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Women in the Peninsular War, by Charles J. Esdaile

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 322. Notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0806144785.

Women in Wellington’s War

Esdaile, author of several notable works on the Napoleonic wars, and particularly the campaigns in Portugal and Spain in 1807-1814, such as Peninsular War: A New History (2003), Fighting Napoleon (2004), and The Duke of Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Army (2015), here takes a look at the participation of women in that protracted struggle, throwing further light on the hitherto neglected subject of the role of women in war.  

In his preface, Esdaile notes that despite recent significant scholarly attention to the role of women in war, the women of the Peninsular War have been neglected in the literature. He then uses his first chapter to discuss the oddly frequent appearance of women in images of the war in Spain and Portugal, often as combatants. (Though, equally oddly, the book includes no images!) 

The balance of the volume explores the role of women in the war in considerable detail. He begins with an overview of the status of women in the Iberian nations on the eve of the war, more restricted perhaps than in most of the rest of Europe, with occasional exceptions. Esdaile then, he devotes individual chapters to the “traditional” roles of women in the war, which was primarily as non-combatant service personnel to the armies. But there were many iconic – and often very real – women warriors, by no means unheard of even in earlier Iberian wars, and some women were even leaders of guerrilla bands or local resistance nodes. There are also chapters on women as victims and as survivors, and women in religious orders. A final chapter looks at British and French perceptions and stereotypes about Iberian women, some of whom became the mistresses and even the wives of soldiers, among them the famous “Lady Smith”, an episode so romantic it would seem ideally suited for a motion picture.

Women in the Peninsula War is an useful read for anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars, and essential one for students of the Peninsular War, the effects of war on society, and, of course, women and war.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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