Women Prove They Are the True Pillars of the Earth
Mini-series Based on Ken Follett's Novel Showcases Women's Power, Influence, and Treachery
Contemporary women bemoaning inequities such as wage gap, professional discrimination, and political double standards might look to their fictional sisters of the 12th century for solace and more than a little inspiration. Based on Ken Follett's 1989 novel, Pillars of the Earth, the mini-series by the same name currently airing on the STARZ movie network features women who, despite political and religious constraints, help to steer the course of history.
Follett's epic narrative takes place amidst political turmoil and crisis resulting from the death of King Henry's only legitimate son and heir to the throne. Maud, Henry's daughter, Stephen, his nephew, and Gloucester, his illegitimate son, enter into the power vacuum to pursue the monarchy. At the same time, the Hamleigh family, a group of fledgling nobles, stake their claim to succession through their son, William, whom they attempt to espouse to the beautiful Aliena, daughter of the Earl of Bartholomew of Shiring. Aliena's violent refusal incites William's determination to seek revenge against Aliena, her brother, Richard, and her father, the Earl of Shiring.
While murder and manipulations mount between the noble families, eventually leading to long, bloody conflict, a second narrative thread emerges that pits the church against the crown. Prior Philip, the idealistic monk presiding over Kingsbridge Monastery, hires Tom Builder, a master-builder, to build a new cathedral and help invigorate the priory. Tom Builder, a recent widow, arrives at the Monastery with his two children, Alfred and Martha, and two new companions: a mysterious healer named Ellen and her son, Jack, an introverted young man with a talent for sculpting. Prior Philip becomes embroiled in state and church politics, which present numerous problems that further complicate the arduous quest for power, succession, and domination taking place among court factions.
Given the historical time period, the blood thirsty force and deadly betrayals that take place among both members of the crown and clergy are expected. However, the role that women play in orchestrating many of these brutal machinations is unique, giving the series a Shakespearean quality that honors a legacy of ferocity, cunning, and resilience attributed to women, but often written out of or obscured from historical texts, narratives, or reinventions.
Of the female characters in Pillars, three establish themselves as formidable power brokers in this war-lusty world. Aliena, the Earl of Bartholomew's daughter, pays dearly for spurning William's advances and marriage proposal. He not only sexually assaults her, but he becomes an instrumental figure in having her father condemned to death. In turn, she swears her own revenge. She learns how to sell wool (and impressively wield a sword), acting as one of the only women in the market who also drives a hard deal, outselling many of her male colleagues. Aliena's economic success enables her to raise money to fund an army to help defeat William and his allies.
Similarly, William's mother, Regan Hamleigh, determined to see her son crowned and her own entree into courtesan life guaranteed, engineers various, underhanded dealings with the powerful Bishop Waleran Bigod, performed by the deliciously sinister Ian McShane of Deadwood fame. Regan's thirst for power and riches compels her to plant the seeds of violence and revenge in her son's head. When her husband, Percy, becomes too compliant and meek, threatening to derail her schemes, she takes it upon herself to solve the problem. In a scene of bone-chilling calculation, Regan visits her husband, recovering from a bout of ague, and proceeds to bleed him to death.
Finally, the exotic woman accused of practicing witchcraft who takes Tom Builder as a lover, Ellen, is the twelfth-century's version of the single, independent mother. She guards the dangerous secret of her son, Jack's, paternity, confiding in Tom Builder how she swore revenge, in the form of a curse, on the men responsible for Jack's father's death. Ellen is forced to flee the monastery when Bishop Bigod, a man implicated in the plot against Jack's father, discovers her presence and sentences her to death under the penalty of witchcraft. In a spectacular act of defiance, Ellen confronts the Bishop and her accusers: she spits in his face, urinates on his bible, and stabs him in the shoulder with a small knife before stalking out of the priory and disappearing into the night.
The intrigue and action of Pillars alone makes it a compelling series, but the women make it truly fascinating. With the many power dynamics in play and with women driving their designs just as forcibly as men, Pillars of the Earth gives us a chance to re-imagine the contributions of women in history while knitting dynamic, intriguing, and complicated tale, which, perhaps to the dismay of men on the receiving end of their efforts, moves women from the wings to center stage in this captivating historical drama.