Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.

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Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.