GW: Hi sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Claire Mead, who is a freelance curator, a comics artist, a podcaster, and has a YouTube channel on various aspects of arms and armour, which we will be getting into in the show. You can find her webtoon, Girls’ School of Knighthood on the Internet. I’ll put a link in the show notes, and her podcast is Bustles & Broadswords. Again, there’ll be a link in the show notes and you can find her on Patreon at www.patreon.com/clairemead. And so, without further ado, Claire, welcome to the show.
CM: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
GW: It’s nice to have you here. So my first question is usually, whereabouts are you?
CM: Right now I’m in my room in north London. Not really doing much because lockdown has just started.
GW: Yeah, this is November the 5th, 2020, and lockdown part two, The Return of Lockdown, has just started. OK. One of the great things about lockdown, of course, is we will have more time for podcasts.
CM: Well, exactly. There we go. So just turning my room into a kind of video podcasting, comics creation centre at the moment. Very multipurpose.
GW: Am I right in thinking you are not originally from London?
CM: Yes, exactly, I am half French, half British, and I was raised in France. I only properly lived in the U.K. when I started at uni. Then there was lots of back and forth between France and the U.K. in the past few years. And I’ve only properly been settled down in London from a few years ago.
GW: OK, what made you settle in London?
CM: Mainly a job in programming. I had that job part time and at the same time I pursued more of my freelance career as a curator, working with a variety of museums and heritage sites in London and beyond.
GW: So you’re a freelance museum curator. That is an extremely cool job. How on earth does one become a freelance museum curator?
CM: I would say with some difficulty, because it’s it is the kind of job where you say you’re a freelance curator at a party – well, I mean, used to because we’re not really having parties right now – and people say that’s so cool. And I say thank you. Sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle to pay rent. But it is a job that I do supplement with other things such as translation and various other jobs. At the moment it is my full time job. I’m working full time as a freelance curator and it’s something that’s really built through lots of different connections and collaborations over the years. So when I started about three years ago, it wasn’t quite easy to do so and lots of word of mouth and lots of just reaching out to institutions sometimes after failed job interviews saying I can still work with you and actually doing so has sometimes led to full-on exhibitions. So it was something that basically every time a door shuts, you have to come in by the window and find some interesting way of working with an institution and finding what makes you special to work with. And for me, that really ended up being working with museums and heritage sites around trying to make their collections and programming more inclusive, specifically in terms of women’s narratives and LGBTQI narratives.
GW: OK, so what was your first gig and what was it about?
CM: It’s hard to trace back the exact moment I started doing freelance curation because sometimes it was at the same time as other jobs and it is hard to pinpoint. But I’d say that my first major milestone as a freelance curator was the exhibition I did with Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art a few years ago, which basically started as a curator residency, doing a series of workshops with members of the Middlesborough community who identify as on the LGBTQI spectrum or as allies of the LGBTQI community to try and imagine ways of finding these narratives and identities within the collection.
GW: Could you give us a specific example of what that might mean?
CM: So, for example, it’s really this idea of not just finding artists within a collection that identify necessarily as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, but really looking at different works that can give a different perspective on gender and sexuality and relating that to visitors and how they feel. So, for example, during these workshops, we had a session where we invited participants to come into the collections storage, which is usually out of sight. You’re not really able to just walk in there as a visitor. And we invited participants to select a work that spoke to them in terms of gender identity, in terms of sexual identity. The interesting thing is that that object didn’t necessarily have to be produced by an artist who identified in some way or another on the LGBTQI spectrum. It had to mean something to the person that selected it. And then within the exhibition, that object was presented with the participant’s label, explaining this is what this object meant to me. So, for example, there was this beautiful rainbow brooch by Andrew Logan and the label writer who had selected the work, said that it meant something to him because it reflected something about his bisexual identity. And the different fragmented mirrors in the brooch made him feel that he had to reflect different identities, depending on who he was talking to, linked to his family or his friends who knew about his bisexual identity. Another work was this beautiful vase by Nicholas Arroyave-Portela, which looks very wavy and bendy. There’s lots of experimentation with the way the vase looks. It doesn’t look all smooth, but it looks as though it’s flowing like water. And the participant who selected this vase, who wished to remain anonymous, said that for them it said something about gender and how gender could be fluid and in motion. It didn’t have to be fixed points within something. It could be something that’s ever changing. So those are really, really interesting perspectives that really brought something to the exhibition. So we had a good mix of artists who did identify on the LGBTQI spectrum, alongside artists who were interested in exploring masculinity and femininity and whatever that means in different ways. And it was really good, because it meant that the exhibition could go beyond those LGBTQI labels and just have something that was relatable to all different kinds of audience. Lots of different people could just come inside and say, for example, “I’m straight, but sometimes I struggle with living up to a certain expectation of masculinity. And this work helps me come to terms with that.” We also had a zine library in the exhibition in which people could write their own zines and leave them there, in which they could just express their own point of view about their identities, who they were, how they identified. And it creates an experience that was really interesting because it was collaborative. It was a rich tapestry of not just a product of my own research, but the product of so many other people’s inputs and ideas on what an inclusive museum looks like. So really, it was a defining moment for me and it really shaped what I did next.
GW: It confirms the notion that meaning is what you bring to a work of art rather than is necessarily intrinsic within it.
CM: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s really interesting to see these works in terms of feminist works, in terms of LGBTQI narratives, as something that definitely is shaped by participants. I think it’s interesting because sometimes we talk about historical figures who potentially could have identified on the LGBTQI spectrum. And as always, this idea of evidence that comes up, what evidence we have, we don’t have enough evidence. And sometimes the idea of lack of evidence translates to, “Well, since we don’t have the evidence, this person is straight until proven otherwise.” It is an issue in so many ways and it is the same issue that you encounter in the idea of women and swordsmanship throughout history, this idea that if we don’t have any evidence of women fighting, then by default it means that it was only men with a few female exceptions.
GW: Although there were quite a lot of exceptions.
CM: Well, exactly. Now, we know it’s no longer a case of proving that women wielded swords, we do know that. And so it’s just about making that information public. But what I find interesting is that we have to just think about the ways in which historical figures back then did not necessarily have the same labels that we have today. Things could be a lot more in flux, in motion. So we need to have a lot more fluid and inclusive interpretation of the past and think about who is accessing that information today. So I think it’s really important to be queer inclusive, trans inclusive and centre women’s histories when we talk about the past, because it’s not so much only about respecting how these historical figures may have identified, but also about respecting who has access to that history today, respecting the perspectives of people on the LGBTQI spectrum who want to access this history and want to find this part of themselves within the past, after being told sometimes all their lives that now that their identity is a fad or something that’s brand new. It’s always existed. They have always been there.
GW: And we see this a lot where, of course, medieval Europe was all straight white people. Right. Except actually, no.
CM: Nope, nope, nope, nope. Absolutely not.
GW: Going back to ancient Rome, we have at least two African-born emperors of Rome. And I’m blanking on the names right now but I can look it up and put it in the show notes. Then the two perhaps most famous fencers of the 18th century are the Chevalier d’Éon, who was trans. Well, that label didn’t exist back then, but certainly lived the second half of life as a woman, so by any reasonable definition, probably trans, and the Chevalier de Saint-George, who was black. So, literally the two premier smallsword fencers of the 18th century, one is a black guy and another one is a transwoman. But of course, it was all straight white men.
CM: Of course. It’s so interesting you say that. I think one of the highlights of my podcast research, because there will be an episode on le Chevalier d’Éon coming up, or la Chevaleresse d’Eon. I’ve been experimenting with ways of making that title a bit more inclusive of her.
GW: It’s so fortunate you can actually pronounce that properly.
CM: Well, so that’s a French advantage. The highlights of my research around her was finding out that Chevalier d’Éon and Chevalier de Saint-George had actually fought in London. Just having an idea of that encounter within a history that people assume is so male and white and cis and straight is just incredible because it’s only one example. I think it’s interesting that all these exceptions accumulate so much that they really they no longer become exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions are just the tip of the iceberg of what we’ve been able to preserve in the history that has also been written by cis straight white men.
GW: A couple of things are fascinating to me about that. Firstly, the fact that one of these people were black and the other one was dressed as a woman, they were still allowed to fence in public because in that fencing club, how good you are with the sword was vastly more important than your skin colour or gender identity. I think that’s a really useful lesson for, shall we say, some of today’s historical martial arts clubs. And also it bears mentioning that the oldest martial arts treatise we have, the sword and buckler manual known as 1.33 in Leeds Armoury, has a woman in it. One of the priest’s students is Walpurgis, who is clearly a woman. But the girls can’t fence, right?
CM: Absolutely. Yeah. No, it’s not it’s not historically accurate, you see. My goodness. I don’t know if you remember that whole episode at the beginning of January when somebody ranted about The Witcher, that new Netflix adaptation, saying, “Oh, it’s not accurate for women to fight.” And then all of HEMA, I mean, at least that the HEMA circles I was in, so the good ones, I think, saying women fight today and they have fought in the past. And it’s actually what motivated me to start the podcast in earnest, a slightly petty way of saying, no, they’ve always existed. Here they all are.
GW: I’ve only watched the first episode and it’s not really my kind of thing, but it had monsters that aren’t real. And there was magic. But it’s the girls holding swords you’re saying is unrealistic? You’re fixating on the wrong thing.
CM: Oh absolutely. It always gets me in fantasy as well. It’s this idea that, without getting into too much detail, because that content can be quite upsetting. (But it’s also the reason I’ve stopped watching Game of Thrones. I might read the books later on.) This idea that violence against women is put in these medieval fantasy settings because it’s “historically accurate”. But then you also have a dragon and magic, and you think, can’t we just imagine a society in which it’s just a given that there are lots of different other problems and power dynamics, but the patriarchy and homophobia isn’t one of them? I don’t want to open a book sometimes and just see the exact same issues being shown in a fantasy setting.
GW: It shows a lack of imagination really.
CM: Yeah, exactly. It’s also just the lack of women’s voices. It is brilliant to be able to have new fantasy that’s coming out now that is more reflective of a world in which women are powerful and that’s just a given. And that’s just really interesting for me in itself.
GW: Well, in one of the earliest cultures that we know of, the city of Uruk, it’s hard to say exactly how it was governed, but they all worshipped a goddess called Inanna. It’s not exactly a strictly patriarchal situation when the priestess is one of the most powerful people in the city.
CM: Yeah, exactly. This reminds me of research I was doing on the labrys. I was wondering why the labrys – this two-sided axe, kind of butterfly-shaped – I was wondering why it had become a feminist and lesbian symbol and that brought me back all the way to Minoan civilisation and the labrys being used in many ways in the context of a society that had powerful women at its core and the way in which that civilisation was slightly, I may be mistaken because I’m not an expert on that period, undermined by later on ancient Greek civilisation, which was a lot more patriarchal. So it’s really interesting to see how that symbol has persisted and then ended up becoming a lesbian feminist symbol. Also the way in which I think we’ve projected so many Eurocentric assumptions of powerful womanhood, whereas there are so many civilisations that show us that that wasn’t the case at all. I’ve been researching Queen Amanirenas for the podcast, Queen of the Kingdom of Kush, in what is now modern Sudan, who faced off against the Roman Empire and who came from a long line of royalty in which warrior queens could reign alone on the throne without that being an issue. So it’s really interesting to compare that with all the mess in Europe around different problems and barring women from succession and the way in which women were removed from power, especially I think from the late mediaeval period onwards, don’t quote me on that. I could be completely wrong, I’m just starting to research that subject. It’s really interesting. I feel like European history loves having that exceptional woman narrative and it can look empowering at first sight. If you don’t look very closely, you think, oh, it’s great, we raised up this woman, but then you think, oh, wait, this woman is being raised up because she did something for a man, for her husband or some other reason, or she did it for her country. So it’s almost implying that if you’re not doing it for the right reasons, you’re not worthy of wielding a sword for your own purposes. I think about that a lot when I think of Joan of Arc, for example, because while that’s a great narrative and it’s a very popular narrative, it’s also so revealing that, for example, during the First World War, Joan of Arc iconography was very, very popular. But then there are actually lots and lots of different stories around women fighting on the front disguised as men who were ridiculed after the war ended. So lots of really interesting double standards, I think.
GW: And if I recall correctly, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
CM: Also that. So that story didn’t end brilliantly.
GW: Living in England we have Queen Boudicca, who famously tried to stop the Romans, not far from where I live at the moment. And we’ve had Queen Mary, who was just up the road from here when she was pronounced queen, I live in a very historic part of England.
CM: That’s brilliant.
GW: And Elizabeth is one of the more famous monarchs, Elizabeth I. We have Victoria. Elizabeth II. Actually, England has spent a really long time with Queens on the throne of England. And I say “England” advisedly. Because for much of that time these were not Queens of Scotland, possibly Wales and maybe parts of Ireland. I’m only talking about Queens of England. I remember a while ago I read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez. Oh, my God, that book blew me away.
CM: I’ve not read that yet.
GW: Oh, you must. It’s fantastic. But anyway, I ranted about it on my blog, and it’s actually one of the things that led to this podcast. And I got people saying, “Oh Guy, you are such a cuck.” And, “If you let women be in charge, then next thing you know, you’ll be speaking Arabic.” Literally. Because if we let women be in charge then apparently radical Islam will take over the world. I kid you not. Anyway. What they didn’t seem to realise is, as an Englishman, one of the highest honours I can possibly aspire to would be to kneel in front of the queen while she taps me on the shoulder with a sword. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, but there is this is massive disconnect between, OK, give the queen the sword and she can make knights and what have you. But you can’t have women in charge, that would just be wrong.
CM: Yeah, I know.
GW: It just struck me as interesting how when you happen to be living in a country which has this divided idea, where we have Queen Boudicca and we have Queen Elizabeth, but we also have people who think that if you let women have any kind of influence or control, then next thing you know, we will all have to speak Arabic.
CM: It’s absolutely ridiculous. Also, I mean, God, I would be lucky if I could speak if I could speak Arabic fluently. It’s a beautiful language. I know it’s not what they meant. I know it’s meant to be Islamophobic and racist, but it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? And I think it’s so interesting because, again, this is something I really started exploring, but I was looking at when the women’s succession to the throne of France had been abolished and it was in 1316 because some potential heir to the throne wanted basically to keep the position for himself. So he declared that no woman can access the throne now and much later on, after the 14th century, this they basically kind of took this law that was called the Salic Law.
GW: Anyone who has read Henry V is familiar with Salic Law.
