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The bloody Wedding of Magdeburg

Content warning: Discusses topics of sexual violence in war.

Oh, Magdeburg, the town!

Fair maids thy beauty crown,

Thy charms fair maids and matrons crown;

Oh, Magdeburg, the town!


No safety there they meet!

The soldiers fill the street,

With fire and sword the wreck complete:

No safety there they meet! /


The Destruction of Magdeburg’. 1798 Poem by German poet J. W. Goethe

The Thirty-Years-War saw many atrocities but most of them pale in comparison to the sack of the city Magdeburg.

Long considered a safe bulwark of Protestantism against the victorious armies of the Catholic Imperials under General Tilly, Magdeburg fell to the sheer numbers of the ‘Landsknecht’ mercenaries before the gates. The ensuing slaughter became entrenched in the German language through anecdotes, proverbs, and the fateful name of the ‘Wedding of Magdeburg’. Contemporary eyewitnesses put the civilian death toll at 20 000 of an original city population of 25 000.

Peter Hagendorf was one of those mercenaries at the siege. His account, recorded in his diary, is one of the most exciting contemporary sources to be rediscovered since the 1990s, though the find seems to have impacted mostly the German scholarly conversation thus far. Not only does Hagendorf’s diary record the brutality of the War, but it also opens a window into the intensely gendered nature of the War’s military economy.

With great care, he records the landmark dates of his two marriages; His first wife, Anna Stadler, with whom he has four children, none of which live past one year, dies during her last childbirth two years after the Sack of Magdeburg. The losses hit him hard, the entries paired with short prayers for the dead. With his second wife Anna Maria and their children, he would spend the rest of his life. A ‘Landsknecht’ who had exercised his profession as a pike for hire for the entire (!) duration of the War, Hagendorf was one of millions for whom the conflict ensured a stable income for his family. In service of Catholic generals, he, his wife, and children marched all over Europe; from the fighting over Northern Italy, to Paris, to the Baltics, and deep into the heart of Germany, adding up to more than 22 500 kilometres, or half the globe’s circumference.

What becomes clear in his writing, but also other contemporary descriptions, is that mercenary and wife formed tight economic units who would divide tasks between themselves in order to survive. He chronicles the typical mercenary lifestyle, where he would enter the fighting or invade the countryside, and the mercenary wives would swarm the conquered spaces afterwards, often selling ransacked goods or processing them into food produce or market merchandise. Thus, gender relations significantly determined the functioning of the army economy.

Thus, the armies marching across Europe were continuously accumulating massive retinue consisting of the mercenaries’ families and service providers. They formed entire small, mobile economies of artisans and merchants, who would depend on the continuous conquest of territory - without looted goods, one could not nourish his or her family. Often, peasants who saw their fields pillaged by marauding mercenaries would be forced to join the retinue of the very army who had robbed them of their livelihoods. German poet F. Schiller would summarise this succinctly a century later: “War nourishes the War”.

The massacring of peasants and urban residents hit both men and women, but it was the thoroughly normalised routine of sexual violence against women and girls that shaped contemporary impressions. The sacking of Magdeburg shocked Europeans like no other event in the War precisely because of the extent of violence against women and girls. Magdeburg takes its name by reference to Holy Mary, virgin Mother of Christ.

Before its sacking, the city’s stubborn resistance to the Catholics was commonly likened to a young girl’s chastity and purity in the face of the pursuit by an indecent man. After the city’s walls were breached, the Catholic forces swarmed the city and spared few. So vicious and merciless were the invading mercenaries in their pursuit of women, that the event would be remembered through the common proverb of magdeburgisieren, literally ‘to magdeburgise’, which survives in German language to this day. In the aftermath, Protestants decried the figurative and literal ‘rape’ of Magdeburg by the Catholic devils, who, in turn, used the victory for their propaganda of divine punishment enacted upon a woman fallen ‘impure’ with the sin of Protestantism. The event was dubbed the Magdeburger Hochzeit, or the ‘Wedding of Magdeburg’ in crude reference to the gendered symbology involved. Calvinist (Protestant) Prince Christian II recorded for posterity how the news “recalls to me the destruction of Jerusalem, and no such tragedy has befallen such a city in the German empire and lands”.

Hagendorf, a typical German ‘Landsknecht’ mercenary, surely would have participated in such sexualised warfare. As the discoverer of his dairy, historian Jan Peters, describes, mercenary work was considered a profession like any other, and looting was considered part of a soldier’s entitlements and fair salary. Soldiers counted on the fact that they would acquire both goods and violent satisfaction after battles and sieges - at least for as long as they were out of wedlock. Hagendorf was unmarried for only two years during the war, and his descriptions of such violence is sparse - which may speak more to the little moral importance he attached to such deeds rather than to the extent of his participation. Only on two occasions, he notes how he “obtained” and “lead out of the city” girls after pillaging towns, before letting them go shortly afterwards. Such language surely invokes dark suspicions but is not conclusive evidence. Hagendorf further records the storming of Magdeburg:

“We set ourselves up in the local villages and blockaded the city [of Magdeburg] for the entire winter, staying encamped in villages until the spring of 1631. […] There, our captain, along with many others, was shot dead in front of an entrenchment. […] Then we moved in close […] but it cost us a lot of men. The 22nd of March Johann Galgart was brought in as our captain; the 28th of April he too was shot dead in the saps. The 6th of May Tilge Neuberg was then brought in. He had our company for ten days, after which he resigned.”

Evidently, being a mercenary captain was usually a short-lived career. By god’s grace, and a little bit of folkloric dark magic, Hagendorf believes, he survives the War without major injuries or dying- Eventually, however, a stray lead bullet ‘shoots through’ his belly and armpits, relegating him to the infirmary “-that was my booty”, he remarks with dry humour. He regrets missing out on pillaging the burning city, but he also worries greatly about his wife, who has gone to loot without him, and who does not return as the fire grows. His relief, as she finally returns safely bringing silvered belts and wine as well as an old woman as a temporary maid, is immense. His wife would later fetch a fair price for them in the army’s attached mobile market.

For all his crimes, Hagendorf’s family was rewarded with a better life after the War. After first struggling with unemployment and potentially alcoholism after the Peace of Westphalia 1648, municipal archives indicate that he was eventually elected mayor and judge in the small town Görzke, perhaps because of his experience and literacy. There, he died aged 77. Magdeburg would never recover its trading position, and only properly returned to strength in the late 19th century.

Applying lessons from history to modern life is a futile exercise. Socioeconomic, political, and ethical contexts differ wildly across centuries. Arguably, needless explorations of the details of (sexualised) violence remain voyeuristic and tasteless outside of academic conversation. If anything, the tales of the ‘Wedding of Magdeburg’, Hagendorf and his wife Anna Stadler can serve to illustrate the economic and psychological complexity involved in large-scale conflicts, where lines between victims and perpetrators blur in face of economic hardship and the unravelling of civilisational structures and social relationships. The world today surely is in no short supply of equally complex conflicts.


The women sorrow sore,

The maidens far, far more.

The living are no virgins more.

Thus Tilly's troops make war!

Final verse of ‘The Destruction of Magdeburg’, by J.W. Goethe, 1798

This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.


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