Book Review: Women Warriors: A History


by David E. Jones

Washington, D. C.: Brassey's, 1997. 265 pp. Illus., notes, index. $24.99. ISBN:1574882066

Although not great history, Women Warriors: A History is still a valuable work. David E. Jones, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, provides a global, ancient-to-modern survey of women warriors, so only cursory mention is made of most historical events. Given these literary circumstances, Professor Jones, thus, can be forgiven for some noticeable errors of fact and lack of depth. This is particularly so in light of the service he performs in reprising a large chunk of the warrior culture for women.

After one finishes reading this book, all questions concerning women's ability to perform well in combat have been put to rest. Moreover, one concludes that women's historical aggression has been woefully under-reported. The testosterone issue aside, Jones also offers examples in which women constituted a much larger percentages of military forces than to which other sources have alluded. Two are: in the mid-nineteenth century, 5,000 African Dahomey women comprised more than 45 percent of the kingdom's army and in the Nicaraguan Sandinistas final push against Anastasio Somoza's army in the 1970s, women comprised 30 percent of the rebel forces. As to the warrior spirit, one riveting case is that of Queen Durgautti of Hindustan. Ruling over wealthy lands in the fourteenth century, the Queen and her son were attacked by a local mogul. After her son fell in battle, a general rout ensued. In response, Durgautti rode her elephant into the opposing Muslim army and the rallied troops followed. During the fight, the Queen was struck in the eye by an arrow. She broke off the shaft and continued her charge with the arrow tip still in her eye. After she was hit a second time, she ordered her elephant handler to kill her to prevent her from being taken captive, which he refused. Grabbing the dagger, the Queen stabbed herself to death.

In the book, Jones does not dwell on sociology, but relates extensive historical incidents. Two historical cases, however, do stand out as important sociological trends for European women. The first is the power of medieval nuns and abbesses. Women heading monasteries and convents held great local power as they presided over large tracts of land, collected large amounts of taxes in the villages, and could field armies. In the fifteenth century, Abbess Renee de Bourbon of France went on a campaign to reform local monasteries, finding the most recalcitrant one to be at Fontevrault. Occupied by warrior nuns and monks, it resisted her efforts for twelve years. Finally in 1477, the Abbess raised an army in Paris and attacked the monastery. Her forces won the day and all the residing monks and nuns were forced to sign a loyalty oath to her. Jones continues:

Warrior nuns posed such a problem in the fifteenth century that a law in Bologna forbade citizens to loiter around convents. . . for the safety of the citizenry. . . . The convents became so powerful that various popes established decrees against women engaging in martial combat in an attempt to weaken the power of the sisterhood. The papal ban against women wearing armor proved to be the technicality on which Joan of Arc was sentenced to be burned to death at Rouen.

Jones credits the loss of the perception of women as legitimate sources of power which began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe to the acceptance of the more patriarchal mores of Greco-Roman cultures which were rediscovered during the Renaissance and the Reformation. Continuing with this theme of the coupling of military and political power, Jones' ladies of the dark ages and medieval Europe are particularly impressive for two reasons: 1) in today's blameless society in which everyone seems to seen as a victim, few identify with the aristocracy; so little mention is made of upper class women who had and wielded power and were duty-bound<

Reviewer: C. Kay Larson   

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