Town vs Gown in 15th Century Silesia

Medieval cities often had fraught relations with their regional clergy. Many towns at some point called their local bishopric overlord according to Feudal law. But eventually, some forced the episcopal ruler out of town and established their autonomy by acquiring the charter of a free city or free imperial / royal city.

The prelates of the Church, many of whom were from families of the warrior aristocracy, did not take this lying down, and there were many ongoing disputes between burgher and bishop lasting multiple generations. Sometimes these broke out into pitched battles, such as when the town of Strasbourg defeated their prince-archbishop Walter von Geroldseck in an open field battle at Hausbergen in 1262[1], capturing 86 of his knights and killing 1370 of his men; or when the Archbishop of Mainz Adolf II von Nassau sacked and recaptured that city in 1462[2], executing 400 people, exiling many more (including Johannes Gutenberg) and ending the autonomy of that town.

More often these conflicts consisted of endless lawsuits, diplomatic wrangling, occasional raids and kidnappings, and small skirmishes. The prince-bishops also used their unique episcopal powers such as the ability to place individuals or entire communities under interdict or even excommunication. In extreme cases, they might also attempt to invoke the inquisition.

Partly because these rivalries went on for so long, it’s difficult to find comprehensive let alone unbiased histories of the ongoing feuds between town and bishop. But one good if not perfect source is the magisterial history of the cleric, and eventually bishop Jan Długosz of Poland. His ‘annales’ which cover the history of Poland from 965 to his own death in 1480, are not free of bias but are quite thorough, well written, and by the standards of the day, fairly even handed.

From these annals, we find here an interesting example of strife between the citizens of Wrocław (aka Breslau to it’s German-speaking inhabitants, and Vratislav to its Czech overlords) vs their local Bishopric. This lasted from 1337 through 1341, during the reign of bishops, Nankier Kołda (aka Nanker).

The following excerpts from the annals of Jan Długosz[3] cover the key incidents of the conflict:

Wroclaw helps King John of Bohemia ransack the bishop’s cathedral and castle, with the help of wine – From the entry for 1337

The King of Bohemia [King John the Blind], having by intrigue, flattery or promises subjugated the Polish dukedoms in Silesia and illegally occupied the town and duchy of Wroclaw… now plunders the cathedral at Wroclow, which the Silesian dukes endowed. He orders the Bishop and Chapter to surrender its castle at Milicz, and, when Bishop Nanker, a courageous main, disdainfully refuses to obey, the King brings up a powerful force, reinforced by some citizens of Wroclaw, and attacks the castle which was held in the name of the Wroclaw chapter by Henry of Wierzbno the archdeacon. Seeing that it will not be easy to capture it, for the castle has good defenses, and learning that the Archdeacon is an inveterate wine-bibber, he sends him some friendly Silesian knights with bottles of wine in profusion, as a result of which they are eventually able with threats and promises to induce the Archdeacon to evacuate the castle with his entourage.

The Bishop sends letters and messengers to the King, demanding the return of the castle, and when this is refused, imposes an interdict on the whole diocese. Further attempts to obtain the return of the castle are made later, when the King comes to Wroclaw. When these, too, are unsuccessful, the Bishop, ordering all his clergy to accompany him, goes to the King …they find the King in a small room adjacent to the refectory. They knock loudly on the door, and, when the King tells them he is occupied with other matters and cannot give them audience… the Bishop takes hold of his crucifix and says: “By the authority of Almighty God I excommunicate you as a plunderer of Church goods and pronounce you excommunicated in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Ghost.”…

The Bishop leaves Wroclaw and orders all churches in Wroclaw to be closed. Nonetheless the doors of the three parish churches of St. Mary Magdelen, St. Elizabeth and the Holy Ghost are forcibly opened and services are resumed on the orders of the King and the city-fathers. Pope Benedit XII, who is in Avignon, praises the Bishop for what he has done and orders him to persist. He also confirms and increases the penalties imposed on the King and the citizens of Wroclaw, on whom he pronounces anathema.”

Wroclaw sees off the inquisitor – From the entry for 1339

“Bishop Nanker of Wroclaw realizes that sterner measures will be required, if the obstinate rebellion of the citizens and city fathers of Wroclaw is to be quelled, since those taken by their own bishop, and indeed, by the Holy See, have achieved nothing in more than a year; indeed, the situation is getting steadily worse and doing considerable harm to the Church. So, the Bishop summons the Inquisitor of Heretical Faults in the diocese, Brother John of Schwenkenfeld of the Dominicans, a man of blameless and exemplary life, and explains to him the obduracy of the citizens of Wroclaw and requires him to take action against them for disregarding the punishments laid on them Church, thus making themselves suspect of heresy [In therefore, in theory, legally liable to investigation by the inquisitor]

Brother Jan is well acquainted with the misdemeanours of the citizens of Wroclaw and promises to try and exert his authority. He goes to Wroclaw and, one Sunday, from a pulpit set up before the City Hall, speaks to a huge throng, rebukes them for abusing holy places and for their obstinacy and begs them to return to the bosom of the Church. He concludes by challenging them to appear before him the next day and answer the accusations laid against them. When the citizens concerned fail to appear, the Inquisitor, inspired by the Holy Spirit, goes in person to the City Hall and calls upon the city fathers he finds gathered there to delay no longer in returning to the bosom of the Church, for otherwise they will call down upon themselves the wrath of God.

He tells them, too, that he is determined to use all the means his office allows to quell their intransigence [in theory this would include excommunication, torture, execution etc.]. After a long discussion, the Inquisitor concludes that he is getting nowhere and leaves the City Hall pursued by curses, insults and grinding of teeth; indeed, he is lucky not to have been assaulted.”

