We all know that female warriors are one of the things that fantasy writers use to spice up their quasi-medieval settings, and not a part of real Middle Ages history. Interestingly enough, we are wrong. Medieval European sources mention a surprising number of martially inclined women during the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, more than sources from earlier or later eras do.
This isn't to say that female warriors were ever common, or that they were anything like their counterparts in much of today's fantasy art. (A brass bikini is rarely a good choice for battle.) Also, quite a few women may have fought only briefly during a time of crisis, standing in for absent men and returning to their normal lives as soon as possible. Still, we find women such as Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, who in the early tenth century commanded troops against Scandinavian forces that had conquered part of England, and Matilda of Tuscany, who defended the papacy nearly two hundred years later. Another Matilda, the daughter and legitimate heir of Henry I of England, led troops against the usurping King Stephen during the twelfth century. Dame Nicola de la Haye was Sheriff of Lincoln, and played an important part during the siege of that city in 1217. Countess Blanche of Champagne fought a long campaign to defend her son's interests around the same time, while the widow of Arnoul II of Guînes fought against her son to defend her widow's portion.
These warlike women, and several others whom I have excluded for the sake of brevity, all belong to royal or noble families. Were there no female warriors from the lower classes? It's difficult to be sure one way or the other, since medieval writers rarely concerned themselves with common people. There are a few examples, however, of what seem to be female, non-noble soldiers. When Charles VI of France marched into Flanders in 1382 (admittedly after the golden age of female warriors discussed here), the Flemings had a woman carrying their banner. She died in the following battle.
Another question is whether warring noblewomen actually fought themselves, or whether they were content to order their troops into battle. This is another area where the sources are less than forthcoming, but as historian Megan McLaughlin has pointed out, the same question can be asked regarding warring noblemen. We are told that they went to war, but seldom whether or not they led the charge, and the chroniclers still call them warriors. Also, the Flemish woman mentioned above isn't the only case of a woman who clearly seems to have entered battle. In 1190, during the Third Crusade, Christian forces attacked the Muslim camp where the chronicler Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani was stationed. He mentions how he rode out to inspect the battlefield after the attack had been repelled, and was shocked to find two women among the dead Christian warriors. He later heard that four women had taken part in the attack.
Crusaders and Vikings
We actually know that the Crusades brought quite a few women into battle. The church presented the war in the East as a kind of pilgrimage, and since pilgrimages were traditionally open to women, they took an interest in the project. When the First Crusade began in the late eleventh century, women could come along to the Holy Land if they had male permission and escort. They weren't really meant to, and they certainly weren't supposed to do any fighting, but the possibility was there. About a hundred years later, when Pope Innocent III wanted to optimize the chances of victory in the East, he increased this possibility—if wealthy women wanted to equip knights and send them into battle, they were welcome to do so. They didn't have to lead the knights all the way to Jerusalem, of course, but in his letter Quod super his from the year 1200, the Pope expressly gave them that option.
Once in the war zone, even the most peaceful woman could easily find herself in the middle of a battle. We have to read the chronicles with a critical mind, since both Christian and Muslim writers thought it dishonorable to have women in the army. (The former can be expected to omit female participants on their own side from their writings, the latter to exaggerate such occurrences.) However, there is little doubt that many women defended themselves when the need arose. The proximity to and participation in battle, taken together with religious fervor and the Church's promise of absolution from sin for crusaders, means that there might very well be some truth to the accounts of female warriors going on the offensive in the Holy Land. Women had a comparatively strong position in these frontier societies, and there was a constant shortage of military manpower. Also, it should be noted that some of the accounts are difficult to explain as propaganda meant to tarnish the enemy's reputation; Imad ad-Din's report above, for example, is nowhere near as exaggerated as it could have been. Imad also tells of a female archer in a green mantle who wounded many Muslims at Acre, and it is hardly effective propaganda to write about a supposedly weak woman shooting your own troops. In addition to this, archaeological excavations in the ruins of Caesarea, once an important crusader city, have uncovered a female skeleton in scale armor.
Speaking of archaeology, another group of female warriors may have been the so-called functional sons of Iron Age Scandinavia (who lived during the first part of the period discussed here; the Scandinavian Iron Age lasts well into the Middle Ages of continental Europe). Few written sources exist that can shed light on the Vikings and their world, but excavations have revealed women buried with weapons. Also, quite a few sources claim that there were female Viking warriors; the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus names one called Lathgertha and one called Rusila, who may or may not be identical to the Inghen the Red whom Irish sources identify as a Viking leader. Adding to this hazy picture, historians have claimed that Iron Age society sometimes demanded that the family had at least one son. A son was needed to accept heritage and carry out blood feuds, and if there were only daughters, one of them had to become a functional son—she would wear a man's clothes, carry weapons, and generally act like a man. Icelandic sagas and Norse laws seem to support the existence of functional sons, and the phenomenon is reminiscent of the sworn virgins of present-day Albania (a society which has some of the same characteristics as Iron Age Scandinavia, such as blood feud). Still, the picture remains hazy.