CM: So I’m very new to Salic Law. Again, not an expert, but from what I’ve read about it, basically interpreted what was a very specific law about Frankish territories and interpreted as this very old, official sounding law, which says that women would have never had the right to inherit, so this is it now. And it was just really interesting. I was listening to a podcast with historian Elianne Viennot who was saying there was almost this revisionist aspect to women in power, of trying to backdate a moment where women could not access the throne. Whereas there are lots of powerful, armoured women in mediaeval periods. And lots of women after that period who just continued to enact that power, both literally, as the literal woman with a sword, fighting, and also symbolically. I was reading about Catherine of Aragon and about the moment she was briefly regent while Henry VIII was off doing something in France and had to basically face off against Scotland and there are accounts of her bringing armour up to the battle and also allegedly addressing the troops in full armour. It’s interesting those stories because they can’t really be fact checked accurately. We’re not really sure if it happened or not, but there’s lots of different instances of women also symbolically wielding swords or being represented with swords in a way that showed that obviously it meant something. It was a symbol of power that they are very much aware of and could wield at their own advantage. There’s so much out there.
GW: Speaking of women wielding swords, do you actually wield a sword?
CM: Well, I do. I started my sword wielding adventures with fencing, and I’ve always wondered, is the foil a sword? And I think yes. Well, you know, I’d say it’s a blade, right? It’s a very small blade if you compare it to, for example, a longsword.
GW: It’s not the size. A foil isn’t a sword exactly. Because it is a training tool that is designed to simulate a particular kind of sword.
CM: Yeah, exactly. It’s probably what a cat is to a tiger.
GW: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say it was it’s more like a computer model of a tiger. Because it’s more like a research tool. I mean, if you look at the classic weapons of classical fencing, you’ve got the foil, the épée, and you have the sabre. And the sabre is a very, very light version of the kind of military sabres that were being used at the time. It’s a kind of sportified version of that. The épée, with the triangular blade, it’s sort of related to the smallsword. But really, it’s a blunt version of the épée de combat, which was never carried as a sidearm. It was just a sword for settling disputes. And then the foil predates both of them, I think, because you see foils, for example, in Angelo’s School of Fencing. It is really clearly not the sword. It is the training tool that you use to learn the sword. It’s a model.
CM: Exactly. Well, I would say that while I have started with fencing, I do wield a longsword as a beginner in historical European martial arts. And that is slightly more hefty. Obviously, it’s blunted and it’s got the tip.
GW: To my mind, a blunt training longsword is the modern equivalent of a medieval foil. Not that there is such a thing as a medieval foil necessarily, but the best of them have square cross sections and a rubber blunt, they are just bigger and differently shaped. To my mind that’s a foil and the sword is the actual sharp object.
CM: I do have a beautiful little replica of a 17th century rapier. The blade is blunt, but the point is quite pointy. So I always try and keep it away from the cat. It is great for referencing when you want to draw something, and it is beautiful.
GW: I’m not dissing foils at all, they are an essential training sword. You start training with foils because that’s just the best place to start. It totally counts. I’m not trying to diminish your experience.
CM: We’re going to have fencers coming after the podcast saying, what did you say about this? There is already a weird rivalry between Foilists and Épéeists about who is better. It’s all in good fun.
GW: So you have been doing foil for a while and longsword for less time. Obviously, you’re mad about swords. So what took you so long to get into doing historical fencing?
CM: It’s really interesting because it’s something that I always wanted to do. And I think to be honest, I did do it on and off. I did take my first HEMA session as early as 2013, but then I broke my hand.
GW: You didn’t break your hand doing swords?
CM: Ironically, no. So it’s quite funny because during that session, we also learnt about 19th century style French boxing, but I had what was then called a boxer’s fracture completely outside that lesson. I just banged my hand in my room and they called it a boxer’s fracture. I thought, well, that’s deeply ironic. So I had already done a bit. And then around 2014, 2015, I also did stage combat, which was very, very interesting because it was all about choreography more than the actual learning, but you still learn quite interesting things. But I think in earnest I started the longsword in January and then… well something happened.
GW: Lockdown happened.
CM: Yes, exactly. What took me so long to really get into it in earnest, especially longsword, and really just stick to it and start reading up about it, I think it’s because my levels of self-confidence changed, to be honest. I used to lack quite a lot of confidence in terms of sports that I couldn’t immediately get better at. And it was the same thing for fencing. I think fencing definitely led me to more confidence about then starting to learn HEMA because I learnt through fencing that you can’t be naturally gifted at fencing or historical fencing. It’s really a question of practise, learning, admitting your mistakes and admitting that if you don’t train for a long time, you will become incredibly rusty. It’s not something where you can have an immediate proficiency.
GW: I’ve written a blog post about the myth of talent. I’m entirely on the side of it’s not talent. It’s a combination of luck and application.
CM: Exactly. It’s interesting because I already used martial arts when I was a lot younger to develop my self-confidence. I used to do Aikido for example and Aikido is amazing. It’s a brilliant sport. I think in many ways it informed my love of fencing and historical fencing later on. Back in those sessions, to be completely blunt, I was a teenager and I was always in tears if I didn’t manage something. And it took a lot of work to think, actually, I can do this, I can fight, and it’s fine if I lose, especially in regular fencing where, you know, there’d be lots of fencing matches, but just in longsword lessons in general. So it was fine to make a mistake and, for example, have the teacher very, very politely and gently say, “Look, this is what you shouldn’t do. This is how we should do it.” And it’s fine to just admit that. I think it did have a bit of an intimidating aura for me at first, because I could see all these incredibly talented people.
