Episode 35 – The Thirty Years’ War versus the Crusades

Today’s episode comes from the event bracket, and it pits a war that devastated central Europe, the Thirty Years’ War and a supposed religious war that tried to claim the Holy Land for Christians known as the Crusades.

Before we get into the battle, I want to add a new segment, which is a review of some of the primary and secondary sources of the information that I use to produce each episode. When it comes to the Thirty Years’ War, my primary source is the appropriately named, The Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood. Published initially way back in 1938, it is still considered the classic work on the subject.  

Secondarily, I used Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat by R.G. Grant and The Human Story: Our History, From the Stone Age to Today, by James C. Davis. I do use Wikipedia as a source but always remember to fact-check anything that comes from them.

Central Europe
Central Europe

While researching the Thirty Years War, I came across a couple of paragraphs from the book The Human Story, by James C. Davis that best sums up the conflict when discussing death in the 1700s. “Europe’s Thirty Years’ War us the classic illustration. Picture armies were fighting here, marching there, fighting, wintering, marching, and fighting again. Since countries paid their soldiers poorly and rarely gave them clothing, food, or shelter, the troops were forced to loot and pillage to maintain themselves. They robbed and murdered travelers, and they fried peasants on their stoves until they told where they had hidden their food and horses. Since the wretched peasants often gave up farming, famine soon was everywhere.

Meanwhile, armies ruined towns and cities. They besieged Leipzig five times and Magdeburg ten, burning it to the ground in 1631. Worst of all, the armies spread bubonic plague and typhus, which took a heavy toll of both the soldiers and civilians.

Parts of what is today Germany were shockingly depopulated. In a region stretching from Berlin to northeast France, many rural areas lost four out of five people to wounds, hunger, or disease, or because of migration to safer areas. In Germany as a whole, a third of all the townsfolk and two-fifths of the peasants died.”

This war which started in 1618 and would end in 1648, would cost the lives of approximately eight million lives with the highest estimate being 11.5 million. It would begin as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics but would eventually devolve into a European political war. It was one of the longest lasting wars in the European arena as evidenced by its name.

The belligerents were many. One side was known as the Hapsburgs and their allies. We have the Holy Roman Empire, Catholic League, the Spanish Empire, Hungary and in the later part of the war, Denmark and Norway. The Anti-Hapsburg’s and their allies included Sweden, Dutch Republic, France, Saxony, Brandenburg-Prussia, Brunswick-Luneburg, Transylvania, and for short periods, England, Scotland, and Bohemia. Supporting the Hapsburg’s was Poland and Zaporizhian Cossacks with the opposite side getting support from the Ottoman Empire and Russia.

Going back to my primary source of the book by Wedgwood, it is interesting to note that its publication date is 1938, just when we see the ravages of the Great Depression, the repression of liberals and Jews in Germany and the world at the brink of war. The author points out some stark similarities between the Thirty Years’ War and the effect on Germany in particular when writing her introduction in retrospect in 1956.

She further states, “Preoccupation with contemporary distress made the plight of the hungry and homeless, the discouraged and the desolate in the Thirty Years’ War exceptionally vivid to me. Human suffering of this kind is one of the main themes of the book.” The reason I am bringing this up is that the focus of mine in this episode for both events is the course of human suffering more than the military battles that went on in both this war and the Crusades.

Many of the books I reviewed on the two subjects, especially the Thirty Years’ War, focused on the numerous battles fought between the belligerents. While these were important factors in determining the winning and losing sides, there is no doubt that the people caught in the middle were all losers, regardless of which principality, city, or country they lived in. 

To better understand what was going on in 1618 that precipitated the war, I’m going to read a lengthy excerpt from Wedgewood’s book.

“The year 1618 was like many others in those uneasy decades of armed neutrality which occur from time to time in the history of Europe. Political disturbances exploded intermittently in an atmosphere thick with the apprehension of conflict. Diplomatists hesitated, weighing the gravity of each new crisis, politicians predicted, merchants complained of unsteady markets and wavering exchanges, while the forty million peasants, dug their fields and bound their sheaves and cared nothing for the remote activities of their rulers.

