The rhetoric of death and destruction in the Thirty Years War.
The way in which historians dealt with the thousands of descriptions of death and destruction has contributed to that decline in interest. Such descriptions have provoked a sometimes vigorous debate about their reliability, which has not recognized the richness of the source. The debate has bogged down in an either/or analysis: either plaints such as Ludolf's were accurate relations, so that one may conclude that starvation and even cannibalism were rampant in the war, or they were exaggerated and so should be dismissed as unreliable. The first approach characterized Gustav Freytag's popular history, Pictures from the German Past, which presented several vignettes from Saxony during the war to underscore how miserable circumstances were. Freytag's sensational account was bolstered by the more sober-minded assessment by Karl Theodor von Inama-Sternegg, while Gunther Franz's demographic synthesis also seemed to confirm the picture of wide-ranging destruction.(4)
In reaction to the sensationalistic portrayal by Freytag, a more recent school of historiography has criticized what it calls the "myth of the all-destructive fury of the Thirty Years War."(5) It has discounted the lurid descriptions of death and destruction as motivated by crass material motives. The most vigorous proponent of the idea that interest rather than veracity shaped most claims has been S. H. Steinberg, who argued that the educated chroniclers of the war were predisposed to exaggerate the extent of destruction because their property was particularly vulnerable and money for "culture" was less available.(6) He adduced no evidence to support his claims, but Gerhard Benecke, in a careful analysis of urban debts and claims of damage in the town of Lemgo supported Steinberg's contention, concluding that "a war damage claim was an unscrupulous attempt to get tax-reduction from the territorial authorities irrespective of neighbors' problems. It was not a credible account of actual war damage."(7) According to Benecke, the main obstacle to overcoming the exaggeration of local chroniclers is the excessive gullibility of modern historians. He argues: "no straight-forward picture emerges from the Lippe records of the war and occupation years, unless the naive view is taken, and every time a general plea for exhaustion and dearth is made in order to avoid further taxes, it is accepted at face value and ascribed to war horrors--a poetic license more applicable to post war literature as shown by Grimmelshausen's best-seller 'Simplicius Simplicissimus'."(8) Not everyone has assumed that descriptions of suffering came from base motives; but one could still discount the most dramatic descriptions as the product of a "baroque" propensity to exaggerate and to be overly emotional, without exploring the rhetorical roots of that propensity.(9)
The problem with Steinberg's and Benecke's criticism of the "war horrors" school is that it merely substitutes a presumption of dishonesty for a presumption of honesty in all reports. Both authors assume a simple relationship between the amount of "real" damage and the language used to describe it. Unless one assumes that supplicants are incapable of ever representing faithfully their circumstances, such an approach condemns historians to a tedious triangulation, in which every time a description of damage is accompanied with numbers that can be confirmed one has proof that the war was bad, and every time a description cannot be confirmed one has proof that it was not as bad as people claimed. Such a procedure is certain to deaden any enthusiasm for further research into the subject, since the rewards of proving or disproving each specific claim are so meager. To avoid just such a triangulation, most recent historians have adopted a middle course between ready acceptance of graphic tales of woe and a rejection of all descriptions as special pleading, by shifting the focus of investigation away from concrete depictions of misery and destruction to higher-level questions such as whether Germany was in decline or expansion prior to the war and whether the war can be held responsible for specific, but large-scale, economic trends.(10)
This research has told us much about the impact of the war on the macro level, but it has been incapable of addressing what the experience of death and destruction meant to people in those regions where it occurred. It has had the merit, but also the disadvantage, that the local context of much of the damage has been masked by the "big picture." The broad comparisons have a levelling effect on the intensity of local descriptions--but it is precisely in the local experiences, rather than the national aggregates, that the image of the war was created. Ludolf's plaint reminds us of how important that local context was. Its distinctive qualities also suggest how a closer investigation of the wording of descriptions of death and destruction can help us understand how the experience of the war was apprehended and transmitted. Unlike so many contemporary descriptions of misery, which merely catalog the types of damage inflicted and say that they caused suffering, Ludolf's plaint poses a conundrum about how such expressions can be interpreted. His claim that only those who have experienced such suffering themselves can comprehend it is designed to preempt any attempt to dismiss his description as hyperbole; it is almost as if he expected skeptics such as Benecke to dispute his claims. But such a skeptic might observe that he can only achieve this by dismissing our ability to interpret and question his motivation.
To make sense of Ludolf's marginal comments, we need a more complex range of motivations than just unvarnished despair and pure self-interest. We cannot dismiss him out of hand as a biased witness who is only looking out for his own interests. Ludolf is no Grimmelshausen, and his observations in a parish register are not a transparent plea to avoid further taxes, since the audience for those observations was limited to the church hierarchy, who had no power to remit taxes and little reason to care how much Ludolf was suffering. Indeed, the conundrum of Ludolf's comment becomes all the more acute if we pose the question why did he bother to write the comments at all? Since we cannot identify a direct material interest in Ludolf's claim, it is more fruitful to explore where that claim fit within a broader discourse about the war. We must consider what options were available for expressing his particular sense of what was happening around him and how that affected what he said.(11)
His statement concerning misery is, obviously, a rhetorical flourish. For the moment, I refer to rhetoric in its simplest terms: it is an interaction between narrator and audience dedicated to persuading the latter that a claim is valid. It rests on verisimilitude rather than veracity, but this does not mean that the merits of the argument were irrelevant to success. On one level, of course, rhetoric was a scholarly discipline with long established rules, one that was arcane and inaccessible to much of society--though it would have been familiar to a pastor such as Ludolf, who had studied at the university in Marburg.(12) But on another level, rhetoric was inherent in all social interaction. Both lords and subjects had occasion to try to persuade each other of the need to take some action. The thousands of descriptions of despair produced during the Thirty Years War are a notable, yet underappreciated, example of the effort to persuade. It is one of the most persistent ways in which the situation of ordinary people was presented to a wider audience. Recent work in early modern cultural history has paid increasing attention to this latter sense of the social meaning of rhetoric. David Sabean in particular has argued that one must see community as the process of engaging in a common discourse, in which competing visions and misunderstandings produce changes in perception and thus create a new meaning for participants.(13) Such an approach has proved fruitful for exploring the social construction of gender and the political participation of supposedly inarticulate groups. At their best, such approaches to the rhetorical structuring of society do not substitute a claim that "everything is representation," for a claim that everything is dependent on the material base, but instead show that material givens and the practice of discourse worked together to create social meaning. The relationship between expression and material circumstances would seem to be most apparent in times of disruption. Only rarely, however, have the rhetorical dimensions of that characteristic situation of early modern society, the Malthusian crisis induced by war, plague, or dearth, been explored. Giulia Calvi's Histories of a Plague Year is the most notable work that has tried to show how such crises were given a social interpretation through verbal and symbolic expressions.(14) While Ludolf's plaint is in many respects much more transparent than the forms of expression that Calvi investigated, it is equally concerned with a "semantic process of bargaining," which created new social meaning.(15) Its rhetorical flourish is an indicator of how deeply ingrained the bargaining process, and the effort to persuade, was in giving meaning to the suffering caused by the war.