The old Bishop dies, Wroclaw pays assassins 30 marks to kill the Inquisitor – from the entry for 1341

Bishop Nanker of Wroclaw dies on April 10, apparently suddenly, but it is also said that he was ssecretly killed on the orders of the King of Bohemia [King John, Luxeumburg family, father of Emperor Charles IV, died at Crecy] in retaliation for his public excommunication of the king. The city fathers of Wroclaw are delighted by the death of their bishop and regard this as a victory over the Church. They now go to King John and register against the Wroclaw inquisitor, alleging that he has insulted and condemned them. …

“While spending the night at the Dominican monastery of St. Clement, two thugs come to the Inquisitor’s cell and knock on the door, demanding to be given confession. The Inquisitor is preparing a sermon and tries to put them off, but they tell him that, if he does not listen to them while they still have a spark of contrition left, it will be too late. At this, the Inquisitor emerges, receives three thrusts from their two swords and drops down dead. The King suspects the starosta of having planned the murder with the city council and arrests them, but when they on oath deny their guilt they are released. A year and a half later the two thugs are arrested on another charge and condemned to death. They then confess to the previous crime and tell that they had been bribed by two of the burghers from Wroclaw, who gave them thirty marks for the deed.”

In these excerpts from a fifteenth century history, we can see that while prelates such as bishops wielded extraordinary diplomatic, military, and spiritual power, towns also had many tools at their disposal, and were not afraid to resort to violence to protect their interests. The inquisition was not a common event in the late medieval period, but they did happen. In Wroclaw itself, during a visit by Franciscan arch-zealot and future saint John Capistrano in 1451, the population was whipped into a frenzy and engaged in a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ and a vicious anti-Jewish pogrom at the instigation of the traveling cleric[4].  Such disruptions were not welcomed by town authorities, who could find their own head on a pike as the result, which helps explain the extreme measures they were willing to take, up to and including assassination, to prevent the bishop and his inquisitor from establishing control. 

[1] Hans Delbrück, [translation 1982], History of the Art of War, Volume III, The Middle Ages. Translated by Renfroe, Walter. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood. p. 369-372. ISBN 0803265859.

[2] Aloys Schmidt: Zur Mainzer Stiftsfehde 1462, in: JbBistumMainz 3, 1948, pg. 89–99

[3] This is all from the Maurice Michael translation IM Publications, UK, (1997) ISBN 1 901019 00 4

[4] See Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1, Richard S. Levy, (ABL-CLIO, 2005), page 96

The Feud Book of Medieval Nuremberg

The Free Imperial City of Nuremberg (Freie Reichsstadt Nürnberg)was one of the more important settlements in Central Europe. Depending on precisely when and how you measure urban populations, during the late medieval period it was one of the top five to ten in terms of size, with a population of roughly 22,000 denizens in 1431, of whom 7,146 were full or partial citizens qualified to bear arms, with 381 priests, and 744 Jews and foreigners[i]. Comparable towns included Cologne, Prague, Wroclaw, Strasbourg, Frankfurt am Main, Gdansk, Augsburg, and Hamburg. In terms of diplomatic and economic power, Nuremberg was also formidable, with strong trade links along the north-south Via Imperii trade route (linking the Baltic to Italy), and a well-developed manufacturing sector including a renowned metalworking and armaments industry. Nuremberg was also the first and most frequent location where the Reichstag, the Imperial diet or proto-parliament of the Holy Roman Empire, would meet.

Many of the larger Free Cities in Central Europe were located in clusters of dozens of small and medium sized towns. These shared complimentary economic and cultural links which, during times of crisis, were often the basis of mutual military support. Their collective strength also helped to make diplomacy with regional nobles and princes more harmonious. The most notable urbanized zones include Swabia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands), and the towns of the Hanseatic League mainly along the Southern Shore of the Baltic.

Nuremberg was a bit different in that it was located in more rural Franconia, and didn’t have so many walled cities for neighbors. Instead, their neighbors included the (from 1420s) semi-pariah heretic Kingdom of Bohemia, and the mighty princely domains of Bavaria and Brandenburg. Closer to the town, the regional petty nobility were often involved in feuds which impinged on the freedom of travel and personal safety of Nuremberg’s citizens, including some of her most prominent merchants.

Part of the problem was exacerbated by the great princely houses, and one in particular. Nuremberg, like most free cities, was not fully autonomous all at once, but rather had to struggle to gain rights one step at a time. The last step, a big one, was the elimination of the position of Burgrave of the city, and the takeover of the castle of the Burgrave, which was within city limits. Tension between the town and the Margrave of Brandenburg, who held the position since 1411, increased and the town even built a special tower (the Luginsland ‘look into the land’ tower), just to spy on the Burgrave’s castle. There were numerous conflicts between the burghers and the princely forces, and legal disputes about the authority of the Burgrave.

Finally, in 1420, the Burgrave’s Castle was destroyed in a fire during a skirmish between the forces of the Margrave of Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt (instigated, rumor had it, by the town authorities). The city purchased the castle ruins and the forest around it in 1427. From that time the city effectively had full autonomy. The margrave of Brandenburg however, of the formidable Hohenzollern family, did not consider the matter settled and continued to apply considerable legal, diplomatic and military pressure toward Nuremberg. One way they did this was to encourage barons and ministerial knights to enter into feuds with the town.

Like most Free Cities, Nuremberg had the legal right to defend her citizens and property by force of arms. The city was granted an imperial privilege in 1320 which allowed town militia to capture ‘harmful people’ (schädliche leute) beyond the town walls[ii], and punish them according to their own laws. Emperor Sigismund confirmed this right at his coronation in Rome in 1433, and Frederick III did the same in 1440.  The result of all this was that Nuremberg was free to punish anyone who had harmed its citizens according to the judgement of her own magistrates (schöffe). So long as the town forces could catch them.

They didn’t catch them all, but they caught quite a few. Sometimes these knights were ransomed back to their families, and some kind of Rezeß was negotiated to end further hostilities. But in some of the more egregious cases, these nobles were hanged as common thieves and murderers (which a few of them essentially were). And in very severe cases the town militia would mobilize and go out with cannon and destroy the castles of these knights, which spelled catastrophe not only for the individual baron but for his whole family and lineage.

Needless to say, the regional nobility did not appreciate commoners taking the law into their own hands in this manner, even if they had permission from the emperor. Though there were both formal laws (based on the 1356 Golden Bull of Charles IV[iii]) and informal rules, all of which tended to moderate the violence and prevent escalation on both sides during feuds, fighting between regional nobles and town forces could get quite nasty, especially when certain barons passed the threshold from feuding aristocrat to full-fledged raubritter

Nuremberg required the roads to be clear and free of tolls and robbers, or commerce would collapse and the city itself would die. Harsh measures were taken when raubritter took their feuds too far, resulting in some legendary rivalries. One of the first well known incidents took place during a feud between Nuremberg and the baron Eppelein von Gailingen, born in Illesheim in 1315. In the 1360s von Gailingen got into the habit of robbing and kidnapping merchants from Nuremberg along the imperial road, and became enough of a menace that the town indicted him in 1369 and sent an expedition to burn his castle in 1372, capturing him shortly afterward.

