Of Arms and the Woman in Medieval Europe: fact. fiction. fantasy.


  • Madeline Caviness Tufts University




The complex relationship between women and arms in Europe, from Roman times to about 1200, is reexamined in light of literary traditions, historical records, and the modern preoccupation with women warriors that inevitably inflects historical judgments. Overall, the issue has suffered from a scarcity of hard evidence and an abundant politics of interpretation. Some historical examples indicate an acceptance of female hereditary governance in Europe during the early middle ages, including the command of troops. Yet many historians have greeted the idea of a woman wielding a sword in battle with skepticism. Figures such as Boudicca who led a revolt against the Romans in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon queen Aethelflaed, and the later women who fought in the crusades, or defended their own property, have been politicized. Narratives like that of the Old Testament Judith and the Nibelungenlied became ideological tools to raise the alarm about phallic women. By the thirteenth century, Saxon law declared that a widow must immediately surrender her husband’s sword to the male heir. Female fighters were increasingly vilified, culminating in the accusation of heresy against Joan of Arc, and her execution.