Sunday, March 23, 2014

C.V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War: More than just three guys in a shit pile


Until Saturday evening, I knew little about the Thirty Years' War beyond the picturesque name of an incident that precipitated it (above).

But the war, it turns out, was about much more than three Catholic Habsburg envoys thrown from a window by angry Bohemian Protestants, surviving unhurt only because a dung pile cushioned their fall.

In the first hundred or so pages of C.V. Wedgwood's Thirty Years War (that punctuation in the title is per Wedgwood, or at least per the NYRB Classics edition of the book. In addition to pitting Habsburg and Bourbon, Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist, and France and Spain, a little-known dispute that survives to this day pits supporters of the possessive apostrophe in the war's name against those who prefer to go without), I have learned much about why Germany was such a mess and about how Lutheranism forged ahead. Wedgwood was a brilliant writer and historian of the good, old-fashioned kind, and for this post I'll highlight some of the larger points she makes.

The first is her acknowledgement in an introduction written eighteen years after the book first appeared that "History reflects the period in which it was written as much as any other branch of literature." In her case, that period was the 1930s, marked by economic depression and rising international tensions.

Look at that passage for a moment.  How many historians today would think of what they do, of the product of their research, as literature?  Wasn't history better off, or at least a hell of a lot more readable, before it became a social science?  Then consider Wedgwood's remarks that her own
"knowledge, sometimes intimate, sometimes more distant, of conditions in depressed and derelict areas, of the sufferings of the unwanted and uprooted—the two million unemployed at home, the Jewish and liberal fugitives from Germany. 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."
Sounds a bit like A People's History of Central and Western Europe, doesn't it? But then you get to something like this, from the first chapter:
"The faulty transmission of news excluded public opinion from any dominant part in politics.  ... The great majority of the people remained powerless, ignorant, and indifferent. The public acts and private character of individual statesmen thus assumed disproportionate significance, and dynastic ambitions governed the diplomatic relations of Europe." 
I suspect that these days casual thinkers about history will regard political history and social history as opposites, the "Great Men" theory and "people's" history as irreconcilable.  Not Wedgwood.

But here's the most remarkable thing about The Thirty Years War: Wedgwood was not yet thirty years old when she wrote the book.   Now, I'll see you later. I have some reading to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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40 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If you really want to delve deep with maybe not the equivalent prose style but still a pretty comprehensive treatment you cd do worse than Peter Wilson

http://www.amazon.com/The-Thirty-Years-War-Europes/dp/0674062310

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I've seen Wedgwood's name for years and maybe even read an article or two in the NYRB, but I had no idea she was a woman. Which I suppose was the point. All those British scholars and their two initials and a surname noms de plume.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'll take a look. But I meant what I wrote: I knew not much about the period, other than the whimsical name of the Defenestration of Prague, and that a map of Germany in 1648 looked like a puzzle with its pieces spilled all over a kitchen table. That is, Wedgwood got me interested in the period rather than the period getting me interested in Wedgwood. So after I finish this, I might look for more Wedgwood rather than more on the Thirty Years' War.

Patrick Leigh Fermor called this book "[b]y far the best and most exciting book on the whole period," the reference taken from A Time of Gifts.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I, too, had no idea she was a woman until I browsed the book yesterday. She really was a Wedgwood, a descendant of the pottery Wedgwood, and the C.V. stood for Cicely Veronica.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter, Seana

A doc on the NYRB is going to be Martin Scorsese's next movie according to The Forward.

Did either of you ever get round to A High Wind In Jamaica? A book I only picked up because the NYRB edition had a Henry Darger painting on the cover but which was fantastic.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know A High Wind in Jamaica, but morbid curiosity would draw me to any book whose cover bore a Henry Darger painting.