From Unusual to Unnatural
Let us move back to at least partly known times and places and ask how medieval European society reacted to warrior women. Going to war was the most masculine activity imaginable, and men who failed in battle were thought effeminate, so women who entered the fray broke the predominant pattern in a grand way. Art and literature from the period seem to indicate that the phenomenon was on people's minds, however. The margins of certain manuscripts have been decorated with images of armed women, sometimes jousting (and dismounting male opponents) and in at least one case fighting a dragon. A group of narratives from thirteenth-century France called Li Tournoiement as dames ("The Ladies' Tournament") describes an imagined tournament among highly skilled female combatants.
If we look to texts claiming to report real events, we find a rather relaxed attitude—female warriors are considered unusual, but not unnatural—change into a more hostile take on the subject. When Countess Richilde of Hainaut's brother-in-law captured her in the battle of Cassel in 1071, the contemporary chroniclers didn't make much fuss about it. About two hundred years later, however, in his Historia comitum Ghisnensium ("History of the Counts of Guînes"), Lambert of Ardres claims that Richilde was on the battlefield to throw a magic powder on the enemy. Times had changed. After about 1100, female warriors ran a greater and greater risk of being accused of black magic or promiscuity, being ridiculed (the thirteenth-century romance Aucassin and Nicolete, for example, mocks the switching of gender roles), or running into laws meant to keep them at bay. Joan of Arc, perhaps the most famous of medieval warrior women, was burned as a witch in 1431.
Still, there seems to have been some debate as to whether or not it was a good idea to allow female warriors. In the thirteenth century, two Italian scholars named Ptolemy of Luca and Giles of Rome both considered the question, and in accordance with the scholastic method they both considered the case for and against warrior women. On one hand, nature seemed to be in favor of the idea. Goshawks and eagles have fierce females, and since birds and humans are both part of the natural order, the same thing should be possible in the human realm. Also, women's physical and psychological health would improve if they practiced the military arts, and there were precedents such as the Amazons of Greek myth. They were seen as historical figures, and Ptolemy considered their society to have been successful.
There were also counter arguments. For one thing, birds don't have to run households, and humans do. According to Ptolemy and Giles, that duty fell to women. In fact, they claimed, women had been created too weak, too stupid, and with the wrong temperament for battle just so that they wouldn't leave their home and family. Finally, the rights of a warrior would neutralize the barriers meant to protect men from temptation—the barriers of women's shame, long clothes, wedding rings, and submissive nature, to be precise—and this would put the male warriors in great peril. In the end, both scholars decided that women should be kept far from the battlefield.
It seems that we have a mystery on our hands. Why did people, or at least people in power, become more hostile to female warriors as time passed? The general move toward a society with more strictly defined roles almost certainly played in, but can that be the only explanation?
McLaughlin proposes that the golden age of warrior women is also a time when the military sphere and the domestic sphere intersect. War was waged by small bands of warriors connected to their lords by ties of personal loyalty, feudal obligation, or blood. Battles were often no more than skirmishes between groups of this kind, and even the few large battles that were fought involved several small bands temporarily combined into armies. The warriors lived in or near the lord's household, trained there, held celebrations, and listened to poetry that glorified the warrior and his world. Women were also tied to the household, which allowed them to be influenced by this ideology and, in a few cases, acquire the skills to live it. There were good reasons to teach women how to fight; if nothing else, a noblewoman would have to lead the forces if her husband were killed or incapacitated. (It should also be noted that women took part in sieges, since a besieging army needed as many people as possible to watch all entrances to a castle.) A warrior woman from this background also had the advantage of following (or leading) old companions into battle, rather than having to defend her anomalous behavior to strangers.
The form of military organization described above gave way to new ideas around the thirteenth century, at the same time that the comparatively large number of female warriors in the sources dwindles. McLaughlin may have found an important piece of the puzzle, and to return to female warriors in fantasy, it's interesting that we find Tolkien's shield maiden Éowyn in a society where the domestic and military spheres seem to intersect. However, much of the puzzle remains unknown. To quote James M. Powell's foreword to Gendering the Crusades, "in the past, too much emphasis has been put on the limitations that confronted women." It is time that historians began studying those who transcended the limitations.
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Clover, Carol J., "Maiden Warriors and Other Sons," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986), 35-49.
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Edgington, Susan B. and Sarah Lambert (eds.), Gendering the Crusades (Cardiff, 2001).
Holum, Kenneth G. and Robert L. Hohlfelder (eds.), King Herod's Dream: Caesarea on the Sea (New York, 1988).
McLaughlin, Megan, "The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe," Women's Studies 17 (1990), 193-209.
Nicholson, Helen, "Women on the Third Crusade," Journal of Medieval History 23 (1997), 335-349.
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