06 January, 2006

Role of women in historical fiction - Anglo-Saxon England

An extended version of this article, incorporating additional evidence and some points raised in the comment thread, can be found on my website.

See also the discussions going on over on Bernita's blog and Gabriele's blog. I'm picking up five related but not identical concepts of strong women from the comment thread on my earlier post. Let's look at them in turn.

The female warrior

Otherwise known as Xena, Warrior Princess. Alex points out in the comment thread that a number of female burials accompanied by shields and/or spears are known from archaelogical excavations and also adds the important caveat that we do not know whether the presence of weapons in a burial signifies occupation, status, both or neither. However, it would be perfectly possible to use these burials as evidence to support a Xena, Warrior Princess storyline. The absence of such women from the documentary record can be explained by the extremely limited amount of documentary evidence that has survived from the period, without needing to invoke Amanda's suggestion in the comment thread that such evidence could have been deliberately suppressed by later male rulers (though this idea could add an interesting twist to the storyline).

These burials could also be used to support a story about a woman who disguises herself as a man to become a warrior for whatever reason, like Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, or along the lines of Jennifer Lindsay's recent romance The Lady Soldier. (Alex: is there a female burial known with a high-status weapon, like a sword?)

It also seems to me likely that even if female warriors (in the sense of a 'professional' skilled fighter) were not a part of society at the time, there could have been a different attitude towards women who fought in defence. It doesn't seem out of place to me that the women would weigh in to defend their homes or villages against raiders as a matter of course, just as a modern woman might hit a burglar with a frying pan or knee a mugger in the groin. This is where I part company with Peter Jackson in the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (the culture of Rohan in the films is quite clearly based on an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures). I'd have expected at least some of the women at Helm's Deep to be up on the battlements with their old fathers and under-age sons, throwing rocks at Orcs, or collecting spent arrows for the archers, or tending the wounded, or bringing round water for the fighters (fighting in metal armour is extremely hard work and you get very sweaty and very thirsty; this isn't often mentioned and it was a nice touch to see it in Manda Scott's Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle). Perhaps a woman who fought like this might have been commemorated by a weapon burial when she died, even if she spent the rest of her life in the domestic sphere.

The ruling queen

Bernita reminded me in the comment thread that there is one documented example of a ruling queen, Sexburga, who ruled Wessex for one year around AD 495 according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Thank you, Bernita, I had forgotten about her. I should say that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not thought to be a contemporary record until much later than AD 495, perhaps not until Alfred's reign in the 870s, and is not considered necessarily reliable in its earlier entries. However, let's take it at face value. Sexburga may have been ruling in her own right, or on behalf of a male relative (see below), or perhaps she might have been acting in a kind of caretaker role if the chosen male candidate for king was away or temporarily incapacitated at the time of his succession. If one takes the date at face value, AD 495 is about the time of Arthur's (legendary?) great victory over the Saxons at Badon Hill. I don't think we know whether the Gewissae (the kingdom that later became Wessex) fought there, or on what side. Perhaps they fought against Arthur and Sexburga was the last surviving royal adult after the battle? Perhaps they fought with Arthur and were away plundering the defeated lands all year, leaving her to manage the kingdom as regent? Who knows? And why did she rule for only one year, and did she step down, or die, or was she deposed? Again, who knows? If you wanted a ruling queen storyline, you could tell Sexburga's story. As we have genealogies and/or king lists for most of the other substantial kingdoms, I personally would be reluctant to intrude a ruling queen into one of them and argue that she was later expunged from the records. However, there are the tiny territories listed in the Tribal Hidage about which we know little or nothing, and it would be possible to use Sexburga as evidence to tell a story about a ruling queen of one of those, perhaps in the context of absorbing her territory into a larger unit (as with Duchess Anne of Brittany, who married into France in the 16th C and took her duchy with her).

Behind-the-throne queen as regent for an under-age heir or absent husband

There are powerful women like this in medieval and Renaissance Europe, e.g. Catherine de Medici ruling 16th C France through her sons, Mary of Guise as Regent of Scotland. In the Anglo-Saxon period, I would argue that Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians fits into this category. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and married to Aethelred of Mercia. She seems to have organised the defence and government of Mercia, first as her husband's equal and later on her own as his widow. She worked closely with her brother, Edward the Elder (King of Wessex), and between them they won Mercia back from the Danes and laid the foundations for the unification of England, rather like Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquista in 15th C Spain. However, Aethelflaed was always referred to as Lady of the Mercians, not queen, and I'd count her as ruling on her brother's behalf rather than in her own right. It may be that they considered themselves joint rulers of a united England, and she was running Mercia while he managed Wessex.

