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Women in Chivalry

What have women to do with Chivalry?  Aren't women in chivalry all of the damsel
in distress variety?  Can women be chivalrous or only the objects of Chivaly?
In point of fact, without women, Chivalry as a way of life would never have come about. 
In the Middle Ages, it was to win the favors of worthy women that men adhered
to a higher standard of social behavior.  Courtesy, honor, generosity and
faithfulness became as important as prowess at arms.  This Code of Chivalry
made a man a knight and worthy of the love of a woman. 
Otherwise, he was just a brute with a sword.

In ancient times, when folk lived in small tribal groups and villages, the keeping
and distributing of the weapons was the charge of the women, specifically
one priestess whose concern was for the safety and protection of the people as a whole.
This woman would hide the weaponry of the tribe in a "mere" or body of water,
marking the location by use of sticks, the placement of which only she could interpret.
Until such time as a man (or men) of exceptional prowess and valor, trustworthy and free
of corrupt personal interest, rose within the tribe, these weapons would remain preserved in the mere.
Only when the priestess judged a man worthy would the arms be retrieved from the water
and he be given them in trust for and in defence of the community.

Hence the legend of the Lady of the Lake and the sword Excaliber.
When the great and trustworthy knight died, the arms would be returned to the water
and watched over by the priestess until the next worthy warrior made himself known.
Thus, the power of ennobling men has always rested in the hands of women.

Renaissance Faire Scottish Shield Maidens


All through history and mythology there are references to female warriors.  While Chivalry per se
is a highly idealized concept of skillful warrior plus adherence to specific standards of conduct
(see The Code of Chivalry page), this doesn't rule out the possiblity of female warriors aspiring (like
many male warriors) to a creed of high moral integrity, i.e. Knighthood. 
Either male or female warriors can be barbaric or chivalrous.  It is a matter of commitment.
The barbarian is self-serving, primative and narrow-minded.  The knight is selfless,
progressive and expansive in his or her world-view.

The warrior as an icon for self-actualization is as old as the hills.  But what does today's warrior wage
war against?  Some warriors fight real physical enemies who strive to kill them.  Some fight
physical challenges and the limitations of their own bodies.  Some fight paper tigers.  Some
fight suffering and despair.  Some fight addiction and depression.  Some fight their fears and
desires.  Since all humans struggle with some or all of the above, all humans can relate to the warrior
icon.  Male or female matters not.  Likewise, male or female, all humans can relate to the icon of
the chivalrous knight in armor battling dragons or giants or rescuing fair maidens. 

In fact, for you women, you can be your own knight in shining armor and rescue the fair maiden
that is you.  What can you rescue yourself from?  Your own self-imposed limitations, the
pre-conceived notions you have about yourself, the societal super-ego which defines your potential,
the controls you have allowed others to place upon you, the fears you have of challenging your
own personal monsters.  Think upon it and you shall discover you have many giants and dragons
to overcome before you feel yourself as a complete and self-sufficient human being.


In the world of historical reenactment (as in the rest of modern society) women are entering into
areas which traditionally were men-only domains.  Tournament swordfighting, jousting, Civil War
soldiering, Cowboy Action shooting, etc., are all seeing more and more women who want to
participate and do the things that primarily men did in the historical time period they are portraying.  
Some guilds or organizations have strict rules about this "gender-bending," others are very laid-back
in their approach.  For the sake of true historical reenactment, it is always best if women participants
engaging in these activities adopt a male persona and attempt to closely actuate the appearance
of maleness.   Appropriate hair length for the period, false beards and mustasches (which, if
well-made, can be very convincing) and other methods of creating a male impression are advised.  

                   Female Reenactor portraying male character                


It is well to remember that women have posed as men all through history as a way
 to improve their lives, participate in war or other vocations or stay close to their male loved ones. 
It is not in itself historically inaccurate to do so, only the ratios differ between historical times and today.

