be marginalised or silenced when, eventually, life got very difficult for her.

This is her story.

Gossip and Envious Nuns

A group of nuns learn from an Abbess. British Library Royal MS E VI/1, f.27r.

Alijt had very high expectations of her new life in the convent. Unfortunately, her first impression of it was a huge disappointment. She writes (and I translate):

I experienced almost no commitment, but instead a corrupted environment, a vain focus on appearances and strikingly much superficiality and unauthorized freedoms. Here governed also a lot of hate, envy, dissatisfaction, discomfort, gossip, prejudice, animosity and discord and a lot that seemed to go against the pure observance of the convent. People obeyed whomever they wanted, this person obeyed that person, this person obeyed another person. What can I say about it? I found nothing else than a devil’s nest obscured by seemingly decent religiosity.

Alijt found life inside the convent disappointingly similar to life outside. She complains that the other nuns were not enlightened at all. These seemingly pious women gossiped and were mean to each other, just like the people Alijt knew back home. Perhaps Alijt had an idealized image of life as a nun in her head and found it hard to accept that this image did not conform to reality.

However, Alijt also deliberately positioned herself as an outsider in her text. She used this role as an outsider to argue for change in the convent. It is, therefore, likely that the truth about the state of the convent lay somewhere in the middle—Alijt might have encountered envious, gossipy and prejudiced nuns in Ghent, but they were probably not all that bad. There was not a single type of nun in the Middle Ages: some nuns were completely devoted to a spiritual life, some were sent to the convent by their families, and a lot of nuns were pious at certain moments and perhaps less pious in other circumstances. They were, in essence, complicated people like you or me.

The other nuns in Ghent said that Alijt wanted “to be perfect far too quickly” and they told her that she needed to focus on her mistakes and sins first—something that may resonate with many idealistic reformers. Alijt starts to worry:

I am simply young and naïve, they tell me. I have to admit: they are old and wise. They have heard, seen, and experienced a lot of things that I do not know about.

Full of self-doubt, Alijt felt that it was probably better for her to leave the convent. She did not fit in at all and she did not care what the others, especially the prioress Hille Sonderlants, thought of her anymore:

I went to the prioress to let her know what was on my mind. I told her everything that was bothering me and informed her about my plan [to leave the convent]. She blamed me a lot and she was very offended. When I saw that, I became even more frank and told her everything as I had experienced it. I also mentioned her shortcomings to her and said that I was surprised that she had been so blind that she could not see what everyone else saw. […] She became very upset and she could hardly endure it. She said that nobody had ever spoken to her in that way. If I had not fallen to my knees at that moment, the whole convent would have been very upset with me.

Hille was outraged by Alijt’s behaviour and the rebellious novice knew that she had to formally apologise to her by falling to her knees. It was not acceptable for a novice to openly criticise her prioress like this. The prioress was the only one who could accuse the nuns of wrongdoings and Alijt’s accusations hugely undermined Hille’s authority in the convent. Yet, Hille did not send Alijt back home to Utrecht, possibly because Alijt’s father seemed to have personally known the founder of the convent in Ghent, Jan Eggaert. While she overstepped the mark, Alijt perhaps knew about how far she could go, based upon her connections.


Two nuns learning from another, from the Burnet Psalter, 61r.

After her fight with the prioress, Alijt suddenly reveals to her readers that some of the other nuns were on her side. These nuns agreed with Alijt about, for instance, the bad state of the convent. Alijt writes how “they would have liked to keep me here, because they wished me the best and all loved me.” We should probably take this with a grain of salt, because the purpose of Alijt’s life-story was also to convince other nuns to follow her reforms. But this puts Alijt’s fight with the prioress in a new light. Alijt was not just expressing her frustrations, she was fighting for power. Eventually, Alijt decided to stay in the convent after all. This was a good move because, after Hille’s death in 1445, Alijt was elected the new prioress. She entered the convent of Galilea as a rebellious novice. Five short years later, Alijt was in charge of it.

Alijt’s new position in the convent did not guarantee that she did not meet with resistance. In fact, she wrote that “as long as I live I have to experience resistance from people who misunderstand me and do not know me.” But this did not stop her from reforming the convent. Instead of mainly focussing on “outer activities” (i.e., physical tasks like such as spinning and other household tasks rather than spiritual, intellectual, or meditative ones), Alijt encouraged the other nuns to pay much more attention to their inner spiritual state. She described herself as “a mother of our religious order in reforming the inner life.”

In the meantime, Alijt also started writing about her experiences. She produced some instructional texts in Middle Dutch (i.e., medieval Dutch) for her fellow nuns. And Alijt also turned the convent into a place where new texts were produced. The nuns in Ghent already had notebooks for them to write in (so called rapiaria), but these were only meant for copying existing prayers and meditations for their own personal use, rather than for writing new texts. The male leaders of the convent of Galilea considered writing about spiritual visions to be risky, especially for women. They feared that these spiritual visions and revelations did not come from God, but from the devil. They thought that writing and disseminating these texts about their spiritual visions had the potential to harm the women in the convent.


For nine years, everything seemed to go well. Then, Alijt’s time as prioress abruptly came to an end when a delegation of men who represented the Windesheim congregation visited the convent.

To briefly explain, the Alijt’s convent of Galilea was part of a group called the Windesheim congregation. That congregation was a part of the German-Dutch reform movement known as the Devotio Moderna, or “Modern Devotion”—which was not Protestant (existing about a century before the Reformation began in earnest), but was instead trying to reform the Church from within. Theirs was a movement that highly valued modesty and humility. For example, the women in the convents of the Windesheim congregation were not supposed to have any personal belongings. In short, their religious doctrine dictated that their lives needed to be as simple and sober as possible.

We do not know what happened exactly when the men of Windesheim visited Alijt. But we do know that they were so outraged by what was going on in Alijt’s community that they banished the prioress from her convent. In the same year, all the nuns were forbidden from writing on doctrine or about their visions any longer. So it’s probable that one of the main reasons for the delegation’s outrage was the fact that the nuns under Alijt’s leadership were writing.

But Alijt refused to be silenced and marginalised. She was convinced that her punishment was unjust. She angrily writes to a sympathetic rector:

They robbed me of my mantle, that is to say, my self-respect. They robbed me from the outside of my position and my good name, that was fruitful for many. They covered my face in shame.

Although Alijt kept fighting her punishment by writing letters and trying to convince people to reverse her banishment, she died in Antwerp at the age of forty, not long after her banishment, on the 18th of October, 1455. We don’t know why she died, but we have a few clues. In her final correspondence, Alijt wrote that she did not care about her body, but only about her soul. She had written extensively about her own suffering—for her reforming cause—throughout her autobiography. We do not know whether Alijt meant that her suffering was spiritual and intellectual, or also physical. If she meant physical suffering, it may mean that Alijt practiced asceticism—renouncing any physical comfort, and likely fasting extensively—during her banishment. This kind of ascetic lifestyle could have contributed to Alijt’s death.


A page from Alijt Bake’s ‘Letter from exile’, MS Gent, University Library 3854, f. 221. Printed in W. F. Scheepsma, Deemoed en Devotie (1997).

The story that Alijt wrote about her life was kept safe by the people who supported her. Her voice survives because her work was copied in the sixteenth century, and again in the early eighteenth century. So, luckily, Alijt’s voice could not be silenced. Now, Alijt’s Boexcken forms an important part of the history of the convent of Galilea in Ghent and, most of all, of the place of this remarkable woman within it. And more, it helps us to rethink what medieval nuns were really like.

But maybe we should read it with a grain of salt. We don’t know exactly which parts of Alijt’s life story really happened, and which parts of her story she made up for her own benefit. However, it is clear that Alijt had the ambition to be a reformer. She was willing to suffer for her beliefs. She strongly resisted Hille Sonderlants, the prioress. She fought the representatives of the Windesheim congregation. Alijt’s rebellious spirit proves once again that the lives of medieval nuns were more complex than we might think. “I felt a raging love”, Alijt tells us in her text. This rage caused Alijt’s downfall, but it is what makes us remember her still today.


For more about Alijt’s life (in Dutch):

Author’s Note: All English translations are my own and they are for the most part based on Spaapen’s 1967 edition. For this edition of the Middle Dutch text, see Bernard Spaapen in ‘De autobiografie van Alijt Bake’ en ‘De brief uit de ballingschap’ in Ons Geestelijk Erf  41 (1967), pp. 209-301, 321-50, 351-67. For a modern Dutch translation of Boexcken van mijn beghin ende voortganck, see R. Th. M. Van Dijk en M. K. A. van den Berg (ed. and trans.), Alijt Bake, tot in de peilloze diepte van God: De vrouw die moest zwijgen over haar mystieke weg (Kampen: Kok, 1997).

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Game of ThronesGender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How Medieval are the Eunuchs in Game of Thrones?

This is Part 14 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Jes Battis. You can find the rest of the series here.

Castration is a spectre that looms large in Game of Thrones. Three of the principal characters in the show—Varys, Grey Worm, and Theon Greyjoy—have undergone various forms of castration. A core of Daenerys Targaryen’s army, “the Unsullied” (a title that itself bears unpacking), is made up entirely of castrated men. But how common were eunuchs in the actual Middle Ages? Does Game of Thrones exaggerate their importance to medieval culture, or simply reveal how central they were? Eunuchs were actually quite a vexed subject in the Middle Ages. Some medieval eunuchs became so voluntarily, but many did not. Not all Eunuchs defined their gender in a fixed way: some, like Peter Abelard, identified as male, while others identified (or were read) as belonging to a gender spectrum. We see a lot of Eunuch-phobia in medieval texts, which were trying to grapple with people who didn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles. But the religious chastity of some eunuchs was also valued. This made matters even more complicated, since eunuchs were both celebrated and attacked, often in the same sentence.

Eunuchs and Orientalism

A depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a biblical figure from the New Testament. Detail: The Menologion of Basil II, MS. Vat. gr. 1613, 1000AD.

Eunuchs were often considered a “foreign problem” within medieval Europe, in much the same way that gender diversity has often been read as “foreign” by European colonizers in the post-medieval world (and even today). Eunuchs always seemed to be coming from elsewhere, bringing their unwelcome cultural politics along for the ride. In his book The Manly Eunuch, historian Matthew Kuefler notes that early medieval theologians would have been accustomed to “the visible presence of eunuchs all around in the households of the wealthy.” They criticized what were, essentially, migrant workers, while acknowledging the stereotypical qualities that would have made them excellent bureaucrats and managers—there was a widespread belief that their supposed lack of desire made them focused on their jobs and “safe” around women. Ancient historian Piotr Scholz, in his book Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History notes that eunuchs “generally came as slaves from Byzantium, where they had been castrated for psalmody.” China also had a community of eunuchs who worked as bureaucrats and archivists. As a workforce, they were primarily fashioned beyond the borders of continental Europe, which meant that they were framed according to stereotypes about the East, or the “Orient.” This is central to understanding medieval eunuchs as well as their depiction in Game of Thrones, as is the concept of Orientalism.

