Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

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

Illustration for "Rhinegold and the Valkyries," by Arthur Rackham, 1910.

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

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

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

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

Medievalists have seen this song and dance before.

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

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

Battlefield Woman

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

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

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

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

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

Kiera Knightley as Guinevere in the 2004 film King Arthur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Transgender, Genderqueer, and Genderfluid People

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

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

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

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

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

Manly Medieval Men

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

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

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

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

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

A New Series

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

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

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

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

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