Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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