Why Teenage Girls Become Medieval Nerds: A Very Long Exposition

Let us now turn to Dr Nokes. This post shall cover, in the following order: * what ticked me off; * the sorts of medieval things a teenage girl might be reading, both history and fiction; * the reasons why she (and her male counterparts) are into medievalism anyway; * where the experiece of teenage girls and boys differs in medievalism; and finally * what history can offer to teenage girls that fantasy fiction doesn’t yet.

In his first post, Dr Nokes has a lot of good things to say about ‘applied medievalism’, how to do it and why to do it, and his final point very much agreed with the one I made in my last post.

That’s the difference between fanboy medievalism and applied medievalism. Fanboy medievalism just says, “Oh my gosh, that sword is so awesome!” Applied medievalism acknowledges the kick-butt awesomeness of the sword, but offers a broader context, like thinking about how the ceremonial swords Marines carry suggest the chivalric virtues they are still expected to continue as part of their warrior ethos. In that way, applied medievalism ideally inspires fanboys to explore further. After all, none of us emerged from the womb fully-developed thinkers about medievalism. We all started as fans, but through our explorations became more.

What gets my goat is the use of the term ‘fanboy‘, a term which he has since explained he uses because ‘fangirl’ carries unwanted connotations of ‘OMG ELIJAH WOOD IS LYKE MY HUSBAND 4EVAR‘. Urbandictionary supports this distinction, so ok, fair enough Dr Nokes. He jokingly suggests that he should use ‘fankind’, but what’s wrong with the words we have- ‘fan’, ‘nerd’, ‘fandom’?

For the purposes of the last post, I’ve used the word nerd, to denote an individual enthusiast of unpopular topics, but I shall now add to it the noun ‘fandom’, as the collective noun for the community of such nerds and the activities in which they engage. Fandom is a term normally applied to enthusiasts of a particular piece of ‘popular’ culture- books, movies, games, comics, TV shows, and to the fanfic, role playing, cosplay, and so forth which they construct around their chosen canon. With my newly invented term ‘medieval fandom’, I’m lumping together all the fandoms associated with medieval fantasy and historical fiction, movies, games, etc; and adding to them medieval history nerds and medieval role players, cosplayers, etc like the SCA who take the historical period as their canon. Are we all clear on that? Yes? Good. Let’s get back to the teenage female constituent of that fandom.

The term ‘fanboy’ aside, something about Dr Nokes’ picture of the medieval nerd bugs me. He didn’t flesh out in great detail the sort of person he pictures as the popular medievalist, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair to that post. However, it comes across as a very male picture of the medieval nerd. All swords and fightin’ and stuff. (Not that I don’t appreciate a good shiny sword… or avidly consume the Woman With Sword subgenre of medieval fantasy…) I pointed that out, and gave some suggestions on the kind of female figures- Joan of Arc, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Jeanne de Montforte, Marie de France- whose strong characters and general awesomeness are what attracted me to medieval nerdery in the first place. It’s by reading up on these individually interesting characters that I started building a picture of the society they lived in.

Dr Nokes followed through with his next post, in which it turns out I was right. His average medieval nerd *is* an exclusively male figure, and what’s more, he apparently the intelligence of teenage girls is insufficient to be attracted by figures of scholarly study like Eleanor, Heloise and Julian of Norwich.

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?

Gee, thanks Dr Nokes. Given that BabySitters Club is aimed at the 7-11 set, any 14 year old still counting them as the height of interesting reading is probably not destined for a life of arcane nerdery.

If you’re wondering how teenage girls stumble across figures like Eleanor d’Aquitaine: we READ. If she’s anything like me, the fourteen year old girl in question will have picked up an illustrated children’s guide to the middle ages sometime in primary school, having learnt at about age seven that history books are always more interesting than BabySitter’s Club. She wasn’t looking for anything medieval; she wasn’t looking for strong female characters; she was looking for something interesting to do with her lunch break. She had probably already read The Roman Times for a class project, and picked upThe Medieval Messenger which was lying next to it, because she knew that series is funny. After that, she might have specifically sought out something like The Measly Middle Ages, or perhaps she stumbled across it by accident. There aren’t many medieval fiction books out there aimed at the under-ten set that she might happen across, but I think I read a King Arthur comic book and a three-chapter novella about a young kid transported to King Arthur’s Court.

