Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The English Woman Warrior

I mentioned this on Twitter months ago, and the response got me doing some research on the topic, but the initial attempts turned up nothing, and then real life got me doing other things, and now I’m out of time, so I’ll simply post what I’ve got now and trust that others who are interested in the topic will turn up more than I did.

The following is taken, for the most part, from Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The warrior woman was a popular character type in 17th and 18th century ballads and theater, to the point that in the 18th century real-life warrior women, like Hannah Snell, were used on-stage as performers.

(The short Hannah Snell: 1723-1792, enlisted--disguised as a man, of course--in the British Army in 1747 in pursuit of the husband who abandoned her. Enlisted in the Royal Marines later that year, took part in the expedition to capture the French colony of Pondicherry in India in 1748 and fought in the battle of Devicotta in 1749, where she was wounded eleven times in the legs and once in the groin. By her own account, she managed to treat her groin wound without revealing that she was a woman. In 1750, back in Britain, she informed her shipmates that she was a woman. She was honourably discharged and–no small thing, in 1750–was granted a pension. See The Hannah Snell Homepage for more).

The publishers of broadsides churned out numerous “disguise ballads,” songs about the adventures of women disguised as men. Sample titles: The Bristol Bridegroom; The Female Sea-Captain; The Frolicsome Maid Who Went to Gibralter [sic]; Jack Monroe; The Sailor’s Happy Marriage; The Female Drummer; The Female Tar; and The Female Champion.

The English warrior woman goes back before the 17th century, of course. The English preoccupation with the warrior woman is a feature of the Elizabethan era, with the obsession reaching its height in the 1620s, both with King James’ inveighing against women wearing men’s attire and with the wonderfully-titled pamphlet Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times, Expressed in a brief Declamation: Non omnes possumus omnes.

But it was the 18th century which saw the most real English warrior women. The Amazons of Fielding’s Tom Jones turn out not to be so far-fetched as might be thought.

There were, of course, female boxers throughout the century. Dugaw quotes at length the challenges of two female boxers from a June 1722 match at Hockley in the Hole:

I Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me on the Stage, and box with me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops her money to lose the battle.

I Hannah Hyfield, of Newgatemarket, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, _____ willing, to give her more blows than words, desiring home blows, and from her no favour.

More intriguing is Dugaw’s brief description of female duellists. Dugaw draws from James Peller Malcolm’s Anecdotes of the manners and customs of London during the eighteenth century (1808-1810); perhaps one of you, perhaps with access to the Bodleian or the British Library, could go further?

(Dugaw pithily summarizes Malcolm: “Already in 1808 when he writes, the previous century appears to him barbarous and remote.”)

Dugaw, quoting Malcolm:

August 1725 produced a conflict for the entertainment of the visitors of Mr. Figg’s amphitheatre, Oxford-road, which is characteristic of savage ferocity indeed. Sutton the champion of Kent and a couragious [sic] female heroine of that County fought Stokes and his much admired consort of London: 40l. was to be given to the male or female who gave the most cuts with the sword, and 20l. for the most blows at quarter-staff, besides the collection in the box.

Stokes and his “much admired consort” won, and Malcolm later quotes from an advertisement “issued by the proprietors of the Amphitheatre:”

In Islington-road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the following combatants. We Robert Barker and Mary Welsh, from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mr. Stokes and his bold Amazonian virago to meet us on the stage, where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honourable Lord of our nation who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our head. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house; and if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution will prevail, our friends shall not meet with disappointment.
– We James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London, having already gained an universal approbation by our agility of body, dextrous hands, and courageious [sic] hearts, need not perambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of Mrs. Stokes’ performing on the Stage.

Dugaw concludes:

Of particular significance in these notices are the apparent frequency of such battles and the casual acceptance of women combatants. Neither the report of the bout nor the advertisement for it makes any distinction between male and female duellists, nor does either treat the presence of the women as particularly noteworthy. Applying no special rules to the women, the proprietors extend the rewards without qualifications to “the male or female who gave most cuts.” Like the ballad heroine, these women were not expected to duel any differently from men, and their participation in “masculine” sport seems not to have been considered a violation of their “natural” female inclinations.

I don’t have access to the resources needed to go beyond Dugaw and Malcolm, nor do I have the time or energy to do so. But maybe one of you might? Too, the preceding is something to keep in mind when writing historical novels or historical fantasy. Months ago, on Tor.com (I think), someone (not Jo Walton, as I mistakenly first claimed) wrote a carefully-reasoned article on why there couldn’t have been any real medieval women warriors, based on women’s strength limitations. While this may have been true in the medieval era, a century or two later, when agility guided a sword more than strength, it was emphatically not true. Writers, feel free to put a swordswoman in your next Elizabethan or Jacobean historical fantasy.

Edit: It wasn't Jo Walton, it was this Judith Berman post on Black Gate. My apologies to Ms. Walton for my mistake.

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