The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds
By Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene
J. Paul Getty Museum
The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds aims to uncover the many reasons why the Middle Ages have proven so flexible—and applicable—to a variety of modern moments from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century. These “medieval” worlds are often the perfect ground for exploring contemporary cultural concerns and anxieties, saying much more about the time and place in which they were created than they do about the actual conditions of the medieval period. With over 140 color illustrations, from sources ranging from thirteenth-century illuminated manuscripts to contemporary films and video games, and a preface by Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton, The Fantasy of the Middle Ages will surprise and delight both enthusiasts and scholars. This title is published to accompany an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center from June 21–September 11, 2022.
Read an excerpt from The Fantasy of the Middle Ages
Beyond the Binary
Ideas about gender—identity, expression, and roles—and about sexuality vary by place and time. Binaries such as male/female or heterosexual/homosexual only present a partial view of this complex aspect of human identity. Some of the examples in this book—both from the Middle Ages and from later medievalisms—reveal the persistence of negative stereotypes, especially concerning women and queer individuals. Many such people lived fuller lives and had greater agency than texts and images primarily made by and for heterosexual cisgender men might suggest. Throughout the medieval world, homosocial activities among groups of men or women could at times develop into romantic or sexual relationships. Similarly, those assigned one sex at birth could choose to express their gender in myriad ways, by dressing in clothes traditionally expected of one gender or performing tasks regulated by their gender identity.
Figures that come to mind include Mulan, who disguises herself as a soldier in her father’s stead, and Joan of Arc (about 1412–1431), discussed later. We cannot know if an individual would have identified with terms developed in later periods, including heterosexual or homosexual, but also more specifically as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other gender nonconforming or nonbinary identities and sexualities (abbreviated as LGBTQIA2+). History is filled with numerous examples of individuals who defied societal or religious norms, a fact that fantasy medievalisms have been relatively slow to embrace. We especially reject vile and harmful statements toward the queer and trans communities made by some of the popular writers mentioned in this volume.
The expectations that shaped the images of women in the Middle Ages, both fictional and historical, have often been revised but ultimately reinforced with nearly every new retelling. In postmedieval fantasy one can find warrior women, queens ruling unapologetically, and princesses who refused to marry, but even these are circumscribed by a complex set of gender-based expectations that ultimately adhere to patriarchal patterns. Take the limited example of female knights from the Middle Ages. One of the most famous and controversial figures is Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who aided the French against the English at a decisive moment of the Hundred Years’ War, but later still faced a trial on charges of witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was executed at the age of nineteen for her gender transgressions and is revered as a trans heroine today. Women trying to lead in the Middle Ages and in fantasy medievalisms have faced an uphill battle, despite their strong wills.
In Game of Thrones, while there are several examples of powerful women in the show who exercise influence using their feminine wiles and conform to traditional standards of female beauty—including the dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen; the direwolf queen of the north, Sansa Stark; and the lion queen, Cersei Lannister (who drops the family name of her husband, the deceased King Robert Baratheon)— it is Ser Brienne of Tarth and Lady Arya Stark of Winterfell who are truly trailblazing figures in this regard. In the fictional world of Westeros, Ser Brienne in particular not only assumes the chivalric values, titles, and weaponry of a knight, but also pushes against the gender binary in her physical appearance that is deeply troubling to the other characters (cisgender, heterosexual, and queer alike) with whom she has meaningful relationships.
A counter-example of gender-bending from Monty Python’s Arthurian tale finds Lancelot violently spilling the blood of wedding guests in an attempt to rescue a “princess”—whose missive the knight found—but who turns out to be frail, genderqueer Prince Herbert, who does not want to marry but instead pursue study and music. Such images flatten the expectation for gender-based behavior that excludes any nonnormative examples. Knights who do not rush bravely into battle and women with an interest in weaponry are out of step with this binary.