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The (relatively) unexplored relevance of medieval tales

There was a long period of time, perhaps comprising most of the 1950s, when medieval fiction seemed so irrelevant that it fell out of favor. Maybe for many avid book readers, post-war life was such a relief and the future so bright that there was no need for historical precedents that would soothe souls and tamp down worries.

Here in the third decade of the 21st century, according to my agent anyway, historical fiction is still harder to sell to publishers than many other genres—particularly romance, mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, and young adult (the top 5 according to Still, given the recent flood of World War II and Cold War novels, it appears that a historical context isn’t the problem. What perceived relevance drives the popularity of mid-20th century novels? Perhaps an interest in the rise of fascism and its parallels to some of today’s political shifts. Perhaps a curiosity about the generation that we’re now losing – parents and grandparents who lived through or served in that time.


Medieval fiction can give us historical perspectives on more than just the plague, war, and queens.


Recently, the COVID pandemic made any novel about the plagues of the Middle Ages suddenly relevant, be it Camus’s The Plague, Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, or Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders. Indeed, it’s hard to find any historical novel about the Dark Ages that doesn’t at least touch on the ravages of the plague, which was a constant threat for centuries, as there were many rolling pandemics, not just one.

For a long time, a few sub-genres have dominated medieval historical fiction—military fiction, romance, especially romance among royals and royal families, and histories of political dynasties. These books have avid readers, evidenced by their overwhelming presence on best-seller lists in the category. See

Medieval fiction, however, can give us historical perspectives on more than just the plague, war, and queens. A few novelists have expanded the medieval history category in ways that speak to current concerns. Books of the genre and time period show us the historical precedents for how societies have responded to disruptive mass migrations, religious intolerance, and domestic abuse, to name a few.

As a reviewer for Midwest Book Review, I have recently read The Lost Apothecary, a debut novel by Sarah Penner about an apothecary (both the name of a pharmacy and the pharmacist) who provides lethal doses of medicines to women who need to rid themselves of cruel or infidel men in their lives. The misogyny and domestic abuses at the core of the novel are as relevant today as the #MeToo Movement, even if the remedies women sought were anachronistic (to say the least.)

Revelations by Mary Sharratt details the story of another woman who found a way to escape the difficulties of motherhood and marriage, which were harsher in the Middle Ages but not that different from those of many women in abusive domestic captivity. Margery Kempe was a real-life, pious 14th-century woman whose husband wanted nothing more than to keep her pregnant. She came close to death in childbirth many times, and her dreams of seeing the world were squashed by her domestic workload. After giving birth to 14 children—most of whom lived!—she finally said enough, took off, literally, across the known world, travelling alone and with found companions from England to Jerusalem and back. The story will disabuse readers of any thought that Margery’s choice to make the pilgrimage was the easy one. Sharratt’s novel touches on themes of religious choice, the debasement of women, and the patriarchal trap of motherhood, issues that still resonate.

Two earlier novels of note, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant and Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross, made strong cases that feminism isn’t a new phenomenon but a tradition at least as old as the Middle Ages and Renaissance. And while the Weight of Ink detailed the effects of the plague in London, it also carried a feminist theme and explored religious intolerance and the rebirth of secular philosophy.

My own recently released novel, The Rebel Nun, expands the medieval genre to include another kind of religious woman—a nun who led a rebellion against the Catholic Church in an effort to protect her monastery from misogyny and patriarchal interference by the local bishop. While also embracing the issue of limited choice for women, it is set in a time when women were being pushed out of the clergy and out of church leadership, a movement relevant to the question of women’s role in religious leadership today. And The Candlemaker’s Woman, my forthcoming novel, looks at mass migration—in this case, the diaspora of the third-to-sixth centuries—from the point of view of a young woman who is neither royal nor of a military family. Her tribe is made up mostly of farmers running from their own dystopia, not unlike many refugees of today.

These few examples, though, represent only a tiny few of the possible analogous stories authors can draw from life in medieval times that show how far we’ve come and yet how little distance we’ve actually travelled. There are hundreds of stories of real characters and opportunities to create composite characters that can bring a historical context to issues of race, class distinctions, economic immobility, wealth disparities, access to health care, homelessness, and helplessness.

These stories, if unearthed and given flesh and blood, will find an entirely new audience by expanding the medieval historical sub-genre beyond Roman legions and barbarian warriors, queens, kings, and royal lineages, which while romantic, give us little we can relate to (other than dreams of marrying a prince?).

Of course, the barrier to more fiction that reaches back 1,200 to 1,500 years is the paucity of documentation and contemporary histories. The Dark Ages were so named, not for a lack of advances in technologies, agriculture, and medicine, but because so much classical knowledge and secular writing was hidden and forbidden by the institutions of the time—particularly the Church. Research into the time period can take years, and the financial rewards (as for most novelists) can be puny.

Nevertheless, I hope that more publishers see the opportunities here, recognize the potential, and break free from their ecumenical focus on WWII, and give novels from this earlier period a moment in the limelight.

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