Medieval women can teach us how to smash gender rules and the glass ceiling

This post originally appeared on The Conversation. The post is written by Laura Kalas Williams, Postdoctoral researcher in medieval literature and medicine and Associate Tutor at the University of Exeter.

On the night of the US election, Manhattan’s magisterial, glass-encased Javits Centre stood with its ceiling intact and its guest-of-honour in defeated absence. Hillary Clinton – who has frequently spoken of “the highest, hardest glass ceiling” she was attempting to shatter – wanted to bring in a new era with symbolic aplomb. As supporters despaired in that same glass palace, it was clear that the symbolism of her defeat was no less forceful.

People wept, hopes were dashed, and more questions were raised about just what it will take for the most powerful leader on the planet to one day be a woman. Hillary Clinton’s staggering experience and achievements as a civil rights lawyer, first lady, senator and secretary of state were not enough.

The double-standards of gender “rules” in society have been disconcertingly evident of late. The Clinton campaign said FBI director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private server revealed “jaw-dropping” double standards. Trump, however, lauded him as having “guts”. When no recriminating email evidence was found, Trump ran roughshod over the judicial process, claiming: “Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it. The FBI knows it, the people know it.” Chants of “lock her up” resonated through the crowd at a rally.

Mob-like cries for a woman to be incarcerated without evidence or trial? That’s medieval.

The heart of a king

Since time immemorial, women have manipulated gender constructs in order to gain agency and a voice in the political milieu. During her speech to the troops at Tilbury, anticipating the invasion of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth I famously claimed:

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.


Elizabeth I, The Ditchley Portrait, c. 1592, National Portrait Gallery. Elizabeth stands upon England, and the top of the world itself. Her power and domination are symbolised by the celestial sphere hanging from her left ear. The copious pearls represent her virginity and thus maleness. Wikimedia Commons

Four hundred years later, Margaret Thatcher seemed obliged to follow the same approach, employing a voice coach from the National Theatre to help her to lower her voice. And Clinton told a rally in Ohio: “Now what people are focused upon is choosing the next president and commander-in-chief.” Not a million miles away from the kingly-identifications of Elizabeth, the pseudo-male “Virgin Queen”.

This gender-play has ancient origins. In the late fourth century AD, St Jerome argued that chaste women become male. Likewise, the early Christian non-canonical Gospel of Thomasclaimed that Jesus would make Mary “male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males”.


15th century ‘Disease Woman’. Wellcome Collection, MS Wellcome Apocalypse 49, f.38r.

By the Middle Ages, this idea of female bodily inferiority became material as well as spiritual as medical texts on the topic proliferated. Women’s bodies were considered inferior and more prone to disease. Because of the interiority of female anatomy, male physicians had to rely on diagrams and texts to interpret them, often with a singular focus on the reproductive system. Since men mostly wrote the books, the lexical and pictorial construction of the female body has therefore been historically, and literally, “written” by male authors.

So women, who were socially constrained by their female bodies and living in a man’s world, had to enact radical ways to modify their gender and even their very physiology. To gain authority, women had to be chaste, and to behave like men by adopting “masculine” characteristics. Such modifications might appear to compromise feminist, or proto-feminist, ambitions, but they were in fact sophisticated strategies to undermine or subvert the status quo.

Gender-play


Illuminated image from Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) Scivias, depicting her enclosed in a nun’s cell, writing. Wikimedia Commons

Medieval women who desired a voice in religious circles (the Church was, of course, the unelected power of the day) shed their femininity by adapting their bodies, the way that they used them, and therefore the way in which they were “read” by others. Through protecting their virginity, fasting, mortifying their flesh, perhaps reading, writing, or becoming physically enclosed in a monastery or anchorhold, they reoriented the way in which they were identified.

Joan of Arc (1412-1431) famously led an army to victory in the Hundred Years War dressed as a soldier, in a time when women were not supposed to fight.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), defying social codes of female beauty, shaved her hair in defiance of her parents’ wish to have her married. She later had a powerful mystical experience whereby she received the heart of Christ in place of her own; a visceral transformation which radically altered her body and identity.

