"Women Warriors: Myth or Reality?" by Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Women Warriors: Myth or Reality?
by Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha
Did medieval women pick up weapons and fight? The answer is an unqualified yes. Did women who were not royalty fight? Still an unqualified yes. Did they fight as regular soldiers, rather than as simply 'defenders of home and hearth'? The answer is still yes, but certainly not without qualifiers.
Numerous books have been written which mention royal women who led their troops in defense of their homeland or to defend or gain a throne. Some of them led by being a symbol to rally around and some fought side by side with their troops. Likewise, there are numerous accounts of other noble women taking up arms to defend home and legal rights. Since this information is readily available, I will not dwell on these ladies. What I have attempted to find out was if women, particularly European women, were commonly a part of armies as regular soldiers and whether they entered tournaments and/or became knights. What follows is the result of my admittedly incomplete research.
We'll start with a brief review of early periods, generally prior to 1000AD. The numbers in parentheses are the reference materials for that section.
Amazons, Sythians and Gladiators (6), (14), (18), (19)
Generally speaking, early (prior to 1000AD) European periods included women as warriors more commonly than later periods. During the Roman Empire, women fought in the public arenas, both as free women and as slaves. They competed in the opening of the Coliseum in AD 80. According to Juvenal, it became fashionable for women of the nobility to train and fight in the arenas until Emperor Alexander Severus, in AD 200, issued an edict which banned all women from gladiatorial combat. While the Romans do not appear to have left records regarding women in their own ranks, period historians frequently mention women in the ranks of their enemies, especially those to the north of Italy.
The Spartans and Athenians trained their girls in the art of war and encouraged their participation in competitive war games. Plato, in his Republic, stated that women should become soldiers if they desired although he later modified that in his Laws. Musonius Rufus (AD 30-101) advocated that women and men should receive the same education and training. Although he did not appear to go so far as to include training for war, he did indicate that differences in education should be based on ability and strength, not gender.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, tells us that the Greeks, having defeated the Amazons, were taking several boatloads of Amazonian slaves on the Black Sea when the slaves overthrew their captors and escaped. Landing on the shores of the Sea of Azov (northeast side of the Black Sea in the modern Ukraine), they intermarried with the nomadic horsemen called Scythians. Regardless of the truth of this history, the Scythians apparently included women as a matter of course in military endeavors. Twenty-five percent of the Sythian gravesites which have been discovered contained women (as determined through DNA testing). These graves had swords, spears, armor and other items of war along with more typical female items such as spindles and mirrors. Some of these graves indicated high status in that the woman was buried with a male servant and/or a horse. This was done to provide servants to aide the warrior in the afterlife.
What about the infamous `Amazons'? There has been a great deal of argument about whether they actually existed. De Paw (6) notes " There is far more evidence, both literary and archeological, than survives for other people, such as the Hittites or Massagetae, whose existence is unquestioned". The original Amazons appear to have lived in Libya. Rock drawings have been discovered in Libya which show women armed with bows. The Greek historians make mention of them often and report battling Amazons after the Trojan War. Numerous cities, attributed by period historians to the Amazons do, in fact, exist. In the city of Ephesus a temple to the goddess Artemis exists and is attributed to the Amazons.
Vikings and other Northerners. (4), (8), (11)
Strabo (100BC), Plutarch (102BC) Dio Cassius (49 AD), (Tactus, 60AD) all record the existence of women warriors in northern and eastern cultures with great regularity. Roman accounts of battles record finding bodies of female warriors on the battlefield. Thirty captive Gothic warrior women were paraded in front of Emperor Aurelian in 283 AD.
Saxo Grammaticus, writing his History of the Danes in 1200AD, mentions a number of fighting women in Denmark. Numerous other Danish women are listed in various histories as leaders of troops and `sword maidens'. While some of them are daughters of kings, some of them appear to be just regular folk.
