I doubt it is necessary to quote examples to prove that, (as in other periods of history, unfortunately), conquering armies in Medieval and Early Modern times, say circa 500 AD – 1700, sometimes committed rape. This question is not when wartime rape actually happened but about writings of the time showing society’s attitudes to it, so fictional literature of the time as well as historical and other factual works are relevant.

In Shakespeare’s play ‘Henry V’, written in the sixteenth century depicting historical events from the fifteenth century. In Act 3, Scene 3, King Henry, who is supposed to be the hero of the play, so his attitude is probably meant to be acceptable for the time, pursuing a claim to the Crown of France, is besieging the town of Harfleur. He warns the citizens to surrender while his army is still under his discipline. Otherwise, if his men have to go through the dangers of fighting their way into the fortified town they will no longer be in any mood to be controlled and Henry cannot be responsible for what they do:

What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause, If your pure maidens fall into the hand Of hot and forcing violation? What rein can hold licentious wickedness When down the hill he holds his fierce career?

… in a moment look to see The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters…

At this, the citizens surrender, and Henry orders ‘Use mercy to them all’

I take this to show Henry (and presumably therefore Shakespeare and his audience):

  • do not approve of it, but regard it as impossible to prevent, that the English army, forced to capture the town by storm, and probably having been away from women for a long time, will run amok and among other crimes rape many of the French girls there.

  • would if militarily necessary order the storming of Harfleur knowing that this will happen, and to use the threat of it to make the townsmen surrender.

-Henry suggests that if that happens it will not be his fault but the leading citizens’, for not having the sense to surrender. However, probably even by the standards of those days, it would be a very rough justice for Harfleur’s virgins to suffer rape as punishment for the folly of their fathers.

Were these the general attitudes? Did other Medieval / Early Modern writers e.g. condemning wartime rape, calling for it to be prevented / punished, even condoning or excusing it?

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartime_sexual_violence#Pre-modern_era has some pertinent information, though it's not fully sourced. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 15:28
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    You must not forget that this is Henry threatening Harfleur. He wants them to be so terrified that they surrender. Which casts some doubt on your conclusions.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 16:00
  • Reply to DevSolar- true, Henry's speech is made for a purpose, to frighten the town's leaders into surrender, so the many cruelties Henry says must occur if his army sack Harfleur may be exaggerated. I did not mention that in my question as the question was already long. On the other hand for his threats of what would happen to be effective they needed to be believable according to what happened in war at the time, and the part I quote is not even the worst of it.
    – Timothy
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 17:25
  • Further comment arising from DevSolar's. Also for reasons of space my question did not mention a brief reference in C17 female writer Aphra Behn's play 'The Rover' in which the heroine, an attractive young Spanish gentlewoman, praises an English officer serving in the French army for protecting her from 'the licensed lust of common soldiers' when the French capture Pamplona. The heroine expresses no surprise at the conquerors' behaviour, only relief that she personally is protected from it.
    – Timothy
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 17:44
  • @Timothy: Writing a username with a @ in front of it makes StackExchange generate a notification for that user.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


Your question mentions references in Shakespeare. The other work I know of from before 1800 that mentions it a fair bit is Voltaire's Candide. It is mostly a satirical send-up of the philosophy that this is "the best of all possible worlds". But in the process of burning that idea to cinders, war rape is invoked at least twice that I can remember. I believe the phrase that was used was "fulfilling the natural urges of soldiers", the implication being that this phrase was being used to justify it.

Given that this was a satire of those views, I think its quite fair to say that Voltaire (and presumably his intended audience) viewed it as an endemic evil in the world, along with the various murders, starvations, slavery, mutilations, etc. that were related in that story.


The History of England Podcast has a section where he summarizes the rules of war, and I'd recommend it in the context of this question.

Briefly, sieges were painful for both sides, so the besieging force made dire threats. The defending force could surrender and be treated lightly, or could resist in which case the besieger would up the threat level to as high as possible.

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