Depictions of Sword Women that are (Mostly) Awesome


In my previous post — that was both lauded and lynched* — I complained about how most depictions of women in photos and artwork make them look more endangered than dangerous. As a follow-up to that post, here are some photos and artwork that don’t make women look like feeble idiots when they pick up a sword. Truly, quite the opposite.

We’ll start with Brienne. There are multiple stunt coordinators on the Game of Thrones TV series, but only one swordmaster listed — C.C. Smiff. Whether it’s Smiff or someone else, whoever handles Brienne’s fight scenes keeps her in good form. She actually looks dangerous and competent both onscreen and in these promotional stills. And she’s highly watchable when she’s fighting. Great stuff. Notice that, unlike the women in my previous post, she keeps the sword tip forward and away from her face.

They do a terrific job with Arya and her Needle, too (although some of Maisie’s out-of-character publicity stills are a bit unfortunate).

While Xena’s armor is sometimes ridiculous and her grip in this photo isn’t perfect, I like this picture because, unlike that still of Michonne in my previous post, she’s actually protecting her head with this katana.

It’s no surprise that some of the better photos and artwork are Asian. My friend Keith in the link I gave above posts some stunning stills from Asian action films and artwork that take women with weapons seriously. On my own without Keith’s expertise, I couldn’t find much, but I do like this one:

And although her saya should be secured in her hakama belts rather than detached, this is still beautiful:

I pick on the saya issue because it’s a critical piece of equipment that protects your sword. If it’s not hitched to your hakama or whatever, you’ll drop it and lose it in battle. Therefore, if you keep it handy, you’ll be able to protect your sword after the fight. Ergo, you’ll continue to protect yourself and probably shorten the life of your next enemy.

Turning to comics, the preliminary artwork for Ann Nocenti’s “Katana” by Alex Sanchez looks really promising:

For the record, while I appreciate the strength they are trying to imbue this character and others by having them hold a katana one-handed, the sword just doesn’t work that way. It’s a two-handed weapon. Now, if you’re practicing nito-ken, that’s different because the two swords are working together in a scissoring technique. But a one-handed katana doesn’t really work as well. The power behind your cuts comes from your core. Really muscular folk can kind of blast their way through anything and make it work to a degree, but proper handling is what gives the katana its best edge, so to speak, for the deepest and most deadly cuts.

Some people complained that I was just being an authenticity Nazi in my last post. They entirely missed the point. Compare the women in these images to those in the other post and you’ll see what I mean. A change in grip and stance can mean the difference between wet dream that couldn’t hurt a fly if she tried to a gorgeous bad ass who’s going to thread her “needle” with your intestines. You could argue that it’s “just eye candy” and “art.” But why does art have to debilitate women? Why can’t it make them look strong, dangerous and sexy at the same time? If you want to draw naked chicks, fine. I’ve got nothing against naked chicks, porn and erotica. In fact, I love it all. But this disingenuous “arming” of the arm candy is just infantilizing bullshit.

I’ll end with two more brilliant shots of Alex Kingston as Boudica.



*MODERATION POLICY: I’ll approve only courteous comments that contribute. I didn’t publish all of the comments I received for the last post because almost no one was interested in a constructive conversation. Most people were either bitterly offended that I had hard words for Michonne’s sword stance or didn’t get the issue at all (they didn’t sound as if they’d read the whole article). So, please be polite, even if you disagree.

99 thoughts on “Depictions of Sword Women that are (Mostly) Awesome

  1. Love the images. Keep fighting the good fight. One tiny nit, though. In my experience, 鞘, the scabbard for a Japanese sword, is more accurately romanized as “saya.”

  2. While I agree to and enjoy most of your sayings in this and the former post, I’d like to disagree on your “picking on the scia issue”:
    When fighting with your in battle, you don’t need any scabbard. In fact, it may become an obstacle.
    So – temporary – getting rid of it is no bad idea, and was practised.
    By the time you need to protect your blade again, the fight should be over and you have time to pick it up again.

    There are even some techniques in eastern and western martial art using the scabbard for a quick surprise attack while drawing the sword.

    And at last, talking about art pictures: You don’t know where the sword came from in the fictional scene. It could be taken from anywhere and not being worn the moment before.

    • Hi Alex! I guess this is where I’m speaking from my experience. In Shinkendo, we are taught to push the saya back on the belt out of the way as an instinct when drawing. Maybe there are other ryus that drop the saya or do something else with it. Heck, for that matter, your sword could break during battle! If you’re lucky, you’ll have the chance to pick up another. 🙂

      You’ve made some interesting points, and I’m glad you commented, but the sample pics I’ve chosen here don’t seem to reflect any of the techniques you describe. Hey — if you have a link to a video or something with that surprise attack with the saya, I’d love to see an example of that! I’m always up for seeing new-to-me stuff.

      • Hello Maria,

        I come from a western martial arts background, and there it is quite common to loose the scabbard before getting serious.
        Most pictures of battles show the fighters without them, and there are some where you can see the scabbards on the ground like this one:
        (Aftermath of a battle, the guy getting killed was the headsman of an army, as said, just one example)

        The surprise attack is taught in an italian medieval fencing manual from Fiore de Liberi ( )

        Speaking of eastern martial arts, I have no sources, because it’s not my focus. I get to learn some stuff here and there mostly at crossover meetings, and have never looked deeper into it.

      • Aha! It’s a European thing then. 🙂 In the East, it’s not done with the katana. It’s possible some lively character in historical fiction might have studied both and combines the arts, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.

        Thank you very much for the links and information, though! I really appreciate it. Some time ago I studied some Italian rapier for stage combat and I recall learning about Fiore de’i Liberi. It’s great to revisit that, especially.

      • Isn’t there a tradition (at least in terms of literature and entertainment) of samurai throwing aside their saya to show their commitment to an important fight; indicating they expect to die, but will only fight the harder for it? Specifically, I recall calling attention to that tradition being one of the psychological tactics Musashi used on Sasaki Kojiro in their great duel as portrayed in the Yoshikawa novel. “You’ve lost, Kojiro… If you were going to win, you wouldn’t throw your scabbard away. You’ve cast away your future, your life.”

        Casually throwing aside a scabbard is almost as annoying in media as that scraping sound they insist on putting over drawing a blade; but done well, done deliberately it becomes a powerful shorthand for tension and potential foreshadowing–because of the reasons you mentioned it isn’t supposed to be done in general.

      • That’s a fascinating reference! I’ll have to check that out.

        Casually throwing aside a scabbard is almost as annoying in media as that scraping sound they insist on putting over drawing a blade; but done well, done deliberately it becomes a powerful shorthand for tension and potential foreshadowing–because of the reasons you mentioned it isn’t supposed to be done in general.

        Precisely. If any of these characters even looked like they were in that frame of mind, I’d probably give it a pass. 🙂

      • Hi Maria! Thanks! I promise to keep you honest! I haven’t had a chance to train as much as I’d like (mostly a few years of Aikido and fencing, and I try to keep up with a collection of my own waster, bokken, jos, a Fulani sword, and rattan sword, even a battered homemade Templar replica shield). I have, however, read up on it quite a bit, since my Masters and PhD focus was the Knights Templar.

        A few concerns–the term “Middle Ages” spans about twelve centuries and a pretty massive section of Eurasia. There is therefore no such thing as a single European martial art, medieval or otherwise. Byzantine heavy cavalry and infantry, Viking raiding, Turkish strike-and-run, crusader siege warfare, and tourney melees bear very little resemblance to each other and contain very different weapons and fighting philosophies prosecuted by very different people and cultures. Hence my initial skepticism about Brienne’s armor.

