It’s so easy to romanticize the past, but that’s part of the fun of history, I suppose. But, when people use history, and a false notion of “historical accuracy” to support their sexist view of history in medieval and renaissance fair re-enactments, that’s where my feminist-ass self took umbrage, and part of the reason why dropped out of the re-enactment scene. However, what came out of it, for me, as a woman academic with an interest in history and the past, is that medieval history is often tailored to support certain misogynistic/sexist beliefs that men dominated women completely, and that women had a carefully proscribed social role that they never stepped outside of, thus ensuring that men were, without question, entirely successful in keeping women subjugated and under their control. Overall, life was pretty circumscribed for women back then (to understate matters, probably), but I have discovered that there were examples of women who took up arms on the battlefield and found other ways to live outside the sexist, confining social and religious mores of the day, both among the upper- and lower classes of women. My academic explorations are just beginning, but I think it suggests an (intentional) laziness on the part of the (male) historical researcher involved in re-enactments to conclude that no medieval women wore anything but dresses, and, subsequently, never took up arms and went to war on the battlefield.
Here’s where I’ve noticed the whole romanticism about the medieval era comes into play–in the environment of historical re-enactors, who use purported “historical accuracy” to force women medieval re-enactors into a carefully limited social, political and physical appearance role just so they could support some sexist romantic ideal of chivalrous (i.e. male) knights coming to rescue of the damsel-in-distress just so they can have their male-dominated “boy’s club” playground where they get to prove themselves to be “men” and run around wielding large pointy weapons (*cough* penis extensions), and thus ensuring that strong women who had political and social influence, even had a presence on the battlefield, continue to be sidelined and erased from history. Perhaps not all re-enactors involved in medieval fair operate like this, but it would be interesting to discover the experience of these women re-enactors from around the country, etc. I firmly believe that re-enactors have an incredible opportunity to increase the visibility of these forgotten, and largely publicly unknown, exceptional women from history, if they could actually get over their outdated and archaic (again *cough* medieval) “boys-will-be-boys” mentality. Conversely, I would like to believe that women re-enactors of the medieval and renaissance fair circuit would have an interest in taking on the responsibility to explore strong, self-determined female characters through re-enactments, even in the medieval era, to help the public realize that history is not always black-and-white, truth-with-a-capital-T, and work towards undoing countless years of (male) historians erasing women from the history texts. It’s a long-overdue time to take our history back from the (inaccurate) dominance of men.
Meanwhile, my own personal research into other “non-traditional” medieval women continues. Here’s some books that have set me on the path of (hopefully future/continued) discovery. I would love any more recommendations to help me on my research journey–post in the comments below.
Medieval Women–Derek Baker
Who Cooked the Last Supper: Women’s History of the World–Rosalind Baker
The Warrior Queens–Antonia Fraser
Here’s some other sites about bad-ass women from miscellaneous eras in history:
Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany
A historical examination of women in armor, and undoing the “boob plate armor” myth: