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Medieval Women: Warfare and Military Activity


This text copyright ©1999 Dr Helen Nicholson


All translations are by Helen Nicholson unless otherwise stated.


Women may use violence in a right cause.


The romance of Gyron le Courtois (France:1235-39)

This fictional account does not show us actual events but gives us an insight into the attitudes of the medieval nobility who would have formed the main audience for this entertainment. In this extract, Guiron's best friend Danayn Rufus is telling a story to two other knights, one of whom is the knight who is knocked down in this story - but Danayn is pretending that he hasn't recognised him.


This is the truth: after that court which was held at Kamaalot that time I told you about before, it happened that four knights who were going towards the far end of North Wales came to this pool where we are now. It was midday when they got there, and because it was very hot at that time of year all four took off their armour. To cut a long story short, as all four were resting there like that, an amazingly beautiful young lady arrived at the pool. The only people with her were a squire and a dwarf, the smallest person for his age I ever saw, and an amazingly aged old woman, around 100 years old and the most ugly creature you could imagine. Of course, I was one of the four knights who was resting there, and when I saw the lady and her company too I said to my comrades, 'Look who's coming! One of the ugliest ladies in the world', and the others said that it was true. The lady dismounted among us, and all her company with her, and they drank from the pool - but before they began to drink, we greeted them quite politely. One of our companions, who was carrying arms of green and white, stared long and hard at the beautiful young lady, and wanted her for himself, but we told him that he couldn't have her now, and for good reason: he couldn't take the young lady because she was not being escorted by a knight. He replied that he had to have her, whether dishonourably or honourably, and without waiting another moment he stepped forward and said to the young lady: 'Young lady, pay attention! You must remain under my guard. I wish to be your knight, and in return you will be my lady.'

She replied at once: 'You should know, sir knight, that I cannot be your lady, and I must tell you that the knight who loves me is certainly a much better knight than you are. So I advise you sincerely to keep your words to yourself.'

When the knight heard these words, he said that she would be his lady whether she liked it or not, and he took her by the hand and held her fast.

When the old woman saw that the knight was using force on her lady, without hesitation she went straight to the knight's sword - I don't know whether she could tell his apart from the others or not - but she took it and drew it out of the scabbard, and immediately charged down on the knight - who was still holding on to the lady by the hand - and gave him such a great blow on the head with the sword that the knight had neither power nor strength to withstand the blow and fell to the ground so stunned that he didn't know whether it was day or night.

When the old lady saw him lying on the ground, she spoke words as noble and marvellous as if she had been a bold and doughty knight. 'Evil and failed knight,' she said, 'if it would not be dishonourable for me to kill such a bad knight as you, God help me, I would put you to death now; but I refrain, for the sake of my own honour and honour and love of these doughty men who are with you'. When she had said these words, she put the sword back into the scabbard in the place where she had got it. Then she said to the young lady, 'Let's be on our way, please, lady.' And the young lady mounted at once, and the dwarf and the squire, and the ugly old woman after them.

When I saw that they were leaving us like that, so quickly, I jumped up and went straight to the old lady and said to her: 'Oh, lady, I beg you for the sake of generosity and courtesy, tell me who this young lady is whom you are escorting.'

'Sir knight,' she replied, 'all I may tell you at this moment is that she is the beloved of the best knight in the world.'

'In God's name,' I said again, 'I still don't know who this good knight is, the one you say is her beloved, unless you tell me who he is.'

'In God's name', the lady said, 'if you don't recognise him, you shouldn't blame anything except your own uselessness. And I can certainly tell from what you've just said that you aren't a knight of great deeds or of great renown.'

Having said this, the lady departed, not deigning to say anything else at that point. After a while, our comrade who had been knocked down on the ground got up and ran for his weapons. When he was armed and mounted, he asked his squires, 'Which way did that treacherous lady go, the one who shamed me like that?' They showed him the way she had gone. When I saw that our comrade was going off like that after the lady, armed with all his weapons and armour, I was doubtful and afraid that he would kill the lady in his anger and fury, and I at once mounted my warhorse, armed with my sword, shield and lance - I took these weapons because I was afraid I might meet someone who wanted to hurt me. When I had ridden a little way I found our knight on foot in the middle of the road, and I asked him who had unhorsed him. He told me that a jealous knight had unhorsed him, but that same day I found out for certain that it was the lady's dwarf who had unhorsed him and thrown him to the ground.'

