A Woman’s Home is Her Castle

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, in Treasure of the City of Ladies; or the Book of the Three Virtues, author, intellectual, and champion of female education Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) instructed noblewomen of her time to learn the military skills they needed to defend their property: “She ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack, or defend against one.” It was good advice. Noblewomen and queens often found themselves leading the defense of a keep, castle, or manor (and occasionally besieging someone else)—even if they didn’t have “the heart of a man.” (1) (Occasionally, not-so-noble women also found themselves under siege. Margaret Paston (1423–1484), the wife of a wealthy landowner and merchant, defended besieged properties three times against noblemen’s attempts to seize them by force.)

The skills needed to withstand a siege were an extension of housekeeping when the idea that a man’s home was his castle was a literal description for members of the aristocracy. In medieval and early modern Europe, noblewomen were often responsible for managing family properties, and consequently for providing the military resources needed for those properties. Provisioning a household that was as much an armed fortress as a family domicile involved procuring the cannons, small arms, and gunpowder needed for its defense as well as the day-to-day supplies of food, clothing, or household linens. Noblewomen supervised men-at-arms in the course of daily life and helped mobilize the household’s resources for war. Leading its defense was one more step down a familiar road.

We find stories of women organizing the defense of a besieged castle/keep/manor in sixth century China, in the dynastic wars of medieval Europe, in the religious wars of seventeenth century England and France and in shogunate Japan. (2) Some led their men-at-arms into battle, weapons in hand. Most harangued the enemy and encouraged their troops. (Sometimes they also harangued their men-at-arms. In 1584, the wife of samurai warrior Okamura Sukie’mon armed herself with a naginata, (3) patrolled the besieged castle, and put the fear of the gods in any soldiers she found asleep while on duty.) More than one noblewoman, such as Hungarian nationalist Llona Zringyi (1644–1703) walked her ramparts at twilight in full view of the enemy, giving the besieging army a metaphorical middle finger.

For the most part, these women led the defense in the absence of their fathers/husbands/brothers/sons—who were often fighting elsewhere. In the case of Nicolaa de la Haye (ca. 1150–1230), the castle she defended was her own. De la Haye inherited the offices of castellan and sheriff of Lincoln when her father died in 1169 with no male heirs. In that role, she became involved in the conflicts surrounding the absentee King Richard the Lionhearted, his brother John, and England’s barons, that resulted in the Magna Carta. (De la Haye was on Team John.) (4) As castellan, she successfully defended Lincoln Castle twice, once in 1191 and once in 1216. Her resistance during the second siege led her enemies to describe her as a “most ingenious and evil-intentioned and vigorous old woman.” I suspect she took that as a compliment.

(1) I can’t tell you how tired I got of the many variations on “the heart of a man,” “manly courage”, “as capable as a man” while writing Women Warriors .)
(2) Japanese “castles” in the twelfth century were wooden stockades—more like a fort in the American West than a medieval European keep.
(3) A traditional weapon of samurai women, the naginata is a curved blade on a staff, similar to a glaive. Samurai women also carried a long dagger in their sleeves called a kaiken, sometimes referred to as a suicide dagger.
(4) We (and by that I mean Americans) tend to assume that John was the villain of the story because the only things we learn about him is that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which is seen as the documentary forefather of our own Constitution and Bill of Rights. (Not to mention his appearance as a villain in the Disney film Robin Hood.) In fact, Richard wasn’t exactly a stellar king from the British perspective. He was more interested in crusading in the Holy Lands than in ruling. During the ten years of his reign as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, (5) he spent no more than six months in England, and is reported to have said that he’d sell the place if he could find a buyer.  Not a model king by any standard.
(5) Which began with him conspiring with his mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and the king of France to seize the throne from his father . (Not for the first time. He had previously joined two of his brothers in an unsuccessful rebellion in 1173.) Happy family.

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And now for a word (or three) from our sponsor:

1. You still have time to win a copy of Women Warriors.  Beacon Press is giving away 20 copies of Women Warriors on Goodreads. Enter here by 2/15 to be included: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/288662

2. We’ve got swag! If you buy the book by 2/25 and want women warrior trading cards, a book mark and a signed bookplate, fill out this form and upload your receipt: www.beacon.org/warriorspreorder Just so there’s no confusion:  You don’t have to buy the book (or e-book or audiobook) directly from Beacon: pre-orders from any vendor count.

3. If you want a signed copy of Women Warriors and don’t expect to see me in real life, you can order one from my local independent bookstore, The Seminary Coop . https://www.semcoop.com/women-warriors-unexpected-history Just state that you want a signed copy in the comments field.

Women at the Siege of Leningrad

[WARNING: For the next few weeks, it’s going to be all women warriors (and occasionally Women Warriors) all the time here at the Margins as we lead up to my publication date of February 26. I’ll try to keep the My Book! My Book! to a minimum and focus on the stories instead, but I may slip now and then because I’m excited.]

The siege of Leningrad is generally considered the worst siege in history: 872 days of blockade and bombing that killed between 1.6 and 2 million Soviet citizens . (1) Women bore the brunt of the siege, thanks to the military draft and Stalin’s purges, which claimed more men than women. Over the course of the siege, the shortage of men grew worse, as the call for soldiers continued.

Russia was unprepared for the German attack. Stalin refused to believe it would happen, even after he received a personal warning from the German ambassador in Moscow. (Can you say hubris, boys and girls?)Russian media dismissed rumors that German divisions were deploying along the Russian border as propaganda.

When the invasion came, it was swift and ruthless. Germany’s Operation Barbarossa was a three-pronged attack of three million troops with 7,000 guns and 3,300 tanks along a two-thousand-mile front. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was the primary target for Army Group North, led by Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. Leeb’s instructions were to take the city by July 21, reduce it to rubble, slaughter its inhabitants, and then turn his attention to Moscow. Hitler was so sure of victory that he sent out invitations to celebrate Christmas 1941 in Leningrad. (Can you say hubris, again?)

While the Germans advanced, the people of Leningrad worked to construct concentric defense lines around their otherwise defenseless city. Half a million Leningraders, mostly women (2), were drafted to build fortifications first on the Pskov-Ostrov and Luga River defense lines, 180 and 60 miles southwest of Leningrad respectively, and later in Leningrad itself. Between June 22 and August 20, civilian laborers built 620 miles of earthworks. They dug 420 miles of antitank ditches and thousands of miles of defensive trenches. They strung 320 miles of barbed wire across the approaches to the city, constructed the static antitank devices known as “Czech hedgehogs,” and built some five thousand earth, timber, and concrete pillboxes—small defensive structures built with peepholes through which a weapon could be fired. It was heavy manual labor performed without the benefit of mechanized construction equipment. Women dug trenches by hand and worked together to carry heavy timber and stones. Driven by reports of the rapid German advance, they worked long days in primitive conditions, with no shelter against the enemy aircraft that strafed their construction sites.

Czech hedgehogs, which remind me of a giant version of the jacks I played with as a child

By September the city was under siege. That month alone, the Germans launched two hundred artillery bombardments and twenty-three major air raids against Leningrad, but were unable to break through the city’s defenses.

In addition to regular Red Army units, the city was defended by “destruction battalions,” which had originally been created to deal with internal security threats, and by nine divisions of the narodne opolchenie, a volunteer citizen’s militia organized by the Communist Party.(3) By late August, when the Germans had almost encircled the city, the military command officially encouraged women and teenage boys to enlist: about a quarter of the eligible volunteers were women.

Unlike most home guards in World War II, the opolchenie fought. They had little training. Armed with a variety of small arms and hundreds of thousands of bottles of flammable liquid, dubbed “Molotov cocktails” by the Finnish soldiers, their primary task was to stop the advance of German armored divisions by hurling grenades and gasoline bombs at German tanks from slit trenches. A. A. Gusev, a political commissar in the second opolchenie, summed up the experience: “Our people are poorly trained and insufficiently armed. We fight more from the soul and heart than from military training.”

The only real advantage the city’s defenders had was that Leningrad was one of Russia’s largest centers of manufacturing munitions. Thousands of women replaced their husbands and brothers in Leningrad’s factories, the Russian counterparts of Rosie the Riveter. Unlike Rosie, factory workers, male and female, were armed (badly) and received training at the end of their eleven-hour days as members of “worker battalions,” intended to defend the city factory-by-factory if need be.

