Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

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

Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

The Notorious Garsenda of Provence

This is Part 6 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Jennifer Speed. You can find the rest of the series here.

Perceptions of people’s bodies and genders were different during the Middle Ages than they are now. But, it appears that one thing has not changed: a woman’s appearance is still fair game for interpreting her character and her motives.

A contemporary case in point: on January 21, 2017, the Women’s March was held in Washington, D.C. and in cities across the U.S.—the day after the inauguration. An article in the Chicago Tribune noted that:

several conservative commentators took to social media for commentary. Did they critique the marchers’ message? Nope…What they did was make fat jokes.

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Just the Good Wife? Death and Legacy of Noblewomen in the Middle Ages

This is Part 5 of The Public Medievalist‘s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Mariah Luther Cooper. You can find the rest of the series here.

Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency inspired a record-breaking number of American women to run for office. And last Tuesday, they won.  But outside the United States, this has highlighted the importance of gender in political arenas around the world. For example, a few years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why having a gender equal cabinet was a priority. He simply responded: “because it’s 2015.” (more…)

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Silencing Medieval Women’s Voices—Nevertheless, She Persisted

This is Part 4 of The Public Medievalist‘s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Vanessa Corcoran. You can find the rest of the series here.

As a medieval historian—arguably a pretty niche field—there is a singular thrill when a medieval image or news story captures the interest of a broader audience.  My specialty being the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I was delighted when a manuscript illumination went viral in 2017 with the following introduction: “Please enjoy this image of the Virgin Mary punching the devil in the face.”

Enjoy! Historiated Initial With The Virgin Mary Striking The Devil, In ‘The De Brailes Hours’ (c. 1240)

I received countless text messages asking, “Have you seen this??” People were shocked to see the Virgin Mary in such an assertive posture. Wasn’t the Mother of God praised for her serene nature?

I was, in fact, very familiar with this image—my dissertation included numerous illustrations of Mary attacking the devil, as well as countless textual examples of Mary using her voice as a powerful instrument or even a weapon. Withering flower, she was not. A myriad of prayers, hymns, sermons, and other devotional practices imagined Mary speaking profusely to her supplicants. Yet Mary, arguably the most famous woman in Western history, only spoke in the Bible on four occasions (Luke 1:26-38, 1:46-56, 2:41-52, and John 2:1-11). Why then did late medieval authors and artists opt to depict her as a powerful woman who spoke “severely” to her supplicants, intoning, for example, “Thou hast provoked me to great anger?”

It struck me as a contradiction that the Virgin Mary—known as the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and a literal litany of other titles, and who inspired a rich profusion of religious devotion and culture—is only documented in the Bible speaking fewer than 200 words. Despite this, observations about Mary’s eloquent voice was frequent in a series of later medieval devotional sources. Mary’s voice was regarded as provocative, and was often shaped to reflect or even satirize broader medieval social and religious concerns.

How can this assertion be reconciled with the notion that medieval Christian culture sought to limit women’s speech, essentially silencing female voices in society and from historical records?

 “All the women of the township (should) control their tongues”

Medieval culture did restrict women’s speech. This concern for monitoring and regulating women’s speech had its roots in early Christian texts. As a justification, preachers and theologians cited 1 Corinthians 14:34, wherein Paul wrote:

Women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.

Taking their cue from Paul, medieval theologians encouraged husbands to monitor their wives and limit their public communication.

Women particularly had their speech restricted during religious rituals. In late medieval Christian society, an important part of religious life was the ritual of communal mourning, where a community would publicly mourn someone who died. But even in this context, medieval Christian women’s behavior was often viewed as disruptive or dangerous. Narrative accounts of funeral processions described women who sobbed, screamed and even writhed on the ground. But these public lamentations were met by attempts by men to silence the mourning women. Famed Italian humanist Francesco Petrarch viewed this effusive weeping as full of “loud and uncontrolled shrieks,” and ordered Francesco da Carrara, lord of Padua, to require “that no women should set foot outside her house.” Instead, he insisted that women mourn behind closed doors: “If weeping is sweet for those in misery, let her weep at home to her heart’s content, and not sadden the public spaces.” Apparently even the civic authorities thought it their place to tell women to smile more.

“The Weepers” c. 1295 (tempera on parchment on the tomb of the knight Sancho Sánchez Carrillo). Click for the original at Museu Nacional Dart De Catalunya.

Across a range of written sources, authors stressed that silence was the gold standard for women. Two fourteenth-century English towns even attempted to enforce female silence. One court roll records a case in which demanded that “all the women of the township control their tongues,” and the other “enjoined upon all the women in the township that they should restrain their tongues and not scold nor curse any man.” Although these declarations were never made into public policy, these efforts demonstrated that women’s speech was regarded as dangerous and destabilizing.

Gossip was even criminalized: women in fifteenth-century England faced court charges for “speech abuses.” In 1425, after yelling in a tavern about, reportedly, a stolen pan, one Agnes Le Spenser (who called Thomas Batesson a thief, along with several “other dishonest names”) was fined 12 pennies. Scolding, a form of defamation, became a feminized crime in the later Middle Ages, with several women prosecuted as scolds in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One could easily imagine that TMZ would routinely face fines for some of their more salacious stories—especially if they were headed by a woman.

The importance of speech (or lack thereof) in defining femininity also pervaded popular literature, where instructional manuals taught how women ought to speak and behave. For example, The Good Wife’s Guide was a popular fourteenth-century “how-to” guide for medieval women. It encouraged women to view humility, obedience, and succinctly eloquent speech as estimable qualities. Moreover, the narrator of the text stringently discouraged gossip: “Be silent or at least to speak sparingly and wisely so as to protect and conceal your husband’s secrets.” Within medieval society, husbands were legally responsible for their wives and had to account for any illicit behavior. Social manuals like The Good Wife’s Guide entreated wives to show total deference to their husbands: “Do not be arrogant or answer back to your future husband or to his words and do not contradict him, especially in front of others.” Books like The Good Wife’s Guide make Mary’s forceful, vocal role in medieval writing all the more substantial.

“I am also empress of hell, and have power over all you enemies”

Our Lady of Succour by Giovanni da Monte Rubiano (c. 1506) in Caltavulturo.

As I mentioned, Mary had many, many titles. Some of those titles, like “Mother of Mercy” and “Queen of Heaven,” may be familiar to Catholics today. But some of her medieval titles, like Empress of Hell [ed note: seriously, look it up, some medieval people called Mary the Empress of Hell], seem to contradict to the idea of the serene Madonna. Medieval theologians thought of Mary differently than we do. They imbued Mary with incredible power: the ability to influence the highest heights and lowest depths of the afterlife.

For example, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) praised Mary’s ability to save the condemned from hell:

O woman marvelously unique and uniquely marvelous through whom the elements are renewed, hell is redeemed, the demons are trampled under foot, humanity is saved, and angels are restored.

Conrad of Saxony extolled Mary’s extensive power, noting: “You are a wonderful warrior, every soldier of the evil spirits is put to flight before your face.” Pope Honorius III (r. 1216-1227) addressed Mary’s power against the devil in his Second Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption: “For the demons, Blessed Mary was terrible as an army arrayed for battle… [saying]‘I am terrible for my enemies.’” Finally, several medieval miracle collections (devotional narratives that praised the deeds of a saint) explored this idea at length; they framed Mary as a skilled warrior who successfully vanquished the devil. This particular representation became increasingly popular—in tandem with her the title “Empress of Hell”—in fourteenth-century England. In this unique role, Mary descended into hell in order to do battle to save souls from damnation.