Saxon culture in 100 AD regarded women as equals with men. When marrying, men gave the women oxen, horses and bridle, shield and spear while she gave him armor or weapons. Graves of Teutonic women have been discovered which included armor, shield, lance, and sword. According to an article in the Times (8/22/00), DNA testing proves that two bodies buried with spears and knifes, dated AD 450-650, were women. Other graves in England and Denmark have been proven to be women buried with swords and other armaments.
Cimbrian women (100 BC) rode in moving `wagon castles' and shot arrows at the enemy. They would occasionally emerge from the 'castle' and fight with swords.
Mongols, Asians and Arabs (6), (7), (8), (11)
In Japan, squads of female cavalry are noted in the 11th century. The naginata, a curved Japanese spear, as been the traditional weapon of the women of the bushi class since the 15th century.
The Abkhazians, in Georgia, had a social order based on the ability to bear arms. Both men and women were trained in riding and in weaponry. These skills differentiated a free person from a slave. In 14th century Bohemia, John Ziska challenged Queen Sophia (widow of King Wenceslas) with an army of women. His amateur army, with the clever use of guile and strategy, defeated the Queen's professionals.
In the time of Mohammed (7th century) it was not uncommon for women to fight as regular soldiers and noble women had the same rights as men, including the right to wage war. As Islam grew in cultural and religious importance, women's status as equals declined.
Usamak ibn-Mungidh, writing in the early 1100's, mentions several women warriors. His cousin's mother arrived home dressed in armor with weapons at her side and chastised her son for wanting to flee the fighting with the Ismalilites. He relates the story of his grandfather's female slave veiling herself and rushing off to fight until he and his relatives joined her and drove off the enemy. Lastly, he tells of a woman named Nadrah who captured three Frankish men, one at a time, and brought them back to her home. After taking their possessions, she called in her neighbors to kill them. All of his stories are told with evident admiration for the women.
Attila the Hun (AD 450) had women in his army, as did the army of Genghis Khan (12th century) when he invaded the West.
During the Shang Dynasty in China (1850-1100BC), careful histories were kept and reflect a number of female warriors including Shih Hu's all woman army and in the 6th century AD, female household servants were instructed in the martial arts in order to better defend their masters.
Let's now move into strictly European history and discuss women fighters who lived between 500AD and about 1600 AD.
Tournaments (1), (3), (6), (8), (11), (17)
Many reference works cite `a British chronicle' dated 1348 without giving further details. My thanks go to Brian Price (17) who provides us with the author, Henry Knighton, and the text, translated by G.H. Martin. This chronicle states that a company of as many as 40 ladies went from tournament to tournament, dressed and accoutered appropriately and participated in tournaments. Unfortunately, it does not list specifics of date, place or names and many researchers doubt its veracity (a medieval urban legend?). Nonetheless, there do exist at least three verifiable accounts of women participating in tournaments.
In the 14th century, Sir Richard Shaw wrote of fighting and besting a Flemish knight who, when the armor was opened, turned out to be a woman whose identity was never discovered.
Agnes Hotot of House Dudley (born approximately 1378AD) took up arms in the place of her ailing father and bested her opponent in a mounted duel. The family coat of arms show a woman in a helmet, hair disheveled and breasts exposed (apparently she exposed them after the duel to humiliate her opponent).
Pierre Gentien, a French poet of the 13th century, wrote a rhymed epic in which he names some 50 women who, in order to prepare for the Crusades, held and participated in a tournament.
The songs and tales of the time are replete with tales of unknown knights who enter tournaments. Could some of them have been women in disguise?
Knightly Orders and Warrior Nuns (8), (11), (16)
Whether women achieved knighthood in the same manner as the men is a bit murky. Certainly Knightly Orders were established for women and women were admitted into Orders established for men. Women took knightly titles which were the feminized equivalent of the male title. Nothing I was able to find stated unequivocally that women were knights in exactly the same way that men were. However, listed below is the information I was able to find.
The Order of the Hatchet was founded by Count Raymond Berenger of Barcelona in 1149. He wished to honor the women who fought in defense of the town of Tortosa against an attack by the Moors. One of the honors accorded to the members was precedence over men in public assemblies.
