The Girls' Story: Adolescent Novels Set in the Middle Ages
Mary H. McNultyr
Ever since Caxton printed Malorys Morte d'Arthur in 1485, many adolescents have been reading with delight about the adventures of medieval knights. The glory of quests and tournaments has appeals to the young as well as the old. In the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, writers for children, such as G. A. Henty and Howard Pyle, have drawn on juvenile interest in the romance of the Middle Ages and have written about the adventures of knights, crusades, and armed combats. Girls as well as boys read these adventures. During the 1940's, the Newbery Award was given twice to historical novels with a medieval setting: to Elizabeth Gray in 1942 for Adam of the Road and to Marguerite de Angel in 1949 for The Door in the Wall . Although the interest in historical fiction about the Middle Ages declined in the 1950's, in more recent decades, the adolescent historical novel set in the Middle Ages has had great popularity, especially because of the ability of writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mollie Hunter to bring the past to life. It is interesting to note, however, that despite the fact that these two twentieth century writers are women, the protagonists in all of their novels are young boys who have exciting adventures. Girls and women in these novels have secondary, shadowy roles. They stay close to the hearth and speak very few words.
Beginning in the late 1980's, however, some adolescent novels about the Middle Ages have reversed this pattern. While there are yet many new books about male adventures set in medieval times, strong female protagonists are beginning to emerge. Most noteworthy of these are Karen Cushman's Newbery Award winning The Midwife's Apprentice and Newbery Honor book, Catherine, Called Birdie , and Juliana of The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw. There are also Teresa Tomlinson's novels featuring the adventures of Maid Marian, several novelizations of the life of Joan of Arc, and the The Ramsey Scallop of Frances Temple. Young female readers can now find their medieval counterparts as appealing central characters.
The Problem of Authenticity
With the increase of medieval heroines comes the problem of authenticity. While certainly the equal portrayal of both genders is needed in children's books, we can ask if the demand for spunky, resourceful fictional girls in realistic historical novels has led to characterizations which would not be authentic for their times. In reality the medieval young woman of nobility was married in her early teens, often to a man considerably older than she was. Having no choice concerning a spouse, she was only a political pawn in a patriarchal society, her worth measured by the dowry she would bring and the offspring she would produce. Although the feudal society did not give her much freedom, the young woman of the lower classes usually had more voice in her world. She married by choice. She was destined for a life of work, either in the fields, in the kitchen, or in the market stalls of the villages. Women of all classes were expected to know how to sew and embroider, to cook, and to take care of the sick. The ability to read and write was unusual for a woman of the upper class and extremely rare in a woman of the lower end of society.
Are authors today assigning literacy and latitude to those in whom it would be unthinkable in their own age? The following is an examination of the female protagonist in some recent adolescent novels set in the Middle Ages in regard to the authenticity of the feminine role, voice, and power. The books under consideration are Eloise McGraw's The Striped Ships (1991), Karen Cushman's three novels: Catherine, Called Birdy (1994), The Midwife's Apprentice (1995), Matilda Bone (2000); Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988); and Teresa Tomlinson's The Forest Wife (1993) and Child of the May (1998).
The Striped Ships
The first of these books in terms of historical setting is The Striped Ships of Eloise McGraw. Juliana, a daughter of a minor Saxon lord, was only eleven on the day that she watched the striped ships of the Norman army come ashore on the beach by her village near Hastings. This event changed the security and certainty of her life and forced her to find her place in a greatly altered society. She who formerly had servants to comb her hair and prepare her meals was now a slave and had to perform even lower tasks for the conquerors. She had to face the fact of the death of her father and the youth to whom she had been betrothed. Her family is broken up, and it is only by luck that her younger brother Wulfric finds her.
The novel follows Julianna over a period of two years, as she escapes from the Normans and takes Wulfric to the safety of a monastery school in Canterbury. Once in Canterbury, Wulfric can follow his dream of becoming a scriptor. He finds his place in the altered world of the Norman Conquest. Juliana, however, finds herself no better than when she was as a slave of the Normans. She is still ill-fed, cold, and homeless. To stay alive, she does grueling, menial work. But even at her lowest point, Juliana has the determination and drive of Scarlett O'Hara:
As a kitchen drudge in the monastery of St. Augustine, Juliana learns about the great project underway in one of the monastery workrooms. Two monks and several women are at work on a piece of embroidery of tremendous width. The figures on the cloth depict the events in England and in Normandy that preceded the Conquest. More designs will be added. Juliana has skill in embroidery, a skill she learned as the daughter of a Saxon thane. When she discovers that the thread girl, the young woman who winds the threads and gives them as needed to the stitchers, is leaving to be married, she asks for the job and is given it. From there she has the opportunity to work her way up to be an embroiderer and a participant in the history-recording project. The project is, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry. Juliana is able to help Brother Alain, the artist who sketches the design of the embroidery, with the details of the Norman landing, since she was an eyewitness.
