The Miseries of War Part 2, Crimes of a Nascent State

Portrait of Jacques_Callot
Jacques Callot, 1630 engraving by Lucas Vorsterman

Last week I wrote about an 18-plate series of 17th-century engravings by the prolific artist, Jacques Callot. Published in 1633, The Miseries of War provides a visual account of the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe between 1618 and 1648. In my previous post, I presented plates 1 through 9. Five of those plates portray graphic scenes of mercenaries committing acts of violence against a defenseless civilian population. Plate 9 concluded the sequence with a scene of military marshals rounding up offending soldiers. Today’s post presents plates 10 through 18.

A Brief Recap

Scholars debate Callot’s reasons for producing these etchings, but all agree that he was a keen observer. The barbaric practices he chose to depict in the series were common and well-documented. They echo Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 assessment of human life outside the jurisdiction of a centralized government, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Long before the Thirty Years War, philosophers and military strategists debated the morality of civilian looting. Yet, codes of conduct were far from clear. Some looting was permissible. For example, seizing material goods from enemy soldiers was allowed. In theory, soldiers were not permitted to take goods from civilians. In practice, however, they systematically did so. Upon entering a village, regiments would present a list of supplies they expected the townspeople to furnish. How to handle non-compliance with such requests seems to have been ill-defined. Soldiers often took matters into their own hands and showed no mercy.

The fact that the mercenary fighting force was ill-equipped, coupled with the expectation that soldiers would recoup enough spoils to pay for the financing of the war, incentivized troops to resort to violent measures. Excessive violence, however, committed against civilians was punishable by death. Plates 10 through 14 show the state’s horrifying methods of corporal punishment. Depending upon how sensitive you are to cruelty and suffering, you might want to jump to Plate 15.

As I mentioned last week, Callot’s work is impressively detailed. You can click on any of the images in this post to obtain an enlarged view.

The Strappado

Plate 10, The Strappado
Plate 10, The Strappado, by Jacques Callot

In Plate 10 of The Miseries, a condemned soldier is suspended from a strappado. To the right of the image, a second soldier is being escorted from the jail toward the ancient torture device. His captor faces the viewer, perhaps as a warning to an incredulous audience. At left, four others straddle a sawhorse, awaiting a similar fate. The assembled crowd is largely composed of other soldiers and military officers. The front row stands ready to fire their muskets.

A word on the strappado. Commonly used during the medieval inquisition, the strappado was also employed by many European governments and civil courts until the end of the 18th century. The victim’s hands are tied behind his back. He is then hoisted into the air by a rope attached to his wrists. Intense pain and possible shoulder dislocation result. Those are the best-case scenarios. To learn more about the three gruesome variants of this torture method, click here.

The Hanging

Plate 11, The Hanging
Plate 11, The Hanging, by Jacques Callot

In Plate 11, the trunk and lower branches of an old oak tree take center stage. Numerous executed soldiers hang from the bows. One accepts his ghastly fate at the top of a ladder while an executioner fastens a noose around his neck. Elsewhere around the tree and to the right of the panel, many others prepare for a parallel demise.

A bizarre spectacle appears to the immediate right of the oak’s trunk. Two of the condemned are rolling dice atop a large drum. The loser will presumably be next to mount the ladder.

The inscriptions beneath plates 10 and 11 condemn the tortured victims for their previous deeds of terror. Yet, the state-sanctioned acts of violence do little to address the conditions that led the soldiers astray in the first place. Now, it is the soldiers who are clearly the victims and it’s hard to see the state’s methods of punishment as anything less than excessively cruel. Unlike plates 4 through 8, which showed random acts of terror, committed in the heat of the moment, plates 10 through 14 are cool and methodical.

The Firing Squad

Plate 12, The Firing Squad
Plate 12, The Firing Squad, by Jacques Callot

In Plate 12, a condemned soldier is blindfolded and tied to a post. Two soldiers stand in front of him, each aiming an arquebus. The arquebus was a type of long gun used from the 15th to 17th centuries. The heavy armament is said to have penetrated armor. They were often mounted on wagons since they were too cumbersome to carry into battle. Here the soldiers employ supports to bear much of the weight.

There are many similarities to previous plates. Two earlier victims lie supine between the convicted and his executioners. To the left, an orderly regiment stands witness. At right, a bound prisoner is led by a monk.

The Burning at the Stake

Plate 13, Burning at the Stake
Plate 13, Burning at the Stake, by Jacques Callot

Using the impeccable reasoning of 17th-century thinking, soldiers convicted of setting fire to churches or civilian property were burned at the stake. In Plate 13, one executioner sets fire to a pile of wood while a second concludes strangulation of the bound prisoner. This practice was employed during the Inquisition. Once accused of heresy, the transgressor was unfailingly burned at the stake. If he confessed to his crime, however, he was mercifully strangled before the fire was lit. By the 17th-century, Europe had adopted this slightly more humane form of punishment.

In the foreground of Plate 13, a man works to establish a second pyre. Detachments on both sides of the scene stand at attention. In the background, the roofs of a church and house are in flame, reminding the observer of the nature of crimes that give rise to such punishments.

The Breaking Wheel

Plate 14, The Breaking Wheel
Plate 14, The Breaking Wheel, by Jacques Callot

Plate 14 depicts a prisoner strapped to a breaking wheel. As with the strappado, there were a few variations of this method of torture–all equally unimaginable in my mind. Yet, men not only imagined these punishments, they also carried them out. In Callot’s horrifying portrayal, the crowd is composed of both military and civilian spectators. To learn more about the breaking wheel, click here.

Scholars argue about whether Callot supported these extreme forms of punishment. Most conclude, however, that he was in favor of them. It is believed that while creating The Miseries, Callot referred to Fourquevaux’s popular book on military conduct and justice. In the book, Fourquevaux writes, “those that are wicked it is impossible to punish them so grievously but that they do deserve a great deal worse.”

The Hospital

Plate 15, The Hospital
Plate 15, The Hospital, by Jacques Callot

In contrast to the previous five plates, in which condemned soldiers are repeatedly described as villainous traitors, Plates 15 through 17 of The Miseries take up the banner of an exploited and forgotten fighting force. In the aftermath of war, few resources were directed toward the care of wounded or impoverished veterans.

In Plate 15, injured soldiers gather outside a hospital. The most mutilated among them arrive by dragging their bodies across the ground. Brutality continues in the background with civilians taking their revenge on a former recruit. A luckier dozen or so line up at right to receive a ration of soup.

The Beggars and the Dying

Plate 16, The Beggars and the Dying
Plate 16, The Beggars and the Dying, by Jacques Callot

While not a happy scene, Plate 16 of The Miseries is at least devoid of vicious cruelty. As in Plate 15, the viewer will even find a few acts of human kindness. Here, jobless veterans in various deplorable states of health fan out across a village street. While many of the villagers appear indifferent to their plight, some are willing to lend a helping hand. In the left rear of the panel, a woman hands food through a window to a begging soldier who is crippled by war. Closer to the center, two men appear to be considering a crawling soldier’s plea for alms. At right, a priest and other charitable citizens tend to dying soldiers who lie propped against a compost heap.

The Peasant’s Revenge

Plate 17, The Peasants' Revenge
Plate 17, The Peasants’ Revenge, by Jacques Callot

Plate 17 of The Miseries, is Callot’s final depiction of the abandoned soldier’s fate. Keep in mind that these combatants were hired mercenaries. When the war came to an end, there was no centralized base of operations for them to return to. In addition, many recruits had been vagabonds, beggars, or scoundrels before the war. Hence, most were left at the side of the road to fend for themselves while officers and other more prosperous recruits returned to their families.

This time, it is the peasants’ turn to inflict punishment on those who are suspected of committing acts of cruelty. The chaotic scene seems to directly counterbalance Callot’s earlier depiction of soldiers violently raiding a farm and brutalizing its residents. Now it is the peasants who attack a regiment of soldiers that they’ve spotted near the entrance to a forest. Various farm implements are employed to beat and skewer the surprised troops who are stripped of their belongings and clothing. High above the melee, a soldier hangs from a leafless branch.

The Distribution of Rewards

Plate 18, The Distribution of Rewards
Plate 18, The Distribution of Rewards, by Jacques Callot

In the final plate of Callot’s The Miseries, a grateful king rewards those soldiers that have acted in accordance with the highest standards of conduct. The only other scene depicting an orderly and civilized assemblage of men occurs at the beginning of the series on Plate 2, The Enrollment of Troops. These are also the only two scenes in which soldiers receive compensation.

Fifty years later would come the publication of Cardinel de Richelieu’s Testament Politique in which he wrote,

“If one has a special care for the soldiers, if they are provided with bread throughout the year, six pay days and clothing, . . . then I dare to say that the infantry will be well disciplined in the future”

Indictment or Endorsement

Some historians claim that The Miseries of War was intended as an indictment of war. Yet in the 17th century, pacifists were rare and Callot produced many other works that glorified bloody conquest. Another theory is that Callot had no moral intentions behind the series. Compared to other pro-war propaganda of the time period, Callot’s etchings are indifferent and documentational. Yet, if Callot was entirely indifferent, why did he use the title “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War.” A third camp theorizes that Callot simply created the series to satisfy his love of gratuitous scenes of violence and lowlifes.

Perhaps we’ll never know whether Callot was the Ken Burns or the Quentin Tarantino of his day. It’s clear, however, that his work provides an important chronicle of the Thirty Years War. Policymakers of the 17th century were interested in defining parameters for justifiable and permissible acts of warfare. Callot’s series of atrocities echos many of their concerns. As with military leaders of today, no one was looking to put an end to war. They simply wished to reduce its collateral damage and ensure that loyal soldiers were justly compensated and cared for.


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. I wonder whether the artists of today (photographers?) will chronicle the last 4 years in the US in such detail… it would tell a story of war on the ideals of this once great country.

    • I say definitely yes. There are many fantastic photojournalists and others that place themselves in vulnerable positions in order to get to the heart of a controversial or dangerous story. The problem today is how to choose among the millions of images produced by both professionals and untrained eye-witnesses.

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