Marvel in the archives – “Drinking the wine and looting the church: the plundering of Illens in 1475”

For the city of Freiburg, the Burgundian Wars were a major event in its military history. Through several major victories, especially at Grandson and Morat in 1476, the Swiss acquired a large amount of weapons and wealth by plundering the camps of Charles the Bold’s army; looting the enemy’s camps and towns was in fact common during the Middle Ages. A peculiar document, an inventory of the booty gained in Illens by Freiburg and Bern (produced on the 4th of January 1475)[1] gives us insights in the practice of plundering in the late 15th century and of the items that were collected.

The Burgundian Wars were a large-scale conflict, involving the Swiss Confederacy and the powerful regimes of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire (and, indirectly, France). Although Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, tried not to involve the Swiss Confederacy as he was sieging Neuss (Alsace), the cantons of Bern, Fribourg and Luzern decided to attack Burgundy’s ally Savoy. In January 1475, the small coalition invaded the Pays de Vaud, Savoy’s northern territory, despite the opposition of the other confederate cantons[2]. The first town to be conquered was Illens. Between January and October 1475, most of Vaud’s territory all the way to Lausanne was occupied[3].

Fig.1: Luzern, Korporation Luzern, S 23 fol., p. 116 – Illustrated Chronicle by Diebold Schilling of Lucerne (Luzerner Schillling).

The inventory of Illens’ booty was thus produced after the plundering of the castle and the town. The items collected are simply listed in short sections, introduced by “Item”:

(1r) Hienach stat geschriben was uff Illingen gewesen ist uff dem vierden tag Januarii anno [mcccc] lxxvo. So durch beider stetten Bern und Friburg botten in diese geschrifft genomen worden ist.

Des ersten vil ysens núws un gewercket, und gewercket als schinen und anders.

Item zwo kisten mit linlachen tischlachen und anderer linwat, sy sint aber nit gar voll.

Item haeffen pfannen, kessel, und zinnin geschirr und dez alsament wenig.

Item kisten, búttinen, vesser und semlichs plunders, ouch nit vil.

Item ein wiss ross.

Item vier vass mit win, da hat man daruss truncken.

Item vil máls und vil fleisch rindris und schwinis.

Item fúnff silbrin schalen und sechs silbrin léffel.

Item drýg moeschin kertzstall.

Item zwo gross zangen ze muren.

Item zwo brigantynes.

Item xi stechlin armbrust mit ir bereitschafft.

(1v) Item fúnfftzechen gulden wert múntz xxviii blaphart fúr ein guld.

Item ein krepss.

Item acht komet.

Item drýg pein armbrust.

Item xi handbuchssen.

Item iii haockenbúchssen.

Item ein kúris hinder und vor von der mitty uff.

Item ein helmlin.

Item ein hundzkappen.

Item ein halben lagel mit schweubel.

Item ein lagel mit salpeter.

Item ein vierteil pulfers.

Item ein klein secklý zúntpulfers.

Item ein rosshut und ein kuohut.

Item vier ýsný und zwo grossen slangen búchssen.

Item ii alte kurtze ysne búchssen.

Item xii betty guot und boess.

Item will bicklen und steinachssen.

Item lxv ysnen weken.

Item zwein ambos und ein horn ambos.

(2r) Item ein vilkloben.

Item ein messgewand, ein betstein und die buecher.

Item die erbern lút hand dar inn geflóckt in kistinen ir guot, das die botten nit gesechen hand.

Item da sint zwein spicher darinn, als man spricht, vil korns ist und villichter anders guot die sint ouch nit uffgetan worden bis das die stett es ordnent.

Two main categories of items can be identified: “domestic” items and military equipment. The first category displays a vast variety of things, including a white horse, four barrels of wine – which “have been drunk” (da hat man daruss truncken) –, meat (beef and pork) and home appliances (furniture, tableware and tablecloths). The second category takes the most part of the document and displays defensive equipment (such as brigandines and helmets) and weapons (crossbows and portable fire weapons), as well as black powder (and its components, such as saltpeter). More surprising is one of the last sections, which contains religious items: a chasuble (messgewand), an altar (betstein) and a bible (die buecher), which indicates that the fighters pillaged the town’s church.

Fig. 2: The inventory of Illen’s booty.

These last elements are interesting to understand the practice of plundering in Fribourg’s military operations. If looting was authorized, it was however regulated. The first known document regulating plundering was issued in 1410[4]: pillaging home and allied territories was prohibited (punishable by a fine and exile for one year), although acquiring supplies was tolerated. In case of plundering after a victory, the booty had to be given to the city; however, it was forbidden to break into churches (as well to attack clerics and rape women), punishable by losing a hand. In 1447, this regulation was completed, a tenth of the booty going to the captains, the half to the city and the remaining to the fighters[5]. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the sharing of the booty had to be supervised by the banneret (a high-ranking city officer who had administrative and military functions), possibly because of disciplinary problems[6]. In this regard, the fighters plundering Illens decided to not open the town’s granaries (spicher) until the authorities (stett) allowed them to proceed.

Plundering was an important matter, but it was even more important for the city to control it. However, as shown in the inventory of Illens, the rules could be broken. The pillaging of the town’s church should have been punished, but some of its items were registered in the inventory, which made its way into the city’s administration. It is possible that some latitude was given to fighters when plundering a town; the presence of these items could also come from the bernese fighters, who may have plundered the church instead of Freiburg’s fighters. In the end, although the details remain unknown, the document presented in this article shows a violent process, in which populations were robbed of personal items and supplies, weapons and even religious items.

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "Marvel in the archives – “Drinking the wine and looting the church: the plundering of Illens in 1475”," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 10/06/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1327.

[1] Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Affaires Militaires III.

[2] « Bourgogne, guerres de », Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse, https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/fr/articles/008881/2011-03-17/.

[3] Gaston Castella, Histoire du Canton de Fribourg depuis les origines jusqu’en 1857 (Fribourg : Fragnière, 1922), pp. 123-124.

[4] Recueil diplomatique du Canton de Fribourg, vol. 6 (1860), pp. 156-162.

[5] Chantal Ammann-Doubliez, La « Première collection des lois » de Fribourg en Nuithonie (Basel : Schwabe, 2009), pp. 437-442.

[6] Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Affaires Militaires IV.


One thought on “Marvel in the archives – “Drinking the wine and looting the church: the plundering of Illens in 1475””

  1. An interesting piece.

    I wonder, could the religious items have come from a private home rather than from the church? Inventories of noble houses in England will.oftwn contain items of personal piety, and for the celebration of Mass in private chapels.

    Which is not to say that the rules couldn’t be or weren’t broken, but it might explain why these items were acceptable to list.

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