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

‘Like a nightingale in the cage’: City sieges in the Late Byzantine vernacular Chronicle of Morea

In the early 13th century, the armies of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) deviated from their course and conquered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. After that, Crusader leaders split the Empire and a group of Frankish knights led by Guillaume de Champlitte set to subdue the Morea (Peloponnese), in southern Greece. 

A new society, multicultural and multilingual, emerged in Latin-occupied Morea and one of its most important literary specimens is the Chronicle of Morea[1], an early 14th century composition of about 10.000 verses that provides historical information and showcases the new ethnic and political identities. The language of the text is Greek vernacular in political verse, although the author is Frankish or of mixed Frankish and Greek provenance, a gasmoulos (γασμολος).[2] The Chronicle, besides the Greek one in several manuscripts, also has a French, Italian and Aragonese version.[3] All texts are thought to have an unknown common prototype, but the Greek version has been strongly advocated as the original.[4] 

The events narrated in the Greek version refer to the period from 1204 to ca. 1292, and the focus is on the conquest of Morea by the Franks and the creation of the most significant Crusader state in Greece, the Principality of Achaea. The Chronicle’s author is an enthusiast of the Villehardouin family, that ruled the Principality for many decades, and especially Guillaume II Villehardouin who is portrayed as a noble and brave warrior, a perfect knight.

The Chronicle, being a story of conquest, emphasizes on war and its different parameters. The establishment of the Franks in the Morea followed a pattern used by the newcomers to conquest a number of strongholds and fortified cities, making sieges the core of the narrative whereas the battles mentioned are less than a handful. The Chronicle does not introduce many novelties compared to Byzantine siege tactics—known through several military manuals—or Western warfare. It is the overall tone of the Chronicle that is particular, emphasizing in every chance the deficiency of the Byzantines that come across as untrustworthy, perfidious and false Christians, an ambiguity as it seems the text was equally popular in Greek and Frankish populations of both denominations.

Monemvasia, at the time ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Map made by Frederick de Witt (1629-1706), Amsterdam 1680, Available at: (Public Domain)

The author unfolds the motif of Frankish sieges beginning with Constantinople itself and the two Crusader attacks in March and April of 1204. The necessity in using both land and naval forces is obvious, especially to overcome the formidable walls of the capital. According to the Chronicle, the Venetian fleet helped the Crusader infantry and cavalry units to enter the city by extending wall ladders from the ships directly onto the walls.[5]

The Byzantine castles already existing in the Peloponnese were twelve, as the Chronicle describes,[6] and less demanding in terms of offense, but the same MO was required nevertheless. The author mentions Monemvasia, along with Acrocorinthos, Nafplio and Argos, all in the eastern coast of the peninsula, as key but impregnable castles requiring the launch of elaborate and expensive endeavors, so the less strong fortified cities of the western coast were preferred.[7]

In most cities, the fortified acropolis (κάστρον) and the lower town (χώρα) are clearly distinguished and the siege begins with attacks in the lower part. In Corinth and Argos the acropolis is not adjacent to the lower town but a natural stronghold built further up in the mountain, while Andravida, later capital of the Principality, had no walls leaving no choice for the city’s inhabitants but to set out to meet the Franks and negotiate their surrender.

Other elements of siegecraft include the encampments of the offenders vulnerable to a sudden assault, usually at night, since the defenders had better knowledge of the area. The archers also emerge as a crucial unit for the besiegers and are placed in strategic parts of the walls to enhance the obstruction of the defenders. According to the Chronicle, the archers prevent the presence of troops in the outer fortifications and consequently facilitate the storming of the walls.

City harbors are considered extremely valuable as military infrastructures, since can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes and their bad condition is a major setback. The two Peloponnesian castles that were inland, Acrocorinthos and Argos, were conquered later mainly because the Franks could not receive assistance from their fleet, in terms of logistics and military support of the infantry.

In the Chronicle we see a standardized literary expression of a city’s surrender. The Franks either begin a siege or arrive at a city full-force, the locals are intimidated by the army’s might or can’t endure the siege and offer terms. In most cases the locals were given the choice either to surrender and keep their lives and privileges, or to resist and be killed after the conquest. However, we never see a besieged city destroyed after conquest since terms are usually agreed beforehand.[8]

Monemvasia was the last castle to remain in Greek hands and suffered the longest and hardest siege of all. A three-year long land and sea blockade forced the inhabitants to surrender after starving to death. Such was the extent of famine that the people ate even the cats and the mice.[9] The conquest of Monemvasia, in 1248, allowed Guillaume II to create a powerful nexus of newly-built and pre-existing castles throughout the Messenia and Laconia regions. The castles in Laconia, including Monemvasia and Mystras, were lost after Guillaume was captivated in the battle of Pelagonia (1259) and was compelled to give them away as ransom to the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, in 1262.

The narration in the Greek version ends during Florent de Hainaut’s leadership of Achaea. Florent was married to Isabelle de Villehardouin, whom the chronicler mentions as Zampea (Ζαμπέα), daughter of Guillaume II and heiress of the principality. During his rule, Florent launched several military operations, even outside the Morea.

Florent’s most ambitious campaign was in aid to the Despot of Epirus when the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos besieged Ioannina.[10] Despite their preparation, the Byzantines could not overtake the city protected by strong walls and provisioned by the lake around it. And while the Greek version ends describing the Prince’s victories, it is interesting to mention two sieges in the French version, the siege of Kalamata in 1293 and the siege of the castle of Saint George in 1294[11]

The castles fell into Greek hands following treason. Kalamata was taken by Slav inhabitants of nearby Giannitsa while Saint George fell after a conspiracy of a local Greek merchant. Florent associated these actions with Andronikos II—with whom had a standing peace treaty—since the rebellions were instigated by his former subjects. In both cases the intruders used the dungeon as a way in by putting ladders to its walls that were adjacent to the fortifications.

The circumstances of these sieges are indicative of the hostile ambience prevailing among locals against the Franks and the longstanding mistrust of the Franks against the Greeks almost a century after Morea’s original conquest and a few decades after the Byzantines restored their foothold in the southeastern Morea[12].

In its epilogue, the Chronicle had no tales for Frankish victories.

[1]τν παρακαθίσαν| τότε τν Μονοβασίαν, ς τ κλουβ τ ηδόνι. (=…and they sieged Monemvasia like a nightingale in the cage), Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt, H 2910. This is the original version of this essay’s title.

[2] Editions of the Greek version in The Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt (London: Metheun, 1904, Repr. Groningen: Bouma, 1967) and Το Χρονικόν του Μορέως, ed. by Petros Kalonaros (Athens: Ekati 1940). The citations here are from the Schmitt edition. An English translation of the Greek version in Harold Lurier (ed. & trans.), Crusaders as Conquerors: The Chronicle of Morea (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964). An overall assessment of the Chronicle in Teresa Shawcross, The Chronicle of Morea: historiography in crusader Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009).

[3] The Italian version in Versione italiana inedita della Cronaca di Morea, in Chroniques Gréco-romanes inédites ou peu connues, publièes avec notes et tables gènéalogiques, ed. by Charles Hopf (Berlin 1873, repr. Athens 1961), pp. 414-468. The Aragonese version with a French translation in Libro de los fechos et conquistas del principado de la Morea compilado por comandamiento de Don Fray Johan Ferrandez de Heredia: Chronique de Morée aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles, publiée & traduite pour la première fois pour la Société de lOrient latin, ed. by Alfred Morel-Fatio (Genève 1885). The French version in Livre de la conqueste de la princée de l’Amorée, Chronique de Morée (1204-1305), ed. by Jean Longnon (Paris 1911). An English translation of the French version in The old French Chronicle of Morea. An account of Frankish Greece after the Fourth Crusade, ed. & trans. by Anne Van Arsdall and Helen Moody (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate 2015).

[4] See Michael Jeffreys, ‘The Chronicle of the Morea: priority of the Greek version’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 68 (1975), 304-350.