According to the legend, the raubritter was about to be hanged by the burghers, when he asked to sit on his horse one last time before dying. Cracking a joke about how he seemed to have no interest in seeing his wife and kids, the townsfolk brought him his horse. Despite his hands being bound, Eppelein spurred the horse and leapt over the walls and moat and escaped. It’s not clear how close to the truth this story was, but the legend took on a life of its own. The tale was so popular that murals of Eppelein leaping over the wall began to appear all over Germany, even in Nuremberg. The town’s forces captured him regardless in 1381, and had him broken on the wheel. But the legend lived on.

The Feud Book

Eppelein is also the first figure to appear in the manuscript Hs 22547. This is the ‘Feud Book’ (Fehdebuch) of the Imperial City of Nuremberg[iv], covering the period 1381-1513. Eppelein appears on the first page, in an entry for the date 1381. Perhaps the gruesome nature of his execution compelled the town authorities to document the incident in a bureaucratic manner.

The book has 121 pages with names on 115 pages and 92 coats of arms on 70 pages. Not all entries show the coat of arms. Most pages include one or two entries, many just show a name, while a few have a few lines of text listing out the misdeeds of the individual or family named. The book covers activity over 132 years, during which at least one feud was active at almost all times. Some of these are variations on the same family coat of arms (different branches for example) and some coats of arms appear more than once (trouble with the same family over time).

The entry in the Nuremberg Feud book for Eppelein von Gailingen. Image public domain, from Hs 22547, held by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

The first coat of arms in the book is the infamous Eppeilen von Gailigen on page 3 (1r). Other notable figures include Konrad Schott von Schottenstein (41v and 49r) and Christoff von Geich (49r) -more about them in a moment-, and the famous Götz von Berlichingen (folios 55r, 55v, 56r). It’s also worth noting that some family’s coats of arms appear over and over. Von Berlichingen’s coat of arms, a wheel on a black background, appears five times going back to the 14th Century (14r, 39v, 55r, 55v, 56r), possibly indicating that his family may have had disputes with the town for multiple generations.

Feuds among the nobility were most often directed toward each other[v], with the town typically being collateral damage. Under feudal law, each district and each stretch of road belonged to one noble or prince or another, so declaring a feud against say, the Bishop of Wurzburg might result in burghers being captured in his territory. Burghers had the additional advantage of often carrying very valuable cargo. On the other hand, burgher’s caravans were well defended, and even a successful capture could result in dire consequences.

Nobles were concerned about the possibility of their name ending up in Nuremberg’s feud book[vi]. The town sent out patrols of heavily armed horsemen to escort their caravans and sweep ahead to ensure the safety of the roads, while the nobles built block-houses, castles and earthen berms to establish observation and choke points where they could stage ambushes. Nuremberg routinely sent groups of between seven and eighteen men up to about 30-50 km from town[vii] for an average of four days from a total force of about 60-100 men who were permanently tasked with this job[viii].

Some of these horsemen were militia of the town, and some were nobles with whom the town had a military alliance[ix]. But one weapon which the town deployed that was the most hotly resented by the Franconian nobles in general was a corps of paramilitary horsemen whom the nobles contemptuously referred to as ‘staghounds’ (Hetzrüden). These men, who could be of a somewhat dubious background, patrolled the roads, arrested bandits and kept an eye on the more boisterous barons. One of these Hetzrüden was none other than the famous fencing master Hans Talhoffer, who was involved in the murder of the nobleman Wilhelm von Villenbach in 1434. Talhoffer was later captured by his brother, Hans, and was nearly executed, but was saved by the intervention of a nobleman and woman, and his willingness to write a letter blaming the murder on his six accomplices[x].

When the town decided a more serious situation was at hand, they would mobilize the militia, limber up some cannon and go out to destroy castles. They would also put up large bounties on some of their enemies, for example 2,000 Gulden for the brothers Hans and Fritz von Waldenfels (alive) or 1,000 Gulden (dead) in 1416[xi]. The Hetzrüden and the Feud Book seemed to inspire considerable fear on the part of the knights, and several wrote letters complaining of being chased, watched, or followed by horsemen from Nuremberg, and wrote letters to the Nuremberg council asking if their name had been put into the feud book[xii].

Relations between the estates of burgher and noble were complex. Although the regional nobility and urban patriciate did not intermarry much[xiii], many noble families had strong social and financial ties to the towns to whom they sold raw materials like food, firewood and charcoal (required in vast amounts by the town’s metal-working industries) and from whom they purchased many luxuries and necessities including arms and armor. Some nobles allowed putting out systems and infrastructure like mills tied to urban inudstries to be built in their villages, receiving rents in return. Bur there were also times when the town and Franconian nobility were sharply at odds, almost across the board. One early example of this was during the so called Margrave’s War or South German Town War of 1440-1449.

Without plunging into the full history of this event, which culminated in a failed siege of Nuremberg itself by the Margrave of Brandenburg Albrecht II “Achilles” and a host of Franconian knights, the feud resulted in some damage to Nuremberg’s economy, but overall a stalemate. Brandenburg remained an instigator of conflict between the estates however, and when hostilities once again flared up, one particular figure emerged as a major nemesis of the town. This was the knight Konrad Schott von Schottenstein. Allegedly he is the figure represented in Albrecht Dürer’s famous Knight, Death and the Devil. Schott, and his ally Christoph von Geich proved both adept in evading town authorities (in spite of a hefty bounty placed on his head) and ruthless in his hostility. Nuremberg was never able to catch him but his reputation suffered and the town later got even during the Landshut War of Succession when they took some of his land.

