Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Bringing a Sword to a Sword Fight

 

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 History
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  1. Hoyacon Member

    Some of this has to be related to the weight of the sword, doesn’t it (or the weight of the mug for that matter)? I note the woman in the picture is using both hands, but don’t really know how much some of those two-handed medieval great swords weighed–or whether the portrayal of them in popular culture is accurate. I do know that weight is not an issue in any number of swords, but I’d say it depends on what is being portrayed.

    • #1
    • January 17, 2020, at 2:46 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Some of this has to be related to the weight of the sword, doesn’t it (or the weight of the mug for that matter)? I note the woman in the picture is using both hands, but don’t really know how much some of those two-handed medieval great swords weighed–or whether the portrayal of them in popular culture was accurate. I do know that weight is not an issue in any number of swords, but I’d say it depends on what is being portrayed.

     

    Yeah … I’ll accept a swordswoman in a fantasy movie or show if she actually looks capable of wielding her sword. An anorexic like Summer Glau going one on one with some burly guy? No. (And yes, I’ve seen her in person; she looks like a cancer patient on chemo, not a sexy ninja.) Eowyn in LOTR? She doesn’t quite look the part, but when she does fight, it’s more by dodging than by taking the hits, so my suspension of disbelief isn’t too troubled. Arya Stark being a master of a foil technique with a very lightweight sword? Sure. She even gets walloped when she tries to use her thrusting style against a guy in actual armor in a nice show of realism. 

    • #2
    • January 17, 2020, at 3:01 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  3. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Some of this has to be related to the weight of the sword, doesn’t it (or the weight of the mug for that matter)? I note the woman in the picture is using both hands, but don’t really know how much some of those two-handed medieval great swords weighed–or whether the portrayal of them in popular culture is accurate. I do know that weight is not an issue in any number of swords, but I’d say it depends on what is being portrayed.

    If you watch the entire video, Shad mentions that Mr. Klavan overestimates the weight of swords.

    • #3
    • January 17, 2020, at 3:31 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  4. Franco Member
    Franco Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I imagine Klavan has become annoyed at the general promotion- so much of it badly done – of female fighters. I defer to your knowledge about swordplay but nevertheless women are not fighters. Not even close. Maybe some ghetto girls can throw down pretty well but in general if a man fought a a woman with the same energy as he would a man, it’s lights out. And it might not be a good thing to make women identify with female fighters. I’ve seen some antifa chickas get it bad in YouTube videos ( and plenty of soyboys too) they really shouldn’t be getting physical.

    And Serena Williams ranks between 700-1000th with men. Sure she’d kill most male tennis players, of course.

     

    • #4
    • January 17, 2020, at 4:22 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  5. Hoyacon Member

    OK, did anybody see King Arthur–or more to the point remember it?

    I’m a sucker for the Arthurian legend and have nothing really against actress/model Keira Knightly. But her presence as the leader of a group of fighters (they painted themselves in blue–go figure) pretty much ruined the film for me. She’s 5’7″ and under 120 lbs (you can look it up) and . . . just no.

    On the other hand, Clive Owen, who has done some great work in kind of mediocre movies, was really good.

    • #5
    • January 17, 2020, at 4:59 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Judge Mental, Secret Chimp Member

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Some of this has to be related to the weight of the sword, doesn’t it (or the weight of the mug for that matter)? I note the woman in the picture is using both hands, but don’t really know how much some of those two-handed medieval great swords weighed–or whether the portrayal of them in popular culture is accurate. I do know that weight is not an issue in any number of swords, but I’d say it depends on what is being portrayed.

    If you watch the entire video, Shad mentions that Mr. Klavan overestimates the weight of swords.

    The Conan sword from the movie was just about five pounds, like a typical sledgehammer. Of course, with the weight stretched out along is length it had way better balance than a sledgehammer.

    • #6
    • January 17, 2020, at 5:08 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    JosePluma:

    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.

