28 Mar 2015

Historical Saturday #3- The Warrior Woman- Fact or Fiction?

You may have noticed that this year there are at least three novels, set in the Medieval period that depict women in traditionally male type roles. Dina Sleiman's Dauntess and Melanie Dickerson's The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest both depict female Robin Hood like figures who use their skill with the bow in defence of some good cause.
Of the two, Merry Ellison, the heroine of Dauntless seems to be the most martial, skilled in sword fighting and various athletic pursuits as well as with the bow. 
I must say that I for one was a little unsettled by the idea of such characterisation, but it seems to work well with what I have read of the story so far (I'm just over halfway through the novel at the time of writing), but it seems to work well with the storyline and the period setting. 

Being the Medievalist that I am, I think there is a lot wrong with the depictions of martial females in many movies and  TV shows. Now don't get me wrong, I believe in women's rights, and I admire a strong woman- indeed one of my personal heroines from history is Ethelflead of Mercia, on whom I will say more later in this post- but for me one of the biggest problems with fighting Medieval women on screen is tokenism. 
Thus a militaristic Lady will be included simply because the screenwriter et al feels that the female lead simply has to be  good at fighting and in the thick of the action to prove that women are just as good as men, and tick off of the politically correct, feminist boxes so they are not depicted as helpless victims. 

Yet such depictions are often lacklustre and veering on being so far-fetched that they are totally unrealistic. Picture a tiny, size zero supermodel type girl wielding a two-handed sword or axe nearly as big as she is with ease, despite having had little or no training and you might just grasp my meaning. Or how is it that such characters seem to have a miraculous ability to come out of a battle looking as flawlessly gorgeous as they went in? Not a smudge on their makeup, not a glossy, waist length hair out of place, whilst all the men are blood splattered and looking decidedly the worse for wear.
The logical person in me just wants to imitate the cry of the ancient Britons in a resounding 'As if!' 

Then there's the feminist superwoman. The good and everything all the time type (who can surpass any male in archery or swordplay anytime, anywhere just because of her innate girl-power). The type who refuses any kind of help from men, even if she has an uncanny knack for getting into trouble, and is sure to give any man a shovelful of sass if he dares come to her aid as she is perfectly capable of looking after herself, thankyou very much. 

Alright, putting aside my ire at the most irritating form of extreme feminism being forcibly imposed onto the past, and upon the audience by proxy, what actual evidence is there for fighting females in the Middle Ages? Is it all Hollywood invention, or is there some truth in such depiction? Surprisingly, the answer is a tentative yes...at least for a Merry Ellison type figure. 
Hunting, for instance, was a popular pastime in the Middle Ages for both sexes, and there are contemporary illustrations that clearly show women hawking, and even hunting with bows and arrows.Indeed, I once heard it said that some women may have been more accomplished archers than their male counterparts.
In the Hundred Years War, Longbowmen seem to have been expected to loose as many arrows as possible within a short space of time- three or four a minute if possible. Like the machine guns of their day, the use of Longbows in war seems to have been less about accuracy, and more about slowing down the charge of the enemy. Hunting, however required more precision and skill to kill the quarry...and those ladies must have practised much as I know from experience that for a girl unschooled in archery, drawing a bow for a prolonged period is painful....literally.

The next novel in Dina Sleiman's Valiant Hearts series features a young lady clad in armour who dreams of being a knight. Alright, so a female knight is probably altogether less plausible as I know of no instances of women being knighted- they were illegible for knighthood. Yet, there are to be found in the sources some examples of women who did lead soldiers, and in some cases donned armour and even fought. Often such women were widows, or without a male protector, so responsibility for defending home, kith and kin fell to them. 

One of the most early examples came from Anglo-Saxon England. Ethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great, was the first known Englishwoman to rule a kingdom on her own right- 600 years before Elizabeth I or Mary Tudor. Admittedly she did not rule all of what became England, but she did become the ruler of a territory called English Mercia- half of what is now the English Midlands after the death of her husband Ethelred c.911.
During her rule of approximately seven years, Ethelflead is said by the sources to have built fortresses, re-established Roman cities like Gloucester, and led successfully led her army against the invading Danish Vikings- sometimes in co-operation with her younger brother, Edward King of Wessex, sometimes in her own right. By her death in 918, the Mercians had reclaimed much territory. It is doubtful whether she ever actually fought personally, but Ethelflead was nonetheless a capable and intelligent leader of her people, who was earned admiration throughout the British Isles and even beyond.
Over two centuries after her death, the 12th Century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon penned a verse in praise of her career and achievements:

