Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and their function in medieval history.


Jungian archetypes

I’ve been interested in ‘archetypes’ for a long time as I am very drawn to myth and to aspects of Jungian psycho-analysis particularly with regard to how we analyse the personalities and character of historical figures.

Often ‘myth’ is classified as something unreal or untrue yet myths also contain the essence of experience and accumulated wisdom or truth carried down for generations and that is why they retain their power to fascinate us. Myth goes hand in hand with the concept of ancient models which are carried in our sub-conscious and applied to our analysis of characters.

‘The term “archetype” has its origins in ancient Greek. The root words are archein, which means “original or old”; and typos, which means “pattern, model or type”. The combined meaning is an “original pattern” of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are derived, copied, modeled, or emulated.’http://www.soulcraft.co/essays/the_12_common_archetypes.html

Historical characters can often become ‘mythic’ even within their own life times and many have gone to considerable effort to project a particular image of themselves which can transcend their individuality and make powerful statements about themselves as symbols. One example might be the ‘warrior-king’ which has powerful associations with a patriarchal figure, often a defender of their people and seen as strong, powerful and successful. Secondary associations might be that we view success as a sign of moral judgment; a good king is one who wins wars, protects his realm, destroys his enemies or conquers the lands of others and extends the wealth of his people. Some of us might sub-consciously also equate these attributes with ‘divine favour’ or even something as nebulous as ‘luck’.

These are the positive associations but Jung also thought that there were shadow associations or counter-qualities to each archetype so the ‘warrior-king’ might also conjour up negative feelings of dominance, arrogance, control, oppression or cruelty especially if you view that figure from the perspective of someone who suffered under their rule or who’s land was taken by their expansionist agenda.

ed 1 image

Edward I – the archetypal ‘warrior-king’ but also ‘the hammer of the Scots’

We make a value judgment on whether the ‘warrior-king’ was a defender or an aggressor, whether his cause was just or spurious, whether the level of violence he unleashed in his campaigns was justifiable or not based on which side of the archetype we choose to apply. Ian Mortimer’s books on ‘Edward III: The Perfect King’ and ‘1415’ seem to take the two sides of the warrior-king over the same issue of prosecuting English claims in France. Edward III comes out as the epitome of medieval kingship because of his success in taking lands in France which he claimed were his by right of his mother’s bloodline. He showed sound judgement, clear leadership and inspired loyalty and devotion from his court. He is eulogized for his military victories on the field of battle at Crecy and Poitiers and at Sluys despite the fact that subsequently it became impossible to hold those territories gained and he bankrupted the crown in order to finance his ambitions. The terrible atrocities committed by English troops in France are glossed over. In a similar situation, Henry Vth’s decision to pursue his due and rightful ancestral claims in 1415 which derived from the treaty drawn up during Edward III’s reign are viewed more negatively. Mortimer disputes whether his claims were just and whether he was a war-monger throughout the negotiations with the French in the lead up to the Agincourt campaign.  The same attributes which make Edward great are seen as negative qualities in Henry. He is single-minded and driven, he is ruthless and inflexible and  associated with the expulsion of women and children from Harfleur and their fate thereafter. There seems to be a double standard in the reception of the two kings by this author based on value judgments and the interpretation of the basic factual evidence of their reigns.

Certainly individual reputation becomes overlaid with mythical additions and distortions over time and especially so in the case of controversial figures who’s lives have been analysed again and again by historians, play-wrights, commentators and the general public for many generations. We often see two very divergent views form of these controversial figures. One takes the positive attributes of their archetype and the other forms a reactionary response which sees them from the shadow perspective or vice versa. Heated divisions rage between historians and interest groups, both using the same source evidence to prove their version of the ‘true’ personality of the figure as seen in the recent explosion of debate over Richard III which has stormed through the academic community, the media and social forums. The responses are often emotional, inflexible and unwilling to even consider the possibility of error or uninformed and based on basic presumptions. The most obvious example, in the case of Richard III, being a supposed link between physical deformity and evil which still colours the viewpoint of many, many people today despite all the social advances in the way in which disability or deformity are viewed and talked about in C21st culture. He is defined as the ‘hunchback king’ and that label carries with it a host of unconscious negative associations.

