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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army

Cardoza, Thomas. Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010. 295 pages. ISBN# 9780253354518. Hardcover. $39.95.

Thomas Cardoza’s study, along with John A. Lynn’s Women, Armies and Warfare in Early modern Europe (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) continues a welcome new field with his work on the functional contribution of women, serving as professional auxiliaries with the French armies – wine/water canteen carriers (cantinières), laundresses (blanchisseuses) and petty merchants (vivandières).  Following their history since the early reign of Louis XIV and up until the Third Republic suppressed them in 1906, Cardoza, presents a colorful spectrum of women of various background and social strata serving and fighting on many fronts, while offering their fellow soldiers comfort, love and moral support along with necessary campaign and bivouac’s daily assistance.  Because these women’s activities appear in major movements throughout the French history, this monograph is equally important for scholars of “traditional” (operational) military history as well as for those who are in search of novices in women and gender’s scholarships.

Being a student of Gunter Rothenberg and holding a master’s degree in military history from Purdue University, Cardoza accumulated in his monograph the best historical knowledge in such a pioneering research, embracing over 300 years of cantinières and vivandières history who served in the French armies.  The author had chosen a disciplined chronological approach in which each chapter is devoted to a fixed historical period while at the same time provides the gradual development of women’s service throughout centuries.  Thus, at the beginning of his venture, Cardoza states that for the first vivandières in the Royal army, their service was by all means “an uncertain experience” for many of them emerged as assistants/legitimate wives of the civilian contractors, attached to various units who later remarried fellow soldiers.  As a result, many of them, such as Marguerite Pisetky, were attached by the corporative ties to their very unit (such as the Esterhazy Hussars) where her three sons became troopers.  War Ministry recognized the indispensable nature of female sutlers, but only the French Revolution of 1789 made them an “absolutely necessary” component in the French armies.  When the entire country was on the move, the National Convention issued a law of 30 April 1793, by which vivandières “held their posts on their own, not through their husbands, and this fruit of the Revolution lasted throughout the next century, even while France denied civilian women property rights and equality with men” (33).  Some of them were following their husbands, as before, but many joined the Revolutionary armies in the hope for a quick profit or war booty and some in a search of adventure.

The situation has changed with Napoléon’s accession to power in 1799 – and beyond – which presented, as Cardoza puts it, “expanded opportunities” for women auxiliaries.   The future Emperor of the French was no totalitarian ruler, and most convincing proof lies in his belief in the law, when he considered legislation the most necessary activity of the government.  One law of importance to blanchisseuses and vivandières, was the law of 26 July 1800, which resonated with that of 1793, permitting a fixed number of this women unit per military formation (four per infantry battalion, two per cavalry squadron).  This generally resembled earlier Royal ordinances and Napoléon’s military administrators, including Pierre Daru, outlined this and other similar provisions (lodging and admittance to the hospital), in their further project of the Military Code.  Napoleonic era is mostly known for its military campaign ardor, and Cardoza supplements his narrative with the colorful pictures of the French women – cumulatively referred as cantinières (since 1807, when Napoléon militarized civil contractors) fighting alongside their men from the Rhine to Andalusia and to Moscow. However, their role in the last stage of the Napoleonic wars, that is, 1813-14, with the exception of several notorious biographies, such as that of Madeleine Kintelberger who served with her unit since 1805, seems rather limited, and such a lacuna could be explained partly by the lack of the archival documentation and simple loses among many women auxiliaries during the previous campaign, especially in 1812 Russian invasion.

Becoming again a “useful and necessary” under the Restoration and constructional monarchies, cantinières received few promotions to their status.  First, Cardoza examines the law of 14 April 1832, which recognized “the right of all army wives to find employment with the army” which, although debatable toward its practical consideration, nonetheless shows the intention of a new government for ground-breaking reforms (113).  Second – it was the era when cantinières began wearing their first regulated uniform.  But, as the author argues, even though they were organized on the better professional way, cantinières continued to remain civilian personnel in the military ranks.

Modernization and industrialization during the Second Empire brought up the “golden age” of the cantinières and was a pivotal moment reflected in Cardoza’s book.  It could be agreed upon that the 1850s and 1860s made an image of a new family within the French society – both civil and the military.  During this period, the supplies and provision became more regulars to procure, and since the French soldiers fought in Africa, the Crimea, Italy,  Latin America and other exotic places, cantinières displayed an image of a companion, a comrade-in-arms, rather than a sutler burdened by the petty merchandise and children, as it often appeared in the past  They were popularized by the artists, painters and appearance of the first photographs; but the absence of military laws, regulating cantinières still gave them a “second-class” status within the ranks.  On the other hand, it was the period when the enormous amount of memoires emerged from the elderly veterans of the Napoleonic wars, 1805-15, which built a bridge between two empires, but this conjunction the book somewhat lacking.

On the early stage of the Third Republic the French government tried to comeback in professionalizing of the cantinières service, which was interrupted by the disastrous Franco-Prussian war and the events of the Paris Commune, 1870-71.  However, these attempts as Cardoza argues, soon fail victims of an explicit police surveillance and extreme politisation of the new army along with modern trends and approaches, which at the end led to their elimination by 1906.  The twentieth century presented far more opportunities for women then the life in the barracks and prior to the Great War practically all cantinières passed into the oblivion.

To sum up note that throughout the centuries, because of their tough and dangerous lifestyle, many of those cantinières and vivandières took on some masculine qualities, although at the same time still trying to preserve their feminist nature, charm and passion.  They marched along their men, took part in many pitched battles all over the Europe – and overseas – they fed, married and comfort soldiers, bravely fought, when compelled to, received wounds, and dismissed when not needed.  The hall of fame of the French army lists many of their names, but only Marie Jarrethout, became the first and only cantinière to be awarded, in 1880, the highest decoration of France – the Cross of the Legion of Honor (172).    

Overall, Thomas Cardoza paints a rich, colorful picture of the making up, the development and the sunset of women’s live in the French armies.  His monograph, written in live, vivid language, which in every detail echoes with the past, continues to uncover new fragments of another side of “traditional” military history – stories of these intrepid women – which researchers and historians must now integrate into their study of the modern European history.   


Reviewed by Eman M. Vovsi
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2013