        Second, despite this, I often see everything “medieval” lumped into the Germanic and Italian schools, which are more properly Renaissance hand-to-hand urban dueling. This is simply laziness. Partly, it’s because these schools are explained in guidebooks that go back no further than the late 13th century and partly, it’s because Early Modern scholars, especially, just loooooooove to extrapolate back from the Reformation and Renaissance deep into medieval times for anything they deem “barbaric.” I hate to break it to them, but medieval people were in many ways more cultured and civilized than the hot mess we see in the Reformation period.

        More to the point, there is a major break, even in Western European martial arts, between earlier centuries and the 14th century onward. Swords get a lot longer and pointier. Preferred armor changes from chain to plate (and then to cuirasses when guns come into common use). Personal combat, particularly without armor and using not-quite-swords like the coustille, grows as a custom among non-nobles. You can even see some of those in the linked illustration to a nobleman being assassinated by attackers, at least some of whom appear to be non-nobles (probably servants) using coustilles.

        So, getting back to the scabbard issue–it really depends. For example, the Templar Rule (12th-13th century) is quite harsh on any brother who loses any equipment. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely they’d have been dropping anything, including a scabbard, during a fight. Add to that that the bulk of the fighters among the Templars (even the sergeant backups) were riding horses. Ain’t nobody gonna be dropping any scabbards in the middle of a cavalry clash. You’d never get them back and those suckers are not cheap.

        I think the important thing to consider here is who is using what, when and for what purpose. Contrary to what many artists seem to think, swords are like any other weapon. They have a purpose. And what they look like, how they’re used, has everything to do with that.

      • Well, yes and no. We have evidence for both continuities and differences/discontinuities in the European fighting arts across the 14th-century transition from broader, flatter cut-oriented swords to more tapered thrust-oriented ones. Yes, the earliest surviving manual that shows European swordsmanship actions in any significant detail — the early- to mid-14th century MS I.33 — has complex binding and winding techniques that display some very clear similarities to later treatises in the so-called “German” and “Italian” traditions. But at the same time it preserves evidence of how earlier sword-and-shield combat could have kept the sword-hand and sword-arm safe by performing attacks in such a way that the hand remains covered by the buckler, which isn’t that similar to how the “Liechtenauer” and “Fiore” traditions (as well as other strains such as the Nuremberg group) protect the hands through precise angulation of the blade or (in a pinch) the cross. So while it’s true that we don’t really have fighting manuals that can be used as direct sources for earlier (say, 11th- to 13th-century) European swordsmanship styles, the later manuals are far from useless for extrapolating backwards to figure out what the earlier styles might have looked like. It’s also worth noting that we have plenty of evidence to show that unarmoured “civilian” duelling as well as “sport” swordsmanship done for fun or exercise (rather than for killing) was practiced throughout the entire span of the Middle Ages — another important thread of continuity between the early and the late medieval era. There would have been many situations where early medieval warriors could have tossed their scabbards aside or handed them to a groom, servant, or friend so as not to become encumbered by it when they expected to fight with swords.

        That being said, Fiore’s technique of defending with the scabbard is pretty much just one technique among many, and there are so many other plays in his work that would work perfectly well without using, damaging, or discarding the scabbard. In fact, many later manuals (from the late 15th and the 16th centuries) show people fighting with scabbards on, usually in armoured plays but also occasionally in unarmoured combat. Take the “Gladiatoria” group for example — it’s particularly interesting since it may be a largely separate tradition from the “Liechtenauer” and “Fiore” lineages we’ve known about for a while, but for the purpose of the discussion we can just look at the scabbards hanging around on people’s hips all over the plays.

        It just underlines your 100% correct point that “There is (…) no such thing as a single European martial art, medieval or otherwise.” And one technique doesn’t make an entire Art — even Fiore and his students would have been perfectly happy to keep their scabbards intact if they weren’t in a sufficiently desperate situation to warrant parrying an incoming blow with it.

  3. Fascinating stuff! I know next to nothing about swordsmanship, and really appreciate your take on this (both posts!). And also: extra KUDOS to you for moderating your comments, and working to keep it kind and real. 🙂

  4. I love Brienne’s fight choreography, but her armor is pretty ridiculous for her being a horseless woman-for-hire. Why is she walking around in armor that only a rich person with a highly trained war horse would wear to stave off crossbow bolts? And what is Game of Thrones’ allergy to showing shields or the 98 percent of the population that isn’t high nobility, in the military, a prostitute, or a courtier/servant/slave?

    GoT suffers from the usual problem of a failure to think through these questions. It goes back to the source material, but that doesn’t make what’s on screen any less ridiculous.

    I really liked Xena. The choreography of that show (and on shows like Buffy) was way over the top and not at all realistic, but Lucy Lawless still came off as totally badass.

    • Good points! I think perhaps when Brienne was in the Rainbow Guard, Renly gave her whatever he could afford — and that was a lot, for a short bit, anyway. And maybe that was expected of her. That’s what I assumed and might be wrong.

      I think lots of TV goes for over-the-top fight choreography, but I do enjoy it.

      • Oh, that’s a good point. I could see that as ceremonial armor that also happens to have a function (just not the right one for tromping around in the woods on foot).

        TV does, doesn’t it? Though Highlander was good with doing different styles in a reasonably realistic way. Too bad it was also just a tad misogynistic, at least until season six. But I still loved that show. Soooo much sword porn. Queen of Swords had the same fight coordinator and did some good fights, too.

      • Brienne is a lord’s daughter, too. She’s fallen a long way, now, but certainly had the means to invest in good armor in the past.

    • Brienne’s capacity to fight seems a bit mixed. Certainly in the last season of Game of Thrones when she and The Hound fight, it is a breakthrough in film. However, there were some disappointments, too. When she and Jamie were caught by the riders on the bridge, she simply surrenders. Japanese warrior (man or woman), armed with a naginata (glaive or halberd in the West) might have waded in, taking advantage of the fact the horses could come through only piecemeal. Cut the legs of the first mount, and it goes down. She might either make an escape in the confusion, or if the enemy falters, she could wade in. Men unhorsed. Crushed by their mounts. Horses rearing. No real way forward onto the bridge. Surprised by the decision to fight back, it could have been a rout.

      I think we have to wait a bit longer before the audience would believe that action.

      • I agree, and it’s not limited to Brienne. I’m currently working on a blog post about Teen Wolf’s Kira and her somewhat useless katana. Yes, she got in a critical hit on the Oni — aided by Scott, naturally ::rolls eyes:: — but the rest of the time it’s been almost pointless for her to have any weapon all. But if we stick to popular impressions, Brienne’s empowered well enough, even if some actions don’t seem seasoned. Does she surrender like that in the book? I can’t recall.

      • I started the series, and stopped pretty much at the beginning of book one. However, social pressures, what they are, I have followed the series on HBO. Not sure if Brienne surrendered.

        Yes. Big question: will the audience turn on the character if she truly is able to defend herself without help?

      • In the book, Brienne and Jaime end up fighting in a stream in the woods – possibly wrestling and swordless; I can’t recall offhand, but I sort of remember one was physically on top of the other. It puts them at a much greater tactical disadvantage when a group of armed men basically appear around them.

      • Ah Craig! Thank you. That makes a huge difference. My own prejudices come from a yet-to-be-release manuscript where my main characters comes across a bridge onto a castle island and the defenders (of superior number) ride to meet her and three others–its a main bridge and wide, but not too wide. She and her compatriots are able to fight the opposition piecemeal. I suppose since I had blocked this out in my head, when I saw it on Thrones, I was taken aback. But wresting in the water? A bad place to be, especially against enemies on horseback. Very different.

