We know that skimpy armor that shows off a woman's cleavage is rather impractical for combat and that sculpted "boob plate" armor can be a hazard to your health, but on occasions that women did don armor in medieval Europe, what kind of armor did they actually wear? And is shapely, feminine armor a modern convention, or does it have some roots in the Middle Ages?
Even if they aren't necessarily historically accurate, depictions of armor worn by men in European historical fictions or European-inspired fantasies tend to have at least some basis in fact, whereas women's armor is often depicted in a more fantastical manner. There are, of course, the infamous body-bearing suits of armor with scale mail bras and chain mail loin clothes that seem to scream, "Please, stab me in my fleshy stomach!" And then there is the overly sculpted boob-plate breastplate for suits of plate mail, which gives fictional woman warriors the appearance of femininity, but places a rather dangerous metal protrusion right at the wearer's sternum.
Now women get the armored shaft in part for aesthetic reasons; artists and filmmakers want to show off the feminine bodies of their fictional female combatants. But there is another reason why medieval women's armor is such a tricky thing to predict: according to the folks behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armory collection, when it comes to this era there are no known surviving images of a woman in armor made during that woman's lifetime. This is true even for Joan of Arc, who is famously said to have worn armor commissioned by Charles VII custom-made to fit her body. The only image we have of Joan of Arc that was known to have made of her in her lifetime shows her sans armor.
We have medieval imagery of women in armor, to be sure—paintings and illustrations depicting women from history and myth. You might see the Amazons or the goddess Minerva or the 6th century BC Queen Tomyris outfitted in armor. The virtue of Fortitude is often portrayed in medieval art as a woman in armor. But the artists behind these works may have never seen an armored women with their own eyes, and it's likely that the artists relied on speculation or artistic traditions. In fact, there are some cases in which artists relied on tradition to the point of absurdity. Several historians reference manuscripts containing images of women jousting, but because the artists refused to portray women bearing phallic, masculine lances, they instead portrayed them sparring with distaffs, tools used to hold unspun fibers in spinning.
Woman jousting with a distaff.
Even when looking at primary-source textual accounts of women wearing armor, we have to take into context the perspective of the writer. In his University of Canterbury thesis, 'An Entirely Masculine Activity'?Women and War in the High and Late Middle Ages Reconsidered, James Michael Illston considers a famous account by the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates of crew women warriors (according to some historians, Eleanor of Aquitaine and her attendants) during the Second Crusade:
Females were numbered among them, riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb, they conveyed a wholly martial appearance, more mannish than the Amazons. One stood out from the rest as another Penthesilea and from the embroidered gold which ran around the hem and fringes of her garment was called Goldfoot.
Illston proposes that this account isn't necessarily factual, but is in fact meant to portray the Franks as uncivilized, a people who would would allow even their women to go into battle as men. Michael R. Evans notes a similar problem in his essay "Arms and Armour in Accounts of Women on Crusade," from the collection Gendering the Crusades. Christian writers, Evans notes, would be loath to mention armed women fighting alongside men in the Crusades because such phenomena would reflect poorly on the crusaders. On the other hand, Muslim writers on some occasions invented tales of women fighting for the Christians for much the same reason. Many historians advise caution when reading such accounts of woman warriors.
However, we do know that women during the Middle Ages took part in warfare, and in some cases even led armies. And yes, there were some women who fought in the Crusades, and some women who did, in fact, wear armor, even during periods when armor was closely associated with masculinity.
When we talk about Europe in the Middle Ages, we are talking numerous cultures, nations, and traditions shifting and changing over the course of centuries. And the roles of women—including their places on the battlefield—shifted with them. And, much like their male counterparts, there were women who fought without the benefit of expensive armors and women who wore armor in their capacity as military commanders and strategists who did not strike a single blow on the battlefield.
One particularly unusual instance of women fighting in the Middle Ages comes from 12th century Catalonia. In 1149, women in city of Tortosa dressed in mens' clothes and used whatever was available to them to fight off Moorish invaders. It is said that Raymond Berenger IV was so impressed with the bravery of these women that he established the Order of the Hatchet, giving these women certain privileges similar to those of knights; women who belonged to the order were exempt from taxes and received precedence ahead of some men in public assemblies.
