Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe by Alexander O'Hara

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Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe






The period 550 to 750 was one in which monastic culture became more firmly entrenched in Western Europe. The role of monasteries and their relationship to the social world around them was transformed during this period as monastic institutions became more integrated in social and political power networks. This collected volume of essays focuses on one of the central figures in this process, the Irish ascetic exile and monastic founder, Columbanus (c. 550-615), his travels on the Continent, and the monastic network he and his Frankish disciples established in Merovingian Gaul and Lombard Italy.

The post-Roman kingdoms through which Columbanus travelled and established his monastic foundations were made up of many different communities of peoples. As an outsider and immigrant, how did Columbanus and his communities interact with these peoples? How did they negotiate differences and what emerged from these encounters? How societies interact with outsiders can reveal the inner workings and social norms of that culture. This volume aims to explore further the strands of this vibrant contact and to consider all of the geographical spheres in which Columbanus and his monastic communities operated (Ireland, Merovingian Gaul, Alamannia, Lombard Italy) and the varieties of communities he and his successors came in contact with - whether they be royal, ecclesiastic, aristocratic, or grass-roots.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559 by Steven Gunn, David Grummitt, Hans Cools

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War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559






Exploring the effects of war on state power in early modern Europe, this book asks if military competition increased rulers' power over their subjects and forged more modern states, or if the strains of war broke down political and administrative systems. Comparing England and the Netherlands in the age of warrior princes such as Henry VIII and Charles V, it examines the development of new military and fiscal institutions, and asks how mobilization for war changed political relationships throughout society.

Towns in England, such as Norwich, York, Exeter, and Rye, are compared with towns in the Netherlands, such as Antwerp, Leiden, 's-Hertogenbosch and Valenciennes, to see how the magistrates' relations with central government and the urban populace were modified by war. Great noblemen from the Howard and Percy families are set alongside their equivalents from the houses of Cro and Egmond to examine the role of recruitment, army command, and heroic reputation in maintaining noble power. The wider interactions of subjects and rulers in wartime are reviewed to measure how effectively war extended princes' claims on their subjects' loyalty and service, their ambitions to control news and opinion and to promote national identity, and their ability to manage the economy and harness religious change to dynastic purposes. 

The result is a compelling but nuanced picture of societies and polities tested and shaped by the pressures of ever more demanding warfare.

The Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c. 950–1356 by Guy Perry

The BriennesThe Briennes were a highly important aristocratic family who hailed from the Champagne region of north-eastern France, but whose reach and impact extended across Europe and into the Crusader States in the Middle East. It is a highly dramatic and wide-ranging story of medieval mobility, not only up and down the social ladder, but in geographical terms as well. Although the Briennes were one of the great dynasties of the central Middle Ages, this book represents the first comprehensive history of the family. Taking the form of parallel biographies and arranged broadly chronologically, it explores not only their rise, glory and fall, but also how they helped to shape the very nature of the emerging European state system. This book will appeal to students and scholars of medieval France, the Mediterranean world, the Crusades and the central Middle Ages.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review: Scottish Series by Clio Gray

Down in the coalmine, underneath the ground
Where a gleam of sunshine never can be found
Digging up the dusky diamonds all the seasons round
Deep down in the coalmine, underneath the ground


I came to this series after reading Gray's "Legacy of the Lynx" so was looking forward to a change of scenery - 1860s Scotland - a time of pivotal change in the Scottish Highlands. Poverty had always been one of the main reason for Scottish emigration. Two-thirds of the land is harsh – rocky, ill-drained, swept by rain-bearing winds off the Atlantic, and far from the centre of Mediterranean and European trade and culture. The first Scottish communities away from home were founded by traders.

In the 1800s, Scotland's population was on the decrease - until about 1855, when a vast number of the local population of the Highlands were forced to leave the land because of enforced evictions. In the Lowlands, emigration was almost always the outcome of wanting to improve one’s living standards. 

