Lest a Fool be Believed

A Response to “Zero women can fight with a Sword”

The ahistorical and no doubt purposefully inflammatory drivel a conservative critic leveled at women fighting in the Netflix show “The Witcher” is undeserving of quotation. I’ll not share anything the ape said save what you read in the title. Interested parties can see the notes if they have the stomach for more—I will note that Forbes.com, which addressed this issue too, did cite the excellent example of London Longsword run by Dave Rawlings who, if you know him, would be (and was) quick to correct the ignorant critic (if you happen to see this, Hi Dave!  =) [1]

The problem with poor excuses for Y chromosomes like this critic is that they have an audience. The pathetic incels who never leave their parents’ basements are one problem, but here I wish to address everyone else, general audiences with more wit, who might read that review and assume there is any veracity to it. There isn’t. I state this as both fencer and historian. A quick search online would’ve been enough to dispel Mr. Manly Man how incorrect his assessment of women using swords is, but it’s doubtful he cares. His point had nothing to do with truth or history and everything to do with pandering to his equally insecure base.  Bad press is press, right?

Ella Hattan, “La Jaguarina”

There has been, rightly, enormous outcry about this. This is a good thing. Importantly, it’s not only been female fencers and fighters who’ve been quick to share examples of women with swords, but many of their male counterparts too. Now, more than ever, it is important for men—especially middle-aged white men like me—to stand up for their female colleagues and shout down the stupid. It’s as important as defending other historically marginalized colleagues such as People of Color and our comrades who are LGBT.

I know, firsthand, how difficult it can be trying to be an ally, but it’s important. You might also have difficulty overcoming how you look (something healthy for us old white dudes to experience from time to time); you might have someone’s unfortunate experiences with bad men grafted onto you, but that is part of advocacy. Not everyone sees you as an ally and some actively resent it. Some people will be happier using you as a convenient whipping post, especially if they’re unable to go after the men at work or in their families who have mistreated them. We all filter everything through our own experience. Do the right thing anyway.

Knowing my limitations, and my bailiwick, I’m trying to do my part as best I can. I tend to see my efforts to be a part of the solution as stumbling my way towards advocacy; I don’t claim to have all the answers or even most of them. But, I know A LOT of women who fence, as many if not more in martial arts generally, and I’ve been fighting alongside women since I first started studying the Art. As a colleague of female fencers, as the coach to several, I feel a responsibility to stand by them, and for the younger women I coach to serve as a good example.

I cannot and should not attempt to speak for women. However, I can hold up examples, ancient and modern, that put the half-baked notions of third-rate conservative critics in their proper light. The focus here will be on women and swords pre-20th century.

Women and Swords in History & Early Literature

Herakles fighting the Amazons, ca. 520 BCE, MET Museum

There are a number of excellent examples in the historical record and in heroic literature. Granted, saga is not history, but it’s a repository of values, a glimpse into what a culture holds dear, how it sees itself or wishes to see itself. Greek authors—among them Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and Diodorus of Sicily all mention the “Amazons.” Of note, while many are said to have lived in central Eurasia, Diodorus cites an example from what is today Libya. In each case, by the way, we have some evidence to suggest that these were not mere tales, but based at least in part on fact. Archaeology bears this out. For example, in the last twenty years archaeologists in the Ukraine have studied the graves of over 300 female warriors. The graves are replete with weapons, some contain horse sacrifices, and there is clear evidence from the human remains that these women used these weapons. The bulk of the graves date to the 7th cen. BCE too suggesting that Homer yet again drew from actual fact in his tale of Troy.