The Order of the Glorious St Mary was founded by Loderigo d'Andalo of Bologna in 1233. It was the first religious order to grant the title of `militissa' to women.
Some military orders maintained convents. The women took the title of soeurs hospitalieres and undertook support roles. This was not a knightly class.
Supposedly, an Order of the Dragon existed which admitted women and, if feats of arms were achieved, they decorated their badges in the same manners as the male members of the Order. I have not been able to find any other details regarding this order.
In the Order of the Garter, 68 women were admitted between 1358 and 1488. Some were of royal blood or married to knights but some were neither. Again, it is not clear to me that their status was the same as that of their male counterparts.
Apparently Orders were established in the Low Countries which admitted only women. These women were granted the title of `chevaliere' or `equitissa'. After a probation of five years, they were formally dubbed as knights (militissae) by a male knight. The reference I have did not state if they engaged in feats of arms nor did it mention the names of the Orders.
The histories mention a number of warrior nuns. Frankly, this one really surprised me although, upon reflection, it really shouldn't have. The times were not always settled and the rule of law not always enforced. A community of women should know how to defend itself against brigands and invaders.
In 10th and 11th century Saxony, some abbesses are recorded as ruling with the powers of barons.
In 590AD, a warrior nun named Chrodielde attempted to overthrow Leubevre, the abbess of Cheribert. War ensued between the two and the Frankish king Childebert had to intercede. Reportedly it took great effort for the king to bring Chrodielde and her army of locals under control.
In 1265AD, the abbess of Notre-Dame-Aux-Nonnains, Odette de Pougy, challenged Pope Urban IV. He wanted to build a church on land which she thought belonged to the abbey. When he ignored her objections and attempted to proceed with the building, she responded by leading an armed party to drive off the work crews. Two years later, she did it again. Although he responded by excommunicating the entire abbey, the church was not built until after her death, 14 years later.
In 1477AD, Abbess Renee de Bourbon raised an army in order to attack a renegade monastery in Paris. She was on a personal crusade to end the excesses of the monasteries and convents under her domain. When she eventually prevailed, she made each nun and monk sign an oath of loyalty to her.
In the 14th century, Julia Duguesclin, nun and sister of the knight Bertrand Duguesclin assisted in the defense of the fortress of Pontorson.
The problem of warrior nuns became so pervasive that in 15th century Bologna a law forbade citizens from loitering near convents for their own protection! Various popes established decrees forbidding women from engaging in martial combat or wearing armor, again in an effort to reduce the power of these warrior nuns. This is one of the decrees which were used against Joan d' Arc. In 1563AD, the Council of Trent established that bishops had authority over nuns and their abbesses and could enforce it with military means, if necessary.
Although it is outside our period, it is interesting to note that in 1650AD, Philothey Benizelos established a convent in Greece. The women were armed and trained as fighters. She was so successful in attracting female students that the local government became uneasy at her growing power.
Crusades (2), (3), (5), (6), (8), (10), (11)
Did women fight in the Crusades? The European historians are largely silent although the Arab ones are not. Some researchers suggest that the reason for the European silence is political in nature. The Crusades were not generally successful. Having women in the armies might provide a temptation to sin thus bringing God's wrath down on them and causing the failures. Some period chroniclers blame the failure of the 3rd Crusade on the misconduct of women. Downplaying the participation of women may have been a way of avoiding the issue.
Queen Eleanor and her "Amazons" went on the Second Crusade. Although they went through a regular course of training as light cavalry and attained some proficiency in the use of arms, it does not appear that they actually fought in the Holy Land. In 1147AD, Eleanor and her ladies ignored the advice of the seasoned warriors accompanying them (and the strict orders of King Louis) one night as they prepared to make camp near Laodicea. Eleanor insisted that they camp in a different place and the party was attacked by Saracens. King Louis barely arrived in time to save them and suffered heavy losses. Eleanor and her ladies were retired to the castle of her cousin, Raymond, Prince of Antioch for the rest of the season.
