Thursday, June 21, 2012

Napoleonic Women: Cantinières, Vivandières and Blanchisseuses

By Andrew Thorpe

The original cantinières and vivandières were rarely anything like those featured in the happy refrains of Donizetti’s ‘La Fille du régiment’. Rather these real life women were as hard-bitten and tough as their men folk. They had to be! Life was extremely harsh for a camp follower, yet they too have their place in history alongside all the glamour and sophistication of the better-known noble ladies such as Pauline Bonaparte, Marie Wolejska and Madame de Stael.
The cantinières and vivandières were from the large underclass of women, the same peasant or ‘working class’ stock, who worked alongside the men folk in most occupations on the land, in the new factories, even in the mines where women would often haul the coal trucks to the surface. The vivandière instead would use her wits to try to secure a decent living, selling anything - sometimes including herself to survive. Successful vivandières and cantinières would often graduate to owning their own cart or wagon and team, filled with all kinds of goods including liquor and tobacco.
Many became greatly loved or demonstrated the greatest courage, such as one cantinière of the Garde known as Marie Tête-de-Bois, who featured in many memoirs. She would walk through the ranks of the Grenadiers a Pied dispensing tobacco and brandy, prior to battle saying, when asked, ‘pay me later’, knowing full well that many would die.
This closeness to their boys would often be further expressed by the cantinière or vivandière ‘marrying’ a soldier (this would also ensure that she and her stock would be far safer). These ‘marriages’ were usually a folk marriage with vows exchanged in the field in a simple ceremony, with many women repeating this several times over as each ‘husband’ met his fate. Often as a result of marriage she would be then encumbered with a child. Sergeant Bourgoyne recounts in his memoirs how one vivandière - Madame Dubois - gave birth in the Russian campaign only for her and her new born infant to perish from a combination of the cold and malnutrition.
As to dress, the First Empire cantinière was informally dressed in typical costume of the period and occasionally with extra items from the regiment such as an old jacket. It is with the arrival of the Second Empire that the cantinières were issued with a uniform. Typical dress in the First Empire would comprise a hat - usually decorated with feathers and bows, a dress with apron, often a jacket, shawl, or cloak and stout boots.

A semi official badge of office was the keg of brandy - often with small tin or copper cups, and a bag for tobacco and spare pipes. The main difference between the cantinière and vivandière was that there (supposedly) was only one cantinière in the regiment. She would operate from her own ‘tent’ (virtually a canteen or Napoleonic NAAFI) offering a cheap bar and refreshments. The vivandières were slightly more informal, plying their trade possibly just to the members of one company or alternatively to all comers-though. Unlike the cantinière she would not own a canteen. However both would first have had to buy a license from the police to operate and sell their wares to ‘their’ regiment.
An example of one of these licenses included the following, (From the Archives of SHAT (XS 12), a dossier on cantinières, vivandières and blanchisseuses of the Armée d’Allemagne (of which the 21ème was a part), printed in 1809 and registered as No.462.)
‘Patent of Vivandière.