Scottish MysteriesThe eviction of Highlanders from their homes peaked in the 1840s and early 1850s as the Highland economy had collapsed, while the population still rose. When the earnings from kelp production and black cattle dried up, the landlords saw sheep as a more profitable alternative. The introduction of sheep meant the removal of people, and this become known as ‘the Clearances’. Combined with the prospect of starvation faced by much of the crofting population when the potato crop failed in the late 1830s and again in the late 1840s, emigration seemed the only option. 

The Emigration Act of 1851, however, made emigration more accessible to the poorest, with the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society set up to manage the process of resettlement. The Duke of Sutherland was one of a number of landlords who financed emigration schemes. The main exodus occurred in the islands, particularly Skye, Mull, the Long Island and the mainland parishes of the Inner Sound. After 1855, mass evictions were unusual and emigration became more a matter of choice than compulsion. Between 1855 and 1895 the decline in the Highland population was actually less than in the rural Lowlands. 


So a little bit about each of the books in the series and the historical background before I get down to the review. 

Book One: The Broro Murders (aka: Deadly Prospects) 
Deadly Prospects: A gripping historical thriller with a brilliant twist (Scottish Mysteries Book 1) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Sutherland, Scotland, and the Kildonan Gold Rush is in full swing. And then one of the panners is murdered, and strange scratchings left on stones where he is found. Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay are on hand to investigate the extent of the Gold Rush, and it falls to them to solve this murder, and the others that soon follow. 

Historical Background: 
Sutherland: isolated, remote, with rugged mountains, steep cliffs and deep fjords, dates from viking times. This was the home of the powerful and warlike Clan Mackay, and was considered relatively poor compared to rest of Scotland, with the majority of its people eking out a living from fishing. 

Sutherland is perhaps best known for the Highland Clearances, the eviction of tenants from their homes and/or associated farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries century by the landowners. Typically, this was to make way for large sheep farms (see above). The Sutherland Estate (consisting of about two thirds of the county) had the largest scale clearances that occurred in the Highlands, much of this being carried out in 1812, 1814 and 1819-20. In this last period (the largest of the three listed), 1,068 families were evicted: representing an estimated 5,400 people. This population was provided with resettlement in coastal areas, with employment available in fishing or other industries. However, many instead moved to farms in Caithness or left Scotland to emigrate to Canada, the US or Australia.

The Brora Mine was indeed owned by the Dukes of Sutherland up to 1873. Although the area was already being mined, this particular colliery came into existence (c.1810) as a result of a partnership between William Hughes, a mining engineer and William Young, lawyer and a sub factor of the Sutherland Estate (who became infamous for his part in the Clearances under Elizabeth, Countess & Duchess of Sutherland d.1839). Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including a distillery, the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea. It was, however, during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal. Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates. It all soon fell apart. The salt tax was abolished in 1823; its production then became unremunerative, and as coal was not in much demand among a people who were accustomed to, and could easily get, plenty of peat, the Brora works, after languishing for nearly five years with the 2nd Duke unwilling to sanction further expenses, were closed in 1828.

However, in 1872, the 3rd Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management. Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”. The colliery was managed by M.Crowe in 1893 before being leased to a Mr John Melville (c.1896). From this point, coal was mined for manufacturing purposes - specifically salt - and was eventually abandoned in 1975. It was the only Jurassic coal mine in Scotland and was never taken into state ownership. 

The Kildonan Gold Rush was a gold rush that occurred in the Strath of Kildonan, Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland in 1869. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1818 when a solitary nugget of gold weighing about ten pennyweights was found in the River Helmsdale. It is claimed a ring was made out of this and is in the possession of the Sutherland family. But when public interest was sparked following a newspaper announcement in 1868, a gold rush started. 

The credit for the discovery goes to Robert Nelson Gilchrist, a native of Kildonan, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given the permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River. Many of the prospectors were novices but a hard core of miners from Australia and America helped to provide some much-needed expertise in gold recovery. In April 1869, however, the Duke of Sutherland introduced a system of licenses which cost one pound per month for each claim measuring 40 square feet. In addition to this, the prospectors were expected to pay a royalty of 10% on all gold found; not surprisingly, much gold was never declared but was used in barter for food, tools and accommodation. Two small 'towns' had come into being. Baille an Or - a settlement of huts (shanty town) catering for over 600 prospectors - was established by the banks of the Kildonan Burn, and Carn na Buth (meaning Hill of the Tents) served the workers on the Suisgill Burn. Very soon a 'saloon' was added to the Town of Gold (Baille an Or) and provided meals and accommodation for the mining fraternity.

