Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.






As someone who originally trained as a social historian of the Medieval Period, I have some things to add in support of the main point.  Most people dramatically underestimate the economic importance of Medieval women and their level of agency.  Part of the problem here is when modern people think of medieval people they are imagining the upper end of the nobility and not the rest of society. 

Your average low end farming family could not survive without women’s labour.  Yes, there was gender separation of labour.  Yes, the men did the bulk of the grain farming, outside of peak times like planting and harvest, but unless you were very well off, you generally didn’t live on that.  The women had primary responsibility for the chickens, ducks, or geese the family owned, and thus the eggs, feathers, and meat.  (Egg money is nothing to sneeze at and was often the main source of protein unless you were very well off).  They grew vegetables, and if she was lucky she might sell the excess.  Her hands were always busy, and not just with the tasks you expect like cooking, mending, child care, etc.. As she walked, as she rested, as she went about her day, if her hands would have otherwise been free, she was spinning thread with a hand distaff.  (You can see them tucked in the belts of peasant women in art of the era).  Unless her husband was a weaver, most of that thread was for sale to the folks making clothe as men didn’t spin.  Depending where she lived and the ages of her children, she might have primary responsibility for the families sheep and thus takes part in sheering and carding.  (Sheep were important and there are plenty of court cases of women stealing loose wool or even shearing other people’s sheep.)  She might gather firewood, nuts, fruit, or rushes, again depending on geography.  She might own and harvest fruit trees and thus make things out of that fruit.   She might keep bees and sell honey.  She might make and sell cheese if they had cows, sheep, or goats.  Just as her husband might have part time work as a carpenter or other skilled craft when the fields didn’t need him, she might do piece work for a craftsman or be a brewer of ale, cider, or perry (depending on geography).  Ale doesn’t keep so women in a village took it in turn to brew batches, the water not being potable on it’s own, so everyone needed some form of alcohol they could water down to drink.  The women’s labour and the money she bought in kept the family alive between the pay outs for the men as well as being utterly essential on a day to day survival level.

Something similar goes on in towns and cities.  The husband might be a craftsman or merchant, but trust me, so is his wife and she has the right to carry on the trade after his death.

Also, unless there was a lot of money, goods, lands, and/or titles involved, people generally got a say in who they married.  No really.  Keep in mind that the average age of first marriage for a yeoman was late teens or early twenties (depending when and where), but the average age of first marriage for the working poor was more like 27-29.  The average age of death for men in both those categories was 35.  with women, if you survived your first few child births you might live to see grandchildren.

Do the math there.  Odds are if your father was a small farmer, he’s been dead for some time before you gather enough goods to be marrying a man.  For sure your mother (and grandmother and/or step father if you have them) likely has opinions, but you can have a valid marriage by having sex after saying yes to a proposal or exchanging vows in the present (I thee wed), unless you live in Italy, where you likely need a notary.  You do not need clergy as church weddings don’t exist until the Reformation.  For sure, it’s better if you publish banns three Sundays running in case someone remembers you are too closely related, but it’s not a legal requirement.  Who exactly can stop you if you are both determined?

So the less money, goods, lands, and power your family has, the more likely you are to be choosing your partner.  There is an exception in that unfree folk can be required to remarry, but they are give time and plenty of warning before a partner would be picked for them.  It happened a lot less than you’d think.  If you were born free and had enough money to hire help as needed whether for farm or shop or other business, there was no requirement of remarriage at all.  You could pick a partner or choose to stay single.  Do the math again on death rates.  It’s pretty common to marry more than once.  Maybe the first wife died in childbirth.  The widower needs the work and income a wife brings in and that’s double if the baby survives.  Maybe the second wife has wide hips, but he dies from a work related injury when she’s still young.  She could sure use a man’s labour around the farm or shop.  Let’s say he dies in a fight or drowns in a ditch.  She’s been doing well.  Her children are old enough to help with the farm or shop, she picks a pretty youth for his looks instead of his economic value.  You get marriages for love and lust as well as economics just like you get now and May/December cuts both ways.

A lot of our ideas about how people lived in the past tends to get viewed through a Victorian or early Hollywood lens, but that tends to be particularly extreme as far was writing out women’s agency and contribution as well as white washing populations in our histories, films, and therefore our minds eyes.

Real life is more complicated than that.

BTW, there are plenty of women at the top end of the scale who showed plenty of agency and who wielded political and economic power.  I’ve seen people argue that the were exceptions, but I think they were part of a whole society that had a tradition of strong women living on just as they always had sermons and homilies admonishing them to be otherwise to the contrary.  There’s also a whole other thing going on with the Pope trying to centralized power from the thirteenth century on being vigorously resisted by powerful abbesses and other holy women.  Yes, they eventually mostly lost, but it took so many centuries because there were such strong traditions of those women having political power.

Boss post! To add to that, many historians have theorised that modern gender roles evolved alongside industrialisation, when there was suddenly a conceptual division between work/public spaces, and home/private spaces. The factory became the place of work, where previously work happened at home. Gender became entangled in this division, with women becoming associated with the home, and men with public spaces. It might be assumable, therefore, that women had (have?) greater freedoms in agrarian societies; or, at least, had (have?) different demands placed on them with regard to their gender.

(Please note that the above historical reading is profoundly Eurocentric, and not universally applicable. At the same time, when I say that the factory became the place of work, I mean it in conceptual sense, not a literal sense. Not everyone worked in the factory, but there is a lot of literature about how the institution of the factory, as a symbol of industrialisation, reshaped the way people thought about labour.)

I am broadly of that opinion.  You can see upper class women being encouraged to be less useful as the piecework system grows and spreads.  You can see that spread to the middle class around when the early factory system gears up.  By mid-19th century that domestic sphere vs, public sphere is full swing for everyone who can afford it and those who can’t are explicitly looked down on and treated as lesser.  You can see the class system slowly calcify from the 17th century on.

Grain of salt that I get less accurate between 1605-French Revolution or thereabouts.  I’ve periodically studied early modern stuff, but it’s more piecemeal.

I too was confining my remarks to Medieval Europe because 1. That was my specialty.  2. A lot of English language fantasy literature is based on Medieval Europe, often badly and more based on misapprehension than what real lives were like.

I am very grateful that progress is occurring and more traditions are influencing people’s writing.  I hate that so much of the fantasy writing of my childhood was so narrow.

As with POC in history, using erasure to justify erasure is lazy and inaccurate.


Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s