Camp Women


Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

By John A. Lynn II

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 239pp., $24.99, paperback


Reviewed by Jennifer G. Mathers


Academics who study wars and militaries can be divided into those who acknowledge the participation of women in these events and institutions and those who do not. Over the last twenty years or so, we have seen a rich output of published work examining some of the many ways in which women are and have been involved in the business of warfare. But while these books represent a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives—international relations, sociology, human geography, cultural studies, and social history among many others—that bedrock of the study of conflict as a human activity, military history, has tended to lag behind. Few military historians focus on—or even mention—the active participation of women in wars, whether as combatants or in essential supporting roles. It is a real pleasure, then, to see a distinguished military historian who has made his reputation in the mainstream of the subject, such as John Lynn, weigh in with a significant contribution to the study of war that places women firmly at the center of the work.

Lynn acknowledges in his introduction that military history and women’s history have had an uneasy relationship, and he seeks to reassure members of both communities that this book will address their concerns. The words that he chooses to describe each group’s view of the other are illuminating. Scholars of women’s history are said to regard military history as “a hide-bound traditional field, unable to see beyond war and the state, dominated by men, dismissive of women, and usually blind to modern theoretical approaches,” whereas experts in military history “are likely to regard the history of women and gender as an agenda-driven field fortified by a nearly impenetrable barrier of arcane theory.” It is an encouraging sign that he does not include “irrelevant” in the list of adjectives that a military historian might use to describe the study of women and gender, although this may be a mark of Lynn’s tact rather than an indication of a significant shift in attitude among some of his fellow scholars.

Lynn claims that he does not adopt the approaches and methods of women’s history in this book and apologizes for not bringing out the full richness of gender issues, but these statements are overly modest. This book is the result of a research project that asks (and answers) the question, “Where are the women?” It pays close attention to some of the most silenced and marginalized figures of history. Along the way, it discusses the creation and performance of gender identities, applying insights from queer theory to the actions of women who lived hundreds of years ago. Perhaps Lynn has gone further down the path of a gender studies approach than he realizes.

Lynn takes as his focus the early modern period of European history (1500 to 1815) and sets the experiences of women in the wide context of the development of armies and warfare. But, as he points out, the main subjects of his study are not those rare examples of women who disguised themselves as men, took up arms, and became soldiers, but the more common, and overlooked, camp women: those who performed such mundane but essential tasks for soldiers as finding and preparing food, washing and mending clothing, nursing, carrying baggage, and acquiring and managing the spoils of wartime plunder.

In the early twenty-first century, the presence of American military women in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan is often regarded as an example of women’s participation in war on an unprecedented scale, but the number and proportion of women and even children who routinely accompanied male soldiers on campaigns during the early modern period is astounding. In fact the number of soldiers in European mercenary armies in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries was often equalled or outnumbered by the civilians, many of whom were women, who travelled with them. By the second half of the seventeenth century, though, European armies were placing strict limits on the numbers of women who could accompany soldiers into the field, imposing a ratio of between five and ten women to every one hundred men. Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe is an extended investigation into the reasons for this shift.

One of the delights of reading this book lies in the many, rich details of the period which Lynn has assembled from a wide range of sources, including popular art and literature as well as contemporary accounts. He goes well beyond the traditional repertoire of sources drawn upon by military historians precisely because official documents have so little to say about camp women. He is scrupulous in his discussion of the values and limitations of the sources he uses, including the fact that most of these sources were written or created by men and therefore do not provide direct access to women’s voices or accounts of their own experiences.

Camp women were expected to exhibit proper feminine behavior and sensibilities and were required to undertake duties regarded as women’s work, such as mending and washing clothing. But at the same time, to survive life with the army, they had to carry out types of heavy physical labor normally done by men and were expected to exhibit courage in the face of danger. Lynn does an excellent job of refuting any notion that the lives of camp women were easier than those of the soldiers they accompanied. As the unknown author of a seventeenth-century German manuscript demonstrates, camp women regularly acted as porters, transporting their soldier’s essential kit as well as anything which might be needed on the campaign:

How very helpful the German women in Hungary were to the soldiers in carrying necessities and in their care of sickness. Seldom is one found who does not carry at least 50 or 60 pounds. Since the soldier carries provisions or other materials, he loads straw and wood on her, to say nothing of the fact that many of them carry one, two, or three children on their back. Normally, however, aside from the clothing they are wearing, they carry for the man one pair of breeches, one pair of stockings, one pair of shoes. And for themselves the same number of shoes and stockings, one jacket, two Hemmeter, one pan, one pot, one or two spoons, one sheet, one overcoat, one tent, and three poles. They receive no wood for cooking in their billets, and so they pick it up on the way. And to add to their fatigue, they normally lead a small dog on a rope or even carry him in bad weather.

Although Lynn dispels the myth that the camp woman was nothing more than a prostitute, he does not shy away from a frank discussion of the role that sex must have played in the lives of these women. He also explains that they were subject to physical abuse and rape by soldiers of their own side and acknowledges that they may have been complicit in the rape and murder of civilians in the towns and villages which were conquered. Moreover, far from being afforded special protection as a result of their association with an army, camp women could easily find themselves in the direct line of fire. When the army was on the move, the women of the camp tended to travel with the baggage train, which often came under attack from other armies (including allied forces) seeking plunder.

The search for wealth through pillage and plunder is a persistent theme throughout this book. Poverty and limited opportunities in civilian life probably drove both men and women to choose life with the army, with its prospect of travel, adventure and the (slim) chance of gaining wealth through plunder. The underdevelopment of states during the early part of this period meant that they were unable to provide soldiers with regular pay, uniforms, or food. In return for fending for themselves, soldiers were given a free hand to pillage: to take whatever they could from defeated towns and villages. Lynn argues that it was primarily camp women’s role in acquiring and managing the spoils of war that accounts for their presence with armies in such large numbers in the first part of the early modern period. In fact he goes further, stating that “women were the key to the pillage-driven military economy.”

By the end of this period, however, the way that armies were organized had changed fundamentally. In order to impose greater discipline and control over the actions of their soldiers and therefore to be able to direct military campaigns with greater precision, states began to provide many of the essential services that had previously been rendered by camp women. Although the abuse of defeated civilian populations by soldiers was not eliminated entirely, plunder and pillage were no longer the chief means of supplying and motivating armies.

The consequences for camp women were dramatic. As soon as “women were no longer necessary to fill the gap between what armies required and what states could provide,” only a token female presence was tolerated by armies. The vast majority of camp women returned to the domestic sphere. The book thus locates camp women at the center of a major transformation in the development of armies, which is itself the subject of considerable debate within military history. It provides a masterly refutation of the John Keegan’s much-quoted statement, from A History of Warfare (1993), that “warfare is…the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart.”

Jennifer G. Mathers is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and edits the Minerva Journal of Women and War

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