A paradoxical double view women in armies would often develop. On the one hand, they were indispensable for the number of activities they conducted, on the other, they were considered a potential problem when it came to the discipline of the soldiers and the security of the entire military complex.
The following story from the August of 1633 in Erfurt proves that women could also be a disruptive force. Local garrison was tasked with digging a new segment of fortification. However, the soldiers were not very keen on putting in the work and disappeared. “Their wives started to wonder where their husbands had gone. And so they went to look for them. When they returned, together with their men, they had also brought back a lot of food and drink. From the moment they had sat down, very little work had been done. A trench could be filled with the amount of pints of beer and wine that had been drunk, yet not a single wheelbarrow of soil had been moved.”
A man could depend on his wife and not only when it came to material support. For the soldiers, the presence of women was also important in terms of the emotional and mental support. The physical closeness of his wife or his family alone ensured a higher mental stability of a soldier and therefore higher morale to handle the demanding military occupation. It is true that the contemporary authors of military handbooks were not in agreement whether married men were braver in battle or the contrary is true – that they hold back, not risking too much. However, what was more important for the mental state of an individual was the option to return to their wife and children and a semblance of normal life after their duty was over, after a battle, or after a conquest of a city. The military world was also well-known for being set apart from the regulations of the common civilian life of the era. This had influenced even a thing as simple and basic as their sex life. Sex, whether voluntary, involuntary, between partners, random or paid for, played an important recreational role in the lives of the soldiers. Its adverse side were epidemics of venereal diseases of varying extents, which could affect the fighting ability of entire units.
The women and children did not always have to move with the army together with their men, though. If there were relatives or family fiends living in the area, it was possible to stay with them for some time. Apparently, it was not an exception that a man would provide his woman and his family with some funds and would sometimes even leave her with complete strangers. The offspring of soldiers as well were treated similarly. Education was important when it came to the children and if a soldier could afford it, he preferred to send his offspring away to acquire a proper education and upbringing, rather than leaving them at the mercy of the brutal reality of the military society. For example, Peter Hagendorf had left his son in Altheim with the teacher of the parish of the Church of St Lawrence and he would pay him ten gold coins per year plus the clothing expenses.
Erdhart would tuck away Elisabedt in this manner several times during his service. The worst period for her was the time when the Swedish army cut off the imperial forces in the Magdeburg area. Erdhart had enough experience to sense the looming catastrophe. He did not hesitate and, together with all their belongings and finances, he sent Elisabedt to stay with their distant relatives. In the end, Elisabedt managed to avoid the Swedish troops and together with other refugees, she arrived at Harzgerode.
Her social standing was not that good there, but she was relatively safe. Her distant uncle, who had settled there years ago, was a blacksmith and additionally owned a small field beyond the village. Elisabedt acted as a servant to the family, and she worked in the kitchen. She did not have any news of Erdhart, she knew that the armies were nor far away and here and there, she overheard terrible rumors about how the imperial army was suffering under the Swedish siege.
One day, Swedish riders stormed passed the homestead with the smithy. The entire family was looking out the windows full of fear, not being able to tell, whether it was the Swedish or the imperial soldiers. As soon as the cavalry men had seen the smithy, they turned around and headed straight towards it.
The blacksmith, his face frozen and pale, ventured out onto the road, full of concern. A well-dressed rider approached him, waving around with a short riding whip. At first, he looked the blacksmith up and down suspiciously, but then, with a grin in which there were not many teeth left, he handed him some money and told him in German with a thick accent that four of their horses needed to be shod and that if he hurried up, he would get the money and the soldiers would leave him be. While the blacksmith was beating the horseshoes so hard that he was splashing sweat all around, the riders had settled back around him. As soon as one of them took down his helmet, he started to look around. The blacksmith’s children were understandably curious and were gradually getting emboldened enough to be able to take a look at the riders and the horses from up close. One of the riders gazed at a small boy and asked him what was actually the name of the village that the smithy belonged to. “H-H-H-Harzgerode,” blurted out the boy with a stutter. And the rider asked further: “And by any chance, does a wench called Elisabedt stay here with you?” The little boy nodded his head enthusiastically and then almost jumped back in fear when the rider sprang up to his feet and paced towards the house. The hearts of everyone in the house skipped a beat from the tension but the rider knocked on the door and said that he would give Elisabedt a letter from Erdhart if she gave him some money for his trouble and for the trip. Elisabedt, shivering all over, a little bit with fear, a little bit with anticipation, handed some money to him and opened the letter. She almost sank to the floor when she had read that not only was Erdhart alright, but also that he was doing very well in the Swedish service.
