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.