This is a great 3-minute video on an all-women medieval fencing league in NYC.
There’s a real obsession with natural advantages in our inbox. I want to blame the media but I know that conversations about natural advantages and power of having a slightly longer reach filter in through a lot of different martial arts communities, often to the point where the less experienced students attribute another student’s hard work to their natural advantages because they were taller. When you know nothing else about combat, natural advantages look like insurmountable obstacles.
Every body comes with their own natural advantages and what you don’t have can be supplemented by hard work, extra study, and dedication. “Naturally good” is the quick and easy path taken by a lot of writers to justify that they don’t really know shit. The strongest, biggest guy is not automatically the best. The most naturally talented character who blows off their training sessions, does the bare minumum, and just hangs out because they don’t have to work hard to be successful in a controlled environment isn’t going to be the best when the time finally comes for a real test.
Your short female isn’t going to stay lithe, delicate, and small unless she is only fighting with a sword. If she’s training to wear the armor then she’ll end up stocky, lose a large portion of her chest to her pectoral muscles, have bigger shoulders, a more ropey neck, and thicker legs due to supporting the extra weight so she’s able to move for longer in battle. Those muscles are a necessary part of building endurance if she’s wearing plate. This is similar to modern militaries where the body type comes from training for endurance, the ability to march for miles while carrying heavy gear and still be ready to fight at the end of it.
Smaller bodies are more compact, which lends them better balance. Women build musculature better in their lower bodies rather than their upper which leads to stronger legs and a better base. Lighter in weight means they can move faster. They generate less force from their momentum, but lighter and more compact frames mean more fine control over their striking patterns. This can be more helpful when training in sword combat because the focus on accuracy makes them less likely to fall into the bad habit of relying on brute strength to get the job done.
It’s also worth pointing out, again, that no knight was trained in any single weapon nor carried one weapon into battle. The sword, particularly the longsword, is most commonly associated with them, but they also used: longarms/polearms including lances, maces, hammers, and that family of weapons, archery for both hunting and war, hunting both as a cultural exercise and part of their training, horsemanship, etc. Hunting was where the young noble/page/squire/knight learned important skills like tracking, utilizing tools such as animals, patience, command, etc.
Can she not do it because she’s a girl? No, it will be more difficult because the training is designed for boys and there may be cultural pressure against her, but it isn’t impossible. What will sabatoge her is her belief that girls can’t do it. The mind is a powerful tool, one which can often be the deciding factor between success and failure. If you believe you can’t do something, then you’ve already lost. You either decide to do it or you don’t. This is why you can’t forcibly train anyone to be a successful fighter. You can train them, use them as cannon fodder, but outside forces cannot make anyone the best of the best. They do it on their own with outside aid, but the thrust of the decision comes from within.
The same goes for you as her author. If you believe your female character cannot compete with boys through her own merits and by virtue of her own hard work then you’re more likely to institute what we’ll call “special exceptions” which inevitably lead to the female character being “uniquely qualified”. You sabotage yourself and your story by making the path easier, and end up talking more about how different she is from other girls rather than focusing on what she’s doing to achieve her dreams.
Try to keep in mind that there are plenty female practitioners of both fencing styles and HEMA which is Historical European Martial Arts. It’s not that women can’t, it’s that they need to work hard.
Much as media, roleplaying games, might wish to tell us, neither your body nor your sex decide how you choose to fight. It doesn’t lock you into a fighting style or type of combat. It doesn’t limit you to any sort of fighting, it doesn’t deny you from combat.
Culture does. Our own beliefs and prejudices do. How we see ourselves and what we believe ourselves to be capable of will.
Our bodies are just bodies.
There’s a popular opinion that hard work will always be outdone by genius, but the truth is: only be a genius who works hard.
Your character can keep up with the boys if she works hard, if she’s willing to address her weaknesses, and focuses to turn them into her strengths. If she’s willing to put in the effort required and doesn’t fall back on “unfair”.
Hard work and solid research ultimately win the day.
These two book series by Tamora Pierce feature useful information about knighthood/training (the Protector of the Small series specifically) and a short woman learning to be a knight (Alanna the Lioness). If you haven’t read them, both will be helpful to you as jumping off points.
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept
Sharon Kay Penman’s novels, particularly her Plantagenets series, are helpful for getting some groundwork for the historical medieval lifestyle, history, culture, and most importantly: politics. Her novels feature some incredibly interesting women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, which can be helpful when trying to develop well-rounded female characters who break with tradition in a much more culturally “acceptable” way. This series also focuses on one of my favorite historical periods and English dynasties. All in all, if you want to write about knights then I recommend reading.
Matt Easton is a HEMA practitioner and instructor, and his videos are incredibly useful for anyone looking to write about sword combat. He’s informative, well researched, and if you can’t take classes then this is the next best thing. You’ll also occasionally turn up the YouTube back and forth internet debates where he and different HEMA tubers debate the different merits of their arguments.
Skallagrim focuses mostly on swords, different kinds of swords, whether the fantasy swords created for movies would work in the real world, etc. He’s entertaining and a useful resource.
Another useful resource, Samantha is a female HEMA practitioner and stunt woman who participates in the sport. If you want a discussion from a decidedly feminine perspective or just want confirmation (again) that women really can fight like knights then check out her page.
This is a free library of historical european martial arts books and manuscripts. It’s still in progress but you can find some translations and pages of historical treatises by masters there if you’re willing to slog through ye olde language. If you’re used to reading and learning terminology used in different time periods then this will be a helpful resource. If not, or you’re new to scholarly study then I recommend starting with the above resources and working your way down. A good litmus test is: do I have trouble understanding Shakespeare, Chaucer, and/or the writings of Madison without the help of a translator? If no, then feel free. If yes, ground yourself in the above. If you decide to check it out anyway (no reason why not) and get frustrated then go back to A.
Remember, language changes over time. Often it’s easier to think of writings/articles/books from the 16th and 17th centuries as a different language all together regardless of whether or not they’ve been translated. The problem in understanding isn’t intelligence but rather acclimation. As it stands most writers from older time periods wrote for the audiences of their day, meaning different expectations in culture and educational background that modern readers lack.
There’s no fault in needing the footnotes in Shakespeare in order to get the jokes, even less in not understanding the play until you see it performed on stage as it was meant to be. It really is okay if 10 Things I Hate About You is your necessary prerequisite to understanding Taming of the Shrew. You aren’t dumb, you just don’t understand Elizabethan culture, social structure, or the political climate on which the humor or references are built.
If you need to start smaller with other references then that really is okay.
This is what medieval sword fighting probably looked like- two fighters being defensive and testing each other with sharp blades. This video comes from the wonderful swordsfolk at DIMICATOR , based in Germany.
This martial arts school reconstructs the practice of historical European swordsmanship. They focus on unarmoured fighting with sword and buckler, as described in late medieval German manuscripts.
Women in HEMA – Live Interview at IGX
Samantha Swords (winner of the open longsword competition in Harcourt Park World Invitational Jousting Tournament) was invited to be a part of the live panel on women in Historical European Martial Arts that was held during the Competition Finals at IGX (Iron Gate Exhibition, Boston MA), together with Marie Meservy and Kiana Shurkin.
Source: Samantha Swords on YouTube
These two are from the Academy of Historical Fencing and they are sparring with a spear versus a sword and buckler. The sword is a light blade, but here’s a good example of European spear combat. Notice, they hold the end of the weapon to extend it’s reach and maximize the momentum with quick bursts.