Skull with metal head-dress pieces, from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archeology

The Amazons mentioned in Classical stories are not isolated. Irish literature’s most celebrated warrior, Cú Chulainn, was trained by two female fight-masters, Scathach and Aoife. The most important Irish war deity, the Morrigan, one of a triad, was a goddess (as were the rest of the triad, Badb and Nemain). The Scandinavian Valkyries (possibly influenced by these Irish deities) were the female warriors of Odin who selected the valiant dead for Valhalla. The connection between female deities and war was widespread, as evidenced by the Greek Athena and Near Eastern Ishtar to name only two. Though perhaps less common than in saga (Medh jumps to mind) there are accounts of women among the Celts leading armies, most famously Boudicca (who led a revolt in Britain against Rome in the mid-first century CE). [2]

To this early evidence we can add several medieval and early modern exemplars who either fought or led troops. Here, in brief synopsis, are a few:

Sichelgaita of Salerno

The wife of the Norman leader Robert Guiscard, Sichelgaita is best known for her role in rallying the fleeing Norman soldiers at the Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081. According to the Byzantine chronicler Anna Comnena, she confronted her fellow soldiers and urged them to stop fleeing. “As they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and charged at full gallop against them. It brought them to their senses and they went back to fight.” Another chronicler adds that she was wounded by an arrow during the battle, but the Normans were able to defeat the Byzantines. A further look at her career finds that she took part in and commanded sieges and was more involved in her husband’s military activities than was previously known.

Joanna of Flanders

Joanna of Flanders, the Siege of Hennebont

Joanna was known for her defense of the town of Hennebont in Brittany, against Charles, Count of Blois. After he had captured and imprisoned Joanna’s husband, he marched against the town in 1342. Joanna led the defense of the town. The chronicler Jean le Bel writes that “the brave countess was armed and armored and rode on a large horse from street to street, rallying everyone and summoning them to join the defense. She had asked the women of the town, the nobles as well as the others, to bring stones to the walls and to throw these on the attackers, as well as pots filled with lime.” The key moment of the siege was when she led 300 men out of Hennebont and burned down the enemy camp. She gained the nickname ‘Fiery Joanna’ for this feat. Joanna was able to hold off the besiegers until English troops arrived and forced the Count of Blois to retreat.

Jeanne Hachette

Jeanne “Hatchet” Laisne earned her nick-name defending Beauvais from the soldiers of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1472. Like many women in the town, Jeanne grabbed a weapon to help defend the walls. She inspired her fellow defenders and famously fought against Charles’ standard-bearer.

Caterina Sforza

The Countess of Forli once said “if I must lose because I am a woman, I want to lose like a man.” A bold Italian noblewoman, Caterina was heavily involved in the papal politics of the late 15th century. Although her defense against a Venetian attack earned her the nickname ‘The Tiger of Forli’, in 1499 Pope Alexander VI sent his son Cesare Borgia to conquer her lands. Although she led a stout defense of Forli, she was eventually captured and taken back to Rome as a trophy.

Julie d’Aubigny

Julie d’Aubigny, Illus. attrib. to Henri Bonnart

Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th cen. singer, actress, and swordswoman. Her father was a secretary to the Comte d’Armagnac, King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, and an expert fencer who trained court pages at the Grande Écurie. He trained his daughter alongside the boys. Her career as a fencer is fascinating. At one point, after having run away from her lover (as well as a husband conveniently posted to the provinces), she worked with a fencing master and in men’s clothing assisted him with public demonstrations. When questioned about her sex, she removed her top to a stunned crowd. Perhaps her most famous encounter was a duel with three men at one time—once again in men’s clothing, she kissed a woman on the dance floor and was challenged. She beat all three.

Ella Hattan, “La Jaguarina”

Ella Hattan was born in 1859 in Ohio. She was a professional actress, but a trained fencer as well. She was a student of Colonel Thomas Monstery, a famous mercenary fencing master, and pugilist. Ever the actress, Hattan created “La Jaguarina,” a modern Amazon, and sought out men to fight in different fencing engagements. In 1888 she fought a mounted sabre duel with a Captain Weidermann, and dominated the entire bout. [3]

Women in Early Fight Texts

Walpurgis MS I.33, 32 recto

To the compelling evidence of women known to have fought we can add the evidence from extant fight manuals. Walpurgis, the female fighter in the earliest known western text about swordplay, Ms I 33, the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, heads the list. This collection of instructions for fighting with sword and buckler hails from early 14th century Germany and now resides in the archives of the Royal Armouries at Leeds. Significantly, Walpurgis, like the two other figures illustrated in the manuscript (the monk and scholar), is depicted fighting. She is not a spectator. She’s not serving refreshing mugs of beer or cheering them on. She is one of them, a fighter. [4]

