Women, children and the profits of war

Women, children and the profits of war

By John Gillingham

Gender and historiography. Studies in the earlier middle ages in honour of Pauline Stafford, eds. Janet L. Nelson, Susan Reynolds and Susan M. Johns (London: Institute of Historical Research, 2012)

Introduction: Throughout the middle ages when men went to war, they expected to make a profit, to take plunder and capture prisoners. In the earlier centuries, just as in the ancient world, and for as long as slavery was a widespread institution, the enslavement of the defeated, both combatants and non-combatants, both male and female, made up an important part of the profits of war. This was true not only of wars between people of different faiths but also of wars between co-religionists. Hence, the discontinuance in wars between christians of the ancient practice of enslaving prisoners has been described as ‘the most striking innovation’. Yet it has been very little studied. In this short chapter my argument is that two fundamentally different phases of warfare can be distinguished. in phase one, which, so far as we can see, prevailed everywhere throughout Europe during the earliest medieval centuries and remained the norm for very much longer in some regions, women and children were not the unlucky victims of the ‘collateral damage’ of war: rather they were among its intended victims. In the second, more chivalrous phase, women and children continued to suffer, but they were no longer targeted. for the first time in history, non- combatant immunity – the notion widely thought of as ‘the key norm’ in ius in bello – existed in the sense that although enemy soldiers might intend to ruin civilians economically by destroying or taking their wealth, they no longer went out of their way to kill or enslave them.

Despite the wealth of studies of early medieval women since the 1970s – to which Pauline Stafford has so notably contributed – there have been very few which have focused on women and their children as the intended victims of war. On the contrary, as Jinty Nelson observed as long ago as 1990, many such studies were intended to empower or emancipate women by showing that they were active in fields conventionally regarded as male: religion, learning, politics, even war. Obviously in the ‘total war’ characteristic of early medieval Europe, women were very far from being the only victims. Men were more likely to be killed. indeed they were often killed precisely so that the invaders could capture the women and children who, along with other animals, were prized items of plunder. In consequence the majority of prisoners taken in phase one warfare were female. In phase two many men remained in mortal danger – above all ordinary soldiers unlikely to be able to afford a ransom. It follows, therefore, that women and children were the main beneficiaries of a change which amounted to a new morality of war. My assumption here is that, although in phase one a few women and children had been able to take advantage of the opportunity of enslavement to make a fresh start in a new environment, for the overwhelming majority the experience of being violently separated from family and neighbours was shattering, a fate even worse than rape.

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