Stripped bodies on the battlefield

I’m trying to finish up one of my main projects this semester (the West Point military art textbook), and have come across yet another example of the dead (and wounded) on early modern battlefields.

In a few near-contemporary paintings illustrating field battles during the War of the Spanish Succession (when else), there are several very prominent dead bodies, stripped naked. I want to use one (of the paintings, not the dead bodies) in my chapter, but will undoubtedly need to explain in the caption why those naked bodies are there.

Here’s one of Ramillies:

Ramillies pursuit (Laguerre)

Ramillies pursuit (Laguerre)

Note the dead bodies (at least partially stripped) in the foreground right and the proximate sword and pistol play around the tree. The (presumably dead) body with arms sprawled ‘up’ appears to be totally naked, his privates shielded from view by a conveniently-placed bush. Presumably the other victim’s blue pants link him to one of his still-living compatriots fleeing for his own life, sans shoes or any other accoutrements. I’ve heard of throwing down your weapons and equipment to flee, but that’s a bit much.

Here’s one from Malplaquet, perhaps giving a little more insight:



Notice on the left how a female camp follower is taking the shirt off of a wounded/dead soldier with some combat in the background.  I knew that the wounded/dead were often stripped after the battle; I guess I didn’t appreciate how quickly such wealth was redistributed. The early bird… I guess.

Finally, another from Malplaquet:

Malplaquet battle

Malplaquet battle

This last one is a bit more surprising to me, given how close the dead bodies (center left) are to the fighting. If accurate and not simply an artistic convention, it suggests the possibility that stripping the dead might have happened even in the midst of combat, presumably by soldiers.

Is that likely? Or is there some other explanation? There is clearly some significant fighting going on around it, which makes one think it isn’t the mop up phase of the battle, unless there was a lull and then a return to fighting. Perhaps it’s noteworthy that there appears to be a soldier over the bodies and not a female camp follower? Perhaps the wooded terrain of Malplaquet made it easier for people to avoid the heaviest fighting yet still claim their prizes?

Any thoughts, examples or parallels? If anyone has access to those expensive books on war in early modern art, they might give some guidance too.

Come with me
Into the trees
We’ll lay on the grass
And let the hours pass...


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13 responses to “Stripped bodies on the battlefield”

  1. Mark says :

    Wow that really hits home. I wonder what contrast there must be with, say, the First World War? Such behaviour would have been sacrilege there I think. Hmm, sorry, not sure why that came to me – anyway, thanks for the post!

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    While I can’t attest to the accuracy of the paintings, the concept is not that far fetched considering the minimal-at-best logistic services of the times – Valley Forge, the French Army of Italy during the revolution, even Confederates stumbling into a battle while hunting shoes at Gettysburg all come to mind as examples of poorly supplied troops reduced to rags. The battle of Eutaw Springs during the American Revolution is an example of a battle lost because troops turned to looting before sealing the deal. A twist on that theme is the Battle of Tours where Moorish troops left the fight to try to safeguard loot they had previously taken, leading to their defeat.

    • jostwald says :

      Good points – warnings against pillaging baggage trains were a frequent trope in the treatises. I half wonder if some of those troops getting shot were caught looting by their own officers before the ‘job at hand was done.’ Makes you wonder about the exact purpose/creation of the paintings – were they meant to evoke a general sense of the chaos of the battlefield that the artist may have gotten from reading various battlefield accounts, or from tropes about looting, etc.? Would an eyewitness (or patron) actually tell the artist what kinds of details they wanted in the painting? Not sure whether too many paintings have that kind of documentation though.

  3. Wayne Lee says :

    My research suggests that looting of the battlefield dead was the norm throughout the medieval and early modern period. It was considered fully legitimate, and not a crime at all (although commanders might decry the distraction issue, and punishments were meted out on that basis). Various treatises on laws of war from the period acknowledge the soldiers’ right to do so. Furthermore, it’s key to remember that this wasn’t just about logistical failure: pre-1760s, clothes were amongst one’s most valuable possessions (for anyone outside the nobility). Indeed, to “turn someone out of doors naked” was a standard trope of violating the rules (meaning to deprive a civilian family found in a home of their clothes and send them packing).

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the context. I guess the clothes must be worth something if they’re taken despite having been through the blood, grime and penetration of battle. I wouldn’t have thought the soldier’s cheap, used uniform would be worth much (assuming the stripped dead aren’t officers/noble volunteers), but I suppose that’s what shoddy mills are for.
      Said research published?

      • Wayne Lee says :

        I comment on the battlefield plundering issue in Barbarians (vic p. 188) providing the cites to a wider discussion in Grotius and Vattel. (there is a lot of worry there about dividing up plunder between the state and the individual, so there is actually a lot of text on this in those works). But I don’t dwell on the details. As for the value of clothing, that’s sometihng I’ve picked up on by working in probate records from 17th and 18th century North America (and is attested in social histories of medieval and early modern England (e.g. Dyer’s book)

      • jostwald says :

        Thanks. Those legal treatises are reeeaaaallly long and have lots of interesting details. I hope to get a lot of those digitized in the near future for easy searching. I think Grotius and Vattel are probably already digitized.
        I remember clothing as a wealth reservoir from a Tudor/Stuart course back in grad school (as well as an explanation for why landsknechts would split their sleeves, so they could fit several shirts underneath), so it must be pretty well established in the literature by now.

  4. Susan Johnson says :

    Battle of Edgehill, 1642:
    When Charles I by reason of the tumults left London, he [Dr. William Harvey] attended him, and was at the fight of Edgehill with him; and during the fight, the Prince and Duke of York were committed to his [Harvey’s] care: he told me that he withdrew with them under a hedge, and took out of his pocket a book and read; but he had not read very long before a bullet of a great gun grazed on the ground near him, which made him remove his station. He told me that Sir Adrian Scrope was dangerously wounded there, and left for dead amongst the dead men, stript; which happened to be the saving of his life. It was cold, cleer weather, and a frost that night; which staunched his bleeding, and about midnight, or some hours after his hurt, he awaked, and was fain to draw a dead body upon him for warmth-sake.

    I recall seeing this story before on another site … it sounds as if it were standard procedure, perhaps to check if people were actually dead.

  5. jostwald says :

    Regarding plundering troops in the heat of combat, the instructions for storming the counterscarp at Lille in 1708 included a warning that plundering or stripping the dead or wounded would be punished with death, with permission given to kill such ‘unfortunates’ on the spot (Add MSS 61245, f. 131).

  6. jostwald says :

    According to English newspaper reports (e.g. The Post Boy, 9-10 September 1709), it looks like those killed on the bloody battlefield of Malplaquet were buried somewhere nearby. Not a surprise given how many died there.

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