Friday, February 26, 2016

Women Warriors

By Mark Noce

This topic has gotten controversial in recent years, as archaeologists and historians reexamine the historical record in order to identify a history of female warriors across the British Isles. What specifically am I talking about here?

Well, believe it or not, years ago archaeologists identified bodies in very simplistic ways. For instance, if the skeleton had armor on it was considered male and if it had something resembling a dress it was considered female. But recent bone forensics have turned this old time notion on its head, as several instances of female skeletons have been identified from various eras decked out in full armor or with various weapons. So what’s it all mean?

To some, the facts have been staring us in the face all this time. Even written records from the days of Caesar down through the Renaissance depict women going into battle beside men, but many of these remarks were dismissed as exaggeration or even as outright satire. Others have opted for a middle path, suggesting that women in various eras did go into combat beside men, but that these were rare instances. There are several eras of British history, however, that point to a larger cultural involvement of women warriors across Britain and Ireland.

Firstly, the Celts. It’s no secret that women held equal sway with men in ancient Celtic society. An ancient chariot burial unearthed in Yorkshire identified a Celtic woman buried in full battle dress along with her chariot. Both a wealthy woman and one clearly accustomed to using a sword. In west Ireland, an even older grave identified a female skeleton buried with her bow, war horse, and the hide of a red stag. Clearly, these aren’t just one-off instances. Such cultural practices may have even continued into the medieval era in regions where Celtic culture remained strong, such as Wales and Scotland.

Secondly, the Viking era, surprisingly is revealing more and more female skeletons buried in Norse armor throughout the British Isles. The Scandinavian Sagas are replete with tales of Shieldmaidens that until recently were written off as fanciful storytelling, but now it seems that hardly a Viking ship set out without at least one or two women warriors abroad it. Some historians have posited that the rough and tumble Vikings didn’t include women on their raids because they necessarily believed in equality, but because it made sense to utilize as much of their population as possible in order to continue their aggressive expansion into Northern and eventually Southern Europe.

Thirdly, one doesn’t have to look into ancient history to see women contributing to a war effort. Just look at the FANYs and WAAFs who served Britain in uniform during World War II. Some even ended up in dangerous Resistance work as part of SOE (Special Operations Executive) fighting the Nazis behind enemy lines. In one form or another, well over half a million young women served as auxiliaries for the UK during WWII, doing everything from driving trucks to wireless operations to working in factories.



Is it really that difficult to imagine that women have served as warriors throughout the many centuries of human habitation across Britain?

I think that in the years to come both archaeology and historical analysis will only reveal more and more evidence that women warriors have played an integral part in shaping the fate of the British Isles to this day.

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Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.

Learn more at marknoce.com or preorder his novel here.





23 comments:

  1. I'm sure there were many women warriors throughout the ages. Certainly no surprise the Vikings had women warriors. One had to be tough to survive that culture.

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  2. Definitely! I really like the way they portrayed shieldmaidens in the Viking TV series on the history channel. They were tough, realistic, yet still feminine all at once. Very cool:)

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  3. As an Army veteran (yes, I know this is a modern age), I can totally see it. What I find more curious is when that stopped. And why.

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  4. Very good point! I think it has a lot to do with the practicality of a situation, i.e. in peacetime (in a given society) men might discourage women from the military, but during a large conflict (i.e. think of Russia in WWII) the "manpower" depletion means that you are going to need women and lots of them in order to literally carry on your war effort. Food for thought:)

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  5. Yes, women certainly got to do a lot of things - on the home front as well as in the armed forces during the two world wars - that they weren't allowed to do in peacetime, then it was back to the kitchen afterwards.

    The women warriors in Nordic culture were no surprise to Tolkien, whose warrior heroine Eowyn is part of an Anglo/Saxon culture, the Riders of Rohan. Nobody is surprised at her skills and when she disguises as a man to follow the army, it's implied that the soldiers know perfectly well who she is, even if her family members don't!

    And there were women on both sides of the American Civil War who disguised themselves so they could fight. I don't think Harriet Tubman even bothered to disguise when she fought for the Union!

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    1. Eowyn is definitely once of Tolkien's most intriguing characters:) And I the American Civil War is endlessly fascinating as well:)

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  6. Thank you for the interesting post, Mark. Being a Brit, I am very proud to learn more about my heritage. I wouldn't be surprised if there were women Warriors in my heritage. The women in my family are strong willed, intelligent and 'go getters'. Mind you, since focusing completely on my writing career, my armour is well battered! But I'm still standing (all 5'3" of me) :) Have a great weekend and thank you for sharing.

    I look forward to hearing more in the lead up to your novel.

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    1. I don't know about you, but I'd be very wary of a 5'3" warrior...pretty much any swing of their sword would be right in my vulnerable "kill zone." Danger come sin many forms;)

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  7. There are a few female soldiers from the English Civil War: Some of the recorded cases of “she soldiers” include a newspaper report of July 1642 (before the war began) of a young girl disguising herself to be near her lover; and in November 1645 Major-General Poyntz of the New Model Army reported capturing a female corporal among the royalist prisoners.
    The most famous, Anne Dymocke, came from Lincolshire yeoman stock. In 1655 she disguised herself as a man to remain with her boyfriend, John Evison. They had not been allowed to marry by her family so they ran off and posed as brothers for two years. Following John’s 1657 death, she enlisted as a soldier using his name. Her disguise was only uncovered in Ayr, Scotland. Contemporary reports speak highly of her “modesty”.

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    1. Fascinating stuff, Sally! Thanks for sharing:)

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  8. I just remembered two more from the English Civil War: Lady Charlotte la Tremouille Stanley, Countess of Derby and her household left the siege of Lathom House near Bolton in 1644.

    And Lady Mary Bankes withstood the siege of Corfe Castle in 1645.

    Both were worthy warriors.

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  9. I've always thought it made sense that there would be women warriors. People don't stop being willing to fight for survival or ambition etc just because they're women. People are people.

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    1. I couldn't agree more...hopefully more and more historians will agree as well as time goes by.

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  10. It's not difficult at all to imagine women as warriors throughout history. The women were equally as tough as the men. Wonderful article, Mark!

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    1. Thanks! Growing up in my family, I've never had much difficulty picturing warrior women:)

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  11. I'm sure that there were women warriors throughout the ages. We had Rani of Jhansi and several others, in times of war many queens were said to have fought alongside their husbands.

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  12. My grandmother once told me there was no sexism on a farm- everyone worked because the work had to be done. So, I'm not at all surprised that women went into battle. When there is a need, prejudices are dropped and people work together.

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    1. Very well put! You definitely need everyone on a farm too:)

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  13. Women can be darned aggressive when stirred to protect something. It's interesting that archeologists are only now coming up with these discoveries to support what we kind of knew already.

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    1. Believe it or not, there are still archaeologists resisting this...I was in Crete a few years ago where I could see evidence of matriarchal ruins for myself at Knossos and Phaistos, but the Greek scholars there still insisted that women held no power in Minoan society. I was pretty flabbergasted to say the least.

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  14. Awesome. It's true that in any age where men have been at war, women have been at war. Of course there would be women battling along side the men. I was stoked when I first read about the whole archaeological discovery. It definitely puts history in a different perspective, eh?

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  15. It does indeed. Actual physical evidence! :)

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