Disney’s newest movie, Brave, features a theme common to (almost required for) a story about a girl in the Middle Ages—Princess Merida is forced to marry against her will, pawned because she is female by a well-meaning family who fail to acknowledge her dreams. The courageous princess “confronts tradition and challenges destiny to change her fate.” Merida’s hand will be promised to whomever wins an archery contest. We cheer for her as she tears the bonds of her restrictive clothing, declaring that she will be shooting for her own hand.
Brave teaches some valuable lessons to little girls: courage, bravery, pursuit of their dreams, and the importance of understanding and communication between mothers and daughters. However, movies like this consistently suggest that girls had little value during the Middle Ages.
Wikipedia says that Brave is set in 10th-century Scotland, but I see no indication of a date in the movie or on the movie website (EDIT: it no longer says that). The movie itself appears in a misty Scottish past, which makes pinning it to a time period or location difficult. Since the geography is unknown, it’s also hard to decide whether a girl in Merida’s position would have felt a stronger influence from French or Gaelic cultures. Since Queen Elinor appears as a queen fit for continental courts of the time (and because I’m not experienced in medieval Gaelic studies), I’ll examine the movie from the position of Anglo-Norman medieval cultural standards. For a detailed analysis of women’s roles during the Middle Ages, see “Misuse of the Word ‘Medieval’ Part 4: Women.” Here, I’m going to address some of the individual problems of Brave.
The clothing in Brave is surprisingly accurate to historical medieval clothing—on the outside. However, we see Merida being laced into a tight corset that would not be invented until 1580, several hundred years after the setting of Brave (click here for more on the historical inaccuracy of corsets). While showing Merida in a wimple is technically accurate for the period, I’ve found few references to teenagers wearing them. The wimple is a garment more appropriate for Queen Elinor than Merida. However, I suspect that the animators put Merida in a wimple not so much out of a desire to show make us sympathize with the restriction of her hair as to save on the animation budget. The Middle Ages were much kinder to women in clothing than later periods, and being in Scotland, Merida would have experienced far less social pressure for high fashion than a woman living closer to London. At worst, Merida would have been forced to wear a tight-fitting sash or would have had to navigate with very long sleeves.
The Winning of Hands
An archery tournament to decide Merida’s husband is a purely fictional situation. Arthurian romances are filled with men competing in tournaments for the women they love, and archery tournaments for the same are mostly elements of Robin Hood stories. However, I have never found an instance of a tournament being the sole factor in deciding a marriage. In Arthurian romances, men will compete in tournaments to prove their merit to women with whom they have previous relationships or to attract the attention of women with whom they hope to have relationships. I have also never heard of Highland Games being used to decide such a thing, and Highland Games as depicted in the film are largely a modern invention.
Marriages were sometimes arranged during the Middle Ages, but they were arranged for boys just as often as they were for girls. The purpose of such was to secure peace for the two lands being united by the marriage, so women and men entering arranged marriages would likely have done so with the understanding that they were upholding their duty to serve and protect their people by securing a peaceful future. As the Church placed its emphasis on the full consent of both parties as equal before God, women had the right to refuse marriage and did so. Since Clan DunBroch seems to be politically secure, as a historical woman, Merida would have probably had considerable influence in selecting her husband.
A Princess’s Duties
If asked what a medieval princess did all day, most people will probably answer “embroidery.” If asked what a medieval king did all day, most people would probably answer “sits on a throne.” The duties of the medieval aristocracy are largely foreign to us, especially as they relate to marriage. For a medieval prince or princess, marriage was often a political affair. Medieval society was split into three classes: those who pray, those who labor, and those who rule. As one who rules, Merida’s primary purpose in life would have been securing the wellbeing of her people—politically and otherwise. A princess must care for her people, protect them, and assure their safety. To ignore these duties and marry purely for personal sentiment (if a substantial benefit could have been gained from a political arrangement) would have been extremely selfish. Personal preference did influence medieval marriages, especially if a country was not in need of the security brought by a political arrangement. Simply consult history and you will find dozens of kings and queens who honestly loved each other. However, love was not the only factor in a medieval marriage. For a princess to ignore her duties to her people in order to run free and shoot arrows would have been negligent and even sinful.
I expected Brave to be a travesty of historical accuracy, but I find it hard to fault the movie for anything. The animation was beautiful, the lessons largely inspiring, and the animators clearly did a fair amount of research. Trying to explain the motivations of medieval aristocracy in a children’s movie is likely to make for a boring movie, so the problems that I’ve addressed above are not factors that could have reasonably be addressed in Brave. However, I do find it a little troubling that movies like this give the impression that girls were not valued during the Middle Ages. Merida learns that her mother is motivated by love for her rather than the desire to make her life miserable, but perhaps the movie would have also done well to address the duties of a princess. Movies give the impression that princesses have nothing to do but spin, embroider, and get married. Perhaps children should realize that princesses had responsibilities that were just as important as those of the princes and went far beyond learning to speak politely.