However, the falling price of gold coupled with diminishing levels of finds and better opportunities in the local herring fishery, meant numbers fell to around 50 by the autumn. The Duke was losing potential income from salmon fishermen and deer stalkers, so in December he announced that “all exploration for gold would cease with effect from 1 January 1870"; despite this, the lure of gold tempted several opportunists over the following years.


Book Two: Burning Secrets 
Burning Secrets: A gripping historical mystery (Scottish Mysteries Book 2) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Strontian, Scotland, a village on Ardnamurchan Peninsula, is inhabited by mining folk and crofters, eking out a living from the unforgiving land and turning a blind eye to the smugglers who plague the coast. But one man sets himself apart from the rest – Gustav Wengler, the owner of the mine and an eccentric mathematician, who isolates himself on Havengore Island with a collection of unexplained white monuments. His assistant Archie Louden acts as his only envoy to the outer world; however Archie never makes it home from an important mission to Copenhagen. 

Historical background: 
In 1830 sources write that "The village of Strontian is very pleasantly situated, directly at the head of Loch Sunart, the hills adjoining to which are crowned with beautiful and very thriving plantations. The Loch itself is here extremely picturesque ... In a neighbourhood civilized and populous it would speedily become a favourite retreat." 

In the 1830s, residents from Strontian and the surrounding area were among the first to use the "Bounty Scheme" to emigrate to Australia. The Brilliant, a Canadian-built ship, sailed from Tobermory to New South Wales in 1837 with 322 passengers, 105 of whom were from Ardnamurchan and Strontian. The Bounty Scheme, which ran from 1835 to 1841, was proposed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a way for Australian settlers to subsidise the emigration of skilled tradespeople from Britain. 

In the hills to the north of Strontian, lead was mined in the 18th century and in these mines the mineral strontianite was discovered, from which the element strontium was first isolated. The history of mining in the Strontian area dates to 1722. The first large-scale application of strontium was in the production of sugar from sugar beet. Although a crystallisation process using strontium hydroxide was patented by Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut in 1849, the large-scale introduction came with the improvement of the process in the early 1870s. The Strontian mine was abandoned by June 1889.


Book Three: Hidden Pasts 
Hidden Pasts: A gripping historical thriller (Scottish Mysteries Book 3) by [Gray, Clio]Hestan Island, marooned in the Solway Firth, is tethered to the mainland at low tide by a causeway called The Rack; Hestan was home to two men quietly living out their lives, until a boy is almost crushed to death in their tiny copper mine, when their shared past begins to unravel. Over at Balcary House, Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay arrive, and soon become involved in the affairs on Hestan, which in turn leads them back through the bloody wars of Crimea and the lands of the Tartars. 

Historical Background: 
The isle of Hestan lies at the mouth of Auchencairn Bay in the region of Dumfries and Galloway in the former county of Kirkcudbrightshire. A lighthouse was built on the eastern side of the island by Alan Stevenson in 1850, with a small cottage of the light-keeper. Other notable buildings in the are include Balcary Tower, built c. 1860, for the french mistress one one Colonel Johnstone when he was Laird of Auchencairn House, which itself was built around this time for Ivie Mackie, Lord Mayor of Manchester (1857 - 1860) - though I can find very little on any of these real-life characters! 

At certain conditions of low tide the island is accessible on foot as there is a natural causeway of shingle and mussels from Almorness Point to the northern tip of Hestan (known as The Rack). The island can also be reached on foot from Rockcliffe during the time of spring tides, but requires wading knee deep across the lowest parts of the river Urr out on the mudflats. 