The smithy had just been visited by one of the many squadrons of Swedish riders operating in the area. Elisabedt gave her thanks for the shelter and the hide-out the family had provided her and together with all her belongings, she headed towards the rest of the Swedish army and to Erdhart.
Peter Hagendorf only wanted the best for his family as well. When his wife had health issues and could not keep up with the army, Hagendorf let her, and their child take a rest further from the army and kept them well secured financially.
At Paring my wife became ill and got such a bad pain in her leg that I could not move her and had to leave her lying at Paring with the judge himself, who was a good acquaintance of mine, while I followed the colonels as far as Ingolstadt. There I had my quarters at a wheat beer tavern. My wife, along with the child and the horse, remained behind. After fourteen days I returned and fetched her. Since she could move just as little as before, I had to bring her out on the horse. So I moved back to Ingolstadt like Joseph traveling to Egypt.
For a high-ranking man, for example an officer or a nobleman, protecting his wife from the hardships of the military campaign in such a manner was very common. Robert Monro, a Scottish mercenary fighting for the Swedish army under the command of Gustav II Adolf, came from Scotland with his wife as well as his children. In the end however, same as many other officers, heeding the recommendations of Gustav Adolf himself, he had left his family in the Swedish occupied Stettin for three years.
While in the rear, the life of a military wife unfolded quite similarly as it would anywhere else at the time, during a campaign and in the military camps, the life of women changed significantly. Firstly, women had to follow the military regulations and discipline. Breaking the order in a military camp was out of question and every woman had to be mindful of the station in both the official and the unofficial hierarchy of the army and the train.
The days started very early for the women taking care of their soldier husbands or partners. At the break of dawn, the army would usually start marching and before that, it was necessary to quickly pack all the personal belongings, shelters, prepare themselves and the whole family for another difficult march and join the marching order of the moving army at the assigned spot. If the army was staying in one spot for the moment or if it was quartered, it was also necessary to prepare for the next day. The women were quartered in the same groups as the men. Various friendly organizational structures were mostly based on the organization of the army and so it was best when the women from one company, one corporalship or one file stuck together. They were living with their husbands, they would prepare food in an organized manner and would also distribute other ancillary works among themselves.
Every day after waking up, Elisabedt would make her way to the marketplace. In every military camp, unless it was some spot taken up in a rush only to wait out the night, the market was one of the social and economic centres.
One could get anything they needed here. Meat, bread, and groceries in general, even wine, beer, brandy and sometimes even tobacco were available.
The high command always attempted to maintain control over a market of this kind. The overseer and his men made sure that the soldiers were leaving the merchants alone, that there were no thefts and threats of violence. Conversely, they oversaw for example that the prices maintained reasonable levels and that the merchants were not trying to rip off or scam the soldiers.
As it was described by James Turner again, human opportunism will always beat all attempts at ensuring justice. And so the buyers were always discreetly robbed with the help of overpriced items, rigged scales and there were other tricks that the merchants used as well. Bribes from the merchants lining the pockets of the overseer and other officials often made them turn a blind eye.
The market was also a place where a soldier and his woman could sell their loot or exchange it for groceries and items of everyday use. Valuables such as items made out of precious metals, pewter dishes and, in short, any number of potentially looted things were being bought by various salesmen and profiteers, only to sell them at a profit back to the officers or to reintroduce them to the civilian market.
Last but not least, near the central marketplace, there was also a place where the soldiers would receive their rations and where they were allowed to make a fire and cook their meals.
We were rationed a pound of meat, but the bones made up more of that weight than the meat and so I gave Elisabedt some coin to fetch some more food for we had not eaten for 2 days before that.
