Friday, July 04, 2008

Ladies Night at the Wordhoard! Ladies drink for half price!

In the discussion thread of this post, and later over at her own blog, Highly Eccentric complains that my
picture of the medieval nerd is male-focused. I know, by personal experience and the Internet, that there are a lot of twitty female medieval fantasy nerds out there, and even sub-genres of fantasy lit aimed specifically at them. Also, witness the good deal of medieval/early modern historical romance books out there.

Alas, 'tis true ... brought on by my reluctance to use the term fangirl, since last time I used it I got complaints.*

Still, it started me wondering, who are the female medieval figures that draw fangirls to medievalism? Highly Eccentric mentions Marie de France, Joan d'Arc, and Jeanne de Montfort, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Heloise, but I wonder how many of these a girl is likely to encounter before she takes an interest? I would think the first medievalist figures a fangirl encounters would be Guinevere, Elaine, maybe Joan d'Arc or Boudicca (which may depend on the national heroines of her country), or women fantasy authors.

So, how about it? Ladies, what brought you into fankind? No scholarly answers, either -- no 14-year-old girl ever picked up the Shewings of Julian of Norwich and said, "hmmm, I'll bet this'll be as interesting as the Baby-sitters Club series" -- I'm curious as to what drew your interest back before you even knew you had an interest. Or was it the same kind of Tolkien, D&D stuff that draws fanboys?

*The debate over the terms fanboy, fangirl, fandom, fankind, non-scholar, buff, amateur, non-professional, and enthusiast in the thread shows that the use of these terms is still perilous. I like peril, so maybe I'll just use whatever term I want in the future. Or maybe I'll use the term fankind, since I kinda like the pun. Bring on the great and terrible peril!


  1. Well, if we're talking Tolkien, it was Eowyn, the Shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim. But long before that, I was hooked on the heroines that I could find in fantasy, history and SF. I read a lot aimed at young boys, of course (and railed, inwardly, at the horrible sexism of early Heinlein and Asimov).

    For history, I ran across Eleanor of Aquitaine fairly early but I was even more taken by Elizabeth I which is why, I suppose, I became an early modernist and not a medievalist.

  2. OK, I'll admit that I did not pick up Julian of Norwich at age 14, but you shouldn't assume that 14-year-olds don't have esoteric or intellectual tastes, or that all 14-year-old girls are reading crap like the Babysitter's Club. At age *12* I really, really liked the movie My Dinner With Andre. I'm not making that up.

    But anywho, Wallace Shawn is neither medieval nor female, so he's off topic. Back on topic, at age 9 I first went to Europe and saw the unicorn tapestries at Cluny. I was really, really into animals -- for much of my childhood I wanted to be a zoologist, and as a Catholic girl, I loved the stories of St. Francis and his kinship with animals. Plus, it was the 70s, and unicorns were really big in girl culture. So, as you can imagine, those tapestries made me gasp. I SO wanted to be "La Dame a la Licorne."

    So that's the medieval woman who first got my interest piqued in the Middle Ages, real or imagined.

  3. Well, in Scott's defense, Highly Eccentric's initials do spell out HE. Coincidence? I think not.....;)

    I have to say that when I teach my Tolkien and LoTR: Influences and Influence course, most of the women in the course confess at the beginning that they took because it fit their schedule and filled a requirement. But a number have come to actually really like medieval literature (if not Tolkien) by the end of the course, so I'm creating geeks!

    Larry Swain: Geek Maker, how would that look on a business card?

    (Sorry, a little punchy, wife and I and puggers are moving this weekend)

  4. In support of Dr. Virago, I too read rather outside my age bracket -- I read Robert Graves _Greek Myths_ when I was 7, on vacation in Europe (without any other English language reading material). I skipped the academic notes, though.
    And now I'm a Classicist... no coincidence, I think. Of course, this is all off topic, since I'm not a medievalist... though an early influence on my interests was Marion Zimmer Bradley's _Mists of Avalon_, so I guess Morgaine and Guinevere would be my contribution to the discussion.

  5. I know a scholar who was reading early Latin chronicles at age 7, so watch those generalizations.

    Aren't you supposed to be at a picnic or something?

  6. Well, I did read and enjoy Tolkien as a girl despite its lack of women characters, and also Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, and other fantasy. I was interested in history fairly young, though, and read nonfiction on the ancient & medieval periods aimed at general readers. I particularly remember a big fat green book on the Middle Ages that had a lot on material culture, what people wore, castle layouts, and that sort of thing. I've long since forgotten the title. I was also fixated on queens for a while and read biographies of everyone from Cleopatra to Marie Antoinette, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Castile, etc.

  7. The first Medieval Thing I loved was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So I guess in terms of female figures...Zoot?

  8. Au contraire good sir- many a nerdy teenage girl has long abandoned Baby Sitter's Club for the Horrible Histories canon...

    If we go back to beginnings... I had a terrible King Arthur picture book at around six, in which I found Morgan interesting and Lancelot more so; I started reading Tamora Piece at ten and Shakespeare shortly after. (At ten one doesn't differentiate between Elizabethan and medieval as long as it's sufficiently escapist.)

