Civilians in Warfare 1500-1789

Civilians have always suffered in warfare, and Early Modern Europe was no exception. But they contributed to war as well, through their taxes, their victuals and their bodies. Jeremy Black explores the relationship between civilian and military.

The crippled, gun-toting protagonist, dependent on begging, in Harlequin Returning from the Wars (c.1742), a painting by the mid-eighteenth century Florentine artist Giovanni Ferretti, was as realistic an image of war as the triumphal celebrations, mingling thanks to God and man, that frequently greeted victory.  Even if the vagaries of the harvest, the unending struggle to safeguard crops and flocks and the incessant threat of accidents or disease were the pre-eminent uncertainties of life for most people, nonetheless the state impacted on everyday life, never more so than through war, both in its capability for destruction, and in the burden of supporting it with money, manpower and materiel.

 

Across Early Modern Europe, governments were preoccupied with maintaining and supplying armies, and financing them was a major problem for both state and subject. 

 

While it is common to think of warfare in terms of its impact on civilians, we must also consider the impact of civilians on warfare and, indeed, we should question how helpful it is to treat civilian and military as separate categories in this period. There was a greater willingness to accept both war and killing than we find in the West today.  Levels of violence could also be very high in daily life, while killing was accepted as necessary, both for civil society – as a punishment for crime, heresy and disorder – and in international relations. Furthermore, throughout society, violence was seen as the acceptable way to defend personal worth, in the form of honour.  It conformed to social norms.

 

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