V. All That Was Not Nailed Down...

Chapter V. All That Was Not Nailed Down...

We marched through southern Bohemia, a beautiful land, and everything around us was starting to turn green. We were advancing quickly and wherever they refused to open their gates for us, we took by storm.

After the Battle of Jankau, Bohemia, Moravia and the neighbouring Austrian territories found themselves at the mercy of the Swedes. The defeated remains of the imperial army retreated towards Prague and bits and pieces of its ranks were scattered all around and could hardly resist the Swedes. For Torstensson, this meant a triumph which he needed to exploit and so he rushed the Swedish army away from Jankau to the southeast, towards Vienna.

By then, the soldiers had been on the move for three months and after the difficult battle and the campaign that preceded it, the army was not in top condition. The supply chain was struggling due to the long distances and the army was forced to take whatever they needed. By force, if no other option presented itself. The Bohemia lands had already had experience with Swedish raids from the previous years, for example on 14 June 1642, Olomouc had been conquered, but now the situation seemed to be utterly hopeless.

The way the Swedes acted during their campaigning through Bohemia and Moravia can be gleaned from the preserved letters to the Bohemian Council of the Royal Chamber (Česká komora). A letter from March 13th, written in what is now a ruined castle, Lichnice, by the regional governor of the Čáslav region Arnošt Rabenhaupt (also known as Robmhap) from Suchá, can serve as an example. The letter was addressed to Bohemian governors. The letter stated that the Swedes had reached Deutschbrod three days ago with four thousand horses, demanded to be paid a ransom of 16,000 tolars and treated the inhabitants badly. They set Chotěboř and Světlá nad Sázavou on fire and successfully coerced for a delivery of oats and sent requests to the inhabitants and clerks to force negotiations about a tribute. The fire in Světlá had been successfully extinguished, despite its being started in four different locations. Parties of two to three hundred horsemen were riding through the region, causing severe damage. The main force of the enemy was allegedly positioned near Jihlava.

The situation took a quick turn and so another letter followed on 17th March. A Swedish tribute writ was attached to it, meaning a message in which the payment of a contribution was demanded, and the information that the Swedes had arrived at Lichnice with artillery and were burning the castle and the surrounding settlements. A report of the conquest and sacking of Iglau on  March 13th was attached as well.

The situation was similar all over Bohemia. Armies in the 17th century would always try to squeeze as much as possible out of the conquered territories and the one under Torstensson’s command was not an exception. Wherever the Swedes arrived, they would always demand a tribute, a payment of a tax and a promise to grant the so-called Salva Guardia.

A Salva Guardia was a document that was supposed to protect its receptor (which could be a city or an estate or an otherwise specified territory) from plunder, violence and paying tributes. However, the issuing of such a document was definitely not cheap and so Salva Guardias promised by Swedish officers amounted to nothing more than to legalized mob-like protection money that, at the end of the day, did not necessarily have any effect. If an estate decided to curb the enemy’s rampage in this manner, its stewards were risking the danger of being punished for collaborating with the enemy.

On the 7th of April, the warden of the estate of Ledeč nad Sázavou Maxmilián van der Steghen wrote a letter to the Bohemian governor, in which he described his negotiations with the Swedes. After the Battle of Jankau, the Swedes made their way to this region as well and were posing a threat to the local castle. Van der Steghen asked in vain for instructions from the regional governors and “following the lead of the local lords”, he accepted a Salva Guardia from the Swedes and promised to pay them taxes. He was excusing his behaviour as being unavoidable and necessary and pleaded that his actions were not held against him.

And so the people of the Czech lands were met with hard times. Many settlements were burned to ashes and their inhabitants scattered in all directions. Cities had to suffer the presence of quarters of officers and soldiers, not only the Swedish ones, but also of their own. Misery ruled all around and there was a general uncertainty about where the enemy would turn their attention next and where the Swedish riders would appear on the horizon.

During the Swedish march through the Czech lands, the majority of the army consisted of a cavalry. For this kind of irregular warfare, during which the main target was the civilian population and the supplies, a cavalry was the most suitable. Their speed of manoeuvres, their capability to transport cargo and their efficiency in battle destined them for exactly these types of missions. However, the infantry was not idling either. Erdhart’s company came into the picture as well. The aim was simple - to coerce the populace into paying tributes or to take everything that was needed by force. The high command gave them free reign in all respects.

The Farm

After the Battle of Jankau, a strange mood fell upon the soldiers. It was generally known that they were winning, and the campaign was a success. But the pace of the march was merciless, the supplies were thin, and every commanding officer would rather have the supply chain supported with tributes than to pay out of their own pocket. There was no time to recover from the winter campaign in peace and exhausted soldiers without sufficient supplies meant trouble, even though morale was high thanks to the victory.

Georg Erdhart barely managed to recover from the horrors after the Battle of Jankau before immediately taking his place, marching with the rest of the company. Each individual soldier, be it a simple musketeer or a mounted officer, had to internally absorb the immense mental strain of the moments of the battle and grab onto the thing that was intimately familiar to them. The campaign and the march forth. It was only during the evenings and spare moments that the soldiers would exchange stories and put together the complete picture of what they had actually gone through.

Not everyone returned to the regiment and the company. Some, like lieutenant Mörner, were no longer capable to continue their service. Some were bed-bound in garrisons and quarters due to injuries or disease. Some simply disappeared. And new faces took their place. These were the captives who had joined the Swedes but also new recruits.

