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The description of this question is lengthy because I want to make my situation precise , well-defined and detailed to avoid answers covering what I've already made my decisions with (Like how about X or Y and why don't you change this or that, etc).

I'm currently considering a heroines-oriented story in 15th century, an AltHistory Europe. Some of these female protagonists have Fixed background about their occupations -

  • Legally Accepted Noble Knights and military commanders (who are also legal heir of their nobility families unlike accoladed ones such as Jeanne d'Arc or Brienne), and also squires, they shares the same procedure of knight training like male noble kids, they also have full authority over their fiefdoms just like how a male feudal Lord would have.

  • Physicians, Alchemists, University Professors and Students in “natural science”. Also Alchemists.

  • Hunters, forestwomen, light cavalry or other occupations involving armed scouts and border patrols

  • Individuals that has other military or swordfighting backgrounds (i.e. mercenaries, swordsmaster guild or city guards)

  • Experienced craftswomen or apprentice (Siege engineer,carpenter, swordsmith, arrowsmith, etc) or at least someone who can practice these skills individually ...

I'm writing those backgrounds under the premise that these female occupations are partly accepted (10%-30%) by the society instead of special cases. This is because there will be at least a dozen of different individuals and not just one or two.

Most of the society still distrust these women like a normal medieval society will do, some even throw insults at them, the traditional view still kept most women away from applying those, but at least there's no institutional limitations forbidding them to take those occupations (more like a “no one says i can't”).

The storyline itself will be revolved around their backstories and occupations (struggles between the families of individual female knights, how female knight manage and protect her fiefdom, education of a university students, different range of artisans for a strictly all-female bandit group...), so it is not to be changed.

Also most of these characters currently took no marriage (their more “modern” sexuality is another topic) so there's no husbands nor widowhood involved in their backstories.

Currently to explain such drastic change in the society I'm thinking about reasons like:

  • Talent in magic. Though not as powerful as in most fantasy stories (more like how Witcher deals with it but also less powerful).

I'm also not going to make all of the countries having same attitudes towards women. Although the protagonist's homeland allows female noble knights, some of the more Western countries will have stricter limitations. Some country (specifically the not-England) even punished cross-dressing.

The problem is that, the original ideas for me was to write more of an authentic late medieval story but with a number of female noble knights and mercenaries individuals involved as protagonists.

But for now as I'm taking more research into genders in medieval Europe (and want to incorporate them), it seems that this setting takes too much fantasy licenses and is not that “medievaly” authentic.

While writing some female individuals taking the male's role, I'm also putting much efforts into presenting a convincing (or mostly accurate) 15th century lifestyle and (Catholic) society that is just slightly more friendly to women than usual.

Will people care about the historical accuracies on late medieval society under this setting? Would it cause an audience to walk away if they saw a female noble knights and mercenaries while pretending to be “medieval”?

I may have to forget about medieval settings and make it purely fantasy if I'm not going to change my heroines' backstories, which will be a consequence that I really hate. But I'm also not going to cover neither male protagonist warriors nor stories purely about medieval palace women, nuns or housewives dealing with daily life issues (or palace intrigue), just for making it too much “historical accurate”.

Is it really no middle place for such stories that can involve either a good number of female individuals taking men's role, but the same time making it convincing (and accurate) on late medieval life on other aspects?

Is their a better way to insert such female setting into a mostly medieval but slightly more Egalitarian world society?

Most posts on similar topics often dwell on how female's physical strength as a weakness.

I'm also asking that if a female just trained like a man since youth (e.g. Squire training since 8 and accoladed as knight in 20s, and participate in numerous conflicts during this), can they make up with their physical strength by their life long training fighting skills?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jun 12 at 2:03

7 Answers 7

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Going Further Back...

To the Romans and Greeks before them, we see that there were very specific gender roles. In my opinion, the views of Athens and Rome dictated the medieval mindset on gender. We see this sort of thing in other aspects of life and fields of study as well.

There were exceptions to these views, and we know that we don't have a comprehensive view of gender in antiquity. Assuming this world has the similar "the ancients knew best" dogma practiced by our Europe, simply having more information on other cultures or having records from them instead of Rome/Athens may lead to a more egalitarian culture. Additionally, if ancient world women were a little bit more successful, even if just a few, then the views on women could have been greatly altered!