Women with dynastic or advisory influence

Universal agreement that there is abundant evidence that high-born women could and did play this kind of role.

Women with strength of character who remain within traditional female roles

Universal agreement that women can be strong characters without being involved in warfare or high politics. (Arguably the entire genre that is often unfairly dismissed as 'clog-and-shawl-sagas' comes under this heading).

- for the unfavourable change in women's status after the Norman Conquest, see Gabriele's post. She has covered everything I was going to say and the medieval period isn't my territory.
- regarding Matilda (or Maud), she was certainly hopeless at politics and diplomacy. But many kings were equally inept and managed to retain their thrones. It's a pity we can't go back and do the control experiment to see if a woman who was good at politics could have made her claim stand. My own opinion is that the prejudice against women rulers was too deeply ingrained at the time. Don't forget there had been no ruling queen in England for at least 500 years (if you count Sexburga) or 1000 years (if you go back to Boudica and Cartimandua in the 1st C AD), and we don't even know if their stories were remembered at the time. My feeling is that Matilda couldn't have overcome that cultural barrier even had she been a consummate politician. So when I told that story I did it in an invented world, where I could create a culture that had a tenuous tradition of female rule that was sufficient for a capable woman to build on.


Rick said...

Carla -

I certainly agree with the main thing Gabriele said - the roles of medieval women varied widely by time and place (or even within one).

Since my own setting is 16th century-esque, ruling queens are nada problem! It's amazing how many the real 16th c. had, including heavyweights Isabella and Elizabeth. (Isabella is even more remarkable given her relationship with Ferdinand, himself no cypher.) Then you have the powerful regents, like Catherine de Medici.

Regarding Matilda/Maud, it would be an interesting experiment if you could do it! She did hold her own for quite a long time, admitting that Stephen wasn't exactly a Henry II himself. Incompetent kings, though, couldn't rely on male-ness to stay on their thrones.

And speaking of Henry II, I have to imagine that if circumstances had made Eleanor of Aquitaine a reigning monarch, she would have been one tough lady to push aside!

-- Rick

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. Now if only we could get a woman president of the USA. I vote for Oprah.

Carla said...

Rick - yes, it seems that some important cultural change happened in Europe in the 16th C that made ruling queens acceptable in a way that had not been the case in the earlier medieval period. My guess is that this reflects the decline in the importance of the warrior tradition as the major route to power - for example, it coincides with the replacement of the fortified castle (built for defence) by the stately home (built for display). I've seen it argued that this reflects the rise of commerce and trade as a source of wealth, whereas in the medieval world control of land was the primary source of wealth.

Agreed, inept medieval kings were sometimes tipped off their thrones either permanently (Richard II, Edward II) or temporarily (Henry III, although that might have been permanent if his son, the future Edward I, hadn't been so capable as a military commander). I'd say that the ability required for a woman to hold down the top job was higher than the ability required for a man to hold down the same job in the same circumstances. (Insert comment of your choice here about some things never changing).

Had Matilda been Eleanor of Aquitaine and Stephen still been Stephen, history might have turned out the other way. Ditto if Henry II had been more like Henry III; Eleanor might have unseated him (arguably that's what Catherine the Great of Russia did many centuries later). But pit a man and a woman of equal (in)ability against each other (Matilda vs Stephen; Eleanor vs. Henry II), and it's the man who wins. That, I think, reflects the prevailing social climate.

Alex Bordessa said...

Yes there are Germanic female burials with swords. There are also 'sword beaters' which are shorter than the average sword, and thought to be used in weaving, though there is rising debate about this.

There's a good booklet: Warrior Women of Northern Europe: a beginner's introduction by Lorraine Evans. It's not particularly well-edited or produced, but brings together a lot of evidence: http://www.lawa.co.uk/begin.htm

Rick said...

Carla -

Interesting parallel to the shift in domestic architecture. It probably did make it easier (relatively) for women once kingship was less directly tied to personal leadership in war.

