***Spoilers for Vikings Season 4 below***
Recently, I’ve maintained that it’s near impossible to make a movie or tv show set in the Middle Ages or antiquity that’s “good” – partly because whenever these things are made, the tendency is always to portray the time period as particularly barbaric or strange. Stories set in the middle ages, whether historical fiction or fantasy, typically manifest this barbarism through “weird” religious practices, excessive violence, or extreme sexism. As a result, it seems like the same stories are told over and over again: man wants land and/or power, man fights with other people to get land and/or power, women stay on the sidelines and serve male interests by either having babies or being victims of violence. Imagine my fury as a medievalist – I can barely read epic fantasy or historical fiction anymore, and I cringe at every announcement that a new medieval-inspired tv series or movie is announced.
That being said, I made an exception for Vikings, because although it had a lot of fighting and drama, it did a relatively good job respecting the various cultures and portraying its women in various roles: shieldmaidens, mothers, wives, queens, earls, seeresses, etc. By having women who were complex and different from one another, Vikings seemed to break the mold of excessively patriarchal medieval dramas and push for a more familiar or relatable middle ages. Season four, however, seems to resort to Game of Thrones gimmicks concerning their women. While previous seasons saw Lagertha and Aslaug respect one another and even get along, season four pits them one another, having Lagertha resent Aslaug for seducing Ragnar. Aslaug is also killed off, becoming another victim in the show’s string of female characters who die needlessly. [Insert nerd rage.]
There are countless articles and blog posts that explain the harm in having stories which kill off female characters for shock value, as well as the nonsense of season four of Vikings. There is also plenty of discussion about the stupidity of insisting that things must be horrible for women in the name of “historical accuracy,” and how creators all too often equate the barbarity of the middle ages with sexism in order to make our current time period look better by comparison. But while it’s good to criticize shows for these lazy storytelling techniques, there’s not much discussion of what historical figures and stories could be drawn on instead. My guess is that the extend of knowledge isn’t all that great, and I don’t blame people for this – after all, it’s primarily male and white history that gets showcased in popular depictions of the middle ages, and it’s the same case for classrooms, unfortunately.
As a result, my purpose in this blog post is not to summarize the arguments for better female representation, but instead, to showcase a number of women who lived during the middle ages who would (whether by themselves or as inspirations) make excellent protagonists for a tv show, book, or movie. Ultimately, I don’t want the stories of these women to be replicated on screen with 100% accuracy – we already throw accuracy out the window when adapting history for popular consumption, and honestly, I’d rather throw out the “problematic” parts of history, however “accurate” they are, in favor of a more inclusive story. My goal in showcasing these women is to not only give out free ideas (*cough cough* credit me in your acknowledgements *cough cough*), but also to communicate, through just a few examples, that the excuse for “historically accurate” misogyny in medieval-set stories is simple fuel for a white male patriarchal fantasy.