Whores and Heroines–writing about war and women

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common womenCavalry MaidenTigressUlrich

This is not, strictly speaking, a book review of ‘Common Women’ by Ruth Mazzo Carras or of ‘The Cavalry Maiden’ or ‘The Tigress of Forli’ or Ulrich’s superb ‘Midwife’s Tale’ although I truly recommend all four books.

It is more of an essay on writing about women in the midst of war.  I’m going to try to keep this as unpolitical and coldly analytical as I can.  But I have to say, up front–I’m a feminist, and the story I’m about to tell can be pretty awful.  You can stop here, if you like.

War is terrible, and yet many men enjoy it.  Certainly, a great many people enjoy reading about it.  And I confess that I study it and (sometimes) enjoy writing about it.  But to the women of the past–and this cannot be too much emphasized–war was probably the most horrible thing they could imagine, especially when war came over the borders and into their homes and lives.

We live (thank God) in a very different civilization. We have come an enormous distance even from the world of the later Middle Ages.  Women are, in most cultures, no longer property.  Most women in our civilization have broader horizons then the process of bearing children and then protecting them and rearing them until they are adults.  But I think it is only fair to say that for the majority of women in history, bearing children–willingly or unwillingly–was the horizon of their lives.  And forced sex and forced child rearing–rape, and even child murder–were the natural outcomes of war.  That’s what war meant, to most women.

This is not to say that some women didn’t live and even thrive in the environment of war.  For example, almost every Italian source that speaks of Sir John Hawkwood’s ‘White Company’ (or any of his other military companies) mentions the company’s women, who were clearly as dangerous and outrageous as the men.  Women served heroically in the Czarist Russian Army against Napoleon–one of my favorite books in the secret military history of women is ‘The Cavalry Maiden’ by Nadezhda Durova who served as an officer of cavalry.  Women fought in sieges–after all, when a city was sacked, women lost everything–and Blaise de Monluc describes two uniformed companies of women at the siege of Sienna in 1555 (in suitably misogynist terms) while Thucydides, who has no time for women whatsoever, can’t stop himself from mentioning that the brave Plataeans took women with them to defend their city in 427 BCE against the Spartans.  The Lady Orsini, wife of the Prince of Lesvos, owned her own armour and led sortie after sortie against the Turks during the 1442 siege of Mythimna on Lesvos in Greece, winning against the odds. The Austrian camp followers of Marshal Browne’s army in 1757 apparently defeated two regiments of Prussian hussars who had hoped to sack the baggage train with disciplined musket fire.  A single British camp-follower with a musket–a ‘very comely woman,’ as the writer calls her–captured three of Ethan Allen’s soldiers  outside Montreal, single-handed, in 1776.  The Scythians–well, I think everyone knows what an Amazon is.  Or was.

In fact, even a cursory study of military history will show that women have served–heroically–in war for as long as we have records of war.  And where they are absent, I will wager this has more to do with men like Thucydides wanting to keep the ‘Art of War’ as a boy’s club than with women’s ‘weakness.’  Women make great soldiers.  It’s such a banal thing to say that it’s almost offensive to have to say it.  I was privileged to serve in the first generation in the US Navy of women on combat ships.  My OCS class was dominated by women who were, let’s face it, mostly a cut above the material provided by the male gender in my class, and the top performing officers I saw at most duty stations were women.

Sadly, women warriors have never typified women’s experience of war.  Most women who followed armies did so as laundresses, cooks, and sex-workers, willing or unwilling.  Their unromantic lives were dirty and dangerous, and full of hard work around a lot of men already marginalized by violence, and while for some it was probably better (god help us) then village life, for others it must have been a living hell–rather like being kidnapped by a bike gang.  And then there was always the possibility that the other side might triumph in battle, and storm the camp.

Need I go on?

‘Common Women’ is a difficult book, but one worth reading if you are going to write about women in army camps and cities.  It is about prostitution and Medieval attitudes towards whoredom, and it is not pretty.  It describes what the lives of such women were like, at least through the eyes of the courts and the church.  It suggests–almost commands–that we accept that women did not own their bodies–that men owned women’s bodies. Although I don’t ascribe to every theory in the book, it’s worth noting that the author goes a long way to making the lives of these women real and their perils and place, or lack thereof, in society, comprehensible.

