The People’s Letters?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Nikolas Funke, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the University of Birmingham’s History Department. Here Nick explores another remarkable archival survival – a bag of letters written by ordinary soldiers and civilians during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century – and asks a number of the same questions that we have seen directed at petitions: who really wrote them, and in what ways do they reflect the voices of ordinary people?

Nikolas Funke

In the summer of 1625, about seventy people created a bagful of letters which is now kept at the Hessen state archive in Marburg, Germany. Of the fifty-one letters contained in the file, about half were written by women to their soldier boyfriends, fiancés and husbands in the army of the Catholic League, the others by former hosts, relatives and friends, a few by the soldiers themselves. The soldiers had been quartered in the small towns of Allendorf, Eschwege, Witzenhausen and Schmalkalden for about two years previously and, as the letters attest, found friends and lovers among the civilian population. Now that the Danish king, Christian IV, had entered the conflict we now know as the Thirty Years War, the troops had marched north about two months before and were currently encamped near Bielefeld and Herford.

lettersI came across these letters when I was researching my doctoral dissertation on the religiosity of soldiers fighting in the Holy Roman Empire. Jan Willem Huntebrinker had used them in his terrific doctoral dissertation and they were an absolutely fascinating find because the letters challenge our perception of the relationship between soldiers and civilians quite fundamentally. In this contribution, I want to first of all show how important such rare finds that carry ordinary peoples’ voices across the centuries are to the historian and secondly address the question of whose voice we are actually hearing.

When dealing with the voices of the people, we need to think about whose voices are preserved where, why and how often. By far the most common reason ordinary peoples’ voices are recorded is negative: things went wrong in one way or another, authorities got involved and they documented the conflict. When things run smoothly, they tend to become documentary non-events. Relationships between soldiers and civilians illustrate this fundamental problem of the archives very well. The military-civilian interface carried a great potential for conflict because the armies essentially lived off the population. Ideally, soldiers were quartered in peoples’ houses and the military authorities paid them and their hosts money for food and expenses. This model rarely worked, however, as warlords were chronically unable to afford the ever-growing numbers of soldiers they put in the field and were unable to pay their soldiers or reimburse the people who housed them. This led to situations in which soldiers simply took what they needed (or wanted) and it is usually these acts of extortion, plundering, and the accompanying violence that we find documented in the archives. Peaceful relationships between soldiers and civilians are almost never recorded.

The other main reason why soldiers might appear in the archives is when they led (or forced!) young women astray. The ‘silly girl’ who trusts a soldier’s marriage promises, gets pregnant and is left socially ostracised, destitute and alone is a trope that reflects a horrific reality. The result of the archives’ tendency to document conflict and privilege misery is that we know a lot about the mess that some soldiers at times left behind but nearly nothing about those cases in which soldiers stood by their word. The Marburg letters allow us to give a much more nuanced picture as they tell of desperation as well as love. Catharina’s letter tells the typical story of an anguished woman who had been left behind with an illegitimate child. For the time being she could stay with her godmother in Schmalkalden. She wanted to move back to her mother’s but the village leaders demanded twenty Reichstaler as a kind of welfare insurance which she could not possibly afford. Catharina found herself “despised and considered worthless by everyone” and begged Hans, the child’s father, to make good his promises and not leave her “completely stuck in squalor”. Another letter shows that it was not just young women but entire families who were deceived by reckless soldiers. A man wrote a furious letter to Johannes Klein, who had courted the man’s sister, impregnated her and then sent mother and child away to fend for themselves after they had left Schmalkalden. Interestingly, the writer does not question his sister’s behaviour in any way, his rage is solely directed at Johannes, who had turned his sister into a ‘common whore’ under the pretence of friendship, and deceived not just her but the family and abused their trust. Ultimately, the man’s voice changed from enraged frustration to transcendental threats when he wrote that he would decry Johannes on Judgment Day.

These letters confirm our image of soldiers as sexual predators but there are others that tell different stories. Hans Mohs and Catharina Hardtmann, for example, were madly in love. Hans’s is one of the few soldier voices preserved:

My heart’s dearest darling, I wouldn’t have thought that the love would be so great, that I only think of you once but it lasts all hours and moments, that I can never be happy until I can come to you, I ask you, dearest Catharina, write to me whether you are well or not. My darling dearest betrothed, accept this little letter. Now nothing further than be greeted 90000000000000000 hundred thousand times by me in my own hand[-writing] Hans Mohs, written in the army camp near Bielefeld on the Große Heide.

Catharina’s response letter is also preserved. After sending her’s, her family’s and their servants’ best wishes, she added a rather long poem:

Oh God, what must those suffer
Who love and must be separated
And must not tell anyone
What suffering they carry in their heart
Oh, rose red, oh little flower white
You are my heart’s Paradise
My heart has chosen him
Over all other highborn young men
You I have chosen for myself
No one I like better in my heart
You are my most beautiful love,
That is why I write you this letter.
[…]

The poem continues for another page.

