I've been fascinated for a long time by real-life stories of women who disguised themselves as men and went to war at times when women didn't go to war. * About ten years ago, I began to collect examples, thinking I could write a book, or at least an article, about the subject. I quickly gave up the idea. There were too many examples, from the medieval period through World War I.
What's more, their stories all sounded the same. For one reason or another** our heroine disguises herself as a man*** and enlists. She makes it to the front, where she serves valiantly. She is only discovered to be a woman when she is wounded or dies in battle.**** Presumably more served who were not discovered.
I recently stumbled across an example with a different twist: Madeleine Caulier.
Caulier worked at an inn outside the city of Lille during the War of the Spanish Succession. As in most all-out European wars, the Low Countries were hotly contested territory. In August, 1708, Lille became the site of a long, hungry siege. The French were desperate to get supplies and information in and out of the city.*****
Caulier's brother served in the French garrison. For reasons that are not clear to me, she was allowed to cross the lines to visit him. (For those of you who are always alert to the passive voice, let me assure you I deliberately chose it in this case because I don't know who was fool enough to allow her to go in and out of the city. Did she get permission from an officer? Talk her way through a checkpoint? Did someone assume she was harmless? Was bribery involved? This is one of those times when the documents leave the juice out of the story.) When they learned she had access to the city, French officers asked Caulier to smuggle messages to the commander of the garrison. (In some versions of the story, she overheard them talking and volunteered.) She agreed, on the condition that she be allowed to enlist in a dragoon regiment as a man. I would say she had balls--but the whole point of the story is that she didn't.
The count d'Évreux granted her request--making her the only example I've seen of a woman who was officially allowed to disguise herself as a man and enlist. She remained in the army until her death at the battle of Denain in 1712.
Today a street in Lille bears her name. Anyone know of another woman soldier in disguise who's been honored in some way?
* I'm not the only one fascinated by this historical trope. Terry Pratchett wrote a hysterical novel based on it: Monstrous Regiment. I won't say more for fear of spoiling the fun. Besides, trying to explain a Terry Pratchett novel is a fool's game.
** Popular reasons include following/searching for her husband, lover or brother, heartbreak, patriotism, revenge for losses incurred, and just because.
*** How on earth did they pull it off? I realize that a not-particularly curvy woman could bind her breasts and stuff a rolled-up sock in her breeches and pass as a teenage boy for an evening, assuming no one noticed the lack of an Adam's apple. A recent book on the subject argues that once the Mongols introduced the concept of trousers to the world the total separation of male and female dress helped: the eye saw pants and thought male. But surely the lack of privacy in an army camp would lead to rapid exposure?
****One of my favorite examples from the American Civil War simply suited up again, changed her name and re-enlisted after she was discovered and sent home.
*****At one point, 2000 cavalrymen disguised themselves as Dutch soldiers and tried to carry 50-pound bags of gunpowder through the lines to the besieged city. That's a story for another day, but the short version is: BOOM!
My junior high school library had a series of books called Everyday Life in [fill in the historical period]. They had line drawings of period clothing, architectural drawings of buildings (common houses as well as castles), and details about food, games, school, etc. I suspect they were written in the 1920s or 1930s; they have that look in my memory. And I loved them. I read them in series--and then started at the beginning and read them again.* And again. I'd have probably read them through a fourth time if the librarian hadn't introduced me to The Hobbit.** I've retained a fondness for books about every day in times past ever since.
In The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England , Ian Mortimer gives readers a closer view of a historical period with which many feel they have some familiarity. Using the format he developed for his popular Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, Mortimer tells readers what they could expect to find if they visited Elizabethan England: what they would eat, where they would live, how they would travel. Like modern travel guides, he discusses language, currency, units of measurement, and polite behavior.
If the physical details of everyday life were all that Mortimer considered, The Time Traveler's Guide would be no more than another "daily life in" account of Elizabethan England. The really extraordinary aspect of the book is the way he uses those details to illuminate ideas central to the Elizabethan world view, from the intersection of science, religion and magic to a new sense of history to ideas about the land itself.
Mortimer’s interpretation of Elizabethan England is richer and darker than the familiar “golden age” of poetry, drama, seafaring and expansion. Comparing Elizabeth's England not only with the present but also with its medieval roots, he presents the period as one of uncertainty, contradiction, and change. Elizabeth’s Anglican compromise was under attack from both Catholics and more radical Protestants. A growing population and poor harvests overburdened medieval structures for dealing with the poor. Violence is pervasive, from official acts of torture to alehouse knifings.
The past is a different country; Ian Mortimer is a reliable guide.
* Why yes, I was a little history nerd. Why do you ask?
**And a whole new world of nerditude.
The heart of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.
Take a moment in your celebrations to remember what we're celebrating:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Picnics and fireworks are nice. Civil rights are better.
Image courtesy of the Missouri State Archives