One way to see how persuasion worked is to identify the narratives that were common to all attempts to describe local suffering and thus determine what kinds of descriptions most effectively conveyed the needs of villagers. The way that people described their circumstances was based on both their assessment of what the audience for such descriptions knew and would be likely to believe about local circumstances and a base of terms that had proven appropriate to crisis in the past. A plausible vocabulary of suffering was a necessary condition for making the experience of the war intelligible. In fact, one of the ways in which experience became "truthful" for the people involved came from the way in which they fashioned their story to themselves and to their rulers. One may accept that descriptions of misery and despair were tailored to the intended audience without inferring that the tailoring was unscrupulous. A curious feature of much of the literature that argues that the war was not all that destructive is that it assumes we are more hard-headed in our evaluation of special pleading than the contemporary audience was. This is unlikely, as we shall see below. What is likely, however, is that narrators and audience shared a sense of what kinds of damage could be described and negotiated over adequately based on their shared understanding of the locality. The prevailing rhetorical conventions were certain to shape how any description of death and destruction was made. The rhetorical strategies of the seventeenth century relied on a strong theatrical element characteristic of the Baroque.(16) The result may well have been to dramatize incidents at the local level in correspondence with central authorities, but the conditions of persuasion made this more readily acceptable. There was one other factor that shaped how rhetoric was used. Descriptions of death and destruction had to be linked to specific events in order to convince an audience. Thus, the rhetoric of death and destruction followed the rhythms of the war itself and became more compelling as a result. The persuasive power of descriptions of suffering and devastation came from the fact that narrators really believed that they were suffering and could link that suffering to identifiable circumstances.
The war was a frequent and disruptive presence in the region around Ludolf's village Reichensachsen, near the Werra river in the Northeast corner of the landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel. The fact that Ludolf's comments appeared in a document of local importance reinforces the point that the experience of the war was localized, and that one must assess the local context in order to ascertain what the war meant to those that experienced it. The different narratives were serious attempts to address problems opened up by military occupation, in which narrators and audiences understood the constraints under which they operated. In this sense, it is less important whether the descriptions seem sincere to us than whether they were perceived as sincere by their audience. Acceptance by an audience was a necessary step towards creating meaning. The ubiquity of war damage--and plaints like Ludolf's--throughout early modern Europe suggests that a study of how Ludolf came to write what he did will help us understand how others did so as well.
Even within the small geographical compass of the Werra region there were several potential audiences for narrations of death and destruction and several different genres of narration. One could, for example, address death and destruction in a marginal comment in a parish register or in a direct supplication to the landgrave for a reduction in taxes. The multiplicity of audiences and forms of expressions complicates the process of working out lines of influence between distinct expressions; but it also suggests how local experiences could be translated to other contexts. The relative prominence of different genres of death and destruction narrative changes over the years 1623-1648, when the war affected the region. These changes show that the rhetoric of death and destruction was sensitive to both the rhythm of the war itself and the opportunities provided by expansion of language. The changes in genres provides a window on the shifting concerns of those who commented on the war as a result of their experiences.
The first local narratives of death and destruction in the Thirty Years War were usually supplications for a reduction in the tax burden or billeting of troops by a village or administrative district. The format and rhetoric of such supplications was well known to villagers and they adhered to it rigorously in the early years of the war. Most supplications in the early part of the war focused on the inequity of burdens rather than on the amount of damage, but supplicants lost no opportunity to describe themselves as "poor, overburdened villages" from which one could scarce expect to raise another heller of taxes or supplies. One might, therefore, follow Benecke's lead and dismiss all such claims as attempts to avoid taxes. The supplication is, by definition, the province of special pleading. Yet the other side of the supplication was that it was the only legitimate means to gain redress from real damage. There is ample room for exaggeration of one's situation in a supplication, but the Landgrave and his officials had a strong interest in extracting resources from their subjects which made them disinclined to grant release from obligations unless they saw a compelling reason. Both sides were aware of the conflicting interest between village and administration. Local officials, such as the Amtmann, served as a conduit of"objective" information about local conditions and served to brake wild exaggeration of local circumstances. The presence of local officials shaped how villagers could make their claims of damage. The central administration became receptive to claims of damage when the normal channels for checking into those claims all pointed to their veracity. Perhaps the best evidence that the people most concerned with assessing the truth of such claims took them seriously is that, even in the last years of the war, the central administration still made some effort to verify them. The council of the Landgrave noted with regret in 1648 that "when we write to our officials for information as has always been the case, we see from the letters that they send that they completely agree with the complaints of the subjects and confirm and strengthen the claims of damage."(17) A supplication, therefore, was not automatically accepted by its audience as an accurate description of local circumstances. Its claims had to be tested against the experiences of other people familiar with the locality, who had a very different set of loyalties and preoccupations.