[5] Chronicle of Morea, H 527-550, 845-868. An almost matching description in Niketas Choniates, Historia, ed. by Jan-Louis van Dieten, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11/1,2 (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 1975) I, 568.88-569.1.

[6] Chronicle of Morea, H 1404-1406.

[7] Chronicle of Morea, H 1575-1602, 1651-1790.

[8] Chronicle of Morea, H 1699-1706, 1788-1790. A brief catalogue of these arrangements in Teresa Shawcross, ‘Greeks and Franks after the Fourth Crusade: Identity in the Chronicle of Morea’ in Languages of Love and Hate: Conflict, Communication, and Identity in the Medieval Mediterranean, ed. by Sarah Lambert and Helen Nicholson, International Medieval Research, 15   (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), pp. 141-57, esp. p. 149.

[9] Chronicle of Morea, H 2875 onwards. Monemvasia outlasted Acrocorinthos, despite the latter’s great advantage of having ample natural water supplies.

[10] Chronicle of Morea, H 8803.

[11] French Chronicle, ed. Longnon, § 693-746, 814-827.

[12] See in detail Shawcross, Identity, pp. 143-148.

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

Coexistence and conflict in Asia Minor cities during the first decades of the 14th century

By the end of the 13th century the Asia Minor territories of the Byzantine Empire were under threat by the incursion of various Turkish tribes. In 1302 the Byzantines were defeated by the early Ottomans in the battle of Bapheus. That was the first pitched battle between Byzantium and the Ottomans. In 1303 the byzantine emperor Andronikos II Paleologos hired the Great Catalan Company, a battletested group of mercenaries, to cope with the Turks in Asia Minor. The Catalans scored a few successes against the Turks but soon they broke off with the Byzantines and turned against them. Thus, during the early years of the 14th century while the Byzantine Empire was confronting the Catalan Company in the western provinces, the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor was completed. The available sources provide several but scattered information on the military operations that took place. Byzantium faced a dire state of affairs in Asia Minor since the countryside was under the complete control of the Turks and the Byzantines were kept blockaded in fortified towns such as Nicomedia and Nicaea.[1]

View of the Gate of Constantinople or the Northern Gate of Nice from outside the walls, LABORDE, Léon Emmanuel Simon Joseph. Voyage de l’Asie Mineure par Alexandre de Laborde, Becker, Hall, et L. de Laborde, rédigé et publié par Léon de Laborde, Παρίσι, Firmin Didot, 1838.

A significant degree of Turkish-Byzantine cooperation had been achieved in the city of Sardis, as the Turks had been granted a part of the city to live freely. This area was separated from the Byzantine sector with a wall. The Byzantines suspected that the Turks would change their mind and attack to fully occupy the city. As a preemptive measure they called in friendly troops. During a night the troops secretly entered the city and massacred the Turks.[2]  The byzantine emperor Andronikos II assigned the stratopedarches of the crossbowmen Sgouros and his soldiers to relieve the fortress Katoikia that was besieged by the Turks. The defenders were encouraged by the reinforcements and decided to confront the Turks in the open field. The Turks, numbering about 5,000 warriors, performed the following stratagem: they took control of the road leading to the city, where they stayed in ambush. Another part of their army attacked the Byzantines and forced them to retreat to the city walls safety via the only open escape route. But then the Turks in ambush attacked and thus the retreating Byzantines were encircled and finally defeated. As the inhabitants of Velokoma had rushed to the aid of Katoikia, the Turks took advantage of the opportunity and occupied the unguarded Velokoma.[3]

In Tripoli of ​​Meander, another case of “cooperation” between Byzantines and Turks has been recorded, which in this case led to the occupation of the city by the Turks. Due to the long lasting blockade and the lack of supplies, the Byzantines allowed merchants of turkish origin to enter and supply the city. After a short period, the Turks instead of supplies, loaded war trumpets on their animals and carried them into the city. During the night the merchants opened the gates and sounded the trumpets as a signal for the soldiers outside the walls to attack. The frightened and surprised Byzantines fled and the city was conquered.[4]

The Ottomans, despite the losses inflicted on them by the Byzantine archers, captured by force the fortress of Trikkokia, near Nicaea. They filled in the moat surrounding the wall with stones, tree trunks and soil and stormed the walls. The fall of Trikkokia was followed by a massacre of the population (1307).[5]

The ottoman chronicles outlook

The information of the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres regarding the conquest of Asia Minor and especially of Bithynia by the Turks is corroborated by some Ottoman chronicles, which preserved the related oral tradition.[6]

 (a) The Ottomans occupied Velokoma using a stratagem. They managed to put into the city some oxen loaded with big containers in which soldiers were hiding. As soon as it was night, the soldiers defeated the guards, opened the gates and the castle was occupied (it can be compared to the fall of Tripoli of Meander, as described by George Pachymeres).[7]

(b) In order to occupy a castle in the region of Nicaea, the Turks divided their army into three parts, only one of which attacked, while the other two remained hidden, one near the fort and the other in a nearby valley. After a few days of operations, the Turks pretended to abandon the siege and the Byzantines, deceived by the false information of a prisoner, left the fortress to pursue them. At this stage the Turks near the fort occupied a gate while the rest of the turkish army counterattacked. The Byzantines retreated only to find that their way back to the city was blocked. The Turks had managed to surround them (the Turkish tactic is reminiscent of the one described by George Pachymeres that led to the fall of Katoikia).[8]

(c) The strong fortifications of Bursa were not a match for the ottoman siegecraft and they opted for a long-term blockade combined with the construction of two “counter-fortresses” that completely cut-off the communications of the Byzantines.[9]  

The control of the countryside by the Turks, the blockade of the Byzantines in the fortified cities as well as the inability of Constantinople to send substantial reinforcements were the main causes that forced the Byzantines to surrender their cities in a process vividly described by the ottoman chronicles.[10] The Turks were unable to occupy the fortified cities by force while the Byzantines could not count on a relief force so a fragile model of coexistence between “besiegers” and “besieged” was established. But time worked in favor of the besiegers and sooner or later the Turks took advantage of this coexistence and made use of stratagems to occupy the fortified cities. Under these circumstances it was a matter of time for whole Asia Minor to be lost for Byzantium.

[1] Georges Pachymérès Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 24, 4 vols (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984 – Paris:Institut Français d’études Byzantines, 1999), IV (1999), pp. 451-59.

[2] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 441-43.

[3] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 455-57. George Georgiades – Arnakes, Οι Πρώτοι Οθωμανοί. Συμβολή εις το πρόβλημα της πτώσεως του Ελληνισμού της Μικράς Ασίας (1282-1337), Texte und Forschungen zur Byzantinisch-Neugriechischen Philologie 41 (Athens:1947), pp. 142-43.

[4] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 475-79.

[5] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 701-03.

[6] Elizabeth Α. Zachariadou, Ιστορία και Θρύλοι των Παλαιών Σουλτάνων (1300-1400) (Athens: National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, 1999), pp. 69-75.

[7] Zachariadou, pp.143-44.

[8] Zachariadou, pp.  157-58.

[9] Zachariadou, p. 152; Die altomanischen anonymen Chroniken, trans. by Friedrich Giese, 2 vols(Breslau: Selbstverlage, 1922 – Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1925), II (1925), pp. 19-20.

[10] Zachariadou, pp. 153-55, 159-60, 162-63.

An Englishman at the Siege of Guînes (1558)

In January 1558, a small force of English, Spanish, and Burgundian soldiers garrisoned at Guînes castle attempted to hold off a French besieging army. Calais had fallen earlier in the year, constituting a major English defeat – Guînes was the last bastion of English power in the Pale of Calais, a region that they had held for more than two centuries. By 1558 the Hapsburg-Valois War (1551-1559) saw the English, under the reign of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I, once again drawn into conflict with their longstanding rivals from across the channel. Amongst the soldiers garrisoned at Guînes was the young soldier-poet Thomas Churchyard.[i] His defence of the town was recorded in his 1579 General Reheresal of Warre or Churchyard’s Choise, a collection of military accounts and memoirs from the past four decades that showcased exemplary English military conduct.[ii] Churchyard’s Choise contributed to a burgeoning genre of printed military news, treatises, and histories, an industry that was largely restricted to London due to overarching state regulation.[iii] Thus, Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard became a hub of commercial activity which sated a public appetite for literary consumption. Churchyard’s 1579 account of his service at Guînes provides an insight into how contemporary reports of war could be contested within London’s literary milieu and sheds light on how a culture obsessed with honour and reputation came to terms with defeat and surrender.         