At the southern tip of the island are the so-called “Daft Ann’s Steps”, a series of rocky outcrops that jut out into the sea and are permanently submerged. Apparently they take their name from a girl who lived in the nearby village of Auchencairn. She drowned while attempting to reach the mainland from the south end of the island via the “steps”, instead of using the longer but safer approach from the north. 

In the 18th century the island was used as a centre of smuggling activity, with goods being stored in the caves on the south west of the island where there was reputed to have been shelves cut into the rock. Balcary House, on the opposite shore, now Balcary Bay Hotel, was used by a firm of smugglers - the Mull of Galloway Smuggling Company (established by Messrs Thomas Clark, Hugh Crain and Matthew Quirk, and Englishman Richard Barton). These smugglers used its cellars to conceal their contraband (mainly salt) and was said to have been large enough to house 200 horses!. One of the more colourful local characters of this period was Johnnie Girr and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was the birthplace of one John Paul Jones, whose friends and enemies alike would accuse him of piracy!.

As Walter Scott observed: “Smuggling was almost universal in Scotland for people unaccustomed to imposts and regarding them as an unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties; made no scruples to elude them where it was possible to do so.” Solway Firth and Galloway is said to have provided some of the most active smuggling routes in the country, with the proximity to the English Border making it the stop-off of choice for those shifting illegal goods. Much of the contraband was stored on the Isle of Man - which was independent during the 18th Century - and brought in fast moving smuggling fleets to the Scottish mainland. The poet Robert Burns was amongst those trying to halt the free traders in the area after being appointed an excise man at Dumfries in 1791.

Now the mining theme for this outing is copper. Hestan has had copper mines on the eastern side of the island since the 1840s, though this could hardly be considered as a large-scale operation as the island itself measures approximately 460 by 270 metres. The copper mined from Hestan was shipped to Swansea.


The stories in Clio Gray's "Scottish Mysteries" are spread across both the Scandinavian world and northern Scotland. For centuries there were political links across the North Sea. The first Viking raid on Iona is thought to have taken part in 794, and much of the Hebrides and Caithness would come under Norse rule. Orkney and Shetland continued to be earldoms under Norway until 1468. This settlement resulted in the Scandinavian-derived Norn language being spoken on Orkney and Shetland until the 18th Century, and influencing the Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects to this day.

As RM Ballantyne in Erling the Bold (1869) says: "Yes, there is perhaps more of Norse blood in your veins than you wot of, reader, whether you be English or Scotch; for those sturdy sea rovers invaded our lands from north, south, east, and west many a time in days gone by, and held it in possession for centuries at a time, leaving a lasting and beneficial impress on our customs and characters. We have good reason to regard their memory with respect and gratitude, despite their faults and sins, for much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, of our intense love of freedom and fairplay, are pith, pluck, enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old Sea-kings of Norway!"

Each of the books feature a mining theme: coal and gold, strontium, copper; as well as links to events in the past. As we are taken on a journey over the northern parts of Scotland, what I appreciated in the all the books was the location map - for whilst I was familiar with a few of the place names, the maps help put things into perspective. 

The author makes use of the chapters to introduce characters that form part of the narrative - whether fleetingly or on a more permanent basis - so the setting of each scene is crafted before things begin to take off. I especially enjoyed the characters of Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay, trouble-shooters for the Pan-European Mining Company, who make a nice change from your standard fictional amateur investigator.

With each book, Gray tempts us - the reader - with a story peppered with well researched historical fact and a carefully woven plot, that like the dangerous quicksand of the Solway Firth mudflats, can suck the reader in unawares, escape being nigh on impossible.


further reading:
Scottish Mining website
Smugglers Britain
Scandinavian Scotland






The Sultan's Renegades by Tobias P. Graf

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The Sultans Renegades






The figure of the renegade - a European Christian or Jew who had converted to Islam and was now serving the Ottoman sultan - is omnipresent in all genres produced by those early modern Christian Europeans who wrote about the Ottoman Empire. As few contemporaries failed to remark, converts were disproportionately represented among those who governed, administered, and fought for the sultan. Unsurprisingly, therefore, renegades have attracted considerable attention from historians of Europe as well as students of European literature. Until very recently, however, Ottomanists have been surprisingly silent on the presence of Christian-European converts in the Ottoman military-administrative elite.

