“It is plausible to conclude that, prior to 700, the Picts allowed and/or required women to fight.” Paul Wagner, Pictish warrior, AD 297-841 (Osprey, 2002), p.63
I find this statement difficult to reconcile with what we know of the Picts. It is based chiefly on Adomnan’s Law of Innocents (AD 697) which established a code of conduct for protecting non-combatants (women, children and monks) from military service and from the ravages of warfare. The code was ratified by nearly every Celtic kingdom in the British Isles and was reinforced by a system of fines. Wagner is not alone in assuming that Adomnan’s plea for women to be exempt from military service means that they were routinely recruited as soldiers prior to 697. Like others before him he supports his view by pointing to Irish legends of female warriors and to historical figures such as Boudicca. He cites no examples from the early medieval period because none exist.
There were, no doubt, many desperate occasions when individual Pictish women took up arms to defend their homes and families against marauders. From here it is a big leap to imagine formal recruitment of weapon-bearing females into the warband of a Pictish king. Neither the Picts nor their neighbours operated egalitarian societies where everyone got involved and did their bit for the wider community. On the contrary, these societies were strictly hierarchical. At the top of the social structure stood a rich aristocracy from whose ranks the king and his family were drawn. These aristocrats also provided an exclusive warrior class and were the only social group permitted to engage in warfare. There was no middle class and – in Celtic society at least – no free, weapon-bearing peasantry akin to the later Anglo-Saxon fyrd. The gulf between nobles and peasants – in terms of wealth and status – was huge and insurmountable.
Early medieval societies were not only unequal but patriarchal as well. They were male-dominated and gave little real authority to women. This is why the Pictish regnal lists show a long line of kings but no queens. It also explains why female Picts are rarely mentioned in contemporary sources such as the Irish annals. In this context it is important to note that Pictish royal matriliny – the selection of a king by his maternal ancestry – is not the same as Pictish matriarchy. Female Picts, even aristocratic ones, were denied access to the upper levels of power and authority. In patriarchal societies women are normally excluded from warfare and are not expected to fight alongside their menfolk except in dire circumstances.
The notion of Pictish female warriors is, in fact, highly implausible. Aristocratic Pictish women were excluded from military service by reasons of gender. Peasant women were excluded by reasons of gender and social class. These exclusions were mirrored across the whole of Europe and were not confined to Northern Britain alone. The same restrictions applied also to Boudicca of the Iceni, though she seemingly bucked the trend and led her people to war. We should nevertheless regard her as an exception to the norm, just as the later Anglo-Saxon warrior queens Aethelburh (who besieged Taunton in 722) and Aethelflaed (the “Lady of the Mercians”) were exceptional in their own times. Whether any of these charismatic and resourceful women ever actually fought in combat is a different matter.