Myths and Falsehoods

Anti-cantinière postcard, 1906.

There are many myths, falsehoods, prejudices, and downright lies surrounding vivandières and cantinières in popular culture. This is most pronounced in Anglophone cultures, but prevalent to some extent as well among the French. A key problem is that since most people are completely ignorant of the true history of women's military participation, they simply retroactively apply their own values and assumptions backwards onto earlier cultures, if they even know what a cantinière or vivandière is. Below are a few of the many inaccurate ideas I have found or confronted over the years, along with corrections based on the most accurate information possible. This list is only a start. I will add to it on a regular basis as time permits.

Falsehood: Vivandières and Cantinières were prostitutes.

This is one falsehood that is both subtle and insidious in its effects. Its ugliest effect is that it degrades and cheapens the very real military usefulness of these women and drags them down to simply being paid playthings of men, not real-life heroines and essential parts of the military logistics system.

When I was originally interviewing for professor positions, I would invariably get the same question once in every job talk. Some old male professor (always sitting in the very back of the room—every time!) would raise his hand wearily during the question session and ask "Weren't these women just prostitutes?" in a tone that suggested he really wanted to say "why are you wasting our time with a bunch of cheap hookers, young man?" I would politely reply (remember, I wanted a job) that no, despite my looking very deliberately for any and all evidence concerning these women's sexuality and their business practices, I had never found one--not one--instance where a primary source indicated that a vivandière or cantinière had been involved in prostitution.

Yes, that's right! I found (or didn't find if you prefer) a complete, and total lack of evidence. A deafening silence. Considering that I found many, many references to disciplinary records and many scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors regarding vivandières and cantinières, I can say with some authority and certainty that vivandières and cantinières were not prostiututes.

(Fun side note: it was clear that I never once convinced any of those old men. They were not going to let the facts interfere with their prejudices. How sad, especially when we consider that they were academics supposedly committed to the search for truth. In all fairness to my profession though, they represented a tiny minority, and the fact that I had been invited for an interview at all speaks volumes for the open-mindedness of their colleagues. I extend my sincere thanks to all those kind people who paid for my travel so they could listen to me in person. I enjoyed meeting and sharing ideas with them.)

So, there you have it. You will find plenty of websites and badly researched secondary sources that tell you that these women engaged in prostitution, but there is absolutely no evidence to prove it. If credible evidence ever does surface, I will modify this website to reflect it, but I sincerely doubt I will have to. For details of the reasons why I doubt it, see my book.

Myth: Vivandières and Cantinières were two separate and distinct sets of women, with separate and distinct roles in the army.

This one is not really a falsehood, and it certainly isn't damaging to the memories of these women, but it is wrong in the sense that you will usually find it on the web. The usual story is that a vivandière traveled with the troops, while a cantinière served in a static canteen in an army barracks. However, while this sounds good, my research has discovered no evidence that such a clean distinction ever existed, however much "common sense" it makes.

The most credence we can give this myth is that vivandières and cantinières existed side by side over a period of time, the distinction between them being essentially non-existent. In reality, all the evidence I have seen shows that both terms were used to describe the same women. English speakers continued to use the term vivandière almost exclusively (especially in Great Britain) to describe female sutlers long after the French had abandoned it in favor of cantinière. This has led to a fair amount of confusion when people read either English primary accounts or French primary accounts that have been translated into English. The terminology gets lost in translation and it's easy to lose sight of the historical reality.

Now it is entirely possible that in some places and times, the commonly held distinction between the two terms existed. The absence of evidence does not prove the non-existence of something—it merely shows that it can't currently be proven to be so.

What I have found is that the term cantinière seems to have originated around 1793 for a woman who ran a sedentary canteen in an army barracks (giving some credibility to the current myth), but that it very quickly spread in its usage, and that the actual front line soldiers quickly adopted it as a replacement for vivandière, probably because the lack of tents for soldiers in the new revolutionary armies meant that the cantinière's tent (the canteen) loomed large in importance. When I say "quickly", I mean that front line soldiers commonly used cantiniere to describe their units' auxiliairies by 1795. By the time of the First Empire (1805-1815), while official regulations and documents still used the old term and the new, cantinière was by far more common among actual soldiers than the archaic vivandière, with all its associations with the Old Regime.

