Mysticism and magic, castles and courtly love, knights and noble ladies… the pages of a medieval romance are filled with the fantasy elements of fairy tales. A consistently popular segment of historicals, the medieval holds great allure for the modern reader.
Several possibilities come to mind. The Arthurian legends have a strong hold on our culture. Medievals embody the fairy tale elements we love to revisit. It is fun to read about people of wealth and prestige in an era when few women live in a castle, command twenty servants or share an occasional table with royalty.
Medievals tap into our childhood dreams of life as a princess, growing up in a castle with our every whim provided for, right down to our very own horse. (If you don’t believe in little girls profound attachment to horses, take a look at all the ponies with beribboned manes and tails on your local toy shelf. Or see Diane Ackerman’s provocative treatment of the subject in A Natural History of Love.) The landscape of the medieval is so richly different from our own, the modern reader can’t help but become lost in the fantasy world. The stories perfect the escapist element that appeals to romance readers.
As for adventurous, the medieval romance couldn’t ask for more fertile fields. There are quests and battles, jousts and tournaments. Every now and then the adventure extends to the Otherworldly, offering modern readers a brush with the magic and mysticism that permeate Arthurian tales. Strange old wisewomen, herbalists, healers and seers often flit through the pages of a medieval, lending to the magical tone, as do enchanted objects or cursed characters. These devices raise the level of the medieval adventure to mythic, larger-than-life proportions.
And what about the heroes? One of the reasons medievals have such allure for the reader is the wealth of possibility for the hero. As a knight, a hero can encompass all the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” elements Doreen Owens Malek mentions in her wonderful article by the same title (from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women ed. Jayne Anne Krentz). She explains, “We may want a caring, sensitive, modern man in our lives, but we want a swaggering, rough-hewn, mythic man in our books.” A man doesn’t come with any more swagger than Bannor the Bold in Teresa Medeiros’ Favorite Book of the Year, Charming the Prince. When I started writing, I was in love with Elizabeth Lowell’s Dominic LeSabre and Julie Garwood’s Connor MacAllister. Readers don’t forget dangerous, challenging men like them. The medieval knight is raised apart from his mother, in the household of a knight who will teach him to be ruthless and battle ready. By the time the heroine gets to him he is all warrior, a supreme challenge for the persuasive power of romance.
All are valid reasons for the lure of the medieval. Several explain my own enjoyment in reading them. But a different reason altogether accounts for why I love to write them. Forget the pageantry, the horses, or the male swagger. I write for the heroine.
No element of my work is quite as satisfying as giving my medieval heroines the voices they lack in history, to creatively fill in the blanks of our depressingly brief historical record of women in that time period. I get frustrated with my research books, knowing most of the primary source material for the time was written by men. The church articulated a view of women as essentially flawed and oversexed, with a propensity to reenact the temptress role of Eve, and this notion was widely held in the Middle Ages.
By and large, their voices were suppressed. For every hundred male saints and poets who left a written account of themselves, we are left with only one Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine Abbess who dared to suggest some nuns are equal to church fathers in one of her many remaining writings.
Yet in a sea of overwhelmingly male voices there is the occasional feminine snippet that catches my writer’s ear, the proof of our foremothers’ verve and passion. I write to enlarge those snippets, to give my heroines the subtle kinds of power and authority their real life models wielded– whether the men around them suspected it or not.
Maybe women’s lot in life during medieval times was not the fairy tale suggested by Arthurian legends or the romantic adventure our books portray. But I refuse to think it was as stark as historical record depicts. I feel certain our medieval couterparts found plenty of ways to reconcile their zeal for life with the confines of their place in society.
And it sure is fun to imagine how they did it when I sit down at the keyboard each day.