But the case of the Order of the Hatchet is hardly the norm for women participating in martial conflict. Megan McLaughlin, in her essay, "The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe," notes that the much more common situation was for women to engage in warfare in emergency situations, participating in sieges and commanding the troops in the absence of husbands and fathers. There are some career female warriors and commanders among the noble classes during the High Middle Ages: Aethelflaed, the widowed daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex, who joined her brother Edward in his campaign to push the Scandinavians out of norther England; Sichelgaita, a princess of Lombardy who donned armor and rallied the troops at the siege of Durazzo in 1081 (she is said to have chased after them and threatened them with her spear); Petronilla de Grandmesnil, who participated in the rebellion of Henry the Young King against King Henry II alongside her husband, Robert de Beaumont.
However, as we get further into the High Middle Ages and into Late Middle Ages, warfare becomes a more organized affair, one involving trained armies and orders of knighthood (and, eventually, those iconic suits of plate mail). McLaughlin notes that the sparse references to women participating in war become even sparser during later Medieval times and suggests that this increased military organization gave women fewer opportunities to participate in battle as commanders or combatants. That doesn't mean that women don't pop up in accounts of later battles, however. Famously, the Hundred Years' War gave us women like Joan of Arc and Jeanne de Penthièvre who appeared on the battlefield (one account places the latter in armor). Christine de Pizan's 1405 book Le Livre de la Cité des Dames admonished women to have knowledge of warfare in case they needed to defend their estates. And J.M. Blythe points out in "Women in the Military: Scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors" that even lower class women could be found dying in the ranks in uprisings and rebellions, as they did during the 14th century uprisings in Flanders.
But even during times when women took up arms, warfare was considered a firmly masculine occupation, and that influenced both what women wore to battle and how their outfits were portrayed in popular media—sometimes in very different ways.
There are certain tropes that come up time and time again when medieval authors describe women in armor. Medieval historians note that women in armor were the exception rather than the rule, and the awe-struck language of the people who wrote about them seems to back that up: Armored women are described almost universally as Amazons, often as Penthesilea incarnate. But another concept that comes up again and again is that these women are masculine in their armor. It's not surprising, given that weaponry and armor and later, knighthood were considered the almost exclusive sphere of men.
In the pre-platemail days, it seems that women wore very much the same thing that their husbands and brothers did. The Order of the Hatchet, as was mentioned earlier, fought wearing men's clothing, and would have worn any armor that they could piece together. In most cases when armor is mentioned at all, historical women warriors are described as wearing hauberks, the chain mail shirts that protected the arms, torso, and upper thighs. The Anglo-Norman historian Jordan Fantosme recounted that, when she was captured during the rebellion against King Henry II, Petronilla de Grandmesnil "was armed in a hauberk and carried a sword and shield." Ermengard(e), Viscountess of Narbonne, was renowned in the 12th century for marshaling her own forces against Raymond VI of Toulouse, and the contemporary cleric André le Chapelain included her as a character in his treatise De amore, imagining her speaking thus:
"I myself will ride there
wearing my coat of mail, my shining helmet laced on
shield at my neck, sword at my side
lance in hand, ahead of all others.
Though my hair is grey and white,
my heart is bold and thirsts for war."
That's not to say that André le Chapelain ever saw the viscountess or her armor; he may have been drawing from other reports about Ermengard (she was a favorite of troubadours) or relating what he thought a woman in her position would wear. But Fredric L. Cheyette, who profiles the viscountess in Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours, similarly places her in a hauberk and helmet.
'Imad ad-Din, a historian of the Crusades (whose account is taken with a grain of salt), described the female crusaders as wearing the same armor as the men with which they rode:
On the day of battle, more than one woman rode out with them like a knight and showed (masculine) endurance in spite of the weakness (of her sex); clothed only in a coat of mail they were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms.
Like many historians, Matthew Bennett, who quotes the above passage in his Gendering the Crusades essay "Virile Latins, Effeminate Greeks and Strong Women: Gender Definitions on Crusade?" doubts the veracity of 'Imad ad-Din's account of woman warriors, but he doesn't discount the possibility that women might wear mail coats for protection—if such expensive pieces of armor were available to them.
By the time Joan of Arc became the mascot for Charles VII's forces during the Hundred Years' War, plated armor was in use. As was mentioned earlier, there are no surviving images of Joan of Arc in her armor that were made in her lifetime. In fact, the only known image of Joan made during her lifetime is a sketch by Clement de Fauquembergue, who never saw her and sketched her based on reports of a young maid leading the French army carrying a sword and a banner; he puts her in a dress. When she is depicted in armor by later artists, she is typically depicted in the style of that artist's day.
