Wrong place, wrong time – The inclusion of strangers into the urban armed forces

Sovereign cities in the Holy Roman Empire had their own military force. To a significant degree, this armed force was composed of the citizens of the town. Citizens therefore knew that if – or more accurately, when – the day came an urban army was needed, they had to take up arms and march to war themselves.[1]. However, in every town, at any given moment there were strangers[2] present. What happened to people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a city preparing to go to war?

This blog entry explores the relation of these strangers to the urban militia. I will do that based on a specific document in the state archive of Basel-Stadt dealing with the strangers in Basel as the town was preparing to enter into military conflict with Habsburg. (fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher J 1, Rufbuch I, 1417 – 1459, fol. 156r.

In early 1445, the town of Basel was in acute military danger as tensions between neighbouring Habsburg and Basel ran higher and higher.[3] Soon, the city council made the decision to raise the militia and subsequently called all the male inhabitants of Basel to arms. In contrast, and in addition to previous calls to arms, the government this time decided that strangers currently in town also had to be part of the urban military forces. This decision is recorded in the “Rufbuch”[4]. The “Rufbuch” (book of calls) was one of Basel’s many city books (liber civitatis). However, it represents a special category of city book since the Rufbuch was especially created to document what today would be called public service announcements. The “Rufbuch” consist of laws, admonitions and calls to order the city council had decided in the city hall that were then – literally – called out to the people. In order to do this, a town crier stood on the stairs of the town hall and read the entries of the Rufbuch out loud in the direction of the market square situated right in front of the town hall. (fig. 2) Accordingly, these texts were specifically created to be read out loud, and this influenced their appearance. For example, the text is written in noticeably bigger fond then records meant for reading only. Also, there are conspicuously numerous corrections done to the text, maybe indicating improvements made after previous rounds of reading.

Fig. 2: In the front: town hall with corn market. From here the new order was made public. Excerpt from the Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Merian, Matthäus: Gesamtansicht der Stadt aus der Vogelperspektive von Nordosten, 1615, Kupferstich, BILD 1_291.)

In 1445, the city crier would have cried out this new ruling concerning strangers ordered to join the armed forces to the people gathering in the market square. He announced that the city council had conferred and decided that since there was “vil frömdes volkes” (a lot of strangers) in town, these strangers should join the urban militia. The strangers had to show their willingness to do so by swearing that they would march under the city banner. Subsequently, the strangers were ordered to assign themselves to one of Basel’s 15 guilds. This presented a necessary step to become part of the urban forces, since the guilds made up the town’s basic organisational structure. How serious the government took this new practice is made clear in the declaration that everyone not complying to the order would be treated as an enemy of the town.

Basel was apparently especially in need of men with carts, since the townspeaker was pressed to emphasise that strangers in possession of carts and carriages had to have them in good condition and had to freely offer them up for use. This may be explained by the demands made by the course of this specific war, since Basel’s military forces did not only prepare for short excursions, but for longer expeditions which even included sieges. Such ventures required a certain amount of carts for all the needed goods out into the field and in front of the besieged places. Bounty also had to be ferried back somehow.[5]

The town crier also informed the public, that out in the field the strangers in Basel’s army had to wear a red cross on a white surface, signalling the side they were on. This was the standard of the Swiss Confederation – allies of Basel in this war. The sign was usually worn stitched onto a sleeve.[6]

Unfortunately, the city council does not elaborate who specifically they meant by “vil frömdes volk”. Even though it is somewhat obvious, here it bears emphasising that a town’s population did not only consist of its permanent inhabitants. Indeed, at any given moment in time, Basel would have had a wealth of strangers in town – newcomers from near and far who wanted to settle in as well as mere passer-throughs in form of merchants, travelling artisans, pilgrims etc.