Faced with massive bombardment and starvation—a combination of the newest and oldest techniques of siege warfare—the defenders of Leningrad held out against German troops until January 27, 1944.

Like women in sieges before them across the millennia, the women of Leningrad defended their city with courage and grim determination. Because sometimes the distance from the home front to the frontline is only a few short steps.

(1) The number is horrifying enough as it stands, but it looks even worse if you add two pieces of context:

  • The Soviet Union consistently under-reported its losses. (In other words, modern battle statistics are no more reliable than battle statistics from the ancient world.)
  • Estimated Soviet losses at Leningrad exceed the total number of Americans, military and civilian alike,, who have died in wars from the American Revolution through 2002.

(2) A fact that is often glossed over in standard histories of the siege but is all too clear in photographs of the period.

(3) Translated as “people’s army” in accounts of Soviet Russia, opolchenie could just as easily be translated as home guard, volunteers, militia, or territorial army. The German invasion was not the first time the opolchenie had mustered in times of war. The first reference appears in the Russo-Polish War of 1605–1618.

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And now for a word (or three) from our sponsor:

1. Beacon Press is giving away 20 copies of Women Warriors on Goodreads. Enter here by 2/15 to be included: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/288662

2. We’ve got swag! If you buy the book by 2/25 and want women warrior trading cards, a book mark and a signed bookplate, fill out this form and upload your receipt: www.beacon.org/warriorspreorder Just so there’s no confusion:  You don’t have to buy the book (or e-book or audiobook) directly from Beacon: pre-orders from any vendor count.

3. If you want a signed copy of Women Warriors and don’t expect to see me in real life, you can order one from my local independent bookstore, The Seminary Coop . https://www.semcoop.com/women-warriors-unexpected-history Just state that you want a signed copy in the comments field.

Enheduanna: A Surprise From the Ancient World

In the last two blog posts I claimed that it was going to be all women warriors all the time here at the Margins as the publication date for Women Warriors hurtles at me like an out-of-control truck on an ice-coated highway. (1) And for the most part it’s true. But sometimes I stumble across something so cool that I want to share it right now. This is one of those times.

Enheduanna

Enheduanna is the one in the middle.
Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq 1926.

Allow me to introduce you to the first author whose name is recorded in history, a WOMAN named Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE). (2) Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon the Great of Akkad, ruler of Mesopotamia. Her father appointed her the high priestess of the most important temple in the Sumerian city of Ur. She may have gotten the job thanks to Daddy, but there is no doubt that she earned it. Combining her roles as both priestess and poet, she wrote more than forty liturgical works that were copied and used for almost 2000 years. In those works, she created conventions for psalms and prayers that were used throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean. Her work influenced the poetic forms of the Hebrew Bible, the Homeric hymns of ancient Greece, and the early hymns of the Christian church. (That’s a lot of influence for someone I never heard of until a few days ago.) She also wrote forty-two more personal poems in which she described her feelings about the world she lived in.

She served as high priestess for forty years, despite a coup attempt that drove her temporarily into exile.

Enheduanna was rediscovered as a historic figure in 1927, during British archaeologist Sir. Leonard Wooley’s excavations of Ur. You can’t say she’s been erased from history, but she isn’t exactly a pop culture icon. (3) Yet.

(1) I admit, that’s over the top. What can I say we’re coming out of the polar vortex here in Chicago. I have ice on the brain.
(2) With a hat tip to fantasy novelist Samantha Shannon for introducing me to Enheduanna on Twitter.
(3) Except among the people who believe that aliens built the pyramids.

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And now for a word (or three) from our sponsor:

  •  Beacon Press is giving away 20 copies of Women Warriors on Goodreads. Enter here by February 15 to be included: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/288662
  • We’ve got pre-order swag.! If you buy Women Warriors before February 26 and want women warrior trading cards, a book mark and a signed bookplate, fill out this form and upload your receipt here: www.beacon.org/warriorspreorder

Just so there’s no confusion:
1. You don’t have to buy the book directly from Beacon: pre-orders from any vendor count. Including audio books: https://www.audible.com/pd/Women-Warriors-Audiobook/0807081116
2.  If you already pre-ordered, you can still get the swag.
In addition to swag, you also get my thanks.  Pre-orders matter.