Sunday, September 1, 2013

Swords and Sorcery and Women and One of My Favorite Battles

How's that for a cumbersome title?

There have been many discussions about the role of women in sword & sorcery.  See here and here for examples.  It is not my intention to rehash the discussion here.  I want to relate the story of one of my favorite medieval battles and an example of a woman I think would fit perfectly into a sword and sorcery world.

The Battle of Dyrrhachium 1081

The Robert Guiscard, a Norman, had carved himself off a portion of land for himself in Italy including the last Byzantine foothold in Italy.  Looking for more, he turned his eyes East and using a rather lame pretext, invaded the Byzantine Empire.  He laid siege to Dyrrhachium, an important city on the est coast of Greece.  Alexius Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, marched forth to break the siege.  With him, amongst the other troops, was the Varangian Guard, an elite force of 1000 men made up of Rus and Scandinavians.

The two forces met outside of the city and a fierce battle ensued.  So, the two things that make this battle interesting to me are the Varangian Guard and Robert Guiscard's wife, Sikelgaita (or Gaita).

First, the Varangians.  These men were, essentially, Vikings.  They were mercenaries who served as the guard for the emperor.  They carried large axes, wore chain mail and had a ferocious reputation.  They were placed at the forefront of the battle and fought valiantly.  They stood their ground in the face of a mounted attack and repulsed it.  However, when the Norman right wing broke as a result, the Varangians joined the pursuit instead of holding their position.  By 1081, the composition of the Varangian Guard had changed.  It was now predominantly made up of Anglo-Saxon's displaced by the Norman conquest.  There were so many in the Guard that it was called the English Guard at times.  So it is understandable why they pursued and wanted to kill as many Normans as possible.

Robert's wife, Sikelgaita, was the the daughter of a Lombard noble.  She accompanied Robert on many of his campaigns.  She was fully armed and armored at Dyrrhachium and met the fleeing men on the beach and, through force of personality, rallied them.  The Normans counter attacked the now separated Varangians and caused them heavy casualties.  The remaining men of the guard took refuge in a church, which the Normans promptly burned down, killing all inside.  The Byzantines eventually broke, leaving the field in Norman hands and the siege unbroken.

I am fascinated by this battle because of the rematch of Norman and Anglo-Saxon and the fact that the battle turned out much as Hastings had, hard fought with an eventual Norman triumph.  I am also fascinated by Sikelgaita.  At the time of the battle she was in her early 40's and had borne 8 children for Robert.  She participated in the battle fully armored and armed as she probably did at other battles.  She definitely had strong leadership skills and a force of personality.  A capable hero in fact and would be for fiction.  And she is one of the first things that come to my mind when I think of women in sword & sorcery.

You can read Anna Comnena's account of the battle here.


Oh, I should've created stats for Sikelgaita.  So, here they are:


Attributes:  Strength 0, Agility 1, Mind 2, Appeal 1
Combat Abilities:  Brawl 0, Melee 1, Ranged 1, Defense 2
Careers:  Noble 2, Soldier 0, Poet 1
Boons:  Etiquette