The Allure of the Medieval Romance

by Shana Abe (a 2003 Write Byte)

I must confess that as a child I never really dreamed about being a princess, a damsel in distress, a beautiful medieval lady rescued by her knight. I was a tomboy growing up with a big sister who could kick my butt at any given time (so I had to fight for myself), and a brother nearly my age who had no interest in "girly" things of any kind. We demolished toy cars together instead, racing them in the dirt on the side of our house. I am sure to this day there is a fortune's worth of vintage '70's Hot Wheels preserved deep in the earth there.

But my husband, growing up a whole continent away from me, did live those days in his childhood: he was that knight, noble and strong and chivalrous (he still is). He had a whole brotherhood of knight buddies, and together they rode around and held daring swordfights, fought for justice and just all around, I guess, terrorized neighborhood bad guys. And since it was my husband who inspired me to write my first historical romance, the choice of creating a medieval setting seemed as natural as could be. He's my babe, after all, and if ever a man would look hot in a tunic and hose, as far as I'm concerned, it's him.

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So I plunged in. And what a world I discovered: way, way, way better than toy cars. I had no idea what I'd been missing.

What's the appeal of the medieval romance? Holy cow, what's not to appeal? Forget what you've heard about poor hygiene, spoiled food, dismal serfdom, short life spans and general all around yuckiness. This is a romance novel. I really can't stress that enough.

Granted, the term "romance" is loaded with different meanings. For me, a romance set in the medieval world means the mystic sorcery of endless possibilities, sexual tension under layers and layers of conventions (or on top of them!), faith and eventual love. It means fairytale poetry wrapped around two characters who deserve such beauty. A medieval woman lived by torchlight and braziers; she wore fine, heavy gowns that both concealed and revealed her, subtle gems and necklaces carved of gold; she most likely had a delicate but lethal dagger tucked somewhere near her waist; she breathed the cold air of a castle keep; she lived amid long twilights and green, green hills and the ever-shifting hum of a life fraught with intrigue.

But if you insist upon immersing yourself in the nitty-gritty of everyday medieval life (and let me warn you, it isn't pretty), go buy a history book. I, for one, would rather focus on the magic of the story, the slow and inevitable intertwining of the lives of the hero and heroine: their troubles, frustrations, attractions and their ultimate mutual joy in each other against a backdrop of great, sweeping ideals.

That's not to say I'm not an advocate of historical accuracy. By all means, let us be accurate. I don't want to hear about my medieval hero planting potatoes, for example, or chatting with King Edward II in a timeframe in which Edward I was ruling. That's just annoying, and it draws the reader right out of the story and into that dismal world of, "Heeeey...that couldn't happen!"

So let's focus on all the good stuff that did happen: Medieval times were the popular birthplace of that elusive art known as chivalry. This is fabulous romance material by any measure. What could be more romantic than that archetypical image of a knight dashing to the rescue of a maiden in a castle? In medieval life, men were judged by not only their fighting skills, but by the way in which they chose to treat women. This gives rise to all kinds of interesting situations, most of which (historically) cast the woman in the role of a rather passive art form: remote, beautiful, helpless and yet worthy of worship in a pristine sort of way. Think of a stunning statue of alabaster, unsullied and unchanging in its perfection.

Now to inject a little reality. People are basically the same everywhere, and (follow my leap of logic here) everytime. How many women of today do you know - and whom you would like - who fit that description? Well, I've known a couple who prissed and flitted around like that, and frankly, they irritated the hell out of me. I would never write a book about them. I'm going to write a book about a medieval woman who is more complex and appealing than that, who thinks for herself, who is not afraid to fight her own battles and take her own risks, even within the confines a keep and long gowns and awesome political upheavals. I take risks every day. So do you. We all do, in small ways and large.

So here we have a medieval heroine, clever as we are, bold as we are, yet she lives in an utterly different world from us. In her world women are commonly viewed as inferior human beings, chattel, property of one man or another her entire life, unless she's lucky enough to get herself widowed, and even then, she still belongs to the king. Yet, paradoxically, she is often in charge of vast estates, and - should her husband be absent or dead - it's up to her to take command of everyone and everything in times of both turmoil and calm. And for the most part, turmoil was far more likely to occur than calm. It's a world of precarious contradictions, and she must constantly sort through them and still maintain her balance in her role as a "woman" even as she acts the part of a warrior, or else invite censure from all sides - not a good idea for someone who legally had almost no rights.

She dresses in rich gowns, she decorates herself with chains of gold and silver, gorgeous gemstones, elegant headdresses. She walks gracefully, she speaks articulately, she knows the difference between a hauberk and a gambeson and she still looks like heaven. She can play the lute, run a household, and maneuver her way around the most devious of court conversations where behind-the-scenes power struggles are in constant motion. She is the outward embodiment of all that is genteel and refined, and beneath all of this, she is constantly thinking, assessing, reacting. In short, she is a "player," whether the game is the poisonous machinations of life at court or the equally hazardous intricacies of life in a remote castle.

Now into her world let's toss our hero: masculine, worldly, fierce and brave. He's got a problem, as well. Everything he's supposed to be is strength, courage and ruling power. But he's human. He's got pain. Sure, he comes with a mighty horse, a castle of his own, a title - but he's a man, and he's lonely (whether he knows it or not). His life, like hers, is filled with vivid and inflexible ideas of what a man should be, and what a woman should be. Religion, society and culture all strongly reinforce these images, to the point of smothering any deviations. On the surface, it's all well and good:

The knight charges up on his steed, braving all opposition, and rescues the damsel, who is not only a vision of iconoclastic loveliness but also overwhelmingly grateful to him (in her passive way, of course). She swoons into his arms and they ride away together. They marry and live happily ever after.

Booor-ing!

And extremely unlikely. Talk about historical inaccuracy! People very seldom, if ever, live up to idealized versions of themselves no matter who paints the picture, the church, the law, or society. Okay, so - pay attention now, I'm finally getting to the good part - this is the allure of the medieval romance: The image of the knight and the lady fair, both of them caught up in the tapestry of their sumptuous and chaotic history, both of them subject to all the lavish and even unjust images of who and what they are supposed to be, superimposed over real people, with real problems, and real emotions that don't always go along with the norm.

It can be a dangerous and heady mix. We can understand our heroine and hero, even in the context of a very different time period from our own. And it is romantic to envision our knight charging to the rescue. Why not? It's what he's been trained to do his whole life, after all. But isn't it even more romantic to know his heart, his foibles, his strengths and weaknesses? He must surmount all of them to be with our heroine, and to me, that's the most noble characteristic of all. He rises above his environment to embrace everything about our damsel. Not just her beauty. Her independent spirit, her intelligence, and all her own problems of being a woman alive in a time when the typical expectations of women ranged from silly to demented. He must come to realize that she is someone who is actually capable of rescuing herself, and indeed, could just go ahead and rescue him as well, while she's at it.

The medieval era had great battles, huge castles, elaborate court life, intrigue, suspense - in short, really everything we still have today, even if the castles have become homes, and the court life becomes your social life, and the best intrigue can be found on CSPN. But how exciting it can be to read about a couple back in this magical era, where cultural standards were different enough to present a set of unique challenges to our knight and lady. You are the heroine, living a life of predestined expectations in your enchanted castle and embroidered gowns, yet always dreaming of more, and willing to act on your dreams. And you are even the knight, a man struggling with his heart and his head, falling in love with this woman who is truly unlike any other he's known.

But you and I, dear reader, know that woman very well. She's us, and we love to cheer her on.

 

Shana Abe interview (2007)
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