Anonymous, Siege of Guînes (1558), depicting encampments and French forces breaching the walls, The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 721026.

The Siege

The loss of Calais and Guînes was a devastating blow to English strategic interests on the continent and was felt more widely in popular culture. Churchyard begins his account by acknowledging that the defeat was still being discussed despite occurring over twenty years prior: ‘by some fortune or misshape (let the blame faule where it ought) we lost Callice, and Gines … sondrie reports hath been raised thereof, by those that never knewe, or understood the matter’. Churchyard’s motivations are clear, he sought to challenge contemporary accounts and revise the narrative surrounding the loss of Guînes, presenting the English surrender in a more favourable light. Amending the story of this famous English defeat served to further Churchyard’s own sense of honour, whilst bolstering the image of the English military. His account would show the ‘verie trothe’ of the matter, his own martial experience thus imparting greater veracity and credibility.

Anonymous, A View of the Keep and Part of the Walls of the Castle of Guines, France (1540?) The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.12.

Churchyard discusses his own role in the defence of Guînes with a distinctly rich level of detail.[iv] He makes it clear that the English were proactive and took the fight to the French, meeting the initial enemy probe with ‘a hotte and stout skirmish’. In one successful ambush he managed to take prisoners and even acquired ‘a couple of faire horses’ from a contingent of French soldiers ‘that came from the spoil of Callice’ – a hollow reprisal. The English were eventually forced back to the castle under increasingly heavy ‘great canon’ fire. At this point the account appears vivid in its reports of casualties. Commander Harry Palmer had his leg broken by shot, a wound he would later die of, and ‘master Waikes’ had his head taken off by shot whilst ‘slepyng vnder a greate tree’, a fate shared by Churchyard’s captain. He paints a picture of utter carnage and destruction in which his men are being indiscriminately killed and maimed by modern weapons of war; the level of detail and palpable sense of peril serves to illustrate the hardships endured by the garrison.

Anonymous, A Coloured Plan of “the towne and castle of Guynes” (1541), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.23.

A series of French assaults ensued and Churchyard places himself at the centre of the narrative. The defenders take heavy losses and Churchyard is hit: ‘Captain Lambert was crossed with a greate shot, and myne arnour with the breaking of a greate peece, was stricken flat vpon my bodie, but being unbraced I might continue the service’.[v] The initial assault is repelled, despite the garrison being heavily outnumbered, and Churchyard comments on how the assault was ‘so terribly handled by the Frenche’. Further assaults continue ‘into the very darcke night, with as much crueltie as could be devised’. The French are depicted as a hoard, unskilled but numerous, whilst the English are depicted as well-drilled and motivated yet hopelessly outnumbered:

‘alwaies when the enemies first men did wax feeble with labour, there was a seconde and newe relief of fresh bandes to continue the assault … it seemed by the fight the bloodie broile hath no ende, nor season to take breath in’.[vi]

The French eventually took the castle court and sent two thousand men to attack the isolated bulwark. The defenders were forced to leap into the dikes below or face certain death, whilst Churchyard and a few of his men managed to escape to the remaining fortified positions. Terms of surrender began to be discussed.   

Richard Lee, The Town and Harbour of Calais (1535), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii f.70.

The Surrender

Churchyard once again places himself at the centre of these negotiations. He states that he was chosen by the captains to parley with the French commanders, a task that involved a perilous journey to the French camp: ‘I must wade over water in which lay  … great bordes, full of long spikes of iron … I was taught daintily to tread’.[vii] The French took pot-shots at him in the dark, yet he arrived safely. Churchyard defiantly addressed the French command, expressing his desire that his men be permitted to retreat orderly with ‘bag and baggage’, retaining the valuables that the French sought to loot: ‘our soldiers had sworne, rather to dye in their defence, then not to marche awaie like men of warr’. The Duke of Guise remined Churchyard of his hopeless position: ‘there was no hope to be had, but to become all captives and prisoners of the French king: not so sir, I answered, and that should the nexte assault make trial thereof’. Seemingly moved by Churchyard’s determination, the French nobles agreed to his terms on the condition that the officers would become prisoners. The besieging troops became furious when hearing the news, threatening to cut Churchyard’s throat if the castle was not yielded and attempted to breach the castle gate. Order was restored and Churchyard describes the fate of his men:

‘looke what promesse Mounsier Degwise made, it was so well kept and obserued, that our soldiours marched awaie with all their wealthe, money, and weapons: and greate wealth was by them borne from Gines … the bandes that parted either sicke or sounde, hurte or whole, were honestly conueighed, and truely dealte withal.’

The surrender itself is presented positively, the English common soldiers walked away with their weapons and wealth as if they were victors. The officers are imprisoned yet treated respectably, whilst Churchyard commends the honour of Guise as a worthy foe.[viii] He stresses the distinguished military service of the English and their allies, stating that the English took 800 casualties whilst ‘the enemie confessed that thei had loste over fower thousand’.  Churchyard ends his account by revising contemporary reports of the defeat:

‘I think our peace was not so dishonourable, as some reporte: for succour had wee no hope of: the next assault had overthrowen … we lost eight hundredth men, in these assaultes and services, which did their dutie so well’.

Front of Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres (London, 1579), printed by Edward White ‘dwelling at the little North-doore of S. Paules Churche, at the figure of the Gunne’.

Concluding Remarks

Churchyard’s account provides the modern reader with an insight into the world of Elizabethan martial culture. We see Churchyard attempting to preserve his own sense of honour whilst describing a difficult moment in his military career, one which he describes as an ‘uncomfortable discourse’. He places himself at the heart of the events and shifts the focus of the account onto the hardships that he and his men endured, the stout defence they put up, the military superiority of the English, the insurmountable odds against them, and eventually the intransigent negotiating that saved his men’s honour. Within Churchyard’s writing, we can observe a genuine admiration for the service of his comrades and a lamentation on those that were killed, yet we also detect pride in his determination to refute the reports that had been circulating in London concerning the defeat. Churchyard may have lost Guînes in 1558, yet in London he was still battling for his honour over twenty years later.

[i] For the life and works of Thomas Churchyard, and particularly his analysis of the Siege of Guînes, see Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, and Ego (Oxford, 2016), pp.101-105.

[ii] Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes choise wherein is fiue hundred seuerall seruices of land and sea as seiges, battailes, skirmiches, and encounters … (London, 1579)

[iii] During this period the Stationers’ Company regulated the printing industry and permitted presses to be operated in London, as well as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. See, Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London, 1960)

[iv] Churchyard’s account reads more like the genre of military memoir in contrast to the more terse or matter-of-fact reports that litter Churchyard’s Choise, a feature noted by Matthew Woodcock, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.102.


[vi] A common trope in contemporary English military literature, the small size of English expeditionary forces and the theme of ‘God’s will’ or ‘righteous cause’ overwhelming a numerically superior enemy feature heavily in Churchyard’s Choise.

[vii] Matthew Woodcock has noted that the account of the negotiations of surrender at Guînes is presented differently in both Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at large (1559) and the account of Arthur Grey, son of Lord Grey, commander of the Guînes garrison. Woodcock notes that Churchyard replaces Grey as the heroic negotiator, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.104.   

[viii] Churchyard treats nobility with exceptional reverence in Churchyard’s Choise. His descriptions of nobles, whether friend or foe, are often complimentary and he reports honourable deeds done by them in and off the field of battle. This courtesy even extends to the notorious Spanish general the Duke of Alva, who Churchyard commends as trustworthy and ‘faithfull’ in his dealings with William Morgan.