If she’s like me she’ll start reading Redwall and Tamora Pierce before she finishes primary school. If she’s like K, the Heretical Purple Blur I mentioned in my last post, who’s a little younger than me and was around for some books I missed by virtue of Getting Old, she’s also reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur series, and the Royal Diaries (where, Dr Nokes, she might meet Eleanor D’Aquitaine and Isabella of Castille…) By fourteen, she’s probably reading Tolkien and is already a regular posting member on a handful of fantasy fiction fan sites. She will be reading Arthurian fantasy, and the Arthurian canon is leading her outwards into faux-history and pop history. Depending on the state of her local library, she might be reading Sara Douglass’ The Betrayal of Arthur, or T.W. Holleston’s Celtic Mythology. When she gets older, she might beg her parents to buy her the Allan Lee illustrated Mabinogion and the Oxford Classics translation of Malory. Primary source reading will find its way onto her bookshelf as a matter of course, because she’s insatiably curious and irreparably escapist.1

She sounds much the same as any intelligent, library-lurking fourteen-year old boy, doesn’t she? She’s reading fiction and history together; she’s attracted by exciting characters, different settings and adventurous plots. At fourteen, she’s probably also paying close and curious attention to the kissing scenes- but then, I suspect her male counterpart is too, even if he won’t admit it. Even if she’s only one tenth of the nerd I was, even if (as it seems from the comments) American libraries aren’t near so well stocked in children’s Medieval history books as British and Australian libraries might be… It still shouldn’t be surprising that an intelligent teenager should find medieval history interesting when she stumbles across it!

Nokes asks if girls are attracted to Tolkien and D&D, as the boys are. In fact, as long as I’ve been in it, Tolkien fandom is predominately a female domain. I can count the regular male posters over at ringbearer.org on my fingers. OK, a lot of the female Tolkien fans back when I joined up were the ‘fangirls’ that we (the SRS TOLKIEN READERS) called ‘swooners’ back in the day, but most of the hardcore Tolkienuts were (are) also female. I’ve never tried playing D&D, and I understand it does draw a more male-oriented group.

The problem is, Nokes takes it as given that boys are attracted Tolkien and D&D, without saying why, while wondering what might interest girls in medieval fandom. Well, what are the boys in fandom for? Why should we expect the basic attraction to be any different, although gender may result in some statistical variation as to exact field of interest?

I shall hereby posit three things which attract young people to medieval fandom, and I see no reason why these basic attractive elements are any different for the history side of it as opposed to the fiction and gaming side.

1. Above all, again and again, escapism. There’s something really enthralling about societies and cultures so different to our own that we have to piece them together bit by bit- and then the similarities you find are so much more engaging. If you pick up Bridget Jones, for example, you don’t lose yourself in her world, because her world is yours (or it’s supposed to be… someone shoot me if I’m ever that much of a twit). Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, Gary Gygax’s games, the LOTR films- they take you out of your setting and away.
The thing is, historical non-fiction does the same thing. You can piece together a picture of another world, another society, where cool and exciting things happen, and cool and exciting people live, only with the added bonus of it was all real once and you can never learn ‘all there is to know’ about it.
Reason 1A for being attracted to medieval fandom is ‘characters to identify with’. Really cool people, fictional or historical, are what draws you in to their world, and I think it’s here that there comes up a difference between girls and guys, so Reason 1A will be treated separately.

2. Intellectual stimulation. As per my post yesterday morning, knowing stuff is fun. Knowing stuff few other people know is a double-edged sword: you get your own little universe, but you don’t get any sense of solidarity out of it. A sufficiently intelligent teenager, having discovered that medieval history is pretty cool by just picking up a book off the shelf, will probably continue to pick up books from the shelf because she enjoys learning things; because doing research of her own offers more scope and depth and fun (see escapism, Reason 1) than the simplistic approach of the high school syllabus. For the same reason, she’ll probably thrive on Tolkien- even if it takes her nine months the first time around, as it did me- because Tolkien is so much more demanding on the reader than anything they set you in high school. (Unless you have trouble with Shakespearean language, I guess…)