Why does all this matter?  Well, it’s about authenticity.  I find it–interesting–that people (not just men) with cheerfully read about a young man pressed into military service (we call them child soldiers now…) and we delight in this person’s gradual rise, through successful violence, to command and power.  But we’d probably feel sick to the stomach if the same book were about a young woman’s life as a captive sex-slave, gradually rising through a sort of vicious survival instinct to the ‘power’ of keeping her unwanted children alive in the desperately violent world of an army camp in the later Middle Ages–until she died of the plague, or some bright light like the Chevalier Bayard shoved her and her children out into the snow for being ‘useless mouths.’ Or ‘bad for morale.’

I’d also like to note what a friend commented to me the other day about Fantasy as a genre.  We now call it ‘Fantasy Honour Killing.’  Ever noticed that if a heroine in a fantasy novel gets raped, she has to die?  Like, what message is that supposed to send?  Historical figures like Catherine Sforza prove that women were much, much tougher than that.  Elizabeth Lev, the author of ‘The Tigress of Forli‘ has done a fine job of collecting the historical data around a woman whose heroism (oh, she wore armour and fought, too) was mostly in her tenacious survival–an abusive husband, terror, war–none defeated her.  When Cesare Borgia raped her, she did not conveniently die.  Ten days later, she was negotiating with the pope.

Catherine Sforza -- The Tigress of Forli

Catherine Sforza — The Tigress of Forli

Statistics suggest that 20% of modern women and 5% of men experience sexual abuse. They go on to live their lives.  My point is, writers, that we can do better than ‘Fantasy Honour Killing.’

But perhaps the best work of ‘women’s history’ (which to me is part of something called ‘History’ and not at all limited to women–homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.  But I digress) is Laura Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale.  In this book, Ulrich dissects the diary of a farm wife who is also a midwife to reveal for us the entire world of women in rural 18th century Massachusetts and Maine, and through her (Martha Ballard), to get an idea of how women have probably lived throughout history–raising children, weaving, working, and living.  It not all rape and murder.  Sometimes there’s light and fun and barn dances and heroism, to. (and an incredible amount of sheer work.  40 yards of linen in three days?  Ariadne ain’t in it.) I won’t presume to ‘review’ a book that won the Pulitzer Prize.  I’ll just say it’s one of the three best works of history I’ve ever read.

As I sit down to begin the fourth book of my Traitor Son series, I return to a fantasy world with a great many women in it.  I have tried to write them from all walks of life and many different stations–from Amicia, who was once an Outwaller wife and shaman and is now a celibate nun, to the Abbess, who was once a King’s mistress, and Sauce AKA Ser Alison, who was once a prostitute and is now a knight.  But there are other women–Blanche the Laundress, who has to deal with sexual harassment every day merely to do her job, and Sukey, Mag’s daughter, who lives on the edge of acceptable behavior while managing camp women who are, I hope, at the more cheerful end of the spectrum of sex-workers and laundresses that history shows us.  It is not my duty as a fantasy writer to make all their lives one horrible smear of misery.  But I think I do a disservice to the reader if it is all a ‘bit of fun’ for those nice clean knights.  I want the reader to see that a good military company might depend on women exactly the way a modern squadron of fighter planes depends on its maintenance personnel.  That the ‘love interest’ has a life or her own.  Actually, I want to accomplish even more than that–but that’s a start.

In historical novels, I think my shading of the lives of women has gotten darker.  It is more difficult for me, as I learn more, to resist the urge to tell you, the reader, just how hard women’s lives were.  I found the Sack of Alexandria excruciating to write, because it was all one great war crime.  I try not to write rape scenes–for a variety of reasons, and old fashioned bad taste is one–but I am tempted, sometimes, just to shock the historical reader into a visceral understanding of what the ‘sack of a city’ meant to the inhabitants, and what ‘being sold into slavery’ suggested for the surviving women.

But–I have also enjoyed very much writing about Brauron, the Sanctuary of Artemis that seems to have functioned as a woman’s school and vacation spot and summer camp during the late Archaic and Classical world, and it cheers me to know that young Athenian girls and women could ride horses, shoot bows, and dance.  And that when the Persians came and destroyed the place–they all escaped.  And returned, and rebuilt the temple complex.  Maybe that’s symbolic.

