Women at War

In the course of my reading over the last few weeks I have become used to the occasional account of women in sieges helping to repair fortifications or forage for food (for example at the siege of Pavia in 1524-5), or frequent tales of women in sacks throwing rocks onto soldiers from the upper floors of their homes. I have also read about the noblewomen Caterina Sforza, who in 1499-1500 defended her fortress at Forlì against the attack of Cesare Borgia, and drew complimentary remarks from Francesco Guicciardini, Niccolò Machiavelli and others (indeed, in 1499 Biagio Buonaccorsi asked his friend Machiavelli, then in Forlì, to send him her portrait).[1] The aristocratic Alda Pia is said to have fought hard in defense of Brescia in 1512 and I hope to track down her letters at some point, while Isabella d’Este has left an account of her life-saving activities during the sack of Rome in 1527 in her letters. However, in contrast to women in the Thirty Years’ War, which has sometimes been described as an early form of ‘total war’ involving large numbers of civilians, I have found very little discussion of women in the Italian Wars.

I was therefore very intrigued to find the following entry for 11 July 1500 in the Modenese chronicle of Jacopino De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, where he writes of the French and Spanish troops then at Pisa, adding that ‘there was also a number of the most skilful women wearing boots, sacked up, wearing little cuirasses on their backs, holding lances and hooks that had a long point and one to cut. These women are very handy, and all the men and women stay together with great fervour and have put all their goods together so that nothing is wanted by anyone, and with great care it is provided for them. There are also races, many valiant women, and one woman who killed fourteen Frenchmen. It is said that in all the battles that they fight together four or five thousand French have died.’[2] This is exactly the sort of thing, if true (or even a rumour), that I would expect many Italians to mention in chronicles and letters, but this is the first such reference to armoured and armed women that I have come across.

It might once have been thought that this passage was the insinuation of an Italian observer wearied of war and seeking to present the barbarian enemy as effeminate and disordered. Indeed, Machiavelli noted in his Discorsi (3.36, 1-3), following Livy, that the Gauls had ardour but no discipline which is why ‘the French have been, and still are, looked upon in the beginning of a battle as more than men, and afterwards as less than women.’ Or it could be an exaggerated description of the women who formed such an important part of the ‘campaign community’ as wives, prostitutes, traders, pillagers, and ancillary workers. They were sometimes described in northern sources as comprising ranks subject to military law and discipline, and they were represented with kit-bags, staffs, and other accoutrements (see image). What was the role of women in warfare?

Women often appear as a passive, excluded, or victimised and anonymised mass in chronicles and other sources. Gratian excluded pilgrims, clerics, monks, women and the unarmed poor from violence.[3] Canon 22 of the Third Lateran Council of the Church (1179) also granted some protection and was included in canon law.[4] The thirteenth-century treatise of canon law De Treuga et Pace (Of Truces and Peace) provided a further list of those groups of persons (together with their animals and property) secured against war: clerics, monks, friars, other religious, pilgrims, travellers, merchants, and peasants cultivating the soil (to be distinguished from the peasants in the army of a feudal lord). These groups may have been classed as non-combatants by reason of their function in society, while others like women and children were presumed to be non-combatants due to their inability to bear arms, or were considered protected by the chivalric code and practice.[5]

In reality, the line between combatant and non-combatant was often unclear (as I shall explore in a later post) and the theoretical protection of women often violently breached or suspended under the rules of war. Women and girls of every condition were considered spoils of war by sacking troops, and indeed during the Italian Wars armies reportedly used the threat of harming women as way of bringing a town into submission.[6] There are rare examples of women (and young children) exempted by prior agreement from massacre, for example at the French sack of Monte San Giovanni in 1495, or at the siege and bombardment of Orvieto in 1497.[7] There are far more accounts of women raped in their own homes, women and girls raped in the churches where they had fled for safety, and nuns raped in their convents, as well as numerous vaguely reported ‘cruelties’ against women.[8] One Roman chronicler of events at Capua in 1501 claimed that ‘all the women were debauched like whores (sbordellate)’.[9] Francesco Guicciardini’s (much later) account of the same sack puts a more literal gloss on the event: ‘[M]any of these women were sold afterwards at Rome for very low prices … [and] many of the women who had escaped the first assault having taken refuge in a tower, Duke Valentino [Cesare Borgia] … wanted to see all of them; and went there accompanied by no other men than his own gentlemen and guard, and after diligently considering them, kept forty of the most beautiful for himself.’[10]