Yet, the constant stream of newcomers and passer-throughs must have reached a remarkable dimension in 1445. The threat of war did not only mobilise armed citizens, but also people who fled from it, mostly rural residents from the wider region who sought the protection of the city walls. Basel therefore would have had more far more people inside its walls than usual. In this regard, there is an enlightening addition made in the Rufbuch fol. 156r, after the actual declaration. In it, the government points out that if people from neighbouring Habsburg land were to flee to Basel, they would be considered enemies and be imprisoned.

At the same time, Basel still hosted the members of the council of Basel including a papal court that was regularly joined by important guests. In 1445, for example, Margaret of Savoy visited her father the pope in Basel on her journey towards her wedding destination, bringing her own court with her.[7]

Clerics and diplomatic guests were not the ones addressed by the new order recorded in the Rufbuch though. We can safely guess that the order rather addressed the men who had arrived fleeing from the countryside and from smaller, more vulnerable towns into the relative safety of the city walls. In times of acute military danger, the municipal government of Basel decided to include these strangers currently residing in Basel into the town’s armed forces. With this move, they increased their fighting power and also, maybe more importantly, they attempted to defuse the perceived threat of the unknown the unusual amount of strangers presented. For the government, the order created an avenue of access and control by constructing a situation where either the strangers let themselves be incorporated into the town’s war efforts or the government could remove them for not subjecting themselves to local law.


[1] For the characteristics and composition urban Swiss medieval armies see Regula Schmid, “Bezahlte Bürger – Gratissöldner: Die Zusammensetzung Städtischer Heere Im Spätmittelalter,” in Miliz oder Söldner? Wehrpflicht und Solddienst in Stadt, Republik und Fürstenstaat 13.-18. Jahrhundert, ed. Regula Schmid and Philippe Rogger, 91–114, Krieg in der Geschichte 111 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2019).

[2] In the following, the term “stranger” is understood as either a newcomer from villages or other towns or a passer-through. “Strangers” who did not come from outside, yet who had a sense of “strangerhood” attached to themselves, as for example Jews in central Europe or, to a degree, women, are not part of the following. However their relation to the urban martial community will be a focus point of my dissertation. For the use and meaning of the term “stranger” see Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers, Making Lives in Medieval Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] There was a series of military conflict between members of the Swiss Confederation and also Habsburg between 1436 – 1450, called the “Alter Zürichkrieg”. See Martin Illi, “Alter Zürichkrieg” in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS), version dating 04.05.2015, https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/008877/2015-05-04/.

[4] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher J 1, Rufbuch I, 1417 – 1459, fol. 156r.

[5] August Bernoulli, “Basels Kriegführung im Mittelalter,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 19 (1921), p. 110.

[6] August Bernoulli, “Die Organisation von Basels Kriegswesen im Mittelalter,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 17 (1918), p. 155.

[7] Peter Rückert, “Margarethe von Savoyen in Basel 1445: Herrschaftsrepräsentation und ihre Medien im städtischen Kontext,” in Raum und Medium: Literatur und Kultur in Basel in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, ed. Johanna Thali and Nigel F. Palmer, 201-218 (De Gruyter, 2020).

For five miles and ten years: The practice of banishment in late medieval Basel

In July 1387, two brothers named Henman and Burkart Kesseler, up until then living in one of the suburbs of Basel, were ordered to leave Basel and to stay five miles away from the city for ten years. Banishment was a common penalty imposed by the authorities on individual offenders in late medieval European cities. Research labels banishment as a punishment as well as a governmental instrument of safekeeping the community. It could also function as a form of pardon, given instead of corporal punishment or a death sentence.[1]

In Basel, the practice of banishing delinquents from the city is well documented. During the years 1357–1473, the city council recorded the banishments in the so called “Leistungsbücher” (Leistung=Banishment).[2]

Fig. 1: Leistungsbuch vol. 1 and folio 118r. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A2, Leistungsbuch I, 1357–1392. Picture by the author.