Assault ladders in Geneva and Guebwiller: Rare accounts of two failed attempts to scale city walls with ladders

The use of assault ladders is well-documented in literary sources from the Middle Ages and the early modern era, including siege accounts, illuminated documents,[1] and various models presented in treatises on siege tactics (fig. 1). However, there are very few extant examples of such ladders []. With seventeen segments surviving, the modular ladders used in the attempt by Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy (1562, 1580-1630) to seize Geneva during the nights of 11 and 12 December 1602,[2] currently in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de la Ville[3] [], constitute a remarkable historic ensemble. The “Night of the Escalade” [] was the most notable episode in the perennial struggle between the fortress on Lake Leman and the powerful House of Savoy: this brazen surprise attack lives on in Geneva’s popular memory.

Fig. 1. Double assault ladder, Kriegstechnik, illustrated manuscript, Upper Rhine, c. 1420-1440, fo 80r, watercolour drawing © Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. hist. 33b (

The success of such assaults was far from assured,[4] and the failure of a mission that was “so well organised and so poorly executed”[5] in 1602 can certainly not be blamed on the ladders that were deployed; they functioned exactly as intended, allowing an elite corps of some 350 men to easily scale the city walls before triggering an alarm and alerting the city’s defenders to mobilise.

Fig. 2. Anonymous, The Escalade of Geneva, 1602 · View with scrolled inscriptions, Geneva, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 20.5 x 72 cm © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, gift of Jean-Pierre Rivière, 1834, inv. 11572, photo: Y. Siza.

By the time the battle ended, the ladders had been ripped down and partially destroyed by cannon shrapnel as the assailants fled in panic (fig. 2). The devices were retrieved and claimed as trophies along with the rest of the material that had been abandoned by the Savoyards.[6] A few days later they were hung “beneath the town hall in commemoration” of the event.[7] Following a brief and fruitless incursion by the Swiss into enemy territory,[8] the ladders entered the Arsenal’s collections. Various accounts bear witness, as early as the seventeenth century, to the presence of these ladders “[which] are in Geneva, worthy memorials of its deliverance”[9]—a deliverance that the inhabitants of this Protestant city devoutly attributed to “the arm of the Almighty” (see fig. 2, scroll). Mounted as trophies in the Armoury Room in the Arsenal, they were transferred in the same configuration to the the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire’s Armoury Room in 1910.

Ladders of “admirable ingenuity”

Apparently manufactured in Turin to avoid arousing suspicion and discretely conveyed to the theatre of battle, the Savoyards’ ladders were constructed based on measurements taken directly on location. There were originally eight of them, each incorporating eight segments. Only three of these were actually used, formed of five interlocked sections with a total height of 6.89 metres, sufficient for scaling the wall, which was about 6.50 metres high. The ingeniousness of these ladders must have made a lasting impression on the contemporaries of the Escalade, who were unanimous in celebrating their “admirable ingenuity.”[10] One of the accounts, written soon after the events by a notable Genevan,[11] provides an exceptionally detailed description: “Very well suited for a clandestine mission,” they included “several pieces of only four rungs,” which were easily transportable, fitting “very readily and securely” together, facilitating the assembly of ladders “that could be shortened and lengthened as desired” depending on the height of the targeted objective. Their stability was assured by “two massive nails” attached to the lower extremity of the side rails of the segment resting on the ground (fig. 3, compare fig. 1 and 7), while the upper extremity of the side rails of the top segment bears a “covered castor on a padded cloth” allowing the ladder to be easily and noiselessly slid up against the wall (fig. 4, idem). “All the other ends of said ladder parts” were strengthened by a “joint reinforced by iron” (fig. 5), which provided a double interlock “because said pieces of ladders were broader at the bottom than at the top.” The upper rung, which extended about 5.5 centimetres on either side of the siderails, served to support the lower extremity of the next component, whose second level in turn accommodated interlocking devices of the lower segment (fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Segment of the Escalade ladders (detail of the upper extremity), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 41, photo: F. Bevilacqua.

Fig. 6. Two segments of the Escalade ladders (detail of the interlock), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 57 and F 46, photo: C. Borel. All the segments bear reference marks in their side rails which are numbered from 1 to 7 from the top of the ladder, although the intermediary segments are completely interchangeable.

1445: The Armagnacs’ attempt to take Guebwiller

Although the Genevans were perennially fascinated by these modular assault ladders, such devices were not a novelty (fig. 7). One hundred fifty years before the Savoyard attack in December 1602, an attempt to scale the walls of the small Alsatian town of Guebwiller provided another valuable piece of material evidence.

Fig. 7. Rope ladder and dismountable ladder, Hausbuch of the castle of Wolfegg, c. 1480, fo 53 v1, watercolour drawing © Wikimedia Commons.

The Armagnac mercenary army, known as “Écorcheurs” (“Flayers”), led by the French Dauphin (the future Louis XI, 1423-1483), achieved a hard-won victory over the Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs (26 August 1444). The Armagnacs then proceeded to ravage the Alsatian territories where they settled into winter quarters. During the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445, the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day, a gang of looters in search of plunder, probably part of the Wattwiller or Einsisheim garrisons,[12] attacked Guebwiller. This small town was under the protection of the prince-abbot of the neighbouring abbey of Murbach. The Armagnacs scaled its curtain wall (fig. 8 a-b), which was slightly higher than the Genevan wall climbed by the Savoyards; Guebwiller’s fortification, of which only small vestiges survive, was about 8 metres tall.[13]

Fig. 8 a-b. Johann Martin Weis II (1738 – after 1807), after a drawing by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738-1826) dated 1759, Gebvilla aspectus ab Oriente (Guebwiller seen from the east), copper engraving illustrating a work by Johann Daniel Schoepflin, Alsatia illustrata Germanica, Gallica, Colmar 1761, page 65. In the mid-eighteenth century, the city still retained its crenelated medieval curtain wall. Detail: the Dominican priory and, to the right, the parish church of Saint-Léger.

The event was not in itself exceptional. The Écorcheurs routinely engaged in such nocturnal stealth attacks. They were renowned as fighters who were skilled in this art, known as escheleurs, and they were widely admired and sought after.[14] This attack was a relatively minor episode during a particularly troubled era. The failed assault on Guebwiller—whose population is estimated at 1,400 inhabitants at the end of the fourteenth century, compared to 13,000 in Geneva at the time of the Escalade—did not have a comparable impact on the small town. Calvin’s city experienced considerable political and religious repercussions from the Savoyard attack. In contrast to that assault, events in Guebwiller did not give rise to contemporary eyewitness accounts, iconographic descriptions, or records. The attack is best known through the Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller.[15] This account was written in German during the first two decades of the eighteenth century by Séraphin Dietler, the prior of the Dominican abbey in Guebwiller, based on older archives and chronicles.[16]

Fig. 9 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the altar dedicated to Saint Valentine. Built following the Great War, it shows the escalade of Guebwiller by the Armagnacs during the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445. Detail: the assailants put to flight by Brigitte Schick and the apparition of the Virgin © Photos: C. Borel.

He describes how, around three o’clock in the morning on a cold February night, the Armagnacs erected ladders against the curtain wall, near the town’s baths. The soldiers began to climb up, knocking down stones and creating a clamour that awakened the guards, who were warming themselves. Roused by their cries, the citizens hastened to the town’s defence. Bridt (Brigitte) Schick, “a valiant woman who held the city’s welfare close to heart,” grabbed straw bundles that she lit on fire and hurled over the wall into the moat “with force and loud cries,” arousing fear among the enemy who fled in haste, “not without the special intervention of God.”(fig. 9 a-b). The population witnessed, “not without awe, the glorious mother of God and the holy saint and martyr Valentine, surrounded by a nimbus of dazzling light, hovering along the wall to show that they had taken the town and its inhabitants under their protection.” The apparition overwhelmed the fleeing soldiers with “prodigious terror as powerful as the fear they themselves might cause to an army amidst the order of battle.” On the following day, the prince-abbot of Murbach summoned the town authorities who took council and undertook to “forever celebrate and honour Saint Valentine’s Day[17] […] so that, through the intercession of Mary and the holy Bishop Valentine, the town and its inhabitants might be protected from all attacks and evils.”

