Epic Fantasy is No Place for Wimps

Guest post by Gail Z. Martin

I’m always amazed when I run into someone who tells me that strong women characters — especially women who could fight — didn’t exist in the “real” Middle Ages.  Usually this happens when the person’s entire knowledge of how things used to be has been shaped by bad TV movies and costume dramas.

Read any serious medieval history, and you’ll see plenty of women who knew how to get what they wanted.  One of my favorite is Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204), the mother of Richard III.  Back in the Twelfth Century, she rode off to the Holy Land to retrieve Richard after he’d been kidnapped, bringing an army with her.  Not only did she get him out of jail, but she managed to navigate a dangerous political climate and live to be 90 years old.

It took grit just to be a woman and survive, which I think a lot of people overlook.  As with women today who have grown up on farms, a certain amount of muscle is required just to kill the livestock required to be tonight’s dinner.  Noble women might not have had to do chores, but women of every other social class had hard physical labor to do just to keep a household running.  That builds muscle and know-how.  These women were not shrinking violets.

All too often, people will focus on a small period in history and generalize to think that those conditions applied to everyone, everywhere.  In reality, women’s role, rights, legal status and responsibilities changed dramatically over time and across geography.  Just because women in England in the 1600s had certain social limitations does not mean that the same was true of women a century or so earlier or in other countries.  Then, as now, the variations were numerous and fluid.

That’s one of the reasons I love writing about strong women characters in epic fantasy.  I tend to write ensemble casts, and I have important female characters in a variety of roles: warrior, noble, mistress of the manor, healer, spy, courtesan, madam, oracle, queen, priestess, whore, farmer and craftsperson, to name a few.  In some cases, the women are born into a role and responsibility, and in others they make their way however the opportunity presents itself. What they all have in common is a flinty determination to create the life they want, for themselves and for those they care about.

When you stop to think about how tough a woman had to be to survive without antibiotics, without modern obstetrics, often without access to any kind of knowledgeable medical practice, and without central heat, refrigeration, labor saving devices, easy transportation or even decent public sanitation, you realize that our foremothers were tough old birds.  They had to be. That’s the side I enjoy bringing to light in my epic fantasy worlds, they women who make their way, in spite of everything.  Those women never run out of adventures.

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Reign of Ash, book two in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga launches in April, 2014 from Orbit Books.  My new urban fantasy, Deadly Curiosities, comes out in July, 2014 from Solaris Books. I bring out two series of ebook short stories with a new story every month for just .99 on Kindle, Kobo and Nook — check out the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures or the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.


Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and the upcoming Reign of Ash (Orbit Books, 2014), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn  and The Dread) from Orbit Books.  In 2014, Gail launches a new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, from Solaris Books. She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.  Find her at http://ChroniclesOfTheNecromancer.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com.

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2 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy is No Place for Wimps

  • October 31, 2013 at 11:24 am
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    “(Except Eleanor of Aquitaine was the mother of Richard the Lionheart, not Richard the III. And she went on Crusade with her first husband, Louis of France, not in order to rescue Richard (who wasn’t even born then). She went on Crusade from 1147 to 1149, and Richard was born in 1157, after she divorced Louis and married Henry [later Henry II].)”

    “Usually this happens when the person’s entire knowledge of how things used to be has been shaped by bad TV movies and costume dramas.”

    Ahem. So much for that.

    You know, a university in Germany recently did a re-enactment of the life of a medievial page and chose an athlete sportler to live one week as such including the clothes, the food, the weapons’ training etc. This fit young man was not able to lift, let alone fight with, the broad sword.

    As women have considerable less upper body strength due to their build, I really have to snort every time I see a warrior lady in a sword fight. She would be hacked to pieces in under a minute.

    That Eleanor of Aquitane went on a Crusade doesn’t mean that you would have found her in the thick of a battle.

    I’m really tired to be told that I know nothing about history by people who obviously make history up as they go just to fit their political agenda.

    Reply

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