On Medievalism and ‘Realism’

I’m going to be brief because I don’t watch the television show that prompted this post, yet I’m irritated by the notions behind a certain author’s constant defensive claims about ‘realism’ as the excuse to fill a narrative with frequent rapes of women (although seemingly the show runners are more interested in how the rapes affect the men — which of course makes them reprehensible, but that’s another issue).

Yes, rape happened in the Middle Ages, sometimes as a part of war. Men were also raped in the same manner, young boys too. Does that show up in their ‘realism’? No?

But let’s look at reality: most of people’s time in the Middle Ages was devoted to making sure they had the necessities of life. People worked the fields for long hours, planting, harvesting and then preserving and finally preparing food. People also spent a lot of time hunting — particularly if they were well-to-do folks in the courtly era for it not only provided food, it bound them together, and demonstrated prowess in times of peace. Clothing and furniture was made by hand, wood had to be gathered for fires — and even among those who did not toil at manual labour, the world in which they lived was a very different place, one where choices had to be made with a greater sense of the repercussions.

Are there books in the narrative? Do you know what it takes to make a book, even a small one in this time? You need leather for the covers, and vellum for the pages — leather which must be treated, stretched, scraped and cut until it is paper-like. Then you need ink to write which must be ground from materials that must be gathered whether it’s oak gall for black ink or gems or bugs for the vibrant colours and then tedious long hours of writing out the text.

The truth is a truly realistic portrait of the Middle Ages would be a long Warhol-like slog — just think how long it takes to get from place to place. So filmmakers are always selecting from that reality even if they aim to be realistic (and they do not really aim to be realistic from the clips I have seen).

There’s a lot to select from: if you choose to show so much rape, it has nothing to do with the reality of the Middle Ages and everything to do with your modern sensibilities.

In most cases rape was against the law, so the people who perpetrated it generally did so against people who did not have the power to use that legal system against them, i.e. people who had far less cultural cachet. Here’s a good piece from the Public Medievalist on rape in the Middle Ages.

[Thanks to the feminist mad max tumblr for the image]

7 thoughts on “On Medievalism and ‘Realism’

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