Mary holding the devil and flogging him, while the devil vomits up Theophilus’ charter, MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 160r., 1310-1320.  Click for the original at the British Library.

You can also see Mary’s power over the devil on display in the popular medieval legend of Theophilus. This legend dates back to the sixth century, and the basic story provided the framework for the Faust legend: a cleric named Theophilus makes a pact with the devil and renounced Christ and Mary in a contract written in his own blood. Recognizing the error of his ways, Theophilus sought Mary’s aid to overturn the agreement. Mary tore up the contract, and saved Theophilus’s soul.

This legend was retold with many variations numerous times. In many of the medieval retellings of this legend, Mary does not just condemn the devil with her words, but issues corporal punishments that reinforce her authority. In his twelfth-century Marian miracle collection, William of Malmesbury wrote that Mary beat the devil with a stick,

redoubling her blows and making them sharper with words, ‘Take that, and go away. I warn you and order you not to harass my monk any more. If you dare to do so, you will suffer worse.’

In other cases, Mary is imagined skillfully debating with the devil. In the late thirteenth/early fourteenth-century Gesta Romanorum, Mary commands the devil to release a woman from his clutches: “You devil, are a most wicked thief.” The fourteenth-century Queen Mary Psalter offers an illustrated version of this story. While the devil attempts to debate with her, Mary is the commanding figure, who raises her hand as if to dismiss him. Mary’s imposing authority ultimately triumphs.

Mary forcing the Devil to return the contract of Theophilus, BL Royal 2 B VII f. 205 , 1310-1320. Click for the original at the British Library.

Medieval narratives also addressed the ways in which the devil reacts to the displays of Mary’s power. In response to Mary’s appearance in hell, the devil (in the version of the Theophilus legend found in the South English Legendary written around 1290) refers to Mary as his “worst enemy.” Enraged, the devil continues his tirade against Mary exclaiming, “You overpower us all! Alas that you ever existed!” Maintaining her composure, Mary banishes the devil: “I command that you go away, that you never come near this man to shame him again.”

The Virgin Mary did not always act as the “Mother of Mercy.” At times, medieval authors envisioned her speaking harshly to urge Christians to change their behavior. This assertive persona was so striking that, in his collection of Marian miracles, Caesarius of Heisterbach noted that “She spoke to him [a priest] severely” and threatened, “I will take away from you the use of your tongue.”` Medieval society sought to silence women. But Mary was thought to have enough power to turn the tables.

Breaking Through the Silence

Looking back to the present, in February 2017, during confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren for reading a letter from the late Coretta Scott King. He infamously defended his actions by insisting, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This instantly turned into a rallying cry of resistance. #ShePersisted trended. Against it were placed images of female pioneers such as Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and even Princess Leia.  Then the image of Mary punching the devil was turned into a meme that included the quote or hashtag. Mary’s attack on the devil upends the conventional idea of the demure Madonna and instead shows a medieval woman unapologetically asserting her power.

In 2017, the roar of women’s voices was heard through the streets in the global Women’s March, and only grew as the #MeToo movement saw women break their silences about sexual assault and harassment. When Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2018 about her allegations of sexual assault against then-Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she gave a voice to the voiceless and galvanized a national movement. On the day of her testimony, calls made to the National Sexual Assault Hotline rose 147 percent. One consequence of the #MeToo movement is the recovery and sharing of stories that have thus far gone untold (or not believed).

Recovering the voices of women in medieval sources is not easy, as the sources are primarily authored by educated male members of the clergy who often represented the upper echelons of medieval society. Women-authored texts comprise only a small percentage of the medieval canon. A similar gender gap remains in today’s media landscape. But amid the large gaps in women’s representation in historical documents, we must listen carefully to the texts, including observing the silences, to understand how medieval women were expected to speak and behave. When we aim to recover those whispers from the past, we can better appreciate the complex and multifaceted roles that women occupied, even those positions that were imposed upon them.

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.

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?

This is part 3 of The Public Medievalist‘s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Gabrielle Bychowski. You can find the other parts of our series here.






Sorry, did you need more than that?

Having to ask and answer this question is a bit absurd. There is a mountain of evidence—one that is growing every day—that being transgender is not a “lifestyle choice,” as some might have you believe, but simply part of the biodiversity of the human species. According to a 2016 Williams Institute study, trans-identified persons make up 0.6% of adults. Likewise, according to the Intersex Society of North America, 1 in 2,000 people are born with some intersex condition.

More and more, we are learning that the human species is not now and has never been limited to two types of genders, two types of cultures, two types of brains, or two types of bodies. While those proportions are rather small, projected over the large numbers that make up the current populations of all those who live today— and all those who have ever lived— transgender and intersex people should be recognized as a significant and valuable part of human history. Indeed, as society allows for more trans and intersex people to safely identify to the public, these numbers are increasing every day.

For those who consider transgender identity merely to be a lifestyle choice, the claim that trans people existed in the Middle Ages is like saying that punk rock or Star Wars fandom existed in the Middle Ages. This may lead to some ill-informed, but maybe understandable questions:

  • How could trans people possibly exist without the specific language, communities, and technologies that exist today?
  • How could transgender people possibly exist before someone decided to call them transgender?
  • How could transgender people possibly exist before doctors “discovered” them and diagnosed them?
  • How could transgender people possibly exist before they were able to engage with one another publicly?
  • How could transgender people possibly exist before contemporary innovations to technologies that allow them to transition, such as modern surgery or hormone replace therapy?

Similar arguments have been made time and again against investigating queerness (particularly gay men and lesbian women) in the Middle Ages: claiming that looking for queer or trans folk in the past is anachronistic. The tacit hope seems to be that gayness or trans-ness are not an inextricable part of humanity or gender diversity. This makes it possible to fantasize about going back in time to when “men were men” and “women were women”—or conversely that we might move forward in time to an era in which trans-ness and queerness are eradicated. Again, you can easily imagine people waxing nostalgic about a time before punk rock, or people desperately awaiting the time that super-hero fatigue does away with all these annoyingly formulaic movies.

A population map of medieval Western European cities in circa 1300. From: Cesaretti R, Lobo J, Bettencourt LMA, Ortman SG, Smith ME (2016) Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0162678. Click for the original article.

But contrary to these retrograde fantasies, transgender people are not going away, and there is no time to retreat to where they did not exist. In fact, based on the numbers in the studies above, you can roughly estimate the number of medieval people who may have embodied trans or intersex traits in the Middle Ages. For example, one demographer of medieval Europe estimated that there were 19 million people living in France and the Low Countries (now the Netherlands and Belgium) in 1340. If approximately 0.6% of adults are trans, and 1/2000 of adults are intersex, that gives us a figure of about 114,000 trans people, and 9,500 intersex people living in 14th century France.

That’s a lot of people. Proportionally, it would have been relatively small—but not insignificant. It would certainly have been significant for those people’s experiences in the past, and definitely significant enough not to ignore or erase them in the present.

Gender Dysphoria in the Middle Ages

So, how could trans people exist without the specific language, communities, and technologies that are today allowing transgender people to become articulated in a socially noticeable way? It requires a bit of explanation, because they require us to learn a lot about transgender people and a lot about medieval people.

It is difficult to get a sense of the internal psychology of persons within medieval texts. But the short definition of gender dysphoria within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describes a pattern which does not require a significant degree of penetration into a person’s internal life:

there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed / experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. (DSM-5)

This short diagnosis reveals that the conflict described is more external than internal, more primarily a social conflict than a psychological one. Granted, the longer form of the diagnosis in the DSM-5 goes on at length about the various associated psychological effects and patterns, but the short version puts the emphasis on a “self/society” problem. Society designates a gender for the person; the person’s expressed or experienced gender contradicts that designation. Furthermore, the DSM-5 stresses that there be a “marked” difference. Meaning, there needs to be signs that a reader (e.g. a psychologist or historian) could see for the pattern of gender dysphoria. One such case in medieval Europe is that of Eleanor Rykener.

Gender Dysphoria and Eleanor Rykener

The medieval court case of Eleanor Rykener shows a legal system that is trying to square a person who lives as a woman, and calls herself Eleanor, with other information that leads the court to identify Eleanor as a man named John. In the testimony of this late 14th century London trial, Eleanor is brought into the courts on accusations of sexual misconduct—she was caught in the act performing sex work. However, sex work was often tolerated in London at this time; the problem is not the sex work. The problem is that the court does not know whether or not sodomy was committed.

The court does not know, or rather cannot decide, because they cannot decide whether or not Eleanor is a man or a woman. She gives her name as Eleanor, and presents as a woman to the courts. But after interrogation, she is forced to confess that she once lived in London as a man named John. She tells the story of her transition, and her new work as a seamstress and sex worker. She discusses sleeping with both men and women—from aristocrats to nuns and priests—some of whom offered her pay or presents.

In the end, a verdict is not recorded. Indeed, while the text records both the names “Eleanor” and “John,” it is written in Latin, which allowed for the proceedings to continue without the male or female pronouns frequently required by English or French. The court, it seems, did not want to decide on a pronoun because they were still trying to decide what gender to consider Eleanor. Thus, history is left with a record of a trans woman, and also a record of the conflict which is textbook gender dysphoria: a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender, and the gender others would assign to him or her.

Transitioning in the Middle Ages

If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This recognition of patterns is important to scholars of the past as we try to make sense of our fragmentary and foreign pasts. When meanings are ambiguous, looking at how things, or people, function in their environment can help. This is true for transgender people today and in the past. Even as trans people may be separated by time and space, language and culture, they can learn a lot from one another through the technologies that they share to live their lives. Whether one calls themselves transgender, non-binary, gender queer, gender fluid, or a drag queen, one can learn from other people who have developed tools and strategies for gender transitioning. Indeed, if you trace the histories of these technologies and tactics, a trans history of gender transitioning is revealed without needing to make definitive claims about the specific people using them.

Silence, as a child, between two minstrels. c.1275, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r.

One of the technologies that facilitates gender transitioning—both now and in the Middle Ages—is clothing. Clothing is profoundly gendered in our society as well as past societies. For example, medieval men often used armor and swords to physically and socially construct their gender. These allowed them to physically engage in certain forms of masculine society (i.e. taking a hit from a lance), or to socially perform certain tropes of masculinity (i.e. courtly romance). A clear example of this is in the medieval chivalric story, the Roman de Silence. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Silence tells the story of a heroic person who is born female and assigned female by “Nature” but who decides to live as a man after consultation with the forces of “Nurture” and “Reason.” He then is raised as a knight, is trained as a minstrel, and has several heroic adventures. It deserves its own article, but suffice it to say, dressing as a man was an essential part to Silence being not just a man, but an exemplary one.

Transgender Medieval Monks

St. Marinos the Monk, holding his child.

Likewise, some medieval people used habits—meaning monk’s or nun’s habits—to physically affect their bodies (e.g. by covering it from sight) and to perform social affects (e.g. modesty). A historical example of habits being used for gender transition comes to us through the story of the Life of St. Marinos the Monk. Marinos is an early Christian figure, who has been canonized both in the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to tradition, passed down through story, relics, and shrines, Marinos was assigned female at birth but chose to enter a monastery and live as a monk.

As he was contemplating his transition, his father warned him that his body (especially his genitals) would get him in trouble. Yet Marinos responded to this concern by putting on a monk’s habit, which not only covered over his genitals with clothing but covered over any sort of reproductive sexual life with the veil of celibacy. After all, if monks were to be modest and abstain from sexual encounters, what difference did it make what form of genitals he had under his habit? Funny enough, Marinos was ejected from the monastery for a time; he was kicked out not because he had a vagina (this was only discovered after his death) but because it was believed that he possessed a penis—and that he used it to impregnate a local girl. In fact, after the child was born, Marinos was given the boy to raise as his own. At this point, if Marinos’s clothing was merely a disguise, it had long since lost its usefulness. If his identity as a monk, and as a man was not so important, then Marinos could have easily taken off his habit and revealed his genitals to demonstrate his innocence. Yet Marinos held onto his monk’s habit and male identity. He took on the additional role of father, until eventually he was allowed back into the monastery along with his adopted son. In the end, Marinos remained a man, monk, and father until his death all because of the clothing which had allowed him to transition, and which he would not surrender even in moments of danger.

Transphobia in the Middle Ages

When history presents us with a lack of marginalized voices, we should ask: what has compelled this silence? This applies to transgender people in the Middle Ages. At times, we may wish that certain historical figures or historians could say more that would confirm what we want to hear about transgender life in the Middle Ages. Yet, when our desires are met with silence or deflection in the sources, we can nonetheless turn our attentions to the social conditions that would compel this silence. We can ask: what does transphobia look like in our histories? Furthermore, how might transphobic historians have added—or currently be adding—to the erasure of trans voices?

A 15th century miniature of Joan of Arc.

Ironically, you can sometimes discern the unarticulated presence of transgender life by the articulated presence of transphobia. Take, for instance, the case of St. Joan of Arc. Made famous for taking on men’s clothing and doing battle with the English during the Hundred Years’ War, Joan was eventually captured, interrogated, and killed. Interestingly, while Joan was seized by the English for being a warrior and leader of the French forces, this is not why Joan was killed. The Trial and Interrogation of Joan of Arc focuses less on Joan’s military exploits against the English government and more on Joan’s gender. It is heresy, claimed the English, for a woman to wear men’s clothing. They accused Joan of being a witch or a heretic because Joan’s masculine presentation seemed to defy their biased understanding of scripture. In the end, after many exchanges back and forth, and after refusing to eschew men’s clothing once and for all—or to condemn the wearing of men’s clothing—Joan was burned to death.

Some would debate passionately over whether or not Joan of Arc was transgender in the same way that modern trans men in the military understand themselves to be. For many, this is because Joan is often held up as evidence that “women can do a man’s job.” On one hand, Joan regularly self-identifies as a “maid.” But Joan spoke very carefully in the trial;  Joan’s actions and carefully chosen words make it debatable whether Joan, if alive today, might identify as trans or perhaps even non-binary. But that is complicated enough to be the subject of its own article.

It is enough to say for now that Joan may not have had much liberty to speak candidly about gender and identity. The whole focus on the trial was trying to catch Joan making an unorthodox or heretical claim. Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it.


For much of the public, the short answer to whether or not transgender people existed in the Middle Ages is sufficient to affirm or annoy their preexisting biases towards transgender people today. For those who deny that transgender is anything more than a post-modern lifestyle, any answer beyond “no” might be dismissed as a bias of a supposed “transgender agenda.” For those who affirm transgender as an essential part of human diversity, the answer “yes” is taken as obvious.

