a simple essay


Mother Courage and the 30 Years’ War

Between the years of 1618 and 1648, the 30 Years’ War migrated across Central Europe from the original rebellion in Bohemia to its conclusion in Westphalia. Seeing as how this was war so lengthy, it is no surprise that it has left such a lasting mark in history. It must have also left a lasting impression on Bertolt Brecht since he decided to set his play Mother Courage and Her Children during this conflict, nearly 300 years after the event. Perhaps his inspiration for this play came about as he witnessed World War II unfolding across Europe. The political wheels in his head began to turn as he pieced this play together. He did not forget to illustrate the social and economical ramifications that come about in a war, and which we have discussed in the lectures, including the changing roles of women and children as well as the practice of religion. Economically, monetary gains and losses occur in every war.

This war, like many others, began over a difference of religious beliefs. In the century leading up to the 30 Years’ War, Luther’s ideas had become widespread. The Reformation had taken place, making yet another schism in the catholic religion. This left a very harsh environment as the different electorates of the Holy Roman Empire followed one of two religions, Lutheranism or Catholicism (Patrouch, 15 October). With feuding religions living in close proximity to each other, an intolerant environment emerged, which began due to the religious prosecutions from both religions. This is seen early in Brecht’s play when a commander in the Swedish army, who was helping the German Protestants, called the current war a Holy War (35). Furthermore, the willingness of people to hide their faith when faced with persecutions is evident when the Chaplain with the Swedish army dresses himself different as he and mother courage are captured by a Catholic army (Brecht, 49). From that scene, one can realize that religion does not just spread from generation to generation; sometimes it can spread through force, which ultimately changes a society’s culture. However, as professor Patrouch also stated, despite the fact that the war had started as a religious war, because of its length many people had become apathetic about their religion at the end (15 October). This too can be seen in the play as mother courage comes across an area that was under bombardment; some soldiers and the Chaplain try to help hurt peasants: “Protestant, Catholic, what do they care?” (71). The difference of religions no longer mattered, people needed help.

Because of its length, the 30 Years’ War involved many large armies, of which some where mercenary armies. These new, roaming armies required an infrastructure that the current society was unable to provide. As professor Patrouch stated, these armies became new social structures where men, women, and children lived and worked (18 October). Women could not just tend to the home; they now had new duties to make up for the loss of their men. Also, women and children had to do extra work to help support the troops. This is where Mother Courage found a niche in which she could survive. Mother courage was a part of these external, army suppliers that helped feed and keep the army moving. She supplied them with boots, belts, and also food. When the Swedish army is holding siege a town in Poland, Mother Courage is seen supplying the commander with fowl as there is no food around the encampment (Brecht, 36). Also, she is seen many times feeding and giving drinks to soldiers. In fact she is even capable of setting up a canteen tent (Brecht, 73).

These episodes show army infrastructure change from centralized government to a more decentralized, capitalist-inspired infrastructure where everyone, men and women, were trying hard to make money from the war as well. So, not only was Mother Courage part the new army structure, but also a venture capitalist trying to make enough money from the war to survive. As professor Patrouch noted in his lectures, theses wars were too costly for a single figure to be able to successfully wage (15 October). The rulers of Germany and other participating territories had better luck outsourcing the job to mercenaries because peasants and constituents were in such a state of flux that taxes and seignurie did not provide a stable income to the nobles and government figures. They feared that any increase in the taxes or seignurie might make peasants run to better places or join the army (15 October). As such, mercenary, capitalistic armies in which anyone could be of service were able to make money. Profiting of the war became the norm at that time. This obvious exploitation of such terrible times did not escape Brecth’s cynicism. As early as the first scene, we can see that everyone at this time, even Courage and the soldiers, knew the importance of such capitalism, yet at the same time, the shameful nature of it as well. As the Sergeant in scene one claims, “you should be ashamed of yourself […] you admit you live off the war” (29). Even as mother courage is providing food for the commander however, she haggles hard over the price of the capon she is trying to sell (34, 35). Being able to keep her supplies, sell, and stay alive is important. In scene 7, she refuses to give some linen to hurt peasants, yet they end up with the linen despite her protests (71). Her altruistic nature usually overrode her capitalistic urges.

Perhaps the one thing that ties the social and economical consequences of war together is death. The death of the young men in a war leaves wives without husbands, mothers and fathers without sons, and children without fathers. In addition to the soldiers, many casualties occurred among women and children as a result of the war. With such an unusual amount of death, a cloud of depression surely overwhelmed the war-torn area. Death can also be financially devastating. Wives have no husbands to help support their families, jobs have no workers, and no one has any money to help keep the economy stable. Making a profit from the war was the best way to survive, but perhaps few people realized how difficult it would all be when the dust finally settled.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. Ed Eric Bentley. New York, New York: Grove Press, 1991

Patrouch, Joseph. EUH 2021 Class Lectures. Ryder Business Building – FIU University Parl, Miami, FL. 15 October 2004, 18 October 2004.

History and Philosophy


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