Ancient, Military

Sex in Camp! The Groupies of the Middle Ages?

Going to war has always required the expert navigation of logistical hurdles particularly for an army that is far from home. What did an army in the Middle Ages need in camp? In a word, everything!

An army will need to fight, sleep, eat, wash, receive medical treatment and be entertained. For these activities to be carried out effectively requires a great deal of kit to be transported and along with it, an army of people to provide all the services the army needs.

The Long Trail

Tents need to be pitched, food prepared and served, clothes washed and repaired. Horses and pack animals need to be cared for, livestock transported, fed and watered. It needs blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, physicians and their tools and materials.

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But there is a slim body of evidence to suggest that another group also accompanied the army on campaign: women.

The presence of women on a medieval military campaign is an interesting subject. Documentary evidence of the role of medieval women full stop is scant at best and virtually non-existent for the lower orders of society.

Most medieval military records which survive are financial ones which give an insight into soldiers pay, the cost of supplies and equipment necessary for armies of varying sizes and so on.

Any women accompanying an army in the baggage train would not have been in the direct employ of the King and therefore there is little evidence of their presence in the financial records.

We do have a few contemporary images of European armies with women, presumably, camp followers riding in wagons forming part of the extensive baggage train but much evidence comes from military orders issued by the head man of the day himself, the King.

Women and the Crusades

We are aware of women being present in the military camps of the Crusades. We know of Eleanor of Aquitaine during the 2nd Crusade and Marie of Flanders on the 4th Crusade both attending against papal advice, but these affluent women are the exceptions to the rule.

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine attended the Second Crusades. She was a very wealthy and powerful woman though she was the exception in her day.

One would assume that other women were also found travelling along with the crusader armies but whether or not these women were providing cooking, laundry or other such domestic services is unclear. What is clear however, is that one group of women definitely did follow the camp – prostitutes.

This is a relatively unsurprising revelation. We know this because during the Crusades, explicit orders were issued by military leaders attempting to expel such women from military camps when battle was imminent.

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After all, they were supposed to be on a religious crusade, fighting in the name of God and it would not do to have the men fornicating out of wedlock the night before a major offensive. Not least the fact that these women presented a distraction at a time when they needed men to be focused on the task at hand. As it were!

Camp Followers: Later Medieval Period

But what about the later medieval period? We have plenty of concrete evidence of the existence and varied functions of female camp followers from the early modern period all the way up to today’s military wives and children living on base camps, so it seems a fairly logical assumption that there were female camp followers among the later medieval armies.

Something of a rarity for the times. A female physician or doctor with a male patient.

Surviving evidence seems to suggest there were camp followers providing sexual services at this point in time too. Imagine if you will an army of many young soldiers, homesick, possibly feeling quite lonely or by contrast feeling excited at the possibility of making their fortune and proving themselves on the field of battle which was surely better than shovelling s***, I mean manure on the fields back home.

Men Have Needs

To suspend politeness for a moment, these men would have had needs and these needs are again reflected in the orders issued at the time. Particularly vocal on the subject was Henry V who waged war successfully in France.

King Henry’s orders often included rules attempting to restrict the sexual activity of his soldiers. Henry was a staunch believer in military discipline and his orders included a ban on attacking and raping women and later offering immunity to all females (they could not be held as prisoners of war).

Similar directives were issued in the previous century by another of Henry’s relatives, King Richard II who may well have taken his inspiration from even earlier orders issued by the great leader, King Edward III.

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Whether these orders were a matter of discipline or to prevent large numbers of women (some possibly pregnant) trailing along behind his army and taking up valuable resources, we do not know.

Sex in Camp!

Fear of sexually transmitted infections did not seem to be of great concern at this time. The first mention of any type of venereal disease was not made until a record which survives from King Edward VI’s later French campaign in the 1470s where it was chronicled that ‘our kynge lost many a man that fylle to the lust of women and wer brent by them; and there membrys rottyd away and they dyed’.

Contemporary woodcut of a Medieval brothel. On campaign these were banned by the English and encouraged by the French.

Of course, in the eyes of medieval society, the women are solely responsible for this rather graphic misfortune and untimely death of the men mentioned.

One does not have to research too deeply before becoming aware of the late medieval attitude towards women of the day. It seems that concern here lay largely in the potential of the female being a negative influence on an army and on sapping men’s physical strength.

Sexual activity with women, it was believed, rendered men vulnerable and physically weakened and even effeminate in their thinking for a time after the act, not to mention distracting them from the task at hand.

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Some men even believed that women lived longer than men because men exerted so much more effort than women during sex. Spiritually also, women, as the daughters of Eve were viewed as instruments of seduction and temptation and were therefore a potentially harmful source of entertainment for idle soldiers.

The French Camp

The French, by contrast were far more liberal and the presence of female camp followers was positively encouraged as morale boosting and a pleasing distraction from the atrocities of war. It is amusing that these contrasting attitudes to women as camp followers survived into World War One with British leaders attempting to put an end to ‘that sort of thing’ whereas the French, by contrast, provided their soldiers with fully functioning brothels!

There is surprisingly little evidence offering us an insight into the role of women on campaign.

Those women who were not prostitutes or even occasional prostitutes; we can assume they fulfilled many of the domestic duties they would have carried out at home. Laundering clothes for example, would have been crucial for a soldiers’ hygiene and in fighting the ongoing battle against all manner of body and head lice.

Women may well have assisted with tending to the sick and wounded as healers, retrieving bodies from the field of battle (perhaps lifting a coin purse or two in the process), preparing the bodies of the dead for burial etc – all very valid and integral roles that needed to be fulfilled.

An Unsavoury Job

Unfortunately, at this point in history, not many beyond the clergy could read or write and since the church did not look favourably on women in the male domain, any surviving written references are not complimentary and mostly in relation to the role of women as temptresses.

But even the prostitute formed an integral part of camp life and no doubt did help to maintain the morale of troops who otherwise may have gone looking for satisfaction from unsuspecting virgins in the surrounding villages, risking even more damage to their immortal souls in the process. Prostitutes then became the lesser of two evils!

Some historians suggest that wives and children would have accompanied soldiers on campaign. I think this largely depends on the circumstances of the society at the time, the duration of the action and the leader responsible for organising the campaign.

Wives and children may have attended alongside career soldiers who were expected to be away and on the move for long periods of time.

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Perhaps some women were permitted or even recruited by individual knights or lords to accompany their foot soldiers in order to carry out the domestic duties necessary. Perhaps these were just women who joined the baggage train informally along the way or even as captors (prior to Henry V of course!)

Fact or Fiction?

Wives of men who were rallied in aid of shorter-term conflicts where the soldier was expected to return to his farmstead would have undoubtedly stayed at home in order to keep the farm running.

In some cases, as in the Roman army, professional soldiers were subject to a marriage ban to prevent the creation of enormous baggage trains as they mobilised and travelled the length and breadth of their empire.

Sources on this subject are so few and far between that we must do much reading between the lines. We know that women were there but there are a lot of gaps that we must use our knowledge of society at the time to fill in.

Sadly, when it comes to women in these times of distant memory, they were either incredibly famous and acquired warrior status such as Joan of Arc or they were not worth writing about. Therefore their lives and personal stories are all but lost to history.