"Heroic Elflede ! great in martial fame,
A man in valoar, woman though in name ;
Thee warlike hosts, thee  nature too obey'd,
Conqu'ror o'er both, though born by sex a maid.
Chang'd be thy name, such honour triumphs bring,
A queen by title, but in deeds a king.
Heroes before the Mercian heroine ' quail'd :
Caesar himself to win such glory failed."
. 1

Other ladies of the twelfth and thirteenth century also proved their mettle on the field of war. One Isabella of Conches, a Norman noblewoman was described by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis as  having ridden out to war  'armed as a knight, among the knights, and she showed no less courage among the knights in hauberks as did the maid Camilla'.2

Admittedly the warrior women is considered something of a literary trope in the Middle Ages, and some writers may have been using artistic licence, but this and the number of other references clearly show some women did take it upon themselves to fight with or for their menfolk. Another such renowned woman was Sichelgaita of Salerno, wife of the Norman Conqueror Robert Guiscard. The daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, Anna Komnene spoke of her thus when in battle against her people in her famous Biographical work on her father The Alexiad: 

"There is a story that Robert’s wife Gaita, who used to accompany him on campaign like another Pallas, if not a second Athena, seeing the runaways and glaring fiercely at them, shouted in a very loud voice, ‘How far will ye run? Halt! Be men!’ – not quite in those Homeric words, but something very like them in her own dialect. As they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and charged at full gallop against them. It brought them to their senses and they went back to fight".3
Her close contemporary Matilda of Tuscany is the only women to have actually been said to have
received  training in the use of weapons- which she seemingly put to good use in the conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, when the latter had to cross her lands.
In England, Empress Matilda and wife of her rival, Stephen of Blois, another Matilda, are both said to have taken to the battlefield in defence of their cause. When her husband was captured, the latter Matilda led "a magnificent body of troops' whom she ordered to 'rage most furiously around London with plunder and arson, violence and the sword".4

There are also numerous examples of women defending castles, including Dame Nicola de la Haye, who despite being in her seventies commanded the royalist stronghold of Lincoln Castle against the forces of Prince Louis of France and the rebel English barons at the time of King John’s death, holding out against every assault until William Marshall arrived with relief forces'.5

From the fourteenth century there exists an illustration of Isabella, Wife of Edward II, in armour
standing amongst her soldiers.Isabella, however represents the other side of a the coin- a women whose actions subjected her to scorn and criticism- for she had a role in the deposition and possible murder of her husband the King.
 Queen Isabella pictured in Red Gown
When a martial woman's military efforts were coupled with other virtues, such as generosity, piety or kindness, she was likely to be praised- but if a woman to up arms in a cause deemed morally questionable, and committed actions considered sinful or immoral, the likelihood was that her reputation would suffer and she would be denounced as unnatural and violent.

Ethelfleda and Matilda of Tuscany were pious Christian women fighting in what was considered a just cause against pagans or rebellious Christians- so they were praised by supporters- Isabella however was a rebellious wife, and possible adulteress- the Empress Matilda was labelled as arrogant and haughty for trying to act like 'a female King', and scandal blighted the later reputation of Sichelgaita.
So women could, and in some cases did take up arms. If they were widows, or for whatever reason had no husband or brother present to fight their corner, and if necessity demanded action, it was not unlikely that their actions would be considered legitimate and admirable. By the fifteenth century, Europe's first professional female writer Christine de Pizan gave this advice to noblewoman:

"It is also fitting for her to have the spirit of a man. This means she ought not only be educated entirely indoors, nor in only the great feminine virtues…. Her men should be able to rely on her for all kinds of protection in the absence of their Lord, in a situation where anyone would offer to do them any harm.....
To do his she should: 
"know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she might be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or defend against one, if the situation calls for it."6

However, women who were considered to be going against the natural social order, by rebelling against a husband or threatening and hier, or else acting in a manner considered aggressive, arrogant or disproportionate- if in her personal life she was of lax morals, then her reputation would be tarnished for future generations.


Sources and References:
1.The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, Online Text, Book V, p168,

2. Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003), p14. 

3. Anna Comnena, E.R.A.Sewter (trans.), The Alexiad of Anna Comnena (London, 1969), p117.

4. Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (London, 2002), p165-6.

5.  Joseph  & Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle (Harper Perennial, 2002), p86.

6:  Chrisine de Pisan, Sarah Lawson (tr.), The Treasure of the City of the Ladies (London, 2003), p109-11.


  1. I'm so glad that you did a post on this because I've been struggling with an issue in my upcoming book 3 and I would love to get your feedback on it.

    But first, I think you will be as happy with Gwendolyn as you were with Merry. She grew up a bit wild and managed to train with her brothers, but her father, who was always gone to war, wants her in her proper place. She dreams of battle and glory and manages to have some adventure along the way (and gets in a whole lot of trouble over it), but she's not a knight. Plus she's very tall and strong. I think it will all work out for you.

    My problem, though, is in book three. Rosalind is a common girl who has managed to learn some fighting skills along the way and she goes on crusade. Now hopefully you will agree that in some cases women went on crusade, but either way, I have lots of evidence on that count. The women aren't particularly going to fight, they are more to support, although most of them are prepared to fight if things go awry, which of course they will. At some point in the story I would like Rosalind to be honored for her bravery and bestowed some sort of acknowledgement that would raise her above mere commoner. That's where I'm stuck.

    I actually did find evidence of women being knighted in other countries in Europe. Here's an article if you are interested. Dame http://www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/wom-kn.htm
    http://www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/wom-kn.htm But I'm not sure anyone would believe it anyway. And now I just saw you said they were ineligible for knighthood, so I'm wondering if you have evidence of that. There were definitely women given the honor of Knight of the Garter in England in later centuries.

    Anyway, I'm wondering what would be a good honor to give her. Do you think "Dame" might be acceptable? Or perhaps since she will be in the French ruled Tripoli, the French female military order term of chevalière?

    Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Mrs Sleiman

      I certainly think Gwendolyn could be plausible, and what you say of her being tall and strong reminds me a little of Sichelgaita of Salerno, mentioned above, who was said to have been very tall and muscular, donned armour and accompanied her husband on the battlefield....but women had to be careful, as if they were seen as stepping too far outside their place, or the natural order of society, their reputation could suffer.
      One such example was Margaret of Anjou, Queen to Henry VI who played a role of military leadership during the Wars of the Roses (though she did not fight), and is sometimes stiill vilified as vicious, bloodthirsty and cruel.

      As far as knighthood is concerned, I had heard of one noblewoman of the fourteenth century having been admitted into the order of the Garter, and indeed the Queen today is the leader of the order, as the monarch always takes that position.
      However, as far as I am aware, for women this was honourary or ceremonial- they would not have been expected to fight like the thier male counterparts in the order.
      Also, from that I can see, most of these examples are post 1500, when knighthood itself was becoming honourary and meant little on a practical level.

      Hence, I said women were ineligible for knighthood because I am not aware of any examples of women being formally knighted and expected to play the same role or fulfill the same role as military retainers in Medieval Europe or Christendom. I do know of women who led knights, but such women tended to be noblewomen or gentlewomen, rather than commoners, so its a bit of a problem.
      I could ask, was that part of the world under Byzantine/Greek control- as they may have had different practices? It was possible for a woman to be raised out of obscurity if she found favour with the ruler for some reason, and marriage was often a route to advancement as well, but I am not sure of any particular title or honour that could have been given them to allow that. This is not to say there was no such thing.....I just might do some further research on it.

  2. Tripoli, which is where she is heading, is part of the County of Tripoli, which was basically one of the crusader states. The lord in charge of the region is from a French background, although one of the interesting parts of the story is that the crusader noblemen had been in the Levant for several generations at this time and had fused the cultures. I don't know if you looked at the link I included, but it seems France did have a female military order and a "title" I guess, of chevalière. But I still think "Dame" could possibly work, because it seems it was used fairly generally at this time for a woman of rank or authority. So whether or not she is a "knight," perhaps she could still be honored with the designation of "Dame."

    1. I did look at one of the articles, but I see now one does make mention of some women being admitted to an order in the 1100s for their defensive actions, so Dame does sound about right- that is still the female equivalent of being given a knighthood today.

      I'm curious about the mention of 'Northern Britannia' in the end of the last book. Is that a fictional place, or is there some inspiration in fact? I was thinking of the Isle of Man or one of the Hebridian Islands of Northern Scotland, some of which were still under Norse rule at that time I believe (there's still Norse influence in places like Shetland and Orkney to this day I believe)...

  3. North Britannia is a fictional dukedom that I sort of hazily set in the general northern part of England. It is supposed to be like a new Camelot type region. Originally, I was going to have this series be more like stand alone books in different times and places, and I was going to put it in a fictional country in Europe. But since Bethany wanted them to be spin offs with overlapping characters and set mainly in England, I went with a dukedom.

    1. I thought that might be so- some of those Northern Lords were near enough Kings in their own right- or seemed to think so anyway....

      Hope I was able to be of use with the other matter as well. Have a blessed Good Friday.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I am baffled by this modern trend to turn the heroins in medieval fiction into a "warrior" and I mean sword wielding type. Sure Isabela was portrayed wearing an armor but she didn't engage physically in any battle. Roger Mortimer did that for her. So yes there are countless women who defended castles, or led an army but that does not mean that they actually fought and were capable to defeat other knights and soldiers in a battle as some of these silly books show the women.