Orientalism is a term coined by Edward Said in 1978 to refer to the way the “West” views the “East”—as exotic, alluring, inscrutable, and threatening; this view continues to be perpetuated in popular culture. As a result of their perceived origins, Eunuchs often become shorthand for “exotic” in medieval texts. For example in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Arthurian romance Parzival, a “foreign” (Italian) eunuch named Clinschor reacts to love in much the same way that the Grinch reacts to singing. Since many medieval European countries had laws forbidding the creation of eunuchs, their presence was seen as a kind of creeping foreign influence. But they also provided an essential service—the word eunuch literally means “bed guardian,” and eunuchs, in addition to being archivists and bureaucrats, were often confidantes and what we might now call hospitality managers.

Eunuchs had a shifting place in the medieval gender spectrum. The most popular forms of medieval literature included bodies of all kinds. The thirteenth-century French adventure story Silence features a central character who is gender non-conforming—as Gabrielle Bychowski explored in her article “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” But it is not just Silence themself who embodies this: in the poem, there is a character who is the personification of Nature (and who argues, at length, with “Reason” about Silence’s gender). Nature is personified as having “at least a million molds” (l. 1887) for different people. This implies that medieval readers were primed to see humanity as full of possibilities, including gender diversity—even if medieval society overwhelmingly was constructed around male privilege. Chaucer even describes one of his pilgrims, the Pardoner, as a “gelding” (eunuch), but also as a “mare” (which could mean many things!). Medievalists like Carolyn Dinshaw and Kim Zarins have read the Pardoner as queer, nonbinary, and intersex, while pointing to ways in which the medieval gender spectrum was broad enough to admit many identities.

Gender was complex in the Middle Ages, as it still is today. In his book Making Sex, Thomas Lacqueur discusses how philosophers like Galen (CE 130–210) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) supported a one-sex model in which men and women were essentially inversions of each other. Galen writes:

All the parts, then, that men have, women have too…[turn] outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the same in both in every respect.

But scholar Michelle Sauer, in her book Gender in Medieval Culture, is quick to point out that

the one-sex body is never an egalitarian one; instead, it is slanted in favour of the idea that the male is the primary form, and that women are in some way inadequate.

An illustration of a 1150 edition of the Ancient Roman play “The Eunuch” by Terence. The Eunuch himself is wearing the jaunty cap in the center. Bodleian Library MS. Auct. F. 2. 13, 47r.

Nevertheless, for some medieval thinkers, there was a certain amount of play. The Galenic model saw bodies as containers full of “humoral” substances—as in, the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These were each assigned attributes: hot and dry, or cold and wet. Too much of one or another could create physiological changes. In Humoring the Body, Gail Kern Paster describes bodies as leaky vessels full of unstable materials sloshing around. This instability meant that bodies were always transitioning, never simply one thing. Eunuchs were often seen as combining both masculine and feminine characteristics, mixing humors, in ways that could be both beautiful and dangerous. They endured public scrutiny and criticism, but could also be folded into the structure of societies like medieval Byzantium, as singers, guardians, and vital bureaucrats.   

Eunuchs and Byzantium

Several medieval literary figures provide parallels to Varys and the other eunuchs of Game of Thrones. They show that there was a broad scope of treatment of eunuchs in various positions—secular, religious, and literary—in the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, Byzantium was one of the cosmopolitan centers of the world. In The Perfect Servant, her book on Byzantine eunuchs, Kathryn Ringrose describes eunuchs as an indelible aspect of Byzantine culture:

Accepted for centuries as a functionally legitimate group, eunuchs were a feature of Byzantine society throughout its history, a history that traditionally extends more than a thousand years from the founding of Constantinople in 324 to its capture by the Turks in 1453.

Eunuchs were also prized for their voices, and Ringrose mentions “the chorus of eunuch singers who provided music both at [Byzantine] court and in the church.” Even beyond the Middle Ages, the seventeenth-century craze for opera ensured that eunuch performers (like the famous soprano Farinelli) continued to dominate the stage.

Narses the Eunuch, detail from Justinian’s Mosaic, made in Ravenna, Italy, in 547 CE.

Beyond singers and courtiers, eunuchs could also be warriors. For example, Narses was a general and politician who served two Byzantine emperors from 478–573 CE. His early life is shrouded in mystery. Historian Michael Edward Stewart notes that:

most of what we know of his life before 530, and in particular, how and when he became a eunuch, is based on conjecture rather than concrete evidence.

Much like Grey Worm from Game of Thrones, Narses controlled an army. But he was also the imperial treasurer, putting him on a more equal footing with Varys. At one point, he governed much of northern Italy. The Empress Sophia—wanting to put him in his place—apparently sent him a distaff (a yarn spinning tool) and told him that he ought to be weaving with the ladies. Narses replied:

I will weave such a web around you that you’ll not be able to break through it as long as you live.

That’s some shade from a powerful eunuch.

Some Byzantine writers defended eunuchs. Theophylact of Ohrid was an eleventh-century rhetorician, who left us with biblical commentaries and over 100 detailed letters. His brother, Demetrios, was a eunuch. Theophylact wrote Defense of Eunuchs for his brother’s sake—the first two lines are: “My brother is the reason for this treatise / he is a eunuch, a model of honest life.” This remarkable text takes the form of an overheard argument between a person (possibly a courtier) and a eunuch, whose nephew has just been castrated. The courtier disapproves of what he sees as lax morals, and criticizes the older eunuch for passing these on to his nephew. But the eunuch—“a living refutation of the accusation”—responds that only foreign eunuchs are immoral. Local eunuchs from Greece, like himself, are upstanding citizens! Here was can see exoticism at work on a number of levels, as different countries tried to justify their treatment of eunuch citizens.

There are two important details to take away from this dialogue. The first is the older eunuch’s refutation of criticism: “No matter how much you call us criminals, vice does not reach us.” Eunuchs, he claims, aren’t the ones to be afraid of in this hostile world. The second detail occurs in the epilogue, when both the eunuch and the other speaker embrace and kiss each other civilly. The nephew—a eunuch child—has been there the whole time, listening silently.

The eunuch took into his arms the child, his nephew, who was sitting nearby them and listening attentively, and gave him numerous kisses, since he was happy about the debate concerning the child, which had unfolded without harm.

In the end, the eunuch child is loved, held, and valued.

Catholic Eunuchs

Peter Abelard, from a 14th century edition of “Romance of the Rose.” National Library Wales MS 5016D, 28r.

The western Catholic Church had extraordinarily mixed feelings about eunuchs. This can be seen in the life of Peter Abelard, the twelfth-century philosopher and theologian who was castrated as punishment for his affair with Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abelard describes his downfall in a letter, often called the Historia Calamitatum [“Story of My Misfortunes”]. In the Historia, Abelard recounts how Fulbert, the uncle of Héloïse, hired men to sneak into their bedroom and castrate him: “They cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” In Part XIV of the letter, Abelard discusses positive representations of eunuchs, including:

that eunuch of great authority under Queen Candace who had charge of all her treasure, him to whose conversion and baptism the apostle Philip was directed by an angel.

But how did other medieval religious thinkers conceptualize eunuchs more generally? There was a distaste for any bodies that weren’t “virile,” but at the same time, philosophers celebrated chastity as an ideal. In his influential Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas notes that “it is not lawful for a man to maim himself for the sake of the soul’s welfare.” Here, he’s speaking of Christian saints like Origen, who castrated themselves to become more chaste. But, always the contrarian (since debate was at the core of medieval education), he also adds:

It may happen that although the removal of a member may be detrimental to the whole body, it may nevertheless be directed to the good of the community.

Intimate Eunuchs

Grey Worm, from Game of Thones, season 4 episode 8. Credit: HBO.

Eunuchs are larger-than-life characters in Game of Thrones. Varys commands an army of child-spies to do his bidding. He shamelessly manipulates the politics behind the Iron Throne. Grey Worm is a perfect soldier because he (supposedly) lacks worldly desires. Grey Worm both plays into, and disrupts, Orientalist fantasies around what a eunuch could be. He is “Eastern,” and comes from a cultural context not widely understood by other protagonists from Westeros (like Tyrion, who often seems turned off by the “excess” of the Eastern courts). Unlike Missandei, who has mastered a number of languages, Grey Worm has to slowly, painfully learn the dominant language used by Daenerys and her companions. He exerts physical power, rather than political influence. He’s much closer to the general Narses, or even to Demetrios, the eunuch brother of Theophylact. When Demetrios died, Theophylact mourned him in a letter:

[He was] the brother on whom my breath depended, who was really everything to me, who would throw himself into the path of fire and swords so that I could live relaxed and free from pain.

Grey Worm prepares for the Battle of Winterfell in Season 8 of Game of Thrones. Credit: HBO.

Grey Worm also throws himself into the path of fire and swords—proving that a eunuch in Westeros can be a warrior, a strategist, a lover, and a politician. He short-circuits the “scheming eunuch” narrative. Even if his home in Essos is often full of Orientalist trappings, Grey Worm himself manages to emerge as a singular character.

By contrast, Theon Greyjoy is castrated (in the show) by the psychopath Ramsay Bolton as part of a torture that seeks to strip him of personhood—Ramsay forces Theon to become a new person called only “Reek” in the process. But Reek/Theon continues to be a positive force in the show, even as he works to overcome the after-effects of his trauma. In the finale to season Seven (“The Dragon and the Wolf”), Theon wins a fight after his attacker, Harrag, kicks him between the legs—only to find that he is immune. Theon wins not because he’s stronger, but because he is more resilient—especially because his opponent can’t quite reckon with his nontraditional male body.

In another example, in the Season One episode “Fire and Blood”, Varys verbally spars with consummate schemer Littlefinger before the Iron Throne. Both characters use words rather than weapons. And more, both characters are linked to sexuality: Littlefinger runs a brothel and manipulates his victims through sex; by contrast, Varys knows everyone’s sexual proclivities, though his own remain a mystery. Littlefinger tries to dehumanize Varys by speculating on what might lie beneath his robes. Varys responds, playfully: “Do you spend a lot of time wondering what’s between my legs?” Littlefinger tells Varys what he pictures, and Varys responds: “I am flattered, of course, to be pictured at all.” He refuses to play this game and retains the dignity of his private body.

This scene is about power. These two political instigators stand framed by stained-glass windows, their position equal. Varys remains unmoved by Littlefinger’s taunts, telling him: “You can do better.” We get a sense of how someone like Varys—who can be read variously along a gender spectrum—could have dealt with people’s aggressive curiosity. Varys uses male pronouns, but his clothing and aesthetic is nonbinary, and as a trained actor, he can take on a variety of tones and appearances. We know little about his own desires, or how he experiences his gender, since his perspective is limited (probably because he knows too much!).

Game of Thrones wants us to underestimate characters like Varys, Theon, and even Grey Worm. But then, it pulls the rug out from under us again and again. Ultra-masculine characters like Sandor Clegane and Euron Greyjoy are presented as figurative or literal monsters; this also suggests that Martin, and by proxy showrunners Benioff and Weiss, has something interesting to say about masculinity in general. And while eunuchs were (and are) sometimes regarded by society as less-than-men, it is telling that the final line Bran Stark says, to thank Theon for sacrificing his life, is “You’re a good man. Thank you.”

While the show plays with stereotypes about eunuchs, it also taps into a rich discussion of their complex role in the Middle Ages. They were politicians, generals, and philosophers. They frustrate our assumptions, while arguing for the sovereignty of their own bodies.

