Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Bold and vigorous women have been often seen to fight like men. History makes mention of such; for, without reckoning Semiramis, Tomyris, or Penthesilea — who, perhaps, existed only in fable — it is certain that there were many women in the armies of the first caliphs. In the tribe of the Homerites, especially, it was a sort of law, dictated by love and courage, that in battle wives should succor and avenge their husbands, and mothers their children.

When the famous chief Derar was fighting in Syria against the generals of the Emperor Heraclius, in the time of the caliph Abubeker, successor to Mahomet, Peter, who commanded at Damascus, took thither several women, whom he had captured, together with some booty, in one of his excursions; among the prisoners was the sister of Derar. Alvakedi’s “Arabian History,” translated by Ockley, says that she was a perfect beauty, and that Peter became enamored of her, paid great attention to her on the way, and indulged her and her fellow-prisoners with short marches. They encamped in an extensive plain, under tents, guarded by troops posted at a short distance. Caulah (so this sister of Derar’s was named) proposed to one of her companions, called Oserra, that they should endeavor to escape from captivity, and persuaded her rather to die than be a victim to the lewd desires of the Christians. The same Mahometan enthusiasm seized all the women; they armed themselves with the iron-pointed staves that supported their tents, and with a sort of dagger which they wore in their girdles; they then formed a circle, as the cows do when they present their horns to attacking wolves. Peter only laughed at first; he advanced toward the women, who gave him hard blows with the staves; after hesitating for some time, he at length resolved to use force; the sabres of his men were already drawn, when Derar arrived, put the Greeks to flight, and delivered his sister and the other captives.

Nothing can more strongly resemble those times called heroic, sung by Homer. Here are the same single combats at the head of armies, the combatants frequently holding a long conversation before they commerce fighting; and this, no doubt, justifies Homer.

Thomas, governor of Syria, Heraclius’s son-in-law, made a sally from Damascus, and attacked Sergiabil, having first prayed to Jesus Christ. “Unjust aggressor,” said he to Sergiabil, “thou canst not resist Jesus, my God, who will fight for the champions of His religion.” “Thou tellest an impious lie,” answered Sergiabil; “Jesus is not greater before God than Adam. God raised Him from the dust; He gave life to Him as to another man, and, after leaving Him for some time on earth, took Him up into heaven.” After some more verbal skirmishing the fight began. Thomas discharged an arrow, which wounded young Aban, the son of Saib, by the side of the valiant Sergiabil; Aban fell and expired; the news of his death reached his young wife, to whom he had been united but a few days before; she neither wept nor complained, but ran to the field of battle, with a quiver at her back, and a couple of arrows in her hand; with the first of these she killed the Christian standard-bearer, and the Arabs seized the trophy, crying, Allah achar! With the other she shot Thomas in the eye, and he retired, bleeding, into the town.

Arabian history is full of similar examples, but they do not tell us that these warlike women burned their right breast, that they might draw the bow better, nor that they lived without men; on the contrary, they exposed themselves in battle for their husbands or their lovers; from which very circumstance we must conclude that, so far from reproaching Ariosto and Tasso for having introduced so many enamored warriors into their poems, we should praise them for having delineated real and interesting manners.

When the crusading mania was at its height there were some Christian women who shared the fatigues and dangers of their husbands. To such a pitch, indeed, was this enthusiasm carried that the Genoese women undertook a crusade of their own, and were on the point of setting out for Palestine to form petticoat battalions; they had made a vow so to do, but were absolved from it by a pope, who was a little wiser than themselves.

Margaret of Anjou, wife of the unfortunate Henry VI. of England, evinced, in a juster war, a valor truly heroic; she fought in ten battles to deliver her husband. History affords no authenticated example of greater or more persevering courage in a woman. She had been preceded by the celebrated Countess de Montfort, in Brittany. “This princess,” says d’Argentré, “was virtuous beyond the nature of her sex, and valiant beyond all men; she mounted her horse, and managed him better than any esquire; she fought hand to hand, or charged a troop of armed men like the most valiant captain; she fought on sea and land with equal bravery,” etc. She went, sword in hand, through her states, which were invaded by her competitor, Charles de Blois. She not only sustained two assaults, armed cap-à-pie, in the breach of Hennebon, but she made a sortie with five hundred men, attacked the enemy’s camp, set fire to it, and reduced it to ashes.

The exploits of Joan of Arc, better known as the Maid of Orleans, are less astonishing than those of Margaret of Anjou and the Countess de Montfort. These two princesses having been brought up in the luxury of courts, and Joan of Arc in the rude exercises of country life, it was more singular, as well as more noble, to quit a palace for the field than a cottage.

The heroine who defended Beauvais was, perhaps, superior to her who raised the siege of Orleans, for she fought quite as well, and neither boasted of being a maid, nor of being inspired. It was in 1472, when the Burgundian army was besieging Beauvais, that Jeanne Hachette, at the head of a number of women, sustained an assault for a considerable time, wrested the standard from one of the enemy who was about to plant it on the breach, threw the bearer into the trench, and gave time for the king’s troops to arrive and relieve the town. Her descendants have been exempted from the taille (poll tax)— a mean and shameful recompense! The women and girls of Beauvais are more flattered by their walking before the men in the procession on the anniversary day. Every public mark of honor is an encouragement of merit; but the exemption from the taille is but a proof that the persons so exempted were subjected to this servitude by the misfortune of their birth.

There is hardly any nation which does not boast of having produced such heroines; the number of these, however, is not great; nature seems to have designed women for other purposes. Women have been known but rarely to exhibit themselves as soldiers. In short, every people have had their female warriors; but the kingdom of the Amazons, on the banks of the Thermodon, is, like most other ancient stories, nothing more than a poetic fiction.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25