For a closer look, a page from the first of the two volume Leistungsbücher was selected (Fig. 1). Based on this page, the characteristics of these particular records will be examined with a special focus on spatial aspects of the banishments. Based on the variety of recorded crimes and misdemeanours it contains, and for the interesting insights they offer into the varied spatial dimensions of the banishments, folio 118r was selected for further analysis.

Folio 118r contains five entries detailing individual cases, all from July 1387. Each entry records how long the delinquent had to leave Basel, and how far he had to go, as well as a short description of the circumstances leading to this verdict. The names of the delinquent and their victims were only recorded when they or their families were of some notability inside the urban community.

The first entry on this particular page is also the one describing the most serious crime recorded here: The two Kesseler brothers were found guilty of killing a tailor whose name remains unknown. They were sentenced to spend ten years and five miles away from Basel. Before leaving the town, they were put in prison for one month. This combination of banishment and incarceration was commonly used for emphasizing the seriousness of a crime. The five mile equals 22.5 kilometres[3] measured from the city gates. The brothers were not allowed to cross into this virtual circle around the town.

The next entry on the page concerns a man named Schotto. As a measurer of grain (Kornmesser) he had succumbed to the typical temptation of his position and had forked out corn, which he most probably sold for his own profit. As a measurer of grain he was member of the “Brotbecken”, the local bakers guild, but also employed by the authorities. They did not take this abuse of duties lightly. They banned Schotto from Basel for a period of two years and a distance of one mile from town. Even more severe and in the long-term more serious for Schotto, however, was his permanent expulsion from the guild and that he was forbidden to ever work as a grain measurer again.

The third entry on folio 118r concerns the butcher Jacob Lurtsch, a member of one of the most influential families within the butcher’s guild.[4] He was overheard talking about someone planning to harm the city. The members of the city council took gossip about threats to the city and, in extension, to their rule very seriously, even if they were unfounded, as it probably was in this case.[5] Jacob Lurtsch was banned for a year outside the “crutzen”. These “crutzen” were border stones (Fig. 2) not far from the city gates that had a cross engraved on them. Generally speaking, they signalled the end of the city councils’ jurisdiction. The distance the punishment refers to – the lands outside the immediate legal dominion of the town – and the period of one year – was the most common verdict found in the Leistungsbücher.[6]

Fig. 2: Kreuzstein (“crutzen”) from Basel, 14./15. Jh. Delinquents were often just banished to the other side this border stones, Historisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey, https://www.hmb.ch/museen/sammlungsobjekte/einzelansicht/s/kreuzstein/.

The second to last entry concerns a bodily injury inflicted by one man on another. Again, the perpetrator had to spend a year outside the “crutzen” as it was usual for crimes that implied bodily injury.[7]

The last entry on the page features a female perpetrator and a female victim. Women are seldom mentioned in the Leistungsbücher and if they are, rarely appear as offender. According to the studies of Simon-Muscheid, women most frequently show up in the Leistungsbücher for deliberately creating and spreading rumours.[8] In this case, a woman whose name is not recorded told Mrs. Morschartz falsely that her husband, a butcher, had died, causing Mrs. Morschatz to suffer a shock that had a lasting effect on her wellbeing. The unknown women was banished for one year outside the “crutzen”. However, since she was highly pregnant, she was allowed to stay in the city until giving birth and then for another six weeks. In fact, once the verdict was published, the convicted person usually had to leave town on the same day or within 24 hours. Pregnancy is one of only a few exceptions to this rule.[9]

We have seen that the distance as well as the time spent in exile varied. In fact, the overwhelming majority of cases recorded in the two volumes of the Leistungsbücher that mention distances do specify the distance in miles and do not, as one could expect, identify geographical or topographical features.[10] According to Marchal, when the authorities specified the distance in miles they did actually not intend to identify a clear borderline in the landscape, but meant to ensure that the delinquent was “far away” from the place of his or her crimes. The authorities aimed to safe keep the city and, by extension, its hinterland. Therefore, the goal was to bring distance between the delinquent and the city. Additionally, the heightened communication network and general close relationship between city and its hinterland did serve as a kind of social control mechanism in that the re-emergence of an exile would be noticed. Consequently, the further away someone had been banned, the sooner the authorities would be alerted if they were seen travelling towards the city again.[11]

Three delinquents mentioned on folio 118r were banned just beyond the “crutzen”. It is unknown where exactly these “Stadtkreuze” stood, but they were not far from the city gates.[12] This meant that the banished could at least continue living near Basel, making it easier for them to maintain their social and economic networks in the town. In general, the municipal authorities were free to decide each case as they saw fit,[13] however, a connection is observable between the severity of the verdict and the perceived gravity of the offence.[14]

The most obvious characteristic of banishments was the physical removal of an offender from Basel. For the exiled, it also meant the exclusion from local society and very probably loss of economical means.[15] However, banishment did not automatically mean criminalization of the exiled. Numerous offenders were able to return after their banishment ended and re-enter urban society successfully.[16] The brothers Kesseler, however, were apparently not among them. After this verdict, we do not hear from them in Basel again.


[1] Helmut Maurer, Erzwungene Ferne. Zur räumlichen Dimension der Stadtverweisung im Spätmittelalter, in: Grenzen und Raumvorstellungen 11.–20. Jh. (Clio Lucernensis 3), ed. by Guy P. Marchal, Zürich 1996, pp. 199–224, here pp. 200–201.

[2] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A2, Leistungsbuch I, 1357–1392 und Ratsbücher A3, Leistungsbuch II, 1357–1392.

[3] 1 medieval Swiss mile equals a modern 4.5 km. Guy P. Marchal, «Von der Stadt» und bis ins «Pfefferland». Städtische Raum- und Grenzvorstellungen in Urfehden und Verbannungsurteilen oberrheinischer und schweizerischer Städte, in: Grenzen und Raumvorstellungen (11.–20. Jh.) (Clio Lucernensis 3), ed. by Guy P. Marchal, Zürich 1996, pp. 225–263, here p. 246.

[4] Katharina Simon-Muscheid, Basler Handwerkerzünfte im Spätmittelalter. Zunftinterne Strukturen und innerstädtische Konflikte (Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe III Geschichte und Hilfswissenschaften, 348) Bern 1988, p. 115.

[5] Katharina Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt und Ehre im spätmittelalterlichen Handwerk am Beispiel Basels (Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, 1991, 18/1), pp. 1–33, here pp. 21–23.

[6] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231.

[7] Hans-Rudolf Hagemann, Basler Rechtsleben im Mittelalter, Vol. 1, Basel 1981, p. 190.

[8] A quantitative study of the Leistungsbücher is to be found in: Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt, p. 19.

[9] Hagemann, Rechtsleben, pp. 191–192.

[10] There are examples of banishments with the mention of a specific geographical area that had to be crossed (for example the Alps) but they are very rare. Marchal, «Von der Stadt», pp. 231–233.

[11] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», pp. 247–249.

[12] Claudius Sieber-Lehmann, Grenzen im spätmittelalterlichen Basel, in: Begegnungen mit dem Mittelalter (Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft 171), ed. by Simona Slanička, pp. 185–207, pp. 189–190.

[13] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231

[14] Maurer, Erzwungene Ferne, p. 201

[15] Elizabeth Ewan, Crossing Borders and Boundaries. The Use of Banishment in Sixteenth-Century Scottish Towns, in: Crossing Borders: Boundaries and Margins in Medieval and Early Modern Britain. Essays in Honour of Cynthia J. Neville (Later Medieval Europe 17), ed. by Sara Butler and K.J. Kesselring, Leiden 2018, pp. 237–257, here p. 238.

[16] Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt, p. 10 and pp. 26–29.

Lyriman and Grymmenstein: One man and his accomplice go to war

One man against a city

In 1424 and early 1425 the city council of Basel conducted several witness hearings to investigate what an old enemy, a man called Konrad Lyriman, had been up to and what the recent ruckus surrounding him was about.[1]

What did Lyriman do to be considered an enemy to an entire city and how did the people of Basel perceive him? These question can be answered by looking at the aforementioned witness statements. But first, a brief introduction to Konrad Lyriman and his accomplice Grymmenstein.