    True dat. I’ve spent decades of my married life (following a couple of years of my student life) listening to Mr. She, a Medievalist by trade, declaiming on the chivalric and courtly love tradition, vis-a-vis the expendability of the male and the vulnerability of the female, not only in terms of the preservation of the species, but also for the woman’s value as the vehicle for carrying civilization forward by instilling it in future generations. I do believe he’s right about that.

    • #7
    • January 17, 2020, at 5:24 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  8. Nohaaj Coolidge

    Interesting, I think that there is truth in the general rule, and exceptions as a rule. 

    My wife is active in the SCA, and I in support, attend many events. I can tell you from personal experience that there are a couple of women in the SCA that regularly win in sword fight competitions, and they are quite diminutive in size. The difference in SCA fighting is that you need to strike with enough force as to imagine a lethal or crippling blow, using a rattan or similar weapon. This is altogether different than swinging a full weight weapon with the intent and result of a lethal strike, so perhaps apples and oranges. The women I know who wins in ground fighting is a Doctor, rowed for our olympic team, runs marathons, and is currently in her 50’s.

    My wife also participated in full contact, heavy metal jousting – unhorsing with solid lances, and won against the men in competition. The men even tried some low blows (hitting her in the helm instead of her shield) to disable her without success. So yes, there are those women who can compete on an equal basis and win. There are also in general, more men who will prevail over women in battle simply because of size and strength.

    • #8
    • January 17, 2020, at 5:32 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  9. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Meh, in mortal combat between a woman and a man with swords, I’m still betting on the man. You’re not trying to kill anyone in competitions.

    But, good on your wife for winning the beer mug contest!

    • #9
    • January 17, 2020, at 5:34 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    The Conan sword from the movie was just about five pounds, like a typical sledgehammer.

    I have never met such a small sledge. I have been on the end of a twenty-pound sledgehammer and quite enjoyed myself. I have also never used a sword that heavy (5 lbs.).

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Of course, with the weight stretched out along is length it had way better balance than a sledgehammer.

    This is the really important part. Swords are all about balance. A fair chunk of the weight is usually in the pommel, which is offsetting the weight of the blade to give a much better balance.

    • #10
    • January 17, 2020, at 6:00 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Judge Mental, Secret Chimp Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I have never met such a small sledge. I have been on the end of a twenty-pound sledgehammer and quite enjoyed myself.

     

    *searches for theme music to He-Man*

    • #11
    • January 17, 2020, at 6:19 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I have never met such a small sledge. I have been on the end of a twenty-pound sledgehammer and quite enjoyed myself.

    *searches for theme music to He-Man*

    Twenty pounds has been only a fraction of my weight since I became an adult. Not like some people who blow away in high winds.

    • #12
    • January 17, 2020, at 6:58 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. Henry Castaigne Member

    Definitely not enough posts about swords on Ricochet.

    JosePluma: 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.

    Also there was the menstruation which seriously hampered a woman’s physical ability for a number of days during which combat could take place. Furthermore, you don’t want to lose blood and then get stabbed. 

    • #13
    • January 18, 2020, at 12:12 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. Henry Castaigne Member

    Franco (View Comment):
    I imagine Klavan has become annoyed at the general promotion- so much of it badly done – of female fighters. I defer to your knowledge about swordplay but nevertheless women are not fighters. Not even close.

    That isn’t the case with knife fighting. In regular fisticuffs, big burly dudes have a huge advantage. But with a sharp knife. The blows of the physically became much more capable of lethal damage very quickly. My experience with knife fighting leads me to agree with Shadiversity’s nuance. 

    • #14
    • January 18, 2020, at 12:15 AM PST
    • 1 like
  15. Doctor Robert Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Definitely not enough posts about swords on Ricochet.

    JosePluma: 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.

    Also there was the menstruation which seriously hampered a woman’s physical ability for a number of days during which combat could take place. Furthermore, you don’t want to lose blood and then get stabbed.

    Menstruation is overblown. Average menstrual blood loss is about 40 cc. Blood volume for a 125# woman is about 3600 cc. One part in 90. Meh.