And St Agatha (231-251), whose story was widely circulated in the Middle Ages, refused to give in to sexual pressure and was tortured, finally suffering the severing of her breasts. She has since been depicted as offering her breasts on a plate to Christ and the world. Agatha subverted her torturers’ aim, exploited her “de-feminised” self and instead offered her breasts as symbols of power and triumph.


Saint Agatha bearing her severed breasts on a platter, Piero della Francesca (c. 1460–70). Wikimedia Commons

Some scholars have even argued that monks and nuns were a considered a “third gender” in the Middle Ages: neither fully masculine nor feminine.

These flexible gender systems show how medieval people were perhaps more sophisticated in their conceptualisation of identity that we are today, when challenges to binary notions of gender are only now becoming widely discussed. Medieval codes of chastity might not be to most 21st-century tastes, but these powerful women-in-history took control of their own identification: found loopholes in the rules, found authority in their own self-fashioning.

The US presidential campaign has without doubt reinvigorated the politics of gender. Hillary Clinton has said: “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle”. It is easy to leap at such a comment, seeing Clinton as a media-sycophant, playing to the expectation that women are defined by their appearance. But in fact, like myriad women before her, Clinton was manipulating and exploiting the very rules that seek to define her.

Complete liberation this is not. Only when the long history of gender rules is challenged will powerful women no longer be compared to men. Like the response of Joan of Arc and her troops, it is surely now time for another call to arms: for the freedoms of tolerance, inclusion, equality and compassion. We must turn grief into optimism and words into action. To shatter not the dreams of girls around the world, but the glass ceilings that restrain them.

The Medieval Somme: forgotten battle that was the bloodiest fought on British soil

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. It was written by James Clark, Professor of Medieval History.

Richard Caton Woodville’s The Battle of Towton.

A Battle of the Somme on British soil? It happened on Palm Sunday, 1461: a day of fierce fighting in the mud that felled a generation, leaving a longer litany of the dead than any other engagement in the islands’ history – reputed in some contemporary reports to be between 19,000 – the same number killed or missing in France on July 1 1916 – and a staggering 38,000.

The battle of Towton, fought near a tiny village standing on the old road between Leeds and York, on the brink of the North York Moors, is far less known than many other medieval clashes such as Hastings or Bosworth. Many will never have heard of it.

But here, in a blizzard on an icy cold March 29 1461, the forces of the warring factions of Lancaster and York met in a planned pitched battle that soon descended into a mayhem known as the Bloody Meadow. It ran into dusk, and through the fields and byways far from the battlefield. To the few on either side that carried their weapon to the day’s end, the result was by no means clear. But York in fact prevailed and within a month (almost to the day), the towering figure of Duke Edward, who stood nearly six-feet-five-inches tall, had reached London and seized the English crown as Edward IV. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, fled into exile.

Victor: the Yorkist Edward IV. The National Portrait Gallery

Towton was not merely a bloody moment in military history. It was also a turning-point in the long struggle for the throne between these two dynasties whose rivalry has provided – since the 16th century – a compelling overture to the grand opera of the Tudor legend, from Shakespeare to the White Queen. But this summer, as national attention focuses on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, we might also take the opportunity to recall a day in our history when total war tore up a landscape that was much closer to home.

An English Doomsday

First, the historian’s caveats. While we know a remarkable amount about this bloody day in Yorkshire more than 550 years ago, we do not have the benefits granted to historians of World War I. Towton left behind no battle plans, memoranda, maps, aerial photographs, nor – above all other in value – first-hand accounts of those who were there. We cannot be certain of the size of the forces on either side, nor of the numbers of their dead.

A death toll of 28,000 was reported as early as April 1461 in one of the circulating newssheets that were not uncommon in the 15th century – and was taken up by a number of the chroniclers writing in the months and years following. This was soon scaled up to nearly 40,000 – about 1% of England’s entire male population – by others, a figure which also came to be cemented in the accounts of some chroniclers.

This shift points to the absence of any authoritative recollection of the battle – but almost certainly the numbers were larger than were usually seen, even in the period’s biggest clashes. Recently, historians have curbed the claims but the latest estimate suggests that 40,000 men took to the field, and that casualties may have been closer to 10,000.