3. The fandom community. Like Dr Nokes’ typical fanboy, many girls must come to an interest in medieval studies only via their first interest in Tolkien, or Arthurian lit, or the works of Tamora Pierce, having somehow never picked up a copy of ‘The Measly Middle Ages’. Or maybe they did, thought it was kind of cool, and were never afflicted by the obsessive desire to research which afflicts K and I. Regardless of how much you’re reading on your own, a sense of community and people to nerd out with will go a long way to keeping your interest active. I quite liked Tolkien, but my Rabidly Obsessive Phase didn’t come about until I’d been on ringbearer.org long enough to absorb the enthusiasm. RB also gave me a bunch of recs for other good fantasy lit… My guess is that the fanfic side of fandom works the same way, and I wonder: if more people were out there writing historically-informed fic for fantasy lit, if that might arouse interest in the primary texts? (Example: an alliterative Gawain fic by a Proper Medievalist whose name shall not be publicised for the sake of her reputation…) A quick search of the internet reveals that there’s at least one medieval history forum out there, as well as multiplicious fantasy boards.

Having established these three reasons to be into medieval fandom, and that history and fiction are both attractive for these three reasons, let us return to Reason 1A, ‘characters to identify with’.

1A. Having interesting fictional or historical characters makes for a great interest-grabbing hook which sparks your interest in a genre or period. For me, medieval pop history provided something that fantasy fiction didn’t: strong female characters I could really identify with.

Let me clarify that. It’s not that fantasy lit doesn’t have strong female characters. There’s a whole subgenre that I like to call the ‘Women with Swords’ genre- most notably Tamora Pierce, who often says of her work that one of her main aims in writing young people’s fantasy is to provide teenage girls with heroic female role models. I devoured Women-With-Swords books as a teenager, and several concluding books (including ROTK) were violently thrown across the room when I discovered that the Shieldmaiden wasn’t going to get the Main Hero Guy. The problem is that most of the ‘Sheroes’ in fantasy are cast in the same mould: they’re tough, physically strong, assertive characters whose strength is in acting man-like, which almost always means wielding a sword. Every one of Pierce’s Tortall protagonists has a weapon of some kind (discounting magic, which most of them have as well), even Thayet, who is otherwise depicted as powerful by virtue of her royal birth and skill at court politics. The hallmark of a strong female fantasy character is her ability to pass as a man. While that makes for a rollicking story, and I passionately idolised and envied the Shieldmaiden, fact is I know and have always known, I’d never pass for a knight. Zip, zero knightliness here. Nor am I going to dress as a sailor and stow away to sea, or dress as a pirate and take over the ship (Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders), and I’d rather not get involved in any telepathic dragon orgies, really (yes, I once read Ann McCaffrey. We all have our shameful secrets). But at the same time, I find Arwen boring, I find Imrhien’s lovesick wanderings around Erith tedious, and although I now recognise that Faraday is the true tragic hero of the Axis trilogy, as a teenager I found her wilting and dull and wished she’d get around to doing something interesting for once.

Now, there are manifold types of male heroes in medieval literature and medieval fantasy. Big, buff, tough type, ‘most eager for praise’? Beowulf is for you. Fancy yourself as a cunning trouble maker? Loki. You’re the little guy who’d rather not have to play the hero? Frodo. Can you see yourself as a guerrilla, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? Robin Hood. Are you the poet, the dreamer and the visionary? Stephen R. Lawhead’s Taliesin. You want to alternate your time between studying ancient scrolls and leading your trained scouts into enemy territory? Then you’re a Faramir. The list goes on and on. Point is, no matter what your teenage boys temperament is, now matter how unlikely he is to ever duel someone for his lady’s honour, there’s a role model in medieval fandom that say he could be the hero, given the right circumstances. Medieval literature just doesn’t offer that sort of scope in female characters. Efforts have been made in fantasy to redress the imbalance, witness the popularity of Shieldmaiden protagonists. But more often, I’d like to see a nun as a fantasy hero, or a minor lord’s wife, or a princess who never even asks to pick up a sword, or a queen mother, or a farmer’s daughter.

This is where historians can fill the breach. Because history is about real people, and real people, however narrow their prescribed social roles, come in all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of temperaments. For some reason, although I can’t imagine me ever developing the motor skills to wield a sword, I look at Eleanor of Aquitane and part of me thinks ‘I could do that’. I read about Adela of Blois and I think ‘huh- running the estate while my husband’s on Crusade, nagging him until he returns a second time, and then taking over the headship of the family when he dies? I’m pretty good at nagging.’ Nevermind that I’m tactless and a bad liar, and so would be terrible at politics. Part of me thinks I could learn that, whereas I couldn’t learn to use a crossbow. As a budding author of bad teenage poetry, it didn’t require any effort at all to identify with Marie de France, and she’s remained one of my favourite characters, despite the little I’ve had the time and access to read of her writing.