Gyron le Courtoys, c. 1501, with an introductory note by C. E. Pickford (London, 1977)



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Women may fight to defend their children's rights or their husband's rights.


Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d'Angleterre: the empress Matilda and Queen Matilda of England


Written in the 1220s, apparently by a professional mercenary in the entourage of Baldwin of Béthune (see Sean Duffy, 'King John's Expedition to Ireland, 1210: The Evidence Reconsidered', Irish Historical Studies, 30 (1996), 6-7). Although this work is 'fictionalised' history written to entertain as much as to inform, it shows us the views of its 13th-century author and, presumably, the views of his intended audience -- military men such as himself?


The first extract from the Histoire is from its account of events of the reign of King Stephen of England, 1135-54. Stephen has seized the throne of England; Matilda the empress, 'who was the true heir of England', has been urged by her supporters in England, King David of Scotland and Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester, to come and recover England from him. According to this fictionalised version of events, Matilda's second husband Geoffrey of Anjou has recently died, leaving her a widow with children.(For another extract, see Extract E below.)


When Matilda the empress heard this news [from her cousin King David of Scotland] she made rapid preparations to cross the sea, like a doughty and valiant person; but first she made her son Henry duke of Normandy, and made him do homage to King Louis [VII] of France. When he had done his homage to King Louis, Henry fitz Matilda promised him Gisors and Lyons [la-Forêt], so he would allow all those of the country who wanted to go to England with Matilda to help her to recover her inheritance, to do so. The king granted this, and the two castles were entrusted to the Templars. Then the duke returned to his mother, who was waiting for him on board ship. When her son had arrived, the empress waited no longer, but embarked upon the sea and went to England with her Normans and Angevins, and arrived at Bristol.

There the king of Scotland and the earl of Leicester and many other barons come to her and gave her their oaths of homage. When Matilda the empress had received homage from those who had come to her, she left Bristol and rode through the country and waged war very hard against King Stephen her nephew and his son. the empress rode every day with the army, and she gave good advice on the most difficult matters; in the whole army there was not a baron so skilled and experienced in war as she was, and there was much talk about her throughout England. The war between her and her nephew continued until the two armies met outside Lincoln. There they fought until the king was defeated and taken by force and imprisoned, and lost everything. For this reason it is still said when someone loses something that he has lost it like the king lost at Lincoln; because he lost everything, and was lead to Bristol as a prisoner.

Queen Matilda, the good lady, the wife of King Stephen, who was of very good and straightforward character, had never been involved in war, but remained simply and quietly within her chambers. When she heard the news that her lord had been captured, she was very distressed. However, she did not show her grief in sobs and tears; instead she went to her lord's treasure - he had a great deal of it - and handed it out generously. And she sent for knights throughout all lands, wherever she could get them, and assembled such a great army that she besieged the empress and her son Henry and the king of Scotland and the earl of Leicester and many other noble barons all together in the city of Winchester. Henry, bishop of Winchester and brother of the king, gave her much help in the war, and he was her chief counsellor. The queen besieged the city for 11 weeks, and never in all these 11 weeks did a single day pass without warlike battles against each of the four gates of the city. One day it happened that there was battle and the earl of Leicester was captured, and led before the queen in her tent. When the earl saw the queen he was very much afraid, and begged her for mercy and fell very humbly at her feet.

When the queen saw the earl fall at her feet and heard him beg her for mercy, she began to laugh, and said, 'Sir earl, the empress came into the country through your advice, and my lord was captured through your aid. You have been very wise and very active in harming us and helping the empress; now consider how you are going to help yourself, for by the loyalty which I owe to my lord - and God allow me to see him again as I wish! - you will not eat or drink until I have my lord back or I am absolutely certain that I am going to have him back.'

When the earl heard the queen make this oath, he was very much afraid. By the queen's leave he sent a message into the city to the empress and to Henry her son and to the king of Scotland, and informed them of the situation. That day they held a discussion and gave the queen firm assurances that she would have her lord back; so that the earl was allowed to eat. Matilda the empress and her son sent immediately to Bristol for King Stephen, and he was freed and released in exchange for the earl of Leicester.

Then the war began again afresh, and very cruelly, and Queen Matilda returned to her chambers, She never wanted to get involved in war again, but let her lord deal with it after he was freed. Matilda the empress waged war very hard against her nephew King Stephen; often she had the advantage, and often she had the disadvantage, but you should know that she had more success against the king than she had had against the queen. When Matilda the empress saw that the war was going on for so long, she granted all her rights over the country to her son Henry, and made him receive all the homages that she had received, and said that he should conquer the crown, if he could, and be king.

Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d'Angleterre, ed. Francisque Michel (Paris, 1840).



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Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Livre I, Le Manuscrit d'Amiens

Jeanne of Flanders, countess of Montfort, leads a sortie


Like the previous extract, this is a fictionalised historical account, written as much to entertain noble audiences as to inform. The basic historical facts behind this account are as follows: the duke of Brittany died in 1341. His heir is his niece, who is married to Charles of Blois, younger brother of Count Louis of Blois. However, Charles does not come to claim the dukedom, and meanwhile another claimant, Count John of Montfort, a half-brother of the late duke by his mother, invades Brittany. The count of Montfort is married to Jeanne, sister of Count Louis of Flanders, and they have two children, a son and a daughter

In the war which follows, the count of Montfort is captured by the forces of Charles of Blois. His wife, Jeanne of Flanders, addresses her supporters with her little son in her arms, urging them to support the little boy's claim to Brittany. They are so moved by the sight of the mother with her child begging for their aid that they agree to help her.

The countess is now (1342) besieged by the forces of Charles of Blois in Hennebort, awaiting English aid which is long in coming. The forces of Charles of Blois launch an assault.


[chapter 378] The countess of Montfort was there in full armour, mounted on a swift horse and riding through the town, street by street, urging the people to defend the town well. She made the women of the town, ladies and others, dismantle the carriageways and carry the stones to the battlements for throwing at their enemies. And she had bombards and pots full of quick lime brought to keep the enemy busy.


Chapter 379

Now you may hear a great enterprise and marvellous and outrageous deed of arms which this countess performed. She never ceased to go from one person to another to encourage her people, and she also climbed up a high tower of the fortress, in order to weigh up the appearance of the enemy more effectively. Once when she was up there she saw that the lords of France and all sorts of other people were at the assault and were concentrating so hard and so attentively at attacking that all their dwellings were empty and unguarded. What did she do to damage the enemy army? She collected around 300 companions and got them to mount their horses and went out of Hennebort by a postern gate which opened towards the sea, on the side of the city where there was no assault, and she rode around the town, keeping under cover. As she had people who were well able to lead her, she reached the tents and the dwellings of the French and attacked them valiantly. She made her people spread out and go in different directions through the camp because there was no one there to stand in their way, except for a few boys and wretched serving men. There they killed and set fire to the tents and the dwellings of the lords of France.

The fire spread rapidly and wreaked great destruction, because each tent set fire to the next, until the smell and the smoke descended on those who were making the assault. When the lords of France saw their dwellings on fire and heard the hue and cry which was coming from that direction, they were completely dismayed and ran towards their dwellings, crying, 'Treachery! Treachery!' - and no one remained at the assault.

When the said countess saw the enemy charging towards her and people running up from all directions, she collected her people and drew them up in an orderly manner and wisely. She clearly perceived that she could not get back into the town without great losses, so she went by another road towards the castle of Brayt, which is four leagues from there.

Lord Louis of Spain was then constable of the whole army. He was absolutely disgusted at what had happened. When he reached the dwellings and saw them on fire and burning and the countess and her people going away wherever they could, he set off in hot pursuit in hopes of catching them, shouting his battle cry, and everyone followed his banner. So the countess and her people were closely pursued, and a few of them who were poorly mounted were killed. The chase lasted until it reached Brayt, where the countess and her people saved themselves and got into the fortress. Those within welcomed them with great rejoicing.

When Lord Louis of Spain found out from the prisoners who had been captured in the pursuit that it was the countess who had brought this disturbance upon him and upon the whole army, he was extremely angry that she had escaped him. So he returned to the army. He informed the commanders that it had been the countess of Montfort who had made this attack on them; everyone was absolutely amazed that she had dared to undertake such a feat and to put herself into such danger and into such peril of battle. Some of them regarded it as an outrage and folly, while others regarded it as a doughty and valiant deed. If those outside the town were amazed, those inside it, her own people, were even more so. They could not think how the countess had planned all this or dared to undertake it. But they were for the rest of the day and all the following night in great alarm and dismay because neither the lady nor her companions had returned; and they did not know what to think or what to do. They were afraid that she and all her company with her were dead or, at best, had been captured.


