Walpurgis: The First Lady of Traditional Fencing

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Walpurgis, the female fencer who shows up in the last few images of Royal Armouries MS I.33, is a fascinating enigma. Even though she appears only in four illustrations, many modern folks term the manuscript the “Walpurgis Fechtbuch,” in large part because she is such a distinguishing feature of the text. To my knowledge, no other fencing treatise between the 14th and the late 19th centuries ever depicts or discusses female combatants actually using swords. If such references do exist, they are exceedingly rare; there are a few iconographic depictions of women with swords, such

as this one, 14th_c_roman_de_la_rose_MS1126_1350-1360but within texts devoted to the sword Walpurgis seems to stand alone. Talhoffer does depict women fighting against men in the (to the modern eye) bizarre judicial duel context of man in a pit fighting a woman, one armed with a club and the other with a rock in a sling, but this is clearly a qualitative difference from Walpurgis because of its super-specific context. Unlike the female fighter in Talhoffer, Walpurgis is depicted for all intents and purposes as an equal to the scholar, the priest’s male student in the manuscript, and she seems fully incorporated and versed in the sword-and-buckler combat system that I.33 preserves for us.

During this time span, combat in general, and martial arts like swordsmanship in particular, were seen as part of the male sphere of influence – fighting was a masculine pursuit. However, that said, there are plenty of examples of females engaging in combat, either through warfare or individual encounters across the centuries: Joan of Arc is the obvious example of the former, Mademoiselle La Maupin in 18th century France a good example of the latter. So it is not entirely unexpected that a woman should appear in a fencing text. Indeed, Valerie Eads and others have made a pretty good case that in the middle ages, women engaging in armed conflict, while the exception to the rule, was not completely beyond social norms and was fairly acceptable until the consolidation of nation-states and centrally controlled armies in the late middle ages and early renaissance pushed the concept more to the margins (Valerie has a great paper on this that you can listen to on the Medieval Warfare podcast available on ITunes). There are plenty of stories of Viking warrior-women, women leading their castle forces in sieges, and, as Hager has argued, the presence of Walpurgis in I.33 to demonstrate this.

The purpose of Walpurgis in the manuscript is a large unknown. Unfortunately, she appears out of nowhere, with no introduction – the transition from scholar to her as the second partner in the plays is unexplained. There is a good chance that this is due to the incompleteness of the manuscript – as, Binard, Jaquet, Hester, and others have argued, and as Jeffrey Forgeng has demonstrated unequivocally during the unbinding and rebinding of the manuscript, there are folios missing from I.33 – at least one and possibly more from the quire that contains the Walpurgis images. Therefore, it is quite possible that there are missing folios containing text that originally provided context for her inclusion. But whether that is the case or no, we are left to infer from what remains.

Understanding the purpose of the manuscript itself would go a long way to answering the Walpurgis question, but even this is subject to debate. The text quite clearly demonstrates a combat system within a priestly context, both of the major practitioners – the priest and the scholar – being readily identifiable as clerics. Forgeng has argued that the manuscript was quite likely created in the context of a cathedral school, given the two primary characters, and this seems reasonable enough as urban churchmen and early university communities were known to engage in sword-and-buckler play (there being injunctions against it that occur repeatedly across times and countries in the middle ages). But whether the context was strictly for exercise or enjoyment, for judicial combat (as suggested convincingly by Rachel Kellett), for military practice, or all of the above, is difficult to state with certainty. Forgeng discusses all of this quite thoroughly in the introduction to his new edition and translation of the MS. That said, the system presented in the manuscript seems broadly applicable, and potentially very lethal, so in my view it likely represents a variation of the pan-European sword and buckler play that would and could have been used and applied in ALL of these contexts (Franck Cinato has argued for a shared sword-and-buckler play that, if not identical all across Europe, at least had a common foundation and a broad similarity; I think that the iconographic evidence from contemporary illuminated manuscripts bears this out). So, as Forgeng argues, we must assume that I.33 presents a system that was intended to play out in earnest.

So we cannot say for certain if Walpurgis is learning to fence from a desire for exercise or leisure, a desire to participate in fencing contests (which we know occurred), a need to participate in a judicial duel, a desire or need for self-defense, or even potentially as part of preparation for mass combat. All of these are distinct possibilities, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Given that we do have examples of women participating in judicial duels with sword and buckler (see Kellett), I think the judicial duel option makes the most sense, but again we cannot say this with certainty.

What we can say, again, is that Walpurgis seems a fully engaged participant. As Hager points out, she is not a passive recipient of the priest’s attacks; rather, she acts aggressively and offensively against the priest in the plays demonstrated. In the few illustrations we have, she launches an attack finishing in a shield-strike and a blow to the priest’s head, just as the priest and scholar demonstrate numerous times in the text, following all the rules of the priest’s system.