We don’t usually refer to Henry VII as the ‘squint-eyed king’ or to Henry Vth as the ‘Scar-faced king’ so why do so many historians and journalists continue to give such prominence to a physical description of Richard III as if it adds weight to their argument that he was a bad king?

Epithets are extensions of archetypes – ‘Charles, the Bold’, ‘Henry the Law-maker’, ‘Rosamunde, the Fair’, ‘Good King Hal’. These terms are brands applied to the individual in question and hard to shake off. They go beyond the archetypes but are related to them because we form instant value judgments in our reaction to these people and colour our initial understanding of who they were before we have even studied them.

Jung argued that we all carry an unconscious set of archetypal characters in our heads and when we listen to stories or historical narratives we unconsciously associate the descriptions of certain figures with one or more of these. We begin to build this gallery of archetypes from our earliest childhood experiences of processing the information contained in fairy tales, folk legends and nursery rhymes and we need to try and make these unconscious connections because we are striving for order in a complex and difficult world. These unconscious archetypes reside in the more primitive part of our consciousness, possibly because they are associated with other basic drives like attraction and fear which have kept our ancestors alive for thousands of years. In the same way as we make unconscious and immediate judgments based on appearance and then aural feedback and only a factional 10% on the actual content of the information being given due to need to make quick decisions about whether to trust a stranger, whether you should flee or fight. Whether we should trust or dis-trust.

‘The archetypes form a dynamic substratum common to all humanity, upon the foundation of which each individual builds his own experience of life, colouring them with his unique culture, personality and life events. Thus, while archetypes themselves may be conceived as a relative few innate nebulous forms, from these may arise innumerable images, symbols and patterns of behavior. While the emerging images and forms are apprehended consciously, the archetypes which inform them are elementary structures which are unconscious and impossible to apprehend.’   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jungian_archetypes

So, beyond the basic archetypes we need to take account of variations and additions based on our own cultural, political or religious background too and of wider social stereotyping as well which all feed into our collective unconscious.

To take one example which has been applied to female rulers during the medieval period, we can see how the term ‘she-wolves’ has influenced the way in which these women are perceived by historians, journalists, commentators, and society in general. Would there be a similar term for male rulers during the medieval period? Why not? What does the term unconsciously summon up and what associations might we immediately make based on reading or hearing this term when we make initial judgments about the way in which these individual women are grouped together? Does the power of the term over-ride other archetypes which these women might have fitted into and why do historians continue to use these terms if they purport to want to look at the person in a rounded and impartial way?

Helen Castor’s book ‘She-Wolves’ is a fantastic read and she makes a strong case for the need to question our perceptions about a small group of women who have all been labelled and classified in this way because the term clouds our judgement in relation to how we view their actions or even their physical appearance. She also stresses that the original source evidence that is used by historians to build a picture of them is distorted to a significant degree by contemporary archetypes and therefore must be weighed as fundamentally biased and unsound. Are the archetypes intrinsically sexist? I think there is undoubtedly a gender-based inference to most of them – the maiden, the hero, the magician etc…. Therefore if we see a woman in a traditionally male archetype does that throw out the shadow qualities – what was positive in a male ruler – strength, judgement, decisiveness becomes negative in a female one – dominant, opinionated, hasty. Look at the case of the Empress Matilda and you see contemporary chroniclers criticizing her for acting like a man, failing to take council, making decisions for herself and demanding respect. How else do you rule in the C12th yet because of her sex she has been seen through C12th male eyes ever since.


The Empress Matilda, judged for displaying the negative shadows of positive male attributes linked to leadership and power

On the flip side look at Henry VIth. Compared to other male rulers he is seen as weak, unsuited to authority, emasculated yet if he had been a queen consort history might have judged him very differently. His gentle spirit and desire for modesty and peace would have been lauded as suitably mutable qualities in a medieval female though his lack of offspring would certainly have been held against him if he had been a royal wife! By contrast, Marguerite of Anjou, his queen who took on running the Lancastrian regime due to his incapacity to rule through mental illness has been lambasted for displaying the negative side of leadership. She is the corrupt harpy, the arrogant, shrewish woman who should have left it to the men to govern. She is often portrayed as ‘cruel’ when male counterparts ordered equally terrible executions or presided over destructive armies but are viewed less negatively. This is partly due to contemporary bias in the sources, partly due to a very deeply held belief that women should be nurturing and merciful, intercessors and diplomats not military strategists or political figures and even that vengeance is a less negative quality in a man than in a woman.

