by Robin Anderson of Ross (Robin E. Craig)
Very little is known about women who fought from the 10th century to the 17th century. It has always been assumed that the women who did fight were only doing so in defense of homes during desperate circumstances or for religious reasons (such as St. Joan). Yet, more reasons did exist, although 'women in battle' does not seem to have been a popular topic. In the European middle ages, war was the main activity in which masculinity was demonstrated. However, by the end of the eleventh century, women fighters were mentioned in the chronicles(if only barely), and in the later middle ages women fighters were written about as wonderous oddities.1 Only recently have historians begun to look more closely at the role of women in history, and begun to find some very interesting individuals. Fighting women can be easily divided into four main categories: Women who fight in defence of homes, women who are aggressive, women who make a lifestyle of warfare for personal or religious reasons, and warrior queens2 or great women leaders.
Many women did fight bravely in defense of their homes, and families. These women are often applauded by historians recording their bravery as well as by the people of their own time. The Seignure de Brantôme Pierre de Bourdeille (a 17th century historian), in his book Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, speaks favorably of the women of Rhodes, who, when their city was besieged by Sultan Soliman [date unknown], joined the knights and soldiers in battle. "Ah! fair Rhodian maids, your name and fame is for all time".
He also speaks of the women of Saint-Riquier in Picardy, under the reign of King Frances I (16th c.). Two hundred Flemish men-at-arms and a thousand foot soldiers were overtaking their city, which was poorly defended by a hundred soldiers. "It had for sure been captured, but that the women of the town did appear on the walls with arms in hand, boiling water and oil and stones, and did gallantly repulse the foe, albeit these did exert every effort to gain an entry." These women even captured two of the Flemish standards, and daunted the Flemish army. "The fame of this exploit did spread through all France, Flanders, and Burgundy; While King François (16th c.), passing by the place some time after, was fain to see the women concerned, and did praise and thank them for their deed." The women of Péronne and Sancerre in France, and the women in Vitré, Brittany were also commended by the author as well as their sovereigns for the same valiant behavior in the defence of their cities.3 Most of these women would never have taken up arms except in these very desperate circumstances. In Venice, a late 16th century mother was forced to defend the coffin of her dead son when the funeral procession was set upon by eleven young men who were the enemies of the family. " ... his mother ... took a Partisan in her hands, and defended her sonne and cofin, and sorely wounding five of their enemies bade the rest to flye."4 One young lady, the sister to Captain Sforza of Naples (in service to Queen Jeanne II), rushed to the aid of her brother when he was taken captive by the Queen's husband. She even managed to successfully intimidate the King with her threats of violence upon his men. Even she, is said to be an exception to her sex.
"... his sister did fly to arms and straight take the field. She made so good a fight, she in her own person, as that she did capture for of the chiefest Neapolitan gentlemen, and this done, sent to tell the King that whatsoever treatment he should deal to her brother, the same would she meet out to his friends ... Ah! brave and gallant-hearted sister, rising so superior to her sex's weakness!"5 But, the individual women who are mentioned are not ashamed of their masculine abilities, and their bravery is appreciated, not scorned. They are held up as examples to other women, of how protective a woman should be towards her family.
"The king Argus having by reason of long continued wars great want of men, Theselide a woman of a cittie wherin Argus was besieged by Cleomenes king of Lacedemony, provoked the other women in the cittie to take armes, and leading them out at the gates, delivered the Cittie from siege, and put their enemies to shameful flight."6 They are often seen encouraging the other women to aid the soldiers in protecting their homes and children. Although, sometimes it takes an act of foolish bravery to shame others into movement. Some men take it particuraly badly when the act of bravery is done by a woman, while others are only encouraged to do better for themselves. When Mahomet, King of the Turkes, was waging war upon the Venecians, some of his troops attacked the city of Coccino on the isle of Metelino.