Chapter 380

When the next day dawned, the lords of France who had lost their tents and their equipment, decided to make lodgings out of trees and leaves nearer to the town and to act more wisely in future. So they went to set up their lodges with great trouble nearer to the town and they mocked those of the fortress. 'Go on, my lords, go and find your countess. She is certainly lost, and you won't find her for a long time.'

When the people of Hennebont, the men of arms and others, heard these words, they were dismayed and were very much afraid that something terrible had befallen their lady. They did not know what to believe, because she had not come back and they had heard no news of her. So they remained in this fear and dismay over their lady for the space of 5 days.

Now I will tell you what the countess of Montfort did. If she had already undertaken a foolish enterprise, I think, she now performed one just as dangerous. You must realise that where she was in the castle of Brayt she was not at all at ease because she knew that her people in Hennebont did not know what had become of her. So she decided that she would wager all for all, and that, if she had escaped from one peril, she would escape again from a second. So she made arrangements to have 500 companions armed and well mounted. Then she left Brayt at around midnight and went straight towards the sunrise, riding, past one of the flanks of the army. She sent a messenger ahead to Hennebont and had the gate opened for her and entered into the town with great joy and with a great sound of trumpets blowing and drums and horns sounding, at which the French army was greatly alarmed. They all armed and charged towards the town to attack it, and those within ran to the windows to defend it. There began a great and strong assault, which lasted until high noon. But in any case those outside lost more than those inside.

At around the hour of noon, the commanders halted the assault, because their people were getting themselves killed and wounded for no reason; and they retreated to their lodgings.

Jean Froissart, Chroniques: Livre I, Le manuscrit d'Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale no. 486, ed. George T. Diller, vol. 2 (Geneva, 1992).

Hennebort was eventually relieved by the English, and the countess continued to wage her war. At length her son reached his majority and became count of Montfort and duke of Brittany.



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Women may fight when they have been given authority to do so: e.g., they are acting on behalf of their husbands.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Mercian Register:

Æthelflæld, lady of the Mercians, fights against the Danes and the Welsh.


Æthelflæd was the daughter of Alfred, king of Wessex, and married to the eolderman of Mercia. When he became an invalid, she took over the government on his behalf. Unlike the accounts above, this one is supposed to be factual!


916. ...And three days later [three days after the death of Abbot Egbert] Æthelflæld sent an army into Wales and destroyed Brecenanmere and captured the king's wife and 33 other person.


917. In this year, Æthelflæld, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Lammas obtained the borough which is called Derby, with all that belongs to it; and there also four of her thegns, who were dear to her, were killed within the gates.


918. In this year, with God's help, she peacefully obtained control of the borough of Leicester, in the early part of the year; and the greater part of the army which belonged to it was subjected.

And also the people of York had promised her - and some had given pledges, some confirmed it with oaths - that they would be under her direction. But very soon after they had agreed to this, she died twelve days before midsummer in Tamworth, in the eighth year in which with lawful authority she was holding authority over the Mercians. And her body is buried in Gloucester in the east chapel of St. Peter's church.

From The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a revised translation by Dorothy Whitelock, David C. Douglas and Susie I. Tucker (London, 1961), Mercian Register. Translation by Whitelock, Douglas and Tucker.


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Extract E: Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d'Angleterre: Matilda de Braose fights the Welsh


This second extract from the Histoire describes Matilda de St-Valéry, wife of William de Braose, marcher lords on the English-Welsh border in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Unlike the first extract, the author here is writing of events in his own lifetime and probably of persons whom he has known personally.


This William de Braose had a very valiant lady as wife, who was born in the land of the king of France; she was daughter of Bernard de St-Valéry, the good knight, and she was called Matilda. She was a beautiful woman, very wise and doughty and very vigorous. People said nothing about her husband compared to what they said about her. She kept up all their war against the Welsh, and conquered much from them. She performed many good services for King John, which was a waste of her resources, and made him many fine presents. Once she presented the queen [Isabel of Angoulême] with three hundred cows and a bull, which were all white, except for their ears, which were red. This lady boasted once to Baldwin count of Aumale her nephew that she had 12,000 milk cows; and she boasted that she had so many cheeses that if a hundred of the most vigorous men in England were besieged in a castle, they could defend themselves with her cheeses for a month. Provided they never got tired, they would always find cheeses ready to be hurled at their besiegers.


Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d'Angleterre, ed. Francisque Michel (Paris, 1840). Matilda came to a sticky end for defying King John; her husband escaped, but she and her eldest son were imprisoned in Windsor Castle and starved to death. For the religious house which her daughter Margaret founded in memory of her, see my article 'Margaret de Lacy and the Hospital of St John', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 50 (1999), 629-51. As for the question of what sort of cheese Matilda was making, rather than the crumbly white cheese made in South Wales nowadays, perhaps this was a hard cheese similar to Flemish Mimolette, which when mature could well perform as ammunition.



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Jean Froissart's Chronique: Philippa of Hainaut, queen of England, musters the English army against the Scots: the Battle of Neville's Cross, 1346


In this second extract from Froissart's romanticised history of his times, Edward III is in France, having just defeated the French at Crécy and was going on to besiege Calais. When the Scots invaded the north of England, Edward's wife and regent, Philippa of Hainaut, took the initiative.


Chapter 522

At the same time as the king of England was besieging Calais, the Scots set out and entered England in great force to burn everything, and they passed between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Roxburgh. In the company of the king of Scotland was Earl Patrick, the earl of Moray, the earl of Douglas, the earl of Surland (Sutherland?), the earl of Mar, the earl of Fife, Lord Robert de Versi, Lord Simon Fresel, Alexander of Ramsay and many others; they were a good 2,000 men at arms and 20,000 other people. The queen of England, who was at that time in the march of Northumberland, heard that the Scots had made a great muster and intended to enter England. So she sent out a summons to men at arms throughout the kingdom of England, wherever she thought they would be, and told them to be at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a certain day, to resist the Scots. At that time the country was almost empty of men at arms because they were with the king besieging Calais and also with the earl of Derby in Gascony and had also gone to Brittany and were waging war there. Nevertheless, the good lady assembled what people she could get and came to Newcastle upon Tyne.

There the English met and assembled, and set out to fight the Scots, who were quite close by. The queen entrusted all that needed to be done and her men at arms and archers to the guard of 4 prelates and 4 barons who were there: the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of York, the bishop of Durham and the bishop of Lincoln; and the barons: the lord of Percy, the lord of Neufville, the lord of Mowbray and the lord of Lussy. So these men at arms of England and these archers, who were not more than 8,000 men, all set out into the field. They drew up three battalions well and suitably, just as they well knew how to do, with the archers on the wing, and the men at arms after.

There they had a great and heavy battle, for the Scots are very good and hard men who, at that time, hated the English a great deal for the great damage which they had done to them, and there were a great many Scots in the battle; and they had no great opinion of the English. Many great feats of arms were performed there, which were still being talked about a long time later. And the English, who were only a few, made great efforts and achieved so much by their prowess and boldness that they won the field. King David of Scotland was captured by an English squire called John of Copeland, who later made a great profit from the king of England, who gave him all the land which the lord of Coucy held in England at that time. The greater part of the lords of Scotland were killed or captured.

This battle was fought quite close to Newcastle on Tyne, in the year of grace of Our Lord 1346 on a Tuesday, the day after Michaelmas, in September [30 September]. You may be sure that the king of England was very grateful to his people who had been there and who had borne themselves so well that they defeated his enemies and captured the king of Scotland his adversary.


Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Livre I, manuscrit d'Amiens, ed. George Diller, vol. 3 (Geneva, 1992)

In the later version of his Chronicle, written in the early fourteenth century and preserved in the manuscript of Rome, Froissart changed his account of Queen Philippa's involvement slightly. Queen Philippa musters the army and sets out with it until they catch sight of the Scots. The English are very encouraged to have the queen with them, because her presence makes them more assured of victory. The lords then take counsel, and agree that it would be best if Queen Philippa returned to Newcastle upon Tyne, 'Then they would have fewer responsibilities and worry'. They explain to the queen that they are worried about the danger she will be in if she remains with the army, and she agrees to return to Newcastle, although she would willingly have remained with the army. (Jean Froissart, Chroniques: Dernière rédaction du premier livre. Edition du manuscrit de Rome, Reg. lat. 869, ed. George T. Diller (Geneva, 1972).) However, when the battle has been won it is Philippa who is credited with having won the victory, although she was not physically present. This raises the question of whether male generals were also credited with victories when they had not actually wielded arms in the battle; it seems likely that they were.
Froissart emphasized the queen's involvement in this later account in order to underline her greatness as an ideal queen; he had been her secretary for many years.