And so Elisabedt headed to the market already early in the morning. At that time, the meat would be still fresh after the slaughter and the choice would not yet be limited to the pieces the others did not want. On the way, she said hello to the familiar faces, or occasionally bowed a little, whenever she met one of the officers. If she had at least a penny left, she would buy some oats and peas to store for later.
The complicated inner economics of the army created opportunities for various ways to make a living, albeit modest. Elisabedt knew about youngsters, children of the soldiers and other little busy operators, who did not have anything better to do but to climb every tree and look into every nest. The eggs they had found they would take to their own families or they could earn a little extra income.
Other ancillary works, of which there had always been plenty around the army, lay on the women’s shoulders as well. Somebody had to take care of the routine clothing repairs as well as the sewing of new clothes to replace the worn-out pieces. Most women were able to put together shirts, underpants, and hose. These abilities and experiences were easy to pass on within the company.
Some activities of the women were also very physically demanding, for example the collecting of the twigs and firewood or searching for the materials to build shelters. It can be assumed that entire groups of women would pursue these varying tasks and they would distribute them amongst themselves according to the hierarchy within the collectives.
Women did not necessarily have to do these ancillary works just for themselves and their families. The officers would often be accompanied by servants on campaigns and some of the lower ranking soldiers were keen to emulate them. Thus, the women in the company were presented with diverse opportunities of earning extra income.
Elisabedt always tried to use every opportunity she had. She was closely familiar with a hard life with empty pockets and the struggle for survival. And she also knew that her husband would not stay in the army forever and that they would have to save up before becoming civilians again.
One of the many small services and odd jobs that Elisabedt performed during her stay with the army was the washing of clothes. And so while an elder servant from an officer’s household could rest peacefully and perhaps even light a pipe, Elisabedt would wash one batch of white shorts for her. Not only would the rest of the tobacco serve as her reward, she also received almost untouched meals from the officers’ dinner table.
We were blessed with a true feast in the evening, for my good wife managed to get several good meals as a reward somewhere. I haven’t been eating this full in a long time. I almost didn’t want to get up for duty the next day because of it.
Some ancillary works were so unpopular that soldiers, who saw themselves as persons of good social standing and were proud of their adventurous profession, refused to do them. The digging of latrines, their emptying or burning and burying was, according to their views, unworthy of soldiers, but necessary to do. That is why the fouriers and other noncoms and officers who were in charge of the smooth operation of the camps and the quarters hired women and children to do these jobs. Every penny counted, regardless of the kind of work that was required to earn it. Women and children were also taking part in the building of fortifications, and the digging of trenches and other groundworks. When it came to these jobs, every helping hand counted, and the minimization of idleness also served as a tool to maintain order and discipline in the military environment.
Unlike Georg Erdhart, his wife was religious, and after she had taken care of all the necessary and important tasks of the day, she would sit down for the evening prayer. Whether it was during her stay in safety with their relatives or in the middle of a military camp, it did not matter how exhausted she was, Elisabedt would always find some room for a prayer. Sometimes, she did not even have a crucifix at her disposal and there were few clergymen with the army, but even a mere lit candle was good enough for Elisabedt for her to be able to pray for the souls of all the dead, for the pardon of the sins of her family, and for all the hardships of war to end one day and for her life to resume being calm and comfortable again.
Relationship towards the Other Women
Whether during a campaign, or in the garrisons, there had always ruled an official and an unofficial hierarchy and women were their inherent component. The social standing of a woman was dependent on her family background before her joining of the army, the means of transport during the campaign and on the status of her husband.
The noblewomen, who followed their husbands of the highest ranks, with their numerous servants, occupied the highest rungs of the social ladder. Next, the wives of the officers were always positioned higher than the wives of the common soldiers. Now, a musketeer’s wife was standing above an unmarried servant girl of his comrade in arms and the prostitutes occupied the lowest spots on the social ladder. The widows would look for a new man exactly because of the threat of losing their status. There was a high demand for widows among the unmarried men, because to marry a widow meant the certainty of their needs being taken care of.
The division of women into classes according to their status and means of transportation, already written about by the aforementioned Turner, was important to keep order in the army on the move. For the noblewomen and the wives of the highest-ranking men who were usually moving around in carriages, a special spot was reserved in the marching formation. Women that had a horse or a mule were moving arranged in special formations mimicking the companies in a different spot in the advancing train. The lowest situated and the poorest of the women had no choice but to walk behind the army with all their belongings and sometimes even with their children on their backs, unless their husband managed to provide them with a horse or a mule for transport.
No woman was ever on her own in an army. The natural need for companionship and belonging to a group manifested itself within small communities of women, which were created on the basis of their men’s place in the organizational structure of the army. Women within one company had therefore closer relationships with each other than with the others across the regiment. Even these unofficial communities were important for the soldiers. And so, out of various connections, new friendships, relationships and even marriages were arising on the march.
Understandably, in such a closed off and socially excluded environment as was the army in the 1st half of the 17th century, everyday conflicts between the women were arising as well.
That is why there was a special authority or rather a rank – Hurenwebel. The name of this rank appears as early as the 16th century. Hurenwebel was in charge of the civilian personnel of the tain – the craftsmen, women, children and prostitutes.
There is not much known about the actual operation of these particular noncoms. In the contemporary engravings, they are mostly portrayed as elderly men. However, in his journal, Peter Hagendorf used the term Feldwebelin to refer to Benengel Didelin, the godmother of one of his children. In German, the suffix -in is connected to the feminine grammatical gender and the designation of the rank is usually Feldwebel. Unfortunately, Hagendorf did not deem it necessary to develop this detail further. His journal from five years later mentions a certain Benengel Hess, a captain’s wife, again as the godmother of another of his children. Hagendorf did not exchange armies and the name Benengel was not very common. And so, perhaps, the record of a unique example of a woman who made her career in the army survived to this day. However, whether it was the same person or not, we shall never know with absolute certainty.
The position of Hurenwebel had definitely been preserved until and during the Thirty Years’ War. Even James Turner writes about how in every company, there was someone keeping order among the women and the children in the train.
In the Swedish army, the person responsible for everything that had to do with the material facilities and accommodations was the so-called Fourier. This was a rank comparable to that of a sergeant and he answered to the captain and the quartermaster of a regiment. However, women were not in his charge. Although the function or the rank of Hurenwebel did not officially exist in the Swedish army, with all likelihood, there had to be a person, albeit not officially appointed, who was in charge of all the women and the children in the train of the company. And in Erdhart’s company, this person was Helen Filipsen.
Elisabedt knew her very well. After all, every woman moving with the regiment knew her. A widow after one of the fouriers, she managed to stay with the regiment by the power of her authority and eventually by the power of the authority of her new husband, who was one of the captains. Helen came from Groningen and got into the army as a barely 17 years old girl with her then husband.
She quickly figured out her way in the new environment. Despite all the unpleasant and horrific escapades, the army is a place that offers extraordinary freedom to a person. Helen had always yearned for such freedom and she began to feel right at home in her new setting. In the Swedish army, still under the command of Gusav II Adolf, she acquired certain skills and developed a natural authority, which made her the best Hurenwebel around. She was always able to sort out “her women”, as she called them, always knew where and what kind accommodations to find for anyone, as well as how to deal with the ceaseless bickering. And when necessary, she helped with the raising of the brats milling about her regiment.
In the end, she held her place with the Swedish army for many years and now she could not even imagine that she could ever return to her civilian life. The army provided her with everything she wanted from life. She always managed to make her way into some higher-ranking man’s good graces, but not too high ranking, so that she could stay a bit out of sight.
Maybe it was the fourier who had the responsibilities and authority and who helped the quartermasters, but she was the one who held power over everything in the company that was not directly related to military matters. And her influence reached even into the other companies. The entire regiment knew Helen Filipsen.
She worked really hard on maintaining her reputation. She would lend someone some money here and there, she put in a good word for someone from time to time. And when necessary, she knew who to go to.
Elisabedt knew that she needed to cultivate her relationship with Helen, and she managed to do so. During the spring of 1645, Helen had lost her servant and good friend in one and the same person. Elisabedt used this and offered Helen her services. Despite the initial distrust, both women eventually became friends. This way, Elisabedt could benefit from her new position and it also helped Erdhart in the company.