The earliest supplications during the war are nearly indistinguishable from similar supplications concerning fires or bad harvests before the war, except that they mention the war as the cause of their distress. The similarity in format meant that supplications during the war often reawakened disputes over equitable distribution from the pre-war era. For example, the villages of the district of Sontra in Hesse complained in 1625 that the village of Herleshausen, ruled by the nobleman Herman von Wersabe, was not contributing its fair share of wood to the occupying troops. Similar disputes about the relative responsibilities of the noble villages and landgravial villages had flared up in the "Treysa Assessment" which established the basic tax rates for Hesse for much of the seventeenth century.(18) Wersabe responded with a seventeen page justification of his village's exemption. He based his position on the legal terms which had been negotiated for the occupation and an emotional appeal on behalf of an already overburdened region. He described Sontra's complaint as "completely contrary to Christian love and all fairness," and insinuated that once Herleshausen began delivering wood to the troops in Sontra, the town would start demanding oil and light as well. He capped his argument by stating that Herleshausen had no wood to begin with, so that the villagers would have to buy their wood from merchants in Sontra to supply the troops anyway.(19)
Wersabe's response to Sontra explicitly raises the issue of crass material motives by suggesting that Sontra's merchants wanted to force Herleshausen to buy wood for the troops from them. This no doubt conformed to the expectations of the Landgrave and his officials about peasants and burghers who were notorious for self-interestedness. But it does not help us determine whose position was the more crass. The perquisites of town, noble village and territorial village were delicately balanced within a framework of legitimacy. The presence of the troops disrupted the ordinary balance of competing claims. Acts of supplication and justification were part of an attempt to re-establish the balance on some new basis. The tactics of both sides renewed old rivalries, but did so in an environment where it was entirely plausible that both sides were suffering severely from the demands of the troops. After all, the troops were extracting more resources than the region was used to supplying to the "outside" and this could only be done by pushing at the margins of sustenance in a relatively inflexible agricultural economy. Local officials and the territorial administration were familiar enough with the economic potential of the administrative districts to have a rough sense of how disruptive a particular set of burdens could be to that economy.
Since supplications involved negotiations over legitimacy, there had to be some means for the villages to gain redress when "illegitimate" inequities occurred.(20) The lord's obligation to redress such inequities opened several rhetorical channels for supplicants. For example, when the administrative districts of Treffurt and Wanfried made a supplication about the distribution of troops in 1623 they identified two problems with different rhetorical resonances.(21) The complaint mentioned that the districts were subjected to terrible oppression by the occupying regiments, which had kidnapped the Burgermeister and Stadtschreiber in order to extort 1,000 fl from the populace. This line of argument harked back to traditional supplications for redress, in that it explained how insupportable burdens were ruining the locality. However, the complaints also explained that the districts were supporting the same number of regiments as neighboring districts even though they had only four villages in their districts while other districts had as many as twenty. This line of argument was traditional in a different way, since it rested on the sense that equity demanded that burdens be apportioned according to ability to pay. At first, neither of these strategies prompted action by the administration. The Landgrave's council responded that there was nothing they could do to rectify the burden because the situation was desperate everywhere--thus turning the question of equity against the question of insupportable burdens, but at the same time confirming that the claims of insupportable burdens were legitimate. The town of Treffurt thereupon appealed directly to Tilly, the commander of the occupying force, pointing to the inequity of the burdens, and he worked out a compromise which shifted some of the forces to the neighboring districts of Spangenberg and Melsungen.(22)
The supplicants responded flexibly to their multiple audiences by adopting several rhetorical strategies at once. The only way to shift the burden was to use the power of supplication to gain redress. Tilly was unlikely to be swayed by an argument of excessive burdens, but he could be moved by the argument of inequity. The Landgrave, on the other hand, might have found the first line of argument more persuasive. In either case, all participants in the negotiations could agree on two facts that were at the core of Treffurt's pleas: the two districts really were housing a large number of troops, and the two districts really were much smaller and much poorer than neighboring districts that housed the same number of troops. The fact that the districts gained redress only by appealing to the enemy commander underscores how the war created new audiences that could judge the legitimacy of claims based on their own experience.
The presence of multiple audiences for supplications from localities during the war meant that those supplications entered into a wider range of correspondence concerning the disposition of troops. It is well known that soldiers extracted resources directly from the territories that they occupied.(23) This method of tax collection necessitated a constant communication between occupiers and occupied on multiple levels throughout the war, circumvented occasionally by appeals "over the head" of one level to a higher one as the town of Treffurt successfully tried in their appeal to Tilly. Communication at each level was shaped by the antagonistic interests of occupiers and occupied. The rulers of a territory had a strong interest in keeping foreign troops out of their territory. Therefore, they searched eagerly for evidence that their villages were suffering mightily under the strains of military occupation and pleaded to be spared further occupation on both legal and moral grounds. This affected the rhetoric used in the localities as well. By 1624, the nobility of Hesse was already using imagery which later observers would exploit more thoroughly in assessing the extent of damage: "what God the omnipotent and Lord of all Lords threatened his disobedient people through the prophets, such, alas God have mercy, your principality has experienced for some time now, with great, even extreme, melancholic pain, misery and sighs, yes with the loss of everything that belongs to it. . . . Yes, one can see, it is as if God wished to overturn our land and people and remove us from his sight, because the sword reaches to the soul and there is no one who can save us from the hand of calamity."(24) In part, this language was a strategy by the nobility for negotiations with Moritz, since the Estates had been urging him to abandon his support for the Protestant cause and negotiate with the Emperor. God's punishment of Hesse was clearly due to Moritz's failure to heed the warning signs. But at the same time, the imagery the nobility used shaped future interchanges between Moritz and the occupying troops.
Moritz, who was otherwise in constant conflict with his territorial nobility, seemed to concur with the nobility's assessment of the situation when he complained bitterly to Tilly that the occupying troops were "barbaric" and described in detail the misery that they inflicted on his territory.(25) As a result, the territorial administration and even the occupying troops became implicated in the descriptions of the supplications from the local level. By 1626, Tilly himself described the "distress and poverty of the currently completely exhausted and worn down lands," which he used to justify extending the range of districts occupied by his troops.(26) Official utterances thus began to describe villages in the same terms as did the local supplicants, which rendered the descriptions all the more plausible. The notion that the village was suffering mightily from the pressures of the war was rendered plausible by everyone who reported on the issue.
The plausibility of local suffering was also enhanced by the growing pamphlet literature of gruesome plundering. The propagandistic work of the pamphlets began at the outbreak of the Bohemian rebellion and never let up throughout the war. Already in 1620, pamphlets had titles evoking the "Horror of Devastation" in Bohemia in which the "piteous situation in that Kingdom and neighboring lands will be clearly demonstrated."(27) Martin Opitz conceived his "Poems of Consolation in Adversities of War" equally early in the war, in 1621, before the true horrors of the war had begun, and suggested that: "The poor farmer has left everything/like when a dove sees a falcon in a stoop/his estate is stolen away, his buildings burned down/his animals gone, the barns knocked down/the noble vine ripped out/trees stand no more/the gardens are devastated/the sickle and plow are now a sharp sword."(28) There is, unfortunately, no evidence on what sort of pamphlet literature was available in the Werra region as the war continued. The great mobility which accompanied the war makes it likely, however, that news arrived frequently and was consumed avidly.(29) Most of the pamphlet reports were prefaced with the claim that they were "true relations" or "immediate, true reports" and may have been accepted as such by the local population. The Protestant bias of most reports only confirmed the images that the inhabitants of the Werra region had of their war experiences.(30) The increasing availability of other people's narratives about the suffering of Germany may well have colored local depictions. On the one hand, it may have become possible to take over descriptions wholesale. On the other hand, the sheer numbers of tracts and the power of their descriptions may have forced an escalation of rhetoric as well. If one village believed that its plight was indescribable, then certainly it must need more pitiable terms than those used to describe the fate of someplace else. But in either case, the pamphlet literature expanded the range of commentary on local circumstances by linking different genres of writing to the common theme of death and destruction.
Although the war was rarely a constant presence in any one area, it was a frequent presence, and the intensity of the war undermined many of the institutional structures that had been legitimated by the process of supplication. Among the casualties of the repeated occupations of the Werra region during the first decade of the war was the authority of lordship in the region. Some of the attempts of the nobility to protect the local population through salva guardia backfired dramatically.(31) Finally the nobles of the region abandoned all pretense of defending their lands and fled from the region. Their precipitous departure lent credence to the apocalyptic picture they had painted in 1624, while the rural population struggled to make their way in the face of new relationships of power and dependence. The ideological underpinnings of Schutz und Schirm were obviously destroyed when neither the Landgrave nor the local nobles were able to protect anyone, and this necessarily changed the rhetoric used at the local level. The villagers of Grandenborn commented on the collapse of Schutz and Schirm in a letter to the Landgrave in 1626. They reported that the von Boyneburg "fled our beloved fatherland by fog and night (for what reason we do not know)" and left them "with neither advice nor support."(32)
Villagers did not abandon supplication as a strategy, but they had to come up with new ways of forging the relationships that made supplication effective. Grandenborn took the first step by shifting part of the responsibility for their plight to the absconding nobles. They claimed that "we poor subjects have not only been wiped out by the various and sundry invasions, but also we have been overburdened by our noble overlords with unbearable money payments." The failure of the local nobility prompted the villagers of Grandenborn to turn to Landgrave Moritz for support; but he was unable to provide security either. The military pressures of 1626 ultimately led to the complete collapse of Moritz's internal administration and Moritz abdicated in 1627.(33)
The events of 1626 and 1627 contributed to a change in the tone of supplications and in the formats of descriptions of death and destruction. The problem was that the rhetorical practices of supplication were based on the assumption that crisis was an exceptional circumstance. By 1627, situations worthy of supplication were the rule rather than the exception. Supplications flooded in to the Landgrave in such numbers that the administration was no longer capable of responding to them, much less rectifying the problems.(34) It was now pointless for a village to try to foist a burden on to another village or district, since the language of despair had become so generalized that all villages were known to be suffering. Thus, even though supplications continued to be produced in large numbers, their role in shaping a vocabulary of suffering began to be eclipsed by other narratives, which were produced for new audiences. A vocabulary of suffering had been created, and the breakdown of traditional relationships opened new spheres in which that vocabulary could be applied.
The late 1630s were particularly brutal years in the Werra region.(35) There was a pervasive sense of despair in the region, shared by all levels of society. These tribulations found expression in the intensification of the rhetoric of death and destruction in several different formats. Grievances became plaints, with no expectation of redress other than that God grant the village peace so that it could go about its business without disruption. Government officials, villages and outside observers all concurred in their assessment of the plight of the locals, and used comparable language in their presentation of that plight. There was no more room for escalating the language of despair, so supplications turned to an escalating language of verisimilitude to try to get themselves heard above the clamor.
In December 1636, the district administrator of Sontra, Johann Stuckrodt corresponded with the Landgrave about the miserable conditions in his district.(36) Sontra was no longer concerned with minor squabbles over wood deliveries from Herleshausen, but was instead desperately struggling to survive. A sign of that desperation is that the conduit of information about local circumstances was now the author of a supplication. Stuckrodt's letter was prompted by a new Contribution of 139 Reichstaler imposed on the district on December 15. He explained that the entire quarter of Sontra was "ruined to the ground" and so could not pay anything. But unfortunately, the soldiers came anyway, and when the town could not pay, they took all the horses and cattle as ransom. To underscore the seriousness of the situation, Stuckrodt explained that he could "vow with God and pure truth that there is no way that we can collect this contribution without the few horses and cattle" and requested that the Landgrave do something to retrieve the animals. He went on to explain that hunger and misery were so great that people were buried without a coffin, in their torn clothing, and the rest would surely die of hunger or leave the region permanently. His depiction of misery culminated with the request that the Landgrave send a deputy to visit the region, so he could see for himself how feeble were the prospects of collecting arrears or even future revenues.
Stuckrodt was not the only commentator on the war to adopt the strategy of inviting an investigation of his district in order to reinforce the veracity of claims of damage. Unlike the propagandistic pamphlets, which also made claim to being "non-partisan" and "truthful," the invitation to come see for oneself could be accepted by its recipient, and therefore had to be extended with confidence that the Landgrave would agree with the assessment if he were to come. The Landgrave did not, however, personally visit his devastated lands during the war. For many of the crucial years of the war, he was in the Netherlands to escape the dangers that befell Hesse. Despite entreaties from his own council that he return to show direct leadership, Wilhelm refused because of the constant presence of enemy troops.(37) His refusal served in its own way to confirm and justify the rhetoric used at the local level.