In London, the Spanish ambassador demanded the like of Sir Walter Raleigh which the people, crowding about the palace, shouting imprecations at a King too weak to save him. In The Hague, the rivalry of two religious factions broke again and again into full-blown riot, and the widow of William the Silent was hissed in the streets. Between France and Spain, relations were strained to the uttermost, each government claiming control of the Val Telline, the critical pass between Italy and Austria. In Paris they feared immediate rupture and European war; in Madrid, they doubted whether the recent marriage of the Infanta Anne to the young King of France would withstand the strain. At seventeen, Louis XIII treated his wife’s advances with icy indifference, so that the dissolution of an unconsummated marriage might at any moment remove the last guarantee of friendship between the ruling dynasties of France and Spain. In vain the Austrian cousins of the Spanish King intervened from Vienna with the tentative offer of a young Archduke for a French princess; the regency government in Paris, disregarding the suggestion, opened negotiations for a marriage with the eldest son of the Duke of Savoy, the avowed enemy of both of the Austrian and Spanish rulers.

The discovery of a Spanish plot to overthrow the republican government of Venice and a rising of the Protestants in the Val Telline threatened to submerge Italy in war. In northern Europe, the ambitious King of Sweden secured Estonia and Livonia from the Tsar of Russia and projected a firm alliance with the Dutch which, had it succeeded, would have established their joint control over the northern waters of Europe. In Prague, an unpopular Catholic government was overthrown by a well-timed Protestant uprising. 

The political world was in a state of nervous exasperation acute enough to invest any one of these incidents with exaggerated importance. The probability of war was a commonplace among the well-informed who doubted only the immediate cause and scope of the conflict; the material and moral antagonisms which divided political life were clear.

May 23rd, 1618 was the date of the revolt in Prague; it is the date traditionally assigned to the outbreak of the Thirty Year’s War. But it was not clear to until seventeen months later, even to the leading men in the countries most deeply concerned, that this revolt rather than any other incident in that turbulent time had lighted the fire. During the intervening months that affairs of Bohemia became slowly identified with the problems of the European situation. That situation itself brought forth the war.”

As you can see, Europe was a powder keg that was ready to blow. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, signed by Charles V who we met in episode 7, brought peace to the region by allowing Protestants and Catholics certain freedoms of religion. The problem was in the implementation of the peace which didn’t go as planned. There were small revolts and mob actions, some by Lutherans, some by Calvinists, others by Catholics that sprung up over the years.

With the outbreak of the Bohemian Revolt in Prague which was caused by a dynastic dispute. Emperor Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Bohemia, was trying to pick a successor in case of his death. He wanted the fervently Catholic Ferdinand of Styria to replace him, which frightened the Protestant-leaning Bohemian’s who preferred Fredrich V. The Spanish decided to send in troops to quell the revolt which started the Thirty Year’s War. 

As I said earlier, I’m not going to go over the battles and skirmishes during the war but will instead focus on some of the consequences and outcomes of the war. One of the oddest things that came out of the war was a dramatic increase in the number of witch hunts that went on during the war. This was a period of great suffering, and as is the case in much of human history, a scapegoat for the cause of the misery was needed. It was astonishing to find out how many people were executed and tortured for being witches. Many of the trials were focused on regions with the most civilian deaths, especially in what is now Germany. In the city of Wurzburg over 200 men, women and children were burned at the stake by 1630 with over 4 times as many suffering the same consequences in the countryside.

The political outcomes for the combatants were pretty staggering. France became one of the pre-eminent powers in Europe, much of their gains were at the expense of the Spanish. Portugal was pretty much separated from Spain, they lost their Dutch territories as well. Of course, this last development gave the Dutch their independence which led to their golden age. Another winner was Sweden which became the dominant power in the north until its defeat by the Russians in 1709.

The Holy Roman Empire began its death spiral here, culminating in its disappearance in 1806 after its defeat by Napoleon. Protestantism was allowed to take hold without threat as this is the last real religious war in Europe while the Roman Catholic Church losses power mainly in northern Europe. 

Another major loser is feudalism. Instead of the peasants being obliged to a local lord, Duke of the church, they are now part of a larger nation. Nationalism begins to become a more powerful force on continental Europe. This is going to be the focus of all of the future wars leading to its culmination during World War II.

