Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S., which of course means turkey (probably associated with Anatolia because Englishmen confused the American species with the more-familiar guineafowl from Africa imported into Europe by the Ottomans) and football (American football that is, where they don’t actually use the foot much and disdain those players that do). As we’ve discussed before, language is fun.

Back in the day, at least in Europe, they didn’t have a single Thanksgiving holiday in late November, but if you do a Google Books search on “thanksgiving” and limit it to the early modern period, you will quickly discover that they did indeed have many many many days of Thanksgiving. Yet these were not the gluttonous food-fests of today, but instead official days of prayer and righteous celebration, declared by the government to celebrate military victory, usually a battle or a successful campaign. Preachers used these opportunities to write, present and publish sermons on the topic, usually equating their country/side with God’s and thanking Him for success, and frequently calling for moral reform and regeneration at the same time. When times were tough, the preachers excoriated their sinful congregants for making God punish them with military defeat.

Here is a title page from one of the orders of worship published at the time:

If your war went well, you might have a day of thanksgiving every year; the Dutch averaged two per year between 1688 and 1713. Or maybe you pretended to celebrate a victory in order to buoy domestic morale – the English mocked the French for declaring Te Deums to cover up their defeats.

For much of the 20C, historians had argued that the Thirty Years War was the last of Europe’s ‘wars of religion.’ But over the past few decades numerous scholars studying the post-Westphalian period have pointed to practices like public days of thanksgiving in order to remind us of the ways in which religion continued to be intimately connected to war.

Suggested Readings:

Haks, Donald. “Propaganda from the Pulpit?” In J.A.F. de Jongste, ed., Anthonie Heinsius and the Dutch Republic 1688-1720. Politics, Finance and War. The Hague, 2002.

Haks, Donald. “The States General on religion and war. Manifestoes, policy documents and prayer days in the Dutch Republic, 1672-1713.” In D. Onnekink, ed., War and Religion after Westphalia, 1648-1713. Burlington, VT, 2009.

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