There are a few books out there on women’s roles in the armies of the past, but not so many that a new book on the scene does not make me happy. Last year when I came across Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army, by Thomas Cardoza I read what I could of the preview on Amazon, then I put it on my wishlist. After a year of waiting for it, I bought it as a birthday gift for myself. I’m so glad that I did! Cardoza has scoured the primary sources for women of the French army. He has not depended on old secondary sources, nor has he given full credence to the accounts written by the detractors of the Cantinieres and Vivandieres. The stories he tells, and the lives he portrays are rich and real. Even if France is not your area, even if the timeperiod covered in Intrepid Women is not your focus, I highly recommend this book.
Intrepid Women follows the official female participants in army life (but touches on the unofficial too) from the 17th century, through the French Revolution, Napoleon, all the way to World War I. Women played an important role in most early armies especially when it came to provisioning the new professional armies of Europe. Women acted in official capacities in the French army as laundresses, keeping the army clothed, and as sutlers keeping the army fed far from their home turf. Wives of soldiers were given leave to gather supplies in the countryside whether by purchase or pillage, then to follow the army with pack animals or wagons from which they would dispense hot meals and alcohol to soldiers who were often not provided with rations and were not allowed to leave the confines of camp. These women not only provided food; their wagons often held army baggage, they provided shelter when the men were not given tents, they provided companionship, children to work in the army, and even fighters when threatened. Though often a source of tension, drama, and discomfort to army officials, the women of a unit were often a cohesive force, something for the troops to rally around when threatened, and relax around when hard pressed by their environment.
In Intrepid Women Cardoza tells some great stories like this delightful one of “the Cossack who tried to rob the cantinere of the Neuchatel Battalion when she fell behind the column after the Battle of Leipzig. Sensing easy prey, the Cossack approached, whereupon the cantinere ‘produced her pistol and shot him out of the saddle. She rejoined the battalion mounted on the Cossack’s horse, to the applause of all the column.’” What a telling account! Not only did the cantinieres travel at the back of their units, they were also often heavily burdened and not as fast moving as the soldiers. But the thing about being surrounded by soldiers all day is that you often learn how to use weapons, almost by default. And when selling to those soldiers I imagine that coin is sometimes scarce, but weapons can be found in abundance. With all the men armed, I am not surprised that the women of the army were armed too.
Cardoza also takes the time to tackle questions about sex and prostitution: “Like the extent of their marital devotion, cantiniere’s sexual habits during this period are difficult if not impossible to accurately assess from surviving sources.” I like that Cardoza is being so honest, and not depending on sources he can not verify. He does go on: “Clearly they were not celibate. They were all married, legitimately or otherwise, and the large number of children they bore attest to their sexual activity. Less easily answered are questions about the extent of their sexual relations outside marriage. Captain Elzear Blaze hinted that pretty cantinieres slept with virtually everyone in their unit, but offered no evidence….There may indeed have been cantinieres who moved from man to man, as well as cantinieres who ran prostitution rings, but no verifiable records remain of either their existence or suppression.”
Even with the lack of records, Cardoza tells a compelling story across hundreds of years about a type of woman very far outside of the norm.
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