Could a girl be a knight in shining armor? It is an interesting question, and one that causes no small amount of confusion for students studying the Middle Ages and young readers enjoying the tales of King Arthur.
So, were there ever any women in chain mail? Did a girl ever sit at the Round Table? Could a lady live by the code of chivalry?
To begin with, we must understand we are dealing with a complex issue spanning a vast period of time. The Middle Ages lasted more than 500 years, and things changed a lot during that period. (Just imagine, for example, how much things have changed for women in just the last 100 years — voting, equal rights, military service, etc.)
With that in mind, however, there are some basic facts we can look at to understand more about lady knights:
1) Women knights in literature: The Chronicles Of Silence is taken from a real 13th century story of a girl who became a knight in the Age of King Arthur. It is a “fantasy” to be sure, just as the stories of Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad are all fantasies. But these fantasies had a powerful influence on the society of the Middle Ages. Men wanted to be like the great Knights of the Round Table – and the story of Silence undoubtedly had an effect on the people who heard it, reminding them that women could be strong and brave. Another earlier tale, the story of Grisandole, also tells the tale of a German girl who became a great knight.
2) Women knights in history: Almost everyone has heard of Joan of Arc! While she was never “knighted,” she did almost everything we would expect a knight to do – lead an army, dress in armor and go into battle. But there are records of women being
A 14th century drawing showing a woman (left) practicing battle skill with a sword and small shield. (Ms. I.33 courtesy Royal Armouries at Leeds)
inducted into many of the knightly orders of medieval history, including the Knights Hospitaler and the Teutonic Knights. In Spain, there was an order of knighthood given only to women who had fought in battle, called The Order of the Hatchet.
3) Women and Chivalry: Women had an important function to serve as part of the ideals of chivalry. Far from making women “weak” or “subservient,” the notion of chivalry gave women a new level of influence and prestige in medieval society. Men sought the respect and admiration of ladies, not just by fighting (although they did plenty of that) but also by more gentle arts of dancing, poetry and sport. Chivalry established the expectation that a man should please a lady, not just treat her like property. There are no recorded incidents of a woman competing in a jousting tournament – but women had an important role to play in the culture of knighthood.
While female knights were uncommon in both the literature and history of the Middle Ages, it is quite incorrect to say “a woman could never be a knight.” The Round Table was hardly an “equal opportunity” institution, and the code of chivalry did not contain any Title IX clause – but the fact is, both literature and history give us several cases of extraordinary women bearing the prestigious title knight. (And for the record, a woman knight is usually called “dame” instead of “sir.”)
The story of Silence was a 13th century social critique, written to bring attention to gender biases and stereotypes of the time. Today, as women are still struggling to achieve truly equal rights, The Chronicles Of Silence reminds us that honor, duty, courage and the strength of friendship go beyond the boundaries of gender, and that a hero who fights against bigotry and prejudice fights the greatest battle of all.