mediaevalist: (WTS)
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One of the problems that general fans of the Middle Ages sometimes fall prey to is this: the inability to distinguish between the historical Middle Ages and the 'Current Middle Ages' as defined by the Society for Creative Anachronism. While this generally isn't a problem within most of the SCA, there are a number of people who confuse 'the Middle Ages as we want them to have been' for the Middle Ages that actually were.

Enter this page. It looks to have earned some recognition from military history sites. Unfortunately, a lot of the information on the page is wrong.

Leaving aside the premise that mythology is a poor mirror into the realities of historical cultures because that's going to take too long for me to get into, there are errors that especially stand out in the section on 'Laws forbidding women to fight'. Specifically, the 'the synod of Druim Ceat', or more accurately the Convention of Druim Cett. For one thing, it wasn't a synod but an assembly of Dál Riata kings of Ireland and Scotland, and there is no record in the Church of a synod having taken place around that time.[1] Second, while there seems to be some debate, it is widely agreed that it occurred in 575, (the year that the Annals of Ulster establishes the convention in) not 590.[2] Moreover, I was unable to find any evidence for either a common or ecclesiastical law regarding women in combat situations from this convention, which was convened to establish future relations between the Dál Riata rulers of Ireland and Scotland.[3]

What I think happened was that various sources on the Internet confused this convention with Adomnán's negotiation of the Law of Innocents in 697, which was designed to protect non-combatants (women, children, clergy) from warfare.[4] But the existence of this ecclesiastic law actually argues against the existence of women warriors on the battlefield, suggesting that female civilians could be, and often were, caught in the middle of battle while performing daily agricultural chores. However, there was another purpose to such a law. As it was explained to me in lecture by Thomas Owen Clancy, the law did not forbid women warriors, but camp followers, or prostitutes. One effective way to discourage the rampant fighting that had been occurring in these lands for centuries was to take the comforts of home away from the combatants, making warfare a less-desirable 'sport' than it had been previously.

Now, this is not to say women warriors never existed. In fact, it surprised me that Catherine the Great was featured prominently on the list even though her military influence was minimal, (most women involved in warfare did so by way of tactics and logistics vice fighting, and more often than not functioned as figureheads) but that one of the most well-documented cases of a woman disguising herself as a man to fight on the battlefield, Deborah Sampson, was mentioned only in passing on the linked page. (Poor Deborah: she was quite obviously a skilled and respected solider, but she just wasn't glamorous/important enough for today's feminist 'scholars'.) But there really isn't any archaeological or documented evidence to support a women warriors' tradition in Europe. For such traditions, you're going to have to look East.

The best example that comes to mind is the betsushikime of Japan. These were miko (young girls serving a Shinto shrine) specifically trained to fight. Not only is their battlefield presence well-documented, but the archaeological record also supports their existence. At the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, remains of these battle maidens are still being excavated. (By contrast, it does not support European female warrior traditions. For example, the Wetwang chariot burial was probably a symbol of family wealth, not warrior status, as not all chariots were built for war. In fact, all the other paraphernalia that has been excavated is feasting and other domestic goods)

Lastly, while the tales and legends of her are probably exaggerated as most legends are, the evidence for the historical existence of Japan's most celebrated female warrior, Tomoe Gozen, is convincing. (Unlike that of mythical Irish heroes both male and female, where it's uncertain whether they lived once or have always been fictional characters)

[4]Foster, Sally M. Picts, Gaels, and Scots. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1996.

June 2015


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