So it was, one fated evening after a long patrol, Greek joined a card game. Playing against a corporal named Hanz Burge from Salzburg. Burge left Salzburg fleeing large debts and angry debtors. By that time Burge’s weakness for cards and poor business sense had already cost him two toes on his left foot, and he had suffered death threats. Never having pictured himself as a soldier, he certainly wasn’t looking for the career that found him. One night while on the run a recruiter filled his head with tales of riches won in battle, and leaving ones past life behind them. Burge signed up that night. The recruiter did prove honest in the end, no one in the company cared about Burge’s past life, and he was often able to top up his wages with loot from battle. So good to him was this life that Burge could no longer imagine a life outside of the army.
When the cards were first dealt Greek had no idea that Burge was a swindler. At first the game was going in Greek’s favour, but Burge’s suspect behaviour gave enough clues to his dishonest nature. Suspecting Burge, Greek waited until Burge began squirming again, and loudly announced to anyone that would listen that he had trouble with lice. Suddenly, Greek adroitly closed the distance between him and Burge, Seizing Burge’s wrist and pulling it from his pants from where he was ‘scratching’, Greek uncovered the card he had concealed therein. The discovered card would have given Burge a perfect winning hand. In the midst of spilt wine and flying cards the men fought.
Greek was an excellent soldier, and had performed with ruthless and exquisite efficiency in countless fights before this one. But now, knowing his opponent to be a swindler and an Austrian, he was overcome with blood lust and could not stop himself. Pulling a knife, Greek cleanly stabbed Corporal Hanz Burge three times in the neck. Only when Burge was in his death throes, with Greek spitting insults at the dying man, did anyone truly realise the scene that had just unfolded. By then, it was too late.
Burge was beyond saving. Clutching his throat, eyes strained, wheezing and kicking, it was a horrific sight, and it was all over in less than a minute. Burge was dead.
It wasn’t until Burge was dead that Greek had calmed and realised what he had done. Unfortunately for Greek the commotion caused had caught the attention of one of the provost’s men, and soon thereafter the Provost himself. They took Greek and beat him mercilessly with staffs until he was barely conscious, and then they put him in shackles and dragged him to the Captain.
Greek’s prospects were bleak. While the Captain had the authority to pass sentence, there were so many other transgressors that the Captain chosen to delegate and called for a judge to come and oversee proceedings.
Shackled to the porch of the house the Captain was billeted in, Greek waited three days under guard, eating only stale bread and drinking water.
Finally, the Judge arrived with his whole retinue, including the Hangman. He passed sentences, and adjudicated on punishments. Nine men were on trial, charged with all manner of offences, including murder, rape, theft, and even falling asleep while on watch. Of the nine, five were sentenced to death by hanging, one by gunshot, and three received heavy corporal punishments. Military law can be merciless. But in Greeks case, it was not a particularly hard sentence to pass, he had after all been seen killing a fellow soldier and comrade. So, Alesandro Gerikaris, a mercenary nicknamed Greek, was sentenced by court martial to death by hanging.
This tale is short, and gloomy, but we are given an excellent example of the value of Georg as a primary source for military life during the Thirty Years War. We saw interesting themes in this introductory episode such as gambling in the army, and the realities and practice of Military law on the march. Future episodes will revisit these themes, and follow the same structure.
Illustrations and depictions of soldiers playing cards, or gambling by other means, were very popular among 17th century painters. We could mention the paintings of David Teniers Junior, Peter Quast and Peter Sneyers as examples.
These depictions show us more than just gambling. Gambling came hand in hand with other activities, drinking of course but smoking too, as by the 17th century pipes were common. After all a military life was not an easy one, nor was it very entertaining. Soldiers often had to endure extended periods of idleness, in the field and during sieges, which could last months. The few available tasks such as patrolling, offered little release from the monotony. Soldiers therefore were often in search of distraction, moments to brighten the gloom. Gambling was obviously common, it also offered a chance at the thrill of victory, and some extra cash besides.
