***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.
If creators are going to insist on setting stories in medieval England and repeating English-Viking conflicts, they can at least change up the protagonist by looking at Æthelflæd. Æthelflæd was the daughter of the famous King Alfred the Great and is most known for defending England against Danish invaders during the ninth century. After her husband, Æthelred, fell ill, she was essentially the de facto ruler of Mercia and demonstrated her capabilities in politics, law, and military strategy.
The potential for conflict is great, both in terms of personal struggle and political thrills. Being the daughter of such a famous king, Æthelflæd can be portrayed as living under the pressure to be like her father (who famously defended England against Danish invaders and became the dominant ruler over all England) while also trying to balance life as a warrior queen and diplomat. Writers can undercut the tendency for sexism by recognizing that historically, Mercia supported her rule and had a tradition of queenly importance (contrary to culture in Wessex).
Lady Nijo was a concubine of Japanese Emperor Go-Fukakusa in the fourteenth century, and her life is largely recounted in her artistic memoir, The Confessions of Lady Nijo. During her time at court, Lady Nijo had numerous lovers and children, many of which she must hide from the emperor, and after some unknown unfortunate downfall, she became a Buddhist nun, which allowed her to travel widely.
A series about Lady Nijo would have numerous opportunities for beautiful imagery, from the physical landscape to the costuming (Lady Nijo spends a great deal of time describing court dress in her memoir). There’s also drama aplenty in stories about court politics, and Lady Nijo’s numerous lovers could satisfy media’s itch for something sexy (so long as they aren’t gross about it – no portraying Asian women as some kind of exotic sex objects, please). To undercut sexism, it’s important to realize that adultery in medieval Japan was not considered “sinful,” but was rather commonplace, and Lady Nijo’s numerous lovers is an indication of her agency and freedom, despite her compulsion to hide her affairs from the emperor. She could be portrayed as sexually liberated, if handled correctly – something along the lines of Miss Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It would be important, though, to put the majority (if not the entirety) of power in the hands of an Asian creative team.
Awilda was a 5th century Scandinavian princess who became a pirate after her father tried to pressure her into marrying Alf, the Crown Prince of Denmark. Dressed as men, she and some female companions commandeered a ship, and when they took over another pirate ship that had recently lost its captain, the crew elected Awilda as its replacement. Eventually, after several conflicts between Awilda’s pirates and the Danish navy, Alf conquered Awilda, but she was so impressed with Alf’s skill that she agreed to marry him.
Although historians doubt whether Awilda actually existed, she would no doubt satisfy audiences eager for more Vikings. Not only that, but she would also appeal to pirate fans, and her story could undercut sexism by leaning in on her capabilities as a captain. Battles between Awilda’s fleet and the navy of Denmark would make for exciting action, and even the conflict with Alf can be spun into something more positive – even in losing a battle, the story can set up the romance as a journey towards equality, not just in combat skills, but in mutual respect (fans of the enemies-to-lovers trope would LOVE that).
Dihya (sometimes called Kahina) was a 7th century Berber warrior queen who led the indigenous resistance against the expansion of the Islamic Empire in Numidia (modern-day Algeria). It is rumored that she was a sorceress, but she also had a passion for learning and promoted the study of the sciences.
It would be quite tempting for her story to become Islamophobic or antisemitic, as there are claims in early sources that Dihya was Christian or Jewish. As such, any adaptation would need to take great pains to ensure that her story doesn’t become one that champions the downfall of Muslims and/or Jews. However, in the right hands, a story inspired by Dihya could be very productive: she (or a fictional character) could be portrayed as a flawed ruler who must consider the pros and cons of tolerance and the blending of cultures. The question of empire can also be explored, while magical realism could be implemented to give a story a fantastical edge.
Caterina Sforza was the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Duke of Milan) and Lucrezia (the wife of the courtier Gian Piero). In her private life, she experimented in alchemy and made toxins/poisons in her lab, but in public, she used bold actions to safeguard her possessions from usurpers. She resisted the political actions of Casare Borgia and defended her dominions from attack when they were involved in political intrigues. She also was not killed in battle, but lived out her life quietly after her downfall (which is sure to leave people happy after all the death of female characters in the 2016 tv season).
Though we already have a show about the Bogias and there are a few series about medieval/early modern Italy, a show about Caterina could ensure that women are further acknowledged as key players in Italian political history. Not only could a series about Caterina craft political thrills and engage with military strategy, but it could also toy with the ideas of illegitimacy as well as highlight Caterina’s intellect (as evidenced by her pursuit of knowledge when making poisons and studying alchemy). Caterina also had many children, so her romantic exploits could be legitimately showcased, so long as her agency were retained and scripts didn’t get too skeevy.