The Sultan's Renegades inserts these 'foreign' converts into the context of Ottoman elite life to reorient the discussion of these individuals away from the present focus on their exceptionality, towards a qualified appreciation of their place in the Ottoman imperial enterprise and the Empire's relations with its neighbours in Christian Europe. Drawing heavily on Central European sources, this study highlights the deep political, religious, and cultural entanglements between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe beyond the Mediterranean Basin as the 'shared world' par excellence. The existence of such trans-imperial subjects is not only symptomatic of the Empire's ability to attract and integrate people of a great diversity of backgrounds, it also illustrates the extent to which the Ottomans participated in processes of religious polarization usually considered typical of Christian Europe in this period. Nevertheless, Christian Europeans remained ambivalent about those they dismissed as apostates and traitors, frequently relying on them for support in the pursuit of familial and political interests.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Emotions in a Crusading Context, 1095-1291 by Stephen J. Spencer

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Emotions in a Crusading Context, 1095-1291






Emotions in a Crusading Context is the first book-length study of the emotional rhetoric of crusading. It investigates the ways in which a number of emotions and affective displays — primarily fear, anger, and weeping — were understood, represented, and utilized in twelfth- and thirteenth-century western narratives of the crusades, making use of a broad range of comparative material to gauge the distinctiveness of those texts: crusader letters, papal encyclicals, model sermons, chansons de geste, lyrics, and an array of theological and philosophical treatises. In addition to charting continuities and changes over time in the emotional landscape of crusading, this study identifies the underlying influences which shaped how medieval authors represented and used emotions; analyzes the passions crusade participants were expected to embrace and reject; and assesses whether the idea of crusading created a profoundly new set of attitudes towards emotions.

Emotions in a Crusading Context calls on scholars of the crusades to reject the traditional methodological approach of taking the emotional descriptions embedded within historical narratives as straightforward reflections of protagonists' lived feelings, and in so doing challenges the long historiographical tradition of reconstructing participants' beliefs and experiences from these texts. Within the history of emotions, Stephen J. Spencer demonstrates that, despite the ongoing drive to develop new methodologies for studying the emotional standards of the past, typified by experiments in 'neurohistory', the social constructionist (or cultural-historical) approach still has much to offer the historian of medieval emotions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

An English Varangian by Gabriel Stein

An English Varangian by [Stein, Gabriel ]An English Revenge:
The greatest battle lies within…
England is at war.
Edmund has fought the Normans all his life.

But as the rebellions fail, Edmund leaves England and eventually travels to Constantinople, where he joins the Byzantine Emperor's elite Varangian Guard.  Yet Edmund is at war with himself too, torn between his new life and his dreams of revenge against the Normans - of leading an army of battle-hardened Englishmen back home to restore an English King.  But not all will go according to plan. War - and revenge - always exacts a price.


An English King:
Constantinopolis. 1096.
Sometimes the enemy comes from within.

Edmund’s dream is to lead an army of battle-hardened warriors back home and expel the Normans from England.  But there are rumours of a new threat. Large hosts of armed Latins – westerners – are marching towards the city, brandishing the sign of the Cross. One of the Crusader leaders is Bohemond of Taranto.  England will have to wait, while Edmund is tasked by his Emperor with a delicate and dangerous assignment: find out if Bohemond is friend or enemy. And if he is an enemy – stop him.


An English Succession:
Constantinopolis. 1101.

With his adopted city threatened from both East and West, Edmund, an English warrior in the elite Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, faces plenty of combat. But he is getting old and he is feeling it.  When his Emperor tells Edmund that there is one last task for him, Edmund cannot refuse.  In the meantime, Edmund’s wife Irene is hiding something from him.   Once again, Edmund’s body and spirit will be tried to the utmost, with fate throwing up new challenges to the very end.


