Female Warriors in History

Book being read: J. Sadler, Bannockburn: Battle for Liberty, (2008)

I am doing a lot of work at the moment which, for one reason or another, seems to focus on female participation in war. It is an interesting topic really because it still, to this day, holds a special place of unspoken taboo. Women being aggressive, women on the frontline, women killing other people – almost as if the act opposes the very fundamental nature of femininity, to give life, to nurture and to sustain. The idea scares people, it always has scared people.

From as far back as Ancient Greece, people have been afraid of the prospect of female militancy. The semi-mythical Amazons seem to be a manifestation of this fear – the only way that female aggression can be rationalised is with the complete upheaval of social dynamics, namely the absence of men. That is not to say that the Greek ideals did not allow for strong female figures, for that is just not true; examples span from the powerful, and war-like, goddesses of Athena and Artemis, to the strong-willed Spartan queen Gorgo, and one of the sages of Ancient Greece – the poet Sappho. But the idea of women wanting to participate in the male domain of warfare was unthinkable . . . but not unheard of. Most commonly they appear in sieges, women fighting the attackers in the street with bricks, but there is also the anomolous appearance of the Persian leader Artemisia of Caria who led her own naval force.

But my research at the moment has taken me outside of Greece – I know, shocking!

Obviously names like Boudicca speak for themselves, indeed the Germanic and ‘Celtic’ traditions allowed, to some respect, for this gender revocation to occur (if indeed that is what it is . . .) but by the Dark Ages and early Medieval period the anomalies just keep appearing. Of great interest to me, because I like to be surprised when I read something, is the tradition that appears in early Islamic history of strong female warriors:

Kwalah bint al-Azwar

Nusaybah bint Ka’ab

Umm Hakim

Gazala al-Haruriyya

To list a few.

And later on, during the Islamic conflicts in Spain there is mention of an elite archery corps made up entirely of women, 300 in number, under the direct leadership of Nujeyma.

This is before you even consider women outside of Islam; the likes of the famous Mongol warrior Khutulun, the Scandinavian tradition of shield-maidens, women like Richilde of Hainaut (late 11th century), Empress Matilda (of England), Joan the Lame, Joan the Lioness, Joan the Flame and of course the most famous of them all – Joan of Arc.

It is interesting that the Medieval sources seem almost comfortable with the presence of women in war, in the early period anyway, then. by the turn of 1300, there appeared a scholastic debate as to whether women should or could be present in war (see the works of Ptolemy of Lucca (c.1236-1327) and Giles of Rome (1243-1316) for a fair attempt at a balanced debate). However, by the turn of the 1400’s the writers become stringent in their opinions: war was no place for a woman. What makes this interesting is that it ties in with a similar trend outside of warfare, but still concerning gender roles. The witch trials, prior to 1350, saw a slight male majority as the accused, after 1350 women took a slight majority, then by the 14 and 1500’s the female majority was categorical. So there seems to have been a definite shift in public perception of the ‘female role’ and what was acceptable womanly behaviour – let’s just say that women warriors was not it.

I wonder how much of the modern debate regarding women on the frontline still centres on these concepts of gender roles, proper womanly conduct, the fear of women ‘acting [succeeding?] like men’?

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that some opinions are not just figuratively, but quite literally, medieval.

Either way, these ideas are more fully formulated in an Introduction article for Medieval Warfare Magazines that I am finalising at the moment. The edition is out at the end of March – it is titled: Female knights and fighting princesses – Medieval women as warriors.

Right, back to work I feel. Next stop is Bannockburn!

This entry was posted in Ancient History & My Research, Tangents and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *