In the roughly organized armies of 16th century Europe, there was literally a woman with every man. They were partners in pillage.

“When you recruit a regiment of German soldiers today, you do not only acquire 3,000 soldiers; along with these you will certainly find 4,000 women and children.” So observed Johann Jacob von Wallhausen in his 1615 treatise on war, Kriegskunst zu Fuss. During the 16th and 17th centuries, great crowds of camp women were not unusual; they were the rule. Not mere camp followers, women were an essential element of military forces in the field, providing many services to the troops. In fact, the presence of these women helps explain the very existence of early modern European armies and the conduct of war.

The tasks performed by camp women did include prostitution, but also traditional women’s work like laundry, meal preparation and petty commerce, and even heavy camp labor—contemporary woodcuts often illustrate a soldier paired with a woman, who is usually bent under a heavier load than that borne by her male companion. The most important contribution of women in this era, however, was the seizing and managing of pillage. Without pillage, armies could not exist.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, European rulers, including Philip II of Spain and Louis XIII of France, commonly fielded armies they could not afford to pay or supply. Troops from the Spanish army of Flanders, for instance, charged in 1594 that they had not been paid for 100 months. Even when men did receive their pay, it was often insufficient to sustain them. A 1574 document complained that whereas a frugal soldier would need 10 pattards per day just for food, he received only four. Although soldiers were supposed to be fighting to earn money, one observer of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) wrote, “If you will consider how their wages are paid, I suppose, you will rather think them Voluntaries, at least very generous, for doing the greatest part of their service for nothing.” Some commanders even saw an advantage to paying troops irregularly. “To keep the troops together, it is a good thing to owe them something,” observed the great Spanish general Ambrosio Spinola. His harsh logic held that troops would be less likely to desert if they expected to receive back pay in the future. However, while underpaying troops might keep an army together, it practically guaranteed a breakdown in discipline, as troops turned to plunder as a form of compensation.

Troops with empty pockets and empty stomachs took matters into their own hands. Some responded by mutiny; the Spanish army of Flanders, commanded by such great generals as the dukes of Alva and Parma, suffered more than 45 mutinies between 1572 and 1607, including the horrendous 1576 Sack of Antwerp.

Most troops sought sustenance and compensation on campaign by pillaging the civilian communities that lay in their paths. “It is deplorable that our soldiers dedicate themselves to pillage rather than to honourable feats,” wrote Pierre de Brantôme of his experience during the French Religious Wars (1662–74). “But it is all due to their not being paid.” Princes might issue high-sounding declarations condemning troops for abusing civilian populations, but the bitter reality was that if those same rulers actually eliminated such excesses, they would have had to disband their armies as unaffordable.

The practice of allowing soldiers to pillage permeated the era. It was accepted as a distasteful but practical necessity. “One finds enough soldiers when one gives them the freedom to live off the land, and allowing them to pillage supports them without pay,” concluded the annual register of current affairs, the Mercure François, in 1622. French monarch Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) offered the same observation in his memoirs for the year 1666: “Of late, some commanders are found who have made great armies subsist for a long time without giving them any pay other than the license of pillaging everywhere.”

Pillage and its associated savagery—beatings, torture, rape and murder—certainly warranted condemnation, even when inflicted on civilians loyal to the enemy. However, raiders made little distinction between friend and foe, even victimizing the loyal subjects of the government served by the soldiers. One observer described shameful conduct by the Florentine Black Bands as they marched through friendly territory in 1527: “[They are] worse than Turks. In the Valdarno, they have sacked three Florentine villages, raped women and perpetrated other very cruel things.” Troops fielded by the Bourbon kings of France notoriously ravaged the French countryside during the first half of the 17th century.

Because pillage was officially outlawed—if actually tolerated—the take from plunder was not tallied in royal accounts, even though it constituted a high proportion of military personnel expenses. Consequently, the true size of the pillage economy will always remain more or less unknown. This is further compounded by the fact that pillage supported not only soldiers, but also the vast array of civilians who accompanied them in the field, including camp women, who mastered the brutal business of plundering.

A military force in the field during the early modern period did not resemble an army as we know it today. Soldiers constituted only part of a campaign community, in which they lived symbiotically with male and female noncombatants. Officers and soldiers employed servant boys. Teamsters hauled wagons and cannon using draught animals supplied by private contractors. Entrepreneurs supplied bread to armies, sending their own staffs, including bakers, into the field. A large collection of other tradesmen—blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters—served the community. Merchants and sutlers sold essentials and amenities to the troops.

Comprising such a varied multitude, a campaign community rivaled in complexity and size all but the largest towns of the day. A force of 25,000 soldiers with its accompanying supporters represented a larger population than that of contemporary Bordeaux, Strasbourg, or Turin. It is no exaggeration to describe military camps as cities on the march.

The campaign communities, moreover, formed a world apart, living according to their own rules, which were often quite hostile to civilian society—and vice versa. A mercenary principle drove enlistment; most common soldiers joined the ranks because they had few other options and hoped to fare better on campaign. A German woodcut dating from the 1530s makes this point with a poem attached to an illustration of a would-be Landsknecht, the much-feared, heavily armed Germanic mercenary of the 16th century: A tailor complains, “I must sit long hours for little pay with which I can hardly survive,” so he decides to try his luck in “the open field to the sound of pipes and drums.” The Englishman Sydnam Poyntz confessed a similar reason for enlisting in the 1620s: “My necessitie forced mee, my Money being growne short, to take the manes of a private soldier.” Women opted for camp life with much the same rationale.

This need to survive and a desire to prosper ensured that men and the women who joined them on campaigns would prey upon the unfortunate civilian communities that lay in their paths. Troops quartered in civilian homes abused their hosts; pillagers stole, raped and murdered. The result of such violence was a pervasive animosity toward armies that, in turn, inspired the campaign community to reject the civilian world, its mundane life and its standards of propriety.

Although common soldiers came from the peasantry and urban working classes themselves, they announced their separation from such origins by sporting distinctive and often outlandish apparel. Most extreme was the bizarre multicolored and slashed garb of Landsknechts, though soldiers of other nations adopted their own extreme fashions. An early 17th century description of Spanish infantry claimed, “It is the finery, the plumes and the bright colors which give spirit and strength to a soldier so that he can with furious resolution overcome any difficulty or accomplish any valorous exploit.” These sons of the laboring classes transformed themselves from subservient sparrows to aggressive peacocks.

Campaign communities lived by codes that were libertine and brutal. Soldiers of the early modern era were known for drinking, gambling, wenching and fighting. The novelist Johann Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, who had fought in the Thirty Years’ War, summed up the soldiers’ lifestyle with its violence, suffering and poverty:

Their whole existence consisted of eating and drinking, going hungry and thirsty, whoring and sodomizing, gaming and dicing, guzzling and gorging, murdering and being murdered, killing and being killed, torturing and being tortured, terrifying and being terrified…pillaging and being pillaged.

Within this hard and hostile community, women performed a broad range of tasks. The most obvious, but by no means the most characteristic, employment was prostitution. The term “camp follower” is often regarded as synonymous with prostitute, and there is no question that prostitutes plied their trade with the troops. Many military authorities favored having them in camp for reasons of public order and efficiency. Public order argued that soldiers who relied on camp prostitutes for sex would be less likely to trouble respectable women; according to Mathieu de la Simonne, writing in the 1620s, “It is good for the local inhabitants, it is said, because their wives, daughters and sisters will be more in security.” Efficiency justified bringing along a limited number of prostitutes to satisfy the men’s urges instead of dragging along a far greater number of wives who would encumber armies.

Over time, however, tolerance of camp prostitution declined. Rising rates of venereal disease led commanders to see prostitutes as dangers to health, and the strict moral codes brought about by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation advocated marriage and condemned prostitution outright. Frederick William, the great elector of Brandenburg, banned prostitutes from his army by an article of war in September 1656, as did Louis XIV from French forces in the 1680s.

The great majority of camp women belonged to two other categories: wives and so-called “whores”—the unmarried female partners of soldiers. These women were not prostitutes, as each accompanied a single man, yet contemporary accounts often refer to them as “whores,” and the officer in charge of keeping order among camp women on the march was known in German as a Hurenweibel, or whoremaster. The nature of the relationship between a soldier and his whore is suggested by the German practice of “May marriages,” agreements to stay together for the campaign season, which traditionally began in May. Dionysius Klein, writing at the end of the 16th century, described such liaisons and their rationales:

German soldiers, no sooner an expedition arrives, saddle themselves with frivolous and loose women with whom they contract “May marriages,” whom they drag here and there just as millers do their sacks. The soldiers enhance the situation by pretending that in war they cannot get along without women; they are needed to take care of clothes, equipment and valuables; and in cases of illness, injury or any other personal harm, the women are needed to nurse and take care of them.

Wives and whores applied themselves to traditional and necessary women’s work. Laundering, for one, was almost exclusively a feminine chore that soldiers regarded as unmanly. In The Life of Courage: The Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond, Grimmelshausen has his female antiheroine, Courage, declare, “I refused to let [my husband] stay in the castle without me for fear he would be eaten up by lice, as there were no women to keep the men clean.” Basic needlework also fell to women, who repaired clothes, stitched shirts and sewed linens. Nursing, too, was considered a particularly feminine talent. When Robert Venables, one of Cromwell’s favored generals during the English Civil Wars, was censured for including his wife and allowing some soldiers to bring their wives on his disastrous expedition to the West Indies in 1654–55, he replied that experience in the Irish wars had demonstrated “the necessity of having that sex with an army to attend upon and help the sick and wounded, which men are unfit for.” Cooking, although not narrowly defined as a woman’s task, also fell to camp women.

Such gender-defined work was so valuable to an army’s health and well-being that a certain number of useful women remained with regiments in the field even after most wives and whores were driven from camps in the late 17th century. From then until the French Revolution, a contingent of 15 to 20 women usually marched in the train of a French regiment, while the British brought along about six wives per 100 soldiers until the late 18th century.