Moreover, when the Bourbon monarchy came back in 1814-15 after Napoleon's defeat, it quickly replaced cantinière with vivandière in an attempt to turn back the clock to the era before the French Revolution.

If there is any clear distinction between the two terms, it is that vivandière is more closely associated with the conservative Bourbon monarchies of the Old Regime and Restoration periods, while cantinière is more closely associated with the First and Second Empires. Even this distinction is not as neat as one might like, and the topic remains a complex and nuanced one.

I could say a lot more about this, but for details you can see my book, which gives dates for when changes in terminology came about, as accurately as I can determine from surviving records.

Myth: Vivandières and Cantinières always wore quasi-official military uniforms.

Again, this falls into the category of myth rather than outright falsehood. The truth is that French women were fully capable of picking up and putting on a uniform hat or jacket at any point in their history up to 1890, and that this could qualify as "wearing a uniform" in the very loosest sense of the word. However, it appears fairly certain that uniforms in the strictest sense of the word ("uniformly" worn throughout the army) did not come into being for cantinières until the 1830s.

If one looks at illustrations of vivandières and cantinières of the French Revolution and First Empire, one will find two kinds of illustrations: those done by eyewitnesses at the time (primary sources), and those done later by artists who did not themselves witness the events of those years (secondary sources). I have yet to see any primary source illustration of a vivandière or cantinière prior to 1830 that showed a regimental uniform. I have seen many secondary source illustrations that did so, but those were projecting the conditions of later times backwards onto the women of the years 1789-1815.

Likewise, while the uniforms of these women attracted a lot of written and printed comment in the period from the 1830s to 1890 (when the War Ministry banned the uniforms), I have never once seen a written description of a vivandière or cantinière uniform earlier than 1832, except of course of a woman wearing the odd "found" item or two of male uniform. It seems very clear that vivandières and cantinières did not normally wear uniforms until 1830 or later. Since no official regulation ever recognized or mandated these uniforms, pinning down an exact date for their beginning is impossible, but it clearly was some time between 1830 and 1832.

So, when researchers casually refer to vivandières and cantinières of Napoleon's armies as wearing official uniforms, they are incorrect. What is clear is that during the 1830s vivandières and cantinières began to fashion for themselves (on their own intiative but with the tacit approval of their commanders) feminine versions of the male uniforms of their regiments, and to wear them uniformly. This quickly became standard and expected, and therefore truly "uniform," even if no War Ministry regulation ever mandated a cantinière uniform. (There does exist an interesting document in the French Army archives titled "Proposal for Cantinière Uniform" dating to 1860, but how it got there and exactly what reception it received are unknown. I only know that it was never approved.)

Many reenactors use regimental uniforms for Napoleonic era cantinières, but I can only respectfully state that this is wrong, though it certainly looks more impressive than the actual dress of the real historical women. Reenactors wanting to be authentic would do much better to emulate the look of Catherine Baland, who features in a primary source painting on the cover of my book, unless they are representing the period after 1830, in which case the possibilites exist for truly extravagant costuming. Of course, an army overcoat thrown over one's dress, or a pelisse worn over civilian clothes would be completely acceptable, and would add some panache to the look.

20th century ad for Buvard pasta using a cantinière in an ahistorical fantasy uniform.

This 20th century ad (for a company that continues to produce pasta and other food products today) shows a cantinière of the First Empire in a uniform that can only be described as pure fantasy. Still, by projecting later conditions backward in time, Buvard created an appealing ad, even if it completely distorted history and led people to believe that cantinière uniforms extended much further back in time than they did in reality. This is common for any commercial venture whose goal is profit, not historical accuracy.