MS Thott. 290.2º, 82 recto

If you think she is an isolated case consider other well-known fight-books from Germany, perhaps most famously Talhoffer’s 1459 Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2º) which was produced in 1459. The images from 80 recto to 84 recto depict a woman engaged in a judicial duel with a man. With little explanation provided (the accompanying descriptions are terse) it can be difficult to appreciate what one sees here. Let’s start with the fact that women could fight judicial duels. Then consider that in these images we see her using not only a type of flail, but wrestling. In 82r she breaks his neck using the flail; in 82v he wins. However one look at this it’s clear that the female fighter is not completely out of her element. The man may start the fight in a small pit, but as we see their duel progress this woman clearly understands what she is doing, advantage or no. [5]

Women Fighting with Swords Today

Just as they have for centuries, many women in the modern world learn how to use swords (among other weapons), and, are damn good at it. Pick any field of fencing—Olympic, Classical/Historical, SCA, armored combat—and you will find women not only fighting, but teaching. There are organizations like Esfinges, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting women in historical fencing, and even events for women only. Women can and do fight with swords.

As fencers, as members of a small population often working in isolation, it’s on us to help dispel the misinformation so often associated with the Art, even when, as in this case, it’s obvious that the author’s comments were rhetoric intended for his own specious causes.

It may take different forms, we may pursue it differently, but the Art is for everyone.

NOTES:

[1] See among myriad recent responses https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2020/01/07/zero-women-can-fight-with-a-sword-claims-the-witcher-critic/#462c21751d8e. London Longsword, https://www.londonlongsword.com/

[2] For references in these authors, see for example Homer, “The Iliad,” 3.189, 6.186; Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound,” §707 in Aeschylus, Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth, Loeb Classical Library Volumes 145 & 146, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1926; Herodotus, The Histories, IV: 110-117. For Cú Chulainn’s training and relationship with the goddess(es) of war see especially, Cecile O’ Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge, Recension 1, Dublin, IR: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976; see also the excellent entries on the Morrigan et al in James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998. For Boudicca’s revolt, key sources are Tacitus, The Annals, XIV, and Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII: 1-2.

For a recent discussion of the “Amazons,” see https://www.npr.org/2020/01/12/795661047/remains-of-ancient-female-fighters-discovered. See also V.I. Guliaev, Amazons in the Scythia: New Finds at the Middle Don, Southern Russia,” in World Archaeology 35 (2003): 1, 112-125; Lyn Webster Wilde, On the Trail of the Woman Warriors: The Amazons in Myth and History, New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 1999.

For the Libyan example, see Diodorus Siculus, World History, 3.52-53; see also W.F.G. Lacroix, Africa in Antiquity: A Linguistic and Toponymic Analysis of Ptolemy’s Map of Africa, Saarbrücken: Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik, 1998.

[3] https://www.medievalists.net/2014/07/ten-medieval-warrior-women/. See especially the list of works consulted to produce this article (scroll down and you’ll find them).

For Julie d’Aubigny, a great resource in English is Kelly Gardiner’s website. She wrote a novel about d’Aubigny, Goddess, but did extensive research on her subject first. Cf. https://kellygardiner.com/fiction/books/goddess/the-real-life-of-julie-daubigny/

For La Jaguarina, see https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/la-jaguarina/; https://www.northatlanticbooks.com/blog/womens-history-spotlight-jaguarina-and-colonel-monstery/; Ken Mondschein, in Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017, 171ff, discusses Hattan as well.

[4] See for example Folio 32r, https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Walpurgis_Fechtbuch_(MS_I.33)#/media/File:MS_I.33_32r.jpg. See also Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33, Union City, CA: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003; Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand, Medieval Sword and Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, Union City, CA: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2010.

