Probably most of us (especially the medieval history buffs) have seen it on television at some point or another. Indeed, it seems to be virtually compulsory in our age of gender equality and ‘girl power’ for girls to be depicted fighting with weapons in historical movies or dramas. After all, we have to show that women as just as good as men, and by proxy that means they have to be just as good as fighting too apparently. So from the flame headed Merida of Brave to the Cate Blanchett donning armour, from Maid Marion displaying her amazing propensity for martial arts as the Night-watchman in the BBC’s Robin Hood, to a digitally enhanced Keira Knightley running around as a leather bikini clad, paint daubed Guinivere we have a vast array of feisty female warriors in dramatic depictions of the Medieval era from Arthurian Britannia to Robin Hood’s Merrie England.
What are those of us who hold historical accuracy and plausibility in high esteem to think of such depictions? As a girl I don’t have any intrinsic problem with the notion of strong female characters, but I frankly just want to slap some of the heroines in drama who are more like walking embodiments of militant feminist ideology than real people, with a perpetual point to prove. Filmmakers certainly don’t want to depict the female sex universally as helpless shrinking violets shrieking at the sight a mouse, but sometimes the depiction of girl power seems to stretch beyond the boundaries of credibility.
Wouldn’t all that hair just get in the way?
Aside from rolling the eyes at the subjugation of history to political correctness, or the tyranny of the Hollywood notion of female perfection, one could just accept that such depictions may pseudo-historical claptrap hardly representative of the real roles, attitudes, expectations and reality for medieval females. Perhaps this is part of the problem- the notion that this class of women were hopelessly repressed is one that the media seeks to rally against with the women who defy what is expected of them. The historical truth (at least in some circumstances) may be surprising and reveal that neither perspective is entirely correct.
Christine de Pisan, the prolific fifteenth century French writer gives the following advice to a Baroness at least.
“It is also fitting for her to have the spirit of a man. This means she ought not only be educated entirely indoors, nor in only the great feminine virtues…. Her men should be able to rely on her for all kinds of protection in the absence of their Lord, in a situation where anyone would offer to do them any harm”.
To this end the lady in question should:
“know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she might be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or defend against one, if the situation calls for it. She should take care that her fortresses are well garrisoned… She should consider what manpower she has to call upon with confidence if the situation warrants it, and for which she will not have to wait for in vain or accept empty promises… she will give courage to her men-at-arms by her eloquent words and inspire them to be good and loyal and do well.”
Empress Maud may have led armies, but I doubt she looked as glamorous (or young) as this.
Alongside overseeing the running of estates in her husband’s absence, who granted her ‘absolute authority’ and keep things ticking over it seems a noblewomen could actually be expected to lead soldiers and take part in combat if… and perhaps only if circumstances demanded it. This did not seem to arise from any latent feminist ideal of ‘proving’ she was as good as a man, but arose from the practical necessity to protect and defend kith kin and landed possessions if these were threatened. If her husband was absent, the wife of a nobleman might have to take this responsibility upon herself.
Christine’s ‘advice’ may not have been universally accepted, or even approved of, nor does it necessarily reflect common opinion, but there is some evidence of women taking part in armed action and even apparently fighting. Life in a Medieval Castle, by American historians Jospeh and Frances Gies recounts an incident during the period of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda in 12th century England known as the ‘anarchy’.
‘The Empress Matilda found herself pitted against another Matilda, Stephen’s wife “a woman of subtlety and a man’s resolution” who led troops in an attack on London, ordering them to “rage most furiously around the city with plunder and violence, arson and the sword” ‘.
Another fighting woman was one Dame Nicolaa de la Haye, described as a “vigorous old lady” who:
‘commanded the royalist stronghold of Lincoln Castle against the forces of Prince Louis of France and the rebel English barons at the time of King John’s death, holding out against every assault until William Marshall arrived with relief forces’.
It appears then that when circumstances demanded it, some women of noble birth were not beyond leading or commanding forces, and if they had the ability even bearing arms, though the former may not necessarily have involved actively fighting. In the absence of their husband or any other competent man some women could take it upon themselves, if necessary to defend, attack lead or even fight, and why should they not, if their lands, position estates, castle or the kingdom were at risk.
This said, women who did such things may not always have been well thought of an admired, particularly if they acted with ruthless decisiveness, but if practical necessity demanded it some may not have had too much of an objection to a capable Lady ‘adopting the spirit of a man’ or the mantle of a leader to command or fight. It wouldn’t be practical or necessary for any woman to do so in a leather Bikini, or with her hip length locks flying loose in the wind.
It might look good in a Hollywood movie, but in the realistic circumstances it would be like its cinematic counterpart, just plain silly. Sixty- something Nicola de le Haye probably wouldn’t make good movie eye candy, and in my view, that’s no bad thing. In this case, the historical fact may be seen as more appealing and inspiring than glamorized media fiction, as women who fought and led armies weren’t there to look beautiful or prove their feminist metal after all, and were probably ordinary looking ladies fighting for a cause they believed in.
 Chrisine de Pisan, Sarah Lawson (tr.), The Treasure of the City of the Ladies (London, 2003), p109-11.
 Joseph & Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle (Harper Perennial, 2002), p86.