For instance, the Spartan society had plenty of women with more economic (and arguably more political influence) than their kings. Ancient Britons under Boudicca nearly drove the Romans out. Any society willing to officially follow a queen in war could easily be more egalitarian. If these cultures survived and transitioned to a medieval period, I bet views on women would be very different and likely close to what you want. Even more documents may do the trick, too!

Some Tweaks To History

If one of these (assumed) more egalitarian were taken as the "ancient society to emulate" by the cultures in this story, you can justify more egalitarian society. For instance, if Boudicca succeeded in driving out Rome or if Sparta remained a geopolitical power, these cultures and worldviews could dominate the later medieval period. There are other points in history, too, where women played major roles. Cleopatra comes to mind: if she had remained in power longer, she certainly could have changed views on women. Others examples occur, such as Hortensia, who could have sewed the seeds of rebellion (and social revolution) if the Second Roman Triumvirate didn't back down on a tax law.

Let us also not forget that there is strong evidence that women participated in the hazardous occupation of viking. Check out the Birka Viking Warrior! If Christianity-Pagan interaction went a little differently, with Christianity assuming more of these pagan views on women's rights, we get a more (but not completely) egalitarian society.

Showing These Tweaks

The problem you have, as a writer or world builder in general, would be to show this difference organically. Maybe this can take the form of a conversation about ancient history, a male subordinate talks about how a female leader is like Boudicca, or characters admire a statue of Hortensia.

In short, readers/participants in the world just need something to indicate that these people think differently about gender. Yes, any change you make moves things further from a "historically accurate medieval setting". However, you need not go to the binary of "total inexplicable equality" or "total patriarchal repression". (Which really was not the case, for any budding feminist historians reading this!)

The door of history turns on small hinges!

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Yes for I'm taking a potential magic setting I do think of making some of the European tales Real in some way and also taking a slightly different Christian-Pagan interaction (i.e. There're more underground pagan rituals in Baltic than real life even after the Teutonic conquest), your idea on Boudicca is inspiring, I'll think about altering those female tale figures and making them more “famous” to the society. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Wolfensniper just remember, for stack exchange sites to do their magic, to wait a few days. Even if you really like one answer over the others. 😃 $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jun 9 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ "If Sparta won the conflict with Athens": Sparta did win the Peloponnesian War. Sixty years later came Philip of Macedon, and Sparta's victory over Athens became irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 9 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP whoops! Slip of the keyboard! Look, the important thing is that they remain a geopolitical power instead losing influence over other nation-states. Changed the answer to reflect this. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jun 9 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of this exchange: An Athenian man asked, "How is it that Spartan men allow themselves to be ruled by their women?" A Spartan woman replied, "because we are the only women who give birth to men." $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Jun 10 at 2:17
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Plague.

https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1345/women-in-the-middle-ages/

Women's status and opportunities would also expand after the outbreak of the Black Death pandemic of 1347-1352 CE which killed so many that women were allowed to assume ownership an operation of their late husband's businesses. Women's rights would reach their apex in the Late Middle Ages at which time more restrictions were implemented by the patriarchal system primarily because women's social positions threatened the status quo.

In your world, the plague rages. It is not everywhere all the time but it is happening, and all inhabited lands live under the threat of plague arriving. In our world, the depopulation caused by the plague led to a relaxation of gender rules and you could just go with that. In your world maybe men or male children are more likely to die and so the depopulation is more a depopulation of males. Out of necessity, the world becomes even more egalitarian.

This would be good grist for the story mill too - old professors might in principle chafe at having female students, but be glad that the school is still open. Persons needing soldiers want male soldiers but worry about them dying of the plague and so women are pressed into service.

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Because of the Pope and Mary Magdalene:

You want a 15th century Euro-Catholic world more tolerant of women in professions. The simplest way to do this is make the church more supportive of women.

When the bible was put together, there is a strong suspicion that the role of Mary Magdalene was minimized. Juxtaposition and omission made her look like a minor character (and a prostitute), yet she may have been one of the most important apostles of Jesus. Her role in the Gnostic version of the bible was front-and-center.

So Pope Gregory I decides to amplify her role in the church rather than minimize it. Perhaps in a world of magic, the Pope really IS the mouthpiece of God as he was sometimes claimed to be (that's up to you). So while he doesn't end misogyny, his proclamation that an (unmarried) woman can do anything she is capable of in the model of Mary Magdalene shifts the balance of acceptance.

So women in your society have two Mary's they can follow - mother of Jesus or disciple.

  • Alternatively, your world has a very broadly defined subculture of Liberal nuns. The sisters of Mary Magdalene advocate for broad choice for women, and impose very minor restrictions on their members - they can still own land, inherit, and live and work outside of a monastic setting. They just can't marry, giving up having a family. Any wealth they do inherit eventually should be inherited by the order (except titles and feudal lands). Those that do live in a 'monastery' live in women-only towns doing most of the work they would do as non-monastics. The sisterhood has a reputation of broadly supporting women (especially in regards to inheritance, which has left the order quite wealthy since death in childbirth was a major contributing factor to women having a shorter lifespan in this period).
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    $\begingroup$ When you say "Gnostic bible" do you mean the "Gospel of Mary"? An orthodox Christianity had already been forming by the time it was written and that text in particular doesn't seem to have been noticed by most of the early church. The Gnostic beliefs weren't unified in any way and many were already wacky by early Christian standards. The church didn't refuse the validity of Gnostic texts because Mary figured prominently in a few of them but because they claimed the baseness of the material world, questioned the nature of Jesus, posited the existence of multiple deities, and/or explicitly $\endgroup$
    – gormadoc
    Jun 10 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ opposed the nascent orthodoxy. I challenge the idea that Gregory I minimized Mary's role in the church. Prior to his interpretation her role was only important in that she was the first to see the empty tomb. While her character may have been unfairly impugned she became a prominent symbol of repentance and the salvation offered to even the most "fallen." $\endgroup$
    – gormadoc
    Jun 10 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ @gormadoc I won't disagree, although there is opinion and interpretation involved. I think the fundamental answer still stands. A Mary more of competence instead of repentance would fulfill the requirement of the question. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 10 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ @gormadoc It sounds like you have a good grasp of the material. I'd love to see you give an answer. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 10 at 3:40
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STRONG

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Sexism is in part due to how men are on average stronger than women. In your setting the sexism is weaker because the women are on average stronger. This changes the culture of caveman society and eventually medieval society.

Of course the women are not all as strong as Shauna Coxsey. That would be too strong.

enter image description here

But maybe the average woman is only slightly weaker than the average man. Or maybe the same as the average man of the same height. Best to make them exactly as strong as is necessary for the society you want.

enter image description here

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I would say the single smallest change you could make would be effective birth control, whether magical or pharmacological doesn't matter.

Everything else, whether reducing strength disparity, allowing work outside the house or whatever, is only going to paper over the fact that pregnancy will take a woman out of medieval production for months at the very least (even if the child is killed immediately upon birth). And pregnancy doesn't require marriage, it only needs a single ill-advised tryst (perhaps due to drunken celebration), or being overcome and raped.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if there's effective birth control, it won't be used. In a medieval setting, with a typical 75%-80% child mortality rate, there's a very strong pressure to have as many children as possible. There's also the fact that, for just about everyone, having more children means having more people to work at whatever the family business is (typically farming). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 9 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ As you alluded to at the end. the entire issue of rape and sexual violence as to be addressed. Rape and sexual assault were used as tools to control females. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 at 2:10
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Honestly, like Nike says, just do it.

Different macro cultures (eg: Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetian, etc) tend to have their own typical ways of handling gender roles. For example, Indo-European societies tended toward 1-to-1 marriage, Afro-Asiatic to 1-to-many with the wives being relatively equal, Sino-Tibetian to 1-to-many, but with the first wife having much higher status (sort of halfway between the two).

There was one historical culture that didn't have much problem with women owning property or having careers: The Sumerians. Most Sumerian women still opted to have children, but not all. Many joined the priesthood. This would have worked similar to Europe with its nunneries, but with much higher status as female deities had all female priesthoods.