Oh, by the way.  The Pen and Sword Tour for 2015 is on, and Brauron will be on the first day of the tour.  Come on–you know you want to come…

11 thoughts on “Whores and Heroines–writing about war and women

    • Maurice Keen’s ‘Chivalry’ Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road’ and VD Hanson’s ‘The Other Greeks.’ I actually disagree with a lot of Hanson–but it’s a fantastic book anyway.

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  1. What a great post (as depressing as that topic is). I will definitely read Midwife’s Tale. Do you have other book recommendations like this?
    (And, which is off-topic, but how do you write so many books (excellent books!), write such long blog posts, answer graciously to fans on social media and do the reenacting? I’m honestly starting to think you are several people).

    One of my “favorite” stories of women in war is the one about women in Prussia who fought against Napoleon’s army in 1813-1815. Granted this was in the 19th century so this is slighty off-topic, but anyway: Those women had to disguise themselves as men. Like Friederike Krüger, who sewed her uniform herself, cut her hair short and volunteered under the name “August Lübeck” in 1813 for the “Collbergschen Infanterie-Regiment”. In all the hectic rush, there was no medical examination, so nobody noticed a woman under the uniform.
    Another example is Eleonore Proschaka who volunteered as “August Lenz” to the Lützow Free Corps.
    We do know some of the things Eleonore had to deal with, because she wrote many letters to her brother, which reveal how terrified she was that the men would find out about her true gender.

    There are many theories as to why those women wanted to fight so badly that they decided to disguise themselves as men. It’s supposed to have been either “war-euphoria” or being immensely worried about the “fatherland” under French occupation. And -my favorite- “Die Begierde nach Rache erstickte das einfache Gefühl zarter Weiblichkeit im Busen.” (Something like “The desire for revenge smothered the simple feeling of tender femininity in the bosom” ) 😀
    It is worth noticing that most of those women came from poor families whose situations got even worse under French occupation. So I guess they went to fight to improve things for their families and themselves. That as a motive probably makes a ferocious fighter.

    Friederike took part in battles until she was wounded at Dennewitz. Still on the battlefield that day she was made “sergeant” (I hope this is the right English term for “Unteroffizier”), but in the military hospital her identity was revealed. Prussian’s King Friedrich Willhelm III. had heard about this and visited her and then miracle happened – he allowed her to keep fighting (as the MAN August Krüger , mind you, so only a small miracle after all).

    The interesting question is how were they able to hide their gender until they took a wound? What about washing and using the latrines? I wish I knew the answer.

    With Friederike Krüger the men became suspicious especially during battles where womens’ higher voices became even higher while screaming. It is said that the men fighting next to her found out and even covered her because of her bravery and skills. (Ohhh, she became one of the guys – well in my romanticized vision of this…)
    Eleonore Proaschaka wrote to her brother that her voice never arouse suspicion because she pretended to be a tailor as “they are expected to have a high voice”. (Funny, though not nice to male tailors). Unfortunately she never wrote about how she handled washing herself or using the latrines in her letters.
    Eleonore was wounded in September 1813 and died some weeks later, but despite the revelation of her gender, she was buried with military honors (three volley salute). A Prussian minister even attended her funeral.
    Friederike went back to her troop after her stay at the hospital. She went to Paris 1814 and after Napoleon’s defeat, she quit. The Prussian King awarded her –as the first woman ever- the Iron Cross.

    Another example is Johanna Stegen who became famous as “Hero-Girl from Lüneburg”. She supplied Prussian soldiers with munition, which she picked up from the ground when she found an ammunition wagon that was tipped over and left behind by the French. She carried them around in her apron. Apparently that made the difference and the Germans won the battle. She became so popular among the soldiers that the French placed a bounty on her head.

    There are about 28 women like that who are known by name, though it is supposed there were many more. And of course there were hundreds of women during the Wars of Liberation who accompanied the troops as nurses, merchants or prostitutes. And as far as I know there were even more women fighting on the French side.

    Needless to say that having had women who volunteered to fight did not change anything. In fact, those women were often ridiculed. There are poems about them (which are impossible to translate for me, especially since it rhymes in German and uses outdated words and the sarcastic tone is hard to get right, but I’ll translate it roughly anyway, because it’s funny)

    “That sergeant,
    Girl, how do you like him?
    His colors suit him well,
    and his warlike hat,
    and he looks so courageous,
    Girl, feel like courting him?
    Girl, – don’t do it.”

