The Perfectly Imperfect Heroine in Medieval Romance

The conventional wisdom among authors is that you shouldn’t read your own book reviews.  Or else, you should only read the good ones.  The reason for this is because, with the internal critic from your last book nattering away in your head about the myriad flaws in your writing, it becomes paralyzingly difficult to switch off the voices and write the next one. 

In my case, I read the good critiques, and I make my screenwriter-fiance read the bad ones.  His job is to tell me if there’s a pearl of wisdom nestled in the oyster of that two-star review that I need to hear to improve my writing.  While obligingly performing this function for my latest release, my epic medieval romance By Royal Command (Harlequin/Carina, July 2012), he’s revealed two pearls so far:  1) the majority of readers and reviewers seem to like the book, and 2) among those who caviled with it, the primary discussion point seems to be the powerlessness of the medieval heroine (not just mine, but any heroine from that period).   What can an author do to empower a historical heroine who hails from a decidedly patriarchal, male-dominated society, while still remaining true to the setting?

I was keenly conscious of this challenge while writing By Royal Command.  Here’s the set-up:  On the turbulent shores of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, a daughter of royalty must choose between two warring brothers to save the English throne.  Lady Katrin of Courtenay believes she murdered her cruel, controlling husband when she prayed for his death, but she doesn’t mourn him.  Struggling to defend her lands from Viking raiders, she is proud and courageous as any man.  Yet Katrin has learned she must also be subtle to survive.  Determined never to remarry, she believes manipulation and deceit are a woman’s only true weapons.  But they won’t be enough to save her from her vengeful uncle:  Ethelred, the King of England.  Katrin’s remarriage is the cornerstone of his scheme to defeat the Viking invasion and save the English throne.

As an aetheling—kin to the King, albeit a royal in exile on her northern lands—Katrin begins with some advantages over many women of her time.  Nonetheless, she’s constrained by circumstances that make her a product of her time. 

Readers who quibble with medieval romance often bring to the genre three major issues about the medieval heroine.  Let’s take a look at each one.

1.       The medieval heroine is too young.


 It’s a fact that medieval life expectancy was considerably shorter than in modern times.  A medieval woman of good birth could be betrothed in infancy and married by age twelve.   Most medieval women were married by sixteen, and had given birth to six or so children by age twenty-five.  In By Royal Command, Katrin begins the story as a widow at eighteen, which was not an uncommon occurrence.  Inevitably, some readers worry that a young heroine will be a helpless ingénue. 


In Katrin’s case, nothing could be farther from the truth.   She’s survived a difficult marriage and acts as sole defender of her northern lands against the raiding Vikings.  Her people look to her as their only source of comfort and protection.  In defense of her home, Katrin fends off starving wolves with a dying torch, defends her own walls with bow and arrow, hunts for her own food and is accounted an excellent shot.  She defies the King when he proposes to make her his lover, physically defends her virtue from an amorous earl three times her size, and sacrifices her own happiness without flinching to protect others. 


Katrin may be young, yet she is anything but weak.


2.       The medieval heroine is too innocent.


This argument I consider to be a misconception of the modern reader.  Medieval women, for the most part, were intimately acquainted with the shadowy side of life.  As we’ve discussed, the medieval bride lost her virginity in the marriage bed at an astonishingly early age (although this is not an aspect of medieval life I depict on the page in By Royal Command.)  They were giving birth as early as age twelve.  Of the six children an average medieval woman would have borne by her mid-twenties, she would have buried two of them. 


Like Katrin, the medieval woman was the doctor of the house, the administrator of her estate during her husband’s frequent absences, the keeper of the purse, the voice of judgment and justice for her tenants.  A number of medieval ladies, like Katrin, successfully defended their lands and people against attack.  In 1461, for example, Lady Alice Knyvet successfully defended Bokenham Castle against ten commissioners and a justice of the peace who tried to seize it on the spot while her husband was away.  From the ramparts, Lady Alice commanded the defending force and flung defiance in the commissioners’ faces, swearing she would rather die than surrender her castle.  She kept it.


In fact, the medieval woman was frighteningly capable, required to demonstrate organization, vigor, diplomacy, and good sense on a daily basis.  No woman with her responsibilities would remain naïve, sheltered or innocent for long.    


3.       Medieval society was patriarchal, with women at the mercy of men.  Therefore, the medieval heroine must be a helpless victim.


It’s certainly true that medieval society was patriarchal.  A woman had some legal advantages (for instance, she couldn’t be forced to marry without her consent.)  Nonetheless, once she made her choice, she was stuck with it.  Like many women of her time, Katrin uses her wits and charm to manipulate the authority figures who rule her world.  She dazzles Borovic, the powerful earl of Argent, with her feminine wiles while protecting her virtue from his lechery.  She bargains successfully with the vengeful King not only to spare the life of her secret lover—a common-born Viking—but to reward him with lands and lordship in exchange for her consent to another marriage.  Finally, Katrin persuades both the King and her new husband to sign a marriage contract that leaves lands and dowry in her possession—a rare concession for a woman of her time.


Was life perfect for the medieval heroine?   Far from it.  Could the medieval heroine successfully protect her children, dependents, property and herself through brute force, as a man might do?  Unlikely.   Like other women of her time, Katrin is a perfectly imperfect heroine, making subtle and complex choices to defend her loved ones and advance her interests.

If you’d like to learn more about Lady Katrin of Courtenay, King Ethelred of England, and the two luscious heroes of By Royal Command, my publisher has released an exclusive extended excerpt (the first five chapters!) for a limited time here:

Happy reading!

First published at Romancing Rakes for the Love of Romance


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