Francis Clayton, AKA Pvt. Frank Martin

For example, in the American Civil War, over 400 women are known to have fought.  More than most
people would guess, but still a small amount when compared with hundreds of thousands of men.
Therefore, a Civil War Reenactment with 25 female soldiers out of a total number of 250 soldiers
would be historically inaccurate.  Best if those women do a hell of a good job passing as men.

But, think of it!  If that many fought between 1860 and 1865 in that one war, how many
more women have fought in all the wars and conflicts in all of world history? 
All of them hiding their gender while surrounded by men and living in the close proximity
of barracks and battle camp.  Besides the known 400, how many more fought
and were never found out?  Amazing!

The one person we all know of who fought openly as a woman, of course, is Joan of Ark. 
Although a popular belief is that Joan was just a figurehead, an inspiration for the French army,
not a true warrior or leader of warriors, real research into the life of this remarkable young woman
disproves this notion.  Her battle plans worked where countless others had failed. She herself
led her troops into the thick of battle and she was wounded twice, at Orleans and at Reims. 
She showed great courage and perserverance, in war and in her persecution and execution.
Stay tuned, I intend to write more of her in my blog (www.blog.21stcenturychivalry.com).

Think of all the female knights of today, doing work that only men did just
 a generation ago.  Women soldiers, airmen and sailors.  Police officers, fire-fighters, paramedics. 
Construction-workers, business owners, corporate CEOs.  The list goes on and the wonderful
thing is, they don't have to hide their gender to do so. 

Sarah Edmonds                         Calamity Jane

They don't have to hide their gender as did Sarah Edmonds, who dressed as a man
in the 1860s to obtain a job as a travelling Bible saleman and later enlisted in the Union Army, serving
well and long in the 2nd Michigan as a soldier of the ranks, horseback messenger, spy and male nurse.
They don't have to hide their gender as did Calamity Jane, who dressed as a man in order to work as a
mule-train driver on the Great Plains in the 1870's.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Europe and Britain had many traditions of women warriors.
Celtic legend tells of the hero Cu Chulainn and his schooling in the ways of war by Scathach, a female
teacher.  In the Welsh tale Mabinogion, the granting of arms to new warriors was a right held
by a woman, Arianrhod by name.  The medieval tale of Kulwch and Olwen tells of groups
 of women warriors living together in secret societies.  In the thirteenth century, it was written
that the Grail knight Percival gained his skill at arms from
three weeks of training with nine priestesses.  

Entire books have been written on the subject of historical women warriors, women such
as Boudika, the Celtic Queen who united the tribes of Britain against the Romans in 61 A.D.,
leading the battle from her brightly-painted war chariot.  Or the women warriors of Mythology,
such as Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who fought hand to hand against Theseus,
 the King of Athens.  Or the Shield Maiden Freya of Scandinavian lore.
My task here is not to cover them all, only to affirm that, yes, women have done these things
as far back in history as you care to look.  Long before feminism, women stepped into men's attire
(including shining armor) and took sword in hand (figuratively or literally), weilding the
weapons of war in defence of home, hearth, King, Queen, nation or political ideal. 
The GI Jane dilemma about "women in combat" which has come to the fore-front during
 the war in Iraq is really nothing new.  In the year 697, the Christian clergy was so alarmed
 by British women marching off to war that they established a law,
the Cain Adamnan, which forbade it.

As we research the lives of women in other time periods, learning about their
challenges and their triumphs, it is good to recognize the freedom we have today in the
Western world, the freedom to choose how we what to live, what work we want to
do, whom we want to marry or not marry at all, how we want to dress, and all the other
freedoms that go along with the "pursuit of happiness," as America's Founders put it.

There are those in the world today who would take those freedoms away from us, and send us
back into the dark times of being merely the property of men to do with as they choose.
We must recognize this truth and be prepared to stand up for women's freedom.

Women living under Sharia law in the Middle East

If you have questions about anything on this webpage or wish to add your own opinions
or perspective on the subject of women in Chivalry, women's rights, women warriors in history
or another pertinent subject, join me on my weblog, www.blog.21stcenturychivalry.com Coming soon.

email: armsmere@21stcenturychivalry.com

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Copyright 2007, Amy Farrell