Monday, November 4, 2019

Review: Tomb for an Eagle by Lexie Conyngham

41883100. sy475 Sysnopsis: A man lies under the tawny earth, hands still clutching the knife that killed him. Thorfinn Sigurdarson, Earl of all Orkney and Caithness, has made a mistake, and he won’t let himself forget it. Now rumours have started in the Norse lands that he might be getting a second chance – but should he take it, when it means that dead men are walking?

Thorfinn Sigurdsson - Thorfinn the Mighty - was the youngest of the sons of Earl Sigurd "the Stout" Hlodvirsson, each of whom would also bear the title Earl of Orkney.  The inheritance was initially divided among the three older brothers as Thorfinn was said to have been only five years old at the time, then held the lands jointly with his nephew, Rögnvald Brusason.  Thorfinn had an exceptional pedigree being the grandson of Malcolm II of Scotland and the great-grandson of Thorfinn "Skull-Splitter".

The Heimskringla of Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, and the anonymous compiler of the Orkneyinga Saga wrote that Thorfinn was the most powerful of all the earls of Orkney and that he ruled substantial territories beyond the Northern Isles. A sizeable part of the latter saga's account concerns his wars with a "King of Scots" named Karl Hundason whose identity is uncertain. In his later years he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and he was instrumental in making Orkney and Shetland part of mainstream Christendom. On his death in the latter half of the 11th century (the actual date still in dispute even today), his sons inherited.  Thorfinn was buried in the grounds of the Christchurch he built at Birsay, on Orkney, since replaced by St Magnus Church.

Our story is set after Thorfinn's pilgramage to Rome (1048) and at a time when Birsay was undergoing a bit of a construction boom. The Orkneyinga saga suggests that, as a result of Thorfinn's request, the first Bishop of Orkney - possibly Thorulf - was appointed at about this time (c.1035) - even these dates don't marry up!. The original seat of the bishops of Orkney was Thorfinn's new Christ Kirk at Birsay, (or perhaps the Brough of Birsay), near the Earl's palace where Thorfinn had his residence in his later years. Much about Thorfinn and his reign is rather ambiguous.

This period in history, of which I consider myself to be fairly widely and well read, should have provided the perfect backdrop for murder and skullduggery, with a plethora of characters to choose from for both perpetrator and victim.  However, the story was so slow to start that it really did fail to capture my full attention, and the characters themselves felt flat, almost but not quite, one dimensional.  I skipped through pages, hoping that - when the body is found - that things would pick up; sadly they did not.

For me, I would rather take on the real man; though I applaud the author for taking on a larger than life character and choosing a different period in time in which to set their story. There is a book two (see below for details), however, I won't be pursuing this series.


A Wolf at the Gate:
Ketil had not intended to return to Orkney, but when you work for Thorfinn Sigurdarson, you obey orders. Thorfinn wants him back to help with a visiting Abbot from Saxony, escorted by an old colleague of Ketil's. Then people who know the Abbot start dying, and Ketil must once again work with his friend Sigrid to find out why - and to face dark memories from his own past.This is the second in the Orkneyinga Murders series.


further reading
Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, trans Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul Geoffrey
Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, trans Lee M. Hollander 
Thorfinn the Mighty: The Ultimate Viking by George M. Brunsden

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review: Russia's Women Snipers


I have lately read two compelling books on two very different, and yet very similar, women who voluntarily entered into military service for their country.

The first "Lady Death" is the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of over 2000 female snipers, yet one of the more well-known names with 309 recorded kills, including 29 enemy sniper kills, to her name. After being "retired" from active duty, she visited the USA and UK, before returning to train other snipers.