Now is the time to enter the putting it into perspective segment of the podcast. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Mayflower lands at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the modern violin is developed, Peter Minuit buys the island of Manhattan for $24, Galileo Galilei is convicted of heresy, and Louis XIV is crowned King of France at the age of 4. His would reign for 72 years, the longest in European history.

Second Crusade
Second Crusade

Our second contestant in today’s battle is The Crusades. There have been a large number of crusades over the centuries, but the ones we will be discussing are the eight which occurred between 1096 and 1291. During that period, there were eight separate crusades. While each had similar goals, such as capturing Jerusalem and defeating the Muslims, each had a certain uniqueness to them. I will be focusing on those differences. 

Before we jump into discussing the first crusade, let’s lay some groundwork on why they occurred at all and why it was so successful. The simple answer about why it happened was due to the calling of Pope Urban II to oust the impious Muslims from the Christian city of Jerusalem. Well, it isn’t quite that simple of course. 

In Byzantium, the Seljuk Turks and other parts of the Muslim world were taking large chunks of territory from the Eastern Christians. Their Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos appealed to Pope Urban to come and help their eastern brethren. This became the impetus for Urban to call for a crusade to recapture the Holy Land. While the recent schism left some bad blood between Rome and Byzantium, they were still all Christians. But there was another underlying issue that the West had to deal with and that was warfare and violence.

The Western European world was a violent one. Warfare was common between the various barons and dukes. There was also a deep-seated belief in the teachings of Jesus and the Ten Commandments, and in particular, thou shall not kill. While warfare was being legitimized by a number of Popes, and in particular, Gregory VII the immediate predecessor to Urban II. Because of this changing viewpoint about the validity of being a “soldier of Christ,” the Crusades became legitimized.

On top of that, Urban II claimed that anyone going on the crusade would have their sins absolved. With the infatuation with sin and killing being very prevalent amongst the knights as well as the kings and princes of the time, it was a welcome way to rid them of the guilt they were carrying. This is also why the First Crusade is known as the Princes’ Crusade.

The First Crusade can be split into two separate ones, the Princes and the Peoples. The Peoples’ Crusade went off first in the spring of 1096, but it was nothing more than a large mob of peasants who were ill-prepared when they met the Turks in Anatolia. They were led by Peter the Hermit and were crushed at the Battle of Civetot in October. One of the bad things to come out of this crusade was the slaughter of many Jews who happened to be living in the regions where this rabble marched through.

The Princes’ Crusade was far better prepared, starting out in the summer of 1096, reaching Constantinople starting in November with the last group arriving in April of 1097. France, the Papal States, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, along with some minor counties and duchy’s aligned with the Byzantine empire to face off against the Fatimid Caliphate and the Seljuk Empire for control of the Holy Land. 

They were highly successful in capturing Jerusalem and returning Nicaea and western Anatolia to the Byzantine’s, but, after their successes, many of the Crusaders returned home leaving the area vulnerable. You may be asking why they were so successful when the many crusades that followed failed. The main reason was the fragmentation of the Muslim world at the time. There were splits as to who was the true heir to the Prophet Muhammed. One one side there were the Shiites and the other, the Sunnis. There were major battles fought between the two sides, weakening both. This split made it hard to put together a cohesive response to the European invaders.

With the foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which would last for almost two hundred years from 1099 to 1291, there was a need to defend it from the Muslims in the region. This need was the leading causes of the many crusades that were to come. The Second Crusade, called by Pope Eugene III in 1145 was to be an almost total disaster. The only positive thing that came out of it in the eyes of the Europeans was the recapture of the city of Lisbon from the Moors which would eventually lead to the founding of the nation of Portugal.

When Saladin overran Jerusalem in 1187, This was to be another failure in part due to the death by drowning of the leader of the German contingent, Frederick Barbarossa in 1190. As opposed to the Second Crusades total failure, the Third actually had some positives come out of it. The Treaty of Jaffa guaranteed the safety of unarmed pilgrims of both the Christian and Muslim faith. The Crusader’s did capture the island of Cyprus as well as the Levantine coast from the cities of Tyre to Jaffa.