  5. Sorry, I should mention that the allergy to shields is more in Westeros, as we get some shield-and-spearwork of the Ancient Greek hoplite-and-phalanx type in the scenes involving the Unsullied in the east. But in the medievalesque scenes in Westeros, somebody seems to have assumed that medieval people didn’t fight with shields, which, as the excavations of Visby and other battle sites demonstrate, wasn’t true.

    • Incidentally, I totally agree about the shields. I can’t remember, though — do the Black Brothers use shields? I seem to recall it a bit in the books but I’m not sure we’ve seen it on the show.

      • No, they have big, honkin’, totally-inefficient Greatswords! ‘Cause those will totally keep their edges and not shatter in the extreme cold at all!

        Basically, I think GRRM has a hardon for Scottish history and culture without quite understanding Scottish history and culture. Hence all the stuff like the Red Wedding and the Wildlings being a very strange amalgamation of Picts, Sami, Vikings, and Reformation Era Scots lairds, all jammed into the category of “Skraelings.” This totally ignores the fact that Skraelings were First Nations people, especially the Inuit, who were themselves just coming into the area after crossing all the way over from Alaska. The Inuit were totally badass–they beat the Vikings and took over Greenland because they adapted to The Little Ice Age better.

        But nooooo, can’t have non-Celt analogues in our icy realms. That would be bad.

      • Right! Yes, I remember now. I have another blog post that’s a “letter” to GRRM about swordmaking, too, which is pretty much based on Highlander — like many genre fans, you know. 🙂

        I’m totally impressed with your historical knowledge. I hope you’ll hang out and keep me honest!

    • (couple years late, I note)
      Westeros’ knights typically wear full plate, which historically was associated with dropping shields in favor of two-handed weapons like polearms or greatswords, because plate is awesome. Of course, foot soldiers can’t afford it. Googling, I found mention of the Shieldhall at Castle Black, where the shields of past knights were hung. mentions various shields in Westeros (as well as a diversity of armor that seems lifted from D&D.)

      But yeah, an image of show wildlings showed spearmen in furs and leathers, no shield. Oops! But I think this is the show’s fault, not GRRM’s alleged hardon for the Scots.

      • Well, sort-of-not-really. Full plate has a lot to do with being protection against crossbow bolts and not so much to do with anything else. It also makes you pretty useless and easy to kill when you are not on a horse, so expense is not the only reason footsoldiers didn’t wear it. It went out of style fairly quickly after about a century and a half (though cuirasses continued to be popular for a century or so afterward), due to being useless against even early firearms. Regardless, it’s not something you’d be wearing while roaming about the woods. It’s too friggin’ heavy. I’ve also always been skeptical that people actually fought on foot in duels in plate armor. Chain mail? Yes. Plate? Eh…, what’s the advantage to that?

        Also, it was not at all universal, even in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Battle of Visby was in 1361.

        I don’t think GRRM’s obsession with Scottish history is speculative at all, when he’s basically admitted to it in talking about his inspiration for the Red Wedding. As for the Wildlings, they appear to be a rather toxic combination of stereotypes about Picts and “Skraelings” (Greenlander and Canadian First Nations people). GRRM’s approach towards race isn’t the best.

      • A little off point, but . . .

        In Japan the main purpose of armor was protection against arrows, not swords or lances. Armor was metal, leather–tied by silk strands and lacquered, and given the Japanese facility with dyes, resulting in remarkable color. The unified colors and pattern gave the illusion that the armor was a single thing. Actually only the most vital parts were shielded by metal. Keeping the armor light was key. Nevertheless, modern scholars speculate that the armor weighed as much as 40 kg. Given the weight of the samurai and her armor, and the relatively small stature of Asian horses, the ancient cavalry charges shown in modern film were not sustainable. The horses simply could not carry the weight for any distance.

        In the Heian era, a mounted samurai would lead her supporting troops in on horseback. From descriptions written in the 12th century it was a melee of riders and foot soldiers who intermingled and slogged it out.

        The samurai might be highly trained, but the troops who accompanied her might be farmers with limited skill in bow-and-arrow or sword. If anything, the general feel of it was along the line of the Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai.” Reading the diaries and accounts of the era, we see where warlords and samurai spent a good deal of time gathering their cadre. Some famous generals died (Yoshinaka, who I am currently writing about) because he set upon by a large number of enemy before he could gather his troops from their farm fields. With only his personal guard, he was completely outnumbered (I believe something like 15 to 1; 6,000 against 400).

        This was before the time of ritual seppuku, so when Yoshinaka killed himself to avoid capture, he put his blade into his mouth and then leapt from his horse and literally fell on his sword–it is said Tomoe Gozen escaped and the historic Yamabuki called in “sick.”

        Heian was very different, but probably far more bloody that Japan after 1630.

      • Plate armour wasn’t always correlated with the disappearance of shields. South of the Alps where the stars are strange, the Italians kept or even revived the use of shields even as the distinctive “Italian Gothic” style of armour was reaching its pinnacle of style, popularity, and perhaps even practicality (since the increasingly common arquebus at the end of the 15th century wasn’t yet consistently strong enough to penetrate the thickest and strongest parts in a high-quality suit of contemporary plate armour — usually the helmet and cuirass, while the arms and legs would have been made of thinner and somewhat less protective plates as an acceptable compromise for mobility’s sake).

        And as for duels in full plate armour, surviving records of feats of arms allow us to pronounce with a reasonable degree of certainty that it was done. Fairly often (on the order of dozens per year in the late 14th and 15th centuries). Of course, the recorded duels and melees largely involved the upper crust of society — the nobles and the very richest of knights — so this is exactly what we’d expect from the aristocratic bias of medieval European record-keeping. And on the other side we also have evidence for feats of arms where the rules and equipment negate the need for full armour (such as duels over the barrier, which would have obviated the need for leg armour since it’d be impractical to reach over the barrier to reach the opponent’s legs without getting mauled on the head) — but it’s also worth noting that these duels tended to be fought by extremely rich warriors who could afford a whole new suit of armour for this specific type of combat — or at least an entire garniture with an extensive choice of “pieces of exchange.”

        Full plate armour would also have been immensely desirable and useful on the battlefield for the minority who could afford it. The English even developed their own style in the late 14th century with specific features that facilitated fighting on foot — including “paunces” or skirts constructed separately from the upper half of the cuirass (as opposed to the more common feature of faulds/taces extending directly from the bottom of the cuirass) and a large mail-covered gap between the greaves and the sabatons that made no sense on horseback but would have greatly aided the wearer’s mobility on foot. I don’t know whether Toby Capwell’s first book (out of three) on the specific subject of the English style of armour is out yet, but he gives some really interesting sneak peeks in this lecture:

        Another extremely important factor is that there’s plate armour, and then there’s plate armour. A full harness of plate at the end of the 14th — or indeed the end of the 15th — century was a marvel of engineering, quite light for the sheer amount of coverage it provided to the wearer and capable of resisting the vast majority of blows from hand-to-hand weapons and non-gunpowder missiles. Fast forward to the end of the 16th and the need to cope with the greatly increased power and proliferation of firearms meant that armour had to be made significantly thicker even though it lost some coverage; a suit of three-quarters armour from 1600 (reaching only to the knee) could be (and often was) significantly heavier than a head-to-toe harness from 1500 or 1400. It doesn’t help that heat-treatment of armour to produce a hard exterior and softer interior largely stopped being practiced after the first few decades in the 16th century since it was really expensive (even though it significantly reduced the weight and thickness needed to achieve adequate protections). This isn’t purely modern research or speculation — the late 16th-century writer Francois de la Noue complained that men in his youth could go around all day in light and perfectly manageable full suits of plate armour but during the present time (i.e. at the time of his writing) men clothed themselves in “anvils” that they couldn’t wear for more than a few hours at a time. This forum thread has an excellent and interesting breakdown of armour weight:

        while this blog post relates a modern wearer’s first-hand experience with the increased weight and encumbrance of 16th-century armour:

      • Pradana, thanks for the info and links. However, I stand by my previous points. “Light” is a really relative term when it comes to armor (for example, the weight of armor at the Battle of Bosworth was around 60 pounds). Also, from what I’ve seen, contemporary authors writing about knights in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance had a tendency to, if you’ll pardon the “French,” bullshit a whole lot about what was and was not possible. And reenactment tends to span a very broad range from experimental archeology (like the stuff Kelly DeVries is fond of doing at Leeds and Kalamazoo) to pretty silly stuff.