Razia Sultana was the first and only female ruler over the Muslim kingdom in Delhi (India). She was trained to lead armies and administer kingdoms, refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant “wife or consort of a Sultan” (she only answered to “Sultan”), and adopted masculine attire, all of which place her in the category of gender norm-defying queens that modern audiences love. She is also famous for her romantic involvement with her childhood friend/eventual husband Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, so her personal life would be just as exciting as her political life.
A Hindi-language series about her life aired in 2015, but I wouldn’t say no to an English-language series if handled correctly. With politics and love affairs following Razia Sultana in legend and history, it would be easy to create stories about her public and private lives while also ensuring that she breaks through patriarchal restrictions writers habitually place on the middle ages.
Wu Zetian (Wu Zhao)
Wu Zetian was the only female emperor of China in more than four millennia. After the death of Emperor Taizong, she married his successor and became an effective political and military leader, thereby expanding the Chinese empire. She also engaged in a series of wars on the Korean peninsula and her actions greatly affected social class in Chinese society as well as engendered state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature. While a highly problematic figure, Wu Zetian’s life has all the drama and thrill of a modern-day television series, and in the hands of Asian creative teams, her story could be well-presented.
There is currently a Chinese television series starring Fan Bingbing, but as before, I would not mind a well-done English-language series to bring more diverse stories to Western pop culture.
Lady Six Sky
Lady Six Sky was a Mayan ruler in the 7th and 8th centuries who established a “new dynasty” after arriving at the city of Naranjo as a ruling queen. She is famous for commissioning monuments, many of which depict her performing calendric rituals and adopting the role of a warrior-king (said to be an unusual representation for a woman).
While information about her reign is sparse, shows can easily fill in gaps by drawing on contextual knowledge about the time period (warfare, competition for marriages, political complexity, etc). Creators can also experiment with stories that incorporate Mesoamerican concepts of gender, including the shift from more rigid (“traditional”) gender roles to more fluid ones (performing supernatural rituals, ruling polities, etc).
Tamar the Great
Tamar was a member of the Bagrationi dynasty who became the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right in 1184. After her father’s death, she faced opposition from noblemen in court, but she eventually rose above them and had numerous political and military successes. Tamar was married twice, the first to a Rus prince who attempted a coup, and she was also responsible for a flowering of Georgian culture during her reign.
Tamar’s life is again a good mix of political intrigue and personal ambition. In the face of opposition because of her gender, Tamar can shine as a capable strategist and ruler, but also, creators who have an interest in Christianity in the middle ages can use the opportunity to explore eastern orthodox religion. A series would, no doubt, need to be careful when dealing with conflicts with the Islamic east, but even so, Tamar’s story would be an interesting way to make the focus of a work familiar (via Christianity) yet different at the same time. It could even serve as the inspiration of a story featuring a female ruler who is responsible for the emergence of a new cultural and religious norm – Tamar’s Georgia saw a blend of western Christianity with secularism and eastern influences. Balancing these often conflicting forces could provide drama and tension all on its own.
Shajar al-Durr was the first Muslim woman to become a monarch in Egyptian and Islamic history. During the Seventh Crusade, she was involved in defending northern Egypt and took King Louis IX of France captive. After her first husband’s death, became the Sultana of Egypt in 1250, marking the end of the Ayyubid reign and the start of the Mamluk era. To quiet those who opposed being ruled by a woman, Shajar al-Durr married her commander in chief, but she assassinated him both for political reasons and after discovering he was carrying out an affair.
Although this assassination let to her demise and Shajar al-Durr was subjected to brutal treatment during her arrest and execution, a story that focused on her life rather than her death would be compelling. Her numerous political and martial exploits as well as her Islamic faith would be a welcome shift from Crusade stories that focus on Christian characters, and the setting in Egypt would allow for some beautiful imagery.
Not all of these women’s stories are without unique challenges and problems. In fact, many of them are highly problematic and carry a great risk for reinforcing negative stereotypes about Islam or people of color. The way around potential problems is to put the stories in the hands of diverse creative teams (not just white men) and to feel free to adapt history in ways that reject the more problematic aspects of history while remaining respectful to the culture being represented. It’s more preferable, I think, to have historically inaccurate feminism than excessive sexism and racism in the name of “historical accuracy.”
Of course, I’ve only chosen ten women that interest me the most. There are many, many more women whose stories are untold and who can be brilliant influences on modern-day narratives. Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments, and as always, hold modern conceptions about the middle ages to higher standards.