The 16th c. queens are themselves transitional in this regard. Isabella didn't personally hack & hew, but she was right up there with hubby, sleeping in tents, etc. Mary Queen of Scots rode in the Chaseabout Raid with a pistol in her belt. Elizabeth, in spite of her Tilbury show, was the least warrior-queen of the lot, though it might have been different if her accession had been challenged.

Certainly at any time the women had to do it backwards and in high heels! Which is part of my reason for choosing a female protagonist. A prince in my gal's situation wouldn't have had a bed of roses, but nothing as tough as she does.

Bernita said...

Interesting comment in Beowulf regarding Grendel's dam : "The dread was less by just so much as the strength of a woman, the war terror of women, is less than a man's."
Let's not forget also that Stephen's wife(also called Matilda/Maud) was one of his best generals. (Hope I didn't already say that.)
There's increasing archaelogical evidence that the Sythian women were sword-bearing cavalry.

Carla said...

Alex - Thanks! That's really useful, I will check the site and see about ordering a copy.

Rick - Isn't Isabella credited with the first military field hospital (in medieval Europe that is, because I'm sure the Roman legions had them and I have no idea about civilisations such as China etc)?

I think there's a case that Elizabeth was exceptionally anti-war, in part because it would have meant she would have had to cede control of her field troops to a man and she hated ceding control. She was any man's equal in politics and diplomacy, so those were the battlegrounds she chose if at all possible.

In the case of Mary, perhaps anyone would have wanted a pistol in 16th C Scotland in the middle of a civil war!

Carla said...

Bernita - No, you haven't already said it, and I didn't know it. Another thing to look up! But are we talking about 'general' as in field commander, or 'general' as in strategist?

Rick said...

Carla - yes, in 16th c. Scotland a pistol was likely a good thing to have on hand. Still, Mary did ride out herself on the Chaseabout Raid.

Elizabeth definitely sought to avoid war. She did have the advantage of England's situation, with no direct frontier except Scotland, and her inclinations saved her from silly things like trying to play Henry V, as Dear Old Dad had done.

I don't recall the field hospital, but it sounds plausible. Isabella did tend to serve as quartermaster-general of the army, sort of a logical extension of the lady's role as good castle-wife out into the field.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think Mary was a very physical woman who loved the hunt, long rides, sports, sex ... That brought her close to male behaviour and surely added to the problems with Elizabeth who had a brain to outwit many men, but obviously never really 'connected with her body', to use a modern psychological term.

Elisabeth, we have a female chancellor (or ist it chancelorette *grin*) but it doesn't make a difference. The government still sucks.

Rick said...

Elizabeth obviously had "issues" about marriage, what with Dad axing Mom. (And in case she was too young to get it the first time, the re-run with Kathee Howard sort of made the point, er edge.)

I don't know, though, that she didn't connect with her body. Her affair with "Sweet Robin" Dudley may not have gone all the way, but it entertained and scandalized all the courts of Europe. In spite of her eventual Virgin Queen image, and Mary's sexy image, Elizabeth was likely the more sensual of the two women.

As for government that sux, if judged by our standards, what 16th c. government didn't?

Bernita said...

I understood it was in the field.It was her army that encouraged the Londoners to chase Matilda out.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Now, here's a 16th century kick ass woman for you. Courtesy of a writer buddy who knows quite a bit about Irish history.

Rick said...

Grace O'Malley!

I'm surprised that Maureen O'Hara never played her in a movie. Her meeting with Elizabeth I just cries out for treatment, two women leaders of such different background.

Carla said...

Someone did the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I in a radio drama, years ago. Robin Maxwell has written a novel on the subject 'The Wild Irish', but I haven't read it.

Anonymous said...

cool site

Doug said...

Hi Carla
Better late than never.
I think that the roles of the sexes tend to be one or the other, rather than being universal. Speaking as a man who (while quite interested in women!) has no interest in other alleged masculine pursuits such as rugby or fighting, and bearing in mind that some women athletes are found by modern techniques to be genetically male, I see no reason whatsoever that the occasional woman could not feel inspired to dress up for battle and go and do her bit!

Carla said...

Doug - indeed, real behaviour depends on the individual and the circumstances and can be much more varied than social stereotypes pretend. Maybe there were a few real-life Eowyns on the battlefields of early medieval Europe, though I doubt there were armies of them!