Women, Medievalism, and the Absence of the Church

First blog post! Whee! We’ll see how well I keep up with this.

So, a few weeks ago, at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I participated in a panel on “Premodern Rulers, Postmodern Viewers” chaired by Janice North. The four papers–by myself, Misty Urban, Michael Evans, and Emily Beck–ended up speaking very interestingly to one another, but one thing really jumped out at me that I expect will become a useful thread in the forthcoming essay collection inspired by the panel, and by a similar one that will be held at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in July.

Emily’s paper was the one that really delved into it, as she discussed the Spanish-language series Ysabel, based on the life of Isabella I of Castile. She pointed out the contortions in which the series engaged to present Isabella as anything other than a bigoted religious fanatic by focusing on several scenes where Isabella requested the aid of Jewish moneylenders in Seville…without taking into account her later purge of all the Jews from the Iberian peninsula.

Misty’s paper and my paper dovetailed in our explorations of the 2013 BBC/Starz miniseries The White Queen, with its heady (and sometimes incomprehensible) cocktail of faux-feminism, cattiness, witchcraft, and incest, that Misty effectively termed “The Real Housewives of Fifteenth-Century England.” But what was really interesting was the email thread that emerged from the panel, where we figured out that there was a giant elephant in the room that the series did not at any point address: The Church.

We had both commented in our papers that the series fails in its purported goal of illustrating premodern women exercising power, instead focusing on romantic relationships and infighting. Yes, there was a useful and rare emphasis on childbirth and motherhood, but even that became fodder for rivalries between female characters. And the fact is that royal and aristocratic women of the medieval period often used their relationships with the Church and with religion as a source of power. They patronized certain monasteries and abbeys, they commissioned works of art and literature, and specifically in the case of Elizabeth Woodville, she and her mother-in-law Cecily Neville championed the mystical works of St. Bridget of Sweden. Part of Anthony Woodville’s exemplary reputation during his lifetime stemmed from his choice to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And Margaret Beaufort–the only character whose relationship with the Church is explored at all–was not the religious fanatic painted in the series, but rather a shrewd woman who founded colleges, patronized printers and artists, and maintained a close relationship with high church officials throughout her life.

None of these things appeared in the series. There was one scene with Margaret that I loved, where she admitted to having wanted to be a saint as a child–it both humanised her and gave her a momentary relationship with the Church that wasn’t framed as mad fanaticism. And there was a later scene with Anne Neville where she tried to make sense of what kind of sin she’d committed by wishing that Elizabeth Woodville’s sons (the princes in the tower) might die, even if she did not commit the act herself. But these were few and far between, and Elizabeth herself had no relationship with religion that I noticed–indeed, that relationship was superseded by the ridiculous witchcraft subplot that allowed her to curse her enemies and see the future.

(Also, as per the image above, it allows her access to modern printed Bibles five hundred years early. Never mind that William Caxton only brought the printing press to England in the 1470s.)

Mostly these are just general thoughts, but it is interesting that modern media depictions of the medieval period leave out this rather crucial part of medieval life. Even on Game of Thrones, which is “medieval” in spirit if not in actuality, the religious life that’s at least hinted in the book series A Song of Ice and Fire is largely absent except in visual grace notes (i.e. placing stones on the eyes of dead people during funerary ceremonies) and when the plot requires it (the sudden and unceremonious introduction of the Faith Militant in Season 5 rather than its gradual, creeping presence as the books progress). Maybe we as viewers are uncomfortable with the idea that a religion could be both omnipresent and mundane, rather than something that needs to be proclaimed loudly at every step as it is today. I’m not trying to defend medieval Catholicism, but I do think that its absence in modern filmic/televisual depictions of the medieval period is a problem that should be addressed.


(Note: I do find The Borgias interesting in how it handles religion, which it absolutely can’t avoid since, well, one of the main characters is the Pope. But that’s a story for another day.)


One thought on “Women, Medievalism, and the Absence of the Church

  1. Somehow I missed the fact that you had a blog until today! I haven’t seen either of the shows you mention, but the same thing, or at least something similar, happens in a lot of Tudor-set media as well. It’s one of the things that I found lacking in the Wolf Hall miniseries: there’s sort of a vague hint that More is religious in some way, but I can’t remember religion coming up for any of the other characters. (Of course, they may have taken their cues from the book – which you may remember I could only get about 90 pages into because this among other things irked me so much: in the part I read, More is the backwards Catholic, and Cromwell and Wolsey are too urbane to actually believe in anything silly like religion.) Which is too bad; I’d love for that “omnipresent and mundane” quality of religion to get more exploration in historical stories!

    Anyway. Have you seen this piece from The Toast about the absence of religion in Downton Abbey?


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