Konrad Lyriman was born and lived in Bern, but by the time of the testimonies he had been banished from the confines of this town.[2] We know very little about Lyriman’s social and economic background. He was a commoner, but did not belong to the urban social or financial elite.[3] He might have been a merchant, but there is no direct proof to that.[4] What we know is that in 1415 he started a feud with Basel. How exactly this conflict started has been lost to history – it had something to do with an animosity between Lyriman and a merchant from Basel about money business.[5]

His accomplice was a man called Grymmenstein. We know even less about him, not even his first name. He certainly was also a commoner – even though there are two castles called Grimmenstein in today’s Switzerland – as seen in the lack of any formal address in the witness statements. He seems to have been a scribe and he may have been from the Habsburg ruled town of Waldshut (today Waldshut-Tiengen).[6] Looking at the testimonies, Grymmenstein was more than a mere sidekick but had an active part in designing Lyrimans vendetta against Basel.

Map with the places mentioned in the text. Made with geojson.io.

The efforts of Lyriman and Grymmenstein

The witness statements are recorded in a book called the liber diversarum rerum.[7] True to its name, the book contains a multitude of different sources stemming from the city council of Basel and collected between 1417 and 1463. A good deal of them concern security aspects of the town, including our witness testimonies. There were four witnesses giving their statements on three different dates, stretching from May 1424 to January 1425. The four witnesses were all men. Their relationships to Lyriman or Grymmenstein remain largely unclear, with the exception of a certain Klaus Holder. In early May 1424, Lyriman’s allies had kidnapped Holder, a carter and citizen of Kleinbasel (lesser Basel), in the vicinity of the towns Fribourg in what was clearly an attack against Basel.[8] This kidnapping transformed the long-standing but mostly uneventful animosities between Lyriman and Basel into an open conflict and was probably the reason that the Basel authorities summoned these witnesses and started questioning them later that month.

This is the record of Klaus Holder’s testimony, in which he recounts his abduction by Lyrimans cronies. It was conducted on 12 January 1425. StABS, Von Lyrimans wegen, Ratsbücher A 7, fol. 48r.

The witnesses spoke of a ‘war’ that Lyriman wanted to wage against Basel and how he and Grymmenstein had tried to win allies for this war. We learn that Lyriman had gone to the ‘welschen Landen’ (here meaning the French speaking part of today’s Switzerland), where he had hoped to find help for his feud against Basel. At the same time and with the same goal, Grymmenstein had gone east into the neighbouring Habsburg territory. Because of Basel’s constant conflict with Habsburg and their lieges, he probably had felt confident to find allies there. We also learn how Lyriman had prepared for his trip to the French speaking land by writing down his complaints against Basel and having them transcribed into Latin.

There are elements that point towards an organised action, but the results show that the situation was not favourable to Lyriman and his henchman. Nobody joined forces with them.

Grymmenstein had asked two noblemen, both of whom held their own ill will against Basel. Walter von Münchwiler had ultimately refused to join the feud after some initial consideration, even though his wife had already loaned Lyriman money. To Georg von Ende, Grymmenstein had promised to send saltpetre[9] ‘und anders’ [and more] for his castle, if he would become Lyriman’s ally. But Ende had declined upon hearing that it was Lyriman who was leading the feud. Grymmenstein had also tried to win over the people of the small Habsburg town of Waldshut for Lyrimans cause, but again he had found no support.

Lyriman and Grymmenstein had even tried to garner the support of the city council of Bern with the argument that Lyriman was a Bern citizen, but Bern had clearly refused to be in any way a part of the plan.

