July 11, 2020

Women of the thirds


"Whoever marries after a flag or banner will live in a lacerated state," commented a military writer of the time, adding that because of women, men "come to kill more easily than for anything else"; another, that the riots took place especially in the long campaigns, when the soldiers "accompanied the women and were filled with children". The constancy of these criticisms in the writings evidences an unappealable reality, the abundant presence of women in the armies of the Hispanic Monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And without dismissing "public women" -for whom there was a wide range of names, from "metresa" to "quiraca" -the soldiers of the thirds, units permanently stationed outside of Spain, tended to establish lasting, blessed relationships or not, in the region where they found a stable life, sometimes parallel to the one they had left in their land.

If the itinerant life of a soldier of the Golden Age was already difficult in itself, exposed to a thousand avatars and the salaries are short and paid late, not to mention taking women and children with them. But strange as it may seem to us in the 21st century, we are facing a phenomenon so common at the time that it was regulated; in 1632 it was fixed for the thirds that a sixth of the men were married. There are some revealing data. When the thirds left Flanders in 1577, they carry "thirty thousand heads", a name that included both livestock and entire families. In 1599, after a riot was suppressed, all those who participated in it were banished from the Netherlands. Many Spaniards, however, tried to stay, "overcome by the tears of their women and children, and the affection of those States, to whom they had more love than their own homelands." It could also bring up the case of the large female company that accompanied the garrison capitulated in Amiens. There were even cases of prostitutes who, without quitting their job, had a steady friend, with whom they had founded a sui generis family.

Stories of love, sex and violence. It is significant that contemporary memoirs are full of allusions to women. Sometimes they are romantic stories. Other, cruel. The rogue Miguel de Castro does not hesitate to poison a lover, so that he will not betray him, while the famous Alonso de Contreras crosses his wife and his beloved with the sword. There was no shortage of duels because of skirts. However, there was talk of soldiers who, far from being Don Juanes, were "new lovers, being better at fighting enemies than lovers".

The life of the women who wandered from one place to another following the troops had to be terrible. Like Beatriz de Mendoza, who had joined the army in the time of Don Juan de Austria. He arrived in Flanders from Italy, in a coach that, to cross the San Bernardo pass, had to be disarmed and reassembled several times. When he did not use it, he rode a "hacanea with a silver armchair and velvet gowns embroidered with a lot of gold." He never stopped accompanying the thirds, and in the siege of Maastricht he crossed the trenches distributing to the soldiers bread, cheese, wine and beer. In the end, "he died in a stable over a bundle of straw," despite having been a lover of "many princes and lords, field masters and captains."

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