Because this crusade failed to recapture Jerusalem inspired the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204. This armed expedition was called by Pope Innocent III. While heading to the Holy Land, the Crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople which horribly weakened the Byzantine Empire and could be pointed out as the event which led to the cities fall in 1453 as we covered in episode 23.

In 1217, Pope Innocent III and later his successor Honorius III called on another armed attempt at regaining Jerusalem. The Fifth Crusade was to prove to be a disaster with an overwhelming victory by the Muslims. This, in turn, led to, you guessed it, the Sixth Crusade of 1221. This crusade was more of a diplomatic venture which led to the recapture of Jerusalem via treaty.

The next crusade was not called the Seventh, it was called the Barons’ Crusade, and it was very successful. It was requested by Pope Gregory IX, and it lasted from 1234 to 1241, and it created a larger more powerful Kingdom of Jerusalem since the First Crusade. With all of the gains made, it was quickly overrun, and Jerusalem was not merely captured it was destroyed.

The Seventh Crusade was started by King Louis the IX and became an unmitigated disaster when Louis was captured during the fighting at the Battle of Fariskur in 1250. He was ransomed off and eventually made his way back to France but not before leaving a garrison in Acre. 

The Eighth Crusade was led by Louis IX in which he tried to gain control of the city of Tunis in 1270, but it failed because of the king’s death and his army being racked with disease.

The Ninth Crusade of 1271 and 1272 was the final armed excursion into the Holy Land. It was led by the son of the British King Henry III, Edward. While this crusade was quite successful militarily, it was cut short because of Edward being needed to deal with major problems in England. The Treaty of Caesarea was a ten-year peace treaty, but in the end, the new power in the region, the Mamluks began to persecute Christian pilgrims. When Pope Gregory called for yet another crusade, he found that no one in Western Europe had any spirit left to try again. 

For 208 years, crusaders poured into the Holy Land trying to gain control of the region for the Christian faithful, ultimately failing in their goal. In 1291 they lost Acre, and by 1302, they were ousted from their last foothold.

Now is the time to score these two monumental events in human history. 

The first criteria are for the number of people involved in the event for 15 points. This one is an absolute slam dunk for the Thirty Years’ War. The casualties alone, over eight million, is greater than the number of people involved in the Crusades which has wildly divergent estimates but the highest number I’ve seen is two million. For this reason, the European conflict gets 15 points with the march on the Holy Land five.

The next score is for how the event affected the rest of the world at the time. The Crusades was a back and forth affair, part of the time, the Christians were in control, part-time the followers of Islam, with the former eventually winning back what had been theirs. The Crusades did cause a lot of upheaval in Europe and the Middle East though. England, France, Germany and much of the West were affected. The Muslim world did begin to come together for a period to fight the invaders as well.

With the Thirty Years’ War, we have the depopulation of Central Europe, the rise of the Bourbon’s in France as a major power and the beginning of the decline of both the Holy Roman Empire and Spain as major powers. My giving the full twenty points to the War over the Crusades which gets 15, is due to the extreme loss of life and the fact that nothing much change after 208 years of crusading.

Next up is the long term effects of each event. Yet again the Thirty Years’ War gets all the points. It changed the map of Europe and created new powerhouses like the aforementioned France as well as Sweden in the north. It also legitimized and protected the relatively new religion of Protestantism. Another consequence of the ending of the war was the increased level of colonialism that the European powers would excerpt over the rest of the world. The Crusades ended with a great deal of animosity between the Christian Europeans and the Muslims which would carry on to this day. For these reasons, the European conflict receives 25 points and the Crusades, 20.

Now onto the last and biggest prize, the immediate effect on the country or countries involved. It is here I declare a sweep for the Thirty Years’ War giving it the full forty points. The war affected everyone in Europe mostly for the bad. The Crusades, while having immediate effects on the Middle East, its impact pales in comparison to the brutal European conflict. For this reason, I will give the invasions of the Holy Land twenty-five points.

The final outcome is 100 points for the Thirty Years’ War with the Crusades getting 65. The European war moves on to the second round to face the winner of the battle between the U. S. Civil War and the Arrival of the Black Death in Europe.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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