Camp women also scrambled to earn whatever they could through petty commerce. Some became sutlers (vivandières in French), peddling food, liquor, tobacco and sundries to officers and men. And camp women could be extremely creative in garnering money by more extraordinary schemes. During the occupation of Freiburg by the Swedes in the 1630s, one citizen complained of “the soldiers’ abominable wives,” who trespassed in local gardens, cut produce as soon as it appeared, and had the gall to sell what they did not consume in the Freiburg market.

Men with female partners enjoyed an advantage. Sir James Turner, in his Pallas Armata (1683), argued that during the 1624–25 Spanish siege of Breda, in the Netherlands, “The married Souldiers fared better, look’d more vigorously, and were able to do more duty than the Batchellors; and all the spite was done the poor women was to be called their husbands’ mules by those who would have been glad to have had such mules themselves.”

Turner’s use of the term “mules” points to the heavy labor these formidable women performed. An anonymous handwritten German manuscript of 1612 detailed the load carried by women on the march:

Seldom is one found who does not carry at least 50 or 60 pounds. [The] soldier…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 [shifts], 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.

The presence of so many women in the train of the army constituted a sizable labor pool that field commanders were quick to exploit. They even participated, according to Wallhausen, in the hard physical labor of siege work: “The whores and the boys [of the camp] also helped in binding fascines, filling ditches, digging pits and mounting cannon in difficult places.”

The most important contribution made by camp women lay beyond their traditional women’s work, petty commercial ventures and taxing manual labor. First and foremost, they took part in pillaging, without which early modern forces could not have maintained themselves on campaign. Grimmelshausen’s antiheroine Courage boasted, “No one could match me at foraging.” Peter Hagendorf, author of the only extant diary by a common soldier in the Thirty Years’ War, reported how wives, his own included, pillaged the fallen city of Magdeburg in 1631 even after the fires that would destroy the city had broken out:

A cry then came from throughout the city as houses all fell on each other. Many soldiers and their wives who were searching to steal something died. God indeed protected [my wife]. After an hour and a half, she came out of the city accompanied by an old holy woman, who helped her carry bedding. She also brought me a large tankard with four liters wine. In addition, she found two silver belts and clothes, which I was able to cash in for 12 thaler in Halerstadt.

But women did more than steal; there is good reason to believe they guarded the booty and held the money gained by selling it. In woodcuts showing Landsknechts and their women, the men carry the weapons, ready for battle, while women are often shown with fat purses. Free from the immediate risks of fighting in the front rank, they held the money for their fighting men. The preceding description of May marriages confirms that women carried their men’s clothing and other personal items, including their “valuables.” A poem accompanying a 16th century woodcut claims that among a whore’s duties was guarding the plunder:

Do well with me, my pretty lass
And stay with me in the Landsknechts
You’ll wash my shirts
Carry my sacks and flasks
And if some booty should be mine
You shall keep it safe and fine
So when we put paid of this crew
We’ll sell the booty when we are through.

Among artisan couples in the civilian community, women were similarly entrusted with holding goods and managing funds. Masters’ wives regularly made sales and tended the till. If the business maintained a market stall, this was the wife’s preserve, for the husband was needed back at the shop. Pillage was a form of this early modern family economy.

Pillage was also the business of the army. Because the campaign community was based on mercenary principles, versus those of state service or patriotism, its members were easily seduced by greed. In his 1516 colloquy “Of a Soldier’s Life,” the great Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus confronted a soldier with the charge, “It was not the Love of your Country, but the Love of Booty that made you a Soldier,” to which the soldier replied, “I confess so, and I believe very few go into the Army with any better Design.” He also admits, “The Hope of Booty made me valiant.” In fact, only a few common soldiers and their women profited, but it was just enough to tempt others in a kind of lottery psychology. When Erasmus inquires of his soldier, “Well, have you brought home a good Deal of Plunder then?” the soldier replies with a shrug, “Empty Pockets.”

The unintended consequence of such unrealistic hopes of riches was the survival of military forces on campaign. Before European states developed the capacity to maintain their armies in the field, it was pillage that sustained them. The fact that women were key agents in securing and managing pillage explains the need for great numbers of them in the campaign community, as well as the radical reduction in their numbers after 1650.

Ultimately, pillaging and the abuses inescapably associated with it imposed limits on the reliability, efficiency and size of armies. To overcome these limits, European states developed the political power and administrative means to command revenues and tap credit sufficient to maintain their armies. Rulers curbed pillage by holding officers responsible for their soldiers’ conduct and by imposing and enforcing stricter codes of discipline, but such efforts would have been fruitless were it not for major improvements in military administration and logistics, which in turn required advances in the state’s ability to mobilize and disperse resources. These critical military and political changes affected different countries at different times, but in general the transformation occurred during the latter half of the 17th century. With distinct national twists, they were the work of Louis XIV in France, Frederick William the Great Elector (1640–1688) in Brandenburg-Prussia and Peter the Great (1682–1725) in Russia.

These monarchs’ accomplishments demonstrate that war was the engine that drove state formation in Europe. Thus the history of camp women and their involvement in pillage merges with far greater issues—the rise of the modern army and the emergence of the modern state.


For further reading, John Lynn recommends: Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present, by Linda Grant De Pauw.

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here