Origins of Cantinières

Women have traveled with armies for as long as there have been armies, providing cooking, sewing, and laundry services, as well as companionship and in many cases a familiy atmosphere. However, by about 1700, regulations had trimmed their numbers and regulated their functions in most European militaries. (For an interesting and well-written look at women in European armies in the years before 1700, see John Lynn's Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe. Warning: this book is fairly expensive in hardback, and is what some Amazon reviewers would call "kinda academic." It is for the serious-minded only, but for them it is excellent.)

Just in: there is now a paperback edition of John Lynn's book, which drops the price considerably. This is a very worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in the period before the one covered in my book.

Most armies required women traveling with armies to be wives of soldiers, though there were still plenty of unauthorized women and children in many formations. In France, the army took a pragmatic approach, realizing that its own supply system could not provide all the food and drink that soldiers required, and knowing that soldiers would desert in order to get it. The French army of the Bourbon monarchy therefore authorized each regiment to have eight soldiers (usually sergeants) whose job was to sell food, drink, tobacco, wig powder, writing supplies, and other sundries to the troops. These soldiers were known as vivandiers. Each vivandier was authorized to marry a woman whose job would be to help him in his business, and these women were known as vivandières. While their husbands performed their military duties, these vivandières cooked, sold food, drink, and sundries, and often ran gambling tables as well. Their children, born in the regiment, helped their mothers with their duties. Beginning in 1766, the War Ministry authorized their sons to enroll as enfants de troupe, earning military pay and rations from age two. These children grew up in the regiment and generally made excellent and dedicated soldiers.

The French Revolution of 1789 swept away the old monarchy and its military system, but the need for female auxiliairies remained. In 1793, a new law eliminated male vivandiers and ordered vivandières to apply for their license directly to the regiment's new Council of Administration. Though it was an unintended consequence, the result was that vivandières became independent businesswomen, no longer dependent on their husbands for their livelihood. As France waged war on all the monarchies of Europe, vivandières served heroically on the battlefield, and grew in importance as tactics and strategy changed and made their roles became more important.

One change that occurred during the wars of the Revolution was that French armies increasingly traveled without tents, meaning they moved faster, but the troops suffered more from exposure. The vivandière's tent thus became the focal point of social life for very practical reasons: it was warm and dry, in addition to the brandy and hot food one could buy there. There were also tables and chairs, as well as writing materials, so the vivandière's/cantinière's tent became one of the few places where the literate soldiers could sit and write letters home in relative comfort. Many cantinières hand decorated and sold stationary with military images and the regiment's name or number, and the resulting "cantinière letters" were popular with the soldiers, and profitable for the cantinières.

The exact origins of the linguistic shift from "vivandière" to "cantinière" is uncertain, but the first known official use of the word "cantinière" by the Ministry of War occurred in 1793, referencing a woman whose job was to run a sedentary "cantine" for an artillery depot where artillery drivers could stop in for food and drink. "Cantine" also came into use for the tents in which vivandières traveling with combat units on campaign served their food and drink during this period, because from 1793 onwards, though "vivandière" was still in common use, the term "cantinière" appeared with increasing frequency, becoming the more common of the two (in French at least) by the time of Napoleon I's empire. By the mid-19th century, "cantinière" was clearly the term of choice for common usage among French soldiers, even though English speakers continued to use "vivandière" right up to the present. See my book or the timeline (coming soon) for more details.