GW: You just said “talented”. They’re not.
GW: They are skilled, they are experienced.
CM: It’s really interesting. I think it just takes lots of patience. You have to immediately admit that you’re not going start fighting people with steel weapons straight away your first year, because that would be highly unsafe for everybody. And you just also have to realise that when you actually turn up to a HEMA session, everybody might look really intimidating. But in my experience at least, they’re all very gentle, nerdy people, who are actually very considerate of other people’s feelings. I think it was dual for me. It was kind of getting over, “Oh, I’m going to look silly in front of other people and this is not the environment for me.” And then realising this is the environment in which I can make mistakes, I can grow at my own pace. And actually, it’s not a competition. People are not here to see me fail. People are here to see me thrive.
GW: And the instructor’s job is to create an environment in which it’s safe to fail.
CM: Exactly. I think it’s really interesting to link that definitely so strongly to inclusion and making sure that women, that people who identify in the LGBT spectrum, that black people and people of colour feel welcome in these spaces and feel listened to because there are connotations with historical fencing having been – with weaponry in general – of white supremacists trying to claim the sword as a kind of symbol.
GW: And that’s true in all sorts. Like Aikido, for example. I mean, the founder of Aikido was, certainly early on in his life, by any reasonable standard, a raging fascist. He was a Japanese ultranationalist.
CM: Yeah, exactly. Which contrasts completely with what you think of as Aikido being slightly more kind of peaceful.
GW: Absolutely. And there’s a wonderful book about it by Ellis Amdur, which is Hidden in Plain Sight. And it goes into what he became and how things changed. Martial arts in general are an expression of power. And people who like to use power to lord it over other people will naturally be attracted to any sort of power, including martial arts.
CM: Exactly. And that’s why I’ve been so reassured when I started looking to HEMA. I think the first example is the club I joined, London Longsword Academy, at the beginning of January. I found out about them via Pride post and then going to the first lessons what really came out clearly to me was…
GW: That’s Dave Rawlings’ club?
CM: Yes, yes. Hi Dave! And what really struck me when I went to lessons and then went to drinks afterwards was really this commitment to making sure that people felt welcome and that there was a really vocal, explicit anti-racist commitment and commitment to including women and including queer and trans people. Because the thing is, I think there can be lots of places that want to be that, but then won’t explicitly say it. And then if the thing is, if there isn’t an explicit reassurance, you can’t know.
GW: And you can’t take it for granted just in case things go horribly wrong.
CM: Exactly. It’s terrible to be in that position in the first place where you think you’re in a safe space and something makes you feel uncomfortable and you feel like you’re trapped. And I think especially in sports, where you want to have strong relationships with people, you don’t want to be in that situation where you suddenly realise, oh, wait, this club is not inclusive.
GW: Sure. OK, now I just noticed the clock: we are galloping over time, and that’s fine. That’s the great thing, this is my podcast, so we can have a two hour episode if we like. But I think I should probably get along to the next thing on my little list of things to talk about, which is your webzine, Girls’ School of Knighthood. I’ll link to it in the show notes. But can you just tell us what it’s about?
CM: Yes, absolutely. So in a nutshell, the story is about Cassidy, who is a bard in a fantasy-without-magic world, which might not make sense to some, but makes sense to me where she’s telling these tales about valiant women knights, and you can sense that she wants to become one but doesn’t really have the confidence to do so. And then a series of events leads her to enrolling in the Girls’ School of Knighthood. The intrigue begins. She saves this mysterious masked girl and then her kind of commitment to protecting her without really knowing who she is leads her to the path towards becoming a knight while still remaining a bard in her spare time. So we’re following the adventures of this bard/knight, who’s trying to work out what knighthood means for her.
GW: And it’s available online. Are you going to produce a physical copy of it anytime?
CM: Actually, yes. It’s funny, when you do a webcomic, I started posting just one page a week in January, and then by now I post between, on the best weeks 20 pages, on the weeks where I have a bit more of a workload 10 pages a week. And you don’t really have an idea of how much you produced when you’re doing a comic little by little. I’ve already written out the script but I draw it as I go. And one night a few weeks ago I decided I should compile this into PDF for my friends who want to read my comic but aren’t really internet savvy or just want to read it in a PDF.
GW: The reason I asked is because I just can’t read off web pages properly. Even a PDF on an iPad or whatever, it’s OK. But to actually read something I really need it on paper. That was basically a self-interested question.
CM: Well, I mean basically the outcome of the PDF is I realised that what I’ve produced so far, at the beginning of November, is 260 pages. So it will be first published as an online PDF. But then I’m going to think about ways in which I could try and make it a printed version. I think I’d have to maybe revise a few things. My art style at the beginning is a bit finding itself and I have definitely improved a lot via the comic, and resolution and margins and all that stuff. But I would love to make it happen. I think that would be fantastic.