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On the question of women's authority over men: Honoré Bonet, The Tree of Battles, trans. G. W. Copeland.


This work was completed in 1387 and dedicated to King Charles VI of France.


Whether wager of Battle can be fought before a queen

Now let us consider another question which might very well arise in time of war. The king is overseas and the queen is governing the kingdom. During this time a knight appeals another knight before her, saying that he is false and traitorous. Thereupon he offers his gage, and the other receives it freely, and battle is ordered. I ask whether the queen can act as judge in this battle, and whether, lawfully, it can take place.

I prove first of all that she cannot judge in this battle: first, by authority, and secondly, by natural reason. For common law says that women by their nature are excluded from the deeds of men, and especially from all judgements; because, according to law, they cannot act as judges. Also I prove it by natural reason, using the argument that he who is of baser condition cannot judge him who is more noble. But it is clear that man is much nobler than woman, and of greater virtue, so that it appears very clearly that woman cannot judge man. A stronger argument is that, according to reason, a person subject to another cannot be judge of his sovereign, and as it is clear that woman is subject to man, how can she judge man?

To cut this matter short, I say that it cannot be doubted that a woman, according to written law, should not have the office of judge, but if the king or prince has delegated office to her she can without doubt judge. And further, this may apply in other cases, for if it were the custom in a country that women should give judgement their ordinances and judgements would be accepted, for we saythat custom can give jurisdiction; and if anyone asks how a woman, who is ignorant of this business, can give judgement in a matter of battle, I reply that this means nothing, for the house of France never lacked good advice and a knighthood wise and accustomed to know all judgements in matters of war. Therefore I consider this argument of little value; and it is my opinion that she may very well decide in such a matter.

From: Honoré Bonet, The Tree of Battles, trans. G. W. Copeland (Liverpool 1949) Book 4



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Other western European medieval sources describing women using force

For other examples from historical sources see, for example, Christine de Pisan, The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chvyalrye, translated by William Caxton. Early English Text Society, vol. 189 (London, 1937). In her introduction, Christine depicts the goddess Minerva as patroness of war and inventor of armour and weapons (she is following the late Roman philosopher Boethius).
See Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales, Book 1 chapter 9, for the story of Gwenllian.
See also my article, 'Women on the Third Crusade', in Journal of Medieval History, 23 (1997), 335-49, and the references there.
See also the printed source material on Joan of Arc.


There are a great many examples from fictional literature; so many that the 'Amazon' or female warrior can be considered as a topos in medieval literature just as much as it is in classical literature:
See Camilla in Eneas (based on Vergil's Aeneid) and Guiborc in Guillaume.

Other examples of fighting women in fiction include:
Maligne dresses as a knight to avenge herself on Lord Kay: Le Roman de Laurin, fils de Marques le senéchal, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, 1995).

Florete rescues her husband Floriant from attack by a dragon - she wields his lance and kills the dragon: Floriant et Florete, ed. H. F. Williams (London, 1947). A prose version of the story was also composed: Le Roman de Floriant et Florete, ou le chevalier qui la nef maine, ed. Claude M. L. Levy (Ottawa, 1983). The account of Florete's deeds goes like this:
[Floriant and Florete have married and are travelling towards Rome in disguise: he has taken the nickname 'The handsome savage' and Florete calls herself: 'Pleasant of the Isle'. They have been staying the night with a hermit, who sets them on their road in the morning.] 'St Martin guide you,' said the hermit, 'and I will show you a track to follow, because on the main road there is a poisonous dragon which is so fierce and so horrible that no one dares to go that way. So take the track I will show you and avoid that evil beast.' When the Handsome Savage heard him, he said: 'Good sir, I beg you to show us the direct road, because I want to go that way and I will never avoid it just because of the beast -- although I'm not saying that boastfully.' Then he helped Pleasant of the Isle to get up on her horse and they set out on their road, calling often on God and Our Lady.
They went on along the road until they came upon the beast, and had no idea that it was there until they saw it right in front of them. It was absolutely horrible and terrifying: seventeen feet long and a span wide across its chest. Its head was huge and hideous, its face dark and shadowy, and it had enormous wings for flying, and most fearsome claws.
When the beast saw them coming, it at once ran towards them. The Handsome Savage dismounted immediately and approaching the beast with his naked sword in hand he went to strike it on its head, but this dragon had such tough skin that he could not damage it. The dragon thrust its two paws into his shield so hard that it almost made his shield belt leap off from round his neck. Then the Handsome Savage attacked again and hit it again on the head with his sword, but he harmed it very little, and the dragon lifted its tail and gave him such a blow on the side that it almost flattened him on the ground. Then Pleasant of the Isle was very distressed when she saw her husband in such difficulties fighting such a treacherous beast; getting off her horse, she took her husband's lance, which he had left behind, and approached the dragon. She thrust the lance head into its side, cutting its heart into two halves, so that the dragon lay stretched out dead on the ground. Then the Handsome Savage had great joy and began to kiss and embrace his wife, saying: 'There is certainly nothing in the world as good as a good wife; I've proved it! anyone who speaks ill of women is a fool; may God curse any who does!'

