This article is expanded from an earlier posting on my blog, and I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the discussion there.
The discussion was sparked by a comment about 'strong women' in historical fiction, specifically in the setting of Britain in the 7th century AD. I personally believe it is important that historical fiction should try to recreate (as far as this is possible) a feeling for the culture, expectations and social structure of the time, and should try to avoid (again, as far as possible) projecting modern attitudes back into a previous era. My novel, Paths of Exile, is set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 605/606 AD, and is published by Quaestor2000 Publishing, should you wish to judge how successfully I followed these principles in writing it. Some of the issues here are also touched on in an interview I did with BBC Radio Suffolk.
Female action heroes, typified by Xena Warrior Princess and Lara Croft, are fashionable in some modern media (possibly reflecting the attraction of a pretty actress wearing a remarkably small amount of leather). Career conflicts, work-life balance, radical feminism, equality between the sexes and sexual discrimination are all modern issues. Some of these may also have been issues in earlier times, although many of the ideas would have been different and the terminology certainly would have been (I personally would cringe at a seventh-century woman using a term like 'work-life balance', for example).
Creating a convincing female character and her story in the distant past requires taking some care to understand the roles and expectations of women in that society at that time. Can the character and her story be supported by evidence, or fit plausibly into the gaps in the evidence?
Typified by Xena, Warrior Princess, Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video games and films, and Guinevere in the 2004 film King Arthur.
Skeletons uncovered in archaeological excavations can be identified as male or female by the shape of certain bones (e.g. the pelvis) if the skeleton is well preserved, or by testing DNA extracted from bone fragments. DNA testing is a recent technique, and older excavations sometimes classified burials as male or female based on the presence or absence of certain grave goods - for example, burials with weapons such as spear, shield or sword would be assumed to be male, and burials with a pair of shoulder brooches for fastening a dress would be assumed to be female. Only a minority of early English ('Anglo-Saxon') graves have weapons, most commonly a spear and/or shield. Sword burials form a small minority of weapon burials, and tend to be associated with the presence of other expensive grave-goods. Thus, the sword is considered to be a high-status weapon owned by a small minority of elite warriors, while the spear and/or shield are considered to indicate warriors with a lower status.
Female skeletons buried with spears and/or shields have been excavated at various sites in Britain, including cemeteries in Yorkshire, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Herefordshire (Evans 2003). Female burials with swords are recorded from Dover, Abingdon and Leicestershire, and there is a possible female cremation with a sword from Norfolk (Evans 2003). There may be others, as weapon burials excavated prior to the advent of DNA testing may have been wrongly classified as males on the basis of the grave goods, and the classification needs to be reconfirmed by further analysis.
The meaning of weapon burials is not known for certain. The presence of weapons as grave goods could indicate the occupation of the deceased person (a warrior), their status (belonging to a particular class, holding a particular role), a combination of both, or some other explanation, such as allegiance to a god associated with weapons and warfare, or membership of a particular family. It follows that we do not know the significance of a female weapon burial. It may indicate that the deceased woman was a warrior, and a few female skeletons with traumatic injuries that could have been caused by edged weapons are known (Evans 2003). Or it may indicate that the deceased woman was being treated as an 'honorary male', or that she belonged to a class or family of warriors, or that she worshipped a war god. And no doubt there are other possible explanations.
The Old English word 'man' meant 'human, person' and was not sex-specific. A male was described as 'wapman' (weapon person) and a female as 'wifman' (weaving person). This suggests to me that the normal social roles of men and women were distinct, with males expected to fight and females expected to weave. It is echoed in the genealogical terms 'spear side' for the male descent, and 'distaff side' for the female descent. The distinction does not necessarily indicate superiority of one sex over the other; it could fairly be described as a concept of 'equal but different'. Naturally, individuals no doubt moved outside the accepted conventions in response to circumstances or individual ambitions.
The major primary source for early English history, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, makes no reference to female warriors. This does not necessarily mean that female warriors did not exist - Bede had no particular reason to mention them (he was writing a religious history, not a military history), or he may have omitted references to behaviour he disapproved of.