I wonder if Scorcese's documentary will include the NYRB's branching out into publishing. NYRB Classics is relatively new, I think. At any rate, I've only heard about it recent years. But the line is a publisher's dream: a terrific list, and an identifiable, attractive look.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I had an unfortunate experience with a physical copy of High Wind in Jamaica, a friend's copy that is, but I suppose I shouldn't let that put me off.

I've actually been in the NYRB book club over on Good Reads for the past couple of years. Not every book is a gem, but I've read some terrific stuff because of it, and the level of discussion has always been great. We're going to start on Walkabout in April. Of course like everyone I saw the movie a million years ago, but apparently, Roeg took some liberties. Not making it worse, but different.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, and I'd be really curious to see that documentary.33853498

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

that was the capture 'word' on the end there, by the way.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some of the best books I've read in the past year have been NYRB Classics: this, A Savage War of Peace, The Skin. The series also includes several volumes of Leonardo Sciascia

I had a good capture word today: Macsycophant.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

As for grading historians who write "literature," I would give high marks to David McCullough. His histories are all delightful reading. Perhaps he has an advantage: he was an English major in university. So . . . he did not learn all the bad habits of historians in academia.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my one unfortunate experience with a physical book, back when physical books were the only kinds we knew, since oral transmission had died out and e-books had yet to be invented, happened when a friend to whom I'd lent my copy of On the Road dropped it in Walden Pond.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Postscript: Peter Ackroyd is another fine writer of histories that read more like the work of a masterful writer of literature. (He also writes novels, which may help to explain the "readability" of his histories.)

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., it's almost discouraging that McCullough was an English major. That suggests that writing clear, compelling prose is specialized skill, rather part of the equipment (today's non-English majors would probably say "skill set") of a civilized human being. But if this kept him away from the bad habits of academic historians, good--as long as he avoided the bad habits of English departments.

Rather than wondering that history was once regarded as literature, I should perhaps ask when it stopped as such.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I haven't read Barbara Tuchman, but I see she has made it into the Library of America. That makes me curious to read her work.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

We found a reference to Carlyle in the Wake the other day and a friend read a passage aloud. I thought that I would enjoy reading Carlyle after that, but I think I was the only one.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read Peter Ackroyd either, but I do know he's all over the literary map. I have his retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur lying around somewhere. I do wish he had not indulged in the conceit of calling his book about London a "biography."

March 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: A college course I took on Victorian writers was enough to kill for several decades any interest I might have had in Victorian writers. Oddly enough, Carlyle's name came up when I was preparing this post. That's how the "Great Men" theory wound up with a mention.

March 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

He had a good bit on Queen Elizabeth I and some tailors, although it wasn't very kind to tailors.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The unkindest cut of all, no doubt.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This is Ackroyd who wrote unfavorably of Tudor tailors?

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

I have read several of Barbara Tuchman's histories and found them very readable. I generally find histories tedious and avoid them, but her works are an exception.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

No, it was Carlyle.

Fred, I think it is a fault of the fashion of historiography, which has favored monographs over our lifetime, rather than narrative history. Or so said my old friend and professor Page Smith, who wrote a multivolume history of America in the narrative vein.

I think the problem is that the humanities have lost their way and desperately want to be treated as science.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll read some Barbara Tuchman if you try C.V. Wedgwood. It's a shame that some consider histories tedious. In the right hands, they are exciting.

The Economist obituary to which I link in the body of this post discusses the the phenomenon of Wedgwood's having been regarded with suspicion by some precisely because her work was so readable.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Carlyle was concerned with great men and mediocre couture, was he?

I'd guess that Page Smith was right. I wrote in the post: "Wasn't history better off, or at least a hell of a lot more readable, before it became a social science?" When did history decide that it wanted to be scientific? When did the notion of history of literature fade?

March 24, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I know very little about Carlyle, except that he wrote superior prose.