        I’d like to see what actual events you’re referring to in on-foot duels involving full armor (though if you’re talking about tournaments, that I could see; lots of strange and impractical stuff occurred at tournaments that would never happen in battle). Call me goofy, but I want to see it and wear it, or at least see a decent video reenactment, before I go along.

        As for battle, you did not want to be in full armor off a horse, for the very practical reason that you couldn’t run fast and anybody who caught up with you could easily beat, hack or stab you to death. That’s probably what happened to Richard III.

        This article on the Battle of Bosworth does a good job of discussing the problems with plate armor. Note, especially, the section on “Plate and Mail”:

        And again, none of that pertains to walking around in the woods. I checked out Brienne’s armor again and it’s not full armor, but what she’s got is still the absolute worst for walking around in the woods in anything but very mild weather, because it’s all around her torso and then she’s got the padding on her legs and feet. About the only thing saving her from heat stroke (at least in the woods) is no head covering:

        Even with “chain” mail, heat was a problem. There are accounts from the Crusades era of crusaders dropping dead from heat stroke because of their armor. In fact, one particularly brilliant tactic Saladin used to win the Battle of Hattin was to block off the Crusader army from water and also take some higher ground. Then he built two bonfires, through which the Crusaders were forced to charge uphill against Saladin’s army. Hardly a surprise that they were totally exhausted by the time the armies actually clashed.

        Yes, only the rich could really afford full armor, but there were excellent reasons why everyone else tended to go with lighter and more flexible protection.

        Regarding the case of Italy and shields, a quick look at the socioeconomic history during the Renaissance in those restless city states answers that question relatively quickly. There was a lot of social mobility going on, which resulted in general unhappiness among the elites (who, needless to say, felt threatened) toward upwardly mobile non-elites, much social violence in the cities, much concern about honor, and much need for people who didn’t automatically get childhood military training in swordcraft (i.e., non-knights) to get up to speed pretty quickly whenever they might be challenged to a duel. In that context, it makes sense that the early manuals, especially, look like bladed-weapon versions of concealed-carry and gun safety classes.

        But the elites didn’t take this lying down. Hence sumptuary laws imposed on rich non-noblemen and also limitations on who could legally carry a sword, which resulted in the rich bourgeois dressing up their female relatives like peacocks and carrying big knives (like the French coustille) that were practically swords but nooooooot quite. With such close-quarters fighting required by the length of the sword, small shields like bucklers made sense. Bucklers with spikes made even more sense–both defense and offense.

      • We have a crap-ton of accounts of deeds of arms and challenges done on foot and in full armour. Two of three out of these books included combats fought on foot:

        And Will McLean’s blog has even more (over a hundred extracts from translated chronicles the last time I counted):

        Moreover, we can’t ignore the relevance of the tournament to the medieval warrior’s mindset. If anything, it’s one glaring weakness of AGoT that tournaments, jousts, and wagers of battle (i.e. trial by combat) seemed to largely take a back seat to open warfare when in fact the former was far more common in the Middle Ages and often was the principal way in which men-at-arms (i.e. the military category popularly known as “knights”) tested and proved their prowess and skill in arms. The Hundred Years’ War saw far more deeds of arms than battles and sieges combined.

        The idea that a full harness of plate was only practical on horseback is also bunk. The idea that people couldn’t move fast in plate armour is downright silly. It _does_ slow the wearer down a little, but the wearer would have started out faster than the average warrior of the time anyway (think of the fitness level of modern elite infantrymen like French Marines or US Army Rangers and how that compares to the rest of the modern soldiery, especially once we start putting rear-area service and support units into the equation) and the sheer protection provided by the armour more than makes up for the difference. Acclimatisation also makes a difference — years of practicing how to move and fight in armour significantly reduces the perceived encumbrance level. In fact, we still see this today. I personally know more than a few soldiers who did OMLT (Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team) duties and some of them would cheerfully relate how they could still out-sprint new Afghan or Iraqi recruits even though they were in full body armour while the recruits were in PT gear (basically T-shirts and shorts or at most combat trousers).

        You’d also want to check out Toby Capwell’s lecture. He has plenty of academic and professional credentials (including his current post as the Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection) and his theory of a distinctive English style of armour built for foot combat is backed by years of experience wearing and fighting in high-quality replica armour (including an entire suit made specifically to figure out the reasons behind the peculiarities of the English style’s construction). Too bad his book isn’t out yet.

        The article you linked to predictably bases its assertions about armour on Graham Askew’s research a few years ago, but this is a piece of research that has been badly mangled and grossly misrepresented in the media ever since it was published. For starters, the volunteers who walked on the treadmill had little or no prior experience with moving in armour, which makes a huge difference (like giving a deadlift, squat, and bench press test to somebody who has never done weightlifting in his/her life — the weights they could lift the first time around wouldn’t be a particularly accurate representation of their actual maximum lifting capacity since they don’t have the _skill_ to exert maximum effort safely). And then the test used late 15th-century jousting armour that was significantly heavier than battlefield harnesses — it could have been a deliberate choice to emphasise and magnify the physiological effects of the armour in the test and I have no problem with that, but the popular media takes the generalisation several steps too far and assumes that _all_ armour would have been that cumbersome. if you read the actual paper, the conclusions made are much more restrained and reasonable (something along the lines of “we wanted to know the physiological effects of wearing armour and, under the very specific conditions we tested, it turned out to be pretty tiring”).

        It’s also worth remarking that while people who had full suits of plate armour were a minority, they were a pretty large minority. In the case of the particularly rich French, we know that a man-at-arms in their Ordonnance companies from the mid-15th century onwards had to own head-to-toe plate armour, but even with this hefty requirement they were able to muster some three or four thousand of these fully-armoured men-at-arms (quite a high proportion in a military establishment of some 30,000 soldiers, including garrison troops). Italy was also regularly capable of mustering large numbers of fully-armoured men whenever major cities managed to form and maintain alliances long enough to muster a combined army.

        Of course, if your beef is with Brienne wearing her armour _all the time_, I have no problem with that. Armour _does_ greatly increase heat stress and fatigue, especially in the long run, so people who had full harnesses of plate only wore the complete suit for fighting, not for long-distance day-to-day marching. Indeed, this is an oft-forgotten aspect of the English strategic and operational system in the Hundred Years’ War: their armies in France were largely made up of mounted infantry that dismounted only to fight battles or to lay siege, and they were all too happy to get back on their horses for the pursuit or the retreat. This was a pretty important consideration even at the tactical level, since the Burgundians at the battle of Montlhery (in the 1460s) started out dismounting to establish a defensive position but mounted back up to advance when they realised that the French weren’t going to just assault their positions head-on as they had hoped.

