I’m always amazed when I run into someone who tells me that strong women characters–especially women who could fight–didn’t exist in the “real” Middle Ages. Usually this happens when the person’s entire knowledge of how things used to be has been shaped by bad TV movies and costume dramas.
Read any serious medieval history, and you’ll see plenty of women who knew how to get what they wanted. One of my favorite is Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204), the mother of Richard III. Back in the Twelfth Century, she rode off to the Holy Land to retrieve Richard after he’d been kidnapped, bringing an army with her. Not only did she get him out of jail, but she managed to navigate a dangerous political climate and live to be 90 years old.
It took grit just to be a woman and survive, which I think a lot of people overlook. As with women today who have grown up on farms, a certain amount of muscle is required just to kill the livestock required to be tonight’s dinner. Noble women might not have had to do chores, but women of every other social class had hard physical labor to do just to keep a household running. That builds muscle and know-how. These women were not shrinking violets.
All too often, people will focus on a small period in history and generalize to think that those conditions applied to everyone, everywhere. In reality, women’s role, rights, legal status and responsibilities changed dramatically over time and across geography. Just because women in England in the 1600s had certain social limitations does not mean that the same was true of women a century or so earlier or in other countries. Then, as now, the variations were numerous and fluid.
That’s one of the reasons I love writing about strong women characters in epic fantasy. I tend to write ensemble casts, and I have important female characters in a variety of roles: warrior, noble, mistress of the manor, healer, spy, courtesan, madam, oracle, queen, priestess, whore, farmer and craftsperson, to name a few. In some cases, the women are born into a role and responsibility, and in others they make their way however the opportunity presents itself. What they all have in common is a flinty determination to create the life they want, for themselves and for those they care about.
When you stop to think about how tough a woman had to be to survive without antibiotics, without modern obstetrics, often without access to any kind of knowledgeable medical practice, and without central heat, refrigeration, labor saving devices, easy transportation or even decent public sanitation, you realize that our foremothers were tough old birds. They had to be. That’s the side I enjoy bringing to light in my epic fantasy worlds, they women who make their way, in spite of everything. Those women never run out of adventures.
Reign of Ash, book two in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga launches in April, 2014 from Orbit Books. My new urban fantasy, Deadly Curiosities, comes out in July, 2014 from Solaris Books. I bring out two series of ebook short stories with a new story every month for just .99 on Kindle, Kobo and Nook—check out the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures or the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.