" ... in the same Cittie was a young maide, who seeing her father slaine by the Turkes in this fight, and the Citizens beginning to fainte and feare, got into the former companies, and skirmished so couragiouslye with the Turkes, that all the Citizens ashamed to see themselves overcome in stoutness and courage by a simple girle, tooke hart and utterly destroyed their enemies, and saved the Cittie."7 These women are often rather proud of their abilities as is this young woman who helped the other women at the siege of La Rochelle by Henri III (13th c.). "Yea! I have heard it told of, how, for having oft repulsed her foes with a pike, she doth to this day keep the same carefully as 'twere a sacred relic, so that she would not part with it nor sell it for much money, so dear a treasure doth she hold it."8 Many of the women fighters who are mentioned in the literature of the time, are women who dominated their husbands or women who were unusually aggressive. A good example of this is the story of The Lady Who Was Castrated, where a woman who consistantly dominates her husband has her "balls" or pride removed by her son-in-law.9 There still exists today a comic stereotype of the medieval peasant housewife as a very assertive woman, yelling at her husband and beating him with a broom.
Even in manuscripts women are drawn in the margins as warriors and dominant wives, some fighting the evils of adultery and such, but others doing acutal battle with knights.
" ... the woman turnes her traditional attributes, the distaff and spindle, into a jousting weapon and charges at a defenseless knight clad in chain mail ... a peasant woman, armed only with a lance and riding a goat, dismounts a fully armed knight astride a ram. Such tilting females, coming from the aristocracy or from lower classes, represent argumentative woman and ... countesses who, replacing their absent or incapacitated husbands, fought more fiercely against their vassals than did the leige lords."10 Usually peasant women or minor nobility, aggressive women were often frowned upon as they were seen to be out of place, and presumptious. In 1640, several young ladies in Provence and in Paris fought duels out of spite and jealousy. They fought in the streets and aimed their blows at each others faces and breasts.11 There is also the lovely Louise Labé(b. 1520), known as 'La Belle Cordiére', who was known for her poetry books and her musical ability.
"She was skilled in military exercises and games as her brothers were, and rode with such daring that friends, in fun and admiration, called her Captaine Loys. ... Contemporary opinion was divided as to her virtue and a literary debate on the subject has continued for four hundred years."12 "One Bedfordshire woman slit her sleeping husband's throat with a sickle and then stove his skull in with a billhook 'so that his brains flowed forth'; he had, she said, been seized with a fit of dangerous madness."13 Perhaps she was only acting in self-defense, but it is still a rather violent action.
In 1348 a small article was written complaining of forty or fifty women attending tournaments dressed as men. "They were clad in motley tunics ... with short hoods and liripipes wound like cords round their heads, and richly studded girdles ... nay, even across their bodies they wore pouches containing those knoves that are commonly called 'daggers'"14 In the end the women were punished by god for their indescretion. The problem of transvestism in young ladies, who were following their soldier lovers to war, became such a problem that "an edict was published in 1516 to this effect: 'Any woman quitting her husband and following in man's clothes and adulterously after men-at-arms, shall be beaten naked, with rods, through the town.'"15 There were many women who took warfare very seriously and seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Several of them could even be called professional soldiers. Mention of these individuals is rare, but they can be found in accounts from men who either admire them, or who find them an oddity. One historian of the 19th century wrote:
"... the feminine spirit of combativeness, which is nothing else at bottom but a blustering kind of coquetry, spread far and wide in Europe from the fifteenth century onwards. From that date on, it produced among the fantastic sex many strange tricks in mimicry of the hectoring ways of men."16 The Lombard princess Sichelgaita (Italy, 1081), was 'fearsome' when in full armor, and rallied her husbands men by chasing them on horseback while threatening them with her spear.17 The Countess of Saint-Balmont (Barbe de'Ernecourt, born in 1608) was known for her swordsmanship. "Mme. de Saint-Balmont, who was never without a sword at her side, and was reputed to have taken or killed more than four hundred men."18 "I have been toulde ... of a Portingall gentlewoman that for religions sake ... left of the apparell of her sexe, and went as a souldier into the barberie, where she behaved her self so resolutely that she was in short time after made a Captaine, and became very famous, fearfull to her enemies, and