The Armoury

War   Women.in.War   Heraldry   Joan.of.Arc

Image on Joan of Arc with Sword  WAR

An army was not the safest place to be during the Middle Ages. Being a knight required immense strength and endurance. Knights were well-protected by their armour, but protection came with a price. Armour alone could weigh half as much again as the knight. During the Crusades, European armour became an oven. Many knights died from heat stroke and dehydration. Weapons were unwieldy and could inflict great damage. Horrible wounds were often infected because of unsanitary conditions and poor medical care -- army surgeons were not usually of the university calibre. A shattered bone might heal, but the wounded soldier might be crippled for life. 

As the knight rose to prominence in armies, the foot soldier was increasingly despised for his (or her) inadequacies -- namely deficiencies in training and experience. It didn't help matters that foot soldiers were usually insufficiently armoured (in leather jerkins) and encumbered with weapons like pikes, which could do a lot of damage but only if used by extremely well-trained companies.

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Image of Joan of Arc with Shield  Women in War

Despite the stereotype of medieval women which persists to modern times, not all of them were docile, subservient, and brainless. The last place most people would expect to find a medieval woman making a living is in the armed forces of her country. It is true that the majority of soldiers were men. However, it is also true that women fighters were included in the ranks of many mercenary and national armies. Before the Romanisation of Britain, the matriarchies often employed entire companies of female warriors. They were greatly feared because they appeared to have lost their natural maternal and loving instincts . Both men and women were expected to help defend a town or a castle, should it be attacked. When the men of a town were away fighting, the women were expected to take care of business at home 

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Heraldry is the study of armorial bearings -- the insignia of a noble house. The formal heraldic tradition, crafted for identification and display, began in the mid-twelfth century. A lord's soldiers needed to be able to identify him -- and the enemy -- in battle. When the earliest rolls (records) of arms were written, a language called blazon was used to describe the arrangement of geometry, colours, and insignia. 

Highly formalized and complex, the shield design was actually sort of a secret code which could make a pun on a knight's name, give a nod to his accomplishments, personify his characteristics, or even denote his illegitimacy. For men, the base of a coat of arms is the familiar shield shape; for women, the lozenge or diamond shape. Women did not have arms in their own right. Unmarried women bore their father's arms on a lozenge. Married women combine their husbands' and fathers' arms on a shield.

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Joan of Arc is probably the best known medieval woman warrior. Our familiarity with her comes from the miracles associated with her and also from the injustice of her death. She was not the only woman ever to join a medieval army, however, so click on the picture to find out more about her and her contemporaries.

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Adapted with permission of Dominion and Domination

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