    Wow, yes, she was there to meet a husband *rolling my eyes*. And that was just the first stanza. The poem ends with her finding a capable captain who despite the iron cross around her neck, forces her into subordination….

    And about Eleonore he wrote

    “Thank God the bullet did not hit you earlier,
    until you found yourself enough honor,
    secured by behaving like a man,
    now you can be a woman again.”

    That writer must have been really insecure about his masculinity…

    But years later people used these stories to create this myth of “Heldenjungfrauen” (hero-virgins?, hero-maidens?) like German Jeanne d’Arcs or German Amazons. But, of course, except for declaring them national heroines later, which was probably done just to incite patriotic feelings, nothing really changed for women during wartimes. There was no new found respect for womens’ fighting skills or bravery whatsoever.
    Though Friederike’s commander collected donations for her to be able live a better life, he wished her to escape “the sounds of weapons” to find the “silent enjoyment of a befitting domesticity”.
    “Fun” fact, Friederike’s cross on her tomb in Templin shows her military decorations, the inscription mentions the King’s grace, but if you walk the path along the cemetery, it is the backside of the cross. The front of the cross belongs to her husband, who was a sergeant… I find that quite fitting.

    Anyway, thank you for this informative article and for finding that middle ground of showing the realities for women in your books without making EVERY woman a victim ALL the time.
    The way you write female characters is one of the reasons I like your books so much. (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/871642241 -Please anyone who wants to read about women in the Red Knight- just read the part about the female characters further down, as this review is not coherent whatsoever, I made the mistake of writing it when I was in a gushing fan-mode and eager to force people into reading it as well, so it comes off slightly weird and creepy).
    The captain won me over as soon as I read about him hiring Sauce. (Will we ever see that scene, by the way? I wish Sauce or the captain had a flashback in Fell Sword, there was an opportunity for that!) Hiring a woman instantly earned him a spot on a bookshelf that I have for favorite characters.

    I’m happy that you mention that there was dancing and fun instead of it all having been rape and murder. In fact “parties” in the Middle Ages were more energetic and jollier and more fun than today exactly BECAUSE life could have been over so fast due to wars, and child bearing and diseases etc.. They had a different appreciation of life and good days. Good days were not taken for granted like nowadays. Sadly, most authors I’ve read seem to have forgotten that, which is why I stopped reading historical fiction for almost a year at one point in my life. There was only so much rape and murder I could take.
    And then fantasy went in that direction as well, which frustrated me even more. But luckily there are still authors who get it. *Rant over*

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    • I am several people. I am Mils and Christian ( 🙂 ) Seriously–I read constantly–I’
      ll try to find the other pieces of women’s military history that I trip over. these German examples you list are fantastic. I’m so glad you included them. It is a neglected subject, and some day… in the mean time, I suspect that it was not as hard for a woman to pass as we think. And David Brown, who was Captain of the foremast on HMS Victory was actually a BLACK WOMAN. And apparently Nelson knew… One theory is that this is what the late 19th century did to us–it robbed us of women’s history and also made gender types 1000 times more powerful. I have to shrug and say I don’t know.

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  2. Christian Wei, Jr.

    The Seige of Alexandria was excruciating to read. Reading your books has seriously changed my views on war and literature. For example, I used to consider Alexander a noble, honorable figure until “God of War” made me look deeper into the original sources and try to see the man behind the legend.

    It’s really interesting to compare the Tournamenr of Krakow with the Seige of Alexandria. Perhaps that’s why they had tournaments. You keep the glory, and honor, and excitement, and chivalry of war without the death, and sickness, and mud, and rape, and pillage.

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  3. This is a super post. I write ostensibly about the twelfth century and I hate the cliched idea that women had no strength or identity before the twentieth century. This post implies that despite the fact that women were abused and used, they could actually make a difference if they so chose.

    I agree wholeheartedly that women’s bodies were the property of men but I can’t understand the oft-repeated rationale (especially by reviewers) that women had no mind with which to think, had no dreams or ideals or the strength of spirit to make those dreams a reality. Certainly they were bound by their social position and by the Church, but I would guarantee there were as many inspiring women in my medieval world amongst all levels of society as there are today. Role models were supplied by people like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Héloïse d’Argenteuil, Jeanne D’Arc and Hildegarde von Bingen to name just four amazing women…

    Thanks for the post and for listing some wonderful books to read. Cheers.

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