Although Emperor Maximillian I banned private feuds (in theory) in his Ewiger Landfriede “Everlasting Landfrieden” of 1495, this did not stop feuding or static between town and country nobility. While there were always some knights who could play the raubritter game well enough to evade capture, larger towns like Nuremberg were warlike too and very resourceful. They tended to have an edge in military technology such as firearms and cannon, (one notable example was the invention of the wheel-lock pistol in Nuremberg, which became an important cavalry weapon). The feud book too, as a representative of the institutional memory and organized security apparatus of the town, was a weapon in their arsenal.


The Swabian league – at the instigation of Nuremberg, burned 23 castles of Robber knights during the Franconian War in 1523 but even that didn’t end the pillaging by robber knights (and they were unable to catch their main target).

This is the castle of the infamous ‘hand cutter’ and raubritter, Thomas von Absberg, the forces on the bottom right are Nuremberg militia (red and white striped flag). This was during an expedition mounted by the Swabian League, largely at the instigation of Nuremberg, in 1523. Fortunately for posterity they brought along a ‘war correspondent’ painter who made portraits of every castle they burned. You can see the other 23 castles here:

For the original manuscript see also Digitalisat des Bamberger Burgenbuchs der Staatsbibliothek Bamberg


Finding Safety in Feuding. Nobles’ Responses to Nuremberg’s Rural Security Policy in the Mid-Fifteenth Century. / Pope, Benjamin. In: Virtus. Journal of Nobility Studies, Vol. 23, 31.12.2016, p. 11–31.

The Nuremberg Feud Book for 1381-1513:

Hillay Zmora The Feud in Early Modern Germany, (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Hillay Zmora State and Nobility in Early Modern Germany: The Knightly Feud in Franconia 1440-1567 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Staatsarchiv Nürnberg, Reichsstadt Nürnberg

[i] Nuremberg, Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed 05/12/2022

[ii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope), page 19

[iii] Among other stipulations, the person or entity declaring the feud was supposed to issue a formal warning, the A feud letter, or fehdebrief, is a special type of public notification that a feud has been declared. These would typically be posted in several places and in public meeting places such as the front doors of a church or the outer gate of a town.


[v] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope), page 18

[vi] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) pp 21-24

[vii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20

[viii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20

[ix] So called ‘paleburghers’, often granted a special form of citizenship to seal the alliance.

[x] Jens Peter Kleinau has an excellent and highly detailed blog on this incident here:

[xi] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 21

[xii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 22

[xiii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20

Urban political violence in the fifteenth century, from Prague to Hamburg

Note to reader: This present essay is complemented by Polish and Czech sources translated and annotated in

The Free City

Medieval urban spaces took on a variety of forms, and in North Central Europe the Free City emerged as a somewhat unique type in the 13th-14th Centuries. Not quite as independent or ruthless as a true City State like Venice or Veliky Novgorod, they were also far more independent than many Western cities like London or Paris. The so called Free Cities of Central Europe were generally speaking largely autonomous and self-managed, while still being integrated into larger polities such as the Holy Roman Empire the Crusader State of the Teutonic Knights, or the Kingdom of Poland.

Also called Royal Cities[1], Free Imperial Cities[2], and by a variety of other euphemisms, these were typically walled and well-fortified communities, but fairly small in size (often between 2-5000 residents[3], with as many as 50,000 or so in German-speaking areas, and as high as perhaps 100,000 in Flanders). They were governed by their own councils and burgomeisters, protected by elaborate fortifications and well-armed militias, and tended to be active in defense and sometimes aggressive in the pursuit of their rights and economic interests, but rarely invested resources in acquiring territorial power[4]. Instead they placed a strong emphasis on maintaining the “peace of the roads”[5] so as to allow commerce to thrive from town to town. Beyond that they typically stayed out of princely politics and the endless game of Hausmachtpolitik as much as they could, forming alliances of several towns[6] when they deemed it necessary to take on the princes.

Figure 1: A weavers uprising in Köln (Cologne) is put down by the ruling elite of merchant-Patricians in 1371. A later artisans uprising in 1396 was successful, leading to many changes in the city.

Political unrest in the Free Cities

Aside from external threats, Free Cities also faced many challenges from internal power struggles and political unrest. According to one estimate, there were at least 210 uprisings in just 40 towns in the Holy Roman Empire between the late 13th and mid-14th Centuries[7] Again, in comparison to true city-states these internal disputes were not quite as extreme or bloody, but they could still be quite consequential. Often various factions would posture and push one another quite a bit before any actual violence broke out. Sometimes this resulted in catastrophe for the town, as was the case in Mainz in 1462, when Bishop Adolph II von Nassau took advantage of ongoing internal strife and captured the city, killed 400 people and heavily fined and then exiled all “disloyal” citizens[8]. He permanently rescinded their rights to self-governance in 1463. In a similar conflict called the Rostocker Domfehde from 1483-1492, Rostock, weakened by internal conflicts over the construction of their new Cathedral, lost their rights to an aggressive Duke Magnus II of Mecklenberg.

Quite often however, the opposite occurred, resulting in the city being significantly strengthened, especially when the factions managed to reach a Rezeß or compromise, such as the famous Hamburg Rezeß of 1410. This conflict started with a public dispute between a visiting duke and an armorer to whom he owed money, leading to a tense standoff between the artisans and the town council which lasted two years. The 1410 Rezeß resulted in the formation of the cities first constitution and the addition of a second house in their internal parliament, contributing to the comparative stability and prosperity that Hanseatic town enjoyed and its status as a republic for the next five centuries[9].


Political unrest within towns could have substantial repercussions well beyond the town walls. Two good examples of this occurred in Prussia during the 13 Years War, one of several conflicts between the Teutonic Knights and Poland from the 14th through the 16th centuries[11]. After the major Polish victory in the pivotal battle of Grunwald / Tannenberg in 1410, the tide had turned in favor of the Poles. But the Order was tenacious and intractable, and their decline was very gradual, lasting generations, and full of violent episodes.

The 13 Years war broke out in February 1454, and it was to become another hinge point in the multi-generational power struggle. Twenty mostly German cities in Prussia rose up against the Teutonic Order and made an alliance with Poland. It began with successful uprisings of town militias pushing the brother-knights out of Gdansk, Torun, Elbing and several smaller towns. But Poland suffered a setback at the major battle of Chojnice in September of 1454, and from that point struggled to contend with the resourceful and aggressive Teutonic Knights in a variety of smaller battles, sieges and raids over the next several years.

Several incidents of urban strife afflicted the Prussian cities and Poland during the 13 Years War, with two proving particularly damaging. The first was the Battle of the Kneiphof in Königsberg. This town was part of the initial uprising against the Order in 1454, with the militia successfully evicting the Knights. But the town, as was often the case, was split into three municipalities and each of those municipalities had their own factions. Artisans in two of these towns mistrusted the mercantile elite and resented the new high taxes imposed by Poland to finance the war.

They rose up against the merchants in 1455, and seeing an opening, the Teutonic Knights rushed in several knights and a few hundred native Prussian cavalry to support the rebellion. Relatively feeble assistance, consisting of just a few ships and a few dozen soldiers from Danzig was too little, and came too late. The Order captured the municipality of Kneiphof and the town of Königsberg. After the Teutonic Order was pushed out of their castle town in Malbork, Königsberg became their new headquarters and remained a bastion of German military and economic power until the end of WW2. Thus a relatively small street battle involving a few hundred people had long-lasting consequences.

The second major setback came six years later in 1461, in the Polish royal capital of Krakow. After several years of struggling both financially and militarily in the war, Poland had begun winning some battles, thanks in part to a new commander, a noble named Andrzej Tęczyński.  On the heels of his recent victories, and flush with cash gifts from the king, Andrzej entered Krakow to make some purchases. During his visit he got into an argument with an armorer over an ill-fitting harness, and unlike in Hamburg, there was no Rezeß.

Andrej and his courtiers beat the armorer twice, the second time very badly and in front of a crowd, outraging the local artisans. In spite of warnings from his men, and attempts by the queen to intervene (the King was traveling elsewhere) the proud young lord remained in the town and a crowd of outraged artisans captured and killed him, resulting in a major setback for the Polish army in the war.

The following excerpt is from Jan Długosz “Annales”, the Maurice Michael translation (IM Publications, Sussex UK, 1987) in the entry for 1461, P.539. This passage was originally written by Jan Długosz prior to 1480.

“While the king is in Włocławek[12], there is an unfortunate episode in Cracow, one that is to poison relations between the city and its knights for years to come. On July 16, Andrew of Tęczyń[13] angrily rebukes the armourer Clement for failing to deliver a suit of armor on time and for not making it fit; and when the armourer makes a vigorous reply[14], strikes him, but only lightly. The armorer goes to the town hall and complains that he has been grievously assaulted, and, on the way back from lodging his complaint, he is accosted by Tęczyń, whom he berates for hitting him and brandishing his fist, threatens to reply the blow with interest; he was of course, angry, and he may have been hoping for compensation; but, as a result, Tęczyń and his servants fall upon him and beat him[15]. When they learn of this, the City Fathers are indignant and more angry than is justified; indeed, they seem to have been more inclined to inflame the quarrel between the artisans and the nobility than to composite it; for the close the city’s gates and report the incident to the young Queen[16].

She demands sureties of 8,000 marks[17] and enjoins both parties to keep the peace and await her judgement., which she was to give in the morning, for it is already late in the day, indeed, ten o’clock. The City Fathers return to the town hall and order all householders to arm themselves and assemble there. Meanwhile the Queen and his friends are advising Tęczyń to leave the city and go to the castle. To Tęczyń this smacks of cowardice and, with his brothers and friends, he shuts himself up in a house in Bracka Street intending to resist any attack.

Then a bell in Mariacki Church starts pealing- on whose order no one knows- and this proves the signal for a riot., which the City Fathers could have quelled with a little common sense and exercise of their authority[18]. Everyone stops work and a crowd, not only angry, but tipsy, presses round the house, intending to kill Tęczyń, who seeing that his house cannot withstand such an attack, escapes with three companions and some of his servants to the monastery of St. Frederick and takes refuge in its tower.

Then, convinced that he is not safe even there, though his companions try to restrain him, he leaves the tower and hides in the sacristy. The rioters break down the monastery door and, after a long search, find Tęczyń and split his head open. His corpse is dragged through the streets open sewer to the town hall and kept there for two days, riddled with stab wounds and with the hair singed off his face. It is then moved to the Church of St. Wojciech and finally handed over to the victim’s friends and relatives. Tęczyń’s friends in the tower are besieged there all the following day and night, after which they are released. Because of this, the knights of Cracow and Sandomierz[19] at first refuse to take part in the Prussian campaign, but when the King promises that Tęczyń’s death shall be avenged, they agree to take part.”

Fortunately for the Poles, a new military leader named Piotr Dunin helped win a substantial victory against the Order at Świecino in 1462, and went on to help win the war, so it turned out to be a temporary setback.

Not all confrontations of this type ended so violently. A more typical example in Krakow is mentioned by Dlugosz in his entry for 1438[20].

“The increasing import of counterfeit coin causes a popular revolt in Cracow aimed in particular at the Inspector of the Michalow Serafin, the city councilors, and others. Everyone feeling guilty, have taken refuge in the castle itself. When the commotion has subsided and most people hve returned to their homes, Serafin and the others still do not dare leave the castle. Perhaps they would never have been safe had not Bishop Olesnicki of Cracow, after much persuasion from the King, spoken to the proletariat in their own tongue, and pacified them. Serafin and the others are made to do a fortnight’s penance in the castle prison”

The implication here is that some financial malfeasance by Royal and municipal officials which was causing economic harm to the citizens was the cause of a brief uprising, and to placate the burghers the Bishop and the King intervened to put some people briefly in jail, and they in turn presumably curtailed their corrupt activities somewhat (at least enough to prevent another riot). This kind of thing happened on a routine basis in dozens of Free Cities throughout late medieval and Early Modern Europe.

Figure 2: Prague today is typically associated with art, architecture and beer. But the medieval coat of arms sends another, quite unambiguous message.

The Defenestrations of Prague

Prague was prominent among the Free Cities of this era, being in this case a Royal City. Prague was the spiritual and intellectual center of the Kingdom of Bohemia (thanks largely to Charles university, founded by Emperor Karl IV). It was also by far the most formidable fortification in the Kingdom, having proven itself in numerous defensive and offensive battles from the 1420s through the 1470s. Control of Prague effectively meant control of Bohemia.