GW: It’s not difficult. I mean, I’ve been publishing my own books for ages. I’ve produced a couple of full colour facsimiles, one of Vadi and another of Fiore. I don’t do any of the graphic stuff. I can’t draw for shit. I hire professionals for that side of things, but the actual process of getting it printed at a reasonable quality, bound and distributed and what have you, that’s a solved problem. So when you think you’re ready to look deeper into that, just give me a bell and I will show you what to do.
CM: Thank you very much.
GW: But it’ll cost you. I want a free copy.
CM: Oh well, yeah. You’ll have a free signed copy.
GW: So you have a fascination with women holding swords, which obviously I can totally relate to. And this comes out in articles like you have one in artuk.org talking about the representation of women holding swords in our history. And the thing is, I’ve spent a lot of time in museums, usually looking at swords and pictures of swords. And when I was living in Italy for a few months, back in 2015 and my daughters were a lot younger, I was researching falchions, messers, that kind of thing. The thing is, in most art that you see in museums from pretty much any period, European art, at least if there is a curved sword in the hands of a man, that man is almost invariably a foreigner, like a Saracen or like The Massacre of the Innocents, for example, being a classic theme in medieval and renaissance art. And a curved sword in the hands of a woman is almost invariably Judith. So I’ve got my kids. We spent eight hours in the Vatican museum with two small children, and we managed that by every hour and a half or so filling them up with ice cream. And also I had this thing where if you find a picture of a man holding a curved sword and you show it to me, you get 20 cents. So they were on the lookout for pictures of men holding curved swords. So the representation of women holding swords, there is not a lot of it that I could find that wasn’t Judith. Now I love Judith. The whole story is fantastic. Judith slaughtering Holofernes and just marching back to camp and basically tossing this general’s head at the feet of the leaders of her tribe that was just awesome. Incidentally, have you read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga?
CM: I have not, no.
GW: Oh, my God. There is a moment in the second novel in the series where the main female character in the first couple of books basically does the Judith thing. And it is epic. Sorry. That’s a complete aside.
CM: I’m putting it on my reading list. That’s fantastic.
GW: So tell us about your research into women holding swords in art.
CM: Yes, absolutely. So it’s really interesting to me because for me, initially, that research stemmed from me looking into representations of historical figures holding swords throughout history and relating that to my own research in terms of LGBTQI heritage. So actually, I did come across quite a fair amount of women who would have identified on the LGBTQI spectrum while also wielding swords, because there was a really interesting intersection between gender nonconforming women and women who would have dressed as men and wielded swords either on the battlefield or off the battlefields and women who would have identified as lesbian or bisexual, as well as figures that we can interpret as trans or non-binary, even though there wouldn’t necessarily have been the language to express at the time. And then I ended up looking at that idea in the framework of representations that could be both literal, so historical figures that really existed and really wielded swords, and symbolic, so portraiture of women holding swords in different contexts. And with that legendary figures, fictional biblical figures. And really being interested in the contrast in some of these portraits between the incredibly ornate, fashionable outfits that they were wearing and the swords that they were wielding. Finding that an amazing contrast. I also love historical fashion. So that was a nice added bonus. And just thinking, what was it like? Why that weird contrast? How can we navigate these different codes of kind of femininity and something that is associated so closely with masculinity, the sword? How can we navigate that in terms of representations of power? I then became really, really interested in depictions of the Nine Worthy Women or the Nine Women Worthies, depending on the version, which is basically a late medieval creation of nine female equivalents to the Nine Worthies. So the Nine Worthies were men of exception from mythological, historical and biblical narratives that embody the values of chivalry. I always compare it to He-Man and She-Ra and how She-Ra emerged as this alternative to He-Man and now has her own brand new Netflix reboot. So she’s superseded He-Man in some ways, but these nine worthy women emerged as ways of embodying female “virtues” with all the stereotypes that implied. There’s lots of talk of mercy, and chastity. But those representations of those feminine virtues were contrasted with the women themselves. It was not only a celebration of those traditional virtues, but also a celebration of their prowess in battle or leading armies. Many of these worthy women, even though the depictions and the roster of women changes, are often Amazon queens, they’re often Judith. Just checking my checking my notes here. We also have Queen Zenobia or Queen Semiramis. So it’s just really interesting to me that these figures emerged as the equivalents, and many of them featured these warrior queens and warrior women. And I became really interested, notably in that Art UK article, about depictions like the Amberley Queens at Amberley Castle made around the 16th century that represented these women, both wearing these ornate dresses and wearing very fanciful armour and weaponry. I was really interested in one depiction in general, which seems seemed to be a reference to Catherine of Aragon, who, as we’ve mentioned, had her own role to play in terms of military exploits. So it was almost some kind of dialogue between these kind of fictional representations of warrior women and how they related to actual real historical women and their agency and power. So I’m really interested in finding out more about these depictions because I think they tell us so much about gender expression and its shifting role. For example, depictions of Judith interest me so much because she’s often shown very beautifully dressed. There’s a whole passage in which she actually comes into the tent of the General Holofernes with the intention of seducing him.
GW: That’s how she finds her way in. She shows up at the gates of the compound and basically persuades the sentries that she’s there, basically, like a prostitute to go and entertain the general. In some versions of the story, she actually does sleep with him to put him to sleep so he would be asleep when she cut his head off.