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Literary Women in the Middle Ages: An Interview with Diane Watt

This is Part 13 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Megan Cavell. You can find the rest of the series here.

There were women writers in the Middle Ages. But they’re not household names. I myself didn’t know the name of a single female writer from my field of study—early medieval (or Anglo-Saxon) England, from roughly CE 600–1100—until my PhD was well underway. That fact still shocks me. But I think it can be partly chalked up to the fact that most women writing in this period were using Latin.

My own research is on the Old English poetry produced alongside Latin works in this period. Because of the way this poetry survives (in far too few manuscripts), I deal mainly with anonymous texts. These are almost always assumed to have been written by men. While elite, aristocratic and ecclesiastical men certainly dominated literary culture during the early medieval period, they were in no way the only writers at work. Once you hear about the fascinating women pushed to the margins of this literary canon, there’s simply no turning back. I want to know about them all, and I want to share that knowledge with every person I meet.




And so, I interviewed Diane Watt, professor of medieval literature at the University of Surrey. Diane is currently undertaking a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust called “Women’s Literary Culture Before the Conquest.” I set out to learn what light her project will shed on this important subject.

Diane Watt, Leverhulme Major Research Fellow and Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Surrey.

Megan: Can you tell us about one of the woman writers you’re researching?

Diane: Well, the best-known of them is possibly Leoba. She was an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon missionary and abbess of Tauberbischofsheim in Francia [note: Francia was an early medieval kingdom that, at its height, covered most of modern France, much of Germany and Italy, and even parts of what is now Spain and Corsica].

Key locations discussed in the “Women’s Literary Culture Before the Conquest” project, © Diane Watt.

Earlier in her life, when Leoba was a nun at Wimborne, [in south-west England] she wrote to her kinsman, St. Boniface, asking for his protection and support. Boniface then invited her to join his mission to convert Francia to Christianity. The two of them worked closely together, even hoping to be buried together. That initial letter from Leoba is short, but it is significant. It contains the first poetry that we know to have been written by an English woman. She wrote, in Latin:

The omnipotent Ruler who alone created everything,
He who shines in splendor forever in His Father’s kingdom,
The perpetual fire by which the glory of Christ reigns,
The perpetual fire by which the glory of Christ reigns,
May preserve you forever in perennial right.

From ‘A letter from Lioba/Leobgytha/Leoba, abbess of Tauberbischofsheim (c.732)

These lines are often dismissed as “derivative” of the poetry of bishop and scholar Aldhelm (c. CE 639–709). But I disagree. They actually show—quite clearly—Leoba’s rhetorical skill.

In the letter, Leoba also mentions the education that she has already received, and the poem illustrates her learning. In the letter, she also conveys her intellectual frustration and her desire to progress further. Leoba was ambitious. She felt the limitations of her position as a nun in England and recognized that with the benefit of Boniface’s patronage there would be greater opportunities for her in continental Europe. Boniface clearly saw her potential and set out to recruit her.

We don’t have any other letters from Leoba to Boniface. But we do have letters written to her after she had established herself in Francia. We also have a hagiography—a spiritual biography—of Leoba, written by the monk Rudolf of Fulda, which drew on the testimonies of the nuns in Leoba’s community. Together, these texts all contribute to our picture of her as an erudite and powerful woman.

Statue of St. Leoba, in Schornsheim, Germany. Image credit: Kandschwar, (CC BY-SA 3.0)  

M: I suspect many folks today aren’t used to hearing the terms “nun” and “ambitious” used in the same sentence! In addition to letters like Leoba’s, then, what kinds of evidence do we have for female authorship from this period?

D: There is one point I would like to stress from the outset. I think it is very limiting to talk just about female authorship. The romantic idea of great literary works produced by the creative imagination of a single author is really very unhelpful. And more, it is striking that, even today, anonymous early medieval literary works such as Beowulf are generally seen to be the product of an individual male imagination. What if some of the people telling the story of Beowulf—several, many, or even all of them—were actually women?

We know the names of some figures—men like Caedmon, who is often referred to as “the first English poet”, or the erudite Archbishop Wulfstan who penned the famous Sermon of the Wolf. These men have been given an almost iconic status that is simply not granted to their female counterparts, like Leoba, or Caedmon’s patron Hild of Whitby.

A monument to St. Hild of Whitby, in Whitby, England. Hild of Whitby was an important abbess during the conversion of Early medieval England to Christianity in the 7th century. Image credit: Wilson44691 (CC0 1.0)

In the Middle Ages, literary production was highly collaborative. It depended on the contributions of patrons, scribes and religious communities. At the same time, literary reception was also communal. Books were read aloud publicly or within closed groups, and exchanged, shared and copied among networks of readers. That’s why my project is called “Women’s Literary Culture before the Conquest” rather than “Women Writers before the Conquest.”

I am, of course, interested in works written by women, some of which haven’t survived (but which we know about because they are mentioned elsewhere). But I’m also interested in works that may have been written by them, including some anonymous texts ascribed to men. I’m interested in works copied by female scribes, works produced for women (either as patrons and readers), works owned by women, as well as works that are indebted to women’s accounts—oral as well as written. That gives me a lot of material to work with!

M: It sounds like you have your work cut out for you! And I take your point that you have lots of different types of material to sift through. How do you deal with the fragmentary nature of the materials you’re working on?

D: Much of the material that I am working with is, as you suggest, fragmentary, in the sense that it is incomplete in some way and lacks an immediate context that enables us to make sense of it. This is true even of Leoba’s letter to Boniface. We have her letter, but not Boniface’s reply. The letters to Leoba that have survived—including two from Boniface—are from a much later date. I think the fragmentary nature of the evidence of early women’s literary culture has contributed greatly to it being overlooked.

Anonymous texts provide some of the greatest challenges. Today, at least, knowledge about the authorship of a text is usually seen to offer some sort of key to interpreting it. So a text that is anonymous might be considered, in one way, fragmentary. This means that its meaning seems less fixed somehow. These texts read a bit like riddles—and indeed, riddles were a popular medieval literary form. Megan, I know you’ve written about this really engagingly in your blog, The Riddle Ages. I’d really recommend this blog to anyone interested in riddles. It’s really fun.

M: Thank you!

D: Anyway, in marshalling evidence of female authorship of anonymous texts, I have to consider a whole range of issues. I have to look at everything from the contextual evidence about the production of the text, to stylistic evidence, to evidence that emerges from close textual analysis.

M: Speaking of multiple interpretations—what about intersectionality? Does your research shed light on sexuality, class, race, etc. alongside gender?

D: Intersectionality is really important here. The women I am researching are predominately royal or aristocratic. In other words, they are powerful and privileged white women who exercise enormous influence within their communities. As Paul B. Sturtevant has pointed out, medieval aristocrats often felt a greater affinity with aristocrats in other countries than with common people from their own. The societies in which they lived were marked by huge inequalities, where it was the norm for the wealthy to keep slaves. And of course, in setting out to convert the “heathens” of Francia to Christianity, the missionaries were engaged in what can be seen as an early form of colonialism.

We do get some insights into how these Anglo-Saxon women regarded people from beyond Europe. Another late eighth-century German missionary, Hugeburc of Heidenheim, wrote hagiographies of the brothers St Willibald and St Wynnebald.

Yes, Hugeburc [roughly pronounced HOO-ye-Burx, with the last “x” sounding like the “ch” in “loch”] is a woman’s name!

Hugeburc is the earliest named English woman writer of a full-length literary narrative—at least, whose name has survived. Hugeburc’s Hodoeporicon [or Voyage Narrative] of St Willibald offers an account of the saint’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In it, she describes Willibald’s encounters with Saracens [an out-of-date term medieval writers sometimes used to refer to Arabs and Muslims], including the Umayyad Caliph Yazid bin Abd al-Malik (also known as Yazid II). However, the references to women in these traveller’s tales are usually to long-dead female saints. Any real living and breathing women remain little more than shadowy figures in the background.

Munich, Bayerische Staatbibliothek  MS Clm 1086 f.71v) with Hugeburc’s name in cypher at the bottom. Click for the original.

Thinking about sexuality, many of the women I am researching were, or had been, married. Some scholars even argue that Hild of Whitby was a widow before she became an abbess. But this doesn’t necessarily tell us much about their sexuality—marriages were often used to forge political allegiances.

Other women enjoyed close spiritual relationships with men, like Leoba did with Boniface. The evidence of friendships between women is often much more sparse. However in Nicola Griffith’s 2013 historical novel Hild, Griffith portrays her protagonist as having close partnerships with women, including a same-sex sexual relationship. While Hild is fiction, the reality is that we simply don’t know much about who was having sex with whom if procreation wasn’t involved.

In my recent article “A Fragmentary Archive: Migratory Feelings in Early Anglo-Saxon Women’s Letters,” I argue that there is something rather queer about some early women’s writing, in terms of the desires and emotions expressed, the temporalities experienced and the kinships forged.

M: Diane, we’ve talked quite a bit about the blurring of boundaries now, but not about the broader concept of gender itself. How is gender identity conceived of during this period?

D: Your choice of the word “conceived” is telling! Ideas of origins and inheritance, creation and reproduction, and matrilineage (tracing descent through the maternal line) are prevalent throughout the texts that I am examining. Gender identity, if such a phrase can be used, was less fixed—at least in an abstract, intellectual, theological sense. For example, women might be described, or might describe themselves, as “spiritual athletes” or “Christian warriors.” Yet, in reality, the lives of most women were very constrained.

Hugeburc, in writing about Willibald’s travels to the Holy Land, mapped his pilgrimages as if she had taken them herself. But she was actually an armchair traveler, confined to her own monastery. This is in stark contrast with another writer, an Italian woman named Egeria, who in the late fourth century went on an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She then wrote an account of this in a (now incomplete) epistle to a circle of other Christian women. Likewise, in the fifteenth century, the East Anglian visionary Margery Kempe went on a series of pilgrimages throughout England, continental Europe, and the Holy Land, which she later recounted in her book,which we know as The Book of Margery Kempe. So, some women were very well travelled indeed.

Cover of a 1919 edition of The Pilgrimage of Etheria (also known as Egeria), in which she details her travels to the Holy Land in the 4th century CE.

M: The complexity and multiplicity that you’ve been highlighting as we’ve talked brings me neatly to my final question: what modern assumptions about early medieval women and gender would you like to challenge?

D: I think it is so important to challenge modern assumptions about the early Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages … of the Female Imagination,” as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the famous editors of the Norton Anthology of Literatures by Women phrased it so elegantly and so erroneously.

The early Middle Ages in England was a period when women (albeit an elite minority of them) had access to education. Nuns had their own schools. Nuns had access to literary culture. Many could and did write letters, histories, and saints’ lives. Unfortunately, only traces of all this can now be seen, and you have to know what you are looking for. I am reminded of a remark made by the prominent feminist medievalist Jocelyn Wogan-Browne at the Barking Abbey conference in New York in 2009. She said that the great medieval educational institutions of men at Oxford and Cambridge are still standing and remain powerful and vital centers of intellectual life, while all that physically remains of the once mighty abbeys at Barking and Whitby are ruins.

That comment partly inspired the title of my essay “Literature in Pieces: Female Sanctity and the Relics of Early Women’s Writing.” Even if all that exists now are fragments, I would want people to remember that these scattered remains are evidence of a once vibrant and exciting women’s literary culture.