The many new faces did not exactly lighten anybody’s mood and for Erdhart, it was a relief when the entire regiment dispersed into companies, which all went about their individual tasks. The bulk of the army had to cover a considerable stretch of eastern Bohemia. Every day, groups of horsemen rode out in all directions and nobody was idle.

Erdhart had experienced this type of warfare before. He knew that any army always lives off the land through which it moves, and he personally took part in various supply runs. Together with everyone around him, he celebrated vigorously when the provisions of beer, wine and food made their way to the soldiers from the conquered city of Iglau.

That day, 13th March, we took Iglau by storm, nobody would believe how many barrels of wine and beer kegs we took away from there. And for three days, even the lowest servant could feel like a king.

Every soldier understood the difference between the occasional plunder and an organized extraction of supplies from the populace. But not everyone respected it. Erdhart had witnessed the occasional cruelties committed on common people, the burning of houses and plundering of everything within reach. He was no saint and on several occasions during his time in the army, the all-consuming thrill of looting took the better of him too. It was easy to succumb to the mass hysteria caused by an opportunity to get richer. However, possibly knowingly, perhaps unwittingly, he did not partake with quite the same verve as the others. In his bitter experience, the most enthusiastic reavers would either not last long in the army or would be met with the officers’ exhausted patience and end up swinging from ropes, decorating the tree branches. Erdhart did not wish to belong to either of the two groups and so he usually managed to simply ignore the wild and passionate plundering.

The moment the people resisted and did not pay the tax, everything changed. Even the officers, who would otherwise try to prevent ferocious plunder, would then order to pillage, burn and commit violence. And so the rampage was officially sanctioned by a command, a crime became a war effort again and everyone was excited to earn a little loot for themselves. The companies would take turns in this activity and even though this was mostly work suitable for the cavalry, the infantry often joined in.

Harsh payback for not paying the tax also befell a farm between Iglau and Pirnitz. Even though this area was heavily impacted by the tax imposed by the imperial army, compared to the ravaged lands in the north of Germany and Saxony, there was still enough for the taking. And the Swedes needed a serious amount of supplies for the entire campaign. It was Erdhart’s company’s turn to forcibly enforce the contributions. However, the pages of Erdhart’s journal do not describe the whole affair in much detail. It was better to dissociate one’s own mind from this activity the same way as it was in battle and to focus on the results only.

We arrived at Pirnitz on 12 April. Our mood and the orders dictated that we went about the farms and took everything that was not nailed down… From one house, I took away 2 fine linen tablecloths, some clothes and a few tolars.

It was still morning and the sun was hiding behind heavy clouds when less than a hundred men were closing in on the farm. Leading them was a lieutenant of another regiment, a substitute for the fallen Mörner. The men knew exactly what was ahead of them. The locals did not provide what was repeatedly asked of them and so the soldiers came to collect whatever they needed. It was clear to everyone that they would take whatever they could.

The inhabitants of the farm knew about the approaching army in advance. Any advancing army would have all sorts of characters driving ahead of it - various deserters both their own and those of their enemies as well as refugees. Also, there were always advance guards cruising around ahead of the main body of the army and its movement was conversely monitored by the sentries of the opposing side. Sometimes, these units did not even have the character of a regular army, but consisted of riff-raff of all kinds. Most often, these were horsemen that specialized in adventures of this type.

And so, on one occasion, a group of Croatian riders, serving in the imperial army, galloped by the farm. After they called for the landlord in broken German, they described in vivid colours all the news of the battle lost, the burned cities and that the Swedes were getting nearer and would be there within one day and that they were taking revenge on the land for avoiding the contributions. Panic broke out on the farm, but to leave the entire homestead was not that easy. It was not possible to organize a big transport in time and so the landlord ordered to load up only the most valuable items into a wagon, in which he drove away after that. Most of the servants fled into the woods and to their relatives in the surrounding areas and hoped that the army would just pass through. Only the overseer with his wife stayed behind, together with a few farm-hands that drove the farm animals into the woods.

It did not take long until the silhouette of rows of marching men appeared on the horizon. There was no military pride at the root of it. It was just a formation of men about to do their job and fill their pockets. The drummer was the first one to arrive at the farmhouse and into the seemingly empty courtyard, he announced officially that as the punishment for avoiding the contributions, their enforcement would follow. The inhabitants regarded him with fear from behind the shutters. As soon as he finished his speech, soldiers burst into the farmhouse.

For a while it looked like the staff of the farm would muster up desperate resistance. Since as early as the 16th century,  there was some weaponry in every farmhouse. A few firearms, perhaps even a cuirass and a helmet and some other weapons. On one hand, the farm-hands did not foster particularly warm feelings towards the farm and couldn't care less about the property of others, but it was a place that provided a livelihood. But they did not wish to die by some rider’s hand. A couple of gunshots rang out from the farmhouse but the advancing veterans could not be rattled by that. Eventually, a couple of shots from muskets convinced the ordinary village boys that it was not worth keeping up the struggle and so some ran for the hills and some tried to hide wherever possible. The only thing they just barely managed was to barricade the main entrance into the building.

In the next few moments, the yard was full of soldiers. Several of them grabbed a bench that stood near the door and, running, they battered through the door. Two farm workers, who were shivering with fear inside of the room, ended up slashed up on the ground. Eventually, the soldiers dragged out the overseer, lamenting miserably, as he had to watch the animals that they did not manage to chase away into the woods being taken away and the soldiers taking all the fodder and supplies.

vojaci na dvorku

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.

Jarmila utika

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.

Contributions, plundering, looting and everything in between

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.

Vrancx Plundering soldiers

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.

Calot Plundering

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.