By 1638, much of the Hessian countryside was desolated. After Wilhelm V died in 1637, the new regent Amalie Elisabeth sent several supplications from the villages to the council, asking for advice on how to respond to their despair, with the observation that she received comparable descriptions "almost daily.(38) The council was so powerless that their only recourse was to turn their weakness into a method of defense. When another invasion threatened in 1639, they wrote to Amalie Elisabeth that "we had hoped that when the enemy troops recognized the obvious and notable lack of resources of the poor peasants of this land, they would quit and leave, but instead they have done the contrary," with the result that ruin and devastation would only be worse than before.(39) The council's rhetoric assumed that ruin and despair were so obvious that they needed no further articulation; but the weakness of Hesse's defenses meant that their only recourse was to hope that peace would come and remove the burden of war.
In an effort to maintain whatever vestiges of revenues and Schutz und Schirm that they could, the central administration began to look for alternate means of determining the extent of death and destruction. Amalie Elisabeth asked for a complete survey of all the villages in the territory in 1639. The order was short and direct, and it demanded a response within three weeks.(40) The fact that it was an "official" inquiry, legitimated by the assembly of villagers through the ringing of the bell, meant that the responses of the villages gained an added measure of validity for the central administration, so the villages of the Werra region took the opportunity to describe their situation again in detail. Technically, they were not submitting a supplication, but a visitation report. In the Werra region, each individual inhabitant of the villages of Netra, Rohrda, Grandenborn, Thurnhosbach, Rechtebach, Wichmannshausen, Reichensachsen, Langenhain, Hoheneiche, and Oetmannshausen was carefully enumerated, and the cumulative effect of dozens of entries that read like the first entirely characteristic entry from Netra, "Hans Weitzel, married, has no animals and a miserable little hut," gave clear evidence of the desperate circumstances in all of the villages. Many villages also wrote brief descriptions of the contrast between their current situation and their situation before the war. The village of Grandenborn, whose complaints about the nobility we encountered above, pointed out that "everything is in ashes and burned down, which is clear to see, alas, God have mercy, and we poor people must continue to pay the entire burden of the war for the whole village as if it was still all standing and in good shape." The fields of the village were "so overgrown that now there is nothing on the lands, but they are completely ruined by the mice in the grass and the cold frosts." The village was vulnerable because it was so far from any secure fortress and the result was unmitigated misery for all inhabitants. They then concluded "God the almighty change things for the better and give us his merciful grace and remove the great burden of war from us and grant us poor Hessian subjects dear peace, so help us God."(41)
Grandenborn's argument invoked the standard arguments in supplications concerning the unfair burden of taxes. It was a common refrain that the few villagers left now carried the fiscal burden of the whole village. Such claims were indeed transparent pleas to escape taxes--but they were also incontrovertibly true. Taxes were apportioned as a quota according to the size of the village, so that the burden of taxation fell on the collectivity, and it was left to the villagers themselves to divide up their obligation among themselves. This meant that a drop in the village population increased the burden on the remaining individuals. The plea from Grandenborn made sure that the inequity of preserving old tax proportions in the face of rapid depopulation was made explicit precisely because such an argument could not be denied. It thereby tapped another current of the pamphlet literature. Numerous pamphlets argued that it was not proper to continue to exploit the resources of an already over-exploited peasantry.(42) Contributions were explicitly attacked in a lengthy pamphlet by Andreas Ortelius, "Blood-, Fear-, Tears-, Money, The extorted, intolerable extraordinary Contribution-, Ransom-, Discretion-, Portion-, Courtesy-, Service-, Logistic-, Quartering-, Extortion-, and all kinds of exaction Money, as it is Practiced in the Current, most Destructive War Policies, is nothing other than the Poor People's Sweat and Blood."(43) Ortelius's descriptions were general, rather than tied to any region, but they provided a learned rhetoric to buttress the claims of villages such as Grandenborn. What Grandenborn added to enhance the rhetoric were numbers to back up their claim. Only fifteen householders were included in the list; before the war there had been 82 households. Two rounds of plague had reduced the village population dramatically in 1626 and 1635, so the coming of the "Croatians" was just the culmination of a long string of disasters.
The regent and her council might have weighed Grandenborn's claims against those of other villages in the same district, but other districts reported comparable levels of damage. The desolate state of the village suffused every part of the report of the village of Rambach in 1639, and highlighted the general mood of despair with many of the same rhetorical techniques:
Today . . . the Herr Oberschultheiss from Wanfried called together the entire Gemeinde of Rambach by ringing the bell . . . there he saw with a saddened heart how pitifully more than half of the village lays in ashes and found those married people and how with much difficulty (as, alas, is clear) they run their households.
Widows, who run their own households, but are in utter poverty--2, one of whom has a bunch of poor little unkempt children.
Men, old and some of whom are infected and burdened with an evil raging disease, so that almost no one can be of any assistance to another--7
Widows who wander about aimlessly with their poor children and breed misery--6
Table of animals and what the village saved over winter--cows 2, sheep 0, horses 0, oxen 1, pigs 0, plows 1
A whole wagon with yoke could be put together in an emergency but we would not trust it to last one mile with just half a load.(44)
The responses of both Grandenborn and Rambach show how even the reporting of numbers could be used to paint a picture of misery and despair. Rambach's well-crafted reference to its one rickety wagon suggests that even late in the war there was room for rhetorical innovation. But innovation continued to be linked to traditional concerns and justifications, such as the collapse of "Schutz und Schirm" and the continuing oppressive burden of taxes and other exactions. For example, the response of the village of Reichensachsen was able to incorporate gruesome descriptions in a simple listing of the names of those who remained along with a numerical description.(45) First they mentioned that Claus Tholle had been killed by the Croatians and his body thrown into the fire, leaving his widow and children with nothing but a "miserable hut." But they concluded with a broader description:
NB We repeat that at the beginning of the invasion by Tilly in 1623 this village had 172 hearths, but after the terrible Croatian arson only 72, including the tiniest, remained and in the Gotzian passage another 12 burned down and other houses and barns were set on fire. Even though another 13 tiny houses now have been built, it does not help at all, and it is truly pitiable that we poor people have not had our contribution reduced by a single heller due to the great damage, and we once again beg for God's sake and in all submissiveness, that that might occur.(46)
It is unlikely that the villagers of Grandenborn, Rambach and Reichensachsen expected their pleas would lead to a reduction of their burdens. They had had ample opportunities to express their complaints before, without achieving redress. Traditionally, supplications had been framed as coming from the whole community ("ganze Gemeinde"); through them, the community had appealed to the lord for relief from burdens, help, or redress. Now, when no relief, help, or redress was forthcoming, the only function left for the supplications was expression of the communal experience. Adopting a piteous tone in correspondence with the administration became a means of reaffirming the shared experience of the locality in order to preserve a shattered sense of community. It provided a vocabulary that could be linked up with other descriptions that were not directed to the administration. Grandenborn's plea that God grant his gift of peace was one sign of how circumstances had created a much wider audience for supplications than had previously existed.
