The figure of the soldier: Early Modern Military Identities, 1560-1639

How did early modern fighting men perceive themselves? What was the relationship between a soldier and contemporary conceptions of masculinity, honour, and nobility? Matthew Woodcock, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, is the co-editor of Early Modern Military Identities, 1560-1639: Reality and Representation, now available from D.S Brewer. In this article for Proofed, he recounts his quest for the figure of the early modern soldier, an integral part of the period’s military history, who has been previously neglected in scholarship.

Our essay collection on early modern military identities emerged initially from a conference on this topic held at University College Cork in August 2015, organised by Dr Cian O’Mahony. Bringing together speakers working on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Ireland, and welcoming both historians and literary scholars, the conference formed the basis for a much wider investigation into soldiery, soldiers, and perceptions of the profession of arms in the period. Tudor and Stuart military history has for some time tended to be absorbed with large-scale questions about developments in battles, tactics, and technologies, and in the when, where, and why of ongoing debates concerning the early modern military revolution. Our approach in designing the essay collection has been different since the focus instead is upon the smallest, yet essential element of early modern military history: the figure of the soldier. That might seem an odd thing to propose—military history is full of soldiers, after all—but there has been far less critical attention paid to contemporary perceptions of what it meant to be a soldier, to those who consciously fashioned themselves in martial roles, and to the distinction between citizen and military identity. Indeed, throughout the period 1560-1639 covered by our book—which runs broadly from the first campaign of Elizabeth I’s reign through to the First Bishops’ War and eve of the British Civil Wars—the ontological instability of the early modern soldier remained a pressing issue.


Jacques de Gheyn II, Soldier, armed with broadsword and shield, 1587, reproduced with permission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In an era before the advent of standing armies in Britain, yet an era too that saw sustained periods of warfare in France, the Low Countries, Ireland, and Germany—there were a variety of ways in which fighting men conceived of military activity: as an obligation of noble rank; as a vocation; as a profession; and perhaps also as an art—as a body of knowledge that could learned, perfected, and discoursed upon. Those who undertook military activity and adopted one or other of these roles were often working with a number of different traditions or models in mind, be it those drawing on medieval chivalric discourse or those based on formative classical authorities such as Julius Caesar or Vegetius. Many essays in our collection respond to the fact that military identity in this period was often closely bound up not only with class-based expectations and obligations but with constructions of national, regional, confessional, and familial communities. Contributors to the collection respond to how identity can be fluid, shifting, and conditioned by environment, and so we were keen to ensure—not least when deciding on the book’s title—that we spoke of military identities identities in the plural. This is demonstrated in the middle portion of the volume by the range of different perspectives from which military identity was constructed in Ireland during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603) by both the Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Irish or ‘Old English’ lordships, and by ‘New’ English colonists and soldiers.

As our title also indicates, the issue of how soldiers presented and represented themselves, and how they were represented by others, remained a live concern throughout the period. As Adam McKeown, Andrew Hiscock, Vimala Pasupathi and Benjamin Armintor explore in their essays, the soldier was a regular presence on the public stage and in civic pageantry. Soldiers also occupied ‘civilian’ spaces in other ways and the figure of the demobilised or wounded soldier was a common sight throughout this period. But what was a soldier when they were not fighting or, indeed, when no longer able to fight? As several essays in the collection show, military identity is a productive concept to think with when studying disabilities and their representation in the early modern period.

As we continued to find when editing this collection, military identity is an immensely engaging concept to think with alongside a range of established and emerging fields of study. Indeed, one of the challenges we encountered when assembling the book was just how broad our topic proved to be. One area of particular interest for further exploration is the degree to which military identity and its representation may be gendered. D.J.B. Trim’s essay in the collection examines at length the links between masculinity and military identity. I’m interested too in female models, archetypes, and living exemplars of military identity, and am looking ahead at how to reconcile literary representations of martial heroines in Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser and others with the actual realities of early modern warfare. By the same token, the Roman goddess Minerva was viewed as just as significant and potent a deity of war in this period as the god Mars, though how this kind of matronal martial identity was applied to contemporary practitioners of war warrants further study.

Jacob Goltzius II, Minerva omgeven door krijgers (‘Minerva surrounded by warriors’), 1597, © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The Way Ahead 1944 Trailer

Short of immediately devising a subsequent volume or follow-up conference, in the book’s afterword, entitled ‘The Way Ahead’, we tried to map out where subsequent scholars might go in further investigations of military identity. This section should probably be called the ways ahead but is purposively named to echo the title of a 1944 war film (directed by Carol Reed and written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov) that centres on a group of British conscripted soldiers and their transition into military life during deployment in North Africa. The film has a lot to say about regimental identity—a configuration of military identity that began to be contemplated and articulated in earnest during our period—and it closes wryly with the optimistic title-card ‘The Beginning’ (rather than ‘The End’). Our book’s afterword and the essay collection as a whole, are presented to scholars of early modern history and literature in a similarly forward-looking and enabling spirit.


This guest post is written by Matthew Woodcock, a Professor of Medieval and Early Modern Literature, University of East Anglia. He co-edited the essay collection Early Modern Military Identities, 1560-1639: Reality and Representation (D. S. Brewer, 2019) with Cian O’Mahony.

Early Modern Military Identities, 1560-1639
Edited by Matthew Woodcock & Cian O’Mahony
Hardback, 9781843845324, £39 or $64.35