    A woman doesn't need to parrot a man to be strong. It's a rather lazy attempt on the writer's part to create a strong character. By that logic all men who are physically strong are also strong in character which is nonsense. Being able to crush skull with a mace has nothing to do with the strength of a character. Women could hunt of course, this was the most fun past time in middle ages no woman or man would want to miss out on a good hunt. Archery however is not part of physical combat.

    Second, I have been learning Medieval European martial arts and historical fencing for several years. There is no way that a medieval woman would stand a chance in a pitched battle or a single combat against a man fighter. Not only would it be bizarre for a medieval woman to be trained to fight with the sword, and wrestle (since that's what you do when you manage to disarm your opponent) she would have to be able to withstand a physically stronger man. I have seen women try.

    To be fair many books are written for readers who want to escape reality and become immersed in a world where even a medieval woman can don an armour and fight like a man. There should be a note however that this was very unlikely. Even today in this period of extended peace and prosperity that we have in Europe which enables women to engage in any activity that passes their fancy, even today there is only a handful of women in every long sword club, majority are men.

    1. Agreed, women can be strong in many other ways. They do not have to me 'men with busts' to prove thier worth.
      I for one don't think there's anything wrong with accepting that women are different from men, and have different strengths.

      You make some interesting points about the reality of Medieval martial combat (it seems a heck of a lot harder than it looks), and it would seem you are right in asserting that for those women who did assume roles of leadership it was really only as a figurehead. It almost makes one wonder about Joan of Arc- could she really fight? She certainly seems to have had very little role on the pivotal Battle of Bauge....

      Were you referring to the books I mentioned in this post, or just more generally? If so, in one istance the female lead's strengths were more along the lines of Archery and tumbling.

    2. I was speaking in general, since the female warrior is a very trendy feature in contemporary writings and I don't enjoy it. It almost seems like there is a list of characteristics that contemporary readers find favorable and they are all jammed into one female character. This results in a cartoonish rather than strong female character. Liberty (in the sense of doing whatever one desires) and individuality as we understand and value them today were quite alien to medieval people. One's honor and lineage was far more important (I talk of noblemen since all accounts are written about them). You may enjoy this quote that I found in George Dubbies essay on The Aristocratic Households of Feudal France. "According to Jean de Marmoutier, the king of France wanted to marry off the orphaned daughter of a great vassal, but the girl refused. Unable to win her consent, he asked his wife to break the girl's will, and the queen obliged." You can imagine how this would have been rewritten if this episode was used in modern historical fiction.

    3. I take it that is the person we call Georges Duby in English? I agree that we should not impose modern ideals into the past, and especially modern notions of individuality and liberty. I suppose writers have to strike a balance, but having historical characters moaning and whining because they're not allowed to do what they want is a bit much.

      Perhaps I have just read too many stories in which duties and social expectations are made out to be something bad and 'repressive'?

  5. Yes George Duby (I am sorry, I spelled his name wrong. English is not my native language). Thank you anyway for responding. I enjoy this conversation:)

    Wishfulfillment plays an important role in historical fiction, it would be probably unrealistic and ruinous to both publishers and writers to only write as truthfully or realistically as possible. What I would like to see is a more accurate labeling and a note by a writer pointing out where he or she took liberties and veered off from known medieval conventions. If the writer cannot do that, well, that just shows that he/she has done only rudimentary research. This is sad because I have come across reviews of some poorly researched medieval romances where the reviewer praises the book for its historical accuracy.

    Duties and social expectations are not universally bad. I know several younger people who are quite lost today and admitted they would be better off in some medieval monastery where they at least could feel useful, where their lives would be spelled out for them, while at the same time they would be taken care off. All the married women that I know married whom they pleased (because that is how it's done in our society. This is neither better or worse it's just presently the norm). Most of these women who married someone they loved are divorced now. When I see authors who have their heroines fight righteously the arranged marriage simply because the king or their parents have no "right" to use them as pawns, it is once again oversimplifying and disrespecting of the customs of the past that actually were not as horrible as we are led to believe. Men too were used as pawns. There were many kings who did not wish to be kings, who did not wish to marry but they had to do their duty just as everyone else. Like today's liberties, social expectations and duty could help a person to grow and find his or her place in society and life but sometimes it could lead to a tragedy. Likewise there are lots of depressed people in our free society who don't know what to do with their freedom and continue to make wrong choices.


I like to hear from readers, so feel free to leave a comment!

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