In the same year that Reichensachsen sent its message of despair to the regent, the pastor of the village began to keep a parish register for the village. The pastor was Lorenz Ludolf, whose comments about the indescribability of the suffering in his village were noted at the beginning of this paper. We may see Ludolf's initial plaint somewhat differently in light of the escalation of rhetoric which we have described. First, we must allow that his description did reflect the circumstances of his community. His claim that those who have not experienced such a thing cannot know how bad it is was not intended to disqualify historians from interpreting the event, but to invite us to come see for ourselves. His brief commentary on 1642 is just one of many accounts of suffering to be found in the parish register that he kept. Aside from the observation that he had to abandon keeping records of burials "in such difficult times," Ludolf's chronicle began with a general flight to Kassel on May 17, 1640, less than a year after the village sent its despairing message to the regent.(47) There is a small element of self-justification in the way that Ludolf described that flight, since he complains about how much work the situation forced on him; but he is also concerned to show that his parishioners had suffered greatly because of their flight. But the troubles of 1640 were just the beginning of Ludolf's observations.
In general, Ludolf's marginal notes in the parish register were more concerned with how the disruptions affected his spiritual duties and the physical condition of his parishioners than with taxes and contributions, which he never mentioned. The only person likely to read the descriptions outside of the village was the superintendent in Eschwege, who never mentions the tax burden or devastation as one of the topics of conversation between Ludolf and himself. But Ludolf would have had no need to remind the superintendent that the war was disruptive, since the superintendent, too, was forced to flee in June, 1640 and seek shelter in Kassel. It appears that Ludolf wanted to give vent to his frustration at being unable to protect his flock and to frame his understanding as a didactic lesson for his successors.(48)
As the duration of the flights increased, Ludolf made more of an effort to explain the situation of the villagers in vivid terms. In discussing the devastation of the fields he wrote "the little that we could sow in the winter anno 40 and also the summer crop was all eaten by mice, so we did not harvest much. One went to the fields to cut and the grain was stripped away so bare that one could not tell what kind of, or even if, grain had been planted there."(49) His attention to describing the circumstances of the village suggests that he was beginning to formulate a more personal chronicle of the meaning of these events. The problem of death and destruction no longer entailed trying to convince an external audience, but instead trying to make sense of it to himself, or to posterity. The result was an extraordinarily self-conscious reflection on audience and personal involvement. At the end of nearly eight pages of description of suffering and despair, Ludolf explains that "I must stop describing the situation, not only because it is impossible to describe it, but also because I did not undertake to write a chronicle of Reichensachsen, but instead to keep a catalogum baptizatorum et copulatorum."(50) The extraordinary character of the situation diverts him from his "regular" work and forces him to confront (he meaning of the events for himself.
Ludolf was given an opportunity to distill his personal observations on the effects of the war in June 1642, when Sabine von Boyneburg genannt von Hoinstein, the wife of one of the leading Grundherrn in the village, died and a funeral was held with a "respectable collection of the nobles and several villages." Ludolf presented the funeral oration, which he then wrote into the parish register. The oration undoubtedly was calculated to appeal to his local audience; but, of course, there was no need for Ludolf to persuade the villagers of Reichensachsen that they were suffering. His rhetoric of death and destruction had to serve a different purpose--to offer hope and give the suffering a meaning that could be cathartic. The work is suffused with comparisons between the Old Testament and the afflictions of Reichensachsen. After a preliminary section primarily in Latin, in which Ludolf makes frequent reference to passages from Psalms (especially Ps. lv, lvi, cxxxix, cxxxxii), there is a "Transition to our Current State," which recounts in greater detail the points of comparison between Reichensachsen and the afflicted of the Old Testament. As if to emphasize his credentials and the credentials of the villagers to interpret suffering in desperately new circumstances, Ludolf uses images from Amos vii. 14 and Zechariah xiii.5: "Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit." His use of these passages suggests that only prophetic insight can cope with the magnitude of events. Central to the imagery of Ludolf's oration are passages from Hosea, Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations (the same Old Testament prophets invoked by the Estates of Hesse in their report of 1624), which he links together with themes that were central to the experience of the villages in the region: "Protection," "Towns," "salva guardi," "Friendship and Neighborliness," "Men," "Wife and Children," "Nobles," "Church," "Houses," "Fields," "Town Hall," "The Dead." His exposition was punctuated by the exclamation "O, that we have sinned so much!" But as important as the imagery of the war as a punishment for sins was a redemptive image that concluded the service from I Thessalonians 5:23: "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The reference to "peace" in Thessalonians redirects our attention to how the genres of death and destruction narratives shifted towards the end of the war. We have already seen that a plea for peace was part of Grandenborn's depiction of its suffering in 1639. The yearning for peace became an alternative way of talking about death and destruction that served to revive hope in a desolated community. Peace had, of course, figured in pamphlets and correspondence from the beginnings of the war, but the failure of all other rhetorical strategies to find a way out of the war made the yearning for peace the most powerful image in the final years. According to the poets and pamphleteers in the 1640s, Germany "sighed" for peace, and when it finally came they "shouted with joy."(51) Ludolf elaborated on the benefits of peace in his funeral oration in a way that was certain to appeal to the hopes of his audience: "the lord grant that our sons grow up in their youth like plants and our daughters like the bay trees, and that our palaces and magazines be full, so that they can produce one supply after another, that our sheep bear a thousand and a hundred thousand in our villages."(52)
But the war extended for another six years after Ludolf's oration. The final years of the war brought no respite from hunger and occupation, nor from the constant flight which was now the standard response to the approach of troops. The final years of the war involved a fierce struggle between Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Darmstadt, which was waged in part in the Werra region.(53) The Werra remained a battlefield until the final year of the war. Ludolf reported that the villagers fled for eighteen weeks in 1646, and yet again in 1647, only to return to the village at Candlemas, 1648. This last threat to the Werra region was severe enough that the superintendent in Eschwege again fled to the security of Kassel for a brief period in 1647. All of these disruptions elicited some comment from Ludolf, as if by chronicling the events, he would better be able to judge the spiritual welfare of his flock and make the events intelligible to them.
