Forget River Song and Buffy. Medieval Ladies were the real tough Chicks!


English: Wedding - Louis VII and Eleanor of Aq...

Following on from my blog post about my day out at Cardiff Castle’s Joust, I want to look at the layout of various castles and also to look into the role of women during the Middle Ages.

It’s funny how we get instantly carried away when confronted by castles, fortresses, maces, swords, shields, jousting knights on horses and maidens with wimples.

We forget that the draw bridge wasn’t built so Merlin, King Arthur and his knights can look really cool when they ride into Camelot (Pierrefonds Castle in France is being used for BBC’s series Merlin).

The drawbridge and portcullis, the keep, the walled fortifications and arrow slits, the deep moat and mangonel, the couillard and the vantail were all designed for one thing and one thing only: to keep unwanted guests out and the occupants of the castle safely inside.

Looking at various drawings of castles in France (Château de Mehun-sur-Yèvre is my new favourite), it becomes clear that the design and architecture of fortresses might have changed over the years, as the 100 year war between France and England drew to an end and battle-weary knights and their families wanted more home comforts, but the purpose of a castle never really changed.

Keeping people, chattels and livestock safe from marauders and making a bold statement about one’s status in life are two of the most important roles a castle or fortress has to fulfil. Any overlord worth his salt (and mistress) would want to show off his wealth and status by building an imposing castle, never mind keeping his borders safe.

The people producing the BBC’s Merlin series have rightly said Pierrefonds Castle is as much a character in the story they as the cast playing Merlin, Lady Morgana or Arthur himself. Therefore, if I am to write a piece of fantasy fiction set in medieval times, descriptions of the surroundings and buildings is especially important, since the violent times determined very much  the type of architecture people found themselves in as well as the type of furnishings and belongings they might have had inside their dwellings.

Some things never change though. I can relate to the feelings people might have had centuries ago without too much of a stretch of my imagination. Wanting to feel safe is a fundamental human emotion that hasn’t changed at all through the millennia.

English: Medieval miniature painting of the Si...

In the same way in which “my castle’s bigger than yours” resembles medieval macho posturing, male specimens today are showing off the latest electronic gadgets or fast car. The jousting knight of yesterday is today’s footballer competing in the European Championships.

Differences in medieval technology and understanding of the world at that time will obviously determine how far I can go with my fantasy fiction, before belief has to be stretched too far and it becomes silly.  So I’m reading up about the type of catapults used, the defences they had as well as what type of dwelling ordinary peasants had in their villages and what kind of weapons, if any, they might have had to defend themselves.

I’ve always loved the way in which Tolkien uses the castle-cities in The Lord of the Rings as a metaphor to describe not just the type of ruler in charge of such fortresses, but to show how the surroundings influence those who dwell in them.

Harry Potter’s Hogwarts follows on from that tradition, as does the Doctor Who’s TARDIS. The buildings we live in or are surrounded by shape our understanding of the world while we grow up. When we grow bigger, we are astonished, how small our parent’s banqueting hall is, when we thought we lived in such a huge place.

As teenagers we notice with a pang how inadequate a defence our short, squat castle tower really is, when an army of trolls comes knocking at the gate.

As adults, we resign ourselves to never lording it at a ducal palace, complete with a mistress’ tower, swimming pool and carport for twelve war horses and one bike (see 12th century Château de Poitiers with its Maubergeon tower built for Duke Guilhem of Poitier’s mistress Dangereuse, whom he nick-named Maubergeonne after his new castle’s “impenetrable” keep*).

So what about the ladies? The singing, sewing, knight-pleasing damsels in my photographs? My heart might have been thumping a little faster at the sight of knights in full armour riding past on magnificent horses, but as a modern woman I instantly remind myself such macho posturing is a bad influence on my feminist stance in life. Never mind the romance of the thing, those medieval ladies can’t have been sitting around embroidering tea-cosies, waiting for her crusader to come home with an armful of dirty socks and boxers!

While old Hollywood movies and the romantic verses of troubadours might lead us to believe medieval ladies were couch potatoes, the reality of female castle occupants was quite different. Women in the Middle Ages it seems could hold their own.

Far from being a pretty damsel with nothing but the latest boy band playing courtly music on her mind, the medieval lady got a chance to shine, when her silly Crusader hubby rode off to wage war against unsuspecting Muslims. The crusades as well as the 100 year war in France allowed women for the first time to take charge of their lives – and their belongings.

Running a castle with all its surrounding villages and land can’t have been easy. She wasn’t doing that alone, obviously she had trusted stewards to help her as well as a whole army of servants and peasants to do the actual work. With so many men going to war and the crusades, women found themselves suddenly in charge…and relished the freedom. Some may have been sitting in their chambers modestly knitting sheaths, but many courtly ladies amused themselves with minstrels and troubadours while their husbands were out laying the medieval world to waste.

Not every damsel was cut out for a home-maker life either. Some followed their crusading knights; Eleanor of Aquitaine for example rode out with her husband Louis VII, when he embarked on the Second Crusade. Many other women dressed in chain-mail, riding astride their saddles on warhorses just like men at arms. These women wore armour, just like the knights and some even carried lances. Margaret of Beverley for example joined the men at arms in the fighting at the Holy City, when Jerusalem, which had just been conquered by Christians, was besieged by Saracens wanting their city back. She wore a metal breast plate and, there being a shortage of fashionable helmets, simply used a cauldron to keep her head and hair-do safe (1187).

According to many chroniclers, the crusades also attracted a large number of ladies working in the “world’s oldest profession”. Such desperate women mostly perished when starvation, sieges and diseases ravaged the soldier’s camps. Sometimes these medieval prostitutes ended up fighting side by side with the men at arms against the Moors in a bid to stay alive.

Some women were archers, others fought with swords. Male historians may have done their utmost to delete references to these amazing women, but now and again we catch a glimpse of them, trail blazing heroines that they are, no matter if they were high born or a woman from the streets.

As I embark on writing a medieval fantasy for the first time, I’m getting sucked deeper and deeper into the amazing historic world I’m trying to re-create. Fan-fiction here I come!

Is there any time in history you’d be particularly interested in using as a fictional setting?

(Photographs of Cardiff Castle copyright Maria Thermann, other photos Wikipedia, source of animation heathersanimation.com, *reference to Poitiers from Aubrey Burl’s “Courts of Love, Castles of Hate”, Sutton Publishing)

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