    It was around then that Horrible Histories came into my life (later than it does for most, I think), and their biographical special on Queen Elizabeth was pretty awesome, followed by the 'Measly Middle Ages' I linked to above. For my seventh-grade (I was twelve at the time) special projects I wrote a massive twenty-four page booklet of short biographies of medieval women, in which Marie de France, Jeanne de Montfort, Joan de Montfort, Isabelle of Castile and a few others all had full-page spreads. It's really hard to find good info on medieval women, outside of Horrible Histories, in a rural town library, but I sure as hell tried! (Even at fourteen, I didn't Believe In Researching Using The Internet.)

    In year eight we did a month or so on medieval history and I developed an interest in castle defence and crop management. One project for THAT class involved giant brightly coloured maps of my demense, with a list of important figures in the manor and town, and a description of my crop rotation plans. Yes, I was THAT nerdy.

    Meanwhile I was consuming every medieval fantasy book our library owned, special emphasis on the Women With Swords sub-genre.

    My fascination with the Arthurian canon continued- I played 'King Arfa Halfa Brain' in a terrible year nine drama spoof, and the only TV show I watched was a public channel dodgy show called 'As the Table Turns'.

    My father and I read T.W. Holleston's Celtic Mythology when I was about fourteen; we then proceeded through a bunch of books on the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, and continued reading every search-for-king-arthur book we could get our hands on. Noteworthy is Sara Douglass' pop history book on the arthurian canon, and especially her historio-fantasy series The Crucible.

    And then there's fandom. I discovered the Internet when I was reading an australian fantasy author whose name I forget, who wrote some very over-wordy australian fantasy that I now WISH I could forget. Nevertheless, her message boards lead me to Tamora Pierce's Sheroes discussion boards and then to, where I settled into Tolkien fandom with a happy sigh. I was the nerd who watched every Director's Commentary, so thanks to Peter Jackson I guess I picked up a bit of an interest in Anglo-Saxons, but I still came to uni wanting to do Arthurian fluffy stuff, and only fell into Anglo-Saxon studies by mistake.

  9. The medieval figure of legend that brought me to this part was Bradamante.

    My second favorite female medieval character is Marfisa.

    Both are fierce women warriors with a strong code of ethics.

    I discovered them via the Harry Potter fandom. And yes, I am quite familiar with the terms fanboy, fangirl, fandoms, etc. and have no qualms upon their usage.

    I had been participating in vigorous online debates about where the HP series was going with other member of the online fandom. There had been one theory floated that the inclusion of the hippogriff in the HP series was a symbol of Love. The epic poem of Orlando Furioso was cited as the first example where a hippogriff was used as character in literature. Following that clue I did what others in the online debates were unwilling to do: I read the source material in order to see how the hippogriff was utilized in the original and decide for myself whether or not there were appropriate literary parallels between OF and the HP series.

    As I read the poem, I fell in love with the love story of Bradamante and Ruggiero and then felt compelled to read the predecessor poem of Orlando Innamorato to see how they met.

    It was then that I became interested in the medieval period, because I decided that this rich and epic love story deserved to be retold for a new generation.


  10. Well, hmmm, I was supposed to be a priest, so I was exposed to Latin and patristics and things very early....I remember reading the Douay Rheims Bible, starting with Genesis (and believe me I skipped Levitcus and Deuteronomy!) at 6.....I think the first truly "medieval" thing that caught my attention was Robin Hood, but of course the version I encountered was the "medievalism" version, not the real thing which I discovered later.

  11. Anya Seton's Katherine, about Katherine Swynford, sister-in-law of Chaucer and mistress/wife of John of Gaunt. (You all probably know that already, sorry!) It's a 1950s historical romance that I read around age 13. Great book.

  12. Well for me it was all Arthuriana, modern Arthuriana at that -- Mary Stewart and Marian Zimmer Bradley. Tolkien was the other big influence (but self contained, not enough to make me want more).

    I really liked Norse mythology too. I remember I did my high school senior composition paper on Norse mythology but then I went off and did science for many years before coming back to medieval interests. Didn't take so much as one medieval history elective in college. I did my one English elective in mythology. Come to think of it, back then I read as much or more classics (Iliad etc).

    For a long time, I knew modern Arthurian literature and I had read Geoffrey of Monmouth and other early Celtic stuff, and there was this huge gap between Geoffrey and modern Arthurian stuff. I still haven't read any of the late medieval Arthurian stuff.

    Who are the medieval figures? Guinevere, Isolde/Yseult, Morgaine, Nimue/Lady of the Lake. Now you know why modern Arthurian writers reinvented Guinevere to be a more active person.

    There is virtually no one to initially attract women to Anglo-Saxon studies. Once you are interested already, then Hilda and Audrey become more interesting, but they aren't going to attract teenage girls to the field. (Neither are the women in Beowulf!) Norse mythology had more active women, maybe that it is why I liked it more as a teenager.

  13. Come to think of it, it was joining Arthurnet in the early 1990s that made me take it from casual fiction reading to actual study. So three cheers for Arthurnet!!!

    (Interest in Arthur's origins led me to Bede and I never really turned back....)