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
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.