Teaching the Thirty Years’ War


How was it [The Thirty Years’ War] taught?

For anyone who wasn’t awake at 3am EST 8/6/2017, I posted this: “It’s 3am, I can’t sleep, and I’m really mad about how the Thirty Years’ War was taught in my c. 2005 AP Euro class.”

So before I answer, here are two caveats: I’m not an Early Modernist, so feel free to come for me if I’m wrong about something, and GIANT HONKING FLUORESCENT LIGHT TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF TORTURE, GENOCIDE, AND HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES* NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED.

So, the thing about me is that I’m weirdly intellectually attracted to historical events that make me physically ill to read/think about. But I can’t stop. I mean exhibit 1: the Holocaust, the black hole around which 90% of my historical inquiry revolves. I’ve stayed up at all hours reading about the intricacies of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, the horrific human rights abuses committed by the Japanese in the China and Korea from ~1910 on (google “Unit 731″ if you feel like giving yourself a panic attack), the shit Spain pulled on the existing population during its already violent and disgusting conquest of South America, etc.

I was taught the Thirty Years’ War and….the entire Early Modern period in said AP European History class as one big intellectual exercise between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Like, a REALLY BORING intellectual exercise. Very sanitized, and the only thing I remembered for YEARS was that some dude named Gustavus Adolphus did something.

In reality, the Thirty Years’ War was a horrifically violent conflict in which varying European powers basically decimated the “German” interior (quotes because #anachronism) and created the first mass refugee movements (#anachronism), as we think of them today (fyi this is an ass-pull; I don’t even know how to talk about refugees pre ~1850). It was about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, meaning that it was about the balance of power in Western and Central Europe. Which means that it was about politics. It involved use of mercenaries who gave even fewer fucks than you can probably imagine about civilians (#anachronism). If you go to that War’s wikipedia page you’ll see these horrific images of people (mercenaries, mostly)…..abusing other people’s human rights (#anachronism). Not to mention the witch trials it spawned, etc.

So I’m mad about it as a historian because the really political and therefore military import of the Reformation and Counter Reformation should not have been under-emphasized, and I’m mad about it as the weird, morbid person that I am because I don’t like it when the reality of people’s suffering is white-washed. Even if those people consist of a population group to whom I’d be so 100% alien that I’d probably be tried as a witch.

And there’s my answer. Also, this post is waaaay less scholarly than I prefer, so I may delete it later if it feels too off the cuff (you can tell I have a headache because I didn’t spend two weeks researching the histories and of human rights and refugees and ALL the associated interdisciplinary literature before answering).

*I have a headache from the fact that I didn’t fall asleep until 5am and didn’t let myself sleep past 10 so I am going to use this term anachronistically and you’re gonna have to deal with it. “You” being “me.” I hate being anachronistic.

Hi, I’ve been reading about nationalism and identity and a book I read argues that nations are an imaginary construct and I was wondering how this would effect the way history is viewed. Also, for you, how significant are the values a country has in the way that a country presents itself? Should there be a shared history for shared values? Apologies for this being quite long

Was the book Imagined Communities? That is an excellent book, but what you need to keep in mind is that, as a historian, theory is not intended to stand in as a narrative for us to fit facts into, but as a tool which allows us to find the language to understand events and ask questions. But it is still an ahistorical narrative, and we have to be careful not to treat it as fact.

That said, I think it provides a helpful way to look at aspects of modern history. Now I’m gonna be real for a minute and tell you that my response is about to get hella Euro-centric.

In the Early Modern period through the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of the diverse, multinational empire. Those empires broke apart over the course of the twentieth century, and splintered into the nation-state; a political entity held together not by imperial bureaucracy, but by the idea of a shared historical identity and experiences. For that nation-state to sustain itself, there must be an other–a group which does not share that identity and those experiences–for the nation-state to define itself against. We also saw in the twentieth century, in the form of the Yugoslav Wars, the logical endpoint of the ethnic nation-state: genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state is tearing apart at the seams as the globalized environment fractures. Nation-states are confronting ethnic, national, and racial diversity, forcing them to wrestle with how to accommodate the “other.” This is why you hear people (like me, alas) referring to the contemporary global environment as “post-modern.” It is also why so many “Western” nations are having a collective violent temper tantrum.

As you can see from what I just wrote, the discourse on the nation and identity etc provides a helpful lens by which to view the last 500 or so years of history. But the fact that it’s helpful doesn’t make it true. Every issue I addressed above is 1000x more complex than my two paragraphs will ever be able to convey, and that’s why the theory is a helpful way of processing large periods of history. But as your analysis becomes deeper and more nuanced, this theoretical framework may (and probably should) feel more and more remote and overly simple to your analysis.

