On a normal basis I don’t muck around in comment section arguments. Partially that’s because internet debates tend to be mental ulcers that never heal, and partially because I figure others can handle it if someone’s peddling historical myths. But recently a topic keeps rearing its obnoxious head: the idea that it’s “unrealistic” for women in Dragon Age: Inquisition to wield longswords. Women, the argument goes, don’t have the strength to wield heavy blades. Furthermore, women didn’t fight wars in the middle ages and because of their “emotional” nature wouldn’t have the competence to serve in, or lead, a military force.
These claims are total nonsense. Even putting aside the dubious gender assumptions and irony of arguing about “realism” in a game with dragons on the cover, it shows a distinct ignorance of how much swords actually weigh and turns a blind eye to many women who did fight – and win – wars in medieval Europe.
The Problem of Selective Realism
Before we dive in, we need to talk about the underlying assumptions in this conversation. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantasy game, and like all fantasy worlds its realism is selective at best. This is perfectly natural since the fantasy genre evolved out of myths, folktales and fairy tales where the point wasn’t to depict reality, but display “truth.” These precursors to the fantasy genre were moral fables, with fantastic elements like dragons and unicorns serving allegorical roles in order to convey lessons to the audience. There was no need to make elements like talking animals or magic objects seem convincing because that wasn’t the point. Early 20th century genre greats like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, hewed close to this school of thought even as they built giant worlds – resonance was their watchword, rather than straight-faced believability.
But already fantasy was starting to drift from its allegorical roots. The Sword and Sorcery school championed by Robert E. Howard and the “pulp” authors turned imagined worlds from places where modern-day fables took place to sandboxes for visceral, combat-heavy adventures – material games like D&D later mined. Fantasy also increasingly fell into science fiction’s orbit, and absorbed the genre’s interest in worlds that felt “real.” This ironically created a situation where fantasy, a genre based on medieval folktales not meant to reflect real life when they were written, started to incorporate medieval history to make itself feel “authentic.” That’s why you’re reading a deep, evidence-based historical argument about a game that features dragons.
But it’s particularly interesting that in a series like Dragon Age, certain players consider women with longswords an unrealistic element. After all, no one has written a two-post treatise about how the dragons have terrible aerodynamics, inadequate wingspan for flight, and don’t have light, hollow bones like pterosaurs. Yet apparently some players who can accept such an anatomically unlikely creature feel that a woman swinging a longsword is a major world-building flaw.
Frankly, this probably says more about the player and his assumptions than it does about the game – but even so, it doesn’t hold up to factual scrutiny.
Swords Aren’t Actually That Heavy
For a long time people thought medieval swords were hefty, crude instruments. This started in the 18th and 19th centuries, when swordsmen championed lighter, quicker blades as superior to their “barbaric” ancestors. Legends about swords only heroes could hold (Excalibur) and hyperbolic tales about historical figures who swung blades no normal man could lift cemented the idea of heavy, clumsy swords in the public consciousness. Early 20th century historians muddled this issue further when they repeated these early sources uncritically, and mistook ceremonial swords in museum collections – ones never intended for use in combat – as examples of 16th and 15th century weapons. Due to this, you’ll still find slipshod documentaries on The History Channel (the world’s most trusted source for UFO documentaries) that claim medieval swords weighed ten, twenty or even forty pounds. Finally, Hollywood and the game industry played their part too. We almost never see Medieval and Renaissance fighting styles represented onscreen, perpetuating the idea that swordfights were a hack-and-slash affair with weighty blades, rather than a specific subclass of martial art. In most games you can’t even thrust – which was often the only way a sword could kill an armored man.
But this image of the heavy longsword couldn’t be more wrong. Researchers who’ve studied medieval swords in museum collections have determined that the weight of an average longsword was between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds. Indeed, even the famous hand-and-a-half “war swords” rarely weighed more than 4.5 pounds – or about as much as a 13-inch Macbook Pro. Furthermore, arms specialists have discovered that swords intended for practical use were nimble, balanced, and easy to handle provided the holder uses them in the fighting style they were made for. Indeed, no less than Ewart Oakeshott, the 20th century’s greatest historian of medieval arms and armor, argued these points extensively in his book Sword in Hand. “Such weights,” he wrote, “to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven … were by no means too great to be practical.” Even the enormous two-handed swords carried by Swiss mercenaries during the Renaissance – often called “great swords” in RPGs – only weighed between 5-8 pounds, and some weighed just over three pounds. Their handling made up for this extra weight as well, since they were probably used in a wide-handed grip like a halberd rather than the way they’re depicted in games.
Indeed, for the men that depended on these objects as a weapon of war, a heavy sword would be more of a liability than an advantage. First, it would make a swordsman slow and ponderous, easy prey for someone with a faster weapon. Second, a heavier sword adds significantly to fatigue. And finally, contrary to popular opinion, a heavier sword doesn’t necessarily hold a significant damage advantage. The amount of damage a sword causes when striking is a product of its speed, angle, sharpness, striking edge, and the stance the wielder uses delivering the blow. Any one of these things (higher speed especially) could make a lighter sword perform better than a heavier one, and a heavy blade can negatively affect both speed and fighting form.
