“Dame,” like a lot of medieval words, has changed in meaning over the centuries. The wife of a knight was called a dame, and though it was the lowest of the noble titles, it was still a title.
Somewhere through the last century, usage of the term in the U.S. became somewhat pejorative, and the private eye novel probably contributed to that. Hard-boiled investigators of the 1950s often referred to their clients, girlfriends, and casual acquaintances as “dames,” relegating them to mildly bothersome, incomprehensible-but-desirable sex objects.
What about the “dames” of the past? Using either definition, what were the women who came before us like?
I recently attended a panel at Bouchercon where several historical authors tried to make the point that people of the past were just that: people, and therefore as different from each other as people are today. Yes, there are accepted beliefs, but there had to be a range of how accepted any one teaching was. Too often we hear pronouncements such as, “They all believed in God and feared the fires of hell,“ or “They didn’t like to bathe.“ I would ask those who say such things, who are “they,” and how did any society get such unanimous agreement on anything?
Writers who dare to suggest a character who thinks for himself (perhaps doesn’t believe in hell) or acts differently from others (maybe he likes to bathe daily), get into trouble. Such characters are termed too modern by some readers. But what exactly does that mean?
Women of the Tudor era were told from birth that they were inferior to men, that their brains were weak, and that God had given them no right to a say in anything. That has to have an impact, and I admit it. Still, if a woman is TOLD she is inferior, and if her society forces her to ACT as if she is, that does not mean her brain doesn’t work. There had to have been women who realized that they were every bit as intelligent as the men around them. There must have been women (and men, for that matter) who thought for themselves. Those who were brave enough to say aloud what they thought often suffered for it, but the point is, they didn‘t let the dominant opinions of their era convince them.
There were lots of women who worked within the system and used politically/socially correct (if somewhat underhanded) means of getting what they wanted. Elizabeth Tudor was one of these. Read her speeches. She often speaks of her womanly weakness and her admiration for male strength, but look at what she did: snatched her country from financial ruin, religious upheaval, foreign threat, and decades of exasperation with the machinations of those who held power. She outfoxed Europe and her own advisors over the marriage question and remained in control solely and absolutely for decades. And when it came down to it and she had to fight for England’s independence, this “weak woman” squeezed out a victory that scared off invaders and allowed the nation to develop, prosper, and bloom. Do you think Elizabeth really believed she was an inferior creature, God’s second-hand creation?
People are people, no matter what the time or place. Society shapes us, but it does not always define us. Consider how you fit into your own time and place. How many things that our society touts as critically important have you personally decided are not? Will you hate it in a hundred years or so if someone says “Everyone in 2011 had at least one tattoo” or “The people of the early 2000s admired Sarah Palin/Paris Hilton/etc.” People in the future might get that impression from pictures and magazine articles, but you might have a differing view.
If you aren’t as limp as a dishrag (and if you’re a reader, I think you are not), you think for yourself, not exactly like everyone around you. So the next time someone says, “In the past, THEY believed that swallowing nine lice mixed with ale each morning for seven consecutive days would cure jaundice,” ask yourself if you believe those TV commercials that promise you’ll lose twenty pounds by Thanksgiving if you buy their product. Give the dames of the past some credit. There were some pretty smart ones, in this dame’s opinion.
Peg Herring loves mystery in all its forms. Author of the critically acclaimed Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) series as well as the contemporary Dead Detective series, Peg believes readers deserve well-crafted plots with memorable characters. She lives with her husband in northern Michigan and writes “Strong Women, Great Stories.”
Visit Peg’s website http://pegherring.com or find her on FB: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Pegs-News/108697482481217.