When several months later her mother, newly wedded to one of the hated Normans, comes to Canterbury to take Juliana to their new home in Winchester, she refuses to go. Juliana is determined to continue to lead the life she has found for herself as an independent woman in Canterbury. She rejects the more comfortable but dependent way of life, saying that she is now "more than her mother's daughter." This stance may appear unlikely for an unwed female of that age, but as Rebecca Barnhouse (2000) states, "By situating her heroine in a time of enormous social unrest and change, McGraw avoids the problem so many writers encounter of giving a female character in the medieval period too much power and control over her own life" (Barnhouse, 51).
Historically, it is quite plausible that the Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered in England by Saxon needlewomen, since it bears similarity to other embroidered wall-hangings done in the pre-Conquest era. There is also a strong opinion by scholars that it was done in Canterbury at the monastery of St. Augustine. Placing Juliana, a young woman of noble Saxon birth, in Canterbury and engaging her in this project is credible. For a young reader, following Juliana's trials may make this important artifact of the early Middle Ages come alive.
Catherine, Called Birdy
Karen Cushman's novel Catherine, Called Birdy is set in the England of 1290. A spirited and head-strong Birdy speaks through diary entries written during her fourteenth year. The fact that she can express herself so forcefully by means of the written word and the fact that she steps outside the boundaries of expected feminine decorum raise questions concerning her authenticity as a character. Like Juliana of The Striped Ships , Birdy is the daughter of a minor noble. She has the many of the disadvantages of high-born women, such as being a pawn in marriage negotiations, yet she does not have the luxury and leisure of the wealthy. Like Juliana, she is in training to become adept at needlework, but Birdy lacks the patience and the skill. In her frustrations, she sometimes stuffs her ruined work down the privy.
Although Birdy has some of the privileges of the upper class, her self-esteem is low and she sees herself as chattel.
Since she has reached the marriageable age, her father searches for eligible suitors without regard to her feelings. On September 24 her diary reads:
The stars and my family align to make my life black and miserable. My mother seeks to make me a fine lady-dumb, docile and accomplished-so I must take lady-lessons and keep my mouth closed. My Father, the toad, conspires to sell me like cheese to some lack-wit seeking a wife.
What makes this clodpole suitor anxious to have me? I am no beauty, being sun-browned and gray-eyed, with poor eyesight and a stubborn disposition.
Corpus bones! He comes to dine with us in two days' time. I plan to cross my eyes and drool in my meat. (Birdy, 5-6)
Birdy's skill with words as she composes her diary is a bit unconvincing. The fact that Birdy is literate is explained by the lessons given her by her brother Edward, who has since left home to become a monk. She uses pieces of skins and ink left over from her father's household accounts. She also teaches Latin to Perkin the goatboy. Books are more common in this novel than they would be in an actual household near the end of the thirteenth century. Brother Edward sent three books to his family for Lenten reading, and prior to that, the abbot of her brother's monastery sent a book of saints to Birdy's illiterate mother-hardly likely in an age when only rich men had modest libraries.
In addition to plying her needle, Birdy is often called upon to doctor the ailments of the members of her household and the village. In this role she is more at ease and responds to people's needs without complaint. She improvises when the ingredients for a cure are not readily at hand. She helps to deliver her baby sister and doctors her mother as she suffers postpartum fever. This role is quite authentic in an age when only the very wealthy employed a doctor and most of the care of the sick fell to the woman of the manor.
It is Birdy's spunk, however, that appears strikingly contemporary. She loves her mother and barely tolerates her father. One brother is a friend and the other an abomination. She speaks her opinion and openly defies male authority. As a contemporary teenager would, she questions tradition, flirts when she can, and sulks when she does not get her own way. She plots to get rid of her suitors and runs away from home when marriage to a dirty old man seems inevitable. Is the outspokeness of Birdy unusual for her age? According to Margaret Wade Labarge, "Medieval women, to the discomfiture of many men, had quick, sharp tongues which they delighted in using to deflate male pomposity" (37). Birdy's verbal skill is thus much more convincing than her writing skill, and Birdy's character is much more in the spirit of the Wife of Bath than a romantic heroine from the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
Birdy, when marriage could no longer be averted, rebels and runs away to her uncle's house. There she observes firsthand how her uncle's wife tries to escape from reality by pretending to be someone else. It must be noted also that Birdy by writing in her diary grows in her attitude toward herself and an acceptance of her role in life.