Nonetheless, it appears that some women did fight in the Crusades. During the first Crusade, entire villages would leave for the Holy Land. A poem written to commemorate the party led by Godfrey of Bouillon describes companies of women armed with clubs. A palace in Genoa is listed as containing several light cuirasses which had been made for a band of Genoese ladies on crusade in the 1301. Apparently, according to letters written by Pope Boniface VIII, they were dissuaded from doing so. However, the exploits of other Genoese women on crusade against the Turks are recorded in these same letters.
An unnamed historian (8) in the 13th century is quoted as saying that "French women warriors in this period were either duelists who made themselves locally famous in France or hard-fighting crusader soldiers who usually died unidentified."
In the 1300's, the patron saint of Italy, Caterina Benincasa, like Joan d' Arc, heard voices and directed soldiers against the Muslims.
Women are recorded as being the armies of both Emperor Conrad (1191AD) and Count William of Poiters (1101 AD).
At the beginning of the 3rd Crusade, in 1189, Pope Clement wrote a Papal Bull which forbade women from putting on armor or fighting in the crusades. It was largely ignored.
Some researches state that Arab historians may have had political motivations for recording European women as warriors. As propaganda, this would show that Europeans had less care for the virtue of their women than Arabs did. The numbers they report may be inaccurate. However, here is what I was able to find:
During the 3rd Crusade, Imad ad-Din and Baha al-Din (who apparently rode with Saladin) recorded their impressions of both Muslim and Christian woman warriors. They mention a 'woman from over the sea' who arrived in 1189 with 500 horsemen and sufficient support staff and who rode with her troops. They also mention seeing other European women who fought, some of whom could be identified at a distance and others who were only known as women once their bodies were examined. In 1191 they mention a female archer during the siege of Acre who was responsible for a number of deaths before she was overwhelmed and killed.
Ibn al-Athir also mentions women warriors fighting at the siege of Acre. He speaks of three Frankish horsewomen who were among the prisoners but not recognized as women until their armor was removed. He also mentions a number of Frankish women who challenged the Muslims to single combat.
Regular soldiers (2), (6), (8), (11), (12), (13)
Many women appear to have fought as regular soldiers. An anonymous sword and buckler training manual from the 13th century shows a woman named Walpurga in some of the drawings which demonstrate different stances. Nichols (12) discusses the period attitude towards sports and exercise. He points out that women were actively involved in vigorous sports including ball games, tennis, skiing and ice skating, tumbling, archery, horseback riding, hunting, and self defense.
Countess Matilda of Tuscany (born 1046AD) rode to war with her mother and fought for 30 years in the service of Pope Gregory VIII and Pope Urban.
Maria of Pozzuoli is written of in some detail in a letter from Petrarch to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna in 1343. She apparently was a highly respected woman who traveled and fought with the regular army, virginity intact.
In the late 1300s, Queen Valeska of Bohemia required all girls to serve in the military. During this same time period in Italy, 30 women defended the town of Mugello until reinforcements arrived and Luzia Stanga was noted as a well respected cavalry swordswoman.
The Royal Armouries Yearbook 1997 contains an article regarding the Bridport Muster Roll of 1457. Among the 174 names of ordinary people are 5 women, three of whom came with equipment such as sword, buckler, bow, and/or body armor. The authors note that 39% of the names on the list do not have any equipment.
In the early 1400s, Jeanne des Armoises is listed as fighting at both Poitiers and Guinee. The Spanish gave her a fleet of warships and in 1439, she was placed in charge of an army. In this same time period, Bona Lombardi convinced her husband, Captain Brunoro, to teacher her the arts of war. They fought side by side for many years and she saved his life on more than one occasion.
In 1518, a group of 350 girls were enlisted to construct and defend fortifications at the Protestant Garrison in Guienne, France.
