You Go, Girl-Knight

Various historical-fiction, fantasy and SF writers have posited that in hard times many women might become warriors for the same reasons as their brothers, namely to make a living and to rise in the world. Which is indeed what we are seeing with the American armed forces today. It is rather a pity that the fictitious women warriors are often portrayed by the fantasy writers as impossibly competent, despite their smaller size being able to outfight all the male champions without getting their hair mussed. This may rather overshadow the reality, which is that there were indeed female fighters in the European Middle Ages; not merely in defence of their city walls (where it is a given that all able-bodied women fight), but also on the offensive wars we call crusades.

Among noblewomen, not everyone was like Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose sole contribution to the Second Crusade was to shatter a vital alliance by arousing suspicion that she was getting it on with her uncle; instead, I give you Florine of Burgundy, who in the 1101 Crusade took seven arrows but continued fighting at her husband’s side until her death.

I give you also Saladin’s secretary al-Isfahani, writing of the siege of Acre: “Another person to arrive by sea was a noblewoman who was very wealthy. She was a queen in her own land, and arrived accompanied by five hundred knights with their horses and money, pages and valets, she paying all their expenses and treating them generously out of her wealth. They rode out when she rode out, charged when she charged, flung themselves into the fray at her side, their ranks unwavering as long as she stood firm.” Unfortunately we do not know this noblewoman from the Frankish sources, which may make us wonder whether he made her up. Al-Isfahani continues: “Among the Franks there were indeed women who rode into battle with cuirasses and helmets, dressed in men’s clothes; who rode out into the thick of the fray and acted like brave men although they were but tender women, maintaining that all this was an act of piety, thinking to gain heavenly rewards by it, and making it their way of life….. On the day of battle more than one woman rode out with them like a knight and showed (masculine) endurance in spite of the weakness (of her sex); clothed only in a coat of mail they were not recognised as women until they had been stripped of their arms.”

This is surely the same incident as described in prose less purple and more precise by the historian Ibn al-Athir, whether borrowing from al-Isfahani or informed by others: “There were in fact in the army at Acre a certain number of women, who challenged their enemy’s warriors to single combat … Among the prisoners were three Frankish women who had fought from horseback and were recognised as women only when captured and stripped of their armour.” If these Muslims are to be believed, there were Christian women who took the Cross for the same reasons as the men, namely personal salvation and military profession.

One would like to have memoirs written by the confessors or arms-masters of both Florine of Burgundy and these anonymous female knights of Acre, or better still by the ladies themselves. We might then be able to see both how they resembled and did not resemble their male colleagues, and how they resembled or did not resemble the superwoman warriors of modern fantasy. In particular, one would like to see what these medieval women fighters made of the widespread modern assumption that bearing arms is patriarchal, phallocratic and generally wicked, except when women do it.

Posted on November 4, 2011 at 08:31 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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