After reading so much military history, it’s easy to become blase about war. Endless battles, sieges, marches, treaties, mutinies, endless analysis of maneuvers both political and military. And even though I’m studying one of the more horrific events in history, the sheer numbers of well, everything, can make it difficult to comprehend the true human costs.
Lauro Martines seeks to address these issues in an unusual social history of early modern European warfare. I was excited to read this book. Finally, I’d get the lowdown on what it was like to be a lowly enlisted man, a camp follower, a civilian during a siege, or a peasant forced to “host” a passing army. While I am certainly better-informed after reading it, I am also much sadder. Frankly, this book was a real bummer.
Furies: War in Europe takes a close look at the ugly underbelly of war. Far removed from high-level policy and the requirements of state, the average person paid a horrendous price for the decisions of their leaders. While the realities of war are always worse than we like to imagine, they were particularly grim in the early modern period.
Martines begins by recounting some particularly gruesome anecdotes related by eyewitnesses at various battles and sieges around Europe. I was familiar with most of them, but having them told one right after another left a deeper impression.
In the early modern period, warfare was business. Noblemen and resourceful commoners raised money and armies in a bid to make more money, acquire property and increase social standing. It benefited the recruiters to pay as little and as late as possible, forcing soldiers to scrounge food where they could, often taking it from the local population by force. Underpaid soldiers relied on what they could plunder from civilians to make up the shortfall in their income. It was a system that encouraged abuse.
Sackings of wealthy cities were brutal affairs. Plundering armies ran riot, raping, killing and stealing with impunity. On the rare occasions that commanders sought to temper the violence, they often didn’t succeed.
Being stuck inside a besieged city was potentially worst of all. Martines provides some vivid anecdotes provided by those who lived inside cities like Sancerre and La Rochelle during lengthy sieges. Starvation and plague became the norm for besieged and besieger during any such event that went on for more than a few months.
At the time it was normal for soldiers to bring their families with them, so most armies had at least as many civilian hangers-on as it did soldiers. In addition, thousands of horses and pack animals needed food. The science of logistics was in its infancy (to put it very kindly), so armies frequently had to fend for themselves because their leaders were unable to provide sufficient supplies. It was not uncommon for soldiers to be starving, shoeless and wearing rags while expected to march and fight.
Even if anyone had worried about hygiene practices, they would have been difficult to implement in military camps of the time. When quartered in residences, soldiers slept three to a bed at least, which made transmission of disease particularly easy. Armies were known for spreading plague across the countryside and that was often even more devastating than other activities.
And those other activities were often terrible. Soldiers quartered on towns and villages routinely turfed out the residents in all kinds of weather, leaving them to starve and freeze to death during a period of unusually harsh winters. When they left, they often picked the area clean, taking any food stores, clothing, household implements and furniture. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that the majority of Germany’s population died during the course of the Thirty Years War.
Martines also addresses religious fanaticism as a factor in heightening the miseries of war. From the 1520’s on, the Protestant Reformation led to outbreaks of violence all over Europe as the forces of Roman Catholicism battled to maintain control. Civilians in besieged cities were often told it was better to die than surrender to the heretics outside, and any atrocity against the other side’s unbelievers was excused, and even encouraged.
After upsetting us with endless stories of atrocity, Martines concludes by explaining how constant warfare not only harmed populations directly, but frequently undermined states because of the incredible cost. There was no country rich enough to afford sustained war. Even Spain, with the vast riches brought from the New World, saw its treasury quickly depleted by its eighty-year war with the Dutch.
Martines argues that rulers and politicians of the time made a concerted effort to divert attention away from any moral questions surrounding war and its attendant atrocities (hm, sound familiar?) and that it’s only by bringing the plight of the common person to light those questions can finally be addressed.
I’m certainly not an expert, but it seemed to me there was little new information here, but that wasn’t the point. Rather, it was a collection of things we already know, but presented in a way to create the greatest impact. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys military or social history, or both.by