Gambling, and specifically card games at the time of the Thirty Years War, often manifested in games such as ‘Piquet’, especially in Germany. Originally a Spanish card game, it was first mentioned in 1532 in the novel “The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel”. The game spread quickly in the 17th century, gaining great popularity and is even played to this day. Card games with principles, rules, trumps and scoring cards were quite popular.
Despite its transparent presence, gambling and the accompanying habits were often frowned upon, and if possible restricted by the command structure. The activities themselves were seen as degenerate, but more importantly corrosive to an armies cohesion, morals and discipline. Even in the absence of cheats and swindlers, alcohol combined with loss and frustration all tied together with gambling is a recipe for trouble. Fortune after all could not be with everyone at the table, and every loss risked confrontation.
So it was that this kind of entertainment was forbidden, or at least heavily restricted and policed. After all, armies survival was completely dependent on cohesion and discipline, especially in armies made of varied mercenaries. In part due to this, beginning in the 16th century, armies became increasingly regulated by their own legal systems, establishing order and securing discipline among soldiers and officers.
The disassociation of soldiers with civilians began in the 16th century, soldiers were seen less and less as citizens and more and more as separate entities. Armies therefore adopted the practice of maintaining order with their own laws and judges. This practice had changed very little by the time of the thirty years war, but the war itself would extensively evolve military law interpretations well into the 17th and 18th centuries. Simply outlined, the responsibility of maintaining order fell to the regimental level. A part of the officers body was a regimental judge, a regimental advocate, court officials and in some cases even executioners and hangmen. Such examples can be seen in Swedish Regiments around 1632, which included two judges (Shults), a hangman, and a regimental advocate (Gerichts webell). In addition there were four provosts, an early styling of Military Police, called ‘profost marshalls’.
Trials, or court martials, were led by the regimental judge, largely referred to a ‘Schultheiss’ in central Europe (or in a Swedish regiment, simply ‘schultz’). Judgment was often passed according to the will of the regiments commanding officer. At the time of the Thirty Years War such trials, or ‘standrecht’, were widely used to maintain order. It was an effective and efficient way of publicly punishing an offender without delay.
The responsibility to maintain day to day order fell to the lower ranks of the regimental hierarchy. The men charged with these duties were usually specially appointed officers and non-commissioned officers, usually titled as ‘provosts’, and rarely known as anything else. These provosts would have their own subordinates, making up an early military police force.
These men kept order in the camps. Provosts ensured that soldiers behaved and that they respected the vendors and tradesmen that travelled with and supplied the army. In some instances of Habsburg armies there even existed the post of ‘Hurenwebel’. A post created for the protection of the un-married women who travelled with the army, and offered their services to lonely soldiers, at cost of course. While the leaders of armies often disliked this kind of female companion in their army, they tolerated them all the same, understanding that it was unfeasible to forbid such services.
These regulations were clearly detailed in military law books. Therein articles on the more frequent and predictable crimes and violations were noted, together with suggested punishments for such offences. Soldiers were also expected to be aware of these regulations, as they were often read to the regiment during mustering. The extent to which soldiers did know and understand these regulations is uncertain however.
Up until the Thirty Years War these laws were pretty similar between armies and through the eras. It was often a case that the high command would take existing principles and adapted them to suit the conditions of a campaign. Arguably, the most popular orders were those established by Maurice Nassau in 1590, and later by Gustav Adolf II 1621, and by Ferdinand I in 1526. The latter order was later modified by Charles V and Maximillian II, it remained in use until the end of the Thirty years War. All of these orders were wide spread, printed in many places and into different languages. The Code of Gustav Adolf II for example was translated no only into German, but also into English. It had also seen many reprints, even as late as 1647, fifteen years after the authors death.
