Greetings, everyone! I’m Louise Turner, my debut historical novel Fire and Sword was published by Hadley Rille Books last September, and I’ll be co-ordinating the HoF blog throughout March and April, so don’t be surprised if there’s a distinct bias towards historical fiction and matters historical over the next couple of months!
I thought I’d kick off with one of the major challenges confronting writers of historical fiction: how to write strong female characters who can resonate with a modern audience and yet remain true to their own time. I'll be concentrating on Western Europe in the late medieval period, mainly because my own novel’s set in late 15th century Scotland, so that's where my research has been strongest to date. And if you're looking for some accompanying reading matter, can I suggest for starters, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser (Phoenix Giant, 1995) because it's an excellent introduction!
It’s fair to say that society across much of Europe in the late medieval period was deeply misogynistic. Mistrust of women was deeply rooted in the Catholic church, with women traditionally blamed for the concept of original sin. Even the ancient Classical texts that circulated in the wake of the Renaissance brought scant improvement: in medical terms, women were viewed as imperfect men, their reproductive organs improperly developed versions of their male counterparts. Women were dominated by cold humours and they constantly sought the ‘heat’ of men (through sexual activity) to warm them. Their womb was prone to wandering throughout the body, producing all manner of disorders –pregnancy was beneficial because it anchored the womb in one place which in turn kept the woman healthy and – dare I say it – settled in mind.
This kind of thinking helped maintain a moral framework that put men firmly in control. With God occupying the position of ultimate authority, the heavenly hierarchy was replicated on earth in both the ecclesiastical and the secular worlds and also in the domestic sphere. Here the man was viewed as the ‘head’ of the household, with the woman taking a subservient, unquestioning role. This was the natural order. To argue otherwise was to pervert Nature, to overthrow God’s plan for the world/universe.
|Sir Geoffry Luttrell's Wife & Daughter-in-Law Present Him With Helmet & Shield As He Rides to War (Mid-14th Century)|
Does this mean, then, that women were devoid of power and influence? They were certainly encouraged to be meek, and mild, with the Virgin Mary put forward as a suitable role model. But I don’t think a weak, ineffectual woman would have been much in demand as either a wife, or a mother. I’m sure women were more than capable of wielding real power in the domestic sphere, and I’m also sure that most women were savvy enough to manipulate their situation to suit their own ends. To be seen to wield power and authority may have been socially unacceptable, but even then it might have been more common than might be assumed. If the medieval stereotypes of the domineering woman – the scold and the shrew- hadn’t been familiar to medieval audiences, then I don’t think they would be quite so heavily featured in contemporary literature.
|Women Assaults Man With A Distaff (Luttrell Psalter - Mid 14th Century)|
In my attempts to recreate real medieval women, I’ve tried not to write women ahead of their time. Their strength is quiet, their influence subtle. But they are strong nonetheless and their influence cannot be underestimated. Modern women like me owe women like these who lived in the historic past (and indeed the prehistoric past!) a great deal, because if it hadn’t been for their efforts to push back the boundaries and constraints of their world and to improve both their own lives and the lives of the generations who followed after them, we wouldn’t be where we are today!
Images derive from the Luttrell Psalter, Held by the British Library and Discussed in Detail in 'The World of The Luttrell Psalter' by Michelle P. Brown (British Library, 2006)