Royal 15 E VI  f. 2v  Presentation scene

Marguerite of Anjou – ‘She-wolf’ or leader?

Archetypes are pejorative – they cause us to make assumptions or to defend the individual against these and that immediately colours the way in which we view them and the actions which we believe they took in life.

The duality implied by each archetype and shadow narrows our capacity to see a ‘rainbow’ interpretation of a particular figure which is probably the closest we can ever get to the reality of their true personality. People are a complex prism of different drives and emotions and we seek to categorize and label in order to try and find order in what is usually a very dis-ordered and contradictory set of character traits and motivations.

Jung’s theory goes deeper than one archetype per person:

Jung’s main archetypes are not ‘types’ in the way that each person may be classified as one or the other. Rather, we each have all basic archetypes within us. He listed four main forms of archetypes:

The shadow –

We may see the shadow in others and, if we dare, know it in ourselves. Mostly, however, we deny it in ourselves and project it onto others. It can also have a life of its own, asthe Other. A powerful goal that some undertake is to re-integrate the shadow, the dark side, and the light of the ‘real’ self. If this can be done effectively, then we can become ‘whole’ once again, bringing together that which was once split from us.

Our shadow may appear in dreams, hallucinations and musings, often as something or someone who is bad, fearsome or despicable in some way. It may seduce through false friendship or threaten with callous disregard. Encounters with it, as an aspect of the subconscious, may reveal deeper thoughts and fears. It may also take over direct physical action when the person is confused, dazed or drugged.

The Anima and Animus –

The second most prevalent pattern is that of the Anima (female) / Animus (male), or, more simply, the Soul, and is the route to communication with the collective unconscious. The anima/animus represents our true self, as opposed to the masks we wear every day and is the source of our creativity.

These archetypes may appear as someone exotic or unusual in some way, perhaps with amazing skills and powers. In fiction, heroes, super-heroes and gods may represent these powerful beings and awaken in us the sense of omnipotence that we knew in that very early neonatal phase.

Anima and animus are female and male principles that represent this deep difference. Whilst men have a fundamental animus and women an anima, each may also have the other, just as men have a feminine side and women a masculine. Jung saw men as having one dominant anima, contributed to by female members of his family, whilst women have a more complex, variable animus, perhaps made of several parts.

Jung theorized the development of the anima/animus as beginning with infant projection onto the mother, then projecting onto prospective partners until a lasting relationship can be found.

The Self –

For Jung, the self is not just ‘me’ but God. It is the spirit that connects and is part of the universe. It is the coherent whole that unifies both consciousness and unconsciousness. It may be found elsewhere in such principles as nirvana and ecstatic harmony. It is perhaps what Jaques Lacan called ‘the real’.

Jung described creation of the self as a process of individuation, where all aspects are brought together as one. Thus ‘re-birth’ is returning to the wholeness of birth, before we start to split our selves into many parts.


As an experiment we may imagine a series of royal images around the outside of a circle with a series of archetypes attached to a spinner in the centre. Imagine we have some of the key players in late C15th English politics around the outside – Marguerite of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville, Elizabeth of York. All female so that we remove the need for gender-application between each individual but apply gender influenced archetypes and then we spin the archetypes – mother, maiden, seeress, the innocent, the care giver. Where the spinner stops try and see the individual from the positive perspective of their assigned archetype, then from the shadow perspective. Now apply a series of ‘male’ archetypes, hero, sage, rebel, the explorer etc…and do the same. Have your perceptions been challenged and can you find sufficient ‘evidence’ to attach to each archetype if you look for it closely enough in the source evidence? Are some figures stuck in a particular archetype due to how long they lived or what we most associate them with? All these women were maidens once, all became mothers yet some seem to often be defined by a particular stage in their life.

But aren’t the archetypes an unhelpful constriction, nebulous though Jung admitted them to being? By applying these rules to the way in which we view historical figures aren’t we in danger of creating pantomime characters rather than rounded human souls? Isn’t it possible to take a more sophisticated and multi-dimensional approach in the C21st? Surely we’ve done ‘Marxist history’ and ‘Whig’ history and ‘Total history’ and ‘Feminist history’ and even talked about the ‘end of history’ as we approached the millennium so shouldn’t we be moving beyond the narrow application of any one set of types or political agendas in the way that we approach viewing the past?

