Fitness

Women Fighters of the Modern Middle Ages

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Meet some of my friends, who do cool martial arts: Queen Kaylah, Sir Aelfwyn, and Baronesses Jocea and Kersteken.

Kaylah and Aelfwyn are heavy weapons fighters, and both have been recognized as knights for their fighting prowess. Aelfwyn has been fighting since 1991. She was a “bookworm couch potato” before that.

Sir Aelfwyn, holding a shield with three boars, fights Baron Kohlbjorn. Both combatants are wearing red tunics and helmets, and fighting with rattan swords.

Kaylah is also Queen by right of arms, which means she fought and won Crown Tournament, a semi-annual event for the Kingdom of Ealdormere (which is roughly the province of Ontario).

Kaylah as been fighting since she was 18, and went on her first date with Trumbrand, who is now her husband. She fell in love with the sport immediately. She is now 55. More recently, she took up fencing.

Jocea and Kersteken are also fencers. Jocea says her first love is the heavy weapons fighting she first took up about 25 years ago, but for the past five years she has been fencing because it doesn’t hurt her aging body as much.

Jocea, on the right, fights Cesare on the left. Both are wearing mail shirts and protective face coverings. Jocea is holding a small buckler (a kind of shield).

Kersteken has been fencing for ten years. She tried heavy fighting but decided it wasn’t her jam. She is also a weightlifter and does yoga and cross-country skis. In additions, she is a busy nurse and mom of two teenagers. She started fighting because she was bored as virtually all her friends were also fighters. She loves it because it is the only time when she can turn off all the things in her brain and concentrate just on fighting.

Kersteken, on the left, wearing a mail shirt, inspects Hocea’s armour and weapons for safety before she begins fighting.

Ealdormere is a bit of an outlier in our club, as approximately half our fencers and 1/4 of our heavy weapons fighters are women. Both these sports are fought by all sexes, with no divisions by age, size or gender. The statistics in other kingdoms are much lower. We also have more royal women by right of arms: one princess from the days before we were an independent kingdom, and two queens.

Getting into fighting can be hard if you don’t have the right supports. Role models are huge, of course, but so is having the right equipment. Early patterns for armour were not adapted for women’s body shapes (breasts, shorter torsos, etc).

Technique matters too. Kaylah says she can’t rely on her height or weight to compensate for a less-than-perfect shot. The traditional teaching comes from long established techniques typically developed by and for large men who, with abundant upper body strength, didn’t need to rely as much on form to produce the striking power necessary. Smaller stature fighters, typically women, need to use whole body mechanics to develop the same power, a requirement that can easily be missed by coaches who have never needed it themselves.

Kaylah, in the centre, holds her ground with a great sword while Sir Kellen attacks from the left. More fighters in the background wait their turn to join the field.

Aelfwyn says that where a large man can get away with maybe 40% perfect technique, she has to have 80% technique for the same result. She went on to explain that coaching techniques are improving as these sorts of issues become more mainstream, in particular crediting on-line coaching discussions that became popular during the pandemic.

Female fighters have typically been somewhat isolated, simply because they are rare in many parts of the world. On-line “coaches corner” sessions with guests including my old friend Sir Elizabeth Mortimer and a series of round tables with female knights had a very positive impact on changing coaching techniques to address the issues specific to smaller fighters and women. Many of these are available on YouTube. If you think this looks like a fun thing to try, please go take a look.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, also known as @Ealdormere. She has been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (#TheSCA @SCAsocial) for nearly 40 years. She tried fighting once, and decided she bruises far too easily. Instead, she cooks and does crafts.

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