“Curiously fashioned” ladders

The chronicle also recounts how, on the following morning, “when day began to dawn and the gates of the city were opened,” the inhabitants discovered “still hanging from the walls a number of curiously fashioned ladders composed partly of ropes and partly of wood” that could be folded up to be “hung within the parish church as an eternal memorial.”

Fig. 10. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the Chapel of Saint Valentine with ladders © Photo : C. Borel.

A few components of these ladders still survive in the chapel of Saint Valentine in the south aisle of the church of Saint Léger in Guebwiller[18] (fig. 10). These vestiges were evidently once more numerous. In 1844, it was noted that “it would be desirable for the administration to take certain protective measures. It seems that several of these curious monuments have already been removed, motivated by a love unrelated to the study of archaeology, nor by affection for souvenirs.” [19]

Fig. 11. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the preserved rope ladder © Photo: C. Borel.

The rope ladder that has come down to us is 40 cm wide and composed of cylindrical wooden rungs with bulbous extremities, supported in the centre and on the sides by securely knotted rope side rails (fig. 11). In the case of the “foldable” wooden ladder, four similar sections are still suspended under the vault (fig. 12 a-b). Slightly longer and narrower than those in Geneva (200 x 40 cm), they consist of siderails that all terminate in an identical interlocking device in the form of a mortice reinforced by metal plates and five equidistant rungs. Extending horizontally beyond the siderails, the rungs at the extremities are rectangular in section; some of them have two notches to facilitate assembly. The three other rungs are cylindrical.

Fig. 12 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the four remaining components of the wooden ladder “that could be folded” © Photos : C. Borel.

A few similarities

These attacks had very contrasting origins and backgrounds. In the case of Geneva, it was a significant strategic, political, and economic event, a strike long plotted by the Duke of Savoy, who wished to make the city the capital of his domains, re-establishing Catholicism there. The attack on Guebwiller was a simple case of attempted looting by idle soldiers. However, these two failed acts of aggression offer interesting parallels. The two scenarios are very similar. A winter night when the guard has been let down because of the cold. A dawn attack–which is standard procedure in this type of operation. Most strikingly, a hundred and fifty years apart, attackers who deployed modular ladders that they abandoned in their retreat. Recovered by the inhabitants the next day, these devices assumed the status of trophies, even ex-votos. Still more remarkable is the very exceptional preservation of some of these fragile assault devices that are made of perishable materials. Finally, these surprise attacks continue to be memorialised to this day.[20] In both cases—in a small Catholic town of the mid-fifteenth century and in the “Protestant Rome” of the early seventeenth century—the “miraculous” salvation of the beleaguered target is attributed to divine intervention.

[1] See the collection of depictions of sieges in illuminated manuscripts assembled by Marina Suardini, “L’échelage dans la guerre de siège, aspects technique et matériel (XIVe – XVe siècles),” in Christiane Raynaud (dir.), Cahiers du Léopard d’or, 14, Armes et outils, Paris 2012,pp. 63-88.

[2] According to the Julian calendar then in use in Calvin’s city, which lagged the Gregorian calendar by ten days.

[3] The surviving components include three lower segments (inv. F 41, F 44 [!m/Object/490244/form/ObjObjectFrm] and F 47), two upper segments (inv. F 46 and F 49 [!m/Object/486951/form/ObjObjectFrm]), and twelve intermediate segments (inv. F 42, F 45, F 48, F 50, F 53 to F 60) among which seven originally included struts that were wedged against the wall to support the ladder. See José-A. Godoy, L’Escalade et ses souvenirs, Geneva 1980, pl. 1, pp. 24-27; idem, “Échelles de l’Escalade”, Geneva, n. s. L, 2002, Album, pp. 98-99.

[4] An account by the military engineer and tactician Antoine de Ville (1596-1656) was published in a treatise in 1629. It included a chapter devoted to escalade attacks that was in part based on the recent events in Geneva. It comes to the following conclusion: “Rarely are towns taken these days by means of escalade, due to the difficulty of executing these operations in Places that are even minimally fortified and defended.” (Antoine de Ville, Les Fortifications du chevalier Antoine de Ville Tholosain, avec L’Ataque & la Defence des Places, Lyon 1629, ed. Lyon 1640, Book II, Part I, chapter VIII, p. 240).

[5] Jacob Spon, Histoire de la Ville Et de l’Estat de Geneve. Depuis le premiers Siecles de la fondation de la Ville jusqu’à present: Tirée fidellement des Manuscrits, Lyon 1680, vol. II, p. 163.

[6] [Melchior Goldast], Histoire de la supervenue inopinée des Savoyards en la ville de Genève […], [Geneva] 1603, ed. Frédéric Gardy, Geneva 1903, p. 83.

[7] Journal d’Esaïe Colladon ∙ Mémoires sur Genève 1600-1605, Geneva 1883, p. 50.

[8] Three months later, on 26 April 1603, the Genevans made their own attempt at the same type of attack against the Savoyard fortress of Étrembières (ibid., p. 79).

[9] According to Maximilien Misson, who visited the city in 1688 (François Maximilien Misson, Nouveau Voyage d’Italie […], III, The Hague 1691, 3rd ed. 1698, letter XXXVII, p. 74.

[10] Goldast, op. cit., p. 71. See also Colladon, op. cit., p. 44, and Pierre Matthieu, Histoire de France, & des choses memorables advenues aux Provinces estrangeres […], Paris 1605, ed. Geneva 1620, vol. II, book V, 7th narration, p. 446.

[11] Vray discours de la miraculeuse delivrance envoyee de Dieu à la ville de Geneve, le 12. jour de Decembre, 1602, [Geneva] 1603, pp. 12-13.

[12] Antoine Gardner, “L’assaut manqué des Armagnacs contre Guebwiller dans la nuit de la St-Valentin 1445,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller 1957-60, Mulhouse 1961, p. 34.

[13] Antoine Gardner, “Les fortifications du Vieux Guebwiller,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller, 1961-1964, Mulhouse 1965, p. 42.

[14] Alexandre Tuetey, Les Écorcheurs sous Charles VII […], Montbéliard 1874, vol. I, p. 284, note 2.

[15] Conserved in the Library of the City of Colmar (Ms 725-1), the original  manuscript was published by Xavier Mossmann (Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller, publiée avec des pièces justificatives […], Guebwiller 1844) and by Johannes von Schlumberger (Die Gebweiler Chronik des Dominikaners Fr. Seraphin Dietler […], Guewiller 1898). For the French translation, see Philippe Legin (dir.), Frère Séraphin Dietler · Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller 1124-1723, Guebwiller 1994, pp. 91-322 (account of the escalade of Guebwiller, pp. 129-130).

[16] Specifically, for the event concerned, the chronicle written in the first half of the sixteenth century by Hans Stoltz (1475? – after 1545), municipal court clerk of Guebwiller (Ursprung und Anfang der Stadt Gebweyler, Library of the City of Colmar, Ms 539).

[17] See Xavier Mossmann, op. cit., pp. 423-424, supporting document XIV.

[18] Inventaire général des monuments et des richesses artistiques de la France, Haut-Rhin · Canton Guebwiller, Paris 1972, v. 1, p. 56, and v. 2, p. 112, fig. 260. The author thanks Dr Stefan Maeder for calling his attention to these ladders.

[19] Mossmann, op. cit., p. 64, note 1.

[20] In Guebwiller, the victory is celebrated annually on Saint Valentine’s Day with a mass of thanksgiving. The Fête de l’Escalade is a high point of the Genevan calendar, featuring an imposing historic procession and numerous cultural and athletic observances.

Cursing over the Walls: The case of the Armenian warrior, Kostandin

Autumn, 1137. In what would prove to be one of the closing chapters in the Byzantine campaign against Armenian Cilicia[1], the emperor John II Komnenos personally led a Byzantine force in the siege of Vahka. During the siege, an Armenian aristocrat by the name of Kostandin[2] appeared on the ramparts, and, as Niketas Choniates has it, was “heaping contumely upon the emperor in the Hellenic tongue and vilifying his wife and daughters with obscenities[3]. This incident resulted in a duel between Kostandin and a Byzantine soldier[4], in which, predictably enough, the Armenian was defeated and retreated ignominiously back into the fortress. Captivity was soon to follow, after the fortress fell to the besiegers.  

The Homeric description of the duel and the prominent moral message it contains are only a few of the elements that cast doubt on the historicity of the event. Tellingly, the incident does not appear either in the other Byzantine sources (John Kinnamos, Michael Italikos, et al.) or the Armenian sources (Sparapet Smbat, Samuel of Ani, Vahram Rabout, et al).

So, is this a literary topos? This explanation would certainly be in agreement with the assertions of historians who have discussed similar incidents. Whately, for example, notes in his commentary on Procopius’ account of the Sassanid siege of Amida (502-3), that:

“Their immoral behavior (i.e., of certain women who would occasionally appear on the ramparts) – the lifting of their clothing to the Persian attackers- has three functions in this siege: it foreshadows the sack of the city…it highlights the role of the morality and the divine in a city’s or fortress’ sack or salvation…it marks a turning point in the war itself”[5].

Naturally, Amida is far from the only account of a siege with defenders appearing on the ramparts to hurl abuse, whether verbal or non-verbal, at the besiegers. In 780, during the siege of Samalu by Abbasid forces, an Abyssinian warrior insulted Caliph al-Mahdi’s son, Hārun al-Rashīd. The Arabs remembered this, and punished him in a truly horrific fashion after they had taken the fortress: he “was crucified on one of the towers of the fort”[6]. In 1147, during a crusader operation against Lisbon, the Muslims taunted the besiegers “for the infidelities they claimed the Crusaders’ wives were committing in their absence”[7]. The dozens of accounts of similarly abusive behavior in the medieval sources indicate that this is indeed a literary topos.

However, there might be another interpretation to this incident. According to the tactical snippeting method, when an action is described in multiple sources, it is quite likely to have indeed taken place[8]. It is only natural for people to tend to insult their adversaries in periods of wartime. Anyone unfortunate enough to be subjected to a modern football match in countries with rampant hooliganism (Greece, for example) will instantly spot the similarities between medieval insults and the chants of football fans; the required imagination is minimal, after all.

Thus, even if we reject the historicity of the duel, at least as described by Choniates, there is no reason to doubt that an Armenian commander did indeed direct a torrent of verbal abuse at the female members of the Imperial family. But why did he do it?  

Such behaviors clearly boosted defenders’ morale and instilled a sense of unity and confidence[9]. At the same time, enraging the enemy “had the added benefit of ensuring the defenders fought hard to avoid the wrath of those they so taunted”[10].  And this is, in my view, the answer to our question.

In medieval warfare, fortified positions were, more often than not, taken by capitulation of their defenders. Kennedy has correctly noted that, “when people did use fortifications, the result was more likely to be a period of negotiation rather than an assault”[11]. Medieval commanders wished to minimize risks and losses as much as possible, and often sought bloodless conquests. Tellingly, in all the aforementioned examples (Amida, Samalu, Lisbon, Vakha) negotiations took place between besiegers and besieged. Choniates notes that the Armenian defenders of Vakha had rejected the Byzantine overtures for surrender[12], despite their truly dire situation: Vakha was one of the final fortresses that remained under Rubenid control. The Byzantines had already conquered Tarsus, Mamistra, and Anazarbus[13].

The actual recipient of Kostandin’s abuse was not, therefore, John, but his own Armenian compatriots. He was thus making it clear that a likely surrender of the fortress would not come hand in hand with guarantees for their safety. Now, even if they should decide to surrender, there was a chance that the enraged emperor would seek to punish those who had besmirched his family’s honor. The Armenian warriors could not have been aware of the punishment suffered by the aforementioned Abyssinian warrior at Samalu, but the stakes were nonetheless clear. Kostandin’s plan ultimately paid off: the Byzantines were compelled to take Vahka by force.


Verbal and non-verbal insults directed by the besieged at the besiegers were doubtlessly a frequently used topos in medieval chronicles. They offered a clear moral message; in most cases the perpetrators of these insults were severely punished for their behavior. However, we must not reject the historicity of such references out of hand. After all, these were men who were sparing no effort to kill each other, and insults and other types of verbal abuse were part and parcel of the proceedings. The case of Kostandin demonstrates how historians may find ulterior motives in such behavior. Treason among the garrison was an ever-present danger during sieges, with traitors’ primary motive being to save their own lives from an impending disaster. Those in command of the defending forces hoped that, by displaying bravado and insulting the besiegers, they could dispel such notions from the minds of their men. By enraging the enemy, Kostandin stated to the defenders of Vahka, in no uncertain terms, that their only chance for survival lay in defending against the enemy to the last.

[1] Regarding this campaign, see e.g., A. Bozoyan, Byuzandiayi Arevelyan k’aghak’akanut’unə Ev Kilikyan Hayastanə 30-70-Akan t’vakannerin (Yerevan: HSSR GA hratarakchùtỳun, 1988), p.99ff. G. Dédéyan, Les Arméniens Entre Grecs, Musulmans et Croises: Étude Sur Les Pouvoirs Arméniens Dans Le Proche-Orient Méditerranéen (1068-1150), 2 vols (Lisbonne: Colouste Gulbenkian, 2003), p.588ff. A. Papageorgiou, John II Komnenos and His Era (1118-1143) (Athens: Irodotos, 2017), p.327ff. For an overview of the history of the Kingdom of Armenian Cilicia, see A. Savvides and V. Stepanenko, ‘Armenian Cilicia, Kingdom of’, Encyclopaedic Prosopographical Lexicon of Byzantine History and Civilization, ed. A. Savvides and B. Hendrickx (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 1:375-380.

[2] On the identity of Kostandin, see Dédéyan, p.543.

[3] Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. by H. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), p.14.

[4] On this duel, see e.g., T. Maniati-Kokkini, ‘Η Επίδειξη Ανδρείας Στον Πόλεμο Κατά Τους Ιστορικούς Του 11ου Και 12ου Αι.’, in Byzantium at War (9th-12th c.), ed. by K. Tsiknakis (Athens: Ίδρυμα Γουλανδρή-Χορν, 1997), pp.239-259 (240-241).

[5] C. Whately, Battles and Generals. Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p.74.

[6] al-Balādhuri, Kitāb al-Futūh, trans. by P. Hitti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916), p.264.

[7] B. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.40.

[8] P. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p.193-196.

[9] On the effect of taunts and counter-taunts on morale, see, e.g., Leif Inge Ree Petersen, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD). Byzantium, the West and Islam, History of Warfare, 91 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp.318-319.

[10] J. Birkenmeier, The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp.200-201.

[11] H. Kennedy, The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State (London: Routledge, 2002), p.183. See also J. Bradbury, The Medieval Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1992), p.325.

[12] Choniates, p.14.

[13] See, e.g., K. Takirtakoglou, ‘John II Komnenos’ Campaign in Cilician Armenia’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 114.3, pp.1329–50 (1337-1339).

The famine in Constantinople, 1306-1307


The Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328) had inherited a limited, decentralised state, which was faced with several political, social, economic and ecclesiastical problems. After his accession to the throne, he shifted his interest from the West to Asia Minor, as that province was more threatened and more difficult to be controlled by the central government, and, in a last attempt to protect it from the Turks, he hired a body of Catalans as mercenaries in 1303.

