How history has treated them is always interesting, too. Of course, the focus here is on their depiction in the noble medium of woodcut.
I’ll go chronologically, as more befitting my historical subject, and begin with our old friend Olaus Magnus, chronicler of the Nordic peoples. Apparently the subject of warrior women was so fascinating to him that he took a couple of chapters away from the North to discuss Amazons and other martial women around the world. These two on horseback have long hair, short skirts, and all too effective-looking weaponry.
Next up, a particular historical warrior: Boudicca, famous for attempting to defend her part of Britain from the Romans. This portrait from 1611 has her looking more 1611-ish than first century, a trait I find rather charming in art. She’s also got improbably long hair and an improbably small dog. (At least, I think that’s a dog. I wish I had a bigger, sharper reproduction to look at.)
This magnificent woodcut in the style of Dürer shows a woman warrior with a breastplate and shoulder guards that would make any fantasy costumier proud. There are a lot of really cool details, including the worm’s head of her scimitar’s pommel, the lions’ heads on her shoulders, and the beautiful patterns on her shins, trappings, and textiles. Indeed, she’s so incredibly cool that her horse doesn’t even have reins. She battles with one hand on her hip, she’s just that in command.
By contrast, this piece from the Revolutionary War era is the most stiff and primitive of the bunch. I love her knowing little smile, though. She’s not going to take any nonsense from any Redcoat. She’s also our only warrior modern enough to use a gun. There were a number of women recorded as fighting in the Revolutionary War, most disguised as men. I don’t know whether this is intended to represent any of them in particular.
Though it's the most recent woodcut today, this last one represents one of the more ancient historical women: Han Gaku, who lived around 1200. Like Boudicca (and so many others who live by the sword) she was ultimately defeated. Unlike Boudicca, however, she was saved from death by a male warrior who wanted to marry her. Of course I have no idea what she thought of marrying this man, though presumably he seemed preferable to a violent death. She looks rather stubborn in our woodut, so I hope the man loved her for her courage and battle skills rather than expecting a wife who would be meek and subdued.
The trope of the woman warrior has a long history in fantasy, from Hippolyta, to Bradamante, to Eowyn, to Black Widow. They often end up dead or “tamed,” like Boudicca and Han Gaku, which some feminists find understandably annoying. I can’t say I generally mind much when people give up war - I just wish more of the men would end up “tamed,” too!
On Martial Exercises of Women, woodcut from Book 5 Chapter 28 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from Lars Henriksson);
Queen Boadicea, woodcut from The History of Great Britaine by John Speed, 1611 (Image from Blogdorf Goodman);
Marfisa Bizara, woodcut from the back of a printed board game, 18th century? (Image from the Ashmolean Douce Blog);
Armed female combatant, woodcut from A New Touch on the Times, c 1779 (Image from History of Massachusetts);
Han Gaku, color woodcut by Yoshitoshi, 1883 (Image from The Floating World of Ukiyo-e).]