I don't know when the switch over in history occurred either. I'd say the field has lost it's way, except that there is a tradition that seems to keep good historians afloat. Although I don't know this, I have a suspicion that it has drifted over into the field of biography, where telling the story of one famous life can give a write permission to give a narrative account of an era, on the side.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

OK, you have a deal.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Everything does have to be personal, doesn't it? Stephen Ambrose comes to mind as an academic historian who enjoyed big popular success with "Band of Brothers ... " -- war looked at through the eyes of individuals. It smacks a bit of the gesture to local color, the "what does it mean to the reader? because the reader doesn't want to read about process" ethos that turns too much newspaper writing into sentimental slop.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, the Library of America Tuchman volume includes The Guns of August and The Proud Tower. Any particular book of hers you'd recommend as a good place to start?

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if she, too, was looked down upon because she wrote on a large scale and achieved popular success.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Either of those would be fine.

My favorite though, perhaps because it was the first one I read, is _A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century_.

I grabbed it when I was taking a Chaucer course, and I got fascinated by the period. It really helped me to place Chaucer in his time.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

Popularity has always been the kiss of death among academics. If the unwashed like it, then it must lack the depth and sophistication that only a PH. D. can provide.

Robert Frost was dismissed for many years for the same reason: he was a popular rural bucolic poet, etc. until Lionel Trilling created an uproar and was roundly condemned when he gave an address and later published it in which he called Frost "a terrifying poet."

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, A DIstant Mirror is the first of Tuchman's books I became aware of, so I was mildly surprised when she started writing about much later periods. I'm not sure that sort of thing goes on much in this age of academic specialization. I remember some writer remarking once that Northrup Frye, who never received Ph.D., came along just in time to be able to have the career he did. A bit later, and he'd have been barred for lack of academic qualifications.

March 24, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter.

Yes, I was surprised to find he never got the Ph.D. I agree: a few years later and he wouldn't have been accepted by academia.

March 25, 2014  
Anonymous john theibault said...

This would be a good year to read Tuchman's The Guns of August. Read it long ago, but remember it moves along very well.

Wedgwood is great. Don't know if you saw that Ta Nehisi Coates blogged his own reading of The Thirty Years War a few years ago. URL (since it looks like I can't do links) http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2011/07/wallenstein-is-dead/242359/

March 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Welcome and thanks. That article has an eye-catching headline: Wallenstein is Dead.

I am at the point in The Thirty Years War where Ferdinand has booted Wallenstein, only to discover that his troubles are not over. Now I am about to greatly increase my knowledge of Gustavus Adolphus, which ought to be a refreshing reminder that Sweden once cut a great figure in the world. About all of I know of Sweden's rulers, other than the fame of Gustavus, is that Queen Christina looked nothing like Greta Garbo, who played her on screen.

March 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: I wonder how Frye got his academic posts. Probably by the odd expedient of doing good work.

March 25, 2014  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

This is from the Wikipedia entry on Frye:

"Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec but raised in Moncton, New Brunswick, Frye was the third child of Herman Edward Frye and of Catherine Maud Howard.[2] His much older brother, Howard, died in World War I; he also had a sister, Vera.[3] Frye went to Toronto to compete in a national typing contest in 1929.[4] He studied for his undergraduate degree at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where he edited the college literary journal, Acta Victoriana.[5] He then studied theology at Emmanuel College (like Victoria College, a constituent part of the University of Toronto). After a brief stint as a student minister in Saskatchewan, he was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Canada. He then studied at Merton College, Oxford,[6] before returning to Victoria College, where he spent the remainder of his professional career."

It appears as though he really had only one academic appointment in his life--at Victoria College, Univ. of Toronto.

earning an appointment for "doing good work"--what a strange idea!

March 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That appears not to be the only respect in which his academic career fit not follow the path more customary today. Just think: If Frye came of academic age today, winning a national typing contest might have been his highest achievement.

March 25, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I just bought Peter Wilson's book with part of my share of the e-book pricing antitrust settlement. The book also comes recommended by a learned friend among the rabble of the Pen & Pencil Club.

March 27, 2014  

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