How far can anyone born in the C20th truly understand a C15th mindset when our experience of the world is so incredibly different? Our exposure to science, our relationship with faith and society, our links to nature and understanding of mortality are all so fundamentally different. None of us act in a vacuum and therefore to understand each other we also need to account for the people close to us who formed and shaped us and reacted to us throughout their lives.

In order to understand historical figures we need to know what was whispered into their ears when they fell asleep as children, what nightmares haunted them in the dark hours, which saints protected them, who bullied them and who inspired them. Where did they turn for comfort or security and how afraid were they of what lay beyond the final threshold?

Any historical analysis which fails to grasp the essential ‘humanity’ of their lives fails at the most basis level and therefore we must approach each of them intuitively, cautiously, as we might a traumatized child who we seek to understand and assist. There is always room for compassion and empathy but not for white-washing or hero-worship. Judgments are usually flawed because we can not know what other factors weighed in the original decision and may very well be overlooking a crucially important piece of information which is now lost to us or even something as inconsequential as a moment of lost concentration or physical impairment. Sometimes we all snap because we are over-tired or fail our friends because we are pre-occupied with a random thought. These lapses are magnified when the stakes are high and yet can we blame and judge others when our own mistakes do not have such enormous consequences?

For every action we could write multiple analyses of why each character acted or reacted as they did. Reaction is often overlooked in the desire to write historical narrative – some take the example of the death of Edward IV in April 1483 and create a ‘plausible’ narrative which sets Richard of Gloucester as the prime ‘actor’ while others see him as a passive reactionary figure which completely changes the way in which we construe the course of events. Some see him as the motivator – using Hastings and Buckingham to his own advantage, others see them as the motivators – the author of the letter which urged him to intercept the prince, the supporter who offered to bring troops with him to combat the Woodville threat etc… Cause and effect, aggressors and defenders, movers and pawns. It all depends on your perception of events and most historians want to connect facts with argument so they choose a perspective and stick to it whereas the reality may well have been much more muddled and conflicted.

Fear and desire, chance and bad luck all play a part in what lead those people to their fates. Historians need the wisdom to understand that lives are inter-woven with these core drives beyond the control of those caught up in events and that all of the players were as subject to external forces which made them struggle and doubt and despair and hope and connive in equal measure as we all do in our daily lives.

Are we able to over-ride our primitive brains and see a ‘rainbow’ of attributes and characteristics? Are we able to disentangle the source evidence from layers of bias and preconceptions and weigh the evidence that it gives us with impartiality and balance? Are we able to see both the context in which a person operated and at the same time free them from the constraints of their age and our own?

These are huge challenges for the historian because they take us to the roots of how we all experience the world. They ask us to question our core reactions and to juggle a mass of conflicting and contradictory information and most crucially of all, they demand that we are humble enough to admit to uncertainty and error and often the absence of a clear argument or answer to a question but at least we would approach the study of history with honesty and endeavor to search for the ‘truth’, whatever that might turn out to be!





6 Responses to “Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and their function in medieval history.”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. aeolianmuse39 Says:

    Reblogged this on aeolianmuse39 and commented:
    I love this piece. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elizabeth Bradley Says:

    Hello Giaconda,

    This article is five years old (so I’m hoping that you still see this!), but I think it is excellent. I’m working on a book regarding the perceptions surrounding Richard III and I would like to quote portions of it, if you will permit me. I’m still in the very early stages at this point (organizing notes, outlining etc.) but I would have no problem submitting the rough version of the book to you for review before asking you to formally agree to anything (at this point, I’m not sure exactly WHEN that rough version will be finished however…the time seems to be growing exponentially each day lol). If you see this, please let me know your thoughts.



  4. Elizabeth Bradley Says:

    Thank you for your kind words and willingness to help! I’ll get in touch with you via your blog once the rough copy is ready…which hopefully will be soon (but don’t hold your breath).

    Thanks Again!


  5. American Antigravity Says:

    May I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about online. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people have to check this out and understand this side of the story. I can’t believe you’re not more popular given that you most certainly have the gift.

    Liked by 1 person

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