In 1524, Ameliane du Puget led a troop of women who dug a trench known as the Tranchee des Dames (today the Boulevard des Dames runs along the place were the trench used to be). This act assisted in breaking the Siege of Marseilles in the war between the Constable of Bourbon and the King.
Dona Catalina de Erauso left a nunnery in 1596 and became a soldier of fortune.
Margarite Delaye lost an arm fighting in the siege of Montelimar in 1569 and Captain Mary Ambree is listed as assisting in the release of the town of Ghent from the Spanish in 1582.
Defenders of Hearth and Home (3), (8),
Christine de Pisan (15th century) wrote in Treasure of the City of the Ladies that it is necessary for women to be educated in the art of warfare and wrote a tactical manual entitled Feats of Arms and Chivalry. David Jones points out in Warrior Women that castle defense requires a complex knowledge of capabilities of various units and strategy along with the ability to inspire confidence. This was especially true when the lady was not left with sufficient experienced troops to defend the lands and titles which were either hers by right or being held in her husband's name.
In 1240AD, the Teutonic Knights were beleaguered by the Prussians and took refuge in several towns. In Culm, most of the knights were eventually killed and the city would have been taken except for the efforts of the women of the town. They closed the gates, donned mail, and mounted the wall, spears in hand. The Prussians withdrew.
The women who fought in the defense of the town of Tortosa against the Moors were honored by the Count of Barcelona. (see Knightly Orders).
Lady Agnes Randolph ~Black Agnes~ (born around AD 1300) successfully held her castle for 5 months against the Earl of Salisbury in 1334. After each assault, she had her maids dust the battlements to show her scorn for the attackers.
The Dutch city of Harlaam, attacked by the Spanish in 1568, was defended in part by two sisters (Amarron & Kenau Hasselaar) who led a battalion of 300 women armed with sword, dagger and musket. Refusing to wear men's clothing, they wore light armor over their dresses.
Nicola de la Haye, daughter of the castellan of Lincoln, defended the town against several raids and was made the sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1216.
In the siege of Orleans, France (1438) women defended the town by pouring boiling oil, water, lime and ashes on the heads of the enemy. Three battalions of women fought in the defense of Siena in 1554. Women are also listed as fighting at the sieges of Pavia and Padua.
New World (8), (11)
We've all learned the history of Europe in the New World, right? Surprise, not only did educated folks know the world was round, women fought in the New World. Columbus mentions them in letters to Queen Isabella (herself a warrior woman). The Amazon River got its name after Captain Francisco de Orellana's encounter with women warriors on the river. Pizarro mentions them in his accounts of the Incas. European women also took up arms in this new place
Inez Suarez sailed from Spain to Peru in 1537AD to search for her missing husband. Upon learning of his death, she settled in Cuzco and re-married. She is recorded as fighting with him in his wars against the Arucanian natives.
In 1521AD, Cortez had both native and European women in his army. His wife, Maria Estrada, is recorded as being one of them and to have participated in the fighting. Beatriz de Pardes is also recorded as taking an active part in the fighting in what is now Mexico.
Duels (2), (8)
A noblewoman in the 13th century could either choose a champion to defend their reputations or they could fight the duel themselves. German law listed the procedure for a woman to challenge a man to a joust. In the record of one such joust (1228AD), the woman won. In another form of duel, the man stood waist deep in a pit. He was usually armed with a club with his left hand tied behind his back. The woman had a 3-5lb rock inside a shawl. If the man won, he was to bury the woman alive in the pit. In other areas, this type of duel was reserved for accusations of rape. If the man won, the woman lost a hand. If the woman won, the man lost his head. In Bohemia, both parties carried swords but the woman had to remain outside a circle drawn around the pit.
Apparently many women were duelists in the late 1500's and into the 1600's. Although this is mostly out of the scope of our period, I offer a brief discussion for those whose interests lie there. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, accounts of ~Roaring Girls~ tell of women who dressed as men and roamed the streets. The King of England, in 1620, bade his clergy to sermonize against this behavior. A book entitled Roaring Girls, dated 1611, has a drawing of a woman smoking pipe and holding a sword on the cover. One of the stories it tells is of Mary Firth, also known as Molly Cutpurse. She apparently came into contact with the law on numerous occasions. In the mid 1600s in Peru, the exploits of Dona Ana Lezama de Urinza and Dona Eustaquia de Sonza, ~the Valiant Ladies of Potosi~ are recorded. The reference book The Sword and Womankind also lists a fair number of female duelists.
It would appear that non-royal/noble women did fight and that they fought in situations other than emergencies (e.g., defending their persons or home against bandits or invaders). Crusading women were frequently left behind when the army moved on. One way to stay with the army would be to be useful to it by knowing how to fight. Anyone (including myself) who has attempted to joust at the rings or quintain in the SCA or jousting societies can tell you that just being an experienced rider does not make one immediately a competent jouster or horseback fighter. It takes practice for both horse and rider. Having one but not the other will not result in competency. Since we have accounts of women fighting from horseback, we must assume that they practiced somewhere, even if the accounts do not mention it. Something that was normal (personal hygiene comes to mind) is frequently not mentioned by writers of a period. That does not mean it did not occur. I am confident that more information exists. We just have to go looking for it.
A couple of cautionary notes before I end. The references I have listed are secondary and tertiary sources. As such, I cannot guarantee their veracity. Many of them do not give much in the way of details, hence the truncated presentation of some of the data. Someday I hope to have the time to research this area more thoroughly, looking at actual letters and other documents. As a fighter and squire in the SCA, my intention was simply to discover if any information existed regarding non-royal/noble female fighters. Use what I have found to find out more and if you do, let me know! Please feel free to quote this article and to copy it as long as you give proper credit.
Dianne Karp, MEd.
Known in the Society for Creative Anachronism as Siobhan ni Seaghdha, OP
February, 2001 diannekarp at rtci.net
Books and Journals
(1) Barber, Richard & Barker, Juliet, Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry & Pageants in the Middle Ages, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989
(2) Beaumont, Edouard, The Sword and Womankind, The Panurge Press, NY, 1929
(3) Clayton, Ellen C., Female Warriors, Tinley Bros., 1879
(4) Edwards, R.R. & Ziegler, V. (Ed.), Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society, Boydell Press, 1995
(5) Gebbeli, Fredrisco, Arab Historians of the Crusades, Dorset Press, 1969
(6) Grant de Pauw, Linda, Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War, University of Oklahoma Press, 1998
(7) Hitti, Phillip K., An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades (memories of Usamah ibn Munqidh) , University Press, Princeton, 1987
(8) Jones, David E., Women Warriors, a History, Brassey's, 1997
(9) Kelly, Amy, Eleanor of Aquitane and the Four Kings, Harvard University Press, 1950
(10) Nicholson, H., Women on the Third Crusade, Journal of Medieval History, V23 (4), 335-348
(11) Women as Warriors, www.lothene.demon.co.uk/others/women.html
(12) Women in Sport: Images from the Late Middle Ages, John A. Nichols, Slippery Rock Un., Slippery Rock, Pa. www.sru.edu/depts/artsci/hist/Nichols/research/womensport.htm
(13) Anonymous Fechtbuch: Manuscript I.33 (13th century German Sword & Buckler Manual) www.thehaca.com/i33/133.htm
(14) Did the Amazons Really Exist?, Lyn Webster Wilde, www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/wilde.shtml
(15) Women in War Bibliography, Reina Pennington
(16) Women Knights in the Middle Ages, www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/wom-kn.htm
(17) An Account of Women at Tournaments, GH Martin, www.chronique.com/Library/Tourneys/women_at_tourney.html
(18) The Horses of the Sythians, Fara Shimbo, www.turanianhorse.org/sythians.html
(19) Women's Life in Greece and Rome, www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-philosophers
Feel free to use and copy this information to any SCA group as long as you credit us and send me notice of how you used it..
Dianne Karp copyright 2001 diannekarp at rtci.net
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.