A couple of years ago, our neighborhood pub decided to hold a mug-raising contest for Octoberfest. My wife got goaded by her friends and entered at the last minute. The 20 or so contestants held full beer mugs at arm’s length; after about five minutes, people began to drop out rapidly. As the clock ticked down toward ten minutes, there were only three contestants left: Two young, fit guys and a woman in her fifties. Finally, one of the guys gave up and lowered his mug. The other fellow, thinking that he had won, held out his glass for a few more seconds. He triumphantly lowered his arm, then looked behind him and saw my wife still holding up her mug.
My favorite Ricochet podcast is the Andrew Klavan Show. I like his commentary and I also enjoy his books. On January 6, he talked about a TV show called The Witcher. (From here; go to about minute 39 for the quote.)
…and immediately I was put off by the fact that there’s a queen in this who fights like a man. And there’s a couple of scenes where women fight with swords. And I just hate these scenes because no women can fight with a sword; zero women can fight with a sword. And what I mean by that is in a situation where you are fighting men who are used to fighting with swords, you are going to get killed if you are a woman fighting with a sword, 100% of the time.
Generally, I find Mr. Klavan’s research to be pretty good, but this time he is wrong. I haven’t been interested in sword fighting since a brief dalliance with the Society for Creative Anachronisms in college, so I’ll defer to an expert:
If you didn’t want to watch to whole thing, “Shad” makes two points. First, there is an organization called Historical European Martial Arts, HEMA, with female members who regularly beat men in sword fights. Second, a sword is a “force multiplier,” so that strength is less important than skill. Another example of a force multiplier is a handgun. Does anyone doubt that a woman with a Glock 19 can best a man in a gunfight?
In almost all athletic endeavors, an average man is better than the average woman, and the best male athletes will beat the best females. Still, there are women who are better than most men. Serena Williams is a better tennis player than 99% of men. I’ll bet there are Texas cowgirls, Nebraska farm lasses, and, from my personal experience, Ukrainian barmaids who could kick the butts of any of the wimps here on Ricochet.*
And, of course, there are many examples of female warriors in history: Jeanne D’Arc, Queen Boudica, Mulan, the Amazons. So, yes, women can beat men in sword fights.
Except that, historically, it never happened. The Amazons probably never existed, and the others were military leaders who likely never engaged in direct combat. Yes, women can fight with swords, but they never did.
Why is that? Well, believe it or not, our ancestors were not stupid. Women were much too valuable to be wasted in such a manner. Swords were expensive, costing more than the average person earned in a year. As a result, it was mostly royalty and aristocrats who could even afford the equipment, much less the massive time commitment for training and practice. Of course, they also had hirelings who they trained and equipped, but no one was going to waste those resources on a woman. Women had more important things to do anyway.
In those days, innovation was not just frowned upon, it was actively suppressed. There were times when Mr. Klavan could have been executed for using the number zero in the quote above. People were fined and imprisoned for using forks. It was illegal for women to wear men’s clothing. In that environment, nobody would even think about training women to fight with swords. The point is not that women couldn’t use swords, it’s that they absolutely wouldn’t.
Now, of course, innovation is celebrated. Both men and women live a lot longer and have more spare time and resources to engage in useless activities like sword fighting. And it’s really not “fighting.” Nobody dies. What happens now in no way reflects historical reality.
But Mr. Klavan is still mistaken since The Witcher is not a historical drama; it’s a fantasy. If you have plots revolving around magic spells, Djinns, and summoning demons, a woman fighting with a sword is the least fantastic part of the story. One of Terry Pratchett’s best-selling fantasy novels is about an entire regiment of women soldiers (spoiler alert, by the way).
My little story at the start illustrates how a woman could win a physical contest, even against a much larger and stronger opponent. A medieval man would no more expect a woman to sword fight than a frog to recite poetry. Much less, actually — talking animals are a staple of legends and folk tales. Even a minimally accomplished swordsman can overcome someone whose guard is down. There are many fantasy scenarios that can incorporate women fighting with swords. I have no problem with that, but these are fantasies. It did not happen in real life.
At the next year’s mug-raising event, everyone knew not to overlook my wife. She still came in second, beating most of the men in the contest.
* Boss Mongo excepted, of course.Published in