The overseer was wringing his hands, invoking Christ and christian love, but that did not help in the end. He was hit in the head with the flat of a sword and slumped down to the ground.
The overseer’s wife Jarmila was in even greater danger. She was young and good looking. After the death of his first wife, the overseer had been married again to a young woman from a nearby village, who knew how to keep things in order on the farm. But this was not like the daily bossing around of a couple of handmaids. Jarmila managed to stay hidden during the entire time of the soldiers’ rampage. When she heard that they had forced their way into the building, she hoped that she would manage to stay unnoticed, quickly sneak into the barn and hide somewhere in that spacious dark place. However, she picked the worst possible moment to enact her plan and suddenly, she was standing face to face with two surprised soldiers, who took the farm to be deserted already.
Matthias was a German from Chojnice and he had only joined the Swedes after the Danish campaign and so he had not been in the company for much longer than Erdhart. He barged into the farmstead with confidence and began to cram everything of value that crossed his path into a small suitcase. While the others were carrying away the supplies, food and items of everyday use, Matthias had stuffed his luggage with forgotten pewter dishes, silver cutlery and an ornamental belt. And suddenly he knew exactly in what way could the farm serve him even more.
Jarmila managed to dodge the hands reaching out for her and flee towards the hayloft. She had always been afraid of heights and under normal circumstances, nobody would be able to force her up the ladder to the high hayloft. But now not only her life, but also her dignity were at stake. While she was scaling the ladder in panic fear, she could feel the soldiers clawing after her and pulling her skirts. With her last remaining strength, she swung to the top and kicked down the ladder behind her. Full of fear and feeling helpless, she crouched behind a heap of hay and tried not to make even the smallest sound.
In the end, both soldiers stopped caring about the unfortunate young woman. Orders concerning the organization of the loot and next order of business started to echo from the yard. They were both about to take a lot of things away from the farm and did not want the others to divide their loot amongst themselves while they were away. And so they both chuckled and left the terrified Jarmila alone. They could get theirs any given evening anyway - sometimes even for free if they were clever.
Eventually, the farm started to burn. None of the soldiers lit the fire knowingly but they were not keen on putting it out either. Maybe a knocked over candle was to blame, or a piece of a match thrown away or other consequence of the rampage of the soldiers.
Finally, the company moved on early in the afternoon and long after that, a tall pillar of grey smoke rising toward the sky was visible.
Scenes of the raging and plundering soldiery are exactly what comes to mind with the mention of the Thirty Years’s War. This brutal way of the soldiers’ earning their livelihood already served as inspiration for paintings and engravings during the conflict.
The Thirty Years’ War brought unprecedented amounts of suffering upon the civilian population. Its geographical scope, duration and the fact that it was taking place at the height of the mercenary system of warfare caused economic decline and with it, directly and indirectly, an enormous amount of casualties among the general population of the war stricken regions. This was not just due to the actions of the enemy forces. At the end of the day, it did not matter to the subjects whether they had to pay contributions to the army of the enemy or of their own. They could expect plundering from their foes as well as seizures from their own.
Many Bohemian and Moravian cities had terrifying experiences with the Swedish army during its campaigns of 1643, 1645 and even later. In the records of many castles and forts, the note “and in the year 1643/1645/1647, the castle/fort had been conquered/burned by the Swedes” can be found. The Swedish rampage in Bohemia and Moravia in 1645 also had a deep impact on the demographic and geographic development of the Czech lands - the population had shrunk and many populated places ceased to exist.
Not that the imperial soldiers were not capable of committing great atrocities on the indigenous population. Many letters from that period complained about the imperial soldiery as much as about the Swedish conquerors.
The main means of obtaining supplies and finances for an army was the collection of the so called contributions. This practice meant basically a legal right of the army to be paid (in money or in resources). Enemy forces that captured a particular territory, had from their position of the occupying force the right to enforce contributions.
And so for example on 22nd March, the Swedish quartermasters demanded 6000 imperial tolars from Lipnice. This figure was justified by the need to support three regiments. Usually, the value of the demanded contributions ranged from 1500 to 6000 imperial tolars, but the amounts would often be much higher. Cities and estates would also try various ways to reduce the total amount paid through negotiation and bribery.
But what did a pile of money like that actually mean in the price ratios during the Thirty Years’s War period? For a basic idea: a daily ration of food amounted to roughly 9 kreuzers. 1 imperial tolar amounted to 90 kreuzers. It can be stated that those 6000 imperial tolars could pay roughly for 60,000 daily rations of food. A common musketeer earned 6 gulden (florints), which corresponded with roughly 4 imperial tolars. And so the demanded sum equalled the wages of 1500 musketeers. However, the wages of the officers were considerably higher. The size of the individual regiments oscillated around 600 soldiers. Therefore, a single contribution in itself could not even keep the army going for a month, but the Swedish army required contributions wherever it went.
To a certain extent, the system of contributions had a set of established rules. A chosen officer would arrive in a city, bearing a patent that stated the required amount of the contribution and the date by which it had to be handed over. The time limit gave the representatives of the city a certain degree of space for negotiations. And so their first step would often be to ask their lords - the Bohemian Council of the Royal Chamber (Česká komora) - for instructions on how to approach the Swedish demands. If the contributions were not paid, a retribution followed. Burning of villages, plundering and using the inhabitants’ houses for the soldiers’ quarters against their will. And there was little hope for the unfortunate cities that they could resist the Swedish superior numbers.
