Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


6.1.06
  Strong female characters in Historical Fiction

There's a discussion on some blogs, triggered by a synopsis crit of the famous Miss Snark, about strong female characters in historical fiction, and the lack thereof. The most interesting entries can be found on Carla's (who discusses her synopsis) and Bernita's (who looks at the role of women in Anglo Saxon literature) blogs.

The problem is that for many epochs we have sparse, contradictory and biased sources only. One thing seems to be sure, though: kick ass heroines à la Xena and Lara Croft were very seldom; and therefore it will prove difficult to write one well. But there are other sorts of strength - more about this later.

There are a few hints that women fighting with swords were not completely alien to the Norse world - even if we interpret the valkyrjar, the shieldmaidens who join battle and guide the dead warriors to Valhall, as metaphors; those metaphors have to work within the context of a society. Burial sites show that women often were treated with as much respect as men, and the sagas have a number of pretty strong and independant women. They could fe. divorce their husbands for "cowardly behaviour" or "incapability to provide for the family", and they did.

There are also the queens of the British tribes. While the sources are Roman and may have exaggerated things, women could obviously hold a position in a warrior society. I don't know whether Boudicaea actually fought with a spear or sword, or only drove her chariot along and was visible (an important psychological point), whether she made military decisions all alone or worked with some sort of warrior council, fact is that she played an important role in the war against the Romans and surely was strong minded and strong willed to do so. As was Cartimandua, though her politics was more pro-Roman.

In the 19th century, the Pictish tribes have been assumed to have developed a matrilinear succession in rulership and were thought to be matriarchial. But modern research has shown that this was an image to make them look even more alien, based on misinterpretation of the king lists and other sources. The Picts most probably were a Celtic warrior society - which doesn't exclude women playing a significant role, of course.

Mediaeval times are even more complicated. We have women with no right over their fortune, body and very life, and we have craftswomen who earned their own money, organised themselves in guilds and got involved in trade (though they could not join the magistrate). We have the third daughter forced to become a nun, and the abbess who was involved in decisions about an entire realm. We have treaties about the weakness inherent in females, and noble women who rode in the chase and followed their husbands on a crusade. Maybe a few even could wield a sword. It seems to have been more a question of status boundaries than of physical capabilites, since there is some proof for female carpenters and smiths. The feudal rules are a mess, too, some women who inherited a fief had to marry the man the liegelord told them, others could swear an oath of fealty themselves and have a say in marriage. Since the Middle Ages encompass several centuries and a wide area, things often shifted and changed, so if one wants to protray strong female characters, one better researches the specific period and country. But basically, it is doable to have a strong and interesting female MC who doesn't clash with the historical possibilities.

Now, if you don't want to write about a woman who pokes a spear into a few Romans, dresses in mail and chops the head off Evil Neighbour Baron, or becomes a stone mason because she desperately wants to get involved in building that great cathedral, you have to look for other forms of strength.

Judging from the synopsis, Carla's female MC runs a farm in 7th century Saxon England - that works in the historical context, women most of the time ran households, farms and castles when the husbands were absent or inexistant. She even defends the place against attackers - also no problem since she will have some men working on the farm, and help of the fugitive MC who is a full trained warrior. And she has a realistical outlook on her relationship with the MC and the fact that right now, there can't be a marriage or even an affair because both have other, more important duties and loyalties. I think it takes some inner strength to accept such a fate; I hope without several pages of angsting and whining ;-)

A strong female character can be a woman who is strong within her social context, without the writer making a lot of plot contructs to turn her into Xena the Second.

I try for that approach in several cases. Morait in Song of the North Wind is not a MC but plays a significant role in a few scenes. She grows within the story, becomes the spokeswoman for the female members of the tribes, and confronts the leader about the war that leads to the loss of too many men. Since the Pictish society remains partially unknown to us, I assume women held a role in the tribes because it was necessary to work together in order to survive. Suppressing the women to the point of insignificance would have led to the elimination of half of the people from active tribal life.

Clodia Atella from A Land Unconquered marries without love, fully aware that she needs the protection of a man after her brothers' death, and even when Horatius Veranius, the man she loves and thought dead, returns, she stays faithful to her husband because that is her duty. That, too, takes strength. Or Erelieva from the same book who walks up to the Roman authorities and demands her rapist be punished.

So, what about your female characters?
 
Comments:
This is a very thought-provoking and interesting blog entry. I am writing about a couple of very strong women in my novel about the fall of Alexander the Great's dynasty. The historians haven't given them their proper dues but in all my research I realized how powerful and physicially resiliant these women were so I am having a wonderful time developing their characters. One is Olympias, Alexander's mother. The others are Roxana, his Soghdian wife and his niece Adeia-Eurydike who was partly responspible for starting the civil war that leads to the end of Alexander's dynasty. I should soon put some bits about them on my blog.

My friend Suzaki is in the process of marketing a novel about Freydis, the daughter of Eric the Red. A very fierce, bold woman. I'm going to pass on your blog to her as I know she'll find this posting very interesting too.
 
Now, if you don't want to write about a woman who pokes a spear into a few Romans, dresses in mail and chops the head off Evil Neighbour Baron, or becomes a stone mason because she desperately wants to get involved in building that great cathedral, you have to look for other forms of strength.

Gabriele, this is inspired. One of my manuscripts is about three brothers, the heir, the military man and the cleric - the classic distribution. Since it's about the brothers, the women are incidental, but the women that are there are strong in their own way. They have power of a sort, but it's different from the power of the Warrior Princess. call it manipulative, call it submissive, but the women have their own way of getting what they want.
 
Exactly, Gabriele! If one goes back to the history (as opposed to the later interpretation of history, see the discussion on Bernita's blog), there is no difficulty in finding strong female roles without tying the history into incredible knots. I didn't get that over in my synopsis, because although you spotted it, Miss Snark did not.
(And there is half a page of parting scene, with no whining.)
 
I think Carla's got a good point - it's much easier to find books about strong men than strong women. And books about strong women are classed as 'women's history', as if they're less important somehow.

One of my favourite stories is about a Countess who kidnapped her husband and held him captive until he agreed to marry her :).

Even if the Picts weren't, several earldoms in Scotland passed through the female line. Didn't mean the women had much choice about anything, but they were matrilinear.
 
I strongly agree with your comment about battle maiden motif, and note that Judith, Juliana and Elene are all described in a war context.
These agressive, dominant and demanding women show nothing of the slave mentality one would expect from women whose supposed role was one of obedience and compliance.
 
Ali, is that the Countess of Carrick, who was the mother of Robert the Bruce?

Also I hadn't heard of matilinear inheritance in the Scottish earldoms before. Did it happen just occasionally, e.g. when a daughter happened to be the sole heiress, or did it pass from mother to daughter down the generations?
 
And, though she's later but pre-Conquest, should have mentioned Aethelflaed of Merica.She was more than a pictorial asset.
 
Hi Gabriele. I wish I knew more about this subject. Were the amazons (like Hipolyte) of ancient Greece real or just mythological? One woman who was strong, at least in character, was Eleanor of Aquitaine ... she supposedly went on crusade with her first husband (Louis).
 
Great topic, Gabriele! d:)
 
Wow, this triggered quite some replies. Thank you.

Wynn,
Olympias has always struck me as a strong woman. Do tell me about that niece, she sounds very interesting, and I'm not that well acquainted with the time of the Diadochs. Several of the historically known Scandinavian women would make for good novel characters.

Tarquini,
good luck with your novel. Women have their own way indeed, just look at Cleopatra who made two powerful Romans dance to her tunes. *grin*

Carla,
Miss Snark admitted that she doesn't read much historical fiction, that may be a reason. It's genreous of her, though, to not have limited the crapometer to genres she represents.

Ali,
"Women's History" peeves me off, too.

Bernita,
I think the trick is to look for signs of strong women in history and literature without throwing the bathtub over and making them what they are not - like Mandy Scott's treehugging Boudicca or MZB's Better Than the Christians-priestesses of Avalon.

Crystal,
Elinor of Aquitaine surley is a good example of a strong woman. In spirit, and I think, also physically if the sources about the crusade and the frequent long rides are correct.

The Amazons are a difficult topic - the way they are presented in Greek mythology surely is metaphorical, but there may have been matriarchal societies in the east who left no written sources themselves. It's difficult to say for sure. And it's difficult to define what matriarchal and matrilinear encompasses exactly.

Debra,
thanks.
 
So, what about your female characters?

Not strictly hist-fic, but mine is Catherine de Guienne, exiled royal heiress of Lyonesse, in a world synologous to c. 1500. (Think Guy Gavriel Kay, roughly, for the kind of world this is.)

Since she is allo-British, the obvious reference points are Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Between them they provide a nice pair of bookends, so to speak: a spectacularly successful monarch and an equally spectacular failure - the 16th century had quite a few other women who were monarchs or regents as well.

Catherine does not have the marriage "issues" that Bess had, since Dad didn't ax Mom, etc. As a teenager in the book she expects to marry, but at a key point declares, "I shall give my husband as dowry a kingdom in good order, and nothing less."

-- Rick
 
Interesting topic! I can't add much because once we get into the AD's I'm totally worthless, but another example of a woman who was an exemplary leader would be Queen Artemisia I of Halicarnassus. She joined Xerxes' invasion of Greece and commanded five ships in battle. She was so ferocious that Xerxes was said to have commented that how strange a world it was when his men ran like women and his women attacked like men (paraphrasing here, mind you). The point to note, though, is that during the height of battle, when his other commanders were retreating, Artemisia held her little flotilla together and helped cover their withdrawal (the battle was, I think, Artemisium -- no relation to the Queen).
 
Crystal - If you want to know more without having to do several research degrees :-), Antonia Fraser has written a fascinating and wide-ranging study of women military leaders through the ages, 'The Warrior Queens: Boadicea's Chariot'. She starts with women from legend (Medb, the Amazons), moves on through the classical and ancient world (Artemisia, Boudica, Semiramis) and onwards to Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. She finds a surprisingly large number of common themes. The book is short, highly readable, witty, and very well-researched as far as I can tell. Highly recommended.
 
Scott, I wonder whether a queen leading men in battle was a common occurence in those times (and maybe has led to the Amazon myth) or whether Artemisia was special and why. The other woman in a man's position from Ancient times I remember is the pharaoh Hatshepsut (or however you spell her name in English).
 
Scott - Herodotus claims that Artemisia did a bit of dirty at Salamis. She was being pursued by an Athenian trireme, so she rammed another Persian ship (commanded by a personal enemy of hers). The Athenian concluded that she was a "friendly," and broke off the chase. Xerxes, watching the show from his portable throne, and not seeing who she'd rammed, said "My men fight like women, and my women fight like men."

All of which may say at least as much about Herodotus, and wartime rumor in general, as it does about Artemisia!
 
Now, that gives 'friendly fire' a new dimension. :-)
 
Sabina von Steinbach! A zillion years ago in my carefree rose-tinted university days I was lucky enough to travel to Strasbourg and see her work for myself.

This is a great blog and I've already linked to you. The pictures of Germany alone are magnificent. One of my two embryonic novels is set during the 30 Years War and eventually a vagabond Scots physician named Ian Campbell wanders into my little fictional world. Strange synchronicity in the blogging world.....
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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