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Why Won't Medieval Times Let Women Be Knights?

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The Medieval Times in Buena Park, California, is looking for a good man. To be exact, they are offering a Squire position. Squires are proficient horse handlers with the physical capacity to run in sand, perform in a live show format, and to be a man. The advertisement clearly requests applications for “male performers.” Squires are promoted to Knights, and Knights must be male to “preserve the authenticity and genuineness of the scripted role of Knights in the Medieval Times theatrical production.”

History is an important component of Medieval Times’ business model. Though top executives have acknowledged that the performances themselves meld theater, sport, and history, castles offer educational field trips and provide grade-level educator packs for classes from kindergarten to high school. All of the educational materials span the entirety of the medieval period. Some focus on civics, others feature engineering, and many describe historical costume by gender and social class. These educational packets try to give nuance to the different social and historical contexts within the medieval period, but they mostly fall into the simplicity of the view of feudalism that existed prior to Susan Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996) out of necessity. They’re trying to pack several centuries of multiple regional histories onto a few pages.

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The tournament at the heart of each of the nine Medieval Times castles in North America actually attempts to present itself with much more specificity. The premise of the tournament with a banquet is that the evening’s festivities are inspired by the Spanish noble family history of Jose Montaner, related to the Count of Perelada. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1991 that Montaner drew from jousting matches among Aragon, Navarre, and Perelada in the eleventh century. The Tribune also said that Tino Brana of the movie epic El Cid contributed to the spectacle of horsemanship. (Incidentally, El Cid had its share of promotional drama when Sophia Loren sued producer Samuel Bronston for breach of contract when her name appeared below that of Charlton Heston’s. Judging from this incident alone, one might suspect we have regressed as a culture in terms of our emphasis on the status of women.)

If it was good enough for the French of Joan of Arc’s day, surely the audiences of Medieval Times could give them a pass for a woman Knight every now and then.

The history of jousting is somewhat obscure, though, particularly toward the earlier period that Medieval Times chooses as its setting. Jousting is usually thought to have originated in France or Spain. As jousting continued, the event could be included in royal celebrations for weddings and other important events. But the early period was generally militaristic and violent.

Wisely, Medieval Times departs from established history when advisable. It has chosen to downplay the nationalism and militarism that were part of the earliest Spanish tournaments in favor of a scheme very familiar from ancient Roman chariot racing: four colors competing against each other. It houses its tournaments in comfortable, air-conditioned castles in the suburbs.

Why not include an exceptional woman on the order of armor-clad and weapon-wielding medieval warrior women Isabel of Conches and Isabella of Castile? It isn’t as if the early contests generally had extensive rules, and there were certainly exceptional women gladiatorial fights in early Roman times. It just seems silly to require Squires and Knights at Medieval Times to be men. Isabel of Conches rode as “a knight among the knights,” according to Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis, who glowingly compared her to the Amazons. Likewise, Isabella of Castile rode in armor and led military engagements. Surely, in this day and age, an audience would understand if a woman who loved horses chose to perform as a man. The historical costuming would not be her own modern costuming, and so audiences should see the male clothing and assume she’s fulfilling the role of a male Squire or Knight.

In fact, dressing as a man was precisely how Joan of Arc navigated the battlefield. Although the English burned her at the stake for her cross-dressing, the French did not and still do not have a problem with an armor-clad Joan of Arc or actress prancing through the streets. If it was good enough for the French of Joan of Arc’s day, surely the audiences of Medieval Times could give them a pass for a woman Knight every now and then. Joan’s story is late for the eleventh century setting of Medieval Times, but it is well within the timeline established by the educational packets for field trips.

Top image: Jeanne d'Arc by Raymond Monvoisin, c. 1843 

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Janelle Peters writes on early Christianity and Judaism. You can follow her on Twitter @JanellePeters and check out her forthcoming book at janellepeters.org.

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