As for the last part of your question: “Should there be a shared history for shared values?“

That, to me, implies, that I can just imagine a past. Ethno-national groups do imagine their pasts, absolutely (if you get me drunk enough, you are likely to hear me yelling about how I’m mad at Ancient Rome for fucking with my people ~2000 years ago), but those pasts are nothing more than a collection of narratives strung together to serve some sort of ideological purpose. The reality of history is that one million narratives and chains of interaction are ongoing at any moment in time, and that historians can only incrementally understand them through careful questioning and analysis.

And as for “shared values,” aren’t those just as false as an imagined past?

I hope this answer was helpful; don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions if you have any.

Some titles you might enjoy in relation to this line of questioning include:

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Dipesh Chakrabarty

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Partha Chatterjee

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Writing History in the Global Era by Lynn Hunt

Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by George G. Iggers

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea by Rosalind Morris

Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.


“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).


Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 2: Gender, Performance, and Power in the Atlantic World

Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu perceptions.

She was always aware of the fact–in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu–that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be addressed as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.

This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.

As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.

Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr

After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.

Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.

However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital. She had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.

Njinga shielded the interior of Southern Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.

She was a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor,” like so many of the powerful women navigating the fraught waters of the Atlantic World.

Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 1: Confronting the Portuguese Empire

Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.

Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in Southern African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of the West Coast of Southern Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades.

Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown.

Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived in the region. The West Coast and interior of Southern Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the continent’s interior.

By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their movements threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”

Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.

Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.

Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.

The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.

However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.

Of this, a famous story emerged: de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga ordered one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be perceived as anything but the governor’s equal.

“Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi

However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo, it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible.

After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent over Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.

As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga’s claim to the throne, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, was illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.

And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.

In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.

Fun With Historical Linguistics!

I’m sure all native speakers of English who have learned/attempted to learn a second language in the classroom (this excludes you lucky people who are native speakers of more than one language) have at some point thought to themselves “What is up with these gendered nouns? And why doesn’t English have them?” Now, in my fourth attempt to learn a new language (French kind of stuck, Spanish and Hebrew not so much), I finally decided to look it up.

Old English, a Germanic language, had a gendered grammatical structure. The transition from a gendered to a neutral grammatical structure began in the north of England as a result of repeated Danish, Norse, and Saxon invasions of/migration to that region. With speakers of multiple languages living in close proximity to each other, the dominant tongue of Old English and the new languages of the invaders/migrants began to evolve into a language accessible to speakers in all of the language groups. In these situations, the more complex elements of spoken language fall to the wayside, and, in this case, it was the gendered grammatical structure of Old English which gradually fell into disuse. By the eleventh century, spoke Old English was approaching a gender neutral noun structure.

But then this little thing called the Norman Invasion happened.

Any speaker of modern English who has encountered the French language can surely see the impact of Norman French (specifically Old Norman) on the language. In fact, if you look at English words, you will find many sets of synonyms in which one term is derived from French and the other from German. (And as a side note, because the Normans were the ruling class, even today the words in the set which are derived from French have more prestige than those derived from German. For example: mansion v. house.)

Norman French was spoken by the ruling classes and eventually developed into an English-influenced language called Anglo-Norman. However, this language never eclipsed English. While the ruling classes held cultural capital, they were a minority in the British mainland and were often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. This distance gave them no choice but to learn the spoken language of the people. Thus, while Norman French certainly had a gendered grammatical structure, the status of its speakers as a ruling minority negated the impact that grammatical structure had on the English language.

This move to the neutral gender truly took hold in the thirteenth century as speakers of Middle English, while still technically retaining grammatical gender, began to use the neutral “the” or “thee” as a pronoun.

By the fourteenth century, London English had shifted almost entirely to the neutral gender. Because this grammatical alteration began in the North, linguistically conservative areas, such as Kent and the Midlands, retained gender until as late as the 1340’s. However, by the 1400’s, English was a mostly gender neutral language.

Oh my. Can I really ask for any historical period? Let’s have the Renaissance then, if you wouldn’t mind?

The Renaissance is an interesting one. It fascinates me how people perceive the Renaissance as a literal rebirth of knowledge in Europe, when in reality, the pursuit of knowledge in Europe never really disappeared. The pursuit of knowledge in Western Europe–outside of the walls of monasteries and convents–ceased for six or seven centuries in the wake of the fall of Rome (as defined in my post on the subject). However, during what we commonly think of as the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was going strong in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic Caliphate was approaching its golden age.

The pursuit of ancient, Classical knowledge never died in those areas. That ancient knowledge, the science and the math and the philosophy and the medical teachings, lived on in those two civilizations, especially within the Islamic one. Here is a map of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East during the Medieval period to illustrate the general proximity of these three civilizations to each other:

So, it always seemed odd to me that we’d celebrate the re-birth of knowledge in Western Europe, but ignore its continued presence throughout Islamic civilization and the Byzantine Empire. It is very Western-centric.