Lethal: an armour-piercing bodkin arrow, as used at Towton. by Boneshaker

But as with the Somme, it is not just the roll-call, or death-toll, that matters, but also the scar which the battle cut across the collective psychology. Towton became a byword for the horrors of the battlefield. Just as July 1 1916 has become the template for the cultural representation of the 1914-18 war, so Towton pressed itself into the popular image of war in the 15th and 16th centuries.

When Sir Thomas Malory re-imagined King Arthur for the rising generation of literate layfolk at the beginning of the Tudor age, it was at Towton – or at least a battlefield very much like it – that he set the final fight-to-the-death between Arthur and Mordred (Morte d’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 4). Writing less than ten years after the Yorkist victory, Malory’s Arthurian battleground raged, like Towton, from first light until evening, and laid waste a generation:

… and thus they fought all the long day, and never stinted till the noble knights were laid to the cold earth and ever they fought still till it was near night, and by that time there was there an hundred thousand laid dead upon the ground.

Lions and lambs

In his history plays, Shakespeare also presents Towton as an expression of all the terrible pain of the years of struggle that lasted over a century, from Richard II to Henry VIII. He describes it in Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5:

O piteous spectacle! O bloody times! While lions war and battle for their dens, poor harmless lambs abide their enmity. Weep, wretched man, I’ll aid thee tear for tear.

Both the Somme and Towton saw a generation fall. But while it was a young, volunteer army of “Pals” that was annihilated in 1916, osteo-analysis suggests that Towton was fought by grizzled older veterans. But in the small society of the 15th century, this was no less of a demographic shock. Most would have protected and provided for households. Their loss on such a scale would have been devastating for communities. And the slaughter went on and on. The Lancastrians were not only defeated, they were hunted down with a determination to see them, if not wiped out, then diminished to the point of no return.

Battle of Towton: initial deployment. by Jappalang, CC BY-SA

For its time, this was also warfare on an unprecedented scale. There was no be no surrender, no prisoners. The armies were strafed with vast volleys of arrows, and new and, in a certain sense, industrial technologies were deployed, just as they were at the Somme. Recent archaeology confirmed the presence of handguns on the battlefield, evidently devastating if not quite in the same league as the German’s Maschinengewehr 08 in 1916.

These firearm fragments are among the earliest known to have been in used in northern European warfare and perhaps the very first witnessed in England. Primitive in their casting, they presented as great a threat to the man that fired them as to their target. Surely these new arrivals would have added considerably to the horror.

Fragments of the past

Towton is a rare example in England of a site largely spared from major development, and vital clues to its violent past remain. In the past 20 years, archaeological excavations have not only extended our understanding of the events of that day but of medieval English society in general.

The same is true of the Somme. That battlefield has a global significance as a place of commemoration and reconciliation, especially as Word War I passes out of even secondhand memory. But it also has significance as a site for “live” research. Its ploughed fields and pastures are still offering up new discoveries which likewise can carry us back not only to the last moments of those lost regiments but also to the lost world they left behind them, of Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

It is essential that these battlefields continue to hold our attention. For not only do they deepen our understanding of the experience and mechanics of war, they can also broaden our understanding of the societies from which such terrible conflict springs.

How the Battle of the Bastards squares with medieval history

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. The post was written by James Clark, Professor of Medieval History. This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season six, episode nine.

A 12-foot giant, his unhuman features oddly familiar (almost homely, after two screen decades colonised by combat-ready orcs) wheels around a wintry courtyard, wondering at the thicket of arrow shafts now wound around his torso. He stops, sways somewhat, and falls, dead. So Wun Wun the Wilding met his doom in The Battle of the Bastards, the penultimate episode of this season of Game of Thrones.

One casualty which, with countless others in the scenes before and after, might have a claim to a place in history, apparently. “The most fully realised medieval battle we’ve ever seen on the small screen (if not the big one too)”, is the breathless verdict from The Independent.

