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I am not made to be a mother. I need to fight.—Brienne of Tarth
Today’s topic is the warrior woman, women such as Brienne, who don armor and fight like a man in a culture where men die in the field and women in childbirth. Brienne’s behavior shatters Westerosi gender norms and she is taunted, underestimated, and belittled as a result. Is the warrior woman merely a fantasy trope or were there women like Brienne in medieval Europe?
We need to place some limits on our examination, otherwise we’ll be here for a while. First, I’ll define the Middle Ages as spaning 500 to 1500. Let’s also set aside pre-Christian folks, since people like the Vikings and the Saxons probably had more in common with the wildlings than they do the rest of Westeros with the exception of Bear Island or the Iron Islands. That eliminates lots of awesome shieldmaidens, but we also can’t consider the women who fought in the early history of Islam, so suffice to say there were plenty of women outside of Christian Europe, who were taking up the sword.
Given those limitations, there are still plenty of examples of fighting women. Saxon noblewomen in England, for example, continued to enter battle even after their conversion to Christianity. Æthelburg of Wessex (ca. 673-740) ruled her kingdom jointly with her husband and led troops into battle against rebels. The queen even burned down one of her own cities to prevent it from being seized by enemies. Cwenthryth, an early 9th century princess of Mercia, was an abbess, but piety didn’t stop her from wielding power and leading armies. She possibly was involved in the death of her brother, the king, and when the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged her authority over her estates, she waged war against him. Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, who ruled during the height of the Danish invasions; after the death of her husband, she ruled the kingdom of Mercia. She built garrisons and fortresses, fortified towns, and was considered an excellent tactician and military leader, facing not only the Danes, but also the Welsh.
Not to be outdone, the Franks also had their fair share of fearsome women in the early medieval period. Like Hemma of Altdorf (d. 876), who successfully led troops to quell a rebellion against her husband. Or Emma of France (894-934), who was an active political and military leader and died while on campaign to stop a rebellion amongst her husband’s vassals. Or Adelaide-Blanche of Anjou (ca. 940 –1026), countess of Toulouse, Provence, and Burgundy, and queen of consort Aquitaine, who led an army on behalf of her underage sons.
In the High Middle Ages, crusading with its promise of an indulgence for those who completed the military pilgrimage to the Holy Land drew men and women alike, and there are several famous examples of noblewomen, who donned armor and led crusading forces. Florine of Burgundy (1083–1097) joined the First Crusade and fought alongside her husband, leading 1500 mounted knights. They died on the field of battle, although Florine continued to fight after being struck by seven arrows—not a bad showing. Ida of Austria (ca. 1055-1101) also died while fighting on crusade after joining the Crusade of 1101 with her own army.
(Ida rocking a wimple and crown combo)
The famous Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was a great enthusiast of crusading and accompanied her first husband on the Second Crusade. While accounts of her and her handmaidens’ participation vary, we know that she marched with the vanguard. Finally, Queen Sibylla (ca. 1160–1190) of the crusader state of Jerusalem personally took charge of the defense of that city against Saladin.
The Iberian peninsula was also a volatile region in the Middle Ages due to conquest by Islamic Berbers, the slow ‘reconquest’ by Christians, and competition between Christian states. We can identify warrior women there too. From Elvira Ramírez (ca. 935-986), princess of the Kingdom of Leon, who defended Leon against Viking attack and led troops against Muslim armies to Theresa of Portugal (1080-1130), who successfully defended against an attack by the Moors, earning her the title of queen from the pope, noblewomen took part in resistance to invasion. This struggle ended with the fall of the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, to Christian forces in 1492. Isabella I (1451-1504), queen of Spain, actively took part in the capture of Granada, and this was not the first time she had taken then field, after leading the suppression of a rebellion in 1476.
