Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

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

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.

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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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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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

The Virgin Mary in Medieval Islam

This is Part 7 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Kathleen Crowther. You can find the rest of the series here.

The Christmas season is upon us in all its peppermint latte, Hallmark movie, ugly sweater glory. Despite hand-wringing by some conservative commentators over the “war on Christmas,” nativity scenes continue to hold their own alongside the more-secular signs of the season. Every one of these nativity scenes—from the 18th-century Neapolitan terra cotta crèche on display in the White House to this Fisher-Price Little People Nativity Playset—has a Virgin Mary gazing lovingly at her divine baby.

For some non-Muslims, it may come as a surprise that the Virgin Mary is revered by Muslims as well as by Christians. But the Virgin Mary (or Maryam, as she is known in Arabic) is one of the most venerated women in Islam, a status she has held since the founding of the religion in the seventh century.

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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.

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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…)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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