The ruins of Whitby Abbey. Photo credit: Juliet 220 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Diane Watt is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow and Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Surrey. Her main research interests are gender and sexuality and women’s writing in the Middle Ages. Her publications include Secretaries of God (DS Brewer, 1997), Amoral Gower (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), and Medieval Women’s Writing (Polity, 2007). Her current research on early medieval women’s literary culture will be published by Bloomsbury Academic.

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Queer Asgard Folk

This is Part 12 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Linnea Hartsuyker. You can find the rest of the series here.

Over the past generation, more and more people have spoken publicly about how their experience of gender does not fit into a strict binary—masculine or feminine. Their expression of their gender may change between or away from those binary options. They may have fluidity or neutrality in their gender that changes over time—with periods of stability and periods of flexibility. Or they may outright reject any demand to choose between two artificially constructed, rigid gender poles. Many describe themselves as “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” “gender fluid,” or “gender non-conforming.” For example, actor and star of films like Justice League and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Ezra Miller recently came out as proudly non-binary.

Some people think of gender fluidity as something new, a concept invented by the LGBTQ movement in the late 20th century, but humans have been pushing and questioning the boundaries of gender expression since the dawn of history. Those who argue that men and women are meant to take mutually exclusive roles in society sometimes point to the medieval past as a time of “natural” gender identity, when men were men, women were women, and no one ever blurred those lines. People who are attached to rigid gender roles also often have a particular crush on the Vikings because of how straightforwardly butch they have been made to seem in our popular culture.

Viking traditions, religion, and laws did promote separate spheres for men and women. Effeminacy was frowned upon: a woman could divorce her husband if he wore women’s clothing. Some people even believed that a woman’s touch could render men’s weapons ineffective. Vikings had words for sexual contact between men, and it was considered shameful for a man to be the receptive partner—in that case he was called ergi. A man labeled an ergi could demand blood or payment in recompense for the “insult.”

Still, traditional Viking gender roles were different from modern conservative ideas about them. For instance, although Viking men usually wielded weapons and Viking women typically managed the homestead, women were not homemakers in the modern sense. Viking homesteads were often large farms that employed and housed hundreds of people; the women who ran them were more like a modern CEO than a 1950s housewife.

Viking art, archeology, and literature also show plenty of evidence that both men and women in the Viking world defied common gender stereotypes. They bravely lived their lives despite the social stigma that they faced, like so many people do today.

Gender-Bending Viking Gods

Loki, having taken the form of a mare, is chased by a randy stallion. From: Tales From the Far North, edited by Maria C. Klugh, illustration by Helen Hodge.

Even the Norse gods were pretty genderqueer folx sometimes. Loki, the Norse god of mischief, is the best-known gender-bender of the Norse pantheon. He is a shape-changer who can alter his sex, and whose unbridled sexuality is a force for chaos for both his friends and enemies. He famously transforms into a mare to seduce away a stallion that is helping a frost giant build the wall around Asgard, and, as we are told in the Prose Edda,

Loki’s relations with Svadilfari [the stallion] were such that a while later he gave birth to a colt.

That colt was Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse.

But Loki is not the only gender-bending Norse god. In another episode, recorded in the Poetic Edda by Snorri Sturluson, Thor decides to dress, and successfully pass, as a woman when his hammer is stolen.

To get it back, Thor and Loki make an expedition to Jotunheim. The giant that has stolen Thor’s hammer—without which he cannot protect Asgard—has demanded as a ransom the goddess Freya’s hand in marriage as well as the sun and moon. Loki suggests that Thor dress as a bride and pretend to be Freya to gain access to the giant’s stronghold and take back his hammer. But Thor is concerned about how this will reflect on his manhood:

Heimdall, the fairest of the gods, like all the Vanir, could see into the future. “Let us dress Thor in bridal linen,” he said, “and let him wear the necklace of the Brisings. Tie housewife’s keys about his waist, and pin bridal jewels upon his breast. Let him wear women’s clothes, with a dainty hood on his head.”

The Thunderer, mightiest of gods, replied, “The gods will call me womanish if I put on bridal linen.”

As part of the wedding ceremony, Loki asks the giants to lay Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, in his lap to sanctify the union.

Then Thrym, the lord of giants, said, “Bring me the hammer to bless the bride. Lay Mjöllnir on the maiden’s lap, let the two of us thus be hallowed in the name of Vor, goddess of vows!”

This was a common blessing; either at a wedding or a son’s naming, a sword or other weapon would be laid across a woman’s lap as a phallic fertility symbol. As a fertility god (Thor brought storms and rain), in this false wedding, he is both bride and groom.

Thor’s cross-dressing is done for comic effect, but has a good outcome for him and Asgard: he retrieves his hammer and can again defend the gods. Its humor comes from the fact that Thor is the most representative of masculine virtues and the hardest god to disguise—it is a comment on the stupidity of the giants that they don’t see through the ruse. At the end, Thor’s masculinity is undiminished and he defeats the frost giants with his restored hammer. Still, this tale also shows some room for play within the rigid requirements of masculinity and femininity in the Viking Age.

The Alfather’s Use of Women’s Magic

If Thor’s cross-dressing smacks of the comical, Odin’s journeys into women’s spheres are not so easily dismissed. Odin the Alfather, the chief of the Norse gods, was the god of war, magic, wisdom, and ecstatic states. While roughly the same number of women and men performed magic in the Old Norse sources, women use magic more often. And more, those men who performed certain kinds of magic were considered dishonored as though they were ergi—a receptive homosexual partner.

Seiðr is a form of magic specifically practiced by women. It is associated with the goddess Freya and with the völva—a seeress and sorceress who narrates some of the tales recorded in the Eddas.  Seiðr is interpreted by Professor John McKinnell to mean the action of “sitting out” and in practice described the magic-worker sitting out all night to raise and control the spirits of the dead. The practitioner would, allegedly, go into a trance and have seizures through which the dead would speak.

However, the Ynglinga Saga tells us that Freya taught seiðr to Odin, who used it to gain knowledge of the future. Odin was a male god of berserkers and also of the out-of-body ecstasy usually associated with women’s magic. He displays shamanistic characteristics through his journeys to various otherworlds in search of this wisdom.  As the popular meme goes, “Get you a man who can do both.”

Archaeological finds also shows us how Odin’s gender was blurred. This seated figure was found in Denmark, and dated to the 10th century:

Odin from Lejre. Image by Mogens Engelund, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Despite its small size (less than an inch square) it is very finely detailed. The figure wears women’s attire: a long gown with an apron, a cloak, and a string of beads, but it also has only one eye and sits with two ravens behind it, symbols of Odin. What precisely this figurine is depicting is open for interpretation, but it is unquestionably a blending of masculine and feminine symbols in the same person.

Odin was a magician and seer, god of battle and god of the dead. He was dogged in his pursuit of wisdom, which including communing with the dead, elsewhere described as women’s magic. Like Thor, he embodied masculine warrior virtues. Also like Thor, his security in his masculinity allowed him to take on women’s roles from time to time, and even gain power from doing so, without losing his honor.

Women in Men’s Worlds

An artist’s rendering of a grave at Birka, Sweden, which we now know to have been for someone genetically female. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson (© Neil Price).

In many ways it was easier for Viking women to cross gender lines. Since men were considered “superior,” it was deemed only natural that a woman might covert to a man’s roles. The image of the Viking woman warrior is a popular one; Lagertha from the hit show Vikings is only the latest iteration of our obsession with them.  Most scholars, though, believe that if women warriors existed, they were rare—women in unique circumstances cut off from the social structures that usually protected or bound them.

In 2017, a Viking skeleton originally unearthed in the 19th century was re-examined using DNA analysis, and the results caused a bit of a firestorm in the media. This is because the grave of a Viking warrior—identified by the grave-goods (meaning, the objects buried with a person) found there—were similar to those found in other warrior graves; things like a sword and a game board.

But the skeleton, as they discovered in 2017, was genetically female.

This was quickly hailed as a fabled “Viking warrior woman” in the media. But while this “Viking warrior woman’s grave” was certainly the grave of a high status woman, but the evidence that she actually wielded the weapons she was buried with is tenuous at best. The sword found in her grave may have been symbolic, since women often held swords in trust for their sons. And the presence of a game board probably supports the idea that she played the game, but that alone does not make her a warrior.

Where weapon-wielding women exist in Norse literature, they appear to be a very conscious literary trope, showing a society or situation out of balance that will be put back into balance by a man. Thordis, a female character in Gísla’s Saga, spends most of the tale counselling the men around her to take revenge on those who wronged them. After it occurs, she experiences remorse and attempts to stab one of the perpetrators in the leg. But, she is not skilled enough with a sword and botches her attack:

…as she stoops after the spoons she caught hold of the sword by the hilt and makes a stab at Eyjolf, and wished to run him through the middle, but she did not reckon that the hilt pointed up and caught the table; so she thrust lower than she would, and bit him on the thigh, and gave him a great wound.

She then divorces her husband and goes to live by the shore, physically and symbolically on the outskirts of society.

Few sources show women taking up weapons without negative consequences, but women did take on other men’s roles more successfully. Skaldic poetry was a regimented type of Norse court poetry that employed poetic alliterations, strict meter, and allusive kennings (for example calling a battle a “crow’s feast”, or the sea the “swan’s road”). It was considered a masculine art, recited by men, about men. But the verses of four women skalds are recorded in medieval Icelandic writings as well. These are part of larger prose narratives, and also concern themselves with battles and sea voyages. However, they often have an ironic edge, like the woman skald Steinunn who composed a verse about a man who embarked on a great sea voyage but never left the harbor:

Thor altered the course of Thangbrand’s
Long horse of Thvinnill, he tossed
And bashed the plank of the prow and smashed
It all down on the solid ground;

Hilda Hrolfsdatter was a noblewoman who acts as a skald in the saga Heimskringla. She begs for her son not to be outlawed, while using the tropes of skaldic verse:

Bethink thee, monarch, it is ill
With such a wolf at wolf to play,
Who, driven to the wild woods away
May make the king’s best deer his prey.

The fact that these women’s verse was included in literature composed by men shows that skaldic verse was a realm that women could and did step into.

The Alstad Runestone, in the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway. Image credit: Skadinaujo.

Another way that some women could enter masculine spheres was, frankly, by growing old and wealthy. Viking widows kept their dowries and did not fall under the control of their younger male relatives as Christian women so often did. As such, they enjoyed great independence. Women in the Icelandic sagas are often praised for qualities elsewhere only associated with men, like being “valiant” and “forceful”. Older women past their childbearing age no longer inspired sexual jealousy among men, and unlike aging warriors, they were not scorned for losing prowess with weapons. In some ways, this was the best of both worlds.

Runic texts (which were inscriptions chiseled on rune-stones commissioned and erected during the Viking Age) bear witness to powerful widows as well. One of the older rune-stones found near Alstad, Denmark bears an inscription which says that it was commissioned by a woman in honor of her dead husband. The text also states that the stone, which is 3 meters tall, came from an island 100km away, and was transported to Alstad across mountainous terrain. The inscription says that

Jorunn raised this stone after [her husband] who had her to wife and [she] brought it [i.e. the stone] from Ringerike, out of Ulvoya and the stone will honor them both.