The scheme a particular human society ends up using seems to be somewhat random, and women owning property and having careers is known to be in that distribution, so just say it happened with yours. They had roughly the Sumerian conception of gender roles. A woman who wanted to be a guard or a soldier will have that option (although having a family is probably more of an option for a guard).

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TL;DR

Compared with allowing the existence of effective magic, attentuating the legal and societal differences between men and women and allowing female knights and female professors is a trivial change. Just go ahead and make it so.

Just make it so

This is fiction. There is no rule that fiction has to mimick real history.

For an example older than the hills, Homer has goddesses take actual physical part in battle, has female warriors fighting in the Trojan war, and has female characters (such as Nasicaa, Arete, Calypso, Circe and Penelope) driving the plot for two thirds of the Odyssey. If Homer could do it in the 8th century BCE you can surely do it three thousand years later.

You are already allowing yourself to introduce effective magic in your world. This is a massive change. A world with effective magic has no reasonable right to expect to be similar in the slightest with the real-history western medieval Europe; but this is fiction, and nobody can say that you are not allowed to have a world with effective magic, and yet very similar with real-history western medieval Europe. Compared to allowing your world to have effective magic, allowing your world to have women knights and women professors is trivial.

So go ahead and just make it so. Your world is just like real-history western medieval Europe, except that women are allowed to fulfill some roles which in real-history western medieval Europe they weren't.

Caveats

  • Are you sure that women could not inherit their family's lands in medieval Poland? I honestly don't know, as medieval Poland is not a focal point of interest for me, but I am sure that in England, in France, and in eastern Europe they could and did.

  • Female-only guilds did exist, albeit rarely and seen as exceptions.

  • As far as I know, there were no pike formations in medieval Poland; pike formations were rarely used even in medieval western Europe, mostly because a pike formation is by necessity made up of commoners, paid soldiers, and in the Middle Ages few kings were rich enough to afford large numbers of paid soldiers.

  • Monasteries were not considered "religious authorities", at least not in catholic western Europe. Again, I don't know about medieval Poland, but I would be very much surprised if this were the case. A specific monk or abbot of a specific monastery may have been an influential theologian, yes; but the monstery itself had no religious authority. It could be respected for its piety etc., but authority is someting else.

  • The medieval society was as far from egalitarian as humans can make it. You are perfectly allowed to attenuate the legal and societal differences between men and women, that's perfectly fine, but you cannot have a recognizably medieval egalitarian society. (You can have a small one. For example, the isolated society inside a monastery was indeed quite egalitarian.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I may reply your points one by one to avoid misunderstandings 1) The magic is not the priority setting and is only a potential explanation for the alternative history 2) from my current research I've found women married someone with her family land or become a regent while male offspring is absent or too young, but not becoming the first line heir nor a lord/duchess of her fief, which is different from the “female knights” in my settings who has the same authority to their lands like male feudal knights, they may also command knight banners as an appointed marshal. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ 3) Yes female guild did exist, I'm just making these further for wider range i.e. female carpenter guild across cities as a usual sight 4) I'm referring to a well trained, tight formation formed by polearms against lossly trained opponents, the female soldiers forming the spear/pike wall received similar training that a professional male soldier would get during late medieval, when mercenaries and professional soldiers are more common on battlefield. $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I downvoted because you are dealing with superlatives and made a demonstrably untrue statement . Medieval Europe is not the worst humanity can or has done in regards to women's rights. In fact, migration era (a subset of medieval) Scandinavia seems to have done pretty well. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jun 9 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @PipperChip: What on earth are you speaking about? I said that medieval western Europe was not-egalitarian in the extreme, with a legally enforced and hereditary difference between serfs, free people, nobles, and clerics, and you speak about the difference between men and women. Yes, there was some difference between noble men and noble women. It was absolutely tiny compared to the difference between a noble person and a serf. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 9 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Wolfensniper: *"Letting women inherit the Hereditary title": This did happen in some places and at some times, and in fact it was not all that uncommon. In English such heiresses were called "peeresses in their own right", or "suo jure" in Medieval Latin. (In England, for example, whether a specific title could be inherited by a daughter in her own right depended on how the title was created; daughters could by default inherit it, unless the title was explicitly created by letters patent limiting the inheritance to "heirs male of the body of <name of first holder>".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 9 at 17:33

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