        The Italian shields I mentioned weren’t the small bucklers that remained popular throughout the Middle Ages (or at least from the 11th to the 16th century, probably even longer at both ends). These were serious, honest-to-god large round shields (the rotella) strapped to the arm. There’s one or two late 15th-century drawing of mounted men-at-arms with full plate armour AND rotelle, although I haven’t quite managed to locate them on the Web just yet (since the last time I saw them was more than five years ago). In any case, we don’t know why they wore this rather redundant setup — they might just have been paranoid about crossbow bolts and arquebus balls, or it could be a Neoclassical revival of the round parma carried by ancient Italiot (Greco-Italian colonist) and Roman cavalry.

      • It would be immensely helpful if you discussed actual instances *in battle* or in actual trial by combat of people regularly fighting duels on foot. The instances you’re linking to all seem to involve tournaments. Whole different animal.

        Also, you have a professor who says one thing. There are professors who disagree. That’s the problem with this field–it’s loaded with contradictory anecdotal evidence. What is significant is that whenever you have battles where the nobility of the losing side is unhorsed and in full plate armor, there is a massacre–and it’s not by them. There are also actual, unvarnished accounts of knights dying of heat stroke, which must be taken into account whenever we get these “Why, back in my day, real men ate nails for breakfast and walked around all day in full armor” stories.

        I am not hugely impressed by chansons used straight up as evidence. They get a lot of things wrong and swordcraft can be one of those things. These accounts also have a tendency to ignore the fact that the nobility who wore this stuff had to be helped into it (and out of it) and had a lot of retainers to help them. But we’re supposed to believe they were just walking around it in it all day, quite casually? Hmm. Well, they walked around in ruffs during the Tudor period, too, but that doesn’t make it efficient, everyday clothing.

      • I think one must be careful of all generalizations. Heat stroke would obviously have been a much bigger risk for Crusaders in the Holy Land in June than for soldiers in the French countryside in April. And certainly the Battle of Agincourt poses a fairly convincing argument for poor mobility in armor, but if it were so obviously stupid under all circumstances, no one would have been willing to invest in full plate in the first place.

      • The evidence is all over the place in the primary sources. And I’m not talking about heroic poetry or songs — even more prosaic chronicles and memoirs like Froissart, Monstrelet, or Montluc mention men-at-arms simply riding or striding out between the lines fully armed and casually challenging the other side to send a champion for a duel right then and there. Moreover, when men-at-arms fighting on foot (or unhorsed) were massacred in battle, the perpetrators of the massacre tended to be the other side’s men-at-arms fighting on foot too. One thing that people often ignore about Flemish or Swiss peasant infantry was that their front ranks and outermost files were often made up of minor aristocrats (knights and squires — technically commoners, not nobility!) fighting in fairly heavy armour. The Swiss themselves weren’t reluctant to depict their front-rankers, officers, and special troops (such as men with very large longswords encroaching upon true two-handed sword territory) in half-armour (lacking only leg protection ) or even full head-to-toe plate armour. Not even remotely close to the modern image of them as hordes of completely unarmoured peasants (never mind that many of those men probably wouldn’t have thought of themselves as “peasants” either….)

        And this is a recent video of the pretty rare instances when HEMA folks actually spar or compete in armoured fencing — the very unusual choice of weapons (shinai in one case and rubber-headed poleaxes in the other) was obviously meant for safety.

        There’s also the HMB/BotN folks, who don’t make that much use of historical techniques (although I wouldn’t say they use none at all, since I know some of them use unarmoured fighting techniques in armoured fighting since the real historical armoured fighting techniques are too dangerous), but engage in several consecutive rounds of armoured melees with each round lasting several minutes at one go, and that’s with massively over-engineered armour considerably heavier than the original historical models. If modern people who train part-time can have that much stamina with the proper conditioning, I have no problem seeing the original medieval wearers of full plate armour (who would have been raised since childhood for it, and pretty much worn armour for their day job as warriors-cum-extreme sportsmen) lasting even longer, at least before firearms forced armour to become much heavier and more cumbersome in the 16th and 17th centuries. We’ve already seen proof of this with the longbow, where thirty years ago people were skeptical about 100-pound draw weights but today we have a new generation of modern archers who have practiced since their youth to master heavy bows and the results they’ve achieved are no less than amazing (many young bucks in the English Warbow Society being able to draw bows in excess of 160 pounds, which would have been reserved for the most elite archers back in the Middle Ages). Indeed, I’m pretty sure that modern people with better nutrition, if given the chance to practice and wear armour on a full-time/professional basis, would be able to surpass the standards of their medieval forebears in terms of speed and endurance in armour. We just lack the social and economic justification for it.

  6. Good stuff. I would note that the image of Katana looks to me like an iai cut in progess, making one hand appropriate; I could always be mistaken, though.

      • If you’re going to cut on the draw, you sort of have to do it one-handed, since you need to have the other hand on the saya. Then you bring the second hand to the sword for the second cut. (While, in my style, the saya remains safely secured by the obi.) OTOH, that’s kind of an ugly draw she’s doing: unless the geometry changes before the sword clears, the most likely arc of the blade is going to be through her own ear. Of course, nitpicking at that level is sort of unfair, given how far above most chicks with blades pictures that image is.

  7. Aren’t you basically using your hold on the scabbard to give the balance necessary for the draw to work, though?

    Something that both artists and writers of fantasy overlook (or don’t learn) is that *everything* is a weapon for the trained warrior. Not just the sword blade but the pommel, the crossguard, the scabbard, the shield, the armor, your mount, your clothing…everything. That’s one reason many of those accoutrements have nasty things on them like spikes.

    The sword is just the most flashy part.

    • A properly fitted saya will have a tight pressure fit to the katana. (This is to prevent it from sliding out accidentally.) At the very minimum, you’ll need to brace the saya while you break that seal at the beginning of the draw. (Cue portentous music and close up on the actor’s hands as the sword goes “snick”.) And from there it should be pretty much one motion to draw the sword and saya away from each other.

      • Exactly what Katherine said. We use a thumb motion to “pop” the seal and the full grip to remove the blade — all while pressing back of the blade against the inside of the saya so as not to cut the inside.

        Resheathing, of course, is another thing altogether. 🙂

  8. BTW, what Alex Kingston is wielding appears to be the original Celtic version of the Roman spatha (cavalry sword, which is longer than the infantryman’s gladius). Why did the Romans base their cavalry sword on a design by their worst enemies? Short answer? They had a lot of Celtic and Germanic mercenaries in their cavalry, especially during the Imperial period.

    The difference is that the gladius is short (28-32 in, maybe a bit less, since these things weren’t standardized) and has a very sharp, narrow point (because it’s for close-quarters stabbing). The spatha is upwards of 40in with the balance further up the blade (because it’s for hacking from above). The Romans were big on functionality.

    These guys…not so much:

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  10. I was taught a western move for when walking and carrying a sword. It involves holding the sword by it’s scabbard near the throat using your off hand, with the point forward. You can then deflect an incoming attack using the sword in sheath, and then draw with your main hand while holding the blocked sword aside. It’s probably from Fiori, and I was taught this years ago so my memory is fuzzy on the matter. As for discarding scabbards, there is a western notion I was taught in a sword class of discarding your sword or other weapon if it’s in the way (in the moment) of you surviving or being victorious. It’s just a tool. If it’s not being effective, move on to some other weapon, or technique. it may be that many (although not all) western scabbards are more cheaply made and less decorative and thus valued less financially. Maybe you can comment on if there is a spiritual connection between the sword and scabbard. The fantasy art in your discussions makes me sometimes think it may be depicting someone who has grabbed a sword to fight with instead of having one already strapped or belted on. If it’s on a sword rack, you might just grab it and then unsheathe it in a different manner.