Medieval history has some awesome characters in it, and among them are some pretty fantastic female characters in every sub-period. Michelle, in her reply to Dr Nokes, said she didn’t think there were any women in Anglo-Saxon England who’d be attractive to noob girls… but what about Æthelflæd, who kicked Danish butt in the early 800s? I can see St Æthelthryth No-Sex-For-YOU of Ely warranting a whole page in ‘The Abominable Anglo-Saxons’, if Terry Deary ever writes such a thing.

So there you go. There’s so much to interest a teenage girl in medieval fandom, I wrote an essay-length post on it in a matter of hours. If only essays were this easy! To summarise:

• Teenage girls come to medieval fandom the same way boys do: they read stuff. The read fiction, they read history books, they read the Intarwebs, and they probably started reading these things before they were out of primary school.
• The reasons teenage girls are attracted to medieval fandom are, at the root of it, the same as those of teenage boys, and fiction and history can be attractive in the same was: as escapism, as intellectual stimulation, and as part of a wider community of fandom.
• There isn’t the same variety of female characters to identify with in medieval fantasy as there is of male characters. This is important, because identifying with a character really creates your escapist alternate world, and it provides a stimulus for further research.
• Historians can fill that gap and make medieval history more interesting to young girls by telling stories of real medieval women, and telling them in an engaging and accessible fashion.

Here endeth the lesson rant for today.

~

1. If she has a father like mine, she’ll have company in her Celtic explorations; she will also have acquired a working knowledge of the First World War and aviation history, not to mention the fall of the Roman Empire, the invention of the motor car and the difference between a Neanderthal and a Homo Sapiens. Because curiosity is better in company.

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24 Responses to “Why Teenage Girls Become Medieval Nerds: A Very Long Exposition”

  1. Michelle Says:

    You forgot perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxon woman… Lady Godiva. 🙂 Not too sure if they would want her in an elementary school library. Although if they actually told the whole story it might make the cut.

    I’m jealous, your school library (and public library) were apparently better than mine. D& D had no interest for me, probably because of the totally geeky guys who did it in my days. It was just a bit too over the top on notebook paper as they did it then (assuming its computerized today). Then again my high school days were pre-internet, websites, discussion lists and blogs.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Forgot to mention that in medieval themed fiction (‘fantasy’) and sometimes science fiction (which I read alot of as a teenager) girls find the kinds of male heroes that young girls wish they knew in real life, especially as a teenager when most boys act a couple years younger than the girls. Compared to Lancelot or Tristain those geeky boys playing D&D fell rather short.

    Consider this, throughout history St Oswald, King of Northumbria, has been primarily promoted by women — Osthryth Q of Mercia (who est. Bardney), Lady Aethelflaed who personally led a raid into Lindsey to recover his relics and prevent them from falling to the Danes, a variety of noble women who carried him to the continent and culminated in Judith of Flanders.

  3. kishnevi Says:

    There are two important things that you’re skipping here.
    First, all those Horrible Histories, etc. were not around when people of a certain age were kids (meaning people like myself and Dr. Nokes) so we may be inclined to underestimate their impact. In fact, since I have no kids of my own, I never heard of them until you mentioned them in the last few days. (Or are they only an antipodeal thing?) As best as I can remember, my medieval reading as a juvenile (up to about the age of 17) consisted of The Once and Future King, LOTR, a book about the Norse gods, Ivanhoe, the Prydain Chronicles, a lot of secondhand stuff gotten through a love of opera (meaning all the stories behind Wagner, everything I might have picked up while reading the Encylopedia Americana in its entirety, and probably a couple of adult historical novels that have slipped into the amnesia zone. Most of what I read as historical fiction was either Greco Roman or nineteenth century in setting. But I don’t recall much in the way of fantasy in when I was in high school other than LOTR and Narnia (which I didn’t read because of its religious context)–the fantasy genre was really just taking root when I was in college. (Eddison, Dunsany, and Morris were of course out there, but I didn’t find out about them, and read them, until I got to college.) What eventually channeled me to things medieval, Renaissance, and early modern was D&D, which I got into when I was in my twenties (that was during the ‘eighties.)
    Second, for all those teenage boys I knew, the stereotypical male fascination with things that go boom (or at least, commit serious mayhem) does hold true–or at least, did hold true. “Sword! Awesome! Who can I try it out on?!” The one female I knew who was into roleplaying was one of the first women to graduate from Annapolis, so she was not really an exeption.
    But I do think your point about the limited number of strong female characters is true. For instance, the only woman who interests me as a character in LOTR is Galadriel–certainly not Arwen, who’s a cipher, and not Eowyn, who I think of as a case study in depression, which Tolkien resolves in much too facile a fashion–but case studies in depression are not good role models, especially not for teenage girls.

