Women warriors abound in fantasy novels because really…who wants to read about a woman who spins and weaves and cooks and cleans? But is there any historical basis for these characters?
Who hasn’t heard of Boudicca, the woman who led a revolt of the Iceni tribe against the invading Romans in first century Britain? Her name even passes spellcheck and the word bodacious is a direct reference to her. Her name conjures visions of a red-maned goddess brandishing a spear and clothed in the tartans of the British tribes who suffered rape along with her daughters at the hands of centurions. Boudicca exacted revenge not only upon those men, but the Roman governor as well. She led the largest revolt against Roman occupation ever organized by the locals. But was she an anomaly?
Every culture has its legendary warrior women from the samurai Hangaku Gozen to the Amazon queen Camilla and the shield maiden Lagertha, wife of Ragnar Lodbrok. But current thought is these women were exceptions rather than representative of a warrior class. Yet the writings of many Romans clearly state otherwise.
Diodorus Siculus describes Gaulish woman as “…nearly as tall as the men, whom they rival in courage.” And Ammianus Marcellinus claims, “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Gaul] in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.”
Have you heard of Gwendolen of Cornwall? She is remembered by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. Divorced by her husband Locrinus in favor of his mistress, Gwendolen raised an army while he was off on a dalliance. When he returned to his kingdom, Gwendolen unleashed a shit storm near the river Stour, killed Locrinus, and proclaimed herself “king”. After drowning Locrinus’ daughter by his mistress, Gwendolen ruled in peace and left her throne to her son.
How about Maeve of Connaught? Although many scholars conclude this queen of west Ireland was possibly a sovereignty goddess (a topic I plan to address in another post), there is still much to learn from the tale. She had the ability to divorce her husband (she had many), a feat that was difficult for Roman wives, she took many lovers while married, and not only started, but fought in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Maeve is representative of the Celtic legal system in which women entered into marriage as a social contract, equal to their husbands. They held property, took lovers, and divorced with the same freedom as men, and went to battle when required. So, mythical or not, Maeve’s life gives us a glimpse of Celtic women of the Iron Age.
Celtic women enjoyed a sexual freedom unknown in the Mediterranean world. In fact, Cassius Dio noted an exchange between the wife of a British chieftain and the empress Julia Augusta in which the chieftain’s wife stated, “We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest."
Women enjoyed equal social status until the coming of Christianity. In the 7th century, Irish monk Adomnán penned the “Law of Innocents.” By his account, women were forced to go to war:
"The work which the best of women had to do, was to go
to battle and battlefield, encounter and camping, fighting and hosting,
wounding and slaying. On one side of her she would carry her bag
of provisions, on the other her babe. Her wooden pole upon her back.
Thirty feet long it was, and had at one end an iron hook, which she
would thrust into the tress of some woman in the opposite battalion.
Her husband behind her, carrying a fence-stake in his hand, and
flogging her on to battle. For at that time it was the head of a woman,
or her two breasts, which were taken as trophies."
Adomnán claims that when he came upon the scene that follows, he was inspired to change the plight of women. He writes:
"Though they beheld the battlefield, they saw nothing more
touching or more pitiful than the head of a woman in one place and
the body in another, and her little babe upon the breasts of the corpse,
a stream of milk upon one of its cheeks, and a stream of blood upon
A horrific scene, to be sure, and clearly women warriors were commonplace. Adomnán’s intent was to protect non-combatants during war, forbidding soldiers from killing women, children, the elderly or religious and to prohibit women from taking up arms. Adomnán is often heralded as the bringer of civilization to Irish Brehon law, but it has been argued that he also brought the first gender-biased social system to the last bastion of Celtic society. Soon after, women stayed at home and spun and wove and cooked and cleaned, lost the right to own property, to divorce, or to inherit their husband’s land.
It’s no wonder we love to write and read about the warrior women.