[5] See for example https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Talhoffer_Fechtbuch_(MS_Thott.290.2%C2%BA). See also Hans Talhoffer, Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat, Translated and Edited by Mark Rector, London, UK: Greenhill Books, 1998.

Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion

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While not universal, there’s a general tendency toward inclusion in historical fencing, and where I live—the Pacific Northwest—it’s become a key part of our fencing culture. It will surprise no one that I value inclusion—hard to favor collaborative teaching and learning if one doesn’t. Now more than ever perhaps it’s important to know where one stands—in the US, beset as it is with the reemergence of public racism among other evils, the lines are increasingly drawn in sharper contrast. This may help delineate the various positions well, but as someone trying to support, encourage, and create a safe place for people to train, I worry about this, because there is inclusion, and, then there’s the semblance of inclusion.

One reason I think about this is that as a middle-aged white hetero male I can rest in my privilege or use it for good. I’d like to do the latter. Lip-service to a position or cause is not enough. We have to live it, be the example, take the sometimes unpopular step and suffer whatever eye-rolling, insults, or worse come our way. To do this well, to “show up” as it were, means we need to be self-aware and mindful about what we’re doing. It’s easy enough to post a nicely-worded “we like everyone” mission statement, but in terms of the day-to-day operation of a sala, what does that look like? How do we actually do that? I don’t have all the answers, and will happily direct people to those I know, even obliquely, who have more answers than I do, but the instances in which this has come up for me have been instructive and might resonate with others.[1] Even asking the question honestly “am I doing this right? Could I be doing it better?” can be useful.

This came up for me in a powerful way this week. If you follow historical fencing in any of its guises via social media you may have seen a letter several mid-west schools put together announcing their disassociation with a former member. I am close friends with people who know some of the principals and have details that many people do not, but, between the integrity of these friends and the fact that so many schools took the time to produce this document it’s difficult to see this as some species of personal blacklisting. Their concerns appear legitimate. To this I would add that several women have come forward—they have nothing to gain in doing so.

I help manage a facebook page where the head admin posted the letter in question.[2] It generated some good discussion. One politely expressed response asked if this was fair, if it wasn’t breaking the notion of innocent until proven guilty. Both the head admin and myself responded, each of us in our own way explaining why we shared the letter. We’ve worked hard to make that page, the largest on fb for historical and classical sabre, a safe place and to date it has been a relatively fireworks free zone. That’s something to brag about in historical fencing circles: with over 3,000 people and as many opinions and ideas, only creating a safe place prevents the blow-ups, so often ill-handled, we see on a lot of other pages. Okay, self-congratulations aside, this is important—the point is that we do much to create our culture. A fb page is not a court of law—we don’t decide whether the guy accused of numerous inappropriate actions is guilty or not—but we have a responsibility to our members to keep them safe. We have a lot of women on that page, and if ONE woman is spared having to suffer the creepy stuff this guy has reportedly done, then it was worth posting. You may not agree, and that’s fine, but if you don’t my guess is that you’re most likely male.

This incident also got me thinking about the ways we “show up” as allies day to day. A lot of people are quick to say we should be supportive, even more people are quicker to tell us how they think we’re failing at it, but few people are giving out practical advice. I’m stumbling my way toward advocacy and being a good ally, so I don’t have a ton of advice, but I have some, and the one important piece is to consider the ways we silently, unintentionally undermine underrepresented groups in our clubs. Here I will focus on women, but this same question pertains to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other underrepresented people.

Women in Historical Fencing

Hoosier State Chronicles women fencers

Though much has changed in the Olympic world, traditionally it’s been less inclusive to women, and I’ve been fencing long enough I’ve watched some of these changes myself. There was no women’s sabre when I started fencing; there is now. My college team, even our division, didn’t have options other than foil for women until the mid- to late-1990s. Historical fencing, on the other hand, is a movement that has, from the start, had skilled female martial artists in its ranks. I’ve had the good fortune to work with, take classes from, meet, and bout some of these fencers. Looking around most of my fellow students accept this as natural. There are exceptions, and even in the PNW, despite its rep, I’ve witnessed some hullabaloo particularly where LGBT fencers are concerned.