Given that Walpurgis seems a fully indoctrinated participant in the priest’s fencing system, what more can we say about her based on the text itself? The illustrations themselves give us a fair amount of information as to her background. Based on her clothing and hair – schapel, surcoat, and fairly elaborate shoes, for example – Julia Graf has made a very strong case that the illustrations of Walpurgis depict a woman relatively high in the social hierarchy – a noblewoman or someone who is at least fairly wealthy — in an excellent article examining and recreating Walpurgis clothing in a living history experiment. So, someone who might have had good cause for a judicial duel, and someone who could likely well afford a sword and buckler as well as afford private fencing instruction. Not that we can claim with certainty that judicial combat sets the background context for the work, but it is an intriguing possibility – we cannot rule out once again that she might represent a woman preparing for battle (though this is more of a stretch) or someone who wished to participate in local fencing contests, or someone who had the leisure and ability to pay for lessons just because she enjoyed fencing. After all, fencing is fun now, so people must have had fun with it historically even though it also had its overshadowing bloody ramifications.

Further aspects of the illustrations have also been suggested as evidence that Walpurgis reflects the inclusion of women into the priest’s circle of students. Multiple authors, both formally and informally, have suggested that the custodia (ward) Walpurgis adopts – the priest’s special second ward (custodia secunda) resembles the posta di donna – or lady’s ward – of Italian manuscripts, specifically those of Fiore di Liberi and Filippo Vadi. There is some suggestion that these wards are called “lady’s ward” because they were well-suited to the strength and body types of women, and so might have been frequently employed by women. Therefore, the argument goes, the author of I.33 chose to use Walpurgis to demonstrate the special second ward because she was a woman. So either she is a kind of symbolic archetype reflecting the ward, or else she is included because this ward is a modification of second ward specifically for her – and for women in general. Therefore, the pages including Walpurgis are specifically designed by the authors to demonstrate how their tradition modifies the system for practice by female students.

This latter scenario is the position held by Katherine Hager, who argues that the vertical sword position and the manner in which sword and shield are held close to the body are particular conditions that the priest (or maybe fencing masters in Europe in general, if the above-mentioned Italian connection is valid) has established to better suit his fencing style to women. This modification includes not only the position of the weapons, but also a more upright torso position and a narrower stance.

 

Which may be true, however I don’t think the argument holds water. While I do believe that Walpurgis represents true, full participation of women in sword and buckler combat in medieval Germany (perhaps still a rarity, but one common enough for the authors to write about), I do not think that she reflects a modification or specialization of the system for women. Any healthy adult can develop the strength and endurance to effectively wield a 2-3 pound arming sword and a buckler of similar or lesser weight, and even Liechtenauer tells us that it is better to have art with the sword than strength. In terms of footwork, there is no difference between women’s and men’s ability to hold and execute a wide stance, with or without flexed knees, and there is no particular reason to have a straighter posture or narrower stance to get the woman at the same height as her opponent – she can cover and attack anywhere she needs by adjusting her hand positions, if indeed she does happen to be shorter than her foe (this works for any shorter versus taller opponent). Moreover, Walpurgis’ feet are no closer together than depicted for the priest or scholar in many images, and while she does have a more upright vertebral column than the priest in the first page depicting her, on the second she is just as inclined forward as he is. Furthermore, there are multiple illustrations of the two male characters in the text where they are fairly upright and where their feet are shown being a little closer together. And to repeat, in anatomical terms and exercise performance terms, there is no reason why a woman and man would not be able to equally able to perform a low, wide stance with inclined torso.

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Walpurgis’ position here is not qualitatively different from the positions exhibited by Priest or scholar — either here or elsewhere in I.33

So in sum on this point, there is nothing that would preclude Walpurgis, or any woman, from doing exactly what the priest and scholar can do, and there are plenty of female fencers out there today who demonstrate this. There is really no need to adjust the system: anyone who begins to learn will develop the requisite strength, endurance, and mechanics during the act of learning.  Clothing could get in the way, maybe, but in the images Walpurgis looks to have just as much freedom in her legs and arms as the priest and scholar.

But that being said, what of the similarity between Walpurgis’ ward and the posta di donna? Mightn’t that imply that there were techniques, postures, or movements that specifically applied to women or that were particularly advantageous for women, even though men would regularly use them as well? As is so often the case with material as old as I.33 we can’t say for sure, but I don’t think the evidence bears up this side of the argument either. If you look at the posta di donna in Fiore, it is really a longsword (two-handed) version of the I.33’s custodia secunda (second ward): the weapon is rear-facing, with the hand(s) resting on or near the right shoulder. From here, several blows can come, the best being a right-hand, descending diagonal cut (omitting period terms so we can avoid having to give both Italian and German vocabulary). Fiore also gives a version of this that applies to the left shoulder, which is essentially a variation of I.33’s custodia tertia (third ward). So the link seems tenuous. That said, Fiore also gives a one-handed variation of posta di donna that does resemble Walpurgis’ ward very closely: the sword is held vertically near the right shoulder, with the elbow bent and the hand held more-or-less mid-torso (this is more similar to the posta di donna illustrated in Vadi’s text, where two hands are used).