Yet game animations love to emphasize how much power it takes to swing a sword, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. Wielding a heavy weapon that cuts epic swathes through the enemy is part of the power fantasy the genre thrives on. Making a big, two-handed sword – or a longsword for that matter – look nimble and quick undercuts the constant feedback that your character is mighty and strong.
I’m hardly the first person to point out that this, though often satisfying, isn’t how medieval foot soldiers – not to mention knights – used swords. Games are still stuck to the old idea that soldiers killed armored men by battering their armor in, but swords are ill suited to that role. Most swords meant to penetrate armor would do so by thrusting, since if your intention is to bash an opponent to death you’re better off with a mace, flail or war hammer – something that delivers an enormous about of kinetic force to a single point. Really, if you’re looking for realistic sword fighting, games aren’t the place to find it.
So what, exactly keeps women from wielding a longsword? Not the weight, certainly, since most would be less than hefting a laptop. Not the awkwardness and force of the swing, since most were well-balanced and agile in trained hands. Therefore there’s absolutely no reason to claim the women in Dragon Age shouldn’t be able to use the weapon.
This is particularly true since the Harcourt Park World Invitational Jousting Competition’s 2013 longsword champion, Samantha Swords, just happens to be a woman.
The reason women weren’t using swords in the middle ages wasn’t that they were unable to do so, but that they never got the training – an obstacle not present in Dragon Age.
But then again, recent scholarship increasingly finds that medieval women were no strangers to the battlefield.
Warrior Women in Medieval Europe
In fact, there are quite a few medieval sources that record women fighting in wars. While this sometimes occurred out of desperation, other women fought out of religious or political zeal. In some cases, powerful noblewomen marched with an army at their back.
Women could find themselves brevetted into military service during a siege, for example. Ramon Muntaner, a commander in the Catalan Company, recalled in his chronicle that during a desperate siege against the Genoese he ordered the women of Gallipoli to don armor and take up positions on the walls. “The battle was very hard,” Muntaner recalled. “And our women defended the barbacana [outer wall], with stones and pieces of rock which I had had placed on the wall… Indeed, a woman was found there who had five wounds in her face from [crossbow] quarrels and still continued the defense as if she had no hurt.” The battle lasted all night, ending when the Catalan mercenaries drove the Genoese back to their ships.
Or consider the case of Margaret of Beverly, a preternaturally unlucky woman whose pilgrimage to Jerusalem coincided with Saladin’s capture of the city in 1187. During the attack Margaret rushed to the battlements wearing a man’s breastplate and a cauldron for a helmet. For the next fifteen days she defended the walls, fulfilling all the duties of a soldier. “Though a woman, I seemed a warrior,” she recalled in her biography. “I threw the weapon. Though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness. It was hot … I was giving the soldiers at the wall water to drink, when a stone like a millwheel fell near me. I was hit by one of its fragments; my blood ran.” Captured during the battle, Margaret paid her ransom and continued traveling the Holy Land for four years. During that time she was captured, enslaved, released, recaptured, sentenced to death, and released again when her piety impressed a Turkish commander. When she finally returned to England, the ordeal had changed her so much that her brother – a monk who wrote down her story – at first thought she was an imposter.
These accounts are only beginning to gain attention from scholars, but the more academics look for them the more they seem to find. A Florentine manuscript describes a female archer who drove away two pirate ships in 1341. Meanwhile, a closer look at the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt has revealed that women not only served as political agitators but actually led the violent rioters that stormed London. One woman, Johanna Ferrour, developed a particularly impressive rap sheet: she stole a chest of gold from a duke, burned the Savoy Palace, and led the mobs that beheaded both the royal treasurer and the Lord Chancellor.
Likewise, female military commanders were not unknown in the medieval and Renaissance period, though they often didn’t fight themselves. Joan of Arc is the obvious example, but the most pertinent one would be Matilda of Canossa, an Italian noblewoman predominantly known for her military victories. Matilda supported the reformist Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, fighting a series of battles with papal enemies including Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Matilda’s armies were the one thing standing between Henry and Rome, and for sixteen years the two slugged it out over the papal seat before Matilda sent Henry packing across the Alps. At one point, Matilda even served as the de facto voice of the papacy after Henry captured Rome and installed a competing pope. It’s important to note that generals didn’t manage these victories either – Matilda rode at the head of her army in a custom suit of armor and commanded battles in person. Her defense of the papacy became so legendary that she became the first woman entombed in St. Peter’s Basilica.
And Matilda wasn’t alone, there were other women who held important political positions during wartime. Margaret of Anjou led the Lancastrian faction for several years during the Wars of the Roses (and inspired the character of Cersei Lannister), proving a talented if ultimately unsuccessful wartime leader. Indeed, some historical documents from Italy list abbesses among the nobles who provided troops, meaning landed women may have had a larger role than previously thought in raising and preparing military units for warfare.
Given this legacy of women serving in and leading medieval militaries, I feel like the women in Dragon Age who’re sitting around council tables, leading troops and swinging longswords are right where they belong.