    • Tom, I think the attitudes toward discarding a scabbard, as I said above, depend a great deal on the circumstances. If you’re in Renaissance personal combat or in a tournee, you can afford to discard it and pick it up later because you can conceivably stick the sword in the ground or lay it down when you temporarily need that hand for something else. So, you don’t absolutely *need* the scabbard in that case.

      If you are, however, in a heavy cavalry charge in the Holy Land, and especially if you are also carrying a shield and/or mace or other weapon, then you really need that scabbard to safely sheath somewhere so you have a free hand (even allowing for the fact that riders in such a charge were superb horsemen who could steer a horse with just heels and leg pressure). Otherwise, you risk whacking off your own horse’s head.

      There is also the thing to consider that in actual warfare, the sword was only one weapon. In a typical Crusades era charge, you began with the lance for the initial charge and collision, and only resorted to the sword after you left the lance in the body of some enemy for the close quarters fighting.

      My point is that the scabbard’s function does not go in abeyance during combat. It is still a critical part of your sword’s effectiveness. Discarding it can be a very risky tactic.

      • I’ve actually got another somewhat relevant literary reference, this time regarding attitudes toward the scabbard in western tradition. From Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur:

        “Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or the scabbard? Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur. Ye are more unwise, said Merlin, for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you.”

        Obviously, this particular scabbard would be a special case (see what I did there?), but I would surmise that it does reflect something of a general lesson about the importance of a scabbard.

        I expect that anywhere you go in the world, you will find a broad spectrum of attitudes toward the sword and related equipment, with some showing greater respect for maintenance and longevity, while others only care that there is a usable point/edge involved.

      • Well, swords for a long time were the equivalent of the gun. People have favored different types of guns and have treated them very differently, even within the same time period.

        One concern about Mallory is that he and his work come from a late period where nobility was obsessed with the concept of chivalry. But earlier attitudes toward swords were often more prosaic. Mallory’s philosophical musings over the use of the sword and scabbard obscure somewhat the more practical side of how and why you use them that way for that kind of warfare.

        I’ll certainly allow that some of my attitude comes from the fact that the group, region and period I studied left very little in the way of literary sources, but left quite a bit of financial documents and archeological evidence (and that the latter tend to be less romantic). The Templar Rule, and its regional Catalan version, shows a lot of unease over the balance between military values and religious values. The Templars reconciled these conflicting values, in part, by refusing to romanticize warfare and the equipment they used to prosecute it. Secular knights are thus portrayed in the Rule (probably somewhat exaggeratedly) as vainglorious and with a tendency to gild up their weapons and armor in ways that don’t always lend themselves to better military technology.

        You see a similar process with heraldry, which starts out with a very practical military function and evolves by the late 15th century into something that is far more about glorifying yourself and your family than about organizing your troops and identifying the enemy on the battlefield.

  11. i don’t disagree with you and am not bitter about your comments on popular characters in media, but i think women are sexy, and if they are able to defend themselves with swords all the better. as long as you’re not blaming the actor who is given this sword That day and told to pose, i’m ok with this article..

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  14. I would just like to insert a mention here, as a former anthropology/archaeology student and martial arts practitioner, and a fan of the fantasy genre (both in literature and on the screen) – I am really enjoying reading these comments, as I love to learn about different ideas and viewpoints, and expand my knowledge base. BUT!!! It is very important to remember that when you are talking about, say Boudica, you are discussing historical fact (or something highly inspired by, and informed by historical fact), but when you are discussing something like Game of Thrones, you have crossed the line from reality and entered the realm of fantasy. You have NO historical basis for ANYTHING at all, except the cannon of the author/creator of that particular work. One can assume that – unless otherwise specified – the same laws of physics apply in the world of a specified work of fantasy (fiction!), but not the same norms, values, and ethos that one would have expected in “The Middle Ages”. As has been pointed out, the “middle ages” refers to a rather lengthy time in the history of Europe, and actually was not a single continuous thing; there were multiple “middle ages” periods, each of which were broken up by periods of prosperity, peace, and enlightenment. Additionally, one thing that seems to come up often in film/tv critiques, is “where are the peasants/every day schlubs?” Well, kind of like why CSI doesn’t show the endless hours spent on paperwork and waiting for lab results to come back, action shows/movies aren’t going to blow their budget – or our viewing time – on random nameless people prancing about the screen doing their not-even-remotely-related-to-the-plot daily, mundane, minutiae. You wouldn’t watch it, and would complain of boredom and confusion. To be fair, GoT actually seems to do a better job than nearly any other show in its genre, that I’ve seen, at casting countless extras in the background to fill just that void. One nitpick that I do have, which I’m coming at with only a half-loaded chamber, is the criticism of Michonne’s (The Walking Dead) katana and associated technique. GRANTED, I only watched up to season 3, so something could have been revealed in her backstory that refutes my opinion, but I had always assumed that she’d simply FOUND the katana, after everything got crazy, and learned to use it via a combination of “learn as you go” and what she saw in tv/movies – which would make perfect sense. Again, though, the show is a work of fiction, with reality bent to further the plot, and I am not up to date on it either. In any case, this is my 2 cents worth … on a subject that I am VERY glad to see broached.

    • You make lots of good points. This is why the conversation needs to focus on whether the woman in the photo or picture looks dangerous or in danger, rather than whether or not they are strictly performing the actions correctly. As many Western martial artists can attest, when they study most European sword arts, they’re working from manuscripts, rather than the way most Eastern martial arts groups work, where practitioners are studying an art that has been passed down person-to-person for generations. Knowing what’s “right” or “correct” is up for debate sometimes when trying to piece together an art purely from historical documentation. (Some things can actually be figured out from the physics of the sword itself.)

      And to your point, in fiction the author doesn’t even necessarily consult historical documentation (much the way artists seldom research before drawing). I happen to know and have studied with the sword choreographer for the Boudica movie, and I know that she combined her historical knowledge with stage combat best practices to create an effective representation of this famous female warrior.

      And I’m especially glad for your comment because it’s convinced me that I really do need to write another follow-up article about Michonne. I should never have brought her into the conversation for a couple of different reasons, but mainly because she consistently distracts from my main point. As you can see in this blog post, there are plenty of misplaced hand positions that I point out but don’t pick on. That’s because the actors/characters actually look like they’re doing something effective with the weapons they are holding. And while I can continue to fault the creators of The Walking Dead — mostly because Michonne would have figured out that this hand position is ineffective sooner than later if she’d actually survived using a katana — it really does drive the conversation away from the overall concern that women are depicted as not just incompetent but self-harming with weaponry. And since I don’t think that’s what they mean to convey at all — in fact, quite the opposite — Michonne should get a pass on that topic, even if they aren’t doing the best possible job in Gurira’s weapons training.

      Anyway, thanks so much for your comment!

    • I disagree about Game of Thrones being realistic. It’s fun. It’s entertaining (certainly more than TWD, which is a bad, bad show). But there is nothing realistic about it and very little that is medieval. The idea that the peasants shouldn’t be shown because they are boring doesn’t wash. For one thing, you can’t make 90+% of the population disappear like that. They’re everywhere your One Percenter characters go. Hell, they were doing *much* more interesting things than your average noble, anyway.