Hereto undersigned by the General of Gendarmerie, Provost Marshal of the Army, upon a demand of the Administrative Council of the 79 Regiment of the Line;
Here is authorised, by the name of Françoise Blanchard to serve the 2nd Batallion of the 79 Regiment of the Line in the role (qualité) of vivandière.’
The document points out that a strict dress code would be applied and would conform to that regulated by the military police. Françoise’s prices were to be just and fair with the penalty of confiscation if judged otherwise. The order charged the gendarmerie with the role of ensuring the quality of the goods. The document finishes with the Generals signature (dated 29 July 1809).
A personal description of Françoise was also included. She was originally from the Vendôme, aged 39, 1.459 metres tall, with black hair and eyebrows, a high forehead, gray eyes, a small nose, a medium sized mouth and a jutting chin.
Like the cantinières and vivandières, the blanchisseuses were also informally organized, usually allocated on the basis of two per company. Like the vivandière and cantinière they too were often married to members of the regiment. The blanchisseuses (lit. washerwomen) provided a laundry service. They were paid a ‘voluntary’ fee direct from the soldiers wages - this would only cover the basic necessities.
Laundry in the period was more a matter of brute and natural force rather than the relative ease of today’s detergents and automatic machines. The washing was done either in large washtubs, with soap and a paddle followed up with a washboard to provide the necessary agitation to move the dirt or au naturel in a fast running rocky stream where clothing could be rubbed against rocks again to help scrub the dirt out. Clothes would then be dried out either on a line, though in garrison a mangle might be available, with any ironing for the officers being done with a flat iron heated on a stove. The work of a blanchisseuse was heavy, monotonous and taxing - especially when campaigning in the later months in the cold and damp of field conditions, often with a young child or baby to look after, their role was anything but romantic.
List of Cantinières and female soldiers.
Cathérine Baland. Vivandière 95ème de Ligne. Is mentioned by Lejeune in his memoirs and in his painting of the Battle of Chicalena.
Rose Liberté Barreau. Wife of Grenadier François Leyrac of the 63ème de Ligne and given a 100 Franc pension by Napoleon in 1804.
Catherine Beguin (Bavarian) (probably 14ème de Ligne).
Françoise Blanchard (see above).
Cazajus (Cantinière of the 57ème de Ligne). Distinguished at the attack of Lomitten, 5 June 1807 (Poland).
Catherine Claire, who was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur on 7 July 1809 after Wagram.
Marie Dauranne (Washerwoman of the 51ème Demi-Brigade)
Catherine Devrez, wife of Fusilier Antoine Devrez, their son was a drummer.
Madame Dubois (Cantinière of the Garde). Wife of the Company Barber. She had a baby in the retreat from Moscow in temperatures of -20C - unsurprisingly the infants life was a short one. She is mentioned in numerous memoirs and novels (Bourgogne being but one).
Marie Angélique Joséphine Duchemin. She was given the honorary title of Lieutenant in 1822. Served in 7 campaigns, and was wounded 3 times. She had been active as a soldier in the Republic.
Ducoud Laborde. Accompanied the 6ème Hussards and married Sergent Poncet. Distinguished at Eylau, wounded at Friedland and decorated with the Légion d’Honneur. Served up to 1814. Returned for the 100 Days and was captured after loosing a leg at Waterloo, imprisoned and later moved to Dublin, she only returned to France in 1830 and died 10 years later. Her adventures are related in a book ‘La Femme Hussard’
Eugénie (also known as La Mère Eugénie) (Cantinière of the 10ème Dragons). Served in Russia, at Lützen, where she was wounded, at Bautzen and at Leipzig.
Marie Fetter. Served at Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Dresden and Leipzig.
Marie-Thérèse Figeur. Volunteer of the Légion des Allobroges, later served with the 9ème and later 15ème Dragons. (A print of her exists in full uniform. She has short dark hair and eyes, angular features, seems very slight with a small chest - although it is more pronounced in the drawing than most slightly built men would be).
Florencia (Cantinière of the Voltigeurs of the Young Guard)
Thérèse Fromageot
Virginie Ghesquière. Took the place of her brother in the 27ème de Ligne in 1806. Made sergent and distinguished many times. Identified as female in 1812 (6 years later!!!). A song was written about her after details appeared in an article written in ‘Journal de l’Empire’ (31 October 1812).
Thérèse Jourdan (Called the doyenne of Cantinières)
Magdelaine Kintelberger (German). Vivandière of the 7ème Hussards.
La Joie (named ‘La Mère La Joie’). Vivandière of the 36ème de Ligne.
Marie Lejeune (Hugenot ancestry).
Lewczakowa. Cantinière of the 2 Vistula Regiment.
Marie, from Namur, became a cantinière in the Young Guard. It seems she also had a bit of a reputation…
Marie Tête-de-Bois. Active throughout 27 campaigns. She was wounded in 1814 and served as cantinière in the Guards at Waterloo. Again mentioned in numerous memoirs.
Mathieu. Cantinière 2ème Artillerie de Marine.
Meunier Served as a soldier in the 3ème Compagnie of the 107ème de Ligne, but was also described as a vivandière.
Thérèse Mulher. Cantinière 34ème de Ligne.
Généviève Marie Pierret. Vivandière 43ème de Ligne.
Marie Pierrette. Washer woman 48ème de Ligne.
Cathérine Pochetat. Volunteer Gunner and later a Sous Lieutenant in the infantry!
Cathérine Rohmer. Vivandière.
Rumeau. Cantinière 12ème Chasseurs.
Cathérine Sabatier. Cantinière 9ème Legere.
Sarrazin. Cantinière 57ème de Ligne.
Marie- Jeanne Schellinck. Born in Gent in 1757. Volunteer in 1792 in the 2 Belgian Batallion. Later promoted to caporal, then sergent, eventually rising to lieutenant. Had numerous wounds and was pensioned off in 1808 with 17 years of service and 12 campaigns under her sword belt. She had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur and a pension of 700 Francs.
Marie-Thérèse Thiebaut. Cantinière in the Guards.
Joséphine Trinquart. Cantinière 63ème de Ligne.
Véronique Vivien. Mother of 4 and served at Maubeuge in 1815 in her husbands National Guard uniform. She was later awarded the St Helena Medal. 
Bibliography :
Pigeard Alain. L’Armée Napoleonienne.
Various memoirs and biographies.
Background reading.

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