The Catalan Company

The Catalans were initially successful against the Turks, but it soon became obvious that they were not loyal to the emperor, as they started ravaging the local population. In addition, the Turks began regaining territories in the countryside, and in August 1304 Andronikos decided to recall the Catalans to Europe. Instead of returning to Constantinople, however, they occupied the peninsula of Kallipolis, from where they launched attacks against the surrounding countryside. Their relationship with the empire was continually deteriorating due to the lack of money for their salaries, and in an effort to raise money for these, Andronikos tried to use debased coins (a move that later resulted in their circulation into the empire), imposed a new tax on wheat and barley (the sitokrithon) and deducted the salary of his officials. At the same time, he attempted to negotiate with the Catalan leader who, however, was murdered by Alan soldiers in 1305. Then the Catalans plundered Thrace and Macedonia and even besieged Constantinople.[1] It was during this time that the absence of a fleet proved to be a major problem for Byzantium’s safety and, combined with the Italians’ domination over the trade, it led the people in Constantinople to rioting against the Latins.

Famine in Constantinople

More importantly in 1306, while dealing with the Catalan threat, the emperor was persuaded by his advisers to take a rather unpopular measure. As Thrace, the greatest source of grain for Constantinople, was almost totally controlled by the Catalans and the Byzantine army was unable to confront them, the peasants could now sow their fields there, just outside the city’s walls, only accompanied by armed guards.[2] However, in the fall of 1306, following a scorched-earth policy, Andronikos forbade them to cultivate them and had all crops destroyed,[3] in an attempt to prevent the Catalans from harvesting the Byzantine crops, make the feeding of their army impossible and lead them to leave Thrace.

At the same time though, the attacks of both the Catalans and the Turks, as well as the Bulgarian threat in the area, had caused many people to go to Constantinople as refugees. Since 1304, the city was already suffering from a famine[4] that had largely been caused by the unfair distribution of grain, its sell at excessively high prices and the coin’s debasement.[5] The situation was now worsened due to the shortage of grain, and, as a result, Constantinople was faced with one of the worst famines in its history in the winter of 1306-1307.[6]

The situation in Constantinople and Athanasios I

The patriarch Athanasios I, a prominent figure at the time, was from the beginning hostile towards the hiring of Catalan mercenaries due to their Catholic faith and unreliability.[7] Like the majority of the Byzantines, he also opposed Andronikos’ policy regarding crops,[8] and he tried to improve the citizens’ and the refugees’ living conditions. Nevertheless, the majority of the wealthier citizens of Constantinople did not seem eager to support the refugees. This attitude angered the patriarch, who in 1306 or 1307 tried to convince them to aid those in need by asking the emperor to gather the dynatoi in the palace and read them an encyclical letter that would suggest how they could help. In addition, he urged them to give away alms, food and clothes, and not to pretend they cannot afford these.[9]

As part of his efforts, Athanasios also addressed a series of letters to the emperor, asking him to assist the people in the capital. There, he described their suffering and fear, mentioning how they used to complain to him about the grain and desperately ask for his help.[10] Moreover, assuming the role of their protector, the patriarch organized himself the distribution of clothing and public feeding for the poor, something that was indeed necessary as both the famine and the cold weather had created very bad conditions in the city. Athanasios’ letters further inform us about the circumstances in Constantinople. State controls over the price of cereal had ceased to exist, and matters such as the hoarding of wheat by the rich, the export of grain by Italian merchants and their arrogance,[11] the profiteers’ actions and exploitation of the poor, inflation, and the coin’s debasement were out of control.[12] It seems though that some of the patriarch’s suggestions were heeded at some point, as a commission about the control of weights, measures, grain supplies and prices, and the supervision of bakeries, was finally formed, while ships transporting grain started being closely supervised.[13]


Although Andronikos is usually considered to have been a rather indecisive leader, in 1306 he firmly supported the decision regarding the cultivation of fields and the destruction of the crops, even though it was an unpopular one. Its consequences were harsh for the majority of the citizens of Constantinople and the refuges that had found shelter there, as this policy led to a severe famine during the winter of 1306, and to the danger of the city surrendering to the Catalans that were settled in Thrace before the latter were forced to leave. Athanasios I’ correspondence provides details that are not often recorded, and informs us about the conditions in the capital and the people’s plight. Eventually, even if other factors, such as the import of grain from the Black Sea that relieved the famine, contributed to his plan’s success, Andronikos was vindicated as the Catalans faced a shortage of food and moved to Macedonia before it was too late for the empire.[14]

[1] Angeliki Laiou, Constantinople and the Latins. The Foreign Policy of Andronicus II 1282-1328 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 134-37, 141-47; Georg Ostrogorsky, Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού Κράτους. Γ΄ Τόμος (Athens: Patakis, 2012), pp. 183-84.  

[2] George Pachymeres, De Andronico Palaeologo II, ed. by Immanuel Bekker (Bonn: Impensis Ed. Weberi, 1835), pp. 552-53.

[3] Ibid., p. 628.

[4] Angeliki Laiou, ‘The Provisioning of Constantinople during the Winter of 1306-1307’, Byzantion, 37 (1967), 91-113 (p. 91).

[5] The Correspondence of Athanasius I, Patriarch of Constantinople: Letters to the Emperor Andronicus II, Members of the Imperial Family, and Officials, ed. by Alice-Mary Maffry Talbot (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1975), p. 394.

[6] Archimandrite Athanasios Pantokratorinos, ‘Βίος και πολιτεία του Αθανασίου Α´, Οικουμενικού Πατριάρχου (1289-1293 και 1304-1310) συγγραφείς υπό Ιωσήφ Καλοθέτου μοναχού’, Thrakika, 13 (1940), 56-107 (p. 101).

[7] See The Correspondence of Athanasius I,letters 9, 35, 37.  

[8] Ibid., letter 67.

[9] Ibid., letter 102; John Lawrence Boojamra, ‘Social Thought and Reforms of Athanasios of Constantinople (1289-1293; 1303-1309)’, Byzantion, 55.1 (1985), 332-82 (p. 366); Vitalien Laurent, Les Regestes des Actes du Patriarcat de Constantinople: Volume 1, Les Actes des Patriarches. Fascicule IV, Les Regestes de 1208 à 1309 (Paris: Institut français d’ études byzantines, 1971), pp. 536-37. 

[10] The Correspondence of Athanasius I,letter 72.

[11] The patriarch actually mentions that they used to receive “favors from the wives of citizens in payment for grain.” Ibid., letter 93.

[12] Ibid., letters 73, 74, 106.

[13] Ibid., letter 100.

[14] John Lawrence Boojamra, The Church and Social Reform: The Policies of the Patriarch Athanasios of Constantinople (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993), 119; Laiou, ‘The Provisioning’, pp. 103-104.

Thomas Magistros’ “On Imperial Office” on military preparations

Thomas Magistros, his city and his times

The fourteenth century was a period of turbulence for the Byzantine Empire, and Thessaloniki had a great share of these troubles. The continuous wars and the internal conflicts were affecting the lives and the works of contemporary people, and intellectuals could not have been an exception to that.

Thomas Magistros is believed to have been born around the year 1275 and he died sometime after 1347. The oldest work that we know that he produced dates back to 1301, and the last mention of him is dated to 1346. Between these two dates there is not much information available about his life.[1]

On the Imperial Office[2] is a Mirror for Princes that he wrote between 1324 and 1350, at a time when was a monk, and it was addressed to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. Mirrors for Princes were advisory rhetorical works compiled for princes and young kings. Although their authors had been drawing their content from the same pool of thought, they chose to use different material, changing it from one period to another so that their work could reflect the imperial ideology and the political realities of their time. This rule also applies to their mentions of war preparations and military affairs in general.[3]

In the times of Magistros, warfare, sieges, and political and social turmoil were not rare. The Byzantine scholar was native to Thessalonike: he was born and died there and the only time, which we know of, that he left the city, was to deliver an oration in Constantinople, on behalf of the general Chandrenos, who had defended his city in the past.[4] Therefore, it is safe to assume that his attitude and thoughts were heavily influenced by what he was witnessing and what he knew of his city’s recent past. And the city of Thessaloniki, despite or as a consequence of its considerable growth during that period,[5] had had a troubled history just before the time the Mirror was written, and continued to have such for some time. In 1308 the Catalan Great Company tried to conquer the city only to be stopped by its walls. Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, who unsuccessfully besieged Thessaloniki in 1334 and returned again in 1341, had the same (bad) luck. And the dangers did not only belong to the past, as the attack of the Ottomans in 1383 can attest. The city fell at their hands in 1387 as a result of this attack, only a few decades after On the Imperial Office was written.