Arguably, urban strife in Prague was the most consequential of the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. The First Defenestration of Prague, which took place in 1419, led in short order to the famous Hussite Crusades, and Prague itself was the site of many of the key battles during the Hussite Wars. Defenestration means throwing people out of a window, and in Prague specifically, it always meant throwing the local rulers who were acting on behalf of a foreign prince out of the window, to their death. The Third Defenestration in 1618 started the apocalyptic 30 Years War, which devastated Central Europe and lead to permanent changes in European history with the establishment of the Absolute Monarchies in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The Second Defenestration in 1483, which occurred between those events is comparatively little known. It did not trigger a Crusade or a huge international war, but it was consequential in the region, buying Bohemia a bit more time of independence and the freedom to practice their own “Heretical” religion for another couple of generations, and re-asserting the political autonomy of the city and the kingdom.

In the 1480s, Bohemia was experiencing one of their many periods of foreign rule. Since the death of the mighty Knight-King George of Podeibrady in 1471, the monarch was officially the Hungarian King Vladislaus II, though the extent to which he actually controlled this kingdom was yet to be tested. Bohemia was unique in Europe at this time in that both Catholic and Heretical (Hussite) forms of Christianity were still openly being practiced, and due to the repeated interregnums and their complex history, much of the actual governance was managed by Landfrieden, treaties of mutual support and protection of commerce between towns and nobles. Attempts to force conversion of the Hussites had been renewed by another Hungarian, Mathias Corvinus, from 1468-1478, but the results were inconclusive. Matthias captured outlying Catholic regions but ultimately failed to defeat the wily Podeibrady, leaving Bohemia itself as a heretical enclave.

After the end of the last Crusade in 1478, under pressure from the Vatican and various Catholic princes, Vladislaus II began to appoint his supporters (also ardent Catholics) to the city councils of Prague and some other Bohemian towns. By the 1480s there was acute tension in the city, as both the Kings urban representatives and new magistrates, and the Catholic nobles he supported in the countryside, were treating burghers heavy handedly and began taking steps against the local Hussite heretics. Two overlapping issues were once again coming to a head – the autonomy of the town and the continued existence of the heretics.

In September 1483[21], after a series of escalating incidents and the discovery of a conspiracy for mass arrests and mass-murder by the monarchist councilors, the townfolk of Prague acted, leading to the Second Defenestration of Prague. The following is summarized from a translation from a 19th Century Czech source which I have edited slightly[22]

The account by Tomek gives us some insight into the exciting and dangerous climate, and some of the martial details of a major urban uprising. Of course we can’t necessarily assume that this is an unbiased account, but it presents an interesting and dramatic narrative which points up some of the elements which seem to often play a role in these events. The incident starts with the long buildup of grievances by the citizens of Prague. In many cases historically where there are people of one (privileged) religious group ruling over another, corruption and abuse become a major problem. According to Sir Tomek, the town councilors appointed by the King were taking bribes, blackmailing people, stealing land and money, using the courts against the non-Catholic citizens, and so on.

The councilors began to feel some push back from all this and tensions rose. There were religious-sectarian incidents in which Catholics disrupted Hussite church services and confiscated property belonging to the locals, and the locals in turn organized some mass-meetings and began arming themselves. Things came to a head when a plot was discovered by the citizens, in part confessed by one of the councilors on his death-bed, that they were planning mass arrests of burgher and artisan leadership followed by executions. The Hussite faction was forewarned and made preparations. They wrote letters to their allies in some other Czech towns, and prepared for a fight.

On the day of the coup, the town authorities had bells rung which was the signal to arrest the prominent Hussites and for their supporters to come out into the streets. But the Hussites, led by a draper named “Bohuslav Legat“, armed with a spear, got the jump on them, charged into the town halls and arrested the city council. There was some street fighting, during which one burgomeister was stabbed with a Guisarme and then thrown out the town hall window (‘defenestrated’) and another who had escaped was captured by “Jan the Tailor” who was also armed with a spear. Nearly identical counter-coups took place in the Czech towns of Nymburk, Žatec, and Hradec Králové.  

After the Czechs finished off any resistance in all three municipalities of Prague and the other towns, they interrogated the corrupt gang of ‘foreign’ city councilors under torture, leaving some other councilors who were not deemed to be part of the corrupt faction alone. The conspirators gave details of the plan and other co-conspirators, (under torture it’s worth pointing out, so the accuracy of their testimony is suspect). The new regime quickly had a few of these people executed and others exiled, while militia and mercenaries prepared for a possible attack from outside, and restored order on the streets after some commoners had robbed Jewish families and ransacked some Catholic churches.

After this followed a complex round of diplomacy. Having restored control of the town, the new council set about trying to smooth over the potential diplomatic shockwaves caused by their counter-coup. They passed laws guaranteeing the rights of both religions (Catholic and Hussite). They drafted polite letters to the more powerful Czech Catholic nobles, such as the Lords of the Rosenberg family of South Bohemia, and to regional princes such as the Duke of Saxony and King Mathias Corvinus of Hungary, as well as the Burgomeister of Nuremberg and other regional knights and gentry, asserting their intention to carry on trade and uphold all previously established alliances and treaties. They emphasized that their revolt was not directed against King Vladislaus (who wisely left town during the disturbances) but merely against his corrupt servitors who were engaged in evil acts without his knowledge. They also pointed out that some of the deposed councilors and their allies had also wronged Catholic gentry and nobles in their depredations.

A counterattack was considered (and heavily encouraged by the Vatican) but Prague had proven her ability to defend her walls many times, and after conflict raged in the area through the 1470s, further war would be destructive and costly. In the end, Vladislaus confirmed the new aldermen in 1484[23], and then again at the Bohemian Diet or assembly in the Rosenberg stronghold of Kutná Hora in 1485, which is considered by many scholars to be the definitive end of the Hussite Wars[24]. The King gave up on his plan to purge Heresy from Bohemia and resumed his complex power politics rivalries the Hapsburgs, the Corvinus family, and other mighty Princes, and life in Bohemia went on as it had before his reign.

