A couple weeks ago, I checked out William Faulkner’s Light in August from my campus library in hopes of reading a mentally engaging novel (as well as making any breaks from studying or working more enjoyable). The story is set in Mississippi, in a time period where racism is rampant, men could be employed as easily as showing up in front of a building, and pregnant ladies would ride from wagon to wagon for almost a month to find her unborn child’s father. Of course the romance and drama held my attention, yet the culture and the environment shown of the deep south was interesting as well. The novel is a fictional story but the author certainly shared a small glimpse of southern history within it.
If we were to focus on Faulkner’s novel as a representation of the South’s history, how much could we gain and learn from it? The limited perspective could pose as a problem for any avid historian but this issue is certainly not uncommon, as much of history is told by individuals. Whether it be from a journal or a picture taken, it is part of the past that the present would eagerly investigate and learn from.
How much of a problem do these perspectives of history pose? That depends entirely on the context and mindset of the individual who shares this piece of the past.
Allow me to put the Thirty Years War on the spotlight for this subject, as it was a period of unforgotten and radical antiquity of Europe where destruction and death spread like a virus in the Holy Roman Empire, causing catastrophic battles between religions, states, and people. It ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia to allow a sovereign system between states and the nation as a whole and finally bring about peace for the empire, but it would never completely fix the damage it caused on cities, homes, and the innocent bystanders who were stripped away of life.
Such a tragedy could never be replicated perfectly in words, but authors have attempted different angles to represent this slice of the bloody past. Von Guerick, Brecht, and Grimmelshausen will be a few from the many writers I will be discussing on how their point of view of The Thirty Years War is reflected in their works.
In 1631, Germany, the city Magdeburg is set ablaze and utterly destroyed by the Swedish army to break through the protestant territory. Guerick, who was mayor of Magdeburg, gave an eyewitness account of the attack called The Sack of Magdeburg. He describes the events as if it were a report, detailing how it began and how it ended, adding few specific details, preferring more broad descriptions.
An example of this would be how he describes the city in flames “During such rage, this wonderful and great city, like a princess over the entire land, stood completely in flames amidst terrible misery, unspeakable distress, and heartbreak.”. The text is not specific on what exactly is happening, even with the figurative language to add emphasis, it produces barely enough insight for the reader to understand the horrors of the carnage. Guerick is mayor of the ruined city, he would most likely have used this perspective for professionalism in order to focus more on the seriousness of the situation, rather than for the emotional and dramatic appeal. What is also to be noted is how he is not writing the city’s turmoil in a past perspective, rather than an in-time, present one. The technique is possibly used to add the effect that this is not a problem of the past, but an issue that needs to be resolved immediately. Guerick is the only one from my examples to have chosen this angle for his account and having a work that presents the whole picture rather than a very specific account of a particular scene.
Mother Courage and Her Children by Brecht provides a much more face-to-face perspective of The Thirty Years War. This is a play that is based on Grimmelshausen’s spin-off, also called Mother Courage, but the elements of this story will not be like Grimmelshausen’s.
Since the play is told in the typical script format, we have a better idea of how the scenes are set up and have a better idea of what the character’s are doing and thinking. Brecht’s style is quite interesting that makes his play stand out a bit more in its language and content than Guerick’s and Grimmelshausen. The entertainment value plays a significant role, in that each character is a hypocrite. This scene sums up most of Mother Courage perfectly:
“Farmer. My arms ripped open.
The Chaplain. Where’s the linen?
Everyone looks at Mother Courage who doesn’t move.
Mother Courage. Taxes, tolls, penalties and payoffs! I can’t spare a thing.
Growling, Kattrin picks up a plank and threatens her mother with it.
Mother Courage. Have you snapped your tether? You put that planck down now or I’ll slap your face off you, you cramp! I’m giving nothing, no one can make me, I’ve got myself to think about.” (5.59)
The character, Mother Courage (the title and main character), is depicted here as a greedy and selfish lady, who would allow the death of bystanders grow in order to increase her business. This contrasts greatly with other parts of the play in which she was very protective of her sons from joining the war, being adamant about their involvement in the army as it would certainly lead to death. However, this hypocrisy is the key to understanding the play, despite its dark humor and spontaneous singing, Brecht is much more interested in having the audience think about each event, and the hypocrisy exists to challenge the audience’s knowledge of the war.
It could also be said that the language used for this is much less formal, to display a better representation of how people acted and talked normally. Since this perspective surrounds the life of Mother Courage, it is very limited on how much is shown in each scene. Sometimes the viewers will have no clue what exactly is the setting or background to a particular sequence. Brecht’s play is interesting in its style of political commentary from inside the war rather than an overhead shot of the entirety of The Thirty Years War, yet it is also vague on details of who is fighting who and where are the characters. It makes Brecht’s play more universally open to debate on the topic of all wars due to the vagueness of the play, a quality not shown by the other two authors.
Finally, we reach Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus. Why I chose this last was due to how absolutely insane the novel is. Unlike Mother Courage and The Sack of Magdeburg, Simplicius directs its commentary and perspective on the cultural background of how ordinary citizens adapted around the war through the eyes of his main character, Simplicius. Like Mother Courage, it does contain elements of comedy that is much more forward for entertaining the audience rather than being abrupt like in Brecht’s play. The tale is told in a fashion of naivete in the beginning that gradually becomes more mature as Simplicius becomes more aware and critical of his environment. Since each chapter is told by Simplicius from the future telling us about his past, this would be an aspect of another very limited viewpoint, as we can only gather information from Simplicius, the only book out of the three that primarily focuses on only one person. What lacks in perspective makes up for it in commentary.
Mother Courage and Simplicissimus both offer their audience to think about each plot line, but Simplicissimus is much more direct about the hypocrisy of a typical person. Each comment by Simplicius is very satirical and humorous such as the scene in book two where Simplicius must be forced to act like a calf, but when he is questioned about the intelligence of animals, he considers his fellow cows and bees to be of the better species, relying on their own instinct rather than on compasses, like what humans do typically. Simplicius tends to be much more focused on people rather than the Thirty Years War itself, but the social and political remarks is important to study and relate too.
Guerick, Brecht, and Simplicius provide a very distinct range of how to view The Thirty Years War. Despite their obvious limitations of point of view, commentary, genre, or even medium, they present their works that can be valuable in their own way. Guerick might now have had a “view from above” type of account, it helped complete a broad picture of the devastation from The Thirty Years War, relying less on specific details and more on the war as a whole. Brecht intended the audience to see his play as something that could be challenged and criticized about the cruelty of war, using his characters to show how the armies and people reacted towards the events. Grimmelshausen’s novel is the most restricted, as it is mostly about the culture within a civilization around The Thirty Years War, leading to a better understanding of the lives of ordinary people.
Each one is important to understand and learn from, each degree may not be as general or specific as the last, but it is certainly valuable to learn each perspective. Perhaps there is limits, but history requires many ways to look at it in order to comprehend it to the fullest. It is how we learn from our past and create a better history for the future.