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Looking back at the Thirty Years War

Thirty Years War

As we commemorate the end of the First World War, Talking Humanities looks back to an even longer war which devastated Europe. 

The Thirty Years War began in May 1618 when the ardent Catholic King Ferdinand II of Bohemia, soon to become Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to curtail the religious liberties of his Protestant subjects. The Protestants rebelled. Both sides called in foreign aid, such that the extended conflict involved all the major powers of Europe financially or militarily.

Ultimately, the Thirty Years War changed the balance of power and the map of Europe. It helped to end the age of religious wars, as religion and the politics of international alliances parted ways.

The translation of an Italian work, An History of the Late Warres is the first major overview of the Thirty Years War to have been published in English, appearing in the year in which the war ended. Its translator was Henry Carey, 2nd Earl of Monmouth (1596–1661).

Carey devoted his life to translating French and Italian works, and this is one of three books about various wars, which he translated from Italian. The others were An History of the Civill Warres of England, betweene the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (1641), from Giovanni Biondi, and The Compleat History of the Warrs of Flanders (1654) from Guido Bentivoglio.

Carey undertook the task in order to avoid idleness and to serve his country. He wrote in his preface that all adults would remember something of the war, and that the task of his labours was to remind them of what they knew and to complete their understanding with a full account ‘in a well-woven History, which may be termed a Tragedy’, with Christendom as the scene and princes as the actors.

His original was Historia delle guerre di Ferdinando II, e Ferdinando III imperatori, e del rè Filippo IV di Spagna, contro Gostavo Adolfo, rè di Suetia, e Luigi XIII, rè di Francia. It was one of several ‘recent’ histories written by Galeazzo Gualdo Priorato (1606–1678), who as a soldier was an eye witness of many of the events he described.

As he explained in his preface, Gualdo Priorato served with German Protestant armies in Germany, the Dutch army of Frederick of Nassau, the French royal army at La Rochelle, the Imperial army of Count Wallenstein both in Germany and Italy, and the Swedish army after the death of Gustavus Adolphus. When he had not witnessed events himself, he sought out accounts from those who had and who could narrate them reliably. The result, according to Carey and to modern critics (see Gregory Hanlon, Italy 1636, 2016) was the praiseworthy impartiality which Priorato sought.

Priorato takes his readers through the war year by year from 1629 until 1639, helping them by providing a summary at the beginning of each of the sections into which he divided his account. While fighting, he made it his business to learn about politics, military tactics, treaties, the reasons for actions and the opinions of all classes of men, and the geography and the nature of people in the countries in which he found himself. Thus Carey was able in his preface to describe his subject as ‘warre inter-laced with other occurrences; as Treatyes, Leagues, Embassies, Councells, Discourses, Geographicall descriptions of Countries, and Rivers, Comments upon actions, Characters, etc.’

The breadth of Gualdo Priorato’s interest in what constitutes the war and his assessment of situations is clear from the introductory index. Thus ‘A’ has not only ‘accidents’ (divided into ‘dangerous’, ‘fortunate’ and ‘fatal’) and ‘achievements and progresses’, but also ‘apothegmes and sayings’. ‘E’ has, alongside ‘embassies and overtures’, ‘extravagancies’, ‘P’ includes ‘policies of particulars for private ends’, and the three entries for ‘V’ read: ‘valarous [sic] actions more remarkable’, ‘vertuous actions more remarkable’, and ‘unworthy parts’.

Gualdo Priorato writes directly and with detail, bringing people and events to life. For example, recalling of Wallenstein: He perfectly detested Ceremonies and feigned Complements, too much used now adayes in Courts: and therefore he had wont to laugh at those who would bow too low and cringe until him, and mocking them would say, “this would do well at Rome, where a man may catch a cold with standing an houre bareheaded with his hand in his hand …” (p99).

Carey’s translation never went into a second edition. In 1648, after all, England was dealing with its own civil war. But as a primary document of a momentous event it remains worthy of consideration.

An History of the Late Warres and Other State Affaires of the Best Part of Christendom
Galeazzo Gualdo Priorato
London: W. Wilson, 1648
[Rare] Ck [Gualdo-Priorato] fol.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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