So, a little more about Lyudmila: born in today's Ukraine, Lyudmilia had an affinity with athletics and sports, and was a sharp shooter from an early age. She married at the tender age of 16, had one child, before divorcing her husband. Entering university, studying history and competing in athletics. Following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Lyudmila signed on to join the infantry in Odessa, eventually being assigned to the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division due to her skill with the rifle. She fought in Odessa, Crimea, racking up the confirmed kills. Wounded after only a year in combat, she became the poster-girl of the Red Army's propaganda machine. Touring the USA, she famously responded to reporters by saying: "... In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.” and that "“our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war ..."  Highly decorated and achieving the rank of major, she trained other snipers until the end of the war, returning to finish her education and work as an historian. Suffering what is now documented as post traumatic stress disorder, Pavlichenko also had to deal with the rumours the rumor that she was nothing more than a propaganda myth actually started within the Soviet armed forces. There is the possibility that Pavlichenko’s own account of her time at the front may have been doctored by Soviet military censors — a very common occurrence at the time — there is no doubting that the woman herself was “the real deal.”  She died aged 58yo.


Because of chronic problems in finding the manpower to fulfill military and industrial tasks, the Soviet government recruited some 7.75 million women, not just to support the soldiers but to join the fight. Around a million women fought in various branches of the Soviet military. Some nursed and supported, as in other countries, but others drove tanks, operated machine guns, and flew fighter planes. Between 1941–1945, it was estimated that a total of 2,484 Soviet female snipers were functioning in this role, between then, credited with more than 12,000 confirmed kills, and of whom about 500 survived the war.

Joining up as a sniper was a strange experience for many women. Though the Soviet army as an institution accepted them, some individuals did not. Families urged their daughters to stay safely at home rather than to fight. Some officers looked down upon the women under their command, not believing that they could be effective combatants. But others were supportive, especially after they saw these women in action.

At recruiting offices, women had theirs braids cut off and were put into men’s uniforms, as there were none tailored to fit women. Then they were sent off to train. Some were specially selected for sniping because they demonstrated a skill. In other cases, this was simply the most convenient place to send them. Training was intense but also hurried. The USSR needed to get troops to the front to counter the German invasion. The women trained as snipers soon found themselves on the front, often hunting their prey amid cities ruined by siege. It was believed that women made the perfect sniper because they could endure stress and cold better than men, and they had “more patience” to wait for the perfect shot.

Snipers usually worked in pairs. Together, they found a place to hide away from the main Soviet forces. There they lay concealed by scenery and camouflage, watching for an opportunity. When an enemy presented himself, they would try to take him down with a single shot to the head. Then they would wait patiently again for their next target, silent and still, or move on if they believed they were in danger. 


As mentioned, Lyudmilia was one of many. Anorther who survived, yet was not as famous as Lyudmilia, was Yulia Zhukova, whose memoirs come to us in "Girl with a Sniper Rifle".

Front CoverYulia's story is slightly different in that she was no sharp-shooter prior to enlisting, which she saw as her patriotic duty. A sickly child who worked in the local factory to support the war effort, she was determined to contribute more. She was dedicated member of the Komsomol (the Soviet communist youth organization) and her parents worked for the NKVD. Completing her training at the central Women's Sniper School, by the time Yulia saw active service in East Prussia and Poland in 1944, female snipers were not unusual. Wounded, she returned to combat until the war ended. Unlike Lyudmilia, she was not a poster-girl for the Russians, but returned to her village and life, struggling to deal with and accept her part in the war; acceptance did not come until much later in life.


Both memoirs are highly readable offering a different yet similar view of their experiences - we often comment that fact is sometimes more enthralling than fiction.  Pavlichenko, the historian, would take a more academic approach, supplementing her diary with historical research; whilst Zhukova relied on memory, letters (that escaped being destroyed as she tried to forget her past) and remembrances of her fellow cadets. Both women were dedicated in their commitment to both Russia and the Russian war effort - "... dying for the motherland was considered a worthwhile sacrifice ...".  It is hoped that readers will discover, through both works, the comradery, strength of spirit, unflinching loyalty that these two women - and the many others like them - displayed in the face of the terror of war.  How many readers are left wondering whether or not they could do the same.



further reading:
Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 by Lyuba Vinogradova
Soviet Women Snipers: of the Second World War by Youri Obratztsov
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana AlexievichHeroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45 by Henry Sakaida
Roza Shanina Russian Sniper by Robert Corrigan
Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front by Anna Krylova