Clearly this woman was both wealthy and influential, and wanted those qualities to be known.

Gender Rules are Made to be Broken

Gender expression has never been as static or natural as some modern-day social conservatives would have us believe, even in a society that prized masculine virtues as much as the Vikings did. Throughout history, and in every culture, women and men have stepped outside of the boundaries that society draws around them. Sometimes they needed great personal power to avoid punishment for doing so, as in the cases of gods and wealthy widows. But gender roles have always been mutable, even in the most traditionally masculine societies. After all, the fact societies have always put energy into policing gender roles, means that they are not natural—if they were no laws or mores would be needed to enforce them.

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Werewolves as a Metaphor for Domestic Abusers

This is Part 11 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Kisha Tracy. You can find the rest of the series here.

Why is there so much spousal abuse in medieval literature?

If you’ve watched Game of Thrones or practically any pop-culture version of the Middle Ages lately, you might reply simply that the Middle Ages were just all-around violent—especially towards women. Domestic violence was rife back then, so of course it would be represented in their literature.

And there is no shortage of examples of abusive husbands in medieval literature. The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman story Yonec by Marie de France is a striking one: a lord marries a beautiful younger woman. He is afraid that she will be unfaithful, so he locks her up in his castle to assuage his jealousy. This causes her to sink into deep depression. She finds relief under the care of a mystery lover, but he is murdered by the violent husband.

The Wife of Bath, from the Ellesmere manuscript copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Huntington Library, mssEL 26 C 9, f. 72 r.

We also have the story of the Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century English The Canterbury Tales, whose husband assaults her so badly he makes her partially deaf. Also in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer spins a tale of Walter in “The Clerk’s Tale” (heavily influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio’s character Gualtieri). Walter, after marrying his lower-class wife, submits her to multiple cruel tests including allowing her to believe that he has killed their children. In twelfth-century France, Chrétien de Troyes wrote Erec and Enide. In it, Erec forces his wife to follow him silently on quest after quest when she dares to express concern about his reputation after their marriage.

And even when these husbands are not actively abusive, they can be negligent or abandon their wives altogether. You could even make a strong case for potential neglect by King Arthur towards Guinevere. In Arthurian literature, there is often very little interaction between husband and wife. In texts wherein the famous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere is revealed to the king and he is forced to address the affair publicly, he is considerably more concerned about the loss of his best knight than he is about the loss of his wife – even when ordering that she be burned at the stake.

But I would like to counter the argument that medieval literature is uniquely rife with domestic abuse because the Middle Ages were an inherently abusive time towards women. If that’s true, then why does so much modern literature, from classics like The Color Purple to newer examples like Big Little Lies, also feature stories of abusers and abuse? The answer is that it happens frequently, then and now. We are maybe not as far removed from the medieval as we proclaim.

Marie de France and the Cycle of Abuse

Marie de France, one of the greatest authors of the Middle Ages. BnF, bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms. 3142 fol. 256, detail.

To explore this, let’s look at the writings of one of the most famous female authors of the twelfth century, Marie de France. Historians don’t know much about the details of Marie’s life, although, from her name and some clues in her writing, we assume she was born in France and then moved to England. We do know that she was prolific and popular; her writing was almost certainly read in the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was, perhaps, the J.K. Rowling of her day.

Marie wrote medieval adventure stories known as “romances” (very different from what we think of as “romance novels” today). Medieval romances were developed by and for the nobility. They were produced by and for women in particular, who were patrons and readers of the genre.

At their core, medieval romances tended to center on knightly quests and courtly matters. They were often fantasy fulfillment for both male and female readers. Men dreamed of rich widows who could provide them with the land and fortune that they themselves would never inherit. And women might long for a lover who would rescue them from a less-than-desirable arranged marriage, or for a husband who would better care for them.

Marie de France’s romances don’t always have happy endings. In fact, several of her stories paint a very ugly picture of relationships between women and men. The abusive dynamics in them will immediately resonate with anyone who has experienced or studied the cycle of domestic violence.

The Cycle of Abuse, chart by Avanduyn.

Described by Lenore Walker in The Battered Woman Syndrome, the cycle of violence begins with the “courtship period,” during which the abuser’s behavior presents as positive and loving. This is followed by three phases: tension-building, the abusive incident, and loving contrition. The “tension-building phase” is characterized by a change in behavior; the abuser might act sullen or angry. Victims describe this tension as “living on eggshells.” “Tension-building” leads up to the “abusive incident,” which can take many forms. The abusive incidents occur when the abuser acts on their fury, when the victim is no longer able to perform what Walker calls “anger reduction techniques” during the “tension-building phase.” The third phase mimics the “courtship period” and is accompanied by apologies and declarations. And the cycle begins again.

The Cases of Yonec and Bisclavret

Depiction of a 16th century werewolf attack in Geneva. Zentral Bibliothek Zürich, Sammlung von Nachrichten zur Zeitgeschichte aus den Jahren 1560–1587, ms. F 29, fol. 167v.

We can find this very cycle in several of Marie’s works. I previously mentioned Marie de France’s Yonec and its clear depiction of domestic abuse. In that lady’s case, a shape-shifting knight appears to bring her the love and care she has been denied by her husband. The first part of the story, to the point that the knight shows up in her tower, is a portrayal of “tension-building,” during which the husband’s abusive behavior is evident: locking the lady up, causing her to change appearance due to depression, not allowing her to go to church, etc. When the husband finds out about his wife’s lover, he contrives to have the knight killed: “the abusive incident.” The wife expresses her desire to die as well, for her husband will, as she exclaims, kill her. The dying knight offers her protection by giving her a ring that will erase her husband’s memory, and the magic seems to work for the rest of her life: an extended “courtship period.” In this case, Marie closely follows the cycle of abuse structure.

Another of Marie’s stories, Bisclavret, starts with a lord who is a werewolf. But he is a noble one—a harmless one who transforms a few days each month and who harms no one. Bisclavret’s wife, concerned about his absences, asks him repeatedly to tell her where he goes. When he does, she conspires with another knight to take the clothes that Bisclavret hides when he transforms—and which he needs in order to return to human form.

Trapped in wolf form, Bisclavret sees his king hunting in the forest. Displaying the ability to see nobility even in animals, the king takes the wolf into his court. When the wife visits the court, the wolf, who had not done any harm to anyone previously, attacks both the knight who stole his clothes and his former wife, tearing her nose off. At this point, the king, instead of blaming the wolf, takes the advice of his counselors and tortures the wife until she reveals what she has done. The clothes are recovered, and Bisclavret returns to human form. The wife is banished, and all of her daughters are born without noses.

In Bisclavret, the idea of abuse remains a hovering fear, rather than a defined reality. The moment the wife in Bisclavret decides to turn against her husband after learning he is a werewolf is often a point of confusion and discussion for readers. Are we meant to blame the wife? Given she later finds herself disfigured and tortured for her actions, it seems like a simple question. Nonetheless, as with everything medieval—and everything Marie de France wrote—the question is far more complex than it seems.

Unpacking Abuse

Imagine, for a moment, a medieval woman who grew up in the nobility. She is aware from an early age that she would be married to someone her family selected and approved. In Bisclavret, however, this wife marries someone described as “a handsome knight,” “an able man,” and “a noble man” (translations are from Judith Shoaf). Bullet: dodged.

Yet, there is a lingering issue: Bisclavret disappears. He keeps secrets. Where does Bisclavret go during his frequent absences? What could he be doing? The wife is understandably curious. Yet, when she confronts her husband, she does so with hesitation:

But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,

And, more than anything, that scares me

What scares her “more than anything” is that her husband will “get angry.” Why? Bisclavret has given no indication to his wife that he would be violent towards her before this. She has no evidence for her fear—Bisclavret does not give us the same situation as Yonec in which the wife has clear reason to hate and fear her husband. And, yet, Bisclavret’s wife demonstrates the same fear. Could her statement indicate a lingering anxiety about how her husband will treat her? Has she heard stories of men—such as the husband in Yonec or Chaucer’s Walter—who were abusive to their wives? What had her mother, her friends, or her female relatives told her? 

When Bisclavret finally tells his wife about his shape-shifting, his revelation is certainly not what she expected (it’s entirely possible that she believed he was involved with another woman). Her reaction is intense:

The lady heard this marvel, this wonder.

In terror she blushed all bright red,

Filled with fear by this adventure.

Often and often passed through her head

Plans to get right out, escape, for

She didn’t want ever to share his bed.

We can chalk up her fear to the prospect of being married to a werewolf. The text does ask us to grapple with what our own choice would be in this situation (and it is indeed a good question to ponder). But how the wife’s reaction is described is familiar to anyone who has been a domestic abuse victim, who has known one, or who has read about one. She “often and often” has thoughts of escape “pass through her head,” and she is “filled with fear.”

Inner Beasts

Bisclavret’s wife no doubt has the same information that we the readers are given by the narrator at the very beginning of the text:

A garwolf [werewolf] is a savage beast,

While the fury’s on it, at least:

Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,

Living and roaming in the deep wood.

An illustration from Topographia Hiberniae depicting the story of a traveling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory, Ireland.
Royal MS 13 B VIII, ff 1r-34v.

Bisclavret, we are told, is not a typical werewolf. Marie de France takes great pains to tell us immediately that he is not one of those savage beasts who eat men. At this time in medieval Europe, while there are some positive versions of lycanthropy, there are uses of the werewolf trope in literature as a punishment for a misdeed or sin—think, perhaps, of the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. In the Early Modern period, werewolves were associated with witches. All in all, being a werewolf was not just bad news, but could be an indicator that you were a bad person.

If the werewolf is a metaphor for evil men in general, it’s certainly an even better one for abusers specifically. Werewolves are described as savage when “the fury” is on them “at least,” which matches the “tension-building phrase” turning into the “abusive incident.” Marie adds the “at least,” not just for the sake of the rhyme, but to indicate that these creatures can be violent even when they are not in their lupine form. The phenomenon of “were-abusers” transforming from seeming kindness to exhibiting bursts of violence and back again is well-documented, appearing frequently in victim narratives.

The wife states that Bisclavret’s anger scares her more than anything, and then she discovers that her husband transforms into a creature traditionally known for its violent rages. The very things she was conditioned to fear have become, in her mind, a reality.

That Bisclavret is not an abusive husband is not the point. The wife has heard the stories. She knows abusive relationships. And she is convinced that she is in one—or about to be. These circumstances are what fuel her actions.

So, we are left with a very difficult question: what is ethical for a victim of domestic violence to do in order to escape their abuser?

“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?”

This question appears over and over again in the lives of abuse victims. The story of Janay Palmer, wife of NFL player Ray Rice who was videoed being assaulted by her then-fiancée is a prime example. It spurred the #WhyIStayed hashtag in 2014. This movement endeavored to combat the all-too-popular belief that, if a woman stays with a man, then she must not be truly abused.

Masefako Gumani and Pilot Mudhovozi, in their article “Gender-based Violence: Opportunities and Coping Resources for Women in Abusive Unions,” list several reasons why abuse victims stay in abusive relationships, reasons that are echoed in many studies on the subject. Among these are:

  • socialized to stay in relationships,
  • belief partner will reform,
  • lack of social and financial support, including “the uncertain future of poverty, inadequate housing and social isolation,”
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and
  • the terror of leaving given that so much of reported domestic abuse happens when women try to leave.