But we do have accounts of Joan's armor. In Tours in 1429, she was measured for a full suit of plated armor that was custom-made so that it would fit close to her body. It was not a particularly expensive piece of equipment as far as plate mail went, costing 100 livers tournois. It was also a "white harness," meaning that it bore no adornment, not even the fleur-de-lis that actress Leelee Sobieski wears in her portrayal of Saint Joan. In his famous biography of Joan, Anatole France imagines that in Tours she may have also been measured for a houppelande, a loose coat that would have been worn over the armor's cuirass. In Joan of Arc: Her Story, Regine Pernoud, Narue-Veronique Clin say that Joan wore a capeline, a steel hat with a wide brim, but was often said to go bare-headed on the battlefield. Although Joan's armor was designed for practicality, to both fit well and protect her body (which is a good thing since was was struck in battle), when considering her headgear (or lack thereof) it is important to remember that Joan served as a symbol and a military strategist, not a warrior on the field. If she had served as a soldier, she might have employed a different sort of helmet.
Image of a White Harness via Jeanne d'Arc La Pucelle.
Despite historical reports of women wearing men's or at least masculine armor, feminizing women warriors in literature isn't just a modern convention. In David Hay's "Arms and Armor" entry in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, he notes that authors of medieval romances "had difficulty portraying women as both armored and feminine." In the romance Le Roman de Silence, the female character Silence is portrayed as male when she dons armor, reverting to female only after her death when her head was again uncovered. And stories of women disguised as male knights were popular, with the gender reveal serving as the key to the story. A story about the historical Agnes Hotot claims that Agnes took her sick father's place during a duel, wearing his clothes and armor. It was only after she had defeated her opponent that she bared her breast and revealed that the man had been bested by a woman.
Hay also says that "[s]ome romances even attempted to gender the very armor itself by adorning the men's with more "masculine" apotropaic gems, while fashioning the women's in tighter and more revealing styles." This, he indicates, does not reflect the reality of women in armor, but was a device used by writers and artists to present these women as at once transgressive and socially acceptable.
And portrayals of the Amazons would have influenced both historical and romantic depictions of armed women. Alison Weir in Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life notes that Benoît de Saint-Maure's, writing about Eleanor leaving for the crusades a decade or so after her departure in his Roman de Troie likened her visually to Penthesilea, riding horse adorned with "a hundred tiny twinkling bells" and wearing "a hauberk whiter than snow" as she and her companions let their hair hang loose. (Again, it is worth noting that if Eleanor did wear armor to the Crusades, as she is widely reported to have, it was ceremonial.)
Painting depicting Queen Tomyris.
There were other ways to feminize woman warriors aside from the shapes and adornments of the armor. Evans points to the tale of Margaret of Beverley, a woman who did indeed participate in the defense of Jerusalem while the city was under siege by Saladin during the Third Crusade. Margaret's brother wrote that she wore a cooking pot on her head while she brought water to the men on the walls. Although her behavior is described as man-like, and Evans notes that it seems entirely plausible that anyone might find a cooking pot a handy piece of armor in a siege, he wonders if Margaret's headgear was invented to make her seem more womanly, or to create an absurd visual of a woman in war, using a woman's tools to defend herself.
Lessons from Modern Armor
If we are talking about actual medieval history, women wearing armor was rare and women in plated suits of armor even rarer. But if you want to create a fantasy story set in a medieval-inspired world where women in armor is not so uncommon, then you might have sets of female armor that are somehow distinct from male armor. In response to the Tumblr Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor, fantasy armorer Ryan at MadArtLab notes that one way to make armor look feminine (if that is a thing that you want) is in the detail work. Just as the apotropaic gems of medieval men's armor was designed as "masculine," your world might have certain colors, materials, or designs that are associated with masculinity or femininity.
But the now-famous Tor.com blog post imploring us to retire the "boob plate" armor looks to another source for female armor inspiration: the military. It notes that the United States Army has begun to redesign body armor and flight suits to accommodate women's bodies. That includes not just redesigning equipment so that it better fits often shorter and differently proportioned women, but also designing them so that women can urinate easily without disrobing. If you only make a suit of armor for a woman once in a lifetime, you might forget small details like that. But if you have a universe filled with women warriors, you would be sure to manufacture armor that would allow them to pee.