Hans and Catharina’s letters are clear evidence that we need to rethink the notion that soldiers’ relationships with women ‘inevitably’ led to a social catastrophe for the latter. But they also contain elements that alert us to the necessity to approach letters, even such private correspondence, with great caution. Hans mentions, probably with some pride, that he wrote himself and this is rather exceptional. Catharina’s love poem is not her own but appears again in another letter, written in the same hand, from another woman to another man.

Why do these issues matter in the recovery of the voices from the past? Historians have worked a lot on the letters of the political or intellectual elites. Lyndal Roper, for example, has reminded us of the public and strategic nature of Martin Luther’s letters.[1] While the writers of the letters we are dealing with here were ordinary people – no Martin Luthers – their letters, too, were public to a degree and often strategic. Their public nature is underlined by the fact that the cache contains far fewer different hands than there are senders. This means that many if not most of the letters were not autographs of the sender but dictated to someone who could write. How this cooperation worked exactly is unclear but it is obvious that most of the letters were semi-public creations. It is possible that the messenger himself sat maybe in the alehouse and those who wanted to send letters went to see him and dictated their messages. In other cases, friends or neighbours wrote, as Hans Brand did for Claus Görge. The content of the letter in question is not particularly sensitive, Claus sends greetings to a soldier called Johannes Klein, wishes him well and hopes for a speedy return. But at least the address suggests that the medium of the letter was awkward for both and neither Hans nor Claus had much of an idea of how to begin: ‘I, Claus Görge, burgher of Allendorf, declare and profess to my honourable soldier Johannes Schrickel…’ reads more like sworn testimony than a letter to a friend with whom Claus hoped to drink again soon. After this initial hurdle, however, the letter gains a conversational and personal tone.

But what about the more emotional letters? Who did Anna Immick ask to write the following lines to Batzer Wahs:

“You, Batzer Wahs, will be able to recall that I, Anna Immick of Allendorf, has [sic!] promised me a lot but kept very little. I, however, would rather have thought you would bear me in mind and wouldn’t do this to me. You remember well what you promised me […], now I ask you for God’s sake you would remember me poor woman and not let me become a laughingstock and joke to my friends.”

The first sentence is ungrammatical, which may indicate that Anna is trying to find her voice in an unfamiliar medium or that the writer is only partially successful in transposing a sentence in which Anna talked about Batzer in the third person (…has promised…) into the second person, addressing him. Does this collaborative aspect of letter writing skew the ‘authenticity’, to use a terrible but common term, of Anna’s or the other voices? What was the atmosphere in which the letter was produced? Was the writer sympathetic to Anna’s plight? Were they advising her on what to write? We can’t tell but although two authors were at work and the letter certainly is not a transparent window into the author’s soul, this does not make the letters that different from other situations in which people make their voices heard. We always adjust (or, worse, fail to adjust) our voice to the context, many times we rehearse important verbal exchanges and often we seek someone else’s advice on what to say. In this sense, I don’t think that Anna’s or any of the other voices in the cache are necessarily less ‘authentic’ than those we accept and perform in other contexts.

Regardless of whether we accept the voices preserved in the letters as authentic or not, the writers and recipients placed enormous importance in this form of communication. Many letters mention the great joy of receiving a letter, some reveal the utter desperation at not receiving one and almost all urge the addressees to write again as soon as possible. Consider the emotional ordeal a young woman named Lies underwent when she did not receive a letter:

‘When I saw the messengers go about [in the town] for two or three days, and I heard how many maidens and burghers received so many letters, I thought, alas, now I’m deserted by the entire world [parts of the letter are missing, it continues on the next page:] And as I was sitting with my lace pillow, and mulled over that you hadn’t written to me, as I was sitting there like this, I felt more like crying than laughing. Then the messenger’s wife came into my room, I was glad to see the woman but my joy was followed by sorrow again. The woman says, ‘Miss Lies, something terrible has happened to me and your letter, my husband has lost your letter’. Now think, my darling, would I not have been startled by this, as if someone hit me in the face with both fists.’

The letters were an important and, for the time being the only, conduit for the peoples’ voices. Certainly, this was not the ‘real deal’ – many writers also express dissatisfaction with not being able to talk – but they were an absolutely indispensable means of communication in which ordinary people expressed their love, friendship, desire, desperation, or simply said ‘hi’. For the historian, such a find is invaluable because it allows us rare glimpses into everyday life and the relationships of ordinary people and gives us a much more nuanced idea of the past. But at the risk of sounding soppy, it should also be remembered that these insights come at a cost: the reason why we have these letters is that they never reached their addressees; they were seized by the authorities and remain in an archive.


[1] Lyndal Roper, ‘“To his Most Learned and Dearest Friend”: Reading Luther’s Letters’, German History Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 283–295.

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