The idea that these women feel they have nowhere to go is particularly poignant for women like the wives in Yonec and Bisclavret.

In Yonec, the wife, locked as she is in her tower, does not attempt to leave until her lover is mortally wounded. When this happens, she jumps out the window to follow his trail of blood back to his own kingdom.

You might ask, “Why didn’t she leave until then?” But the wife mentions in an earlier soliloquy that her family gave her away to her husband. She even curses them for doing so. So where would she go? When she jumps out the window, Marie tells us “it’s a miracle she’s not killed” as it is so high. That the wife attempts it at all is testament to her fright, grief, and bravery.

Bisclavret’s wife chooses a different route. She turns to the one support she feels she has, a neighboring knight who had often professed his love for her. Marie is clear:

She had never loved him before this,

Nor let him think her love was his

Telling him about her husband and promising her love in return, she convinces him to steal Bisclavret’s clothes, preventing his return to human form. There is no question: this is an act of betrayal. Bisclavret does not deserve this. But, it is what she clearly felt she needed to do to prevent the abuse she saw in the future. If her fears had proven true, would we blame her?

A Culture of Violence

Marie de France asks us to consider what might happen in a situation where a woman, dreading the possibility that her husband would abuse her, believes that fear has come true. Her heightened anxiety at the beginning of the story leads to actual violence against her at the end. Yes, she does seek to imprison a good man. But the consequences of this are Marie’s thought-experiment about the tragic effects of repeated violence against women. Rather than a commentary on women’s betrayal, it is a commentary on the fear that is a natural side effect of a culture of violence.

Domestic Violence includes “physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse [although recently that definition is inexplicably being challenged by the current presidential administration]. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.” The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that:

  • On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

The Stop Street Harassments nonprofit found in a survey deployed in January 2018 that “81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.” The #MeToo movement has revealed the extent to which women experience violence—and thus the extent to which women hear the stories about violence. Memes of every kind flood our social media, often accompanied with “advice” on how women can “avoid” such situations, advice that increases the fear that they will happen.

There is incredible danger in living in a culture that permits and even promotes violence, abuse, and rape. Being victimized is obviously traumatic. But there is an additional trauma too. There is further trauma for women, medieval and modern, in knowing that the chances of becoming a statistic are mind-blowingly high. Telling and reading the stories helps to keep the wolves at bay.

Resources for Domestic Violence Survivors

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Coalition against Domestic Violence

Pathways to Safety International

National Sexual Assault Hotline

National Organization for Victim Assistance

Want to Learn More?

Rose, Christine, and Elizabeth Robertson, eds. Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Salisbury, Eve, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, eds. Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts. University Press of Florida, 2002.

Skinner, Patricia. Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

What “Knight Fight” Gets Dead Wrong about Medieval Men

This is Part 10 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Ken Mondschein. You can find the rest of the series here.

Knight Fight (History: Wednesdays, 10pm EST) is History’s new medieval-combat reality series, and its take on “muscular medievalism” (to use Amy S. Kaufman’s term) plays into our cultural stereotypes of the Middle Ages as a violent era exclusively populated by manly men whose primary aim in life was to uphold the patriarchy by beating one another with steel cudgels. Megan Arnott explored some of these stereotypes in her piece on advertising a few weeks ago. Like other pop-culture depictions of the Middle Ages, the judges, and the show’s promotional material in general, tirelessly insist on the hard-hitting, brutal nature of the fighting in the show. As one contestant intones in the trailer:

When I hit someone, I want them to suffer.

The producers have created a world in which men gather for the sole purpose of battling for dominance under the unforgiving eye of those who have already proven themselves. In this, it owes more to modern American high school and college sports culture, with its system of “cuts” and its elimination brackets, than to the medieval tournament, which was, to varying degrees, about training for battle, asserting social class, impressing the ladies, and winning pricey warhorses.

Knight Fight’s format is pretty simple: Six combatants take up blunted modern reproductions of medieval weapons, strap on medievalesque armor, and fight three “heats” (rounds) of a grand melee (a Hobbesian battle royale, that is, a “war of everyone against everyone”). After the first heat, the judges cull the initial six contestants down to four with the grim efficiency of high school football coaches. The final four form two teams who get dressed up in “iconic” armor based on that episode’s historical theme. Then the winning team kits up in whatever armor they please, are handed matched weapons, and fight a “duel” to determine a champion since, as the Highlander franchise taught us, there can be only one.

The rules are based on those developed for the annual “Battle of the Nations” international medievalesque fighting tournament (first held in Ukraine in 2009). The rules are simple: no hitting a man on the ground and no thrusting (or, “no pricks with weapons,” as one early translation from the Ukrainian rules had it). The judges decide who is in and who is out at the end of every round.

The judges of History’s Knight Fight: Andre Sinou (left), Jay Reso (Center), and John Clements (right)

Knight Fight’s three judges are former professional wrestler Jay “Christian” Reso (there to add to add some star power from another “manly” fighting sport); retired Marine and experienced armored combatant Andre Sinou (who, along with Jaye Travis Brooks, Jr., is one of the chief American promoters of the sport of full-contact armored fighting); and John Clements (recruited for his expertise on medieval combat).

A Knight Fight competitor in Roman-esque armor. Photo: Tim O’Connell/HISTORY

To be sure, the fighters who compete on Knight Fight deserve credit for their passion and hard work. Fighting full contact in armor is the most incredibly taxing anaerobic exercise I can think of. Most of the participants are excellent combat-sports athletes in fantastic physical condition. I’ve known men whose devotion to full-armored fighting led to real self-transformation from overweight, middle-aged pre-diabetics to lean, mean middle-aged fighting machines (as well as broken bones and concussions).

So, with so many talented people engaged in this Aristotelian pursuit of virtue, what’s wrong with it?

It’s this: the hit-’em-harder fighting style and hyper-aggressive soundbites from the competitors play neatly into popular ideas of Middle Ages as less civilized, more brutal, and amply provided with large manly men whose fighting style owed more to brawn than to brains.

This is an idea with a long history. The Victorians, for all their love of the Middle Ages, held some frankly bizarre ideas about medieval combat. Egerton Castle was an author, fencer, and one of the earliest proponents of reviving historical fencing techniques—but his ideas about early swordsmanship were dead wrong. As he wrote of chivalric fighting back in 1884, knights wore:

plate armour in battle, and, indeed, on most occasions out of doors… [which] …caused the sword to be regarded in the light of a weapon of offence only, sufficient reliance being placed on helmet and carapace for protection…. personal combat between two knights was determined, in a great measure, by the resistance of their armour and, ultimately, by their power of endurance.

Castle’s emphasis on “battering power” in medieval combat gave his Victorian age a convenient “other” against which they could measure themselves, coming out as more “civilized” than the Middle Ages. And this misconception of awkward, over-encumbered knights persisted. Films such as Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V and the 1956 Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester, drawing their inspiration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, famously include scenes of knights having to be hoisted into their saddles by crane because their armor was so heavy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, medieval people really appreciated lightness and skill. You can see this in Gothic architecture, for example. While early Romanesque cathedrals were built with stocky pillars, thick walls, and small windows, as the Middle Ages went on, architects innovated time and again to make the pillars slimmer and slimmer (until they disappeared), the walls dizzyingly high (supported with flying buttresses), and the windows impossibly huge (seemingly supported only by a filigree of stone tracery). They were willing to risk catastrophic collapse in order to achieve lightness and demonstrate their skill.

The Romanesque interior of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, in Rome.
The Middle Ages at its (literal) height; the windows of Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris

Contrary to popular myth, a full suit of fourteenth-century armor usually weighed no more than 60 pounds (which is far less than what is carried into battle by modern soldiers). And far from a world in which knights clumsily clubbed at each other, medieval fighting was a martial art like any other, with skill winning the day more often than sheer endurance.

By contrast, the armor used in the show weighs about 80 pounds because it is made of thicker metal. However, it has to be that heavy in order to withstand the battering it gets—and to prevent the guys inside from being turned into so much chivalric pulp. The weapons are basically metal clubs—as I’ve discussed in an article dissecting Knight Fight’s historical accuracy for

You would think that Knight Fight’s judges—at least those familiar with medieval combat—would do something to either correct this error or discuss the differences between this and medieval combat on the show. Unfortunately, John Clements doesn’t do much to correct this misconception. And why would he? His worldview is fully in harmony with Knight Fight.

The website for Clements’ organization, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA), has published articles defending the Crusades and taking swipes at Westerners who imitate Asian practices. Even while he maintains an ostensible martial multiculturalism in some essays, he muses on Western martial heritage. This shades into outright statements of European cultural superiority. The West has, to Clements,

produced the concepts of scientific inquiry, religious tolerance, individual liberty, economic freedom, and the rule of law, which have over centuries led to unsurpassed scientific discoveries, a monumental flowering of art and literature, and a standard of living unequaled in history…. Unlike those squalid suffering regions of the globe that did not embrace reason, science, and individual rights, the West achieved its unprecedented wealth, health, comfort, freedom, and personal opportunity as a direct result of its cultural values—not the blind chances of geography or climate.

What about academic ways of looking at the past, including approaches that make a virtue of diversity and representation of women?  Sounding much like a heavily armed Jordan Peterson, he considers approaches that “avoid exploring our heritage” to be “an insulting waste” since:

martial arts are simply not subjects concerned a whit about gender, race, class, or sexual orientation—the post-modernist obsession nowadays of much of the politically-correct brand of Medieval and Renaissance studies.

His books take this further; as I once wrote in a review, they are:

infused with a liberal amount of screeds against modern sport fencers, theatrical fight choreographers, and anyone else the author deems lacking in proper martial spirit and intent.

John Clements judges History’s Knight Fight. Photo: Tim O’Connell/HISTORY.

In short, John Clements has spent a lot of time marketing the revival of historical European martial arts as necessary to combat an imagined degeneracy of the modern sport of fencing that matches the “postmodernist” threat to Western civilization as a whole. He’s taken Castle’s idea and turned it on its head by making a virtue of the very idea the Victorians condemned: Historical European martial arts are strong, manly, authentic, and good, while anything not matching this vision of the world is weak, inauthentic, degenerated, effeminate, and adulterated. This narrative is sort of the unspoken undercurrent of Knight Fight, and, indeed, of much of the modern historical martial-arts movement: If it’s not heavy and brutal, it’s no good.

This doesn’t mean that, despite Clements’ troubling attitudes (which the producers should have done their homework on), the show is necessarily an intentional “men’s rights” dog-whistle. The problem is that its aesthetic valorizes a vision in which competition between men is the only thing that matters. It is men who fight, who protect, who go into the world, take what is owed to them, and push forward Western cultural superiority. It is easy to understand why this fantasy of traditional gender roles might be appealing to certain people, but in a time when a commercial for razor blades can spark weeks of online debate about toxic masculinity, History needs to be more careful about what it presents.

While I think it’s terrific that my favorite hobby of medieval fighting is getting media attention, Knight Fight doesn’t do anything to challenge our pre-conceived notions about the Middle Ages as a primitive time filled with Conan the Barbarian knockoffs. Rather, History panders to the masses with a macho, brutal view of the Middle Ages. It’s long on manliness and short on context—and, in so doing, Knight Fight peddles a vision of the Middle Ages that The Public Medievalist has spent a lot of time and energy arguing against.