The long, drawn-out negotiations in Westphalia heightened anticipation of the coming peace. When the peace treaty was completed, the circuit was closed and the experience of the war as a whole became fixed. The shared experience of the rhetoric of death and destruction contributed to the contemporary understanding of the chronological contours of the war, from the outbreak in Bohemia in 1618 to the end in Westphalia in 1648.(54) The coming of peace was a time of great rejoicing, in part because it provided a final cathartic moment for the locality. Even if it did not end all the suffering at the local level, it ended the process that gave that suffering such rhetorical force. The power of the yearning for peace and the cathartic moment also found expression in the Werra region. The von Boyneburg family greeted the news of the formal confirmation of the Treaties of Westphalia in Nuremberg on New Years Day, 1650, with a wish for "a blissful peace-full (friedensreiche) and peaceable (fridsamen) new year."(55)
The rhetoric of death and destruction in the Thirty Years War which found its culminating genre in the exultant descriptions of peace in 1649 and 1650 drew on rhetorical strategies that preceded the war. The vocabulary used by villagers was flexible enough to adapt to the fears and periodic crises that overcame the rural world for short periods of time. By its nature, it was localized and relatively infrequent. At first, the Thirty Years War expanded the range of that vocabulary, but eventually it exhausted it through overuse, until the abstract calls for penance and yearning for peace became at least as prevalent as more traditional forms of supplication. The vocabulary of despair thus spread through different genres and became available to diverse authors and audiences. All commentators adopted the strongest possible language of death and destruction and documented it as meticulously as they could because this seemed to be the only language adequate to deal with the magnitude of events.
The claims of destruction were embedded in social interaction which lent them plausibility and compelled the central authorities to accept that they could be accurate descriptions. This made the suffering real not only for those who wrote about it, but also for those who read about it. It is what elevates the rhetoric of death and destruction during the war above the more traditional rhetoric of supplication. The individual sense of both the rulers and the ruled was linked to the destructive events of the war through the sympathetic reiteration of the rhetoric. A collective memory of the tragic consequences of the war was created, which validated the experiences of the common people in a way that had rarely been done before. Those experiences would be recalled in supplications in the post war period; but they would be recalled as events in the past, from a distinct moment of unprecedented crisis. The rhetoric of death and destruction was not, therefore, simply a symptom of the war, it became part of the impact of the war.
Department of History Eugene, Oregon 97403-1298
1. Walter Kurschner, "Aus dem Kirchenbuch yon Reichensachsen (und Langenhain) von 1639-1653," Archiv fur Hessische Geschichte und Altertumskunde NF 9 (1913): 53.
2. Gunther Franz, Der Dreissigjahrige Krieg und das Deutsche Volk, 4th ed. (Stuttgart, 1979).
3. The classic examples from French history are Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Les Paysans de Languedoc 2 Vols. (Paris, 1966), Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 a 1730 (Paris, 1960), and Jean Jacquart, La Crise Rurale en Ile-de France 1550-1670 (Paris, 1974). I am unaware of any comparable regional studies for Germany covering the same time frame written since the Second World War. There is a fine study of the neighboring region of Belgium, which begins in the early years of the Thirty Years War, by Myron Gutmann, War and Rural Life in the Early Modern Low Countries (Princeton, 1980). A recent German work has reopened some of the issues of the social history of the war era: Bernd Roeck, Eine Stadt in Krieg und Frieden: Studien zur Geschichte der Reichsstadt Augsburg zwischen Kalenderstreit und Paritat 2 Vols. (Gottingen, 1989).
4. Gustav Freytag, Bilder aus der Deutschen Vergangenheit, Vol. 3 Aus dem Zeitalter des gro[Beta]en Krieges (Leipzig, 1888). For recent commentaries on the historiography of the social consequences of the Thirty Years War that cover much of this same material, see Gerhard Schormann, Der Dreissigjahrige Krieg (Gottingen, 1985), pp. 112-120 and T. K. Rabb, "The Effects of the Thirty Years' War on the German Economy," Journal of Modern History 34 (1962): 40-51.
5. This phrase comes from the title of a short pamphlet by Robert Ergang, The Myth of the All-Destructive Fury of the Thirty Years War (Pocono Pines, PA, 1956).
6. S. H. Steinberg, The 'Thirty Years War' and the Conflict for European Hegemony 1600-1660 (New York, 1966).
7. Gerhard Benecke, "The Problem of Death and Destruction in the Thirty Years War: New Evidence from the Middle Weser Front," European Studies Review 2 (1972): 250.
8. Ibid. pp. 245-46. In his book based on the same material, Benecke expresses himself somewhat differently. He calls Grimmelshausen's work the "simpleton's best-seller," as if to suggest that only a simpleton could believe that Grimmelshausen's fiction could contain elements of truth. Gerhard Benecke, Society and Politics in Germany 1500-1700 (London, 1974), p. 233. In another work, Benecke described the imposition of "reason of war" at the local level as a transforming force, but he viewed its imposition primarily from the perspective of the occupying troops rather than the local people affected by them. Gerhard Benecke, Germany in the Thirty Years War (London, 1979).