greatly esteemed of her freends. [ about 1591]"19 Many women formed units in which they fought. In the Royal Palace at Genoa, there were seen several cuirasses and helmets made for women, which supposedly belonged to the Genoese ladies who joined the 1301 crusade against the Turks.20 Saxo Grammaticus, in his History of the Danes (1200), tells of women in Denmark who dressed as men and spent most of their time training for war, and desired to be known for their skills as soldiers.21 In the war between the Turkish Selim Sultan and the Persians, which the Turks won, "found among them that were taken and dead, and infinite company of Persian Gentlewomen that were come all armed as Knights, to fight with their husbands".22 "In the time of Charles the fifth, and Francis King of France (16th c.) ... The citie of Siena was besieged, where a gentlewoman of the house of Picholhomini was made Coronell of 3000 other women, and atchived [sic.] wonderfull matters, to the astonishment of all the people."23 Other women were fond of dueling. Of Ana de Mendoza, the Princess of Eboli it is said, that at age fourteen, she fought a duel over the honor of Spain. Afterwards she was made to write to her betrothed explaining how she had lost an eye. She was also known for intrigue in the court of Phillip II.(1180-1223)24 A nun, Doña Catalina de Erauso, called Monja Alfres (nun-ensign), fought many duels from 1607 to 1645, getting herself wounded in some encounters and killing many opponents.25 Some women were sailors. Around 1571 (the battle of Lepanto) there was a woman by the name of María la Bailadora (the dancer) who served aboard Don John's galley Real. She had follewed her lover, dressed as a man. This exciting account of the battle between the Real, and the Turkish Sultana shows her valor and bravery in the face of battle: "María la Bailadora was nimbly over the side - some asserted afterwards that she was the first - and on the deck of Sultana was seen to kill her Turkish antagonist with one sword thrust. Women had been the Turks' victims; she was there for love, but also for revenge."26 One strange book entirely about women fighters is a biography of Granuaile (Grace) O'Malley, c1530-1603. She was an Irish sea captain (or pirate), who commanded over 200 men and three ships. A savvy talker who was feared on land and at sea, she once got the better of Queen Elizabeth I in a diplomatic encounter.27 The warrior queens or leaders are women who did not necessarily enter battle themselves but who acted as generals, or rallied people to fight, and thus played an important part in warfare. One of the greatest examples of this type is of course St. Joan of Arc. A warrior as well as a prophetess, she encouraged the French Dauphin to regain the French throne from Henry V. Her warlike abilities are displayed in this wonderful passage by a late sixteenth century historian:
"Afterward she tooke armes her selfe, and behaved her selfe in such sorte among the other Captains and men of armes, that in a verye shorte time she was made Captaine generall of the whole armye, and being armed and mounted on a barbed horse, in such sort as she was not knowne but to be a man, made a sally with all her troupes both horse and foote, and assailing the enemie with undaunetd courage, followed her enterprise with suche valour and prudence, that she freed the Cittie of Orleance from the siege, being her selfe shot through the shoulder with an arrow."28 She then captured Troy in Champagne, and saw the Dauphin crowned Charles the seventh in Rehymes. She was later burned at the stake for heresy (her prophesies were not approved of by the Church).
Most of the great women leaders were nobility. "Margaret daughter to Valdiner king of Suetia and wife to Aquinus King of Norway, ... the Duke of Monopoli waging warre against her, shee encountred him with a mightie armie, defeated his forces, tooke him prisoner".29 Matilda of Tuscany defended the reforming popes of the eleventh century.30 She was known as the 'faithful hand-maid' of St. Peter, and had an army at the back and a sharp sword. It was her intervention at Canossa that Pope Gregory repealed the sentance of excommunication from Henry IV, after he did penance in the snow. The Emperor later had her charged with High Treason But he did not capture her until eight years later. Many times she personally led her forces to victory.31 The two Mauds, both queens in Europe, are renown for their strategic abilities as Generals. One Maud was Stephen's queen, and exhibited 'a manly steadfastness' when she sent her forces to ravish London, and then to besiege Winchester. Her cousin was 'the Empress', daughter of Henry I and Edith-Matilda, and she campaigned against Stephen's queen with a passion.32 Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married Henry II in 1152, was originally married to Louis of France. She was known for her assertiveness, and even managed to trick the Pope into letting her go on Crusade. She and her handmaidens, went on Crusade dressed as Amazons, bearing their breasts the whole way. Unfortunately, they returned home un-victorious.