The Second Defenestration of Prague is a good example of the significance of urban uprisings. In many of these cases, the Defenestrations, the uprisings in Königsberg and Rostock, political standoffs in Hamburg, and street violence in Krakow could have far-reaching effects both for the town, and for the region. Cities in the 15th and 16th Centuries were important centers of innovation, manufacturing, trade, and political control. Conflicts between mere handfuls of people in a back alley could have ramifications which were felt hundreds of miles away, and for many generations of time. This is yet another way in which the martial culture of urban polities, and the actions of just a few people wielding a sword, a spear, or a bill-guisarme had a significance which far outweighed their own personal experiences.

[1] Notably in Poland, Hungary, Sweden and Bohemia

[2] German Freistadt. Most (including those in Poland, Hungary, Sweden etc.) were chartered under German Town Law.

[3] And perhaps a third as many citizens

[4] With some exceptions, like Ulm and Bern. For a good overview see David Eltis, “Towns and Defense in Later Medieval Germany” from Nottingham Medieval Studies: V.33 (1989)

[5] Peace of the roads aka Landfrieden, Landfrydy to the Czechs.

[6] The German term for city-alliances was Stadtbünde. Most of these were temporary and limited in scope, but some lasted for a long time or were repeatedly re constituted. Notable examples of the latter include the Décapole (German Zehnstädtebund) in Alsace, the Three City League in Thuringia (German Thüringer Dreistädtebund), the Pentapolitana in Hungary, the Lusatian League (German Oberlausitzer Sechsstädtebund) in Upper Lusatia, and the Prussian Confederation in Prussia.

[7] “Imperial and Free Towns of the Holy Roman Empire, City-States in Pre-Modern Germany?”, Peter Johanek, p 12 / 306 (from “A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures: an investigation, Copenhagen Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 2000)

[8] Including Johannes Gutenberg who was heavily fined and exiled from Mainz.

[9] Hamburg was a Republic for 352 years or 583 years, depending on how you count it. See my article about the Rezeß here for more on this subject.

[10] “Imperial and Free Towns of the Holy Roman Empire, City-States in Pre-Modern Germany?”, Peter Johanek, p 12 / 306 (from “A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures: an investigation, Copenhagen Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 2000)

[11] One hundred and eleven years after Tannenberg none other than Nicholas Copernicus was leading militia against the Teutonic Order in yet another skirmish. See my HROARR article about that incident here.

[12] A city in central Poland almost 400 km north of Krakow.

[13] Aka Andrzej Tęczyński

[14] According to other sources the Armorer apparently pointed out that Tęczyń had gained weight since ordering the harness.

[15] According to other sources the armourer Clement was severely beaten at this time. The real issue though was probably that the nobles continued to consider burghers and especially artisans so far beneath them in status as for it to be permissible to beat them up, while the latter contested this notion. Długosz, as a member of the elite strata of the priestly estate, sympathizes with the knight Tęczyń but as is typical for his narratives, seems exasperated with all the unnecessary violence.

[16] The Queen dwells in Krakow castle, which is a separate entity from the town.

[17] A huge amount!

[18] The City Fathers (Burgomeisters and city council) were probably concerned for their own safety.

[19] Rural nobles in the districts of “Lesser Poland” surrounding these two cities.

[20] This is from page 475 in the Maujrice Michael translation of Dlugosz “Annales”

[21] Boubín, Jaroslav (2011). “The Bohemian Crownlands under the Jagiellons (1471–1526)”. In Pánek, Jaroslav; Tůma, Oldřich (eds.). A History of the Czech Lands. Charles University in Prague. pp. 173–187

[22] I found it quite difficult to find anything about the details surrounding this event in English[22], so I asked a friend Ondřej Vodička to recommend a source, and he suggested the twelve volume Dějepis města Prahy (History of Prague city) published from 1855-1905 by the Czech scholar, knight and parliamentarian, Vaclav Vlaqdivoj Tomek. The next step was to find a translator, of whom via my friend Pedro Maal, Petra Kleinhamplová came to my assistance. The full translation of this passage, which covers pages 31-52 of Dějepis města Prahy, can be found here:

[23] Boubín page 181.

[24] See Hugh LeCaine Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown.

Martial sports in the Travels of Leo of Rozmital

Medieval Europe remains an enduringly elusive subject for the scholar, the historical fencer, and the interested layman. The tropes and clichés popular culture provides equip us poorly to decipher the enigmatic complexity of the world revealed in the ‘fight-books’ of men like Hans Talhoffer and Fiore dei Liberi. And yet, there is a wealth of data available for those with a serious interest in their world. Late Medieval Europe was documented by busy bureaucracies (secular, civic and seigniorial) who were each producing a wealth of written records, making it an almost unique subject for this period.

One type of MS which is particularly useful to modern researchers is the travelogue. Medieval travellers recorded memoirs ranging from the purely fanciful but wildly popular Travels of Sir John Mandeville, to the (mostly) real but less artfully crafted Travels of Marco Polo. Even whimsical tales can provide valuable insights into the mind-set of their time, while more grounded memoirs offer priceless hints into the day to day realities of life in past centuries.

However, contemporaneous travelogues describing experiences within Latinized Europe are somewhat rarer. A unique account of a journey in the 15th Century, The Travels of Leo of Rozmital[1], records a diplomatic voyage of 40 men that took place entirely within “Christendom” across two years. Written during the expedition itself starting in 1465, these memoirs document conditions both on the rough roads and pathways of Late Medieval Europe as well as in the luxurious courts of the greatest princes of the time. Because the accounts of these travellers are well corroborated by many other sources derived from the places they visited, this relatively little known travelogue is potentially of great value to scholars.

The origin and context of this journey are also of interest, as the trip was organized on behalf of the enigmatic heretic King of Bohemia, Jiří z Poděbrad, known to the Germans as Georg von Podiebrad. This remarkable monarch found his nation, the predominantly Czech Kingdom of Bohemia, while facing a renewed Crusade instigated by a hostile Pope. Success in defending their homeland from the original Hussite Crusades of the 1420s- and in particular, their early mastery of the use of firearms in the open field, had earned the Czechs a considerable (begrudging) respect among the towns and principalities of Central Europe. Despite their status as heretics, Bohemian mercenaries were in high demand throughout the fifteenth century and fought in battles as far away as the Rhineland, and even on behalf of great prince-prelates such as Archbishop Dietrich of Cologne[2] and Emperor Frederick III.

