The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) was a European conflict so destructive and so complex that setting a novel during the period must be a challenge. For JC Harvey, whose The Silver Wolf, the first in her Fiskardo’s War trilogy, takes place in the middle of that chaos, a good place to start is a small town with a big history where time seems to have stopped.
For such a modest little place, with a population only just nudging 20,000, the town of Nördlingen has a super-sized history; one that began 15 million years ago when a meteorite slammed into this portion of what is now Bavaria, leaving a crater 25km wide and blasting into being a microdiamond-rich rock known as suevite.
You can see suevite sparkling away in the walls of the 15th-century St George’s Church, and if you climb the 350 steps to the top of its tower (I say steps, but I can vouch that what starts off as a spiral stone staircase soon becomes an open wooden stair and then what in my memory at least is barely more than a ladder, suspended over a void of darkness) you can spy out the entire circumference of the rim of the crater, meet the watchman who still calls the traditional ‘All’s well!’ over the town every evening, and from the top of the tower you can look down on the perfect circle of the town itself, segmenting out from your feet: the market square, the Romanesque town hall, the untouched streets and houses of what was the leather-worker’s district, the Gothic ‘Dance House’, the ancient granary and the equally ancient hospital; all still hunkered within the unbroken circle of Nördlingen’s medieval walls.
As you might have guessed by now, the town of Nördlingen is a place with a uniquely present relationship to what most of us call history. What was then and what is now co-exist here in a sort of warp and weft, creating something which, when you first experience it, feels so easily permeable as to be downright disconcerting.
Here is a hotel: it was new when it hosted the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III in 1497; it was old when Goethe stayed here, in 1788. Close by, at the Sign of the Angel, is a pharmacy – a mere stripling, it has been here only since 1629. The building next along is being done up – do you remember those diagrams illustrating wattle and timber and daub from your childhood history book? Here is what it looks like in reality – the basic sticks, the slap of mud, the skin of plaster.
I was a deeply bookish child. I existed in my imagination far more vividly than I did outside it, and I longed to pass through whatever it was divided me from the people I read about, whose histories I devoured. I could see no specific, convincing reason why this shouldn’t be possible, if one wanted it enough.
As you grow up, and the noise of adulthood becomes louder, you grow away from that intense relationship with the inside of your head, but if you write, you never separate from it entirely. You always keep one finger on the handle of your low door in the wall.
Now here I was in a place where the door, in effect, had been left wide open. Time was put on pause at Nördlingen; history stopped. Here it is, as it was.
The reason for this was the Thirty Years’ War. This pan-European conflict began in 1618 as a territorial spat between the Calvinist Frederick V and the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II, and then it grew and grew and grew into an unstoppable, unwinnable, uncontrollable horror, the worst conflict Europe had known.
Alongside the home-grown forces trampling Germany underfoot, it sucked in England, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia – it even reached as far afield as Transylvania. It was irredeemably appalling, fuelled by religious hatred, dynastic greed and pure human vileness.
People starved and sickened, were hunted like animals, ate their dead; armies pullulating with disease wiped villages off the map and reduced cities to ash (in May 1631 Magdeburg, which had a population as numerous as Nördlingen’s is now, disappeared in a single day).
There were battles where you stood as good or as poor a chance of walking off the battlefield intact as you would have done at the Somme. When the war arrived, everything else ceased; and time and again as I worked on rough drafts of what has now become a trilogy of novels with the Thirty Years’ War as their background, I would be faced with the brute fact that no matter what I put together in my imagination, what actually happened was worse.
So far so terrible. But what truly turned the motor on my obsession with this period was the fact that when these terrible events are happening all about you, it seems that where you go is words.
The people who endured the war wrote about it – in letters, journals, and accounts to friends and family – exorcising what they had seen and attempting to make sense of what they had suffered.
And since established religion was literally part of the problem, they created their own beliefs for their dark times: of armies of the dead; of the devil walking abroad, of men who could raise mists and miasmas at will and travel through them; and most terrifyingly of all, of the ‘hard men’ (is this where the term originates?) who were proof against any weapon made of iron or lead or steel.
My first evening in Nördlingen, I walked its walls with my writer’s brain running at a high whine. I wanted to bring those stories back to life; I wanted to craft a narrative from them as concrete as the streets around me. I wanted to explore what it took to survive in such times and how much of yourself you had to give up in order to do so; and as the flip-side to that, I wanted to discover where you might go if you made yourself the creature of such a war; if you abandoned yourself to the very worst it offered.
There’s a tension there, one of those narrative push-me-pull-yous, in the space between good and evil, right and wrong, that will drive any story along. The Silver Wolf is the first part of where that tension sent me, but where it all began was on an evening in Nördlingen, a place that is both now and then – which is exactly where historical fiction sits, too.
JC Harvey is the fiction pen-name for best-selling non-fiction author Jacky Colliss Harvey. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) has been an obsession of hers for as long as she can remember, and is the historical background for her fiction debut in the Fiskardo’s War trilogy of novels.
- The Siege of Magdeburg, 1631, by Peter Meulener (detail): Eric Cornelius/Nationalmusuem Stockholm, via Wikimedia
- Nördlingen’s medieval city centre by Ulrich Berens: Flickr
- Nördlingen from the 1576 map by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg: Wikimedia
- Frederick V, Prince of the Palatinate, 1621: Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
- Des heiligen Römischen Reichs Stat Nördlingen by Hans Conrad Wörlen, 1607: Stadtarchiv Nördlingen via Wikimedia