Battle-brave beyond women-kin: Women warriors in medieval English literature

Date of Completion

January 2006


Literature, Medieval|Literature, English




Using Judith Butler's theory of performative gender, I argue that female warriors are constructed with both masculine and feminine traits and perform as both men and as women. Women warriors differ in the extent of masculine and feminine performance, in their performance of chastity, and in their roles in the texts. By examining the patterns of these performances and roles, five types of women warriors emerge: spiritual warrior, virgin warrior, warrior bride, warrior wife, and virago. ^ The spiritual warrior does not fight battles, but texts construct her as a warrior and her spiritual struggle with evil as warfare through the use of military diction. The spiritual warrior performs not only in masculine ways, such as metaphorical war, education, and preaching, but in feminine ones, such as submission, chastity, and beauty. St. Katerine, of the Katherine Group, exemplifies these characteristics, and Judith, of the Old English poem, is constructed similarly, but actually bears a sword. Virgin warriors' representations balance chastity and womanhood with military prowess and manhood, thus placing them in a third gender category between men and women. Although texts generally praise virgin warriors, their transgressive gender performances is finally contained. The warrior-goddess Diana in The Knight's Tale is rendered helpless, and Penthesilea in The Troy Book, though constructed almost identically to the male heroes of the text, is not only killed, but desecrated. ^ Although some warrior brides begin as virgin warriors, many perform as men, retaining only the feminine trait of chastity to avoid exposure. But their independence and violation of gender mores are contained by marriage, and the warrior brides are forced into femininity. Silence and her predecessor Grisandolus in the Prose Merlin embody this pattern, and Ypolite of The Knight's Tale is a rare example of a silenced and contained warrior bride after her marriage. The warrior wife's position as wife or mother ironically occasions her entrance into the masculinity, as either an extension of or substitute for her husband or son. The Queen in Sir Isumbras performs kingship and warfare as an extension of her husband Isumbras and her kidnapper, the Sultan. Cenobia of The Monk's Tale, on the other hand, replaces her husband after his death, and must be forced back into femininity when she threatens the manhood of the Roman Emperor. ^ Viragos, like all women warriors, perform in both masculine and feminine ways, but are represented as unchaste and threatening to masculine society. They are often monstrous versions of other women warrior types. The Wife of Bath, for instance, engages in preaching and metaphorical battle, an inversion of the spiritual warrior. Grendel's mother, like a warrior wife, takes Grendel's place in war and performs revenge, but as a bloodthirsty threat to the Danish court, she is made monstrous. ^ The five types of warrior women are present in Western literature from the earliest time until the contemporary era. Since this exploration of women warriors in Medieval English is the first systematic study of the trope, further research is necessary into the construction of women warriors in other periods to see how the tropes change and develop over time. ^