While in the first years of the Swedish incursions, for example during the campaign of general Banner in 1639, the cities were still daring enough to resist, employing tough negotiations, and it took three months before the Swedish army resorted to a threat of violence by the burning of several buildings that belonged to the the city, the situation in 1645 was different and attitudes more ruthless. The Swedish forces under the command of Torstensson did not hold back. The field marshal, depleted by his poor health and famous for his harsh nature, never much curbed in his soldiers. For him, plundering the enemy territory represented an absolutely legitimate strategic element of warfare.
Therefore, besides the contributions, it was time to employ another way for the soldiers to leech off the conquered land - looting and pillaging.
The inhabitants of the conquered cities suffered the most. To an extent, there was a direct relationship between the length of the siege and the bravery of the resistance and the brutality of the plunder that followed. The sack of Magdeburg by the imperial armies and the forces of the Catholic League on 20 May 1631 can serve as the most typical example. An event that entered history as Magdeburg’s Wedding, during which almost the entire city was burned to the ground and only a sixth of the population survived, was significantly influenced by the fact that the imperial soldiers had not been paid for a long time and they suffered great losses during the prolonged two-month siege. When the city was finally conquered, complete disaster broke out. The imperials slaughtered indiscriminately and took everything that they came across.
Looting is governed by mob mentality and the will of the many eventually possesses everyone. Mass psychosis opens the floodgate of the most savage mental processes. That is how the testimonials of rape, torture and murder by the pillaging soldiers came to be.
All this making the fact that for soldiers, looting was sometimes the only way of obtaining the basic necessities of life, all the more unfortunate. The supplies were always scarce when an army was on the move.
The sack of Magdeburg is all the more interesting as an example for being written about by Peter Hagendorf in his journal.
As I was now bandaged up, my wife went into the city, even though it was completely on fire, since she wished to fetch a cushion and cloth for me to lie on and for the dressings. I also had our sick child lying with me. But then there came a great outcry in the camp that the houses of the city were all collapsing on top of each other so that many soldiers and their wives who had wanted to loot were trapped. But I was more concerned about my wife on account of the sick child than on account of my own injuries. Yet God protected her. She got out of the city after one and a half hours with an old woman from the city. This woman, who had been the wife of a sailor, had led her out and helped her carry bedding. My wife also brought me a large tankard of four measures34 of wine and had, in addition, also found two silver belts and clothes, which I later redeemed for twelve thalers at Halberstadt. That evening my companions came by, each honouring me by giving me something, a thaler or a half thaler.
Not only the soldiers, but also their spouses took part in looting. Clothes, bandages and other small equipment represented indispensable necessities of life for the soldiers and their spouses knew exactly what to look for and what to seize to make the life of a military family more bearable. The beddings and tablecloths of the inhabitants of cities were made out of quality linen and as such they could be used not only as bedsheets and for bandages, but also for example for a new shirt. For a common soldier, these basic items had bigger value than say a golden candlestick. In this excerpt from Hagendorf’s journal, the attitude of the soldiers towards looting is also apparent. They took it for granted, they considered it a part of their military lives. Although even Hagendorf himself wondered about the ruin of the city.
Nevertheless, I was deeply saddened that the city burned so horribly, both on account of the city’s beauty and because it is my fatherland.
In another passage from a different time, Hagendorf again rejoices over some looted linen. Textiles were important because in field conditions, clothes would not last forever. And that is why in 1645, the Swedes also offered to the inhabitants of the Kutná Hora city to waive a part of the contributions if they supplied them with larger amounts of quality cloth.
However, this does not mean that while looting, the soldiers did not pay attention to valuables. Considering that their pay was low and irregular, any other opportunity to gain some money was very welcome.
In some situations, wanton looting was severely punished. The following general order of the imperial army issued on the 1st August 1641 can serve as an example.
Swearing will be punished the first the according to the discretion of the authorities; thereafter it is punishable with death. Stealing a cow or a horse secretly or by force will without judgement and investigation and without mercy be punished by hanging. If one is in possession of a stolen horse and cannot show from whom it was purchased, he will be punished as if he were their thief. Whoever mistreats or tortures a civilian or attacks anyone on the highway will pay with his life.
However, orders such as this one only applied on domestic soil or when it came to populations protected by a Salva Guardia or when such behaviour was strictly prohibited (e.g. for strategic or diplomatic reasons).
In the case of a hostile environment, plundering was considered just another means of warfare.
A farm near Pirnitz fell victim to an exemplary punishment by fire and sword for not paying the contributions in that region. Livestock, grain and forage was taken and delivered to the rest of the army. Other than that, valuables and small spoils enriched the company with which Georg Erdhart marched towards Vienna. Erdhart himself was taking away enough material for a new shirt and he sent the rest of the spoils to his wife.
In the spring of 1645, the Swedish troops and the commander in chief Torstensson were still masters of the situation in spite of all the problems. The army quickly pushed towards Vienna and in its tracks, lay sacked estates and ruin.
For the entire collective, we would like to extend our gratitude to the open-air museum of folk buildings in Rymice (Soubor lidových staveb Rymice) for providing their premises and facilities. We absolutely recommend visiting the picturesque village of Rymice and the local open-air museum to all of you who have not yet had the opportunity to do use.