In the epic poem Beowulf the attack on Heorot by Grendel's mother is described thus: "though the fury of her onslaught was less frightful than his; as the force of a woman, her onset in a fight, is less feared by men." This could be interpreted to mean that women did fight as warriors, since the poet clearly expects his audience to know that the strength of a woman in a fight is less than that of a man. However, as no human female warrior is mentioned anywhere in the poem, I would conclude that female warriors were at least unusual. Furthermore, a woman could easily be involved in a fight without necessarily being a 'warrior', in the sense of a semi-professional fighter. It doesn't seem out of place to me that the women would weigh in to defend their homes or villages against raiders as a matter of course, just as a modern woman might hit a burglar with a frying pan or knee a mugger in the groin. This is where I part company with Peter Jackson in the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (the culture of Rohan in the films is quite clearly based on an amalgam of early English and Norse cultures). I'd have expected at least some of the women at Helm's Deep to be up on the battlements with their old fathers and under-age sons, throwing rocks at Orcs, or collecting spent arrows for the archers, or tending the wounded, or bringing round water for the fighters. In Eirik's Saga, Freydis the daughter of Eirik the Red snatches up a sword and joins the defence when the Norse settlement in Vinland is attacked by 'Skraelings' (usually considered to be Native American Indians). The Beowulf reference could be interpreted either as support for the existence of female warriors, or for the involvement of women in this kind of defensive fighting.
Warrior maidens, young women who lead warbands and fight as champions, apparently on an equal footing with male warriors, feature in some Norse literature (Evans 2003).
Procopius, a historian writing in Constantinople in the middle of the 6th century, recounts a story about an English princess he identifies only as 'the island girl'. She is said to have been betrothed to a prince of the Varni (a Germanic tribe living somewhere in mainland Europe). When the prince tried to rat on the betrothal and marry a Frankish princess, 'the island girl' is said to have raised an army with her younger brother's support, and led a military expedition to the land of the Varni to collect her betrothed by force. It should be noted that this story about an English woman was told by a Frankish diplomat to a Greek historian in Byzantium at the opposite end of Europe, so it is at least third-hand. It probably lost very little in the telling, and it may even have been a shaggy dog story invented (or very considerably embellished) by a witty visitor to pull the leg of a gullible listener. Or it may indeed be a faithful record of an actual event.
Taken together, the archaelogical and documentary evidence could be used to support a storyline about a female warrior. I would interpret it to indicate that warrior women were rare, and that a woman involved in fighting would be more likely to be either an exceptional person or responding to exceptional circumstances.
There is one documented example of a ruling queen in Anglo-Saxon England. This is Sexburga, who is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the wife of Cenwalh son of Cynegils and is said "Then held Sexburga, his queen, the government one year after him." The entry is in the annal for AD 495, but although this annal entry begins with the (legendary?) arrival of Cerdic and Cynric in AD 495 it then continues to give a list of the subsequent kings of Wessex in later years. Coenwalh son of Cynegils is mentioned in Bede (Book III Ch. 8 and Book IV Ch. 12) and can be dated to around the middle of the 7th century. (Since both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede refer to Cynegils as the first king of Wessex to be converted to Christianity, the identification is fairly secure, although Bede does not mention Sexburga). Bede says that Coenwalh was originally married to a sister of King Penda of Mercia, but abandoned her for another woman and consequently lost his throne for three years (Was Sexburga the other woman, perhaps?). Bede also says (Book IV Ch. 12) that on the death of Coenwalh Wessex was divided between under-kings. It is possible that Sexburga was either one of these, or that she was in overall authority over them, perhaps as a sort of 'chairman of the committee'.
There are powerful women like this in medieval and Renaissance Europe, e.g. Catherine de Medici ruling 16th-century France through her sons, Mary of Guise as Regent of Scotland. In the early English period, I would argue that Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians fits into this category. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and married to Aethelred of Mercia. She seems to have organised the defence and government of Mercia, first as her husband's equal and later on her own as his widow. She worked closely with her brother, Edward the Elder (King of Wessex), and between them they won Mercia back from the Danes and laid the foundations for the unification of England, rather like Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquista in 15th-century Spain. However, Aethelflaed was always referred to as Lady of the Mercians, not queen, and I would count her as ruling alongside her brother rather than in her own right. It may be that they considered themselves joint rulers of a united England, and she was running Mercia while he managed Wessex.