In war, as in peace, women clearly had a key role in maintaining public honour. Therefore, the shaming of a town involved the dishonouring of its women just as pleas for mercy and salvation from a bloody sack were often communicated by children and women sent out by a town in pitiable processions. It was reported that some women, presumably to save their honour, preferred to kill themselves and their children in ditches as they fled the sack of Udine in 1509.[11] Similar actions by women were recorded during the sack of Molfetta in 1529 and one chronicler remarked that a woman who threw herself from her house to avoid rape by soldiers was a ‘more than Roman’ example of chastity.[12] Of course, this ideal of feminine virtue appealed to many historians who often mentioned well-known classical counterparts. In his account of the sack and massacre at Capua in 1501 the historian Sigismondo dei Conti praised (unusually by name) a certain Lucrezia, virgin daughter of Domizio and Samaritana of Syracuse, chaste wife and widow, who threw herself into the river Volturno rather than endure the brutality of the attackers. The women of Capua were not inferior to the Milesian virgins, he said, and indeed surpassed even the ancient Roman Lucretia who did not wish to outlive the offense to her chastity.[13]

A number of chroniclers also reported a latter-day massacre of innocents as babies were torn from breasts and murdered, or foundlings thrown from windows.[14] Indeed, some images of the Massacre of the Innocents are set in the contemporary world.[15] Altobello Melone’s Massacre of the Innocents (c.1518) in contemporary setting and dress may be compared with Alessandro Bonvicino Moretto’s canvas on the same subject which was recognizably set in the piazza della loggia of Brescia, and was probably meant to recall the frenzied murder of innocent civilians witnessed in the city two decades earlier by the commissioners of the canvas.[16] Renaissance representations of Judith beheading the Assyrian general who threatened her city with destruction have been related to the defence of liberty and I wonder if some may also be related to the sieges and sacks of the Italian Wars.

Women might be used to move soldiers to mercy, as was attempted at the siege of San Leo, near Urbino, in 1503 when ‘were led into the court all or part of the women who had at San Leo sons, husbands, brothers, or relations with the intention of taking them to San Leo, to see if by this route, by showing them to [the troops], they would be able to gain the territory …’.[17] However, women’s legal status as non-combatants also meant that during a siege they might be expelled as ‘useless mouths’. The Mantuan ambassador in Milan reported that those expelled from besieged Novara in 1495 were mostly women and children who became prey to the fierce stradiot troops in the Venetian army, and were reduced to begging in the camp of the besiegers.[18]

These women, and others displaced by war, may have joined the ‘campaign community’ (sometimes described with a pejorative edge as ‘camp followers’) in order to protect themselves from harm or to gain a living. The physician Alessandro Benedetti mentions King Charles VIII’s well-ordered baggage train and ‘the host of women he kept at the top of the hill’ at the Battle of Fornovo (1495). He goes on to note that as soon as troops begin to plunder the train ‘on every side the ground was strewn with bundles of cheaper wares which the avarice of the first soldiers had scornfully abandoned to servants, camp-followers, and peasants in favor of better booty.’[19] According to Giuliano Fantaguzzi, a chronicler in Cesena, when Cesare Borgia’s army passed through town around the time of the taking of Imola and Forlì during 1499-1500 it consisted of seven thousand infantry (fanti), one thousand venturini, five hundred Spanish, over a three and a half thousand horsemen and artillery, and two hundred women. Many of these women were workers and pillagers subject to military discipline but benefiting from a plundering army, but some may have been armed, experienced and even ‘valiant’ in war.[20]

In fact, as Frédérique Verrier has shown, women did fight in the defence of their towns and were sometimes organised in military fashion during the course of a siege, as at Pisa in 1499-1509 and Siena in 1553-5. This role could be seen as an extension of their role as protector of the domestic hearth and was mentioned by contemporary chroniclers. The passage I recently came across, then, probably refers to these women but gives them a much more conventionally martial aspect than suggested by the other sources.