Yet, the longer answer—one that focuses on “how” medieval transgender lives existed, is far more interesting to me than “whether” medieval transgender people existed. Because the “how” of medieval transgender life is as vast and diverse as its modern counterpart. It is full of those cultural genealogies that inform human culture and expression today. And it is riven with the battle grounds between self and society, body and culture, that seem to be bottomless wells of philosophical insights and debates.

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.

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

My Fair Lady? How We Think About Medieval Women

This is part 2 of The Public Medievalist‘s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Yvonne Seale. You can find the rest of our series here.

“Lady” is a simple word. But it can be used to mean very different things. It’s a standard way to refer to a woman; it is often used to confer a measure of social approval. But it’s got a broad range of meanings. “Lady” can imply an aristocratic title and tiara. Or, it can be used to describe someone who scrubs toilets for a living (a “cleaning lady”).

The word can coyly refer to a romantic partner (“my lady friend”) or to a sex worker (“a lady of the night”). It was one of my late grandmother’s highest compliments (“she has beautiful manners; she’s a real lady.”) But the word had very different connotations during the Middle Ages, connotations that we have to be aware of when we think about the distant past and how it relates to the present.

Why Medieval Whiteness Matters

One of those connotations concerns race. I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “lady” in light of a roundtable discussion on medieval religion that I attended at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. One of the panelists urged that medievalists be more mindful of the ways in which they assume “whiteness” and “Christianity” to be neutral defaults. This got some pushback in the question-and-answer session; it’s all well and good to acknowledge race from a theoretical perspective, one commenter said. But what practical use is it to talk about black people if you study thirteenth-century Bohemia?

This logical leap is one that crops up in many contexts when people think and talk about the Middle Ages—a jump from a simple reminder that “modern ideas about race shape how we view the distant past” to “there is no need to think about race and the Middle Ages because there were no black people in medieval Bohemia.”—which is, in itself, not necessarily true.

Talking about race and the Middle Ages is often framed as impractical or irrelevant—but it’s only possible to do so if you ignore the fact that “white” is a racial category in itself. Whiteness shapes how white people—whether scholars or otherwise—view the past. As film studies scholar Richard Dyer noted in his book White (1997),

as long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.

Despite decades of activism and increasingly vocal protest about racial injustice, there’s still little push for white people to think about how their race shapes their daily lives. White people are rarely required to think about how their whiteness informs their view of history—although, of course, it does. Popular understandings of the Middle Ages in particular are still grounded in nineteenth- and early-twentieth century research, research that was invested in valorising whiteness.

The “Disneyfication” of the Medieval Lady

One of the ways in which we can see this most clearly is to look at the idea of the “lady.” After all, the lady—and one of her sub-categories, the “damsel in distress”—is a stock character in the modern imagination of the Middle Ages. Medieval ladies in the popular imagination are marked out by their physical appearance (pretty, slender, white, usually blonde) and their passivity.  They wear flowing gowns and elaborate headgear.

As a brief aside, the cone-shaped hennin hat that has become a visual shorthand for “medieval princess” was only worn in Europe at the very end of the Middle Ages. This symbol of white femininity may well have originated in Asia as a fashion among Mongol princesses, and been brought back west with by Marco Polo.

This romance novel cover, with its depiction of the grateful lady kissing the hand of her stoic, knightly rescuer, is typical of the genre. However, the cover art was apparently selected in ignorance of the homoerotic overtones of Mary F. Raphael’s “Britomart and Amoret” (1897)—Britomart is a woman cross-dressing as a knight.

This image of white aristocratic femininity is reproduced over and over again in modern depictions of the Middle Ages. For example, there’s a whole genre of romance novels that slap images like this on the cover, a quick way of advertising the content within: a medieval heroine who is usually virginal and upper class, and a rescuing hero who is a “chivalrous,” romanticised knight. The blurbs of these books talk about “hot-blooded warriors” and “courtly lovers,” about women who are helpless to refuse the honourable “protector” who has “the power of life and death over [their] family.” In a similar vein, Disney animated movies— from Snow White (1937) to Tangled (2010)— feature “Princess” heroines who inhabit generic medievalesque landscapes, and whose virtuous purity is rewarded with a heterosexual love interest and a “happily-ever-after” ending. As scholar Clare Bradford points out, no matter how spirited these heroines are, they can’t escape the “hazy romanticism” of Disney’s “modern medievalism.”

True, some books and movies try to subvert these tropes. Modern fantasy novels set in a quasi-medieval Europe often conjure up gritty worlds with a “general condition of female disenfranchisement” in order to make their female protagonists stand out: think of Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, or the woman of your choice in A Song of Ice and Fire (or its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones). They’re not like those other princesses—they’re tough, and muddy. They’re oppressed, but they’re defiant. It’s difficult to get away from the dominant pop culture ideas. The live-action Disney movie Enchanted (2007) was a successful satire of traditional Disney tropes about princesses, but it only worked because of how familiar and compelling those tropes are.

The Long Shadow of the Victorians

A painting of two people, a woman in a blue medievalesque dress, and a man wearing a red tunic and medieval armor. They are in a small spiral staircase, and the man is leaning on the woman's arm.
Frederic William Burton, “The Meeting on the Turret Stairs” (1864), now at the National Gallery of Ireland. Click for the original at the National Gallery of Ireland.

The ideas that animate Harlequin romance novels, Game of Thrones, and Disney movies alike can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Look at the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and others influenced by them—works like John William Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” (1888) and Frederic William Burton’s “The Meeting on the Turret Stairs” (1864)—and you’ll see some very familiar figures. These canvases reflect popular Victorian understandings of medieval ladies: passive, slender, aristocratic, the objects of knightly devotion. These women have never laboured in the fields with sunburned necks or callused hands. Their clothing and flowing hairstyles are eclectic, designed more to make nineteenth-century audiences think about a distant, misty, heroic past than to accurately reproduce any given moment in the Middle Ages. And, they are, invariably, white.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These paintings were produced when European imperialism was at its zenith; when Darwinian theories of evolution were twisted to justify colonialism and social hierarchies based on race; and when a supposed early-medieval “Teutonic”—or Germanic—ancestry for the white Protestant populations of Britain and North America was claimed to be the reason for the explosive economic growth of those regions. They were also painted at the same time that white people in Europe and the Americas were enjoying steadily increasing standards of living—in large part thanks to the backbreaking, and often coerced, labour of those in colonised places. Black and brown women helped to shape history, but Victorian society excluded them from the category of “lady” because of the colour of their skin.

Nineteenth-century thinkers drew on the medieval past in order to justify racial and class inequities, or burgeoning notions of nationalism. These thinkers racialised the medieval lady. They idealised her as white, passive, and unsuited to manual labour. In doing so, they made her into a rationale as to why her elite, white, female descendants could sip tea in parlours while brown and black women toiled in the fields—or in their houses—to bring them that tea. The status quo was given such a venerable heritage that it was made to seem natural, even inevitable. Such ideas were then, and are now, pervasive and insidious. They were absorbed by white women, by Disney animators, by the makers of Halloween costumes, and even by those who write histories.

But what happens if we take the medieval lady off her pedestal? What kind of woman do we see inhabiting the Middle Ages if we try to peel off the Victorian veneer of chivalry and politesse? Does looking at what medieval people actually did in the past tell us something about our own assumptions concerning race and gender? In part, this is a process where we have to reconsider the language we use. What do we mean by “lady”? What did medieval people mean by the term? Or, rather, since most texts produced in western Europe in the Middle Ages were written in Latin, what were the connotations which they associated with the word domina?