These four divisions of women warriors can be viewed in several different ways. It is important to note that women fighters are not limited to any particular country at any particular time. When viewing the divisions with social and class distinctions in mind we can see that women defending families and professional soldiers don't come from any particular class, while aggressive women are usually lower-class or minor nobility and warrior queens are nobility or royalty. Yet, when looking at the women in terms of masculinity and femininity, the women defending families, and the aggressive women remain feminine, while the professional soldiers and warrior queens become more masculine.
Even then, if you view the women by approval within the society, the women defending families ant the warrior queens are approved of, while the aggressive women and professional soldiers are not. This approval and disapproval is evidenced in the way the historians speak of them. Not many historians speak of women fighters at all, perhaps because they do not want to influence other women who might read their work. The few books that are devoted to women and war are often found listed under 'indiscreet revelations' or 'erotic literature', or are about women's relationships with, and obligations to knights. Edouard Beaumont's The Sword and Woman Kind (19th c.) is the latter sort of book, devoting only a few pages to women who fought, and even then calling them pretentious.33 The Seignure de Brantôme Pierre de Bourdeille (17th c.), was known for his histories of women. Yet, even in his two volume work on the Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, he only has one chapter on women fighters, and those are mostly women defending their families. Oddly enough, Vincentio Saviolo in his 16th century manual on fencing, includes a large section on women fencers. He titles this section "The Nobility of Women"34, and concludes it with stories of highly educated women, and one woman who designed her own castle. He says he is writing in order to encourage women to try whatever they think they would like to do, instead of feeling limited by their sex.
It is evident that these divisions are not defined by, or constrained to the gender, class, or social rules of society in general. Rather they are choices made by women in various circumstances. Granted, a peasant woman cannot become a warrior queen, she is in no position to do so (her circumstances cannot afford it), but, she can still be a woman defender(when needed), a professional soldier or an aggressive housewife. Just as Louise Labé had the abilities to become a soldier, she chose to be a poet instead. Women who wanted to fight could, and did, choose their own lifestyles for their own personal reasons, and they had their own individual motivations.
"... seeing that women can learne what so ever men can, ... I thinke they deserue [deserve] fellowship and communing in honor with men, considering nature hath bestowed on them aswel as on men, meanes to attain unto learning, wisedome, and al other vertues actiue [active] and contemplative [sic.]".35
Beaumont, Edouard (1821-1888), The Sword and Woman Kind, New York, Panurge Press, Privately printed in 1930
Beeching, Jack, The Galleys at Lepanto, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1982
Brantôme, Seigneur de (d. 1614), Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, Vol II, New York Alexandrian Society, London, 1922
Brians, Paul (trans. & ed.), Bawdy Tales from the Courts of Medieval France, N.Y.; Harper Torchbooks, 1972
Chambers, Anne, Granuaile: the Life and Times of Grace O'Malley, Dublin: the Wolfhound Press 1983
Cook, Alta Lind (trans.), Sonnets of Louise Labé, Toronto, 1950
Fell, Christine, Women in Anglo-Saxon England, and the Impact of 1066, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984
Fraser, Antonia, The Warrior Queens, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989
McLaughlin, Megan, "The woman warrior: gender, warfare and society in medieval Europe",Women's Studies, 17 (1990): 193-209, Science Publishers, Inc., 1990
Morewedge, Rosmarie Thee (Ed.), The Role of Woman in the Middle Ages, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1975
Saviolo, Vincentio, Elizibethan Fencing Manuals, trans. James Louis Jackson, Chiswick press, 1595, Delmar, N.Y., 1972
Copyright 1998 by Robin E. Craig, 1914-A Gracy Farms, Austin, Texas 78758. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in another publication, I would appreciate a
notification by email and a notice in the publication that the article was
found in the Florilegium. Thanks. - editor.
1 Megan McLaughlin, "The woman warrior"
2 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens, (title)
3 Seigneur de Brantôme, Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, Vol II, ppg. 114-115