Conference Report: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1650), University of Bern, 11-13 November 2021

Speakers of the conference. Photo by Laura Bernardazzi.

Thursday, 11 November: Registration, museum visit and keynote lecture

For the start of the event the organizers had arranged a guided tour of the Bern History Museum. Attendants had the opportunity to see unique treasures from the Swiss-Burgundian Wars, lavishly decorated textiles and armaments. During the tour attendants socialized and discussed matters related to material culture.

The conference started with a keynote lecture by Marc Boone (Ghent University), who presented many of the themes investigated in the context of the ‘Martial Culture in Medieval Towns’ research project. He presented a general theoretical and historical framework for the research of martial culture and the town as a producer and promoter of martial activities. The various martial functions and practices of citizens were discussed, as well as the responsibilities and operations of the town from a legal and organizational perspective. Overall, the lecture set the tone for the rest of the conference with various ideas and questions relating to martial culture.

Friday, 12 November: Panels

The second day of the conference included an introduction by the organizers and three panels. Regula Schmid (University of Bern) and Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern) welcomed all speakers and attendants, presented all the practical information needed for the event and spoke about the evolution of the research project that hosted the conference. Regula Schmid gave a brief lecture on the historiographical research of martial culture, which practically introduced many of the papers that followed. She presented towns and urban communities of the late medieval and early modern period, particularly in Central Europe, as hubs of martial culture. The importance of communication between specialists was highlighted in the context of exploring this rich and multifaceted research subject.

Panel I. Military Organization: The Town as Hub of Transregional Martial Culture

Mathijs Roelofsen (University of Bern) discussed the institutional, operational and material aspects of military organization, focusing on the city of Fribourg as an example. The involvement of the city’s citizens in martial matters was addressed, extending the scope of the investigation beyond the context of direct military functions. This was done on multiple levels that included the maintenance and repair of armour according to individual capacity, the role of wealthier families among the city’s elite as occupiers of leading political and military roles, and more.

Andreas Moitzi (University of Vienna) presented Vienna’s military organization and forces, as well as the duties and obligations its citizens had to fulfil. This essay focused on the fifteenth century, but elements of Viennese organization from previous centuries were also provided in order to create a complete image of the city and its military importance.

Panel II. Martial Experts: Production and Circulation of Martial Knowledge

In his paper, Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern) demonstrated the problem of defining martial expertise at the end of the Middle Ages, particularly from the perspective of town authorities. He discussed the perception and the conditions in which someone could be presented as a martial expert, as well as the reception of many of them by the public and local authorities. The importance and problem of the martial expertise definition was presented through multiple documents (charters, accounting and council books, meeting minutes and narratives).

Eric Burkart (University of Trier) discussed how Paulus Hector Mair, an extremely vivid personality of sixteenth-century Augsburg, created his self-image partially through martial arts expertise. He explored Mair’s immersion into martial culture in relation to his social standing in order to reveal a complex and ambitious man that aspired to be part of the humanist and patrician elites. His actions were examined from a socio-cultural perspective to explore the many layers of his constructed identity and how they fitted in his plan for unobtainable social advancement that, however, eventually lead to his execution for embezzlement.

Finally, Jacob Deacon (University of Leeds) analysed the functions and regulations of the Company of Masters of Defence, an organization that resembled a fencing guild in sixteenth-century England. The historical context of martial practice and teaching was presented in order to highlight the need for a body such as the Masters. Practices of this organization such as the examination of its members and the oaths that they had to take were presented in depth. Through them, Deacon demonstrated thoroughly that the Masters of Defence were trying to create a self-image of a serious and structured organization that ensured that its members had to adhere to its high standards.

Panel III. Martial Urban Space: Defending and Guarding City Walls

Elena Magli (University of Bern) examined the structure and operation of guards and watches in late medieval Basel, a town at the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire, but part of a highly active economic area. Through the examination of documents such as ordinances of the city, she discussed the profiles of those joining the night watch, as well as their conduct and practices while on duty, revealing in the process many of the habits of citizens from that period.

Armand Baeriswyl (Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern) focused on the importance of town fortifications, not only as a military feature but also as an element of how a town presented itself, and how they were affected by economic, legal, social and living conditions. Examples were drawn geographically from Switzerland, and their evolution was discussed from the early Middle Ages onwards, particularly focusing on the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. A number of specific structural elements were discussed and how they compared to evolving building and military technologies.

Karsten Igel (University of Münster) presented urban spaces as places of conflict. He investigated the physical and political landscape of Westphalian cities and towns as one of the factors that propelled turmoil. The volatile political conditions of the region were discussed in depth and raised questions about the involvement of local authorities in instigating violence and conflict.