The Bohemian expedition, led by Jaroslav Lev (“Leo”) of Rožmitál, a Czech noble of lower-princely rank allied by marriage to King Poděbrady, had two purposes: first, to build good relationships among the princely rulers and towns of Christian Europe, and second, a far more interesting and ambitious secret mission, which was to propose a general peace, the Tractatus pacis toti Christianitati fiendae, something like a precursor to the EU or the UN[3].  Though the idea of the universal treaty, centuries ahead of its time, did not take hold, the voyage was indeed something of a diplomatic success, blunting support for the Crusade, which was downgraded to a local war between Bohemia and Hungary.

However, the account of the journey itself is of interest to us today. It survives in the form of two written memoirs, each by one of the 12 knights accompanying the Baron. The first is by a Czech minor noble, Václav Šašek z Bířkova. The second, by Gabriel Tetzel von Nurnberg, is particularly interesting regarding martial culture in medieval towns – because though he was part of the knightly retinue as both bodyguard and representative to the Baron, he wasn’t a noble at all but a high ranking burgher from Nuremberg.

The places they visited are of further interest, which aside from princely courts also included several towns and Free Cities. One visit in particular combined both elements, the princely court and the fabulous urban landscape, when they arrived in Bruges for a visit to the mighty Duke of Burgundy, Philippe Le Bon. The Baron and his entourage found a lavish welcome, as aside from the politics their role as travelling knights captured the imagination of the nobility and burghers. Additionally, the Bohemians’ reputation as warriors aroused great interest in seeing their martial skills put to the test. In many courts they jousted, grappled, and engaged in other feats of arms with their Flemish / Burgundian hosts, for example this grappling tournament which gives us some insight to the rules of the sport[4]:

“…at the third hour of the night, the Duke sent to [the Bohemian champion] John Zehrowsky and invited him to come with certain of the senior members of his company who wished to wrestle, saying that he would provide each with an opponent. Thereupon Lord John presented himself at the castle with those whom he had chosen. He entered the hall where the Duke was with three Duchesses, those of Burgundy, Cleves, and Guelders and other ladies and noble maidens. Then certain of the Duke’s attendants approached John Zehrowsky and informed him that he should prepare himself, as his opponents would shortly appear. Then Lord John enquired how the wrestling was to proceed, whether the wrestlers were to appear naked or in tunics. ‘In tunics’, was the answer, ‘for such is our custom, but it is prohibited by law to seize an opponent below the belt and to trip him up by the feet. Otherwise it is permitted to throw an opponent to the ground in whatever manner one wished. For it is the custom’, they said, ‘in our country to wear underclothes, that is tunic and hose, and it is no shame to wrestle thus clad, even though multitudes of matrons and maidens be present.’

The bout having started, the wrestler could do nothing against his opponent, Lord John, who threw him three times to the ground, at which the spectators were amazed. For it was said that his match was not to be found in all the dominions of the Duke of Burgundy, that he had not previously been beaten by any man at wrestling, and that for this reason he had received 500 gold pieces a year more than his usual wages. But perhaps he would now lose this reward, as he had been thrice overthrown.

After the wrestling match the Duke called Lord John to him dressed only in his tunic, as he had wrestled, and feeling all his limbs, feet and hands, examined his whole body and was amazed that his wrestler had been vanquished. Then the duke asked Lord John whether he had a worthy adversary against whom he could match a noble Count of his. Lord John had a man present called Kevard who wrestled with the count and threw him to the ground three times. Then Schaseck [the narrator] approached the Duke and said: ‘I beg, most illustrious prince, that your highness may appoint an adversary who may be thought to be my equal.’ Having heard this, the Duke ordered one to be summoned for him to wrestle with. As we wrestled I threw him once to the ground. But when by the Duke’s orders I renewed the contest, I was thrown down with such force that I thought the devil was behind it.”

Aside from grappling tournaments, which took place several times in the narrative, the travellers also experienced many other types of martial sports. One of the most unique was an ice-skating fencing match, which also took place during the visit to the court of Duke Philippe le Bon of Burgundy in Flanders:

On the day on which my lord [Baron Rožmitál] took leave of the Duke we saw a marvellous spectacle. There is a park adjoining the castle with a lake which was then frozen over. The Duke ordered certain of his courtiers to go out to this park and to run a course on the frozen lake. They-there were twenty-eight of them- fought on foot [skates] with such agility that I can declare that never have I seen or heard of such agile men. One in particular was so skilful that he resisted alone the assault of twenty-two men. Such was their speed in running and turning that no horse could have kept up with them. I was curious to see what it was that they had on their feet which enabled them to move so swiftly on the ice. I could easily have done this, but I could not leave my lord who was looking on with the Duke. We saw many kinds of wild beasts in the park. After this my lord took leave of the Duke and his son [future Duke Charles the Bold].”

These two brief excerpts give us a hint of the types of martial sports routinely practiced by the burghers, courtiers and noblemen of Late Medieval Europe, and can perhaps offer us some useful insights into rare aspects of the martial culture of the period, such as the rules of martial games and competitions. The medieval travelogue is a valuable source providing us with a glimpse into a strange and remote world, but one which is also well documented.

[1] This entire section is derived from the 1957 translation as The Travels of Leo of Rozmital through Germany, Flanders, England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, 1465-1467 by Malcolm Letts (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1956).

[2] Archbishop Dietrich hired at least 6,000 Bohemian mercenaries during the infamous Soest feud of 1444-47. See Departure for Modern Europe: A Handbook of Early Modern Philosophy (1400-1700), Hubertus Busche [editor] (Felix Meiner Verlag, 2011) p. 100.

[3] Treaty on the Establishment of Peace throughout Christendom. Edit. Kejř J., Transl. Dvořák I. In VANĚČEK V., The Universal Peace Organization of King George of Bohemia a fifteenth Century Plan for World Peace 1462 / 1464. (Prague: Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences 1964) pp. 81-90.

[4] The following excerpt is transcribed from of The Travels of Leo of Rozmital through Germany, Flanders, England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, 1465-1467 by Malcolm Letts (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1956) pp. 36-37.

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