Yet another find of women’s bones in a Norse gravesite, and the media blows up that she was a a fierce, Viking warrior before the archaeologists get her in the lab.
It seems like modern men and women, dazzled by the success of Vikings, really want to grasp at anything that comes across questionable websites as truth, that they forget that there’s plenty of evidence of women engaging in combat and more, aside from the legendary Norse shieldmaidens, who were, very much a real thing. Fauxhawks and Game of Thrones costume cast offs not required.
“Yeah, but did women really fight?”
I get this one a lot, being a medievalist and a SCAdian. Women absolute fight in the SCA, we have female knights and masters-of-arms. We’ve had Princesses and Queens that fought and won Coronet and Crown Tournaments in their own right. It definitely is a dream come true for many a girl and those identifying as such. It was, after all, drilled in through their childhood that women were nothing more than damsels in distress locked in towers, as their brave knightly husbands went off to fight the evil baron next fiefdom over.
Yeah, that’s utter crap, based on Victorian subjugation, leading to ideas of women should be seen and not heard. The romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites fueled the fire of an idealized Middle Ages consisting of pointy hats and flowing gowns that fit perfectly over the hourglass corset that they clearly all wore. *eyeroll*
“Wait, are you saying that women went off to battle?”
You bet your bezants they did.
I mean, we all know about Eleanor of Aquitaine, right? Eleanor, the richest woman in Western Europe, married Louis VII of France, and went off on the Second Crusade with a parade of her ladies in waiting. Whether or not she actually rode in bare-breasted like an Amazon, of course, is disputed, but a fun legend, nonetheless. She came home, annulled Louie because she had the balls to leave him for Henry II, and ended up outliving all but one of her children.
Niketas Choniates, in his O City of Byzantium, did compare her to the mythical Queen of the Amazons and had many nice things to say about her. What he said about other Frankish and German women coming in on horseback, fully armored, left little to be desired:
“…But while the emperor governed the empire in this fashion, a cloud of enemies, a dreadful and death-dealing pestilence, fell upon the Roman borders: I speak of the campaign of the Germans, joined by other kindred nations. Females were numbered among them, riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons and men do; dressed in masculine garb, they conveyed a wholly martial appearance, more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea, and from the embroidered gold with ran around the hem and fringes of her garment was called Goldfoot.” (Choniates, p35.)
So, while Eleanor paraded in like a queen, it seems that her ladies, or rather actual women soldiers, weren’t worthy of the title of Amazon. Ouch. It certainly sounds like there were an impressive amount of women outside of Eleanor’s retinue, as he seems to focus on the Germans, versus Franks. There was enough dealings between both the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, and France, to know they were separate kingdoms.
Of course, this is just the opinion of one man, who was an ecclesiastic, so conservatism was his middle name.
On the other hand, Anna Komnene seems to admire the feats of Sichelgaita, wife of Robert Guiscard, during the Battle of Dyrrhachium as she wrote in The Alexiad. So much, as a matter of fact, she compared her to Athena. (Alexiad, IV.6, page 121 in the Penguin edition.)
Timothy Dawson, in By the Emperors Hand, provides a brief description of women being involved in the defense of the Byzantine Empire in the 12th Century, including a female spy, as written by Theofanes, and archers and stonethrowers who garbed themselves as men, as written by Bishop Evstathios. (Dawson, Plate 8.)
And those are just Byzantine sources, and not even all of them.
According to Ramon Muntaner in his memoirs as part of the Catalan Grand Chronicles, a well-built Spanish woman donned armor to go fetch herbs outside of the walls of Perelada, when it was under Frankish control during the years of the Spanish March. She was attacked by a French knight on horseback. She unhorsed him with a lance, and forced him to yield. You can find his whole chronicle here: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/muntaner_goodenough.pdf
Speaking of the Spanish, let’s not forget the Order of the Hatchet, an actual chivalric order for women from the town of Tortosa in Catalonia dated to 1149. Unfortunately there is not a lot on it, as it seems after the initial wave, no further members were added, and the order died with its members. The basis appears to be that women of the town donned men’s armor, and weapons, including hatchets, and basically went to town against the Moorish occupants. The Count of Barcelona was so impressed, he created the Order for the women that fought.
According to this site, the Order of the Garter’s bylaws from as early as the 17th Century, include the origin of the Order of the Hatchet. Velde also lists several other medieval orders for women, including The Order of the Glorious Saint Mary from 13th Century Italy. Martial prowess is not mentioned.
Badassery didn’t stop at just being able to fight, as being able to lead or even wield a pen was just as potent. So if you’re not a fighter, that doesn’t mean you can’t be fierce.
Yeah, we know Anna Komnene wrote her father’s biography (and frankly, she’s my Byzantine spirit animal), but have you heard of Christine de Pizan? Most medieval enthusiasts have, and I know that some students in AP European History had to read her, but if you haven’t, you should. She was well trained in writing and rhetoric, and served as a court writer for several French dukes.
She did no harm, but took no shit.
And I mean none.
In between writing for dukes, composing poetry and political treatises, she completed her magnum opus The Book of the City of Ladies, and its sequel, The Treasure of the City of Ladies. I haven’t read the latter, but the former is pretty well known.
Sure, I could go on and discuss the fabulous things that Christine talks about regarding an allegorical city of the greatest women in history, both real and mythological, but in actuality, The Book of the City of Ladies was written as a direct slap in the face to the men that opposed her, and the idea of women being educated in general.
“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”
I love that line. Because she makes it perfectly clear that she’s not mad at men. In fact, the overarching theme of the book is intellectual equality based on the practice of virtues, rather than feats of strength, and that the wisest men agree with her. Rather, she flat out attacks that its the fools, the uneducated men, that hate the idea of seeing women actually know things. Its as if nothing has changed since the 15th Century. (Yeah, I went there.)
And for those that though Christine wrote just a bunch of feminist drivel (which it isn’t), she was also an authority on arms and warfare! (which you can find on Amazon, of course.)
And this is me just scratching the surface of the more well-known figures. I didn’t even get into the Renaissance yet, with Elizabeth I, Veronica Franco, Sofonisba Anguissola, etc.
You don’t have to wait for archaeological finds for proof. The information you need is already well documented. And while one day we will hit that gravesite or reliquary jackpot, we don’t have to sit on our hands until we do.
Now, go out and be badass, Ladies of the SCA. It’s period.
One thought on “Women in the Middle Ages were badass, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”
Thank you for this. The knowledge is it there, but it’s great to be able to point people at a single page 🙂
YIS, Evaine ni MacGreger