She decides to return home and face the marriage and make the best of it. Birdy says, "and it came into my head that I cannot run away. I am who I am wherever I am" (Birdy, 202).
The Midwife's Apprentice
Cushman's second novel, The Midwife's Apprentice, is set in approximately the same time period as Catherine, Called Birdy . However, its protagonist is in a much lower stratum of society than Birdy. At the beginning of the novel she has no livelihood, no home, no name. In the course of the novel she acquires each of these and gains dignity and purpose as a human being. Alyce, as she eventually names herself, has none of the restraints suppressing Birdy. She is not in training to become a noble's wife; she has the freedom of the lower class. Although a midwife takes her in and gives her a home of sorts, this is not done out of charity but practicality. She needs a girl to do her drudgework. Given a chance, Alyce realizes her own worth. She learns some of the midwife skills from observing her employer, gains the respect of some of the villagers, and rescues a young boy from the homeless misery she had formerly experienced by providing him with a name and a safe place to live.
Alyce has her setbacks. After she runs off from the midwife because she has grown overconfident and failed in a complicated delivery, she doubts herself:
'I am nothing,' she whispered to herself. 'I have nothing, I can do nothing and learn nothing. I belong no place. I am too stupid to be a midwife's apprentice, and too tired to wander again. I should just lie here in the rain until I die.' (Midwife's, 72-73)
She goes on, however, and finds work in an inn. There she learns the rudiments of reading and writing from an old scholar, a permanent resident. When the old man asks her what she wants of life, she thoughtfully replies: "A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world" (Midwife's, 81). She has a realistic dream, one that can only be fulfilled by hard work and determination, and she realizes that she must pursue it. Alyce returns to the midwife, and when the midwife does not open the door to her, she persists in her request to be allowed in. The midwife finally relents and opens the door because Alyce has shown that she will not easily give up.
Alyce's aspirations are realistic for a young woman of the lower classes in rural England. She could not become a lady in a society where one's social class is determined from birth. She can, however, become an independent, skilled practitioner in a world where roles for women were limited. Although Alyce never reaches the level of literacy that Birdy has, Cushman clearly depicts young women for whom reading and writing are doorways to self-worth and empowerment.
Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (1988) in the introduction to their collection of essays, Women and Power in the Middle Ages (1-13), point out that although women had no legal authority in this time, they did have power. The power came from the use of their gifts and skills as young woman, wife, mother, and widow and the influence they held over others, both directly and indirectly in these roles. So too Julianna, Birdy, and Alyce use their skills in the society in which they finds themselves to acquire dignity, respect, and even some limited power.
In Cushman's more recent novel, the protagonist, Matilda Bone, is so named because she is apprenticed to a bonesetter in a small English town. The orphaned daughter of a clerk, she was raised on a country manor and educated by the local priest. At age fourteen her lessons in Latin and sanctity end abruptly when she is left at the doorstep of Red Peg, who needs a healthy young woman to assist her in her practice. Matilda does not adjust easily to her new way of life, and she lets her new mistress know that she prefers reading, writing, and praying to the menial tasks that she is given.
Like Alyce of The Midwife's Apprentice, Matilda finds herself in a profession assigned to women. But unlike Alyce, Matilda believes herself superior to her mistress and does not hesitate to tell her so. The neighborhood of Blood and Bone Alley is repugnant to her. In her mind, the profession of the physician, a man who reads Latin and consults books, is far superior to the methods of illiterate women who rely on practices handed down by word of mouth and their own common sense. Matilda eventually discovers the goodness in Red Peg and her fellow practitioners. The skill and experience they have, she finds, is much more effective in healing injuries than the astrological computations of the rich physician. Matilda finds her own self worth as well. Although it is fine and sometimes helpful to read and write, it is most important to be generous and loving to one's fellow human beings. Matilda thus accepts the constraints of her social condition, as Birdy and Alyce do.