These military orders were largely devoted to detailing violations of a soldiers duty. Examples such as not attending to a watch or guard duty, sleeping or drinking while on watch, as well as ill-treatment of weapons, equipment, and camp quarters.
There was also a certain focus on a soldiers religious practices. Requiring soldiers to behave as good Christians, to not use profane language and of course to attend prayers. The use of these regulations was likely controversial during the Thirty Years War, given the culture of rebellion against dictatorial worship practices in military subculture.
Naturally, commanders actively tried to restrict soldiers opportunities to break discipline. Soldiers had restrictions on the right to gather in groups, communicating with the enemy, leaving the campsite, and so on. Soldiers were even expected to perform labouring tasks such as fortifying the camp, or digging latrines, without complaint. Punishments for disobedience were harsh. Other articles of these legal mandates cover behaviour towards civilians and their property. These laws covered more than just behaviour, the camp, and the march however. Grave regulations and punishments for cowardice on the battlefield were written about extensively.
While instigators in brawls, fights, duels and of course murders were often treated to the death sentence, Punishments for lighter offence were comparatively light. Examples of such punishments included being clapped in irons, running the gauntlet, the wooden mule, a beating etc. Other laws governed decency however, Swedish law utilised some interesting alternatives to punishment. For example, if a soldier was caught with a woman who was not his wife, in case they were both unmarried, he would be required to marry her, and treat her as his rightful wife.
This raises the question, how strictly were these regulations observed, policed and executed? Rules were often bent, for example there was a practice of promising soldiers the plunder of conquered cities. This in fact was often the only motivation to encourage soldiers to attack heavily defended fortifications. The same practice was often applied to enemy territory. This would redefine a more selfish pursuit for wealth, into a sanctioned plundering. With looting being a crime and plundering being a strategy, a distinction was mandated. This is an example of one of the many legal paradoxes of the time. Another example would be that during a campaign, with death a constant companion, overzealous executions could do more harm than any enemy. What would the sentence be therefore if there were for example a dozen offenders? To execute them all would deplete the morale of the unit, as well as cripple its battle readiness. In these cases it was a common practice to select only a couple exemplary offenders for punishment. Selection could be decided by chance, or by the fate of game. Severity or leniency could be decided, for example, in a game of dice. This scene is a classic motive on painting from this period, it became most “popular” thanks to the engraving by Jacques Callot.
We could therefore justly suppose that a significant number of offences calling for the death sentence were negated in favour of less severe punishment. Imprisonment, fines, corporal punishment, property confiscation, degradation, or anything else that the officers could think of. Another reason for negated or reduced sentences might be pay stoppages. Discipline crashed when troops weren’t paid, and as one Dutch author said in 1650: “One could not hang those whom one did not pay”.
What we have discussed thus far might give the impression that military law focussed on the common soldier only, but regulations was as strict for the soldiery as it was for the officers and commanders. They were subject to different rules of course. For example, one could hardly accuse a senior officer of falling asleep on watch if he had no such duties. Greater emphasis was however placed on exemplifying the armies ideals of honour, and bravery. Cowardice or treason received heavy punishments therefore. So much as being accused of treason could mean that any given officer was only a step away from execution.
A whole other chapter would be offences and punishments not covered by military order. It was a common practice, especially before the Thirty years War, that officers would pass flippant or arbitrary sentences at will. In some cases the abuse of power went so far as to lead to mutiny. There was a specific case in a Spanish army in the 16th century. Soldiers made their voices heard, and made terms with their officers that every corporal and non-corporal punishment must be rightfully justified and based on a provable offence.
Life in a 17th century army was far from easy, especially from the view of maintaining discipline and order. Georg Erdhart was fortunate to never find in any such situations as those above. Not that he was guiltless. His own small offences of too much alcohol from time to time, gambling occasionally and sometimes taking an unobserved break while digging the trenches, went unnoticed and he escaped the punishment.
Writen by Tomáš Koch to proper english translated and edited by Nicholas Weaver