Making a “Lady”

Perseus saves Andromeda from a sea serpent. British Library, Ms. Harley 4431, f.98v. Click for the original at the British Library.

The first key difference is that the modern English word “lady” simply doesn’t have the aura of power which the Latin word domina did in the Middle Ages. A domina was a woman with authority and moral rectitude in her own right,  not simply the consort or complement to a dominus (lord). A domina (and holders of other Latin titles applied to women in medieval records, like comitissa, vicedomina or legedocta) administered estates and adjudicated legal disputes. It did not matter whether she held her title by inheritance or through marriage. Those who held titles in their own right, or those who were widowed, could exercise significant power over fiefs and vassals.

For example, when Matilda, countess of Tuscany (1046-1115), was referred to as domina, it was because she controlled a large swathe of northern Italy. She was the mediator during the famous meeting between Pope Gregory VII and the German emperor Henry IV at her great fortress of Canossa. In doing so, she influenced the outcome of a major medieval power struggle. On his accession to the throne in 1199, King John of England installed his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1122-1204), as domina of the French territory of Poitou and gave her authority in all of his lands—a tacit acknowledgement of her political skill. Eleanor even managed to expand queenly authority in some ways. She seems to be the first queen of England after the Norman Conquest to have regularly collected the “queen’s gold”, a one-tenth share of some of the legal fines paid to the king. This gave her a valuable (and somewhat independent) source of revenue—and with money comes power. As a more modest example, one contemporary of Matilda of Tuscany’s was a woman named Mahild of Alluyes, domina of a far smaller territory in northern France. She  wasn’t a player in papal or imperial politics. Yet as wife and widow, she oversaw the affairs of her vassals and witnessed charters which they drew up in the chapter house of the nearby abbey of Marmoutier, which gave her considerable influence over their lives. And there are many, many more dominae in the sources.

A medieval manuscript with three figures. On the left, a man with a bishop's crozier dressed in red, and another man in a blue tunic kneeling. On the right, a woman in a wimple and a gold cloak.
The German Emperor Henry IV kneels at the feet of Hugh, abbot of the powerful French monastery of Cluny, and Matilda, countess of Tuscany. Biblioteca Vaticana, Cod. Vat. lat. 4922.

Medieval aristocratic women were sometimes seen as passive by their male contemporaries; those with power who broke this mould were sometimes described in plainly misogynistic terms. But equally, their deeds could be lauded. For example, one of the great chroniclers of the early twelfth century, the Anglo-Norman Orderic Vitalis, wrote that the French noblewoman Isabel of Conches was “lovable and estimable to those around her.” He complimentarily said that she “rode armed as a knight among the knights”, and compared her favourably with Amazon queens. Matilda of Boulogne (ca. 1105-1152), queen of King Stephen of England, was one of her husband’s most capable partisans during the Anarchy—the period of civil war that tore twelfth-century England apart. Not only did she head the government during her husband’s captivity, but proved herself a capable military commander. She directed troops into battle at the so-called Rout of Winchester and arranged for her husband’s release when he was captured. A generation or so later, the English countess Petronella of Leicester (ca. 1145-1212) participated alongside her husband in the Revolt of 1173-74; she gave her husband military advice, rode armed onto the battlefield, and was even wearing armour when captured. These actions may not have been normal behaviour for a domina—administration and adjudication were more usual. But they were still within the bounds of possible behaviour for a medieval woman without endangering her status as a “lady.”

The Matildas, Mahild, Eleanor, Isabel, and Petronella: it is hard to imagine any of these dominae as the subject of a Waterhouse painting or the centrepiece of a Disney movie. They weren’t always victorious or virtuous; they could be ambitious and high-handed and hold ideas which most people today would find distasteful. And yet, whether medieval chroniclers approved or disapproved of these women individually, they didn’t think the very fact that they were active, decisive, and opinionated was out of the ordinary. Neither should you.

Rethinking Our Assumptions

A medieval queen with blonde hair and black skin. She wears a green dress; in one hand she holds a gold orb, and in the other, a gold scepter.
The Queen of Sheba. From a Bohemian manuscript, ca. 1402-05. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 2 Cod. Ms. Philos. 63, Cim., fol. 122r.

Nor would the colour of their skin have been thought a defining aspect of their status as a lady. There was certainly prejudice about skin colour in the Middle Ages. The relatively small number of non-white people in northern Europe means that we can’t definitively point to a woman of colour exercising political power there. But things were slightly different in southern Europe, in areas like Iberia—modern Spain and Portugal—which was long home to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations of multi-ethnic heritage. While there were religious prohibitions against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, there are some scattered examples of intermarriages between dynasties in the early Middle Ages: Muslim women of north African or Arab descent marrying into northern, Christian royal families. For instance, Uriyah, a daughter of the prominent Banū Qasī dynasty, married a son of the king of the northern Spanish kingdom of Navarre; Fruela II, king of Asturias, married another Banū Qasī woman called Urraca. Their ancestry doesn’t seem to have posed a barrier.

Western Europeans may have only rarely had direct contact with non-white female rulers further afield—like the powerful Arwa bint Asma, queen of Yemen (r. 1067-1138)—but when they did, it could be in dramatic fashion. Shajar al-Durr, sultana of Egypt (d. 1257), famously captured Louis IX of France during the Seventh Crusade and ransomed him for an eye-wateringly large sum.

While historical examples of women of colour exercising prominent roles in Europe during the Middle Ages are few in number, skin colour didn’t limit the imaginations of white medieval Europeans. Medieval people often had clear anxieties about skin colour and blackness, but despite this racism they could still envision a brown- or black-skinned woman as a member of the upper classes, just as they did the white-skinned Mahild or Isabel. For example, the early thirteenth-century German epic poem Parzival centres on the eponymous hero and his quest for the Holy Grail. Parzival has a half-brother, the knight Feirefiz, who is mixed-race. His mother, Belacane, is the black queen of the fictional African kingdoms of Zazamanc and Azagouc; the narrative praises her beauty and her regal bearing. As another example, a Middle Dutch poem written about the same time, Morien, recounts the story of the handsome, noble knight Morien, “black of face and of limb,” whose father Sir Aglovale fell in love with his “lady mother,” a Moorish princess.

The Queen of Sheba and her courtiers meet King Solomon in this fourteenth-century Biblia Pauperum, a kind of picture bible. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1198 Han, f.2r. Click to see the original at Vivarium.

However, the most vivid example is provided by medieval depictions of the biblical Queen of Sheba. Scholars think the historical Sheba likely lay somewhere in southwestern Arabia; other traditions place the kingdom in east Africa. Regardless of the queen’s historicity, various traditions grew up around her in the Middle Ages. Some of the most popular of these claimed that she had a son by the biblical king Solomon. She frequently appears alongside him in art, in elegantly draped garb as on the late twelfth-century Verdun Altar, or accompanied by courtiers as in an early fourteenth-century German illustrated bible: a beautiful black woman and a regal queen. When you think of a medieval “lady”—you could do worse than to think of her.

What Lady Should Mean

All of this should prompt us to look again, to reconsider how racialized Victorian ideals of womanhood still impact us—both in contemporary popular culture and also in our understandings of the medieval past. When we think about the Middle Ages, we should consider the impact of race, and especially whiteness, on how we think about it. That is not necessarily because our medieval forebears did so, but because our nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ones did so very much.

The idea of the “lady” was one of the useful fictions which they and others employed, glorifying white, upper-class womanhood as an apex of western achievement. This helped to make existing racial and imperial hierarchies seem like they had such a long history that they must be innate, biological: a simple fact of life. But it was a fiction, and a harmful one. If we are to better understand the medieval past, it is one we must set aside.

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.

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

A Medieval #MeToo

This is part 1 of The Public Medievalist‘s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Lucia Akard. You can find the other parts of our series here.

When people ask me what I study, I try to reduce it down to “the Middle Ages.” Because nothing stops a dinner conversation faster than saying you study survivor responses to rape in medieval France.

No one wants to talk about rape. It make them uncomfortable, squeamish even. Despite the recent #MeToo movement, people still don’t want to talk about it. And they often can’t imagine why I—why anyone—would study such a thing. But the question I get most often isn’t typically about the personal difficulty of studying horrific violence. Instead, I get: “Well didn’t it just happen all the time back then?”

There are a few ways I answer this. First of all, given how scattered the legal record for France is during the 14th and 15th centuries, it’s difficult to come up with a figure for how many people experienced rape in their lifetime (like the 1 in 6 figure commonly cited for the proportion of American women who do today). Moreover, rape certainly happened frequently, but the medieval definition of rape was much narrower than modern feminist definitions, and so finding evidence in the archives can be difficult. Rape was also under-reported, as it is now. But perhaps the best answer I could give, and the one I should start giving, is this: “Well, it happens all the time now too.”

Medieval Rape: Too Common to Matter?

“After being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, Lucretia takes her own life.” Boccaccio Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes. New York Public Library, MS Spencer 33, f25r,. Click for the original.

People who ask this question are implying that medieval rape is not worth studying because it was simply a fact of life. In saying that it “just happened all the time back then,” or in making similar assumptions, the modern is placed ahead of the medieval. The Middle Ages are assumed by many to have been backwards and brutal. In comparison, the modern era is cultured and enlightened. This is vastly untrue, but the myth persists nevertheless. As a result, many people assume that sexual violence was so widespread in the Middle Ages that it ceased to matter. What follows from this is the idea that rape happened so frequently that women began to expect it, and even accept it as a fact of life. But the popular belief that rape was widespread, expected, and acceptable in the Middle Ages has an even more ominous implication: that sexual violence against women is somehow a natural state of human affairs.

The fact is, women have been speaking up and speaking out about rape for a long, long time, and it still feels as if no one is listening. The #MeToo movement was started in 2007 by feminist Tarana Burke as a way to show solidarity with black women and girls who had experienced sexual assault. It has since exploded in popularity. In 2017 the hashtag gained popularity on twitter as survivors of sexual assault and harassment began using it as they shared their stories. Celebrity features in the movement, with film mogul Harvey Weinstein being one of the first accused, by over 80 women. The likes of Kevin Spacey, Ed Westwick, and many other have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual violence by people sharing their stories under this hashtag. Larry Nassar, a prominent doctor in the field of women’s gymnastics, was accused of sexual assault by over 150 young women and girls. Junot Diaz, who penned an article in The New Yorker about his own experience with rape, has now been accused by one woman of forcibly kissing her and by two others of aggressive behavior. Politicians, including Democratic senator Al Franken, former Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore, and former president George H.W. Bush, have been accused of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and assault of underage girls, and inappropriate touching, respectively.

And of course, recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of attempted rape by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, sexual misconduct by Deborah Ramirez, and participating in gang rape by Julie Swetnik.

#MeToo has given victims and survivors a space to share their stories. Though the court of public opinion is not always kind or receptive, #MeToo has demonstrated that there is strength in numbers. And it has also started a growing, worldwide, much-needed conversation about sexual assault and rape. This conversation particularly focuses on how ubiquitous rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are in the world today: almost every woman you know has a story. In this way, women’s lives are not so different in the present as they were in the past.

The Medieval Resistance

“The Galatian Queen holds a knife to her rapist’s throat.” Boccaccio Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes. The New York Public Library, MS Spencer 33, f44r. Click for the original.

Plenty of women spoke out against rape in the Middle Ages, though just like now, they had to struggle to be heard. Medieval courts often let rapists go with little explanation and placed the burden of proof on the victim, as demonstrated by several cases in this register from 14th century Paris. In one instance, chambermaid Eudelot la Picarde accused her employer Guillaume Damours of raping her, and the court tasked her with producing witnesses, to which she responded that there were none. La Picarde failed to appear in court at the next date (perhaps because she knew she had no proof) and Damours was absolved. In another case, Jacqueline la Cyrière was accused of luring ten-year-old Jeannette Bille-heuse into her home and then aiding a Lombard soldier in raping the child. The court does not explain what happens to the soldier who actually committed the crime of rape, and focuses all its attention on La Cyrière, who is sentenced to burn at the stake.

A few cases stand out as exceptions. In 1385, Perrote Turelure was pardoned via a letter of remission by the king’s court for killing a squire named Brunet. Brunet had been pursuing her relentlessly, and eventually broke into her home and tried to rape her. Turelure killed him in order to avoid being raped. It is stated that Turelure “refused for fear of the harm done to her body and rape” and “feared the dishonor, shame and corruption of the virginity of her body and to be dishonored or dead.”

At first, Turelure’s case looks like a success story. But why was she pardoned, and why was her use of physical force against her attacker such a crucial factor?

The clearest rape law that we have from medieval France stresses the importance of a woman forcefully resisting rape: “To force a woman is when someone has carnal intercourse by force with a woman against the will of said woman and when she does everything in her power to defend herself.” (This definition bears startling similarity to the one used by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system prior to 2013). By this medieval definition, if a victim did not resist verbally and physically, there was little way to prove she had been raped. In court, a victim would be questioned repeatedly to gain a sense of how physical and verbal her resistance was. Turelure’s resistance was considered so valiant that the king’s court pardoned her for the murder of her attacker and attempted to clear away any of the damage done to her reputation by the attempted rape (underscoring how suffering sexual violence could ruin a woman’s life).

Some women found their reputations so damaged by having been raped that they were forced into prostitution; there was little other space for them in society. If they could not get married due to the loss of their virginity, then they had to find the means to support themselves elsewhere. Turlure’s response to the rape was perhaps only acceptable because of who she was—a woman with an honest reputation who in the court’s eyes understood the value of her virginity and took steps to protect it.

Similarly, in 1386, Marguerite de Thibouville spoke of her lengthy resistance to rape to the Paris Parlement court. She testified that she repeatedly cried out, beat her attacker Jacques le Gris with her fists, and barricaded herself in another room. She is said to have “continued to scream” throughout the attack and Le Gris is quoted as saying that he “never met a stronger woman.” Her strong resistance, and the fact that the attacker broke into her home, is likely why the court granted her husband’s wish for a trial by combat, during which he executed Le Gris. De Thibouville’s forceful resistance was also a marker of her good, honest character, and her chastity as a married woman. Turelure’s case demonstrates something similar, for there is hardly a stronger sign of resistance than killing one’s attacker.

A Medieval Rape Catch-22

“Daphne transformed into a laurel tree, with Apollo touching her leaves.” Pizan’s version intentionally leaves out the rape aspect of this myth. Christine de Pizan, “The Book of the Queen.” British Library, Harley MS 4431 f134v. Click for the original.

These two cases reveal an apparent contradiction in medieval French society, and, I think, in our own as well. If it is acceptable for a woman to kill the man who has attempted to rape her, then it follows that the rapist has committed an egregious wrong-doing, justifying his murder. So far, so good (more or less). Brunet bears the guilt for what occurs, not Turelure—despite the fact that he is the one who ends up dead. One would think this relationship could be true in the reverse: since Brunet, or any rapist, bears the blame for the violent crime, then the victim shoulders none of it. In other words, victim blaming shouldn’t be possible when the rapist is explicitly held accountable both by the would-be victim and the court. But we know that Turelure’s and De Thibouville’s cases are the exception rather than the rule, and more often than not medieval women were blamed for the crime committed against them.

Although these women may sound heroic (and in some ways they certainly are), there is a darker side to female self-defense. Rapist seek to subjugate their victims, making them relinquish control over their bodies and wills. Medieval courts demanded that the victims be active enough participants in the rape to not only resist it thoroughly but to stop it from happening at all. Then, as now, women were expected to be good rape victims. Turelure was only pardoned because she proved, within a shadow of a doubt, her desire to protect her virginity, and thus her status as an honorable woman.

But what happened to women whose resistance wasn’t as successful or forceful? And what happens to them now?     

In asking women to resist rape forcefully, we acknowledge it as a heinous crime or violent action that should thus be met with equal violence from its victims. And yet, we do not treat rape like a heinous crime. We have simultaneously classified rape as something terrible—the worst thing that can happen to a woman—and then we continuously fail to treat it as such. For example, despite how “convincing” and “persuasive” Dr. Ford’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee was, despite how eager to please she may have seemed, despite how thoughtfully she answered each question—Brett Kavanaugh was still confirmed. A man’s career was prioritized over a woman’s clear and honest pain. Even in the era of #MeToo, few rapists are held accountable, and a survivor’s trauma is not enough to stop a man from holding one of the highest positions in the American government.

And people still have a tendency to question survivors endlessly when they do come forward. Dr. Ford’s memory was called into question, she was asked why she didn’t tell her parents what had happened, she was asked if she was truly afraid of flying, she was asked if she had a political motive for coming forwards. Of course, Dr. Ford agreed to be questioned, and it was the job of prosecutor hired to do so. But what of the many survivors who watched the hearing and were reminded of the times when they had been questioned about their stories, when their credibility had been picked apart, and when they had been accused of seeking attention? When we interrogate survivors about their stories, what we are really asking is “Are you the type of woman who could be raped? Are you the type of woman who would lie? Was what you experienced actually even rape?”

Take the case of Aziz Ansari. In 2018, the comedian known for his roles in Parks and Recreation and Master of None, was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman identified as Grace. According to an account of the encounter published on, Grace and Aziz went on a date, and afterwards went to his apartment. Grace reported that almost immediately upon entering the apartment Aziz began kissing and undressing her, and told her he was going to get a condom. Grace reported having said, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.” But, allegedly, Aziz didn’t. He followed her around the room as she repeatedly tried to get away from him, and he ignored the fact that she stopped responding to his advances.

Grace reported that she explicitly said she “didn’t want to feel forced.” And allegedly Aziz reacted in what seemed like an understanding manner, saying that it was only fun if they were both enjoying it. And yet, he reportedly did not stop his advances, pointing at his crotch for her to perform oral sex on him, despite the fact that moments earlier Grace reported she had explicitly expressed discomfort. It allegedly continued like that, with Grace voicing and showing her resistance and Aziz pursuing her anyways, until she eventually left. She reported crying in the taxi on the way home.

Whether this was a case of sexual assault was not universally agreed upon by the public. In particular, Bari Weiss wrote an opinion piece titled “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” in which the she accused Grace of not saying no loudly enough and categorized what happened to her as “bad sex.” Headline News host Ashleigh Banfield said, “By your own clear description, this was not a rape, nor was it a sexual assault. By your description, your sexual encounter was unpleasant,” and suggested that Grace should have left Aziz’s apartment as soon as she felt uncomfortable.

A Forceful Resistance

The reactions to Grace’s case remind me of the medieval rape laws that classified the crime as necessarily violent and made the woman’s forceful resistance key in proving a crime had occurred. Women should not have to scream “No!” at the top of our lungs in order for our sexual partners to listen to us. Nor should we, like Perrote Turelure was, be forced to physically attack our would-be rapists. How was Grace to know that Aziz would have let her leave had she tried sooner? He seemed to ignore every other physical and verbal cue she gave him. What is to say that he would not have become violent or angry? What is to say that he would not have outright raped her? Grace reported feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, the clear victim in this situation. It was up to Aziz not to sexually assault her, not for Grace to avoid it.

Women have been saying “Me too” for centuries. And we may think that now is the moment we are finally beginning to listen, that now is the time of revolution. But when we start demanding a specific type of resistance from victims of sexual assault, and when we continuously put them on trial at the court of public opinion, we prove ourselves to be no better than medieval courts. We prove ourselves to be medieval when we demand women demonstrate their extreme physical resistance to rape as well as their honest reputations in order to be believed.

The point is not that we should be better than medieval people, but that it is a fallacy to continue to view ourselves as such. It has been shown, time and again, that the worst aspects of the Middle Ages, at least in terms of sexual violence, have endured thoroughly, quietly, and with little change.

If we want to be better than our medieval forebears, and if we want to be better than we currently are, we need to start by listening to survivors without judgment.

If you or someone you know has experienced rape or sexual assault, don’t hesitate to get help. Contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) 800.656.HOPE,

Me Too Movement:

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.

read more
Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages: No More Fairy Tales

We are standing in a crucial moment. Far right, populist leaders have swept into power on a rising tide of misogyny, racism, white nationalism, and xenophobia. Their supporters lash out with increasing violence at those who strive for equality in the face of entrenched power.

Over the past few weeks in the United States, those who would set social progress back have shown their teeth. When protests erupted over a Supreme Court nominee credibly accused of multiple counts of sexual assault—a nominee also with a well-established record of hostility to women’s rights—the response was snarling denial, possible perjury, and open mockery of the victim.

Heather Mac Donald, writing for the New York Post, knows exactly where to place the blame for Justice Kavanaugh’s conduct, and it’s not on Kavanaugh himself. Instead, the death of chivalry was to blame:

The sexual revolution declared that the traditional restraints on the male libido—norms of male chivalry and gentlemanliness and of female modesty and prudence—were patriarchal and oppressive.

Medievalists have seen this song and dance before.

The chivalric illusion dreamed up by people nostalgic for a more oppressive time is a fairy-tale version of gender, one imagined to be rooted in the Middle Ages. This medieval fairy tale relies on strict, binary gender roles: men were brave knights in shining armor; women were beautiful princesses longing to be rescued. Men were active, martial, and violent; women were passive, domestic, and social. Men were conquerors, women were conquered. It was a thousand-year pageant of chivalry and courtly love, and everyone fell neatly and quietly into one of two well-defined genders.

Well, we here at The Public Medievalist are overjoyed to call bullshit.

Battlefield Woman

A group of Amazon warriors as depicted in “Der naturen Bloeme” by Jakob van Maerlant. Made in Flanders or Utrecht, around 1350. The Hague, KB, KA 16, fol. 40r.

Modern fantasies of medieval chivalry imagine a world of vulnerable women who disappear behind the glorious exploits, or villainous intrigues, of men. Popular culture’s idea of the medieval past may not be “men only” in the same way that it is “whites only”—women do appear in our imagination of the Middle Ages. But they are limited to a few, restricted roles in medieval-themed entertainment: virgins, prostitutes, witches, queens, or victims.

As much as anything, this is a result of how the Middle Ages are portrayed in our culture. There have been decades of excellent, groundbreaking scholarship that has done away with those simplistic categories and elevated stories of remarkable women. But that shift has been slow to filter into curricula and textbooks, and slower still to be seen in popular culture. You don’t have to be a misogynist to think that medieval women’s lives were a thousand-year tale of woe. You just have to watch TV.

Films and TV shows that depict the Middle Ages rarely pass the Bechdel test (which famously only requires two women to talk to each other about something other than a man). We have plenty of “exceptional women” in medieval fantasy settings—women like Game of Thrones’ chivalric warrior Brianne of Tarth, The Lord of the Rings’ shieldmaiden Éowyn, or the various “feisty” iterations of Maid Marian. But inevitably, those women are surrounded by hordes of other, nameless women exploited in the background, either as victims of violence or rewards for a man’s quest.

Pushback against these stereotypes, or any insertion of feminism into a medieval setting, is met with cries of “historical revisionism.” Some men seem terrified that their favorite things (video gamesStar Wars, and even medieval history) will be “ruined” by being made more inclusive. But few things draw the trolls out from under the bridge more than putting women on the battlefield. For example, the latest outcry has been over historical video game Total War: Rome II adding female generals, despite both the literary and historical lineage of women at war with Rome. But their rage about inclusivity is a tale even older than Gamergate, the 2014 explosion of misogynistic harassment that targeted women video game developers and journalists.

Kiera Knightley as Guinevere in the 2004 film King Arthur.

When the 2004 film King Arthur turned the (fictional) character Guinevere into a leather-clad warrior queen, the internet went up in arms in a totally predictable way. A now-defunct IMDB discussion board entitled “Guinevere as Warrior” was full of complaints before the movie even came out, labeling her character “a triumph for femenazism” [sic]. One user complained,

[Guinevere] happened not to be depicted as a warrior until the PC generation, and we’re supposed to swallow it whole and like it?

Most of the resistance was based on the perception of ahistoricity. This included vast, sweeping assertions about the roles of women, such as this gem:

In general, almost all women of ancient and medieval cultures subscribed to traditional gender roles, not only because of male chauvinism, but also unfortunate necessity. Life back in those times was much harder, and work was divided into what was thought best for each gender.

This person imagines medieval life as an ant colony, without room for diversity, choice or free will. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Others insisted that the movie’s “realism” had been compromised:

Its okay if Charlie´s Angels do rather unrealistic stuff, because that movie is meant to be hilarious.  But you cannot pretend to make a more “realistic” movie of the King Arthur legend and then drop in the en vogue, pc Warrior Woman.

There are myriad historical issues with this film. Not least is that it marketed itself as “the untold true story” of King Arthur (who is, himself, probably not real). But the (Badon) Hill this commenter chose to die on was women who fought. This is despite historical evidence of warrior-queens who inhabited the British Isles during the Roman occupation. And maybe the medieval literary Guinevere didn’t leap into battle with a flaming bow, but she did hold the Tower of London against Mordred’s invasion.

In fact, women have always been involved in war. This is true both in the twentieth century and in the twelfth. And the battlefield wasn’t the only place that women had power: they brewed beer, wrote books, led religious movements, healed people, and even ruled nations. Those who dismiss a broader range of roles for women as “activism” or “anachronism” refuse to acknowledge real women’s real experiences. They deny them the rich and varied lives led by actual, real people. And worse, they deny that women—past and present—have the capacity to learn, to grow, to fight, and to lead.

Medieval Transgender, Genderqueer, and Genderfluid People

Saint Theodora of Alexandria. Theodora joined a monastery and lived as a man for much of their life. Their biological sex was only discovered after death.

Perhaps even more conspicuous than the absence of women’s diverse lived experiences from popular medievalism is the complete erasure of transgender, genderqueer, and genderfluid medieval lives (note: for those not familiar with these terms or the distinctions among them, have a look at The Trevor Project’s helpful glossary here). These identities, which, collectively are often called “gender expansive” identities, have been systematically ignored to such a degree that you probably can’t think of a single medieval person who challenged gender norms, aside from Joan of Arc.

This is not, as some might tell you, because being gender expansive is a new thing. It’s not—though we now have words, social structures and technologies that better enable people to express their identities. For the past forty years, scholars have revealed that gender was not a strict binary for many medieval people. And exciting new work is being done today by scholars, reclaiming the lives of medieval people who, were they alive today, might not identify as cisgender.

Medieval literature and history is chock full of people interrogating their own gender identities. This runs the gamut from famous people, like St. Joan, to lesser-known literary heroes, like the protagonist of the 13th century tale Silence who is born anatomically female but asserts a male gender identity.

Despite this tectonic shift in scholarship about medieval gender identity, there has been a backlash from cultural reactionaries, who seek to erase transgender, genderqueer, or genderfluid lives from textbooks, denying people their history. Because if they have a history, then their lives demand to be seen not as some nouveau fad, but as part of the human condition. It’s a part of the human condition that deserves to be recognized to have the deep historical—even medieval—roots that it does.

Manly Medieval Men

A painting of Antarah bin Shadad, an adventurer of pre-Islamic Arabia. He was known for his skill as a poet as well as his heroics on the battlefield.

Even though masculinity seems to be privileged in our neomedieval fairy tales, these myths hurt men too. Medieval men, as they are often depicted or imagined today, typically represent the worst of toxic masculinity. Their power only exists through violence. The knight who rides across the countryside: he attacks other violent men in the name of his king,  or of a woman he worships, or just the abstract concept of “chivalry.” He uses his violence for good. But it is still violence. The other commonly available masculinity is the hyperviolent, ultra-masculine Viking, who makes his own rules, lives by the sword and uses his violence for personal gain.

In both, to be less than entirely violent is to be less than a man.

Popular medievalism offers only the narrowest versions of historical masculinity in which might makes right, conquest is success, and all relationships with women are, at best, transactional. The present-day men who wore homemade armor and waved neomedieval banners to “defend” a confederate statue at the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, and the gang of bearded, muscle bound white men who beat a black protester after the rally, are really two sides of the same toxic coin.

The truth is, neither of these masculinities tell us much about real medieval men. But medieval literature and history are full of men who break the mold: knights who weep and faint, gentle scholars and religious leaders, nurturing depictions of Christ, and men better known for their cleverness with a joke than for their skill with a sword. Medieval men, like modern men—and like medieval women and transgender, genderqueer, and genderfluid medieval people—led full, rich, and varied lives.

A New Series

A group of ladies defend themselves from the unwanted attention of a group of knights, in a marginal illustration in the Luttrell Psalter. BL Luttrell, 75v.

The goal of our Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages series was to dismantle the “whites only” idea of the medieval past. Our new series, Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, will tear down the sexist fairy tales at the heart of how many people see the Middle Ages today.

We aim to show how and where systems of gender oppression existed, and to also highlight stories of the women, men, and nonbinary people who surmounted them. Because in some ways, medieval people are more like us than we might like to admit, and the same goes for expected gender roles and oppressions. And just like us, medieval people bent the rules, broke the rules, and made entirely new rules that worked for them.

But there were fundamental differences we must acknowledge. Many aspects of gender are culturally specific. This means that the ways in which people understood—and performed—masculinities and femininities have changed over time. So, with our series we will also show the ways in which medieval gender roles and identities were nothing like ours. Because gender is complicated.

So, no more fairy tales. It’s time to tell some new stories.

read more