  4. Richard Scott Nokes Says:

    You’ve interpreted my post in a remarkably uncharitable way, and, I might add, inaccurate. Given the typical demographics of my medieval classes, in which there are hardly any male students, my model for the “average medieval nerd” is a female. I tend to use male examples because I myself am male, and they reflect my own experience — something for which I do not apologize.

    I understand that you felt I had somehow slighted all women and felt the need to defend them, but insulting my daughter isn’t an appropriate way to do that. Feel free to say what you will about me, but leave my children (both male and female) out of it. Point taken. Apologies, and edited.

    ~

    Blogger comment:

    and, I might add, inaccurate. Given the typical demographics of my medieval classes, in which there are hardly any male students, my model for the “average medieval nerd” is a female

    I do realise you must be AWARE of medieval female nerds, but I’m afraid that that awareness does not make for an inclusive model. We’re not talking about whether or not you know female medieval nerds, we’re talking about the model you construct through exclusively male examples. I’m sorry, but using male examples because you yourself are male isn’t good enough: not when you’re presenting yourself as an authority on and gateway to the *whole* world of popular medievalism. Not when you yourself are an older, male, commenter on a field which has traditionally been stereotyped as male.

    And secondly, we’re talking about your incredibly patronising attitude toward teenage girls. If my tone toward you is ‘uncharitable’, I’m terribly sorry but I feel it is entirely justified, given that your post assumes that teenage girls are normally interested only in the Babysitter’s Club (a series which, by the way, is aimed at eight-to-eleven year olds, and is in itself a vast insult to the intelligence of hypothetical fourteen-year-olds), and that the interests of teenage girls are so limited that it would be a vast aberration for a girl to take an interest in history or to identify with strong historical female figures.

    I understand that you were well-meaning, but unconscious sexism is still sexism, and every now and again, it will piss people off.

    I’ve edited this comment into yours because I wanted to address you specifically, rather than putting it some way down the comment thread.

    Best,

    Highly.

  5. steve muhlberger Says:

    I’m sure glad the word “fanboy” wasn’t around when I was a young sf fan.

  6. Michelle (a different one) Says:

    I think you’re basically right about the attractions of the Middle Ages to nerdy girls. I agree with Kishnevi that a lot of the specific titles you’ve mentioned are unfamiliar to me, and were probably unavailable when I was actually a teen. Nonetheless, as I said at the Wordhoard, I read extensively in biography, history, and medieval-flavored fantasy fiction. The other difference I note is that I had no Internet access as a teen (we didn’t have a home computer until I was 16 or so, and I didn’t have internet access until I went to college), so I had no sense of being part of a wider community of fans. Similar experiences, with variation for age and location.

  7. goblinpaladin Says:

    kishnevi: While it is entirely reasonable that you aren’t familiar with modern children’s book titles, shouldn’t that be the task of medievalists looking to have a discussion on encouraging “today’s youth” into medievalism? Else you will simply sound like the old guys and gals in the corner talking without ever engaging…

  8. kishnevi Says:

    What I was trying to point out (obviously not very successfully) is that medieval-themed literature–whether as historical fiction or fantasy or historical fact written for juveniles–was not really around until relatively recently, so the entry points of that type were not as relatively accessible–and that fantasy gaming was , at least in earlier years, hugely dominated by males, which means it might not have been so attractive to females. (And even that is a relatively recent trend.) So it wouldn’t be out of place for someone of the age of myself or Dr. Nokes to think in terms of medieval nerds as being male (although his comment above makes it pretty clear that he was not).

    Of course there have been female medievalists for a long time (Dorothy Sayers was one). If someone has her bio available, it might be helpful to look up how she became interested in things medieval.

  9. goblinpaladin Says:

    Given that Dr. Nokes is apparently only in his thirties, I’m not sure that you can claim fantasy is ‘relatively recent’ phenomena, given that it predates fantasy gaming by a good– oh, I don’t know. When was Lord of the Rings first published, again? Thirty years or so? Forty? I forget. Fantasy and medieval-historical fiction pre-dated D&D and his spawn by a considerable length of time.

    If Dr. Nokes considers medieval nerds as female, his post was remarkably male-centric. I did not draw such conclusions from his actual writing, and neither did our host.

  10. A. Zanoni Says:

    “The hallmark of a strong female fantasy character is her ability to pass as a man.”

    No. No, it isn’t.

    Granted that you and I seem not to have read any of the same books… I still find this to be a particularly bizarre statement, Highly.

    Yes, there is fantasy where the heroine being disguised and taken for male happens. Tanith Lee had two lovely stories about Jaisel and that was the key element. However, that is not the case with all strong female characters. Try Patricia McKillip, for example, or Andre Norton; also Pamela Dean, Emma Bull, Diane Duane, Diana Wynne Jones, Katherine Kurtz, Garth Nix, Robin McKinley, Midori Snyder, Sheri S. Tepper, Jane Yolen…

    Tanith Lee has a great many strong female characters. _The Birthgrave_ is all about one.

    There is a vast difference between the hallmark you suggest, and simply being a protagonist who is female and able to handle herself.

    This isn’t meant as snark. For anyone wondering, Andre Norton was first published in 1934. Jane Yolen has written over 300 books.

    I am a medieval female nerd and have been so for over thirty-odd years. 🙂

    ASZ*—

  11. rcornish Says:

    Very interesting – I am going to have to read more in depth on this in the future. I will chime in though – most of the folks that escape with gaming tend to be male, however there are some exceptions. Generally though, the author is correct, especially in regards to LOTR, there is a much larger female gender interest in the slice of medieval fantasy escapism. Having said, as a 38 year old male, I am noticing some trends that go the other way with the 20 something age crowd of today. There seem to be almost as many females involved some sort of gaming and indeed a much larger percentage that are actively engaged in reading comics and such as well. Perhaps some of that is the turn that a lot of gaming systems have taken toward being more of story instead of some complex who has the best numbers system and comics themselves have really come a long way in the last 20 years with the stories, though there is still plenty enough exciting artwork to keep a young teen age boy more then interested.

  12. Karen Says:

    interesting. As a middle-aged female medieval nerd, gaming and fantasy type activities haven’t really figured. My earliest memories are from television & movies; BBC’s Noggin the Nog, first broadcast in the 1960s/1970s when I was a child, the movies repeated on TV – the Errol Flynn ‘Robin Hood’ , El Cid, The War Lord, The Vikings, Ivanhoe, the Ingrid Bergman ‘Joan of Arc’ and others I’ve probably now forgotten. from this a i journeyed into literature. Some reading has been in the area of what is sneeringly described as historical romance – authors such as Jean Plaidy, Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, but also the Medieval literature itself, Old and Middle English.

    Films tend to offer more male characters for viewers to identify with, whilst novels may bring forward a female view. I’m not sure why this is so, and genre within genre may be a deciding factor. The authors mentioned above are female but both tend to write male and female voices, but hazarding a guess, are mostly read by women.

    In Tolkien women are barely present but it doesn’t deter female readers.

    Gender is an issue for medieval study as any other area. Gender as medieval people understood it may not be as we represent it in Films, Games or Literature today. Literature, Film and Gaming allow people to explore the world through different gender roles, perhaps gaining insight – although any insight gained must say as much, if not more, about Now as it can do about Then.

    Academic monographs are also a must.

    For me, an interest that began with narrative and with visual representation of the past, (particularised by trends at the time these items were produced), has become a fascination; i.e. looking for anachronism and misrepresentation of the Medieval World. After all the Medieval world was already allowing its nerds to create representations of itself and the past. The interest in chivalrous Romance or Epic literature is well embedded within the time period we call Medieval.

    Younger women aren’t necessarily more nerdy than my generation or Christina de Pisan, they just have other mechanisms available to them to explore their interest.

  13. R. M. Says:

    I’m very curious about this, having very recently been a nerdy teenage girl & now having a degree in medieval studies. I have been enjoying what a nice community medievalists provide for semi-lurkers such as myself, and you have my thanks.

    Karen’s remark that “in Tolkien women are barely present but it doesn’t deter female readers” is very true in my experience. My sisters (all bona fide nerds with relevant college degrees) and I were never really attracted to heroes/heroines because of their gender but because of a shared morality or of shared values. Finding strong female roles in fantasy, history, or any other genre was not as important to us as the reality of the hero/ine and the story as a whole. Most of my favourite stories were about men partly because the stories about women had a definite “I am woman, hear me roar” tone to them–at the age of 12 I understood this.

    I do agree with you that many of the Women With Swords are gendered to be men; much of the time they make viragoes out of us. The essence of the female role in all the knights-and-castles adventures is to endure and to make sure there is a home for the hero when he returns. You can write about exceptions but that is the rule. It is an entirely different rhythm from the usual adventure formula, so it is only natural that writers treat it like an invisible elephant.

  14. Pinon Coffee Says:

    I read Baby-Sitter’s Club, and gave them all away again, but Prof. Noakes can escape unscathed from my end. His point was clear. 😉

    I was a teenage quasi-medievalist nerd because of the aforementioned neat settings (can *I* have a castle, please?), glorious adventures (I actually kind of prefer swords wielded by guys, the better to acquire crushes–girls have other awesomenesses, and I think Xena-Warrior-Princesses are a stupid genre), and also because of the gorgeous CLOTHES! It was a happy, happy day in my household when I discovered an old velvet prom dress of my mother’s which I immediately dubbed “the Juliet dress” and wore at every excuse I could muster. The costumes were the best part of the first new Narnia movie.

    And now my husband and I have an apartment full of daggers and Celtic goblets…

  15. King Oswald’s Female Fans « Heavenfield Says:

    […] A comment on The Naked Philologist on why women (and girls) like medieval heroes quite a while ago, here, reminded me that women have always been attracted to some early medieval heroes. I left a comment […]

  16. me Says:

    hello. a bit off topic, as I don’t want to join in the debate much. just to say my year 7 (ages 11-13, depending on when you start school, for our non-aussie friends) history class had a “crime and punishment” section that focused on the medieval period. We had to do a project that involved making a model. Mine involved tortured barbie dolls. In year 8, we did the medieval period and had mock seiges based on our self-devised castle plans and specs.
    This was only a public school, and one in a financially disadvantaged one at that. I am 22 now, so this is at least 11 years ago. Point is, this was fascinating to me and started my *historical* interest in the medieval period (I grew up on a hippy commune so I was already “familiar” in a vague way with Celtic and Norse mythology, as well as fantasy and historical fiction). This all happened without the aid of the internet (which I didn’t encounter until high school – NB, here “high school” years 7-12, ages 11/12/13-16/17/18. There is no “middle school”). I may not be very old, but given my isolation (geographical and intellectual – only a hand full of people in my village were employed, let alone university educated) I would say there are a billion ways in which young girls get sucked in to the medieval world.
    Granted, It remained only a vague interest until uni, but those childhood experiences laid the foundation.
    Sorry this is so rambly and full of parentheses.

  17. me Says:

    i meant to say “given my isolation…i was about 10 years behind. at least. so, i would say there are a billion ways…”

  18. FemAcadem · Nerd news Says:

    […] Medieval nerd girls?  Why the distinction between boy and girl nerds? […]

  19. nosleepingdog Says:

    Off-topic and a year late but what is the origin of the “If anyone wants me I’ll be in my book fortress” image up toward the top of this page? Googled it to no result…
    Of course it reminded me of my childhood. I was a classical world nerd (girl), not a medieval nerd. My interest in learning Old English came later…

  20. almostinstinct Says:

    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”

    Excuse me while I die laughing. When I was fourteen, I was reading… the Epic of Gilgamesh, I think, and Beowulf. It was a long time ago, I don’t recall. I find the idea that I need a to be interested in a FEMALE historical specifically to be completely laughable. Why can’t I be fascinated by Richard III, or Charlemagne, or Urien of Rheged, or T.E. Lawrence? Or am I meant to focus only on Elizabeth and Eleanor and Boudicca (what about Vercingetorix?) and Gertrude Bell?

    There’s a slight flaw in his logic, there. I’ve been told that men aren’t interested in things that don’t concern other men (apparently Eleanor of Aquitane holds no fascination for male scholars) ; but that does not hold true for women.

    Right, now back to your excellent article.

    • almostinstinct Says:

      I must add that my main motivation for reading medieval histories and literature was a queasy fascination with torture techniques. How girlishly delightful!


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