Saturday, 13 November: Panels, posters, discussion and closing remarks

Panel IV. Weapons: Production, Trade and Exchange

Iason Tzouriadis (Martial Art Museum) addressed the complex subject of staff-weapon typologies. He presented problems in the theoretical framework of creating arms and armour typologies and compared this to systems from other fields and sciences. The importance and relevance of typologies as a research tool were highlighted by the example of toponymical suffixes in staff weapon names. The nomenclature of these objects were presented as often having been affected by their symbolic use in art and as identifying features of cultural identity. The example of the Swiss and the proto-halberd was brought up in order to demonstrate the need for further research.

Catherine Fletcher (Manchester Metropolitan University) discussed the production of firearms at the town of Gardone Val Trompia, north of Brescia, during the period of the Italian Wars (1494-1559). The importance of the town as a gun producer was highlighted under the prism of the fragile relationship of the town with Venice, particularly considering that Gardone was a distant Venetian territory and governed by the equally distant Brescia. The paper explored the dynamics and problems of this commercial and governing relationship between Gardone and Venice and how families of the Brescian elite acted as mediators in the arms industry and local authorities.

Robert W. Jones (Franklin and Marshall College) concluded this panel with a paper on bearing swords in the High and Late Middle Ages. The transfer of authority through presenting swords was discussed and the various cases connected with this practice were presented. The main arguments of this though-provoking paper were that bearing swords are evidence of a nuanced hierarchy of authority and display of power that was affected by the manner they were carried and displayed as well as from their positioning, orientation, decoration and even naming. Interestingly, when used by urban authorities, the symbol of the sword might eventually become entirely disassociated from its martial and military connections and connotations, and turn into a representation of civic authority.

Panel V. Burghers and Fighters: Social Mobility and Urban Martial Culture

Stefanie Rüther (Max-Planck-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte und Rechtstheorie) tackled the interesting subject related to the behaviour and re-integration of soldiers to society when they returned to their non-military lives. The profiles of those that served in military campaigns were examined in as to the duties they were expected to perform. Some of the primary sources presented gave an insight to the mindset and expectations of those that chose the soldier profession in addition to their perception of what followed for them after a war ended. Examples of the lives of famous and infamous personas that served as soldiers such as Niklaus Manuel, Jörg Bräu and Urs Graf highlighted the realities of warfare and the problems that came with it even after the men involved returned to their homes. Problems such as acts of violence and participation in illegal activities were symptoms of the hardships the return to normality posed for some veterans.

Markus Jansen (University of Köln) discussed the constructed identities and practices of the martial elite of Cologne in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and their attempt to connect to a fabricated historical past and connection in order to elevate their status. The focus was the creation of a corresponding myth of origin that sought to establish them as descendants of imperial Rome. The martial functions and activities of this elite were presented in the various contexts they were active in.

For the last paper of the conference, Jean-Dominique delle Luche painted a vivid image of shooting culture in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. The role of shooting societies was highlighted as well as their contribution to the civic identity of their members. The social profiles of members of crossbow and handgun societies were briefly presented next to their involvement in competitions and festivities. Finally, the amusing rivalries between competing shooting societies portrayed a very relatable aspect of martial culture.


Besides lectures, speakers and attendants had the opportunity to read posters presented by three PhD candidates on various aspects of martial culture. The posters were displayed next to a computer that allowed viewers to have an audio commentary on each one of them by the authors.

The three posters can be read on our blog (click on the link):
Maciej Talaga (University of Warsaw), German longswords revisited. Late-medieval south-German sword-makers as brokers of urban martial culture
Miente Pietersma (University of Gröningen), Training skills, acquiring virtues, bodily traits and moral improvement in early printed fencing manuals, 1450-1550
Rémi Demoen (CESR, Tours), Military defense in the royal towns of Touraine during the Wars of Religion: a daily martial culture

Conclusion of the conference

The conference concluded with a collective exercise that required all speakers and attendants to write on paper ideas they got from each session. Then the collection of these ideas were presented and discussed in depth with everyone present contributing to the discussion.

Overall, the conference was a great success and everyone present went away with a lot of information to unpack. Speakers and attendants were incredibly active during the time available for questions, taking advantage of the format in order to allow all speakers, all specialists to their relevant subjects, to shine and further develop points related to their topics. The event was a testament to the fact that the ‘Martial Culture in Medieval Towns’ research project has resoundingly succeeded in its goal of creating and nurturing a research network that discusses all facets of martial culture. The publication of the proceedings of the conference are being currently prepared.

The conference was sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation funding, by the Burgergemeinde Bern, the Max und Elsa Beer-Brawand Fonds, and the Historische Institut, Department of Medieval Studies, of the University of Bern.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis (November 17, 2021). Conference Report: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1650), University of Bern, 11-13 November 2021. Martial Culture in Medieval Town. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

2 thoughts on “Conference Report: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1650), University of Bern, 11-13 November 2021”

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Yes, the proceedings of the conference will be published in a collected volume in the future.

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