The Miseries of War, 400-Year-Old Portrayal of Treachery

Several years ago, I was visiting friends in Chicago and looking for some free exhibits to see downtown. We noticed that there was a Day of the Dead exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center that looked interesting. The assembled collection was fun and informative, complete with works of art, photographs, artifacts, and numerous decorative items. As we exited the final gallery, however, we stumbled upon another exhibit that left a much greater imprint on my psyche, a series of prints by the 17th-century engraver, Jacques Callot. Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, The Miseries of War, is a captivating documentation of the violence committed by and upon soldiers who fought in the Thirty Year’s War.

Scholars debate Callot’s motivation for creating this series of 18 engravings but most conclude that whether intentionally or not, Callot produced images that underscore the absurdity and pointlessness of violence. The story behind their creation, as well as the depictions on each plate, weave together a narrative that I find as fascinating as any account of war I’ve come across. As with most historical accounts, the parallels to modern-day are striking.

There are many dramatic and intriguing facets to present so I’m dividing the effort into two articles, each covering images from half of the series. Callot’s work is incredibly detailed. To get a closer look at an image in this post, click on it to obtain an enlarged view.

The Miseries of War

Miseries of War, Frontispiece
Frontispiece for The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, by Jacques Callot

The Miseries of War was published in 1633 in the midst of the Thirty Year’s War that ravaged Europe. During the conflict, between 1618 and 1648, more than 8 million people lost their lives. At the time of publication, Louis XIII was the king of France. He had recently ordered an invasion of Lorraine (located in northeastern France) that was particularly brutal. As Jacques Callot was born in Nancy, one of the region’s prominent cities, many believe that the etchings represent Callot’s denunciation of the atrocities that took place during the invasion.

However, while Callot realistically depicts the weapons and clothing from the time period, none of the soldiers that appear in the plates are linked to any particular army. In addition, the scenes of terrorized civilians contain no traces of items, geography, or architecture that link the population to the embattled region of Lorraine.

Callot had previously been commissioned to produce two large-scale engravings that glorified Louis XIII’s military victories in La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré. Callot’s original biographer, André Félibien, claims that the French King also asked Callot if he would create a similar work depicting his conquest of Lorraine. According to Félibien, Callot replied that his loyalty to the Duke of Lorraine prevented him from undertaking such a project. One account claims that Callot declared that he would rather “slit his wrists” another that he would “rather cut off his thumb.”

Whether this interaction took place as described is unclear. When all was said and done, however, Louis XIII granted a royal privilege allowing the publication of the 18-plate series. If, as claimed, Callot’s work condemns the actions of the French army, Callot must have been a terribly shrewd politician.

The Enrollment of Troops

Plate 2, The Enrollment of Troops
Plate 2, The Enrollment of Troops, by Jacques Callot

Callot’s series of plates parallels a pattern found in a popular book on warfare that had been written a century earlier. This book, Instructions sur le Faict de la Guerre, presents one of the first discussions on the strategy and tactics of warfare as well as delving into ethical issues. The book opens with a section on recruitment. Then comes detailed instructions for the waging of warfare. This is followed by descriptions of punishments that should be carried out upon soldiers that fail to abide by certain morality-driven standards of conduct. Finally, the book concludes with the idea that soldiers who have behaved admirably must be justly rewarded.

Plate 2 of The Miseries, shown above, depicts the first step required before going to war, the enrollment of troops. In the center of the scene, orderly ranks of soldiers stand at attention with their weapons held high. To the right of the scene is the recruitment table. Most soldiers at the time were mercenaries. States often could not afford to organize or finance the compensation of a large army. As a result, they would outsource the task of hiring and paying soldiers to military contractors. Such contractors often had dubious loyalties. Nevertheless, they regularly agreed to extend credit to the state by financing all of the startup costs and then recouping any losses through the plundering of civilians. As you’ll see, this and other factors made it difficult to command and control a disciplined fighting force.

The Battle

Plate 3, The Battle
Plate 3, The Battle, by Jacques Callot

In contrast to the orderly scene of recruitment, shown in Plate 2, Plate 3 depicts a chaotic scene of battle. In the foreground lie the bodies of wounded or slain soldiers and their horses. Across the panel a tumultuous struggle unfolds. Calvary charge from the right to join an entangled skirmish. Swords are striking, muskets fire, men fight hand-to-hand, and above the melee hang swirling clouds of smoke. This is the only panel in the series that depicts an actual battle scene.

In fact, Callot produced 29 compositional drawings in preparation for the 18 engravings that survived the final cut. Five of the drawings were of battle. I haven’t seen the set of five but scholars who have, claim that the discarded scenes glorify war. They emphasize the grand movement of troops and acts of heroism. Conversely, Plate 3 shows loss of life and suffering on a disorderly background of conflict.

The Pillage of an Inn

Plate 4, The Pillage of an Inn
Plate 4, The Pillage of an Inn, by Jacques Callot

In the 17th century, just as today, there were two major mindsets regarding war. The more predominant view held that war was a noble endeavor. It glorified battle, heroism, and self-sacrifice for the good of the state. The less commonly held position reflected on the tragic outcomes of warfare. It decried the lack of compassion and caring for both civilians and soldiers in the wake of a conflict. Again, there is passionate debate about which camp Callot falls into. My narrowly-formed opinion places him squarely in the latter category, but you can decide for yourself.