As a full-time historian of the other Middle Ages – Europe’s, every bit as feuding and physical as the Seven Kingdoms but with better weather – I am struck by the irony that Martin’s mock-medieval world might now be seen to set the bar for authenticity. There’s no doubt that for much of screen’s first century, medieval was the Cinderella era: overlooked, patronised and pressed into service for clumsy stage-adaptations, musical comedy and children. But over the past two decades – almost from the moment that Marsellus fired the line in Pulp Fiction (1994) – we have been “getting medieval” more and more.

Medieval millennium

Any connection between Braveheart (1995) and recorded history may have been purely coincidental, but its representation of the scale and scramble of combat at the turn of the 13th century set a new standard, pushing even Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Henry V (1989) closer to the Panavison pantomime of Laurence Olivier’s film (1944). Branagh had at least toned down the hues of his happy breed from the bold – indeed, freshly laundered – primary colours of Sir Laurence’s light brigade, but his men-at-arms still jabbed at each other with the circumspection of the stage-fighters while noble knights strutted and preened.

Of course, at times it threatened to be a false dawn: First Knight (1995) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) are undeniable obstacles in making the case for a new realism. But new epics have extended the territory taken in Mel Gibson’s first rebel assault.

Now already a decade old, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) achieved a level of accuracy without reducing the cinematic to the documentary. For the first time, the scene and size of the opposing forces were not compromised by either budget or technological limitations. The audience is led to gates of the Holy City as it would have appeared to the Crusaders. The armies’ subsequent encounter with one another is captured with the same vivid colour and fear that the contemporary chroniclers conjure them, catching especially the crazy spectacle of Christian liturgical performance – crucifixes, chanting priests – on the Middle Eastern plain. And descriptive details were not lost, particularly in the contentious arena of Crusader kit, now a hobbyists’ domain into which only the brave production designer – and braver historian – strays.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson painted energetically with his medieval palate in the Lords of the Rings trilogy, not, of course, pointing us to a place or time but certainly providing a superior visual vocabulary for the experience of combat in a pre-industrial age.

Back to basics

So, has Game of Thrones bettered this?

There are certainly some satisfyingly authentic twists and turns woven around The Battle of the Bastards. The most significant casualties occur away from the melee of the pitched battle in one of a number of routs (medieval battles always ended with a ragged rout, not a decisive bloodbath). And the principal actors in the drama do not readily present themselves for a tidy dispatch. The mounted forces of Westeros are rarely decisive and even fighters of the highest status do not see out the day in the saddle.

Also accurate are the individual acts of near-bestial violence which occur, are witnessed and go on to define the significance of battle. The deliberate breaking of Ramsey’s face by Jon Snow is a point-of-entry into a central but still under-researched dimension of medieval conflict: ritual violence, such as the systematic, obscene dismemberment of the dead and dying English by their Welsh enemies during the Glyn Dwr wars.

Before the fall. ©2016 Home Box Office, Inc.

Yet I suspect that these are not the snapshots that have won the superlatives. No doubt it is the standout features of the battle scenes: their scale, the weaponry and the “reality” of wounding in real time that have held most attention. And these threaten to turn us again in the direction of that Ur-Middle Ages which we had every reason to hope we had left for good.

Because medieval armies were always smaller than was claimed, far smaller than we see here. Weaponry was not fixed in time, but – more like the Western Front in 1917 than you might imagine – a fluid domain of fast-developing technology. It is time that directors gave space to firearms, which were the firsthand experience of any fighting man from the final quarter of the 15th century. They must also shed their conviction that “medieval” means hand-to-hand combat. It was sustained arrow-fire that felled armies, not swordplay, nor fisticuffs.

Life on the medieval battle path also meant poor health, rapid ageing and no personal grooming. So we are also overdue sight of a medieval fighting force as it might actually have arrived on the field: neither sporting sexy hairstyles, nor match-fit for action. They of course arrived after months of marching, if they arrived at all: dysentery passed through campaigning forces with fatal routine. They faced their foe in a youth that would have felt more like middle age to you and me.

And in the middle of this Ur-medieval battlefield there is a 12-foot giant, just to confirm that this not medieval Europe, by any means.