From: Le Roman de Floriant et Florete, ou Le Chevalier que la nef maine, ed. Claude M. L. Levy (Ottawa, Canada, 1983), pp. 187-8: lines 965-979.

Women dressed as knights joust in Claris et Laris. Here the 'Biaus Mauves', the Fair but useless knight, jousts and unhorses three ladies dressed as knights, and is fêted by them and the other ladies who were watching the joust. However, immediately after this he is captured and imprisoned - so clearly he isn't much of a knight. Does the author mean us to understand that he is so useless that he is only capable of defeating women?

Silence, a woman dressed as a man and a very valiant knight: Le Roman de Silence, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, 1972); also in Heldris de Cornualle, Silence: a thirteenth-century French romance, ed. and translated Sarah Roche-Mahdi (Michigan, 1992).

The story of Grisandolus in the vulgate sequel to the Merlin, in Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. O. Sommer, vol. 2, and the Middle English translation, Merlin: the Early History of King Arthur: a prose romance about 1450-1460 AD, edited from the unique manuscript in the University Library Cambridge, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, 2 vols, Early English Text Society (London, 1899) (French written 1210-1230).

See also the lady who dresses as a knight to avenge the honour of her knightly family on her 'peasant' husband in the fable of Berengier au lonc cul, in Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux, ed. W. Noomen and N. von den Boorgaard, 9 vols. (Assen and Maastricht, 1983-96), 4. See my translation

A lady dresses as a knight to fight for Christ and to avenge her husband's death in Les Prophecies de Merlin, ed. Lucy Allen Paton (London and New York, 1926), 1. Morgain's young cousin also dresses as a knight to help Alexander the Orphan.

Aye of Avignon dresses as a knight to search for the missing members of her family in Tristan de Nanteuil, and fights as well as any male knight; and her grand-daughter-in-law, Blancadine, dresses as a knight and fights so successfully that she is forced to become a man - like Yde.

Yde fights valiantly and very successfully with a lance in Yde et Olive: see the Middle English prose version, The English Charlemagne Romances, part IX: The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, done into English by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in about 1534 AD, ed. S. L. Lee, Part III, Early English Text Society Extra Series, 43 (London, 1884).


Muslim sources; for comparison

In the medieval Persian Alexander romance there is a faithful wife who dresses as a man to save her husband's land, and a young woman who customarily dresses as a warrior and is a better knight than any man; Shah Malik's daughter dresses as a horseman and defeats Turan Malik and her cousin, both outstanding Turkish warriors, on behalf of her husband King Alexander; Queen Araqit of the fairies, Alexander's wife, fights in disguise as a man against Alexander, and the evil wife of the cupbearer disguises herself as a horseman: Iskandarnamah, a Persian medieval Alexander Romance, trans. Minoo S. Southgate (New York, 1978).



These literary depictions assume that the noble woman can fight as well as a man when there is need - without the daily training with the lance and sword which men needed. Are they only a topos, or do they indicate that noble women did train for war? Krijnie Ciggaar has suggested that the medieval 'Ladies Tournament' literature, in which women dressed up and fought as knights, was not a joke or a topos but represented reality: Krijnie Ciggaar, 'La dame combatant: thème épique et thème cortois au temps des croisades', in Aspects de l'épopée romane: mentalités, idéologies, intertexualités, ed. Hans van Dijk and Willem Noomen (Groningen, 1995),pp. 121-30. She argues that as women had to be able to fight in the field in an emergency, they must have trained for battle; and therefore the 'Tournament of Ladies' literature may have some historical basis behind it. See also Valerie Ead's 'Medieval Women and War' page.

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