Full Disclosure: Both Paul Sturtevant and I tried out for the third judge slot, as did many other knowledgeable people.

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

“Viking Tough”: How Ads Sell Us Medieval Manhood

This is Part 9 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Megan Arnott. You can find the rest of the series here.

During the 2018 Super Bowl, Dodge ran commercials for the Ram truck. In them, a group of Vikings use the truck to haul their ship. They sing a heavy metal version of “The Wheels on the Bus” (replacing the word “bus” with “truck”); the ad proclaims, “There’s tough, and then there’s Viking tough.”

The target audience for truck ads are typically men. In order to appeal to their target audiences, ads sell you an idealized image of yourself—as ad-man Don Draper said in Mad Men:

You are the product. You feel something. That’s what sells.

Notoriously, ads use gender stereotypes to construct images of who the consumer could (and should) be. Truck ads sell the image of a rough, hard-working man who wants something that allows him to be a rough, hard-working man—and confirms his masculinity along the way. Typical ads use cowboys, farmers, soldiers, other machines, and large mammals like bears, bulls, or rams. But they’re not marketing to cowboys, farmers, soldiers, or brown bears—at least not exclusively. They’re marketing the idea that you, you, can be as tough, as manly, as powerful as them.

Vikings are a perfect fit.

Vikings and other “medieval” men are used in advertisements as visual shorthand for a masculinity that is synonymous with strength. In advertising, this kind of unchecked masculine strength is rarely presented as something negative or dangerous. Instead, it’s a promise: buy this product, and your manliness is confirmed. Your sexual potency is confirmed. You will be who you want to be: medieval.

The Capital One Vikings on their infamous raid of leaf-peeping country; image from “Bjorn’s Bed and Breakfast,” Capitol One Spark Card ad campaign, 2014.

Manly Medieval Men

There are many images of the medieval in the popular imagination. And every ad that uses the Middle Ages uses a specific version of the Middle Ages (usually tied to medieval fantasy) that is popular in that specific moment.

One of the most potent images over the past thirty years is the image of strong male warriors—kings, knights, or Vikings. One of the ways in which this medieval masculinity is sold to modern men is by selling men’s virility as part of masculine communities. In this model of masculinity, men are meant to claim their virility by being in the companionship of other men, as in a fraternity of knights. Courage, bravery and camaraderie are thus coded as explicitly, and sometimes even exclusively, masculine strengths.

A prime example of an ad that exploited this popular image comes from the late-Reagan/early-H.W.-Bush era; a series of commercials equated the United States Marines with “medieval” knights. In the commercial, titled simply “Knight,” a voice-over proclaims:

Once, there were a few, proud men. Men of adventure. Men of courage. Men who knew the meaning of honour. There still are. The few, the proud, the Marines.

A king holds a sword aloft, and lightning crackles from it. A knight rides up to him, dismounts and kneels. The king dubs the knight with the sword, lighting arcing to his shoulders. As he does, the knight morphs into a US marine in full dress uniform. In this version of the commercial there is also a boy who looks on while the man in armour is knighted; the boy is inspired to be this kind of man—he looks up to him.

This ad evokes both the actual Middle Ages and also the fantasy neo-medievalisms of the 1980s (think He-Man, Highlander, Excalibur, and all the legacies of Dungeons & Dragons) with the lightning bolts that emanate from the sword. The “knights” in this ad defend the “kingdom” of the United States; it equates aristocratic warrior-elites with contemporary professionalized military service through oblique references to chivalry and honor.

But medieval men need not be chivalrous or honorable to be sold in modern ads. One of the most notable “medieval” campaigns of the last ten years has been the “What’s in your wallet” Capital One Vikings, who appeared from the late 2000s into the mid 2010s. Originally, the Capital One card kept the hordes at bay, but eventually, these Vikings were the ones literally armed with the Capital One card.

In the beginning, your ability to wield wealth is equivalent to wielding enough strength to stop an oncoming fight—but not just a normal fight, a fight with ravenous, pillaging Vikings! Here, the man watching the ad is not meant to identify with the Vikings so much as he is expected to feel confident in his ability to weather any financial storm (and maybe laugh a bit at the absurdity of it all). But as the ad campaign went on, the ad company put the Vikings front and center. So, they created a new twist—these strong, violent men do the same things that you do! They go to family gatherings; they go shopping; they go on vacations to New Orleans or the Grand Canyon. The Capital One card has made these men at least half-civilized, in a transformation almost as radical as the knight-to-Marine. And this slightly-kinder and gentler masculinity was all thanks to a credit card.

Medieval Sex Sells

In another example, in 2004 Pepsi used legendary British soccer player David Beckham in a commercial which made liberal use of medieval imagery. This commercial was generated by a certain cultural moment: The Lord of the Rings trilogy had been a cultural phenomenon for the past three years, King Arthur starring Clive Owen would be released the same year, and the Crusades film, Kingdom of Heaven was due to be released the next year. The medieval epic was having a moment.

Each of these movies centre around masculine communities or brotherhoods. The same can be said of the commercial. In it, armed guards enter a medieval-looking town square and proceed to gather all the Pepsis, placing them in a large cart to take them away.

While escaping, a young boy loses the ball he had been carrying. Enter David Beckham and his team of soccer players. They then proceed to what can best be described as “soccer fight” the armed guards—one player shoots past a row of guards to hit the lock on the cart with the ball, freeing the Pepsis for everyone. In this commercial, the imagined medieval battles of yesterday are equated with the organized sports of today with the catch-phrase “Let Battle Commence.”

The ad has little to do with cola (except maybe to say that it’s a valuable treasure captured by a Robin Hood-type). What’s really at issue here is the association of medieval warrior manhood with it. David Beckham and his crew are a modern fraternity of knights going into battle, and although odds are stacked against them (they wear inferior, but way cooler, armour), they are so much stronger than their opponents that they can literally run circles around them. The implication is that soccer players are like medieval knights or Robin Hood’s men, in that they are a brotherhood of unstoppable warriors.

The presence of the boy in the ad, like in the Marines commercial, is a signal that this is also a version of manhood to be emulated and passed down—and one that inspires admiration from your children (or if you are a child, one worth looking up to). The use of David Beckham as the central figure also makes the connection between male strength and male sexuality more explicit. These men are not just cool, they’re hot. They are sexually desirable, strong and brave “knights,” committed to a team or martial brotherhood. This ad forges knights and soccer players into poster-boys for virility—and virility is what Pepsi wants you to associate with its product.

Norman in the streets, Viking in the sheets? Image from Durex’s “Be Heroes for the Night” campaign, 2016.

The most obvious and explicit conflation of “medieval” with male strength and male sexuality is the Durex Pleasure Ring commercial, “Be Heroes for the Night.” In it, a sexily rugged man and woman dressed in rough medieval garb travel over harsh but beautiful terrain. They meet in a barn and immediately fall into each others’ arms. As they do, she reaches for a box of Durex, and as they roll around on the medieval furs in front of a roaring fire, they instantly transform into their modern-day selves.

 This commercial takes advantage of the current popularity of television shows like Game of Thrones or The Vikings, appropriating their hair styles and fashions in particular, to sell a sex product to its customers. The ad simply sells the titillating fantasy of rough-and-tumble medieval sex so often seen in these shows.

Sex—at least good, consensual sex—has not always been part of the popular perception of the Middle Ages. So the Durex ad is a reminder about how much sex is a part of those shows, and of our current concept of the medieval. In these shows (and in the ad), virility is still in the realm of men, but women are impacted by it in different ways—some of the most-famous sex scenes in these shows are not consensual or good sex. Of course, the commercial is just a reference to the sexiness of the shows, not the problematic depictions of sex these shows often contain—or the ongoing discussions about the destructive force of the unchecked (particularly male) sexuality that they portray. This commercial is a partial indictment of the complexities of the sexual encounters in shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones—it shows that often the main thing the audience takes away is simply the sex.

The Men of the Square Table, from a Miller Lite TV spot aired during the 2006 NBA playoffs.

Medieval Men Rule!

The image of a court of men, like King Arthur’s court, is a shorthand that is often used in advertisements as well. This use of the Middle Ages harkens the audience’s mind back to an imagined time of unchecked male power and authority. For example, about 10 years ago, there were a series of commercials for Miller Lite where men from different walks of life (representing different areas of pop culture) came together and collectively decided on “Man Law”. This included football player Jerome Bettis, pro wrestler Triple H, comedian Eddie Griffin, adventurer Aron Ralston, professional bull-rider Ty Murray, and—acting as their “King Arthur” type—Burt Reynolds.

These commercials declare that these are the “Men of the Square Table,” who sit around and pass decrees on “man things,” like male sovereignty over the garage fridge (which should only be for beer) or when it is okay to ask out your buddy’s ex-girlfriend after they have broken up.

These ads are clearly attempting to tap into feelings of male grievance against the perceived advances of feminism and place them as part of the age of the “bro” sub-culture—as promoted by figures like Barney Stinson on How I Met your Mother and “the Bro Code.” In it, these men are acting as a fusion of Arthurian court and board room, unilaterally (and of course, with no female input), passing decrees on what appropriate behavior for men should be. And facilitating this meeting, which is the pinnacle of a perceived, subversively unchecked male power, is Miller Lite beer.

And a “Dilly Dilly” to you too, sir. Image from the “Dilly Dilly” Bud Light ad campaign, 2017.

10 years after the Miller Lite ads, Bud Light launched the “Dilly Dilly” campaign, which sees Bud Light being shared around a more literally “medieval” court. These advertisements also include references to its previous campaign, the “Bud Knight,” with a tagline “Here’s to the friends you can always count on.”  We can see differences in the way masculinity is constructed in different cultural moments, but it is still trying to sell audiences a concept of masculinity to go with their beer. Both beer campaigns were slotted to be shown during football games and use camaraderie as their main selling point, particularly masculine camaraderie. The Miller Lite ads were specifically about male camaraderie, whereas the medieval imagery in the Bud Light commercials, just like in the Viking Dodge Ram truck ads or the Durex ads, doesn’t necessarily exclude women.

But the focus is still on masculinity, particularly a martial or virile masculinity. In this case, and in many more recent examples, masculinity does not have to mean a life that women can’t participate in. But men are always the majority of the central figures: the heroes, the kings, the knights. Though women may be present, the focus is on male figures—when they are not objects, women should be participating “as one of the boys.”

Even when masculinity, toughness, or camaraderie is not the main purpose of the medieval imagery, as it is in these beer commercials, it is interesting which “medieval” images are chosen. An Intel commercial from 2012 also uses this imagery of the King’s court—but instead, it is meant to show that the technology they were using before the Intel computer comes in is old-fashioned.

Yet, even this equates a business meeting with the meeting of a king and his knights. The king and his court struggle with the new technology. It is a female employee (there are two, one already in armour, the one with the new computer in modern dress) who brings the new Intel technology to shake them out of their old ways. Women are a disruption of male power—even if that disruption is ultimately couched as a positive one.

Which Middle Ages Get Sold?

Image from “Viking,” a commercial for ArmorAll car cleaning products, 2013. compiled a list of the top 10 “medieval” commercials. What is apparent from this list is that Vikings and knights (as opposed to, say, prioresses, bishops, merchants, peasants, brewers, monks, or any other visions of medieval men and women) dominate how the public recognizes the medieval. What is also clear is that the medieval images are much less about the Middle Ages themselves than they are about contemporary trends in both masculinity and representations of the “medieval.” These are the men that contemporary men want to be—or at least, that ad companies want them to want to be. In many ways, “medieval” continues to be shorthand for “masculine”—but a very restricted concept of “masculine.”

Advertising sells you an image of yourself, improved by their product. To give the consumer an image of virile manhood, one of the options is to use medieval—or better yet “medieval”—imagery. The commercials are from different eras and, hence, show how our ideas of virile masculinity have changed. And as made apparent in the recent controversial Gillette ad, our concepts of masculinity are changing every day. Yet, without having to do too much to explain, a reference to a medieval image of a knight or a Viking are still potent ones, and help advertisers quickly evoke the feelings of being a strong, virile man. If you too want to be as tough and sexually appealing as a Viking, it is up to you whether you think that you will need a pleasure ring, a truck, or a credit card.

Editorial Note: Paul B. Sturtevant contributed to the writing of this article.

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

A Transgender Fairy Tale

This is Part 8 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the series here.

Once upon a time, there was a handsome prince. Many years before, that prince was born a beautiful princess, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the prince did next…

Fairy tales get a lot of flak when it comes to their treatment of gender. And rightly so. Disney made a mint off their retrograde image of the “princess” (so much so that “Disney Princess” is both a commonplace phrase and a brand). Recently, they have added princesses of color, princesses who fight, and princesses whose stories don’t revolve around a romantic relationship with a man. But despite these additions, the phrase “Disney Princess” still evokes a retrograde image of femininity: one that privileges whiteness, passivity, beauty and heteronormativity above all else.

Image result for disney princess
They’re getting better, I guess?

But not all fairy tales are Disney tales.

You might be familiar with the grimmer, darker originals behind the Disney films: the ones written down by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Or, if you are really into fairy tales, you may be familiar with the stories collected by Charles Perrault, who was the first to pen versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” But despite (or perhaps because of) the grimdark perspective of many of these tales, the sexism and gender normativity remain. The key difference is that here, they are often enforced with extreme violence.

Anderson, Perrault, and the Grimm Brothers were mostly translators and adaptors; they drew from and collected a vast collection of folklore and tales passed down through oral traditions. But two of the most prolific of folklore collectors were a team you’ve probably never heard of: Leonora Blanche Alleyne and Andrew Lang. One of the stories they found and retold features a transgender medieval hero.

A series of book spines, arranged in order of color to correspond with the colors of the rainbow. On each spine is a book title, beginning with "The Pink Fairy Book" and "The Crimson Faiasdk
A collection of Leonora Alleyne (and Andrew Lang)’s Fairy Book series. 

Thanks for Typing All of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales

To call Andrew Lang prolific is a bit of an understatement. Over the course of his career, in addition to numerous academic books and articles on history, mythology, folklore, and anthropology, he also published twenty-five collections of stories.

Most of these were in his “Fairy Book” series, with each book being assigned a color. The first, The Blue Fairy Book,was a surprise best seller in 1889. He then followed it up with The Red Fairy Book in 1890, The Green Fairy Book in 1892, and so on through a whole spectrum. These books collected and adapted stories from a wide range of folk traditions: French, Danish, Romanian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabian, Tunisian, Indian, American Indian, and more.

But Lang was able to be this prolific because much of the work was done by his wife, Leonora Blanche Allenye. She is credited as translator and adaptor of the tales in the prefaces to each of these books. She even assumed editorial control of the series in the 1890s. But his name is on the spines. It’s a classic case of “thanks for typing”—where male academics acknowledge but ultimately take credit for the work done by women in their lives.

So, in the interest of fairness, it is probably better to call these Alleyne’s stories rather than Lang’s.

Image result for "the girl who pretended to be a boy"
Henry Justice Ford, Illustration from the 1901 edition of “The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy”, in Andrew Lang, The Violet Fairy Book.

“The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy”

One of the stories Alleyne translated and adapted for The Violet Fairy Book in 1901 was a Romanian folktale that Alleyne called “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy.” This was an English-language version of a story Alleyne found in a French collection called Sept Contes Roumains(Seven Romanian Tales), translated by Jules Brun in 1894. The name Alleyne gave the story implies an antiquated transphobic worldview, where gender-expansive people are seen as “impersonating” or “pretending.” But the story redeems itself by being remarkably trans-affirming, which is better reflected in the less pejorative title it was given by its French translator: Jouvencelle-Jouvencau, or simply, “Young Woman-Young Man”—a title perhaps not too far off from Victor/Victoria.

The original translations are in the public domain, so you can read the tale in its entirety here (or here, if you read French). But to summarize, “The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy” has many of the ingredients of a typical medievalesque folk tale. It starts with an evil emperor who demands that newly conquered kingdoms offer up one prince for ten years of service. But one day, he conquers a kingdom whose ruler has three daughters.

The first two princesses try to pass themselves off as men, but their father (who is actually a powerful magician) tests their disguises and finds them out. But the third daughter—named Fet-Fruners—takes her father’s talking war horse and succeeds at passing as a man. She succeeds because the horse advises her on how to act as a man would, particularly by coaching her towards bravery in battle.

Thanks to her helpful, unusually talkative steed, Fet-Fruners becomes an extraordinary warrior. She successfully challenges her father (who transformed into a wolf, then a lion, and then a twelve headed dragon, because fairy tales), and a genie in single combat.

When Fet-Fruners finds herself among another genie and its mother, the horse further coaches her on how to pass—which she succeeds at doing, even though the genie’s mother tries to out her three times. She reaches the evil emperor’s court, and is sent on a quest to find a legendary woman, Iliane. Iliane had been captured by genies. Thankfully, the horse knows exactly how to get her back.

It’s becoming clear that the horse really is the hero of the story, by the way.

So, Fet-Fruners rescues Iliane from the genie, and is pursued by the genie’s fire-breathing mother (because, as in Beowulf, the monster’s mother is often even worse). But, as ever, the horse knows exactly what to do, and together they escape. They return to the Emperor’s court, where Fet-Fruners is sent on another quest. And another.

On Fet-Fruner’s final quest, she is galloping away from a church, having stolen a vase of holy water. One of the guardians of the church, a hermit, curses her:

he fell on his knees and called his most deadly curse down on her head, praying that if the thief was a man, he might become a woman; and if she was a woman, that she might become a man. In either case he thought that the punishment would be severe.

Up until this point, the story hasn’t been especially trans-affirming. Fet-Fruners is always referred to with female pronouns, or is referred to as “the Princess.” Fet-Fruners’ actions are always couched in terms of being disguised, or heroically tricking others. But the next paragraph takes a remarkable turn. It reads:

But punishments are things about which people do not always agree, and when the princess suddenly felt she was really the man she had pretended to be, she was delighted, and if the hermit had only been within reach she would have thanked him from her heart.

This is a wonderful turn. The curse was meant to give a person, in effect, gender dysphoria—by making their biological sex no longer match the gender that they were. But Fet-Fruners is euphoric at the change, implying that she was really a he all along.

Remember, (as if you could forget) this is a fairy tale. If the storyteller saw Fet-Fruner’s new sex to be a problem, there would have been another quest where her heroic horse would tell her exactly how to have the curse reversed.

But it isn’t a problem. The narrator switches pronouns. Fet-Fruner’s gender is confirmed by the court. Fet-Fruner’s horse magically kills the evil emperor. And Fet-Fruner and Iliane are married and live happily ever after.

Happy and Unhappy Endings

In some ways, “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy” is ahead of its time. But in others, it is not quite as ahead of its time as we might hope it to be. This should be obvious enough from the title alone, which implies that Fet-Fruners was “pretending” right up until the point of his biological transformation, rather than expressing that his masculinity was an inherent part of who he was. But the transformation that affirms his gender, and the fact that it is regarded as a blessing to be celebrated rather than a curse to be broken, puts it head and shoulders above other fairy tales and the tradition of medieval adventure stories (aka medieval romances) from which tales like this are obviously drawn. Its affirming nature makes it subversive.

Perhaps the most comparable story in the medieval canon is the 13th century French tale Silence. Silence deserves its own article in this series, but it is useful to compare their endings.

In short, Silence is born biologically female, but is disguised by her parents so she’ll inherit their land since the king has outlawed female inheritance. He lives for many years as a boy, and so comes to think of himself as male. He learns to be a knight, and goes on several adventures. When he is twelve years old, he is then presented with a choice in a conversation between a personified Nature and Reason. Reason convinces him that if he were to choose to be a woman, he would have to give up being a knight and an heir. He also decides to remain a man because, as he puts it:

I have a mouth too hard for kisses
and arms too rough for embraces;
One could easily make a fool of me
In any game played under the covers.

In other words, in order to be a knight and have wealth, he had to be a man. Being a woman means a life of knitting and weaving.

It’s sexist as hell.

Anyway, Silence has a variety of other heroic adventures, where he excels both as a knight and as a minstrel. But at the very end of the story, Merlin outs Silence in front of the whole royal court. King Evan then strips Silence of his male clothing, renames him “Silentia,” and makes him his new queen.

The author may have expected this story to be read like other romances—that the ending entails the King putting everything that was wrong back to rights. But if the reader accepts that Silence is transgender, the story is a crushing tragedy: he is outed, deadnamed, misgendered, and forced to marry. Shoved back into the closet, the reader is left to assume that Silence is forced to give up his life of adventure, and loses the heroic agency he enjoyed so much. Happily ever after, this is not.

In both “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy” and Silence, the only way for a woman to go on heroic adventures is to be a man; qualities like bravery and prowess are ascribed exclusively to men in both. But they also both subvert gender norms, because they both show that people born biologically female are just as capable of martial heroism as people born male.

And in “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy,” a happy ending means giving Fet-Fruners a male body. The ending implies that Fet-Fruners had always been a man deep down.

We must give credit to Ms. Alleyne for that. Because while the sex change occurs in the French version of “The Girl Who Pretended to Be A Boy” from which she adapted it, the crucial part where the story reads

But punishments are things about which people do not always agree, and when the princess suddenly felt she was really the man she had pretended to be, she was delighted, and if the hermit had only been within reach she would have thanked him from her heart.

seems to be a new addition by Alleyne. It is easy to see how a gender non-conforming child in 1901 reading The Violet Fairy Book might find it inspiring.

In fact, to move the story into the 21st century (and to illustrate how easy it is to make this story more gender affirming), I have edited my own version of the tale you can find here. The original is in the public domain; feel free to share it with whoever would enjoy it.

Fairy tales are important. Even though they may seem frivolous, they reflect human hopes, dreams, and fears. And more, they mirror human emotions: as you can see, transgender identity has always been a part of life, even in these old stories. And better yet, these fairy tales teach children that truth, and offer trans, genderqueer and non-binary readers heroes and heroines in their own image.

Because as even Disney is coming to realize, your ability to be a hero has nothing to do with the body you were born with, and everything to do with who you decide to be.

If you enjoyed that article, please share it with your history-loving friends on Facebook, or on Twitter! And be sure to subscribe here to receive every new article from The Public Medievalist the moment it launches.

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