Monday, March 10, 2014

A Toast to the Lassies

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)


Eric T Reynolds said...

"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..."

WHAT??? Seriously? Holy yeesh!

I, too, believe that history recounts women mostly as it wants them to be remembered, not as they actually were. There is a reason why Eleanor of Acquitaine is so prevalent in history, and yet very little of her actual life is recorded.

Terri-Lynne said...

For Crying out loud!! It said it was going to ask me to sign IN before it posted. Sorry. Sorry, Eric

Unknown said...

It's great, isn't it? You just can't make this stuff up!! What's truly scary is how much this kind of thinking has coloured attitudes right up to the present day... (Though in a month's time, I'll be presenting three case studies which feature women who seriously buck the trend, or whose situations perhaps demonstrate something more closely resembling reality...)

Terri-Lynne said...

Looking forward to it, Louise!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

That idea about women being "undercooked" men dates back to Ancient Greece. Basically, as the argument went, if something went 'wrong' in the womb, the product would come out half-baked.

The Renaissance did see a brief resurgence of prominent women in intellectual and political spheres. Some of the first university appointments to women were issued during this period, primarily in Italy and Spain. But that was quickly nipped in the bud by a renewed focus on defining why men "can" and women "cannot", this time from a so-called "scientific" perspective.

The more I read about history, the more dismayed I become at the obvious and systematic way in which certain peoples and a certain gender have had their stories erased from the record time and again. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate historical fiction so much; it gives us an avenue to recreate those stories and reconstruct the voices that have been lost.

What a great post, Louise! You really got me thinking. :)

Unknown said...

I'm a bit out of touch with my inner Ancient Greek these days - I couldn't remember the source of the medical treatises that became all the rage in the Renaissance, but yes, the term 'half-baked' certainly sums it up. It's my own personal belief that even though the dominant doctrine had a very poor opinion of women, in reality the situation was very different. And that's just talking about England and Scotland! I'll be citing some case studies next month, and I have three very different women in mind to illustrate my argument.

Ho hum, those Ancient Greeks (but not the Spartans...) have a lot to answer for! And I'm delighted to have got you thinking - hope these ruminations come to good use!!

Asakiyume said...

I too had never heard about the wandering womb--now I'm imagining it lodged in all sorts of unlikely places!

Terri-Lynne said...

Francesca--I've had that "wandering womb" on my mind all day. It's astounding, the things humanity can come up with.

Unknown said...

The wandering womb has a long history--it's discussed in Plato's Timaeus 90e-91d. Hippocrates also discusses "displacement" of the womb at length (Places in Human Anatomy 47), along with ways to deal with "hysterical suffocation" when the womb travels toward a woman's head and makes her sleepy (Diseases of Women 2.126). So many medieval medical ideas seem to have come from classical authors...

Terri-Lynne said...

Cybelle...that is just so bizarre.

Unknown said...

Ay yes, Cybelle, it's so true about the Classical origin of many medieval ideas. When I was researching Fire & Sword and its follow-up, I had a passing acquaintance with all matters Classical, but that was about it (. Since my next project's got a strong Ancient Greek element, I've had to do a LOT of reading, and looking back at humanist/renaissance ideas in retrospect, it's as if someone has switched a very bright light on! Reading back over my earlier works and stumbling over my poor ignorant late medieval characters responses to Classical ideas has proved quite interesting in the light of that!