Aww, ain’t she Cute with her Little Sword?

I cannot speak for women, but I can relate what I’ve seen and heard, and share how we’ve handled it. One major way I think we fail at inclusion with women is that we too often fail to recognize that letting them in the door, having them in the class, doesn’t automatically mean we’re being inclusive. Many male instructors don’t take women as seriously, or, without realizing it marginalize them in a way they don’t their male students. Some of this is latent “little lady syndrome,” and often the men don’t even know they’re doing it. More often than not the men I’ve seen do this are fierce proponents of equality and women’s rights. They’re good people. We are, however, all products of the society we live in, and it will out at times, good and bad.

Little-lady Syndrome takes different forms.[3] One of the most common expressions of it is treating younger women serious about the Art as somehow “cute,” not in the physical attractiveness sense, but in the sense of “Aww, isn’t it cute that this little thing is playing swords,” as if it is unnatural that a woman should find fighting or weapons appealing. What example are we setting in treating a young woman in such a way? If we belittle her time, effort, and passion for the Art, how are we helping her achieve, build confidence, how are we helping her grow? I’d argue that we’re not only failing to help her grow treating her this way, but we’re normalizing, reinforcing an old, nasty patriarchal form of condescension.

Another expression, more often aimed at older women, is to treat them like Nanny McFee. Sure, maybe they’re mothers, maybe they’re good at managing a bunch of people, but she is there to fence, not babysit. If either of these examples makes you smirk, then ask yourself how often you hear or see similar things directed at either younger men or older men. No one asks the Stay-at-home-Dad to play den mother; no one looks at the awkward teen boy and thinks “aww, he and his sword are so cute!”


Hey Baby, Nice Sabre

1912

Another, often easier to spot failure is the ways in which some male instructors cross personal boundaries. The most egregious is what we called the “foil lesson” in college where a jackass would “help” a new fencer adjust her hips, be effusive in support, all of that, and yet it was obvious his intentions had less to do with fencing. That isn’t okay. But there are more subtle ways this can happen too. As a general rule, if you are the instructor, maintain a level, unisex professionalism with everyone. Always ask permission to touch someone, even if it is “only” adjusting someone’s arm. If hip or leg alignment is off, explain it, demonstrate it, and have them imitate you until they get it right. Some instructors use a stick or rebated weapon like a foil to point out similar issues, but for my part I’d rather take the time talking about corrections and fine-tuning than poking or pointing at people.

Just as one never touches another without permission, and then only as relevant to training, there are also things we just don’t say. It’s okay to notice someone’s attractiveness, of course, but there are guidelines for what and how we express it. The best way is don’t—you’re there to teach, not hook up. This doesn’t mean you have to be cold and unfriendly, just appropriate. If a fencer has a new pair of knickers, “hey cool, new stuff!” is arguably better than “damn… those look good on you.” If in doubt, let them bring it up first, “hey, I got new knickers, what do you think?” Asking about fit, comfort, or where they bought them are usually safe. Not bringing it up at all is perfectly acceptable too, and in my opinion, preferable. If one of your fencers brings up new knickers, fine, respond appropriately, but best not to initiate that. Focus on the Art.

Sometimes a student may be flirtatious with an instructor, and here especially it is vital to maintain your professionalism. Don’t take the bait, don’t bite; and if there’s mutual attraction then that is something to handle outside the sala. It’s a slippery slope, though, and the best advice is to avoid, always, student/teacher romance. If the cheesy B-movie examples on the Lifetime channel or mugshots of high-school teachers gone wrong shared in newspapers aren’t enough deterrent, then consider the health and longevity of your school. It might not seem like a big deal, but sometimes when these relationships end it’s messy, like lose your community, friends, reputation, and sanity messy. [4]

It goes without saying, but in no circumstances is it ever, ever okay to flirt with or in any other way act inappropriately with a minor. The lowest circle of hell is reserved for such people.