    But I’d still bet on the guy winning 80-90% of the time. Most of the cases of successful women given above, like the ex-Olympian physician, are obvious exceptions.

    • #15
    • January 18, 2020, at 3:20 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    But I’d still bet on the guy winning 80-90% of the time. Most of the cases of successful women given above, like the ex-Olympian physician, are obvious exceptions.

    Yeah. I’ll buy a rare exceptional woman who’s able to keep up with men. (They did historically exist in the military; they just cross dressed. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartime_cross-dressers ) I can even handle a situation in the referenced Terry Pratchett novel, where the small troop of women were all cross dressing and discovered the truth, as just exaggeration for comedic effect. It’s armies of women that irritate me.

    And I’ll buy women, particularly in an early middle ages type setting, getting enough self defense training through brothers and farm work to do more than scream helplessly. Not necessarily swordsmanship, but how to use a staff and a knife. After all, male serfs that were pressed into service as foot soldiers and pikemen weren’t given extensive training either. 

    • #16
    • January 18, 2020, at 5:06 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Arahant Member

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):
    It’s armies of women that irritate me.

    Interesting facts about colonel Gaddafi and his virgin ...

    • #17
    • January 18, 2020, at 5:21 AM PST
    • 1 like
  18. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):
    It’s armies of women that irritate me.

    Interesting facts about colonel Gaddafi and his virgin ...

    Let me rephrase that — it’s armies of women in settings where they can’t be equipped with modern firearms that annoys me. I have no problem with women being a significant part of a modern army, provided they are the above-average ones who can actually meet the male physical requirements.

    • #18
    • January 18, 2020, at 5:35 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  19. Arahant Member

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):
    Let me rephrase that — it’s armies of women in settings where they can’t be equipped with modern firearms that annoys me. I have no problem with women being a significant part of a modern army, provided they are the above-average ones who can actually meet the male physical requirements.

    Considering that was a picture of Muamar Khaddaffy’s all-female guard, probably not fully in that category.

    • #19
    • January 18, 2020, at 5:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. Stad Thatcher

    JosePluma: 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.

    I’m sorry, but you still need sufficient strength to wield the sword in the first place. When the swords are light, skill is much more important than strength. I know. Having fenced sabre for over fifteen years, I’ve had my share of butt-kicking from female opponents. Fencing sabres weigh a little over a pound. However, we’re talking about swords that can weigh up to ten pounds. This requires strength and skill, with strength being a significant factor.

    Klavan did say he had no doubt there were some women who could beat a man in a sword fight, all things equal. However, I have to agree with his assertion that in general, a women would come up on the short end of the stick – or sword, in this case . . .

    • #20
    • January 18, 2020, at 7:31 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  21. OccupantCDN Coolidge

    Why do women have their own leagues? Golf? Basketball? Baseball? Hockey? Women have their own leagues because they (as a general rule, there are individuals who are exceptional exceptions) couldn’t compete with men.

    Ironically the only professional league to have a woman play, (as far as I know) is the NHL in 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning had Manon Rheume play with them against the St Louis Blues. (she played goal)

    Also the sword being a force multiplier… This sounds true, it stands to reason the more force you’re able to apply to it the more damage will result in a strike… A mid-evil battle isnt like a duel or a tournament – your goal is literally to beat your opponent to death. I dont think women would be as effective as a man in that role.

    • #21
    • January 18, 2020, at 8:11 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  22. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “All things being equal” still means equal for the combatants’ respective sex. The only permutation that favors a woman (in mortal combat) is if she’s Olympic-athlete level fitness and he’s a couch potato. If they’re both couch potatoes, he wins. If they’re both athletes, he wins again. Men are bigger, faster, stronger. Duh. Women may excel in endurance, but I’m betting men overcome them 99% of the time in endurance, too. 

    I can tolerate the amazing feats of Black Widow in the Marvel movies because Marvel doesn’t take itself too seriously (with the possible exception of Captain Marvel, which I haven’t seen). It’s a romp. But, these gothic – medieval series with 125 lb women throwing 250 lb men across the room in supposed seriousness. . . they lose me.

    • #22
    • January 18, 2020, at 8:36 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. Full Size Tabby Member

    JosePluma: 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.

    I think this is a critically important factor in history. Every society needs more humans. Only a woman can gestate and give birth to more humans. And it takes her 9 months to produce one (or rarely two or even more rarely three). A society needs far fewer men than women to produce more humans. Continuance and growth of your tribe requires more women than men, so you need to protect those women for their most valuable work. You can send men off to battle, since men are much more expendable. [There’s also the whole difference in nature between the typical woman and the typical man, but that’s for other discussion threads.]

    • #23
    • January 18, 2020, at 10:13 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  24. Henry Castaigne Member

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Menstruation is overblown. Average menstrual blood loss is about 40 cc. Blood volume for a 125# woman is about 3600 cc. One part in 90. Meh.

    I’ve never menstruated before so I didn’t know. I apologize for my ignorance. 

    • #24
    • January 18, 2020, at 12:37 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  25. William Fehringer Member

    I could agree with Shad that a trained woman could take a trained man one-on-one in a sword fight. But I think the real issue would be having to do it over and over again in a pitched battle. Strength and stamina would begin to outweigh gracefulness and technical ability.

    • #25
    • January 18, 2020, at 12:45 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  26. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Menstruation is overblown. Average menstrual blood loss is about 40 cc. Blood volume for a 125# woman is about 3600 cc. One part in 90. Meh.

    I’ve never menstruated before so I didn’t know. I apologize for my ignorance.

    It does become a bit more of a problem if she doesn’t have ways to supplement iron in her diet, and historical army diets aren’t known for their nutritional balance.

    • #26
    • January 18, 2020, at 1:32 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  27. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A handful of medieval swordfighting manuals have survived to today. Knights in heavy armor did a lot of bludgeoning. An English longsword is heavy.

    So, yes, the armored queen in The Witcher is a bit silly. A woman in leather armor with a shortsword would be unusual, even in ancient times, but believeable. In a place where women are physical laborers, they are strong and coordinated. 

    But Klavan’s complaint isn’t about one character or one show. It’s about a trend of feminist fighters in cinema. While annoyed by a silly trend, it can be difficult to look past even mild hints of it. 

    As silly trends go, this isn’t the worst. Guys like to look at pretty women, so there is some compensation.

    But it does mislead young women who are lied to beyond entertainment. I once tried unsuccessfully to explain to a young woman that her employer was not being “sexist” by insisting that a man drive the company truck late at night in a dangerous gang-ridden area. Whether or not she was scared, she was the greater liability because the truck was more likely to be robbed with a pretty young woman behind the wheel.

    • #27
    • January 18, 2020, at 1:41 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  28. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    @josepluma:

    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.

    Jeanne d’Arc did not fight as a combatant; she directed armies under her control and carried a banner to lead and inspire her soldiers; she was even wounded in battle twice, but she did not personally engage the enemy.

    https://www.history.com/news/7-surprising-facts-about-joan-of-arc

    There is no evidence that I could find the Queen Boudicca personally fought as a combatant. Again, she was a leader of armies, not a fighter.

    https://www.historynet.com/boudica-celtic-war-queen-who-challenged-rome.htm

    Mulan is largely regarded as a fictional character rather than an actual person.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hua_Mulan

    It is also not clear that the Amazons actually existed.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazons

    So, in short, none of these examples truly support your thesis.

    • #28
    • January 18, 2020, at 3:25 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  29. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Pugshot (View Comment):
    So, in short, none of these examples truly support your thesis.

    No, but Brita Olofsdotter, Aal de Dragonder, Louise Antonini, Anna Maria Lane, and quite a few others on the list I previous linked do.

    • #29
    • January 18, 2020, at 4:10 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  30. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    Also the people in the witcher have genetic engineering.

    • #30
    • January 18, 2020, at 6:03 PM PST
    • 3 likes