(Isabella at the Conquest of Granada)
Taking a page from their pagan predecessors, Norman noblewomen—quite often supporters of crusading—sometimes took the field as well. Emma de Guader (d. 1096), Countess of Norfolk, defended her husband’s castle, while it was under siege, and negotiated safe passage for herself and her troops. She later died on the way to crusade with her husband. Isabel of Conches went into battle dressed like a knight in the late 12th century in northern France. Matilda I (ca. 1105-1152) of England raised an army against another fearsome woman, Empress Matilda, who had captured Matilda’s husband, Stephen, in a war over the throne of England. Matilda besieged more than one city before Stephen was restored to his throne thanks to her efforts. Lastly, Maud de Braose (ca. 1155-1210), Lady of Bramber, was put in charge of her husband’s castle and surrounding territory, which she defended against Welsh attack, successfully holding them off for three weeks until reinforcements arrived. And she was a busy lady, reportedly giving birth to 16 children—just think, Brienne, you could have it all if you want it.
Then there are the women who fought the Normans. Like Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (ca. 1097–1136) of Wales, who mounted an unsuccessful defense against the Normans, while her husband was away. Her army was defeated in battle and she was captured by the Normans, who beheaded her.
In the late medieval period there were a host of noblewomen who led armies, mounted defenses, and had varying degrees of success like Joanna of Flanders (ca. 1295-1374), Isabella of France (1295-1358)—the so-called she-wolf of France—Agnes Randolph (ca. 1312-1369) or Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, Maria Queen of Sicily (1363-1401), Isabella (1400-1453), the queen consort of Naples, Joan of France (1391-1433), and Maire o Ciaragain, a 15th century Irish warlord—to name a few.
But all of these women were the wives and daughters of noblemen and kings—like Brienne. Were there any warrior women amongst the lower classes?
Probably more than we know,. Besides the fact that the lives of commoners are not well preserved, one of the reasons we don’t know about lower class female combatants is that they concealed their gender so that they might fight, such as when a French lancer was discovered to have been a female. Her identity was only discovered when the bodies were stripped of their armor following the 1335 Scottish victory.
Joan of Arc (ca. 1412-1431) is the most famous example of a medieval woman warrior, and she also dressed like a man, donning armor and chopping off her hair, which was used against her in her trial for heresy.
(Joan shown with a braid instead of her pageboy haircut, because artists didn’t find her haircut romantic enough)
Joan was a simple peasant girl, who received visions that resulted in her leading French armies. Joan is considered a heroine of France for her military efforts on behalf of Charles VII against the English, but so too is Jeanne Laisné (b. 1456). According to tradition, Jeanne aided in the defense of Beauvais by throwing herself at an attacker, who was planting a flag upon the battlements, and with axe in hand, threw him into the moat before tearing down the Burgundian flag. French commoners in the 15th century must have been a feisty bunch, because we also know of the adventuress, Claude des Armoises, who reportedly served in the pope’s army in Italy before marrying a knight.
We also have some general evidence that women sometimes trained and fought, such as manuscript I.33, which was written ca. 1290 and depicts a woman training with a sword.
Of course, our examples don’t mean this was the norm. We’re dealing with 1000 years of history and I’ve given you 31 examples. I could probably double that number if I cared to go on ad nauseam. That’s not quite a Maid of Tarth for every generation. So, the majority of women did not take up arms, and the reaction to women taking up arms was not always warm, Joan of Arc being a prime example, although it seems to have helped if one was a noblewoman with a flair for the military arts.
This is not to say, however, that women were universally oppressed in medieval Europe. Just as the warrior women noted above demonstrate how women could undermine gender expectations, other medieval women fulfilled typically male roles. From urban women who became craftmasters to female lay mystics who influenced the policies of kings and popes, these women remind us that the Middle Ages was not as bleak a time for women as the popular perception would have us believe. Not every noble family would have had a Brienne, not every village a Joan, but it’s not pure fantasy to say that Briennes existed.
Indeed, as a noblewoman, Brienne might have fared some better in medieval Europe, particularly if she wanted to wield the sword in the Holy Land or in defense of her own land, as noblewomen answered the call to defend Christendom and their estates with some regularity—a fact that was lauded by chroniclers and not a laughing matter.
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