The Golden Rule as Applied to Inclusion

The best thing we can do before acting or saying anything is think about it. Be mindful. Before you ask that mother of three to “mind the kids” reflect—would you ask a man to do that? Before you offer an “attagirl” to the teenager who just made a sweet move, reflect—what’s the best way to compliment her choice of action? How would I phrase the same question to a boy her age? If you find that your response is different, pause, and then rethink your words.

I try to use neutral language as much as possible, both here (when I use they/them rather that third person singular pronouns), and, in class. There are many ways to correct, compliment, encourage, and explain things without resorting to language that can alienate. It isn’t hard either; it’s an easy thing to do and honors the diversity around us while reducing the chance of hurting someone’s feelings. No, I don’t step on egg-shells, but I’ve been approached, in confidence, a few times by people, young and old, too uncomfortable to talk to an instructor on their own. Even the most well-meaning humor or attention can sometimes misfire. I’ve always encouraged those same people to talk with their instructor, I’ve even offered to go with them, and in most cases I’ve tried, quietly, subtly, behind the scenes to help (and yes, that was a failure most of the time). If you are having problems with an instructor, be direct and polite, but let them know. Any instructor worth the name will be horrified they’ve upset you and will seek to make it right.

Integrity as Instructors

800px-Baldassare_Castiglione,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio ca 1514-1515
Baldassare Castiglione, portrait by Raphael ca. 1514-1515

We all mess up. We’re human, it will happen, but what you do, how you handle that mistake is everything. Own it. Make it right. Sometimes, and I speak from experience, trying to do the right things will not fix much; sometimes it can make things even worse, but it’s still the right thing to do. We talk a lot about honor, integrity, fair play, largesse, chivalry, and a host of other lofty virtues in historical martial arts. There is value in these ideals; they can guide us to our better selves, and, make us better teachers. So far as I know none of our authorities, not Lull, Gower, de Charny, nor Castiglione ever suggested these were easy values to observe or practice; most things worth pursing aren’t easy.[5]

Our job as instructors goes beyond imparting technique and tactics; we are there to build people up, to help them improve in a skill-set they enjoy. In a way, we are doing our own tiny part to help them be who they want to be. We don’t want to do anything, wittingly or unwittingly, that undermines that. To minimize the chances that we do, we must be mindful, we must consider our behavior, our words, our actions. We lead by example, set the tone, and determine the safety of our salas, so, do it right.


NOTES:

[1] The good folk at Valkyrie WMAA are one such resource (see “Accessibility” under the About Us menu option: http://boxwrestlefence.com/valkyriewmaa/

[2] Military and Classical Sabre–there are currently almost 3500 people following the page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1454534811515787/

[3] There are few places, alas, I’ve not seen this, but some of it comes down to age breakdowns. In fairness to my own age cadre some of the worst offenders are elderly instructors who have a different sense of propriety. I’m not excusing it, merely stating it. There are, however, plenty of men much younger that make this mistake too.

[4] Our culture can be dangerously wishy-washy about this. Some of the best advice I received was when I was student teaching in university–during office hours, always leave the door open; don’t date students in your class; etc. This might seem obvious, but… there were problem children in my department. As the instructor you have a duty to teach; mixing that with romance is a very bad idea. Don’t do it. 

[5] For more on the authors mentioned:

Ramón Lull/Raymond Lull (d. 1316), was a polymath and the author of The Book of the Order of Chivalry (ca. 1276), a widely disseminated work on the history and ethics of knighthood.

Geoffroi de Charny (d. 1356) was a French knight and the author of several works on Chivalry, probably the most well-known being The Book of Chivalry. He died in defense of the French standard at the Battle of Poitiers.

John Gower (d. ca. 1408), English poet, covered aspects of chivalry in his Confessio Amantis and Vox Clamantis.

Baldassare Castiglione (d. 1529), held many offices in his lifetime, first with the Dukes of Urbino, and later with the Vatican. His brilliant Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, has long been cited as one of the key works for the idea of the “renaissance man.”