Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

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

Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

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

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


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

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

Every.

Single.

Person.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M: Thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Queer Asgard Folk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender-Bending Viking Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alfather’s Use of Women’s Magic

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Women in Men’s Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Rules are Made to be Broken

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

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

Werewolves as a Metaphor for Domestic Abusers

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

Why is there so much spousal abuse in medieval literature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie de France and the Cycle of Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

The Cycle of Abuse, chart by Avanduyn.

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

The Cases of Yonec and Bisclavret

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking Abuse

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

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

But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,

And, more than anything, that scares me

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

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

The lady heard this marvel, this wonder.

In terror she blushed all bright red,

Filled with fear by this adventure.

Often and often passed through her head

Plans to get right out, escape, for

She didn’t want ever to share his bed.

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

Inner Beasts

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

A garwolf [werewolf] is a savage beast,

While the fury’s on it, at least:

Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,

Living and roaming in the deep wood.


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had never loved him before this,

Nor let him think her love was his

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

A Culture of Violence

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

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

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

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

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


Resources for Domestic Violence Survivors

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Coalition against Domestic Violence

Pathways to Safety International

National Sexual Assault Hotline

National Organization for Victim Assistance

Want to Learn More?

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

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

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

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

What “Knight Fight” Gets Dead Wrong about Medieval Men

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

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

When I hit someone, I want them to suffer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

“Viking Tough”: How Ads Sell Us Medieval Manhood

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings are a perfect fit.

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

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

Manly Medieval Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Sex Sells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Men Rule!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Middle Ages Get Sold?

Image from “Viking,” a commercial for ArmorAll car cleaning products, 2013.

Medievalists.net 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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