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The glamorous life of women among warriors

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

I never thought I would see similarity between sixteenth-century German mercenaries (Landsknechts) and Mohawk warriors. Recently, however, two similarities occurred to me. First, as in the world of birds, the men of these otherwise divergent cultures were more spectacularly ‘decorated’ than women. Second, in both societies women did nearly all the work.

The Landsknechts were superb mercenaries in fancy pants. So fancy were their pants (and doublets, hose, hats, and feathers) that according to Keith Moxey of Columbia University, the Landsknecht was the first instance in history where fashion traveled upward on the social ladder. The puffy, slashed sleeves of England’s Henry VIII came from the German Landsknecht. Flamboyant, aggressive, and subject to no law but that of their colonel, they were magnificently disciplined on the field but monsters of rape and pillage the moment they marched out of their temporary lord’s realm.

While their look was nothing like that of the Landsknecht, Mohawk warriors, too, were flashy in their dress. Early missionary John Heckwelder observed the particular care Mohawk men took of their appearance. Sporting armbands and feathers, they painfully plucked their hair rather than cutting it, and oiled their scalps to achieve a look both menacing and beautiful. So feared were the Mohawk that according to author Phil Konstantin, ‘Mohawk’, the name given them by their enemies, means ‘Man-Eater’.

These two societies valued women who could carry a man’s load. In both societies, women did nearly all the work. They carried burdens; they set up camp; they did the heavy lifting – all in addition to cooking, cleaning, and tending children. John Demos of Yale explains that among the Mohawk, women did all the farming. Without modern trucks, women followed their men hunting to carry game home on their backs. Men conserved their energy for hunting and war, carrying nothing but their weapons. They expended plenty of energy playing lacrosse, however.

Among the Landsknechts, John Lynn of the University of Illinois tells us that women dug ditches to prepare fields for battle (ditches broke up an approaching enemy’s momentum) and built earth works for siege. Women actively plundered and carried not only their own ill-gotten gains, but men’s as well. Interestingly, gender roles were rigid in civilian German society, but like so many rules of society, gender roles went out the window among Landsknechts.

The following from Lynn’s research was intended to entice a young woman to follow her dashing suitor, “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.” Unappealing as this sounds to us and dangerous though her life would be, following him offered excitement and a chance for wealth.

Whether civilian or military, sixteenth-century European women were far more vulnerable to sexual attack than Mohawk women of the same period. While rape occurred occasionally in the village, it was not part of Mohawk warfare. In all their creative torture and cruel means of death, every bit the equal of European methods, they did not rape. Mohawk women had a lot of clout in tribal decision-making, and ancestry was traced through the mother rather than the father. In marrying, men moved into the bride’s longhouse with her family, and a woman retained her own possessions.

To the contrary, women among the Landsknechts had little security. Only her mate’s standing among the men protected her, and if he died or decided he was through with her, her best bet was to find another man – if she could.

Even so, women in both societies did the drudge work because men were just too valuable. From the safe distance of five centuries, it is tempting to add with a grin that perhaps these men were too busy doing their hair and preening their feathers to be bothered with work.

Skjelver is a Rugby author.

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