      For another, when you ignore that 90+%, you make rather large errors in your worldbuilding because you never stop to wonder if the things you have being done by the odd glamorous hooker and invisible elves make any sense. If you considered everybody who does the actual work, either on or off the screen, you’d have fantasy that feels much more grounded and rooted, which means your audience is more likely to buy it.

      As I said above, GoT is fun, but as someone who read a whole lot of sword and sorcery back in the day (70s and 80s), I find it basically a pseudo-gritty takeoff on Tolkien and pretty shallow. Still fun, sure, but not to be taken very seriously and not the best the genre has to offer (not even the best that author has to offer). And its view of “Pre-Modern” as nasty, brutish and short isn’t remotely realistic. It just seems that way because it panders to our modern snobbery about the past being inferior to us.

      I do think that GoT is groundbreaking in that it’s the first truly epic sword and sorcery show we’ve had…well…ever. It’s got a huge cast and those are the speaking parts–kudos to the showrunners for successfully juggling all of that (despite the soggy middles of many storylines). And it’s got some great actors. But its worldbuilding is nothing to write home about and it’s about as “historical” as Hercules: The Incredible Journeys. At best, you could say it’s Rome with dragons in that department.

      • What you wrote here pretty much describes what most of my medievalist friends (including me) feel about AGoT. It was painful to read, and only slightly less painful to watch.

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  16. I strongly suspect that, to those of us who never learned to think tactically, they don’t look nearly as bad as they do to you. I would, however, like to see more of the really under-dressed images have a hint of story, something that explains it. Along lines of the one (gun related image) I just saw, shirt unbuttoned, laying back, machine gun sitting at the ready. “Yeah, I’m sexy, I’m relaxed because I’ll draw on you if you give me a reason.” Like maybe show the rest of the armor sitting on a bench, or a half opened bedroll? Or battle damaged?

    I’m the nitwit when it comes to weapons, the kind that thinks just having the weapon should be enough. In any real fight I’d give my baton to either Sandra or Mary, because they’ve got the right attitude at least. But that’s a story for another venue. In any event, you’ve given me something to think about.

  17. Love these blog posts. Thanks for raising the topic and articulating your opinions so well and with such humor. I write about women with swords, and I’ll add one more angle to your “WTH?” musings on why depictions of women with swords are typically so…impotent. The most macho masculine warrior men we have in western culture, for many, many centuries, have carried swords. King Arthur and Excalibur. The men of Sparta. Roman centurions and gladiators. Vikings. Wars and battle were different when they were fought mostly hand-to-hand with these massive, heavy, razor-sharp steel blades getting slung about. There’s a strong romanticism attached to the image of a man with a sword. It is one of our most enduring images of a “real” man. Hence, the rebellion at the idea of putting a woman into that context and taking her seriously in it. And yet, when one does (and does it well), we discover a lost tradition of *female* warrior that, among other things, makes for awesome story-telling.

  18. The steepness of the learning curve depends on the style, too. In eras with a lot of mass battles — and therefore a lot of casualties — you would have needed to be able to turn raw recruits into semi-competent fighters relatively quickly. In more peaceful eras, there would have been more time for practice, specialization, and refinement of more subtle techniques. The very old Japanese battlefield styles are different from the newer, more “urban” styles, both for this reason and because the battlefield styles assume the presence of armor. (Where “old” and “new” refer roughly to the periods before and after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600 AD), which established the Tokugawa Shogunate.)

  19. Sorry this is such an old thread, because it pushed a lot of buttons for me. My 2nd wife and I did rapier and dagger together for 10 years and katana for 5. When you saw her with a sword in her hand, you saw danger. Now on my own, geting into HEMA, learning all over the things I got wrong, it’s all very compelling. Someone mentioned “The Challenge,” (Scott Glenn, Mifune Toshiro) That, “The Hunted,” and “The Yakuza” were my sensei’s favourites for showing close-quarters, small movement technique as opposed to the man-splitting power cuts.

  20. I simply want to note on the issue of holding your scabbard that, in many Asian traditions, discarding or dropping one’s scabbard before a battle was done when the combatant didn’t expect to live through the fight. It’s a sacrificial gesture of the willingness to knowingly die. Since the warrior doesn’t expect to sheathe their sword again, they have no reason to keep the scabbard.

    • I thank you for your comment, but I must apologize, sir, as I’m going to call shenanigans on this comment. Absolutely NO Samurai would ever make such a defeatist gesture before battle. I could see perhaps a peasant or some non-warrior class person dropping the saya out of ignorance or by accident. But the only time any Samurai warrior knew for sure that he was going to die was when he committed seppuku. I’m very hard-pressed to extend this to other “Asian arts.” If you have specific documentation from scholarly journals, I would accept that. But any other links regardless of source on the Internet are simply not trustworthy, and I would caution anyone against using them when making broad statements. Thank you!

      • On the other hand, while I can easily believe that the saya could have been considered almost as sacred as the blade under the worldview of the Tokugawa-era samurai (i.e. the samurai as we know it), I don’t think that can be so easily generalised to earlier Japanese warriors. After all, samurai writers and philosophers in Tokugawa times liked to use anecdotal accounts of earlier warriors (both samurai and lesser sorts) neglecting or mistreating their blades as cautionary tales, and if even the blade could get such treatment then it stands to reason that the sheath could get abused too in the hands of a careless or incompetent owner — or indeed an owner who knew what he was doing and valued his life more than his sword furniture.

      • Thanks for your comment, Pradana! Alas, I seriously doubt any of these drawings or photos are meant to be cautionary tales. And we certainly don’t need to be depicting women in “cautionary” situations anymore than they’ve already been, as their image has been undermined enough already. But certainly if I saw such a situation as you describe, say, in a comic, it would be interesting.

      • One tangential example you might be interested in is USMC Captain Walter Stauffer McIlhenny (of the Tabasco family) who served in World War II and survived one incident where he was knocked out by a blow that put a deep dent in his helmet — struck with a Japanese sword still in its sheath! Both the sword and the helmet are preserved to this day in a museum in New Orleans. Of course, I know it’s not a directly appropriate example since the sword is probably a mass-produced gunto with a steel scabbard rather than a traditional katana in a light wooden sheath. Given Obata-sensei’s interest in kabuto-wari, he might have more information about the whole thing.

  21. A Japanese royal warrior was being taken to a place of execution where he was to be beheaded (old Japan before seppuku) and because of the heat, someone offered him a persimmon. He refused saying that persimmons tended to upset his stomach. “But you are moments away from execution!”

    He answered, “You never know how things will turn out.”

    Now that’s Yamato spirit!

  22. I’m amazed and impressed by your patience and kindness. Nearly everyone shows up to the comment thread *just* to nitpick or correct some aspect or other of your article. I enjoyed this and your other article and got the “point” just fine. Thanks for posting.

  23. Katherine and Pradana, I think one must be careful of assuming that armor was always worn for practical purposes (and not, say, for purposes of status) during a period when it was being increasingly used for impractical purposes such as tournaments (also, the heat of a French summer at the time wasn’t *that* much less than the heat of the Levant that you’d experience no problems. It was six hundred years ago, not fifteen thousand). And I always find it very exasperating when someone complains about “generalization” when discussing a specific area and period (England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries) *because* of the common attitude, including among anglophone medievalists, that this time and culture can stand in for all medieval cultures.

    There is nothing general about the francophone culture of the French and Anglo-Norman nobility who favored plate armor (the direct descendants, I might add, of the French knights who fought in the Crusades only a century and two before), but since they were the group that was most enthusiastic about it in the medieval period, and it’s pretty obvious they’re the ones GRRM and the producers of Game of Thrones had in mind, they’re whom we are discussing. And before somebody says, “Yeah, but GRRM’s big thang for Scotland,” remember that the Auld Alliance meant that Scottish nobility were heavily influenced by French military culture at this time.