There is abudant evidence that high-born women could and did act as advisors, and that dynastic marriages were frequently used to cement alliances or claim authority.
Bede says of Abbess Hild of Whitby, "So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes, used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it" (Book IV Ch. 23). Earlier, he recounts two incidents in which the unnamed queen of Raedwald of East Anglia is seen advising (one could almost say dictating) her husband's foreign and religious policy (Book III Ch. 12, Ch. 15). Queen Etheldreda, daughter of a king of East Anglia and married to a king of Northumbria, had her own thanes (household warriors), and her relatives ransomed one of these thanes when he was taken as a prisoner of war (Bede, Book IV Ch. 22). Queen Eanfled of Northumbria persuaded her husband King Oswy to grant land for a monastery (Bede, Book III Ch. 24), and later organised a visit to Rome for the young Bishop Wilfrid (Bede, Book V Ch. 19).
Insults to high-born women could be the cause of (or excuse for?) war. For example, the sister of King Penda of Mercia was married to Coenwalh of Wessex, and when Coenwalh abandoned her for another woman, Penda attacked Coenwalh in revenge and pushed him off his throne for three years (Bede, Book III Ch. 8).
Dynastic marriages could be used to cement two kingdoms or sub-kingdoms together. Northumbria was derived from two older kingdoms, Deira in the south and Bernicia in the north, and although it was ruled by one king during most of the 7th century, the kingdom had a tendency to fragment into its constituent parts at times of political crisis. Two dynastic marriages between the two halves are recorded in Bede: Aethelferth of Bernicia married Acha of Deira in the early 7th century (Book III Ch. 6), and Aethelferth's son Oswy of Bernicia married Eanflaed of Deira in the middle of the 7th century (Book III Ch. 15).
Dynastic marriages were not always successful as a means of averting war between traditional enemies. Acha's brother Eadwine defeated and killed her husband Aethelferth in AD 617 (Bede, Book III Ch. 12). The tale of Finn recounted in Beowulf (lines 1068-1159) tells of Hildeburgh, sister to a king of the Danes and married to a king of the Frisians, who loses brother, son and husband in a feud that her marriage failed to mend.
This would not need saying, except for the presence of modern misconceptions that women in early English societies were subordinate and downtrodden. There is abundant evidence that this was far from the case. Women in early English and Norse society could be accepted as strong and capable individuals without becoming involved in warfare or high politics.
Documentary evidence records early English nuns and abbesses travelling across Europe or organising and leading missionary expeditions, sometimes in war zones. Numerous place names are derived from Old English female names, indicating that women could be regarded as landholders. Charters, wills and legal records show that women owned and disposed of their own property. A fragment of poetry, Wulf and Eadwacer, is written from the point of view of a woman involved in a love triangle with two men. In another poem, The Husband's Message, an exiled man who has become a successful lord (possibly even a king) asks his beloved to come to him because without her his life is not complete. For further examples and sources, see Kathleen Herbert's comprehensive review (Herbert 1997).
The Norse sagas are full of examples of women who are neither warriors nor queens but who nevertheless take control of their own destinies and sometimes those of the people around them. Freydis, daughter of Eirik the Red, dominates the Norse colony in Vinland in Eirik's Saga. Hallgerd and Bergthora drive much of the action in Njal's Saga. Gudrun Osvif's daughter is one of the most memorable characters in Laxdaela Saga.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Full text available online at http://omacl.org/Anglo/part1.html
Bede. Eccelesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, revised edition. 1990. Full text available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.html (there are links from this page to Books II-V).
Beowulf. Translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics. 1973.
Eirik's Saga. In: Vinland Sagas. Translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. Penguin Classics. 1965.
Evans, Lorraine. Warrior women of northern Europe. Leafblade Press, Great Britain. 2003. Available from Lanista Ancient Warfare Academy.
Herbert, Kathleen. Peace-weavers and shield-maidens. Women in early English society. Anglo-Saxon Books, Thetford, England. 1997. Available direct from the publishers at www.asbooks.co.uk.
Laxdaela Saga. Translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. Penguin Classics. 1969.
Njal's Saga. Translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. Penguin Classics. 1960.