The belief that professional female warriors may have been common in the ancient world is a modern myth or meme which owes much of its popularity to the internet – and very little to the historical or archaeological records of antiquity. While some individual women did hold considerable power as aristocratic leaders in their own right during the Classical and Medieval periods (though usually through their families or partners) very few indeed were actual wielders of sword and spear. The reason for this were not just societal or cultural but also practical. Given the expected domestic and maternal roles of women and girls in largely agrarian societies, most were denied the opportunity to acquire the martial skills or physical stamina needed to compete in hand-to-hand combat. Especially against almost exclusively male opponents.
Even among the Celtic peoples, where indigenous literary descriptions of heroines and warrioresses were somewhat more common, most references were to legendary figures rather than to historical ones. Indeed some early Christian writers in Ireland – the monastic grandchildren of “pagan” converts – clearly used the presence of female warleaders as a narrative motif or device to highlight the exotic nature of the pre-Christian stories they were composing or elaborating upon. It did not necessarily mean that it was common at the time of writing or that it had been so in recent centuries. The proselytising authors had one eye on creating a morality tale for their largely illiterate audiences as well as entertaining them.
Of course, all this is not say that female individuals in antiquity had no participation whatsoever in warfare. Obviously there would have been extreme occasions when women and girls took up arms to defend themselves and their communities against immediate attack (taking part in offensive actions on the other hand must have been uncommon). However dedicated female warriors would have been a rarity in almost all societies. Aside from periods during the Classical and Late Medieval eras, ancient warfare was primarily the preoccupation of affluent nobles and their retinues. Even in Ireland, where manuscript references to banlaochra, banféinnithe and other gendered military roles were not infrequent, women fighters were the exception and not the rule (hence the eachlacha, female messengers or couriers associated with the largely male fianna or “hunter-warrior bands”, were usually equated with prostitutes by the disapproving Medieval scribes who recorded their existence).
This leads me to this blog post by Judith Jesch, a Professor of Viking Studies, discussing the somewhat sensationalist reporting about a supposed Medieval female warrior uncovered by researchers in Sweden. As you might expect, all is not as it appears; or has been claimed to appear.
To put my cards on the table, I will say that I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires. At the same time, I also think it is interesting to debate these matters and I am happy to do so (although not with the type of people who write UTL words to the effect of ‘I just KNOW there were women warriors in the Viking Age’). I try to keep an open mind, but I also get very frustrated by what I consider to be academic discourse that seems to be mostly concerned with grabbing attention in order to facilitate further funding and/or claim ‘impact’.
Read the whole thing.