Returning to work after the holidays was less jarring than usual this year. A board game from under the Christmas tree set my mind on course for two days of meetings about the global eradication of polio.
Pandemic challenges a diverse team of specialists from CDC Atlanta to stop four deadly infections before they engulf the world. Players race around the continents in a collaborative effort to bring outbreaks under control. Should we suppress an outbreak from the epicenter or work in from the edges? Focus on one disease till it’s gone for good or strive to maintain low levels of each? Divert staff from existing programs to respond to each new outbreak? Invest in research for future cures at the cost of immediate treatment?
This map-based strategy game reminds me of the Avalon Hill war games of half a century ago, such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, or Battle of the Bulge. While Pandemic isn’t overtly historical, that’s only because the game doesn’t name the infections. In any recent year, the international health community has battled multiple pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, cholera, SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika virus, or Lassa fever. Pandemic mimics reality in the way deadly infections spread and the strategic challenges of combating them.
Would a character in this time and place really do that? Reader feedback helps novelists make draft characters more credible, but unfounded expectations complicate matters. Recently I’ve had a protagonist challenged for failure to act like a typical medieval woman: meek, docile, obedient, and subservient. Where did that come from?
Though men held most of the formal power and property, medieval literature and history abound in assertive, influential women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) and the women in Boccaccio’s Decameron were feisty, if fictitious. Blood feuds in Icelandic sagas depended on women goading reluctant men to fulfill their vengeful duty.
Abbesses ruled monasteries that included men as well as women. Women of rank plotted with sons and lovers to control the English crown. Some queens governed as regents for minor sons or demented husbands. When feudal knights rode off to war, the complex management of their manors fell to their wives or widows. Widows who inherited property enjoyed considerable independence.
There are lots of good reasons to question a character’s behavior, but the presumed docility of medieval women isn’t one of them.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.