Based on this, Walpurgis’ ward in my opinion really stands out as a variant of second ward, just as the one-handed posta di donna is a variant of the normal posta di donna. The authors of I.33 in fact explicitly state that this is true; Walpurgis’ ward is described as “the priest’s special second ward.” And therefore, since no particular feminine attribution is given to I.33 in second ward, it is not justifiable to claim that Walpurgis’ ward is a feminine modification any more than one can claim this for the one-handed posta di donna in Fiore. What is most important about the ward is that it is a variant of second, not whom is chosen to depict it. Unfortunately the text gives no clues as to what the author/s perceived as being advantages or uses of this ward as opposed to the standard second ward, as Walpurgis goes from it right into a bind; the only other option mentioned for her is to assume half-shield. It is interesting that the schutzen the priest assumes against her ward differs from the schutzen employed earlier in the text against the standard second ward, implying that there is indeed a significant tactical difference, but the text gives no indication what these are, such that saying anything beyond here would be pure speculation (Vadi gives us some hint perhaps, telling us that the posta di donna “conceals the length of the sword”).

As a side note, I have also seen it mentioned (though I can’t recall who or where, and a Google search has come up with nothing, my apologies) that posta di donna does not really mean “lady’s guard,” but in fact refers to the “guard of THE Lady,” i.e., Mary the Mother of Jesus. This would reinforce my point, and I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be true, but since I’m aware of no textual evidence in favor of this argument in Fiore or Vadi, again we have to take it as speculation.

So no, I don’t think there is a good argument to be made that Walpurgis represents a modification of the techniques in I.33 for female participants. I don’t think there is enough textual evidence to support it, and on top of that, there is really no physiological or anatomical need to make these modifications. We might make tactical modifications for a shorter vs. a taller opponent, but not female vs. male per se. If Walpurgis demonstrates that women were a fully incorporated, if more rare, population of fencers in medieval Europe – a position I do agree with – then stating that techniques are modified for her actually detracts from this argument.

But of certainty we have not much. While Walpurgis’ inclusion and numerous examples of warrior females in the middle ages (especially Germanic examples) exist in support of the argument that women were trained in sword and buckler combat with some frequency, other options exist. Forgeng has suggested, for example, that Walpurgis might represent a wealthy patroness who helped contribute to the manuscript’s creation or the institution of its authors, and who is therefore shown appreciation by inclusion in the text. Since she appears to be wearing fairly fine clothes, this is certainly a possibility, and of course there are many others.

No matter what, Walpurgis is an outstanding figure in the historical fencing literature. There is literally (and I’m using the word literally literally here, unlike its usual use these days) no one else like her in the corpus of historical fencing treatises. That in and of itself makes her an important thing to consider as we think about the history of our art, and what I think is a clearly integral place of women within the historically male-dominated spheres of combat and combat arts.

The contents of this post reflect my own views and opinions, and do not necessarily represent those of my masters at Martinez Academy of Arms.  Any errors are fully my own, as I am still in training and have been encouraged to research to further my studies.

Bibliography

Binard F, Jaquet D (2016) Investigation of the collation of the first fight book (Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS I.33). Acta Periodica Duellatorum 4: 3-22

Cinato F (2016) Development, diffusion, and reception of the “buckler play:” a case study of a fighting art in the making. Late Medieval and Early Modern Fightbooks: Transmission and Tradition of Martial Arts in Europe (14th-17th Centuries) (Jaquet D et al., eds). Brill: Leiden, p. 481.

Eads V (2017) The woman warrior revisited: a Bechdel test for medieval military history. Medieval Warfare Podcast, Oct 9.

Forgeng J (2018) The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33. Leeds: Royal Armouries.

Graf J (2017) Fighting in women’s clothes: the pictorial evidence of Walpurgis in MS. I.33. Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 47-71.

Hager KR (2018) Endowed with manly courage: medieval perceptions of women in combat. Master’s Thesis, Clemson University.

Hester J (2013) A few leaves short of a quire: is the “Tower Fechtbuch” incomplete? Arms & Armour 9: 20-24.

Kellett RE (2013) Royal Armouries MS I.33: the judicial combat and the art of fencing in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century German literature. Oxford German Studies 41: 32-56

 

 

 

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