Modern Sensibilities in Medieval RomanceDo modern sensibilities have a place in medieval romance? Should medieval romance involve female characters who expect anything beyond a life of servitude and death in childbirth?
This topic is one I contemplate quite regularly, and I've had long, multi-month-long discussions about the issue in a variety of forum areas. Certainly most of us agree that life was not easy for the average medieval woman. She was, more often than not, treated as a lower class citizen by her husband, and many women died in childbirth.
However, I think most of us agree that a medieval romance novel is not a treatise on what troubles an average woman endured while living her life in medieval times. Just as most modern romance novels are not about the "average" woman dealing with a 9-5 job and a husband whose eyes are glued to Sports Center on ESPN. Novels are typically written about the exceptional situation, and are designed to help us cope with own own hopes, fears, and challenges.
If I wrote a medieval novel here in 2011 that involved a "real medieval situation" - an abusive man squashing his wife, beating her regularly, mistreating her, it could certainly be authentic. However, it would also be upsetting and distressing for most modern readers to read. They donít genearlly want to read about abuse. It would hurt them to get "used to" the idea of being mistreated. This would, in my opinion, be a harmful thing for women to enjoy reading.
Instead, what women generally want to read are stories that help them make sense of their own lives, and help them build their confidence in what they deserve in their own relationships, but set in another era so the message reaches them more gently.
Hereís an analogy. The Star Trek universe is set in the far future. That future shouldnít have issues then with racism and sexism. But those things DO exist in the Star Trek universe, for the explicit purpose of helping current viewers come to terms with those issues. Where the modern viewer might resist considering an issue if it involved a Muslim person and a Christian person in our modern universe, they are much more open to thinking about it when it involves a Green person and a Purple person in a distant universe. The "different environment" lets their brain consider issues they might normally shy away from.
Think of how Captain Kirt and Lieutenant Uhuru shared the first interracial kiss ever on TV. This wasn't able to be done on a "real life" show because that would have been too real to people. Instead it was done in a far off, distant universe, one people would watch and be influenced by but which had that safety of distance.
So this is why most medieval novels donít involve authentic medieval harmful behavior. People arenít reading medieval romance novels to learn in graphic detail how women were sexually abused and beaten before they died in childbirth. They are reading them to get inspiration and hope for their own relationships, and to learn those skills and expectations in a "safe" environment.
I am always striving to make sure my books are authentic in an environment sense. I research the names, I walk in medieval castles to get a sense of their layout, and I handle medieval weapons to know how they were swung and used. However, in terms of my characters expectations, I give them a modern sensibility, to have them hope and crave and expect things that modern readers would understand and agree with.
As always, I enthusistically hope to hear your thoughts and feedback on this issue!
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