CM: Yeah, exactly. It’s so interesting and it’s really interesting to see how there’s lots of different conflicting versions, like some interpretations will definitely say, oh, well, she definitely did that. And then others will try and erase it altogether. And it’s really interesting to see different depictions of Judith. One is as a fully armoured symbol of virtue and she’s slaying Holofernes like a hero, like a kind of Joan of Arc figure. And in others, she’s very, very seductively dressed and she’s kind of seductively holding that sword.
GW: I find the latter much more historically likely.
CM: Yeah, well, exactly. And it’s really interesting to me because there’s almost always a sense of those figures, they kind of toe the line between something that’s seen as heroic and something that’s seen as dangerous, like a dangerous side of women’s sexuality and femininity. She’s in control. She’s not only using the sword and that violence, but she’s also using her womanhood and her powers of seduction. And that makes her a figure that sometimes seems a bit ambiguous. I’ve even seen her being represented as outright villainous really. There’s some interpretations of her and she is seen as, you know, how dare she used her sexual wiles like that.
GW: To save her tribe, that’s how she dares.
CM: And it’s really interesting to see her to see her compared with the figure of Salome who, in some early versions, she’s seen as more of a pawn to her mother; she’s dancing and then her mother tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. But she’s not really in a controlled situation, compared to later versions where she’s doing a seductive dance of the seven veils. And in some versions, you see her with not only the platter with John the Baptist’s head, but also wielding a sword, even though by all accounts she wouldn’t have been doing the slaying herself. But it adds to this idea of a dangerous kind of femininity. And I find that really, really interesting in general. It’s like how are women being represented, wielding that power? What is the “right” kind of power and womanhood and what is the “wrong” kind of power and womanhood? I think there’s just so much that’s interesting to explore just within that framework alone. I trained as an art historian, so it’s more of my field. But I think it just gives you so many different interesting insights, because so much of it is often so contradictory. Women are raised up as heroes, then brought down in other aspects. And sometimes those lines are very, very ambiguous.
GW: Do you have a favourite version of Judith?
CM: Oh, that’s really funny. I shared my favourite version of Judith this just this morning, so I’m ready for this question. I really love Judith by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I also really love the Artemisia Gentileschi because you can’t do better than that. It’s that visceral beheading. It’s amazing.
GW: She’s like sawing his head off.
CM: Exactly. And it’s really interesting because in other versions, for example, in the Caravaggio version, if you compare them, she’s very slender. She’s very delicate. She’s holding it at arm’s length. In the Artemisia Gentileschi version she’s just going for it. She’s strong. So that’s my favourite version. I’d say my second favourite version is the Lucas Cranach the Elder depiction of Judith. She’s basically wearing this incredible, court finery. So it’s a very, very elaborate outfit, plumed hat. She’s just sitting down at the table with her sword propped up and still has a bit of blood on it. And then she’s got the decapitated head in front of her and she has this really smug smile. And it’s a very, very smug depiction that’s very, very different from the Gentileschi one. But I also really love it, because I definitely think that the artist drew inspiration from courtly fashion at the time and really wanted to translate the idea that she was coming in with the seductive aspect as well. And it just really brings home that kind of trophy aspect. He did also paint a very, very similar Salome.
GW: Well, that’s the thing. That’s if you see a woman with a sword, it’s usually Judith, if you see a woman with a sword and a head, it’s usually Salome.
CM: Yeah. So it’s really it’s really interesting to compare and contrast those two.
GW: Have you seen the Botticelli one. I think it’s in the Uffizi. The first one is the classic and the second one she’s walking along with her handmaid with the head in a bag or a veil, it’s wrapped up in a piece of cloth, and they are strolling along. This is an audio medium, but for listeners, I will put these pictures of Judith into the show notes so you can have a look for yourself and see what we’re talking about.
CM: Oh, my goodness. It is amazing. She’s just strolling along. If this was an Instagram post, it’s like, “Oh, hey, what’s up? Just got this head in a bag. Might delete later.” It’s brilliant. I just love it. I just think it’s so interesting to see those contrasting depictions and explore in a bit more detail what exactly they mean, especially since so many women now, it’s just so interesting that the swords, like having a sword and wielding a sword, it’s just become this hugely symbolic gesture and medium. We mentioned She-Ra earlier, but the Netflix series, She-Ra the Princesses of Power, has rebooted She-Ra to this sword wielding, lesbian hero. It’s a really, really great reboot, actually. So I definitely recommend it. And it’s just so interesting how this has resonated with so many people. And so for me, when I look at these representations, I’m not just thinking about what it meant back then, but what the woman with a sword means in popular media today. And so it’s quite interesting to be doing that research historically and then also producing that media about women with a sword with my webcomic. It’s an interesting dual perspective.
GW: Yes. It’s all coming together. The time is long past for more women to be carrying swords for sure.
CM: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, when I started the podcast, my prologue, the episode zero, the kind of introduction, was really saying I don’t want to prove that women exist. This is not about proving it. We do know. I just want to kind of make more narratives visible around what that meant in terms of gender identity and gender expression and different ideas of masculinity and femininity. To me, that’s really the most important part.