Plates 4 through 8 of The Miseries feature the cruel abuses committed by undisciplined soldiers. In Plate 4, shown above, a party of soldiers invades an Inn. Some are shown fighting with local residents or travelers in the street, while others carry off plundered booty. In the 1600s, people viewed looting as an acceptable weapon of war. Yet, most advocated placing limits on the practice. Soldiers were not authorized to steal from churches, for example. The burning of and destruction of buildings, raping of women, robbing of corpses, and other acts were deemed improper. Yet, in reality, many soldiers crossed the fuzzily drawn lines of appropriate conduct.

The Plundering of a Farm

Plate 5, The Plundering of a Farm
Plate 5, The Plundering of a Farm, by Jacques Callot

Perhaps the most graphic scene of violence takes place in Plate 5, shown above. The action unfolds inside a farmhouse. To the left of the scene, a soldier grabs a fleeing woman by the hair while another prepares to stab a male victim through the heart. Through a door in the back-left of the frame appears a drunken marauder, slumped over a damaged cask that is leaking its contents. Centered in the background, two soldiers rape an agonizing female. Just to the right, soldiers have hung a man from his feet and are roasting him over a fire. Through the door on the right, another rape scene unfolds. Amidst the atrocities, front and center, combatants gather livestock and other foodstuffs for a feast.

You may have noticed the words inscribed at the bottom the plates. Historians theorize that Michel de Marolles, the Abbé of Villeloin, wrote 6 lines of verse, divided into 3 couplets, for each engraving excluding the frontispiece. Marolles was a close friend of Callot and a prolific poet. An avid collector, Marolles also owned close to 1500 of Callot’s prints. While authorship is uncertain, Callot probably approved of the verses as he ultimately etched them onto his work.

The verses are written in ancient French and pose a fun challenge for advanced students of the language.

The Destruction of a Monastery

Plate 6, The Destruction of a Monastery
Plate 6, The Destruction of a Monastery, by Jacques Callot

Plate 6 of Les Misères, portrays the destruction of a monastery. Again, the scene is a carefully constructed agglomeration of abuses. Lifeless bodies lie in the left foreground. Behind them, soldiers raid a convent while others abduct nuns from the building. At center, the roof of the monastery is consumed with flame. To the right, soldiers forcibly bring a priest before a mounted commander. In the rear of the scene, soldiers drive assorted livestock through the cloister gate. A variety of spoils—chests, vessels, and loaded baskets—lies in the middle foreground.

Callot’s plates underscore the pervasiveness of looting. Military codes from the time period outlawed this practice when used against civilians. Yet, the reality in the field showed that such regulations were systematically ignored. The mercenary fighting force was pitifully provisioned. Soldiers were underpaid and often lacked basic necessities. In addition, the military contractors that had bootstrapped the army needed to be reimbursed. Too frequently, the state was unable to repay its debt. These conditions intensified the need to strip the civilian population of its wealth.

The Pillage and Burning of a Village

Plate 7, The Pillage and Burning of a Village
Plate 7, The Pillage and Burning of a Village, by Jacques Callot

In Plate 7 of The Miseries, marauding soldiers plunder and burn a village. Smoke is seen issuing from all of the buildings. To the left, a soldier rapes a woman under a tree. In the background, soldiers load booty onto carts. At right, a recruit drives goats and cattle from a stable. Callot was probably not an eyewitness to such events. While his compositions are clearly staged, his engravings accurately portray common practices of war, weaponry, clothing, architecture, and goods from the time period.

An Attack on Travelers

Plate 8, Attack on Travelers
Plate 8, Attack on Travelers, by Jacques Callot

Plate 8 concludes Callot’s sub-series depicting the misdeeds of troops. In this scene, soldiers ambush a traveling stagecoach. Here we see dead bodies scattered throughout the scene. One appears to have fallen lifeless from the coach. Another lies next to his plundered suitcase, stripped of his pants. A third cedes to a post-mortem body search. To the left and rear of the plate, two soldiers beat a peddler with rods. Again, the soldiers are violating military codes of the time period, which in theory excluded travelers from harassment.

The Arrest of Rogue Soldiers

Plate 9, Arrest of Rogue Soldiers
Plate 9, Arrest of Rogue Soldiers, by Jacques Callot

In Plate 9 of the Miseries, Callot takes a brief pause from violence. This scene shows authorities rounding up rogue soldiers that are hiding in the woods. Leading them back to camp is the provost marshal. The tables are about to turn. Stay tuned for part II, where violent acts resume in Plates 10 through 14. This time, the soldiers are the victims and the state’s choice of punishments reveals much about the prevailing attitudes toward cruelty.


About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Carol, I always learn something that I would not normally have had the opportunity to do as a result of your posts. Thank you. I’m looking forward to part two!

  2. I recently found a framed plate 5 in the series in an English antique centre. I bought it not knowing what it was or who it was by, just on the basis it was a significant etching telling a very violent and debauch story of 17th century life. Trawling the net, your description of the piece and it’s context has filled in many gaps. Thank you

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