Anonymous. ‘Diario delle cose di Urbino’. Ed. Federico Madiai. Archivio Storico per Le Marche e per L’Umbria, eds. M. Faloci Pulignani, G. Mazzatinti, and M. Santoni. Vol. 3: 423-64. Foligno: Presso La Direzione, 1886

Anonymous. Diario Ferrarese dall’anno 1409 sino al 1502 di autori incerti. Ed. Giuseppe Pardi. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 24, part 7. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1928-33

Atkinson, James B. and David Sices (trans. and ed.) Machiavelli and his Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996

Benedetti, Alessandro. Diaria De Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War), ed. and trans. Dorothy M. Schullian. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967

Burchard, Johann. Liber notarum ab anno MCCCCLXXXIII usque ad annum MDVI, ed. Enrico Celani. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 32, ch. 1. Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1906

Carteggio degli oratori mantovani alla corte sforzesca (1450-1500). Vol. 15 (1495-1498). Ed. Antonella Grati and Arturo Pacini. Rome: Pisana, 2003

Cerretani, Bartolomeo. Ricordi. Ed. Giuliana Berti. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1993

De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Jacopino. Cronaca Modenese. Parma: Pietro Fiaccadori, 1861

Dei Conti, Sigismondo. Le Storie de’ suoi tempi dal 1475 al 1510. 2 vols. Rome, 1883. Facsimile reprint. Foligno: Accademia Fulginia di Lettere Scienze e Arti, 2015

Fantaguzzi, Giuliano. Caos. Ed. Michele Andrea Pistocchi. 2 vols. Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo. Fonti per la storia dell’Italia medieval. Antiquitates, vol. 38. Rome: Pliniana, 2012

Guicciardini, Francesco. Storia d’Italia, ed. Costantino Panigada. X vols. Bari: Laterza, 1929-

The History of Italy, trans. and ed. Sidney Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969

Marinello, Giuseppe. ‘Presa, e sacco della città di Molfetta successa l’anno del signore 1529’. In K. Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli, 4: 369-92. Naples: Bernardo Perger, 1782

Parenti, Piero di Marco. Storia Fiorentina. Ed. Andrea Matucci. 2 vols. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1994, 2005

Portoveneri, Giovanni. ‘Memoriale’. Archivio Storico Italiano, 6.2 (1845): 281-360

Priuli, Girolamo. I diarii di Girolamo Priuli [AA. 1499-1512], ed. Arturo Segrè (vol. 1) and Roberto Cessi (vols. 2 and 4), Rerum Italicarum Scriptores. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1933-41

Sanudo, Marin. Venice, Cità Excelentissima: Selections from the Renaissance diaries of Marin Sanudo. Ed. Patricia H. Labalme and Laura Sanguineti White. Trans. Linda L. Carroll. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

I diarii di Marino Sanuto, eds. Rinaldo Fulin, Federico Stefani, Nicolò Barozzi, Guglielmo Berchet, and Marco Allegri, facsimile reprint, 58 vols. Bologna: Forni, 1969-70

Tedallini, Sebastiano di Branca. Diario romano. Ed. P. Piccolomini. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 23, ch. 3. Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1907

Vaglienti, Piero. Storia dei suoi tempi, 1492-1514. Ed. Giuliana Berti, Michele Luzzati, and Ezio Tongiorgi. Pisa: Nistri-Lischi and Pacini, 1982


Allmand, Christopher. ‘War and the Non-Combatant in the Middle Ages’. In Maurice Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, 253-72. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Begni Redona, Pier Virgilio. Alessandro Bonvicino Il Moretto da Brescia. Brescia: La scuola, 1988

Bowd, Stephen D. Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010

Hacker, Barton C. ‘Women and Military Institutions in Early Modern Europe: A Reconnaissance.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 6.4 (1981): 643-71

Hale, J. R. Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990

Lynn II, John A. Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Neher, Gabriele. ‘Moretto and Romanino: Religious Painting in Brescia 1510-1550; Identity in the Shadow of la Serenissima.’ Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Warwick, 2000

Rublack, Ulinka. ‘Wench and Maiden: Women, War and the Pictorial Function of the Feminine in German Cities in the Early Modern Period.’ Trans. Pamela Selwyn. History Workshop Journal, 44 (1997): 1-21

Russell, Frederick H. The Just War in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975

Thornton, Dora. ‘An allegory of the Sack of Rome by Giulio da Urbino’, Apollo, 151 (June 1999): 11-18

Wilson, Peter H. ‘German Women and War, 1500-1800’. In Jeremy Black (ed.), Warfare in Europe 1650-1792, 45-78. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005 [First published in War in History, 3 [1996]: 127-60]

[1] Guicciardini, History of Italy, 152; Machiavelli, Prince, ch. 20; Atkinson and Sices, Machiavelli, 19.