9. Schormann, citing Erdmannsdorfer, refers to the "usual contemporary 'superlatives of revulsion,'" p. 114.
10. See, for example, Henry Kamen, "The Economic and Social Consequences of the Thirty Years' War," Past and Present 39 (1968): 44-61. The best brief recent treatment by Christopher Friedrichs, in Geoffrey Parker, The Thirty Years War (London, 1984), pp. 208-215, takes the descriptions of death and destruction more seriously without directly addressing the question of their reliability. However, Friedrichs also extends the compromise between the extremes by estimating the percentage of population loss during the war at about the midpoint between the gloomy estimates of Gunther Franz and the optimistic figures of S. H. Steinberg, without providing much evidence to show that his figure is more accurate than either of theirs. Gutmann, pp. 32-36, gives a brief assessment of popular perceptions based primarily on the literary evidence, but is mostly concerned with measurable demographic indicators.
11. My attempt to identify the uses of rhetoric in shaping how people in a subordinate social position tried to persuade their superiors is inspired in part by Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France (Stanford, 1987). Traditional "Crises of the Old Type" have not been subjected to the same close analysis of language as have more prominent moments of cultural transition where the language of the common people begins to merge with elite discourse such as the French Revolution. A work that treats some of these themes in broad strokes is Peter Burke and Roy Porter, eds., The Social History of Language (Cambridge, 1987), though they avoid a direct analysis of the language of crisis.
12. The locus classicus is Aristotle's Rhetoric. See, for example, Davis, pp. 3-4 and 146-148 and Conrad Wiedemann, "Barocksprache, Systemdenken, Staatsmentalitat. Perspektiven der Forschung nach Barners 'Barockrhetorik'," in Internationaler Arbeitskreis fur Deutschen Barockliteratur Erstes Jahrestreffen (Wolfenbuttel, 1973), pp. 24-5. There is little work on "popular" rhetorical conventions in this period. The rich literature on rhetoric in the early modern period focuses almost exclusively on writers well schooled in the classics of rhetoric. See, Wilfried Barner, Barockrhetorik Untersuchungen zu ihren geschichtlichen Grundlagen, (Tubingen, 1970), Klaus-Peter Lange, Theoretiker des Literarischen Manierismus (Munich, 1968), Peter France, Rhetoric and Truth in France Descartes to Diderot (Oxford, 1972), and Marc Fumaroli, L'Age de l'Eloquence Rhetorique et "res literaria" de la Renaissance au seuil de l'epoque classique (Geneva, 1980).
13. David Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (New York, 1984).
14. Giulia Calvi, Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence trans. Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., (Berkeley, 1989).
15. Ibid., p. 9. She makes the suggestive argument that "The vulnerable human group redefines its own internal structures and amplifies them to include all those who have been subjected to the passage of disease. Thus redefined, the community encompasses the living and the dead, the professional, amateur and mythical healers. Memory and hope alternate in the experience of individual and collective time and act as dynamic motives in the social world of the stricken community."
16. On theatricality in the rhetoric of the Baroque see Barner, esp. pp. 86-131.
17. Hessian State Archives, Marburg (StAM) 5 12201, 1.3.1648 Kammerrate to Amalie Elisabeth.
18. This theme is discussed in greater detail in John Theibault, "Coping with the Thirty Years War: Villages and Villagers in Hesse-Kassel, 1600-1680," (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1986).
19. StAM 17/1 1002 5.1.1625 Hermann von Wersabe to Rate.
20. On the idea of Herrschaft as a process of negotiation, see Sabean, Power in the Blood and John Theibault, "Community and Herrschaft in the Seventeenth Century German Village," Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 1-21.
21. StAM 4h 531 3.11.1623 Wilhelm Bernhard von Hagen to Rate.
22. StAM 4h 531 3.1.1624 Philipp Scholley to Rate.
23. Fritz Redlich, "Contributions in the Thirty Years' War," Economic History Review 12/13 (1959/1960): 147-154 and Moriz Ritter, "Das Kontributionssystem Wallensteins," Historische Zeitschrift 90 (1903): 193-249.
24. StAM 73 32, 31.08.1624, Stande to Landgraf Moritz.
25. StAM 4h 502, Landgrave Moritz to Rate, 23.7.1623. Moritz used these terms in a consultation with his council in a "propositio" on whether Catholic troops under Collalto should be conceded the right to pass through Hessian territory or should be met with a hastily assembled army. In a letter to Tilly of 31.10.1623, Moritz wrote plaintively that the countryside should be spared further burdens because of their poverty.
26. StAM 4h 753, Tilly to Moritz, 4.11.1626.
27. See Paul Hohenemser, ed., Flugschriften Sammlung Gustav Freytag (repr. Hildesheim, 1966) entry #4964, p. 325.
28. Martin Opitz, Gesammelte Werke Vol. 1, pp. 194-95.
29. There is an interesting case of a villager in Wurttemberg who "collected" pamphlet literature and pinned it on his walls described in Sabean, Power and the Blood, p. 88.
30. An obvious reason for the preponderance of Protestant literature on death and destruction before 1631 is that it was primarily Protestant-held territory that was being destroyed. This did not keep Catholic propagandists from adopting some of the terms of devastation that Protestants used so freely. See, for example the title of a 1625 pamphlet: "Mann[Beta]feldische Ein- und Wasserbruche Ins H. Rom. Reich und angrantzende Lander: Das ist, Unergrundtliches Mann[Beta]feldisches Kriegs Meer, darinn er mit seiner undergehabten . . . Kriegs Armeen . . . das gantze Romische Reich und Angrantzendte Lander, jammerlich zu versenken understanden." Flugschriften #5271, p. 349.
31. See especially the complaint by the Gemeinde zu Rittmannshausen to Landgrave Moritz, StAM 23a, 15.4.1626, where they speak of the "ganz unnotige und verderbliche salva guardi."
32. StAM 17d v. Boyneburg, Unv. Paket 19, 12.4.1626.
33. The most recent treatment of these events is Volker Press, "Hessen im Zeitalter der Landesteilung (1567-1655)," in Walter Heinemeyer, ed., Das Werden Hessens (Marburg, 1986), p. 302-304. See also Franz v. Geyso, "Beitrage zur Politik und Kriegfuhrung im Zeitalter des Drei[Beta]igjahrigen Krieges," Zeitschrift fur Hessische Geschichte 53 (1921): 1-115 and Uta Kruger-Lowenstein, Die Rotenburger Quart (Marburg, 1979).
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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