Before the Storm: Civilians under Siege, 1618-30

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During the early modern period siege warfare was, paradoxically, at once the most dangerous and the least volatile of contests: a form of ‘total war’ in which the lives of every man, woman and child in the besieged stronghold were potentially forfeited, and a time-hallowed ritual permitting challenge, surrender and careful gradation of punitive action that allowed for defeat without dishonour. Thus, the ‘Laws of War’ called for a formal challenge giving the besieged party the opportunity to surrender, and it was expected and accepted that some defence should be mounted against preliminary assaults; but, if the stronghold defended itself too long, or had to be stormed, then the conqueror was morally and legally justified in killing everybody found within the fortress. Such treatment of a population, as evident at Magdeburg in 1631, might seem to typify the civilian experience of siege in the Thirty Years War. Indeed, historians of the period have argued that under such conditions, civilians and the military garrison provided an undifferentiated mass to the attackers.

Chapter 7, in contrast, argues that such interpretations underplay the distinction between soldiers and civilians on the one hand, and between besieged and defenceless populations on the other. The chapter uses the reports in the Relationis Historicae, Germany’s biennial news compendium, to consider evidence for civilians’ expectations of siege warfare, to explain what reassurances reports on contemporary practice offered civilians defending their settlements and to interrogate the concept of ‘civilian’ presented in these sources
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCivilians under Siege
Subtitle of host publicationFrom Sarajevo to Troy
EditorsAlex Dowdall, John Horne
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-137-58532-5
ISBN (Print)978-1-137-58531-8
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2017


  • Warfare
  • Siege
  • seventeenth century


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