[2] ‘Et oltra li homini pixani et spagnoli li avevane quantità di done prudentissime con borzachini in pede et insachate suxe et anche con coracine indosso con lance in man e con grafii che avevano punta longa et una da taiare. Le quale done si ernae molto utile, e tuti maschi e femine tenivane inseme con grando frevore et avevane posto tuta la roba in comune che non manchavo a nesuna persona et con granda diligentia li era provisto. Et oltra che li fussi molti corsi li era quantità de done valente e vene che li fu tale dona che amazò quatordexi françoxi et fu dite che in tute le bataie che fecene inseme che fu morto de diti françoxi chi 4000 et altri 5000’. De’Bianchi, Cronaca, 198.

[3] ‘This is as close as he came to upholding some kind of non-combatant immunity.’ Russell, Just War, 70 (citing C. 24 q. 3 cc. 22-5).

[4] Ibid., 186 (citing Compilatio Prima 1.24.2, and Gregorian Decretals X 1.34.2).

[5] Allmand, ‘War and the Non-combatant in the Middle Ages’, 254-7.

[6] Portoveneri, ‘Memoriale’, 347-8.

[7] Anon., Diario Ferrarese, 141; Tommaso di Silvestro, Diario, 74.

[8] Burchard, Liber notarum, 1: 293 (Capua, 1501); Priuli, Diarii, 1: 243 (Forlì, 1500), 2: 158-59 (Capua, 1501), 4: 196-7 (Udine, 1509); Guicciardini, History of Italy, 385 (Rome, 1527).

[9] Sebastiano di Branca Tedallini, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, 3: 295.

[10] Guicciardini, History of Italy, 161.

[11] Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City, 208; Priuli, Diarii, 4: 197 (Udine, 1509); Guicciardini, History of Italy, 161; Parenti, Storia, 2: 465-6; Cerretani, Ricordi, 27; Vaglienti, Storia, 138.

[12] Marinello da Molfetta, ‘Presa, e sacco’, 387 (women throw stones down on sackers), 388 (an example of chastity ‘più che Romana’).

[13] Dei Conti, Storie, 2: 239-40. See Plutarch, Moralia, 249b-d and Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 15.10 (on the Milesian virgins); and Livy, 1.57-60 (on Lucretia).

[14] Priuli, Diarii, 4: 253 (Monselice, 1509), 393 (Fiume, 1509); Sanudo, Venice, Cità Excelentissima, 184 (a translation of an eyewitness account of the sack of Rome given in Venice on 20 May 1527 in Sanudo, Diarii, 45: col. 167).

[15] Hale, Artists and Warfare, 27, 236-7.

[16] Ibid., 238, fig. 300; Begni Redona, Alessandro Bonvicino, 252-256; Neher, ‘Moretto and Romanino’, 75-77. The potter Giulio da Urbino produced a dish thought to represent an allegory of the sack of Rome which included a figure taken from Marco Dente’s print of the Massacre of the Innocents after Baccio Bandinelli: Thornton, ‘Allegory of the Sack of Rome’.

[17] ‘Alli 5 furono condotte in corte tutte o parte delle donne che avevano in S. Leo figliuoli, o mariti, o fratelli, o parenti con intenzione di menarle in S. Leo, per vedere se per questa strada, col mostrarle loro, avessero potuto ottenere la terra, la qual ritenzione era seguita anco per tutto; onde ciascuno stava di moltissima voglia.’ Anon., ‘Diario delle cose d’Urbino’, 440.

[18] Grati and Pacini, Carteggio, 130.

[19] Benedetti, Diaria, 97, 107.

[20] Fantaguzzi, Caos, 1: 189-90.

Author: Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).