We are not able to determine what all this sought-after support would have actually entailed, but it is likely that the two culprits were looking for actual manpower and not just financial support. The witness statements paint a bleak picture for Lyriman, his accomplice Grymmenstein and their ‘war’ against Basel. None of the parties the had addressed wanted to help them their endeavor, and on his own Lyriman was not a serious threat to Basel. The members of the city council, who had conducted the hearings, were certainly glad to hear that.

Conclusion

In contrast to popular belief, feuds were by no means a prerogative of the nobility.[10] Lyriman’s feud was one of many cases where commoners fought (or attempted to do so) to defend their rights, when they felt that other ways had not served them justice. However, to go against an entire city was ambitious to say the least. His henchman Grymmenstein was right in seeking allies, even it is, to us, not surprising that they did not succeed in finding meaningful support. Who would risk their standing and security for someone without being able to expect social or financial benefits? Nevertheless, Basel did not treat the matter as a mere curiosity. On the contrary, Lyriman’s feud is an example of the various ways in which the security of a city was endangered, and even though serious harm was improbable, the city council had to stay alert.

After these last fruitless attempts, Lyriman seemed to have given up on his vendetta for good. Apart from having great financial difficulties, we do not know how he spent his life after that. He died sometime after 1439.[11]


[1] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A 7, Liber diversarum rerum, 1417–1463, Von Lyrimans wegen, fol. 45r–48r.

[2] Roth, Hansjörg, «Von Lyrimans wegen». Spuren einer Privatfehde gegen die Stadt Basel im frühen 15. Jahrhundert, Basel [Lizentiatsarbeit] 1992, p. 45.

[3] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 23–24.

[4] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 17–18.

[5] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 32–33, p. 75.

[6] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A 7, Liber diversarum rerum, 1417–1463, Von Lyrimans wegen, fol. 45r–48r.; see also Roth, Lyrimans, p. 48, p. 103.

[7] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A 7, Liber diversarum rerum, 1417–1463.

[8] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 59–61.

[9] For the production of gunpowder.

[10] For feuds outside of the nobility see Christine Reinle, Bauernfehden. Studien zur Fehdeführung Nichtadliger im spätmittelalterlichen römisch-deutschen Reich, besonders in den bayerischen Herzogtümern (Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Beiheft 170), Stuttgart 2003.

[11] Roth, Lyrimans, p. 17, pp. 74–76.

To Stab the French!

Unrest on the River Banks of the Reuss

On 1 September 1512, a letter was written to the city council of Lucerne that described recent, rather unusual events that threatened to break the peace.

Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The letter, from an anonymous writer, describes what seems to be a plan by locals to attack a convoy of people from France who were travelling on the river Reuss. He shares the results of his inquiries into the planned attack by detailing to the city council what he had learned from different people he had interviewed. He himself was not involved with this proposed action. The letter was written in Merenschwand, a village under the rule of Lucerne and situated next to the river Reuss, which represented the border between the city states of Lucerne and Zurich. Both sides of the Reuss, and the river itself, feature heavily in the narrative (see Map1 and Map2).

Map 1: This detail of a map by Jos Murer from 1566 shows the concerned region, the villages mentioned in our source are highlighted. The dotted line on the river Reuss represents the border between the territories of Lucerne and Zurich.

Eigendtliche und grundtliche Verzeichnung aller Stetten, Graffschafften, Herrschafften, Landen, Gerichten und Gebieten so einer Statt Zürych zugehörig […] zu Zürych : by Christoffel Froschower, 1568.
Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Kartenslg Schw Ca 1.
Map 2: The two villages Merenschwand and Maschwanden and their location between the cities Lucerne and Zurich. In 1512, Merenschwand belonged to Lucerne and Maschwanden to Zurich.
GoogleMaps, 5. 9. 2019.

The first witness is Hans Wy of Merenschwand. He states that, as he was threshing grain in front of his home, five armed people came down the river Reuss, and that he recognised them as being from the Zurich side of the river. Curious at the sight of these armed men, Wy inquired after their business, but to no avail. He later heard from a boy that “sÿ wend die franntzosen stechen” (they want to stab the French). Our anonymous writer also managed to talk to this boy himself, who seemed to have confirmed the statement.

First paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The next witness is Hans Maler, also from Merenschwand, whose testimony provided more concrete details. He describes an event in Maschwanden, a village on the Zurich side of the Reuss (see Maps 1 and 2), where a group of armed men were also seen passing through. He stated that the local innkeeper, upon seeing the men, asked what they were doing and they told him that they were after some Frenchmen, who they wanted to capture. Here we learn, that the supposed French must have been travelling by boat on the Reuss. Upon hearing that the armed men wanted to “schuffen und stechen” (hit and stab) the French, the innkeeper went to get his harness and pike and joined them in their mission. He was not, however, alone: apparently the whole village solidarized with them and joined in.

Last paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

Hans Maler further relates to our anonymous author that a local official instructed the people that, at his order, they should throw stones at the French if they refused to come ashore. Who exactly this local official was and where his authorities lay is unclear.

Another official, Felix Schwend, had a different stance on the matter. He was an important official from Zurich, as he represented the city’s jurisdiction in this region of the Zurich city state. Schwend told the people that he would not help them kill the French, but he would also not hinder them. Schwend, who had been a city councilman in Zurich and part of the “Constaffel” society, belonged to the ruling elite of Zurich.[1] With this in mind, it is not surprising that he would not support such an unlawful attack, but he was clearly also not a part of the pro-French faction either.

Finally, in the last segment of the letter, we learn a little more about this French convoy on the river Reuss. They were probably travelling from Lucerne, where they had secured a deal to hire mercenaries. We know this because, as Maler says, he was not willing to help kill the French, even for a 100 gulden: another replied, in turn, that he would do it for less, “wann sin herrn inn nitt gleitt geben hetten” (if his lords did not give them escort. Meaning mercenaries). Since we can assume that this person is also from Merenschwand, “sin herrn” would refer to the city council of Lucerne. This is further supported by the fact that the Frenchmen were travelling down the Reuss, as it flows down the region from Lucerne.

It is important to remember that this document has to be analysed in the context of the Italian Wars and the ongoing discussions and discontent regarding the “Pensionen”. This was a practice in which money was given, either to a Swiss political body or individual person, from a foreign ruling elite to gain political favour and access to Swiss mercenaries. The French kings were chief agents in this market. This led to a series of revolts by the rural populace in the Swiss Confederation, known as the “Pensionenunruhen”: they include the curiously named “onion war” (1513-1515) in Lucerne and “gingerbread war” (1515) in Zurich among others.[2] They exemplify the deep discontent held by the rural populace against the “Pensionenwesen”: our document gives us a fascinating glimpse into the growing dissatisfaction of the people in the rural areas of Lucerne and Zurich against the urban, pro-French elites. The authorities in Lucerne therefore had good reasons for wanting to know exactly what had happened in the region of Merenschwand, who was involved, and what they did. It is further noteworthy, that the anonymous author of the “Kundschaft” only mentioned people in the jurisdiction of Zurich actively participating in the planned attack, while the people of Merenschwand are all described as mere onlookers. This could well be a deliberate narrative to appease the city council of Lucerne.

Whether or not the attack was actually carried out has not been determined thus far. Further sources from Lucerne, such as the minutes of the city council, make no mention of this matter. It may, however, be possible to find additional information in the Zurich state archives.


[1] Dütsch, Hans-Rudolf. Die Zürcher Landvögte von 1402-1798, Ein Versuch zur Bestimmung ihrer sozialen Herkunft und zur Würdigung ihres Amtes im Rahmen des zürcherischen Stadtstaates (Zürich, 1994), p. 228.

[2] About the pensionen and the Pensionenunruhen in depht: Rogger, Philippe. Geld, Krieg und Macht. Pensionsherren, Söldner und eigenössische Politik in den Mailänderkriegen 1494–1516 (Baden 2015).

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