You would be surprised about the range of issues two women can solve while combing their hair in their quarters.
The Adverse Side of It All
Women in the army did not stand aside even during the harshest times. They often found themselves in the same imminent danger as their husbands and partners. In his journal, Hagedorf recorded an event that transpired during the siege of Fort Corbin in France. A shot from a cannon blew off the legs of a soldier and his female companion in a tent in which they were sleeping. Erdhart too would have learned about another example. In one of the chaotic moments of the Battle of Jankau, Bavarian cavalry men managed to breach the Swedish train and capture many wives of the officers, the wife of Lenart Torstensson himself being one of them. Only the decisive counterstrike of the Swedish soldiers thwarted this action and the wives had been saved. The lives and honor of the wives of the officers of high social standing were not directly endangered, but they would definitely fetch a nice ransom. Not to mention the psychological distress that this situation meant for them. However, a lot of the lower status women in the Swedish train were not so lucky.
Women also plunged into danger voluntarily and solely in the interest of securing financial means for their families. This was especially common during the conquests of cities. The reasons for this were pragmatically logical. The winning side had to squeeze the maximum amount of loot out of the conquered place and so every hand in the family counted. The women also knew what to look for and what were the items that could improve the living standard of the family.
Elisabedt Erdhart did not encounter such an opportunity. But Peter Hagendorf, for example, writes the following about his wife:
As I was now bandaged up, my wife went into the city, even though it was completely on fire, since she wished to fetch a cushion and cloth for me to lie on and for the dressings. I also had our sick child lying with me. But then there came a great outcry in the camp that the houses of the city were all collapsing on top of each other so that many soldiers and their wives who had wanted to loot were trapped. But I was more concerned about my wife on account of the sick child than on account of my own injuries. Yet God protected her. She got out of the city after one and a half hours with an old woman from the city. This woman, who had been the wife of a sailor, had led her out and helped her carry bedding. My wife also brought me a large tankard of four measures34 of wine and had, in addition, also found two silver belts and clothes, which I later redeemed for twelve thalers at Halberstadt. That evening my companions came by, each honoring me by giving me something, a thaler or a half thaler.
Prostitutes were also part of the train. The paid companions provided pleasure to the men as a distraction from the traumatic experience of battle and the campaign. This physical form of comfort was a sought-after pastime and everyone who was not bound by any commitments could pay for these amusements. But prostitutes also brought with them substantial risks to the military camps.
Firstly, their behavior was very provocative in order to remain attractive to potential clients. Even the relatively loose morals of the military environment sometimes could not handle such conduct and scuffles could arise. Prostitution was also associated with petty crime – thefts etc., which had a negative impact on the camps’ security and the morale of the troops in general. Last but not least, there were venereal diseases and other illnesses transmitted by close contact. These afflictions had a direct impact on the combat readiness of the soldiers.
And so prostitution in the context of the army on the move operated on a very thin ice. All commanders would happily drive the prostitutes out of the army or the camp if they had their way, but they knew that the inaccessibility of their services would lead to unrest and the intensification of violent behavior towards the civilian population. A soldier would take by force anything that he did not have the option to buy. Rape was punishable by death according to the miltary law and order, but it was not in the power of any commander-in-chief or any military law enforcement unit to completely prevent it. The civilian population would often be the prime target, but it is safe to assume that the women in the army themselves were in many cases not safe from being raped.
The women’s lot in the Thirty Years’ War was very complicated and difficult. Unmarried women meant almost nothing when it came to the social hierarchy and the married ones had to suffer through a lot of hardships. But despite all of that, women were absolutely indispensable for the smooth operation of the army machine. Luckily, Elisabedt managed to avoid any major suffering. She will continue to accompany Georg Erdhart on his campaign and even though she will not be in the center of the narrative that will follow, her role in the story will not be diminished.
For all the participants, we would like to thank Klára Posekaná for her company and to the Museum of Rural Buildings of the Central Vltava Region – Open-air Museum Vysoký Chlumec, for their kindly granting us access to their premises. If you have not yet visited this charming Open-air Museum, we highly recommend you do so. Thank you!