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The Italian sixteenth century offers the first sustained discussion of women’s militarism since antiquity. Across a variety of genres, male and female writers raised questions about women’s right and ability to fight in combat. Treatise literature engaged scientific, religious, and cultural discourses about women’s virtues, while epic poetry and biographical literature famously featured examples of women as soldiers, commanders, observers, and victims of war.
Moral Combat asks how and why women’s militarism became one of the central discourses of this age. Gerry Milligan discusses the armed heroines of biography and epic within the context of contemporary debates over women’s combat abilities and men’s martial obligations. Women are frequently described as fighting because men have failed their masculine duty. A woman’s prowess at arms was asserted to be a cultural symptom of men’s shortcomings. Moral Combat ultimately argues that the popularity of the warrior woman in sixteenth-century Italian literature was due to her dual function of shame and praise: calling men to action and signaling potential victory to a disempowered people.