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Women in the Military: Scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors

Women in the Military: Scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors

By James Blythe

History of Political Thought, Vol. 22:2 (2001)

Abstract: In their political treatises, the scholastic writers Ptolemy of Lucca (c.1236–1327) and Giles of Rome (1243–1316) discussed the question of whether women should serve in the military. The dispute came in response to Aristotle, who reported in his Politics that Plato and Socrates taught that women should receive the same military training as men and take an equal part in fighting.

Such a treatment was made possible by a medieval context in which women under certain circumstances could be feudal lords responsible for maintaining a contingent of knights and sometimes commanding them, and in which a large number of medieval stories of women fighters or leaders of knights circulated, some of them mythical but others based on real women. Both Giles and Ptolemy ultimately rejected female participation but, in keeping with the dialectical method, proposed arguments on both sides. These involve historical precedent, the biological and medical differences between men and women, analogies between female animals and women, divinely ordained gender roles, and the benefits of exercise.

Introduction: In recent years controversy has raged about the role of women and homosexuals in the armed forces. Opposition to equal opportunity ranges from practical to theological, from purported kindness to overt hatred. Even most supporters of widened participation believe that theirs is a new demand, a product of contemporary feminism and gay activism. Thus, I was delighted to find an argument about women in the military in the scholastic Aristotelian writers Ptolemy of Lucca (c.1236–1327) and Giles of Rome (1243–1316). Both reject female participation but, in keeping with their dialectical method, propose arguments on both sides. I will analyse these, after outlining the context from which they emerged: a classical stimulus and medieval mentality which made them conceivable. To this end, I have collected medieval stories of women fighters or leaders of knights. I was surprised to find so many and equally surprised that no one has previously published such a compilation. I have little doubt that there is much more to be discovered and hope that this article will stimulate others to look further.

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