GW: Sure, and that’s Bustles and Broadswords, and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, obviously. OK, there are a couple of questions I tend to finish up with. And given how much stuff you have done, I’m not sure you even have an answer for this one. But what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
CM: Oh, OK. Well, the best idea. Yeah, that’s a that’s a tricky one. Well, I would say that just in terms of what I’d like to do or just like a project, a project idea in general?
GW: How you interpret the question is as interesting as the answer.
CM: Well, I would say that there’s a lot more I’d like to do in terms of once we’re out of lockdown and I can emerge beyond digital formats. There’s a lot more I’d like to learn once I’m further down in my sword wielding journey about the power of historical re-enactments and related to women. It’s just something that I might explore later on. And just as a kind of interview podcast format. But for me, what power does it hold in heritage sites to have women re-enacters taking part in tournaments, taking part in historical re-enactments and demonstrations? What does that mean for children of all genders to come to these castles, to come to these heritage sites, to have that interpretation of history being presented to them? I’d love to hear more perspectives from women historical re-enacters and from the visitors themselves. And it’s definitely something that’s, you know, without getting too ahead of myself, because I know it’s an incredibly complex profession, but it’s something that I’d love to see. One day, if I had the power and I had the resources, I’d love to be able to put into the world a whole tournament of women within a castle that has centred women knightly histories, whether they’re fictional, historical, symbolic. That would be amazing, actually. I was reading recently about a mediaeval work of literature called the Tournament de Dames. And it’s very strange, but it’s very interesting. It’s basically a book that is almost fanfic. It brings together real historical women and imagines them doing a tournament together just like a real tournament.
GW: Sort of like a fantasy football league?
CM: Kind of like that, actually. It’s really interesting. And not in a negative way either, from what I’ve been able to read, just really like, hey, these ladies are doing are doing a tournament together. And it went into political considerations and was just quite interesting. So it would be really interesting to actually have a ladies’ tournament.
GW: My next question would normally be somebody gives you a million pounds to spend improving historical martial arts for a while. Is that how you would spend the money?
CM: Probably. I mean, just in terms of having engagement around women with swords that goes beyond digital formats and actually brings together women with swords would be brilliant. I mean, we already have amazing events like By The Sword, which is a HEMA event, which brings together women and non-binary people within HEMA.
GW: That’s organised by Fran Lacuata, who was my second guest on the show.
GW: Yes. So listeners, go listen to episode two and you can hear all about organising events like that.
CM: Exactly. So I definitely don’t have the expertise to organise HEMA events, but if I had the money to bring together amazing women HEMA experts and historians and just organise a big educational tournament that’s part arms and armour demonstration and part education about women and swords, I would definitely do that. I would go for it. If any castle is up for hosting that, let me know.
GW: A lot of events I’ve been to have been held in castles. Castles are generally usually really pleased to have people who are really madly interested about weapons and armour and what have you, and so long as the health and safety stuff can be taken care of, there are plenty of castles that would probably love to have you.
CM: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really great, actually, to see the ways in which heritage sites and castles are making efforts to be more inclusive in their programming. But what’s really interesting is also just that everybody’s fascinated by arms and armour. There’s just this inherent fascination. So it’s really more also about having more education and public visibility out there for women with swords. But also just having that reaction of, Wow! Women can do this, too. And women have always been doing this and this is just fantastic. And I say for children of all genders, because I think it’s brilliant to inspire little girls and teenage girls. But I think there’s just as much value for boys to see powerful women figures out there.
GW: And, yeah, I can actually speak to that personally because in the 80s, I was mad about martial arts pretty much since I was born, and in the 80s, Cynthia Rothrock, the martial arts movie star. Oh, my God. I mean, she could kick your head off. I took up fencing the earliest I possibly could. But before that I was doing karate and there were two teachers, a married couple, and it was many years ago, so I’m blanking on the names. But again, there was this black belt karate woman who could kick my head off from across the room. So there was never any question that girls can do martial arts. Then my first fencing coach, Gail Rudge, was a woman. And she could stick her foil wherever she wanted to stick it. There’s not much I could do about it. So, you know, the notion that women can’t fence never occurred to me.
CM: That’s brilliant.
GW: It’s helped me avoid some of the common pitfalls because I was exposed to these role models at those ages and at those stages. So the idea that swords aren’t for girls literally never occurred to me.
CM: Yeah. And I think that’s great. I think it’s just it really feeds into what we were saying about avoiding the danger of having the sword being this antiquated, completely inaccurate symbol of just masculinity or a certain idea that is completely whitewashed and has been reclaimed by white nationalists, because it’s just simply not true. And I think everybody benefits when you can see sword fighting, as something that has always been the realm of powerful womanhood in so many ways. It brings so much to the conversation. And it’s just really exciting to see it develop so much in recent years.
GW: Absolutely. Well, I think that’s probably a very good place to finish. Thank you very much for taking the time with me today, Claire. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
CM: Thank you so much for inviting me. This is brilliant. I always love ranting about women with swords and this has been a brilliant place to do so.