Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Yes, Women in Dragon Age Could Use Longswords

Robert Rath | 22 Jan 2015 12:15
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Warrior Women in Medieval Europe

In fact, there are quite a few medieval sources that record women fighting in wars. While this sometimes occurred out of desperation, other women fought out of religious or political zeal. In some cases, powerful noblewomen marched with an army at their back.

Women could find themselves brevetted into military service during a siege, for example. Ramon Muntaner, a commander in the Catalan Company, recalled in his chronicle that during a desperate siege against the Genoese he ordered the women of Gallipoli to don armor and take up positions on the walls. "The battle was very hard," Muntaner recalled. "And our women defended the barbacana [outer wall], with stones and pieces of rock which I had had placed on the wall... Indeed, a woman was found there who had five wounds in her face from [crossbow] quarrels and still continued the defense as if she had no hurt." The battle lasted all night, ending when the Catalan mercenaries drove the Genoese back to their ships.

Or consider the case of Margaret of Beverly, a preternaturally unlucky woman whose pilgrimage to Jerusalem coincided with Saladin's capture of the city in 1187. During the attack Margaret rushed to the battlements wearing a man's breastplate and a cauldron for a helmet. For the next fifteen days she defended the walls, fulfilling all the duties of a soldier. "Though a woman, I seemed a warrior," she recalled in her biography. "I threw the weapon. Though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness. It was hot ... I was giving the soldiers at the wall water to drink, when a stone like a millwheel fell near me. I was hit by one of its fragments; my blood ran." Captured during the battle, Margaret paid her ransom and continued traveling the Holy Land for four years. During that time she was captured, enslaved, released, recaptured, sentenced to death, and released again when her piety impressed a Turkish commander. When she finally returned to England, the ordeal had changed her so much that her brother - a monk who wrote down her story - at first thought she was an imposter.

These accounts are only beginning to gain attention from scholars, but the more academics look for them the more they seem to find. A Florentine manuscript describes a female archer who drove away two pirate ships in 1341. Meanwhile, a closer look at the 1381 Peasant's Revolt has revealed that women not only served as political agitators but actually led the violent rioters that stormed London. One woman, Johanna Ferrour, developed a particularly impressive rap sheet: she stole a chest of gold from a duke, burned the Savoy Palace, and led the mobs that beheaded both the royal treasurer and the Lord Chancellor.

Likewise, female military commanders were not unknown in the medieval and Renaissance period, though they often didn't fight themselves. Joan of Arc is the obvious example, but the most pertinent one would be Matilda of Canossa, an Italian noblewoman predominantly known for her military victories. Matilda supported the reformist Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, fighting a series of battles with papal enemies including Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Matilda's armies were the one thing standing between Henry and Rome, and for sixteen years the two slugged it out over the papal seat before Matilda sent Henry packing across the Alps. At one point, Matilda even served as the de facto voice of the papacy after Henry captured Rome and installed a competing pope. It's important to note that generals didn't manage these victories either - Matilda rode at the head of her army in a custom suit of armor and commanded battles in person. Her defense of the papacy became so legendary that she became the first woman entombed in St. Peter's Basilica.

And Matilda wasn't alone, there were other women who held important political positions during wartime. Margaret of Anjou led the Lancastrian faction for several years during the Wars of the Roses (and inspired the character of Cersei Lannister), proving a talented if ultimately unsuccessful wartime leader. Indeed, some historical documents from Italy list abbesses among the nobles who provided troops, meaning landed women may have had a larger role than previously thought in raising and preparing military units for warfare.

Given this legacy of women serving in and leading medieval militaries, I feel like the women in Dragon Age who're sitting around council tables, leading troops and swinging longswords are right where they belong.

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