    Now, looking at the eyewitness accounts (and what surviving archeology we have on battles from this period), the battles of Crécy (1346), Agincourt (1415) and Bosworth (1485), despite spanning nearly a century and a half–have two major things in common. One is that they involved French-speaking nobility–either Northern French, Anglo-Norman, or both. The other is that the nobility of the losing side was generally unhorsed, hunted down, and slaughtered, mostly by non-noble troops. What is not remarkable is not that it happened (because heavy cavalry, while a formidable weapon, was hardly invincible in any form), but that it happened three times, in three major battles, over the span of a century and a half. And that it happened with more or less the same kind of military technology between sides and over the course of all three battles. Were there variations? Of course. A century and a half is a long time. Are there advantages to plate armor? Sure, quite a few. IF YOU’RE ON HORSEBACK. If you’re on foot, most of those advantages go away and are offset by a whole lot of disadvantages. That’s why you have infantry of the period wearing a mixture of padded, leather, mail, and partial plate, but never fully going over to plate as a group the way the nobility did. It wasn’t just a matter of cost.

    Of course, all of this started to become moot during Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy nine years after Bosworth and it’s not because his men had blunderbusses or arquebuses. It’s because they had artillery. Artillery and mercenaries to use it (though mercenaries had already been in heavy use in Western Europe for a while) trumped heavy cavalry in full plate most of the time. Not a surprise, since artillery, for the first time, was a weapon that could easily take down city walls, let alone men on horseback. The battle scenes in season one of The Borgias involving Charles VIII of France invading Italy graphically show why.

    Wandering around in full plate behind the lines and having the odd duel for kicks is not at all the same thing as a pitched battle that lasts all day. And as for the Swiss, we’re talking about this, right?

    That’s not full plate.

    Now, one could argue, why, if it didn’t work anymore, and had been shown not to work anymore, did they continue to use it into the 16th century? Welp, that’s the perennial question, since it’s a recurring theme in military history. Just look at the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War or people engaging in cavalry charges against heavy artillery early in WWI in Europe (it was more understandable in the Middle East, or for Soviet partisans in WWII, where that was a still viable tactic due to very different battle conditions). You look at that and you wonder what the hell were these people thinking?

    The simple answer is that was all they knew and it was more important to them to fight the way they thought was honorable and “correct” than to win, or even survive. And trench warfare? A simple case of military stupidity and blinkered vision among generals on both sides. And that’s not even getting into how expensive and difficult it is to upgrade like that in the middle of war, or how bad leadership can scupper even good tech (the Russian military in WWI being an excellent example of an army that looked great on paper and performed horribly in the field).

    “Fairly heavy armor” and “plate mail” do not mean the same thing. Let’s not get off-tangent, please. We are talking about plate mail and whether it’s a good idea to wander around in the woods, wearing it for days on end. I think we’ve already established that, no, that’s actually a pretty stupid idea. And no, don’t tell me about how American infantry in the past century wear/have worn equally heavy stuff. Wearing a pack and supplies on top of a relatively light uniform appropriate to the climate and surroundings, and Kevlar, is not at all the same as wearing a pack and supplies on top of plate armor.

    Pradana, none of the three “prosaic” authors you mention was contemporaneous to the 14th or 15th century, and two of them were not military sources. Froissart was a cleric, Enguerrand de Monstrelet was a bailiff for a cathedral, and if you mean Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, seigneur de Montluc, he lived in the 16th century, not the period we’re talking about.

    A true contemporary military source would be more along the lines of Jean de Joinville for the 13th century Crusades era.

    We started this discussion with why artists portray women warriors in impractical ways. I’d argue that portraying warriors in impractical ways has been going on since they started drawing stick figures on rock art in the late Paleolithic. However, in the case of the above images (and in light of Jim Hines’ ongoing campaign to have women fighters shown more realistically in popular graphic art), there are patterns to the way the women are portrayed that reflect traditional attitudes that women are weak, untrained and generally useless fighters (as opposed to images of men fighting that are meant to make them look great, but would never work in real life). And I bet that’s what originally pinged Maria’s bullshit meter.

  24. Pingback: Segurando uma Espada | Diário de uma Guerreira

  25. I had a kick reading this article and its prequel! Thanks Maria – I was actually randomly bored tonight looking for interesting and sexy things… typically docile weak women are not interesting to me (my problem I know), which is why I was looking for sword art. Ugh! Just like you say, the sword is worn like jewelry – not wielded with any purpose! I have a brief fencing past where I won a novice tournament, and it was literally PAINFUL to see how few artists / photographers did enough research to make it into anything more than a straight sharp thing to contrast to a smooth soft thing.

    It seems like there’s an opportunity there to do the right thing, if it didn’t get lost in a sea of idiocy.

    Nazi or not, I’m with you on this!

  26. I hear ya, man. I’ve always had a bit of a pet peeve in the same vein about women and bows and rather unusual archery poses or gear. So often one sees things that are just impractical, or even downright dangerous to the model.

  27. Hi Maria, I’m a professional illustrator and I’ve been reading your blogs today. I agree with you in a lot of ways and this is all something that deeply frustrates me. I’d like to give you the illustrators perspective. I know that I am a minority but I like to be as accurate as I can be when it comes to art, weapons, cloth movement and more. This is something I’ve worked at over the years, most of all in my working with “The Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.
    You are correct a lot of artists don’t care about accuracy and a lot of editors push them not to. I’ve had editors dismiss my work because there wasn’t enough anatomy breaking sexiness. As a woman myself I prefer realistic sexiness. (Look up the artist Stjepan Sejic for good realistic sexy examples). I also have to say most of the art you posted was by men, men who are most likely not concerned with the sword position or research. As you pointed out.

    The big problem I run into is that the amount of accurate references are extremely limited. I have not had the funds to buy a real sword, nor train in one, nor hire someone who has or knows these things. I do as much research online as I can and If I can I rely on friends who have trained. So I am often left with the internet for images and I can spend weeks without finding what I need in the angle I need with the correct weapon. I often draw katanas and usually hate it for this reason. I would LOVE good references, accurate ones. Often though I have to make due with the deadlines I have and what I can find online. So my suggestion to help fix this issue of sword accuracy in art is see about creating some, so we artists actually have something to use. That would be a great Patreon stance, I know I would pay a monthly fee for those kind of references. For women or men.

    I loved your blogs about this topic and your references. Trust me this is something artists hate as well. Maybe we can all work together to fix it. At least the ones who care to do the research. Thank you for writing about it and by the way I’m in the middle of painting a samurai with his katana out and walking forward, he’s about to strike (it’s a symbolic piece). I was doing research to try to find something accurate to look at. I have not had much luck.

    Ariel B.

    • Hi Ariel!

      Thanks so much for your comment. I greatly appreciate it.

      I’ve put together a little visual guide for katana use:

      Watch the video especially.

      And, to be clear to whoever else is reading, I honestly don’t care if it’s “correct.” (I think I’ve said that in this article and in other places.) I care if the woman looks like she’s going to hurt herself. The blade should be nowhere near her face or body. Nor should she be using it like a cane or a dildo, nor should she touch the blade with her hand. These guidelines alone would eliminate almost all of the problem, because somehow artists manage it for male models.

      Again, thanks so much for commenting. I hope that link helps. Also, do type “shinkendo” into YouTube for more videos. They should help. 🙂



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