But Thessaloniki had also had troubles coming from within the empire and even the city itself. Andronikos II and Andronikos III tried to claim it as their own from 1320 onwards, and in 1340 the city fell temporarily in the hands of the zealots.[6]

It therefore comes as no surprise that Magistros chose to include in his work advice on military affairs, not omitting, at the same time, to express his thoughts about the preparations of a city so it could withstand an enemy’s siege.

Military affairs in On the Imperial Office

In On the Imperial Office Magistros refers to military affairs several times. First, he states that he wished weapons were never invented and that the emperor should not go to a war led by his greed. On the contrary, he must do anything in his power so that the war is avoided (ζ΄, 457). However, if he wants to secure peace he must always be prepared for war. The scholar justifies his claim noting that weakness is creating enemies and if you only pursue peaceful resolution to conflicts you might draw the enemies upon you. On the contrary, however, if you are prepared and strong nobody will want to wage war on you and this way you can enjoy peace (η΄, 457). Moreover, he advises that the emperor should always be ready in both body and soul and the way to do that is to exercise for the possibility of war. He should not only keep himself prepared, but he should also have his whole army prepared and exercised (drilled) as well (η΄, 457-458). He should also maintain a strong army and navy but he should not rely on mercenaries because they are far from trustworthy. After all, quality is better than quantity, he notes, and the mercenaries are only good to add to the numbers of an army (θ΄, 460-461).

In an excerpt that speaks about justice Magistros also finds the opportunity to mention several factors which he believes that are essential for a city to be safe.  Having been built in a natural feature of the land that helps defense and being protected by walls and fortifications are prerequisites if the city is to be saved from an enemy siege. The human factor, according to the rhetor (Magistros), is equally important towards that end (στ΄, 456). He states that the soldiers should always be kept content and be offered presents because this way they will be kept motivated to train themselves in times of peace and to not lose respect in the face of the emperor. In times of war, this could prevent them from abandoning the battle even if they were injured. They should always be assured that if they lose their possessions in times of war, these will be replaced by the emperor. On top of these, what is of great importance is that they need to know that their children will be taken care of in case they fall in battle. Like the ancient Athenians before them, advises Magistros, the Byzantines must also always take of the children of those who died fighting, until they reach adulthood (ι΄, 461-463).

But strong walls and capable fighters are not enough to ensure that a city will not fall during an enemy siege, Magistros claims. Provisions should be made prior to the attack. The storages should always be kept filled in full with grain and all the other essentials, which should not be available for trade. To that end the emperor must spare no expenses, because money spent for that reason is well spent. These preparations could be life-saving for the people and they bring honour to the king. Because regardless of the cities’ moats and walls, if there are not enough supplies available to feed its population, this city will not be able to withstand a long siege. The rhetor concludes that the storage of food is as important as a strong fortification (κγ΄, 484). It is worth mentioning that this kind of advice is found very rarely in Mirrors. Apart from On the Imperial Office there is perhaps one more similar mention in a work of this genre, in Kekaumenos’ Strategikon (85. 265), something that does not come as a surprise, considering that the author of that work was probably a soldier and thus he took extra care to make long mentions of everything that was war related.


On the Imperial Office is a workthat can provide us with an insight into what an intellectual living in fourteenth-century Thessaloniki was thinking in regards to state affairs. The conflicts of his time, internal and external, and the sieges his city had to withstand had led him to make special mentions of military affairs.

First of all, he advises that a city should have strong walls. And indeed the land walls of his hometown are described as being strong. However, the sea walls failed to provide the same safety to the city.[7] The last attested repairs before the time of Magistros date to the twelfth century, and the same action was repeated a few decades after his death.[8]

The scholar also provides advice and insights regarding soldiers. He states that the emperor should take steps to ensure that they always remain loyal and they do not lose respect for him. The importance of this advice lies in the conflict between Andronikos II and Andronikos III as none of them could afford to see his soldiers joining the enemy.

Magistros also urges the emperor to take measures for the children of the soldiers that were becoming orphans as a result of the continuous wars of the period, even if his real concern is to ensure their parents that a good fate awaits their offspring if they die in battle, and therefore making them fight with more braveness. This mention is a clear indicator of a real problem that might have occurred inside the cities of the empire because of the numerous conflicts.

Last but not least, the rhetor notes that the cities’ storages should always be full of grain, to help the city in case of an enemy’s siege, which was, in his time, a recurring threat to the well-being of Thessaloniki’s citizens.

[1] Nigel Guy Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (London, Cambridge, Mass.: General Duckworth & Co. ltd. And The Medieval Academy of America, 1983), p. 247.

[2] Jacque Paul Migne, Nicephorus Callistus, Theodulos Monachus, Matthaeus Blastares [Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca], Tomus 145, (Paris, 1904), pp. 447-496.

[3] For this notion see Konstantinos Karatolios, ‘From peacemaker to warrior. Changes in the imperial education as illustrated in the eleventh-century Mirrors of Princes’, in Warfare in 11th century Byzantium, ed. by Georgios Theotokis and Marek Meško (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 98-108 (pp. 98-108).

[4] Alexander Kazhdan and Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘Thomas Magistros’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2076-2077 (p. 2076).

[5] Angeliki E. Laiou, Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, (New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 198.

[6] For these incidents see, among others, Vassiliki Nerantzi-Varmazi, ‘Η Θεσσαλονίκη εστία Κοινωνικών Αναταραχών το 14ο αιώνα’, Θεσσαλονικέων Πόλις, 2 (1997), pp. 74-81 (pp. 74-81).

[7] On the sea walls of Thessalonike, see among others Michael Vickers, ‘The Byzantine Sea Walls of Thessaloniki’, Balkan Studies, 11 (1970), pp. 261-280.

[8] Timothy E. Gregory, ‘Thessalonike’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2072-2074 (pp. 2072-2073).

The Duke of Gloucester’s Agincourt Retinue: The Regional Heritage of Select Sub-Captains from East Anglia and Kent


Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, raised the second largest retinue for Henry V’s great 1415 army, which famously captured the town of Harfleur, before fighting at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. Before embarking for Normandy, Gloucester’s retinue mustered near Southampton on 16 July. We know the names of all those present at the muster because the muster roll survives in its entirety.[1] It records the names of 751 men: 1 duke, 6 knights, 180 esquires and 564 archers. These men were not all recruited by the duke directly but, as was the custom for the time, by a multiplicity of sub-retinue captains.[2] Gloucester’s retinue was originally intended to comprise 56 sub-retinues, plus the duke’s personal company. However, five sub-captains, according to the muster roll, failed to recruit men, so were probably absorbed into the duke’s personal company. That Gloucester succeeded in raising a retinue of this size was a notable achievement because, unlike his very militarily experienced elder brother, Thomas, duke of Clarence, this was the first time Gloucester had ever led men to war.

The Sub-Captains from East Anglia and Kent

The aim of this short essay then, is to detail the regional heritage of some of these sub-captains, specifically those from East Anglia and Kent, in order to provide a brief glimpse into the mechanics behind Gloucester’s recruitment process and show the workings of the ‘Dynamics of Recruitment’ in the early fifteenth-century.[3] Andrew Ayton has written that, when raising retinues in this period captains would have looked ‘first to the manpower of their estates’, before drawing on other avenues of recruitment.[4] Gloucester possessed estates and properties in numerous counