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.