The Outlaws of Sherwood
One of the strongest female characters that has come down to us from medieval legend is Robin Hood's Maid Marian. It is not surprising, therefore, that she appears in recent versions of the familiar story. In Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood , Robin Hood, the central character, is almost overshadowed by his Marian. The only child of a minor noble, Marian uses her connections to aid Robin and his outlawed band. Despite her aristocratic upbringing, Marian is an excellent archer, better in fact than Robin. Her spunkiness results in mortal danger when she poses as Robin at the sheriff's archery contest and becomes gravely wounded. By the end of the novel Robin's social status has been so improved that marriage with Marian, unthinkable before, is now possible.
Another strong female character in the novel is Ceceily who, in order to escape an arranged marriage, disguises herself as a young boy and joins Robin's group. She fools even Little John into accepting her as a male member of the company. Although neither Marian nor Ceceily is the central character of the book, each is a young woman who successfully, if not unrealistically, avoids the future that her aristocratic background offers her.
The Forest Wife
In the novels of Theresa Tomlinson, The Forest Wife and Child of the May , Maid Marian is the strong central character. Tomlinson gives Marian an unusual role and a voice not found in any other version of the legend. Set in the last decade of the twelfth century, The Forest Wife combines the Robin Hood legend with that of the Green Man. Although not strictly historical fiction, the novel depicts the lifestyle and roles of nobility and peasants at the end of the 12th century. Marian is a young woman who with her nurse runs away from her uncle's manor in order to avoid a hateful arranged marriage. They take refuge deep in the forest in the hut of the Forest Wife, a woman to whom the poor and the outlawed came for help and healing. Upon discovering that the woman is dead, the nurse, Agnes, takes on the role of forest wife; later Marian discovers that the fearless outlaw Robin Hood is her son. Marian becomes known to the people of the forest as the Green Lady, the female counterpart to the Green Man, the representation of verdant vegetation and renewal of life. Each May Day, she dances around the Maypole with "the hooded one," the Green Man, who is Robin himself. Although she falls in love with Robin, Marian declines to marry him because she is the Forest Wife in training, and the woman who holds that position must be either unmarried or widowed. Surprisingly, Robin Hood takes a back seat in the story. Marian's reputation and power come from her womanly role in caring for the poor and sick, not from her association with Robin's band of thieves.
Child of the May
The sequel, Child of the May , takes place ten years later. Marian is now Forest Wife, and another teenage girl is in training for the position, Magda, the daughter of Little John. Just as Marian had rebelled against an arranged marriage, Magda sees her life in the forest as constraining and yearns to get away from it. After she disguises herself as a boy and has some hair-raising experiences with her father and Robin Hood, Magda is happy to return to Marian, only to be caught up in an adventure with the women of the forest who together rescue the daughter of a nearby landowner. The women win, not by use of arms and strength, but by subterfuge and networking, a not uncommon way of women gaining power. By the end of the novel Magda is willing to stay with Marian and eventually take on the duties of the Forest Wife, a life that is not without its own power and adventure.
Tomlinson's novels present readers with assertive female characters, characters who take on leadership roles and prove themselves man's equals in coping with food gathering and defense in a primitive setting, yet their way of life and their adventures are distinctly different from those of the men. Marian and Magda demonstrate that they can be independent of men, yet complimentary to them.
In these recent novels centered on young women they are given a voice that they previously lacked in adolescent novels set in the Middle Ages. For the most part they are given roles that are suitable and realistic for their time and social class. In all of them, the female protagonist suffers low self-esteem from the oppression that comes with her state in life. In all of them, she uses her determination and courage and also her traditional womanly skills to face the situation she finds herself in and come to terms with it, and thus she gains empowerment. She comes nowhere near the equality and independence of the young woman of today, but she does demonstrate that she too has a story to tell.
Barnhouse, Rebecca. Recasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature . Portsmouth New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2000.
Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy . New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Cushman, Karen. The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Cushman, Karen. Matilda Bone . New York: Clarion, 2000.
Erler, Mary and Maryanne Kowaleski, ed. Women and Power in the Middle Ages . Athens, Georgia: U. of Georgia Press, 1988.
Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life . Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
McGraw, Eloise. The Striped Ships . New York: McElderry, 1991.
McKinley, Robin. The Outlaws of Sherwood . New York: Greenwillow, 1988.
Tomlinson, Theresa. Child of the May . New York: Dell, 1998.
Tomlinson, Theresa. The Forest Wife . New York: Dell, 1993.
Reference Citation: McNulty, Mary H. (2001) "The Girls' Story: Adolescent Novels Set in the Middle Ages." The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 2, p. 20.