In my time learning history from the Ancient Greeks to the Tudors, I have begun to notice in a pattern in how the history that we know is far from the actual truth. History is not a new subject, History and Classics were being taught in Oxford and Cambridge at the time of Henry VIII and before. The Renaissance, in short, came about as a rebirth of these classical ideas and philosophies which so fascinated the medieval world. However, only until recently did we finally have female voices in history. Women were not allowed admittance to universities, not to say that they were not educated but the average Tudor woman's grasp of Latin would be constrained to that of the church, it would be unlikely that she had an opinion on the rights and wrongs of Helen of Troy. This lack of female voice in history has all too often polluted the vision that we have of women from our past, often coloured with outdated misogynistic lenses. Taking the fiction away from the facts of the events can be hard, as so often historical figures are clouded with myths about them, as I will go on to discuss. As students, as people, we owe these women, who usually changed the world we live in through their existence, the comfort of having their stories told for what they were.
Take Anne Boleyn for example, the first 'died' in the popular rhyme. Many view her as a harlot, with myths circulating that she was a witch, had a sixth finger on her left hand and horrible deformities. If we do not see her as a witch, she is the attractive seductress who managed to seduce the loyally married King Henry VIII into bed. This is simply not the truth. By all accounts, Anne was not traditionally beautiful, much like Cleopatra. Descriptions of her that survive tend to say that she was striking in her looks, but it was her manners and her social interactions with men who drew them in as she was raised in the French court. There is a letter surviving from the court which the writer suggests that he could not understand what was attractive about Anne when she had such small breasts. Furthermore, by all accounts, Anne was a strong religious reformist, being exposed to Lutheran ideas while in Europe and also denied Henry's advances at the start of their courtship, she knew it was a dangerous game to play. Her sister, Mary Boleyn, had been a mistress of Henry's and had been shamed for it. So, why then, do we view Anne as this attractive seductress who would do anything for the crown? Well, as is so often in history, the answer is that men were intimidated by women who could actually possess power. We see this with Cleopatra, by all accounts a very capable monarch, she was reduced to a sex-mad woman who used her beauty to get what she wanted. Hundreds and thousands of years of male scholarship examining these woman have produced little more than dismissing them for their beauty for what else could they possibly offer in the art of seduction?
Mythological women also suffer the same treatment. The view of Helen of Troy since c. 750 BCE is that she caused the Trojan War. This is not true in the slightest, and yet Gorgias, an Athenian rhetorician wrote a 'Defense of Helen' as defending Helen was thought to have been an impossible task and Gorgias wanted to prove how persuasive his speech could be. The Trojan War actually started with the Judgement of Paris. In this myth, Paris is tasked with deciding which goddess out of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite should get the apple, which is for the fairest. Each of the goddesses try to bribe the prince. Hera offers to make him the king of Asia, Athena offers him wisdom and great military skill and Aphrodite offers him the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris gives the apple to Aphrodite. In many versions of the myth, Helen is kidnapped from Sparta and her husband Menelaus. In some versions, she is raped by Paris and taken away. Her husband then seeks revenge against the Trojans for taking his wife and the rest is history (although not really since the Trojan War never happened). There are few translations of the myth which suggest that Helen herself, willingly went to Troy, despite what the 2018 BBC TV show Troy: The Fall of a City will try to tell you. The only evidence we have of Helen willingly leaving her home is a seventh century BCE poem from a poetess called Sappho who explicitly states that it was Helen herself who left. The extent to which we can use this as evidence, however, is minimal. Helen is so often blamed for the Trojan War when she so clearly had such a little role in it starting. It was the intervention of the gods and Paris which landed her in Troy. History treats Helen as the 'face who launched a thousand ships,' this evil woman who started a ten-year war for nothing when we should really be looking to Paris who, by many accounts, took Helen to Troy against her will.
There are countless cases of women, both in history and myth, who have been demonised, wronged, and mythicised for several reasons. Usually, contemporary propaganda stops us from seeing the full picture. Historians and classicists like to trust primary sources, they can be used as mirrors into a world long past. The danger comes when too many primary sources say the same thing. If ten Tudor courtiers all agree that Anne was beautiful then why should we think any different? Similarly, if there is an Ancient Greek comedy about Helen of Troy, with the specific intent to make the audience feel sympathy for Helen (for comedic value no less) then why shouldn't we assume that Helen was an awful person who we could never feel sympathy for? The world of women in history is complex and laden with outdated and frankly, scary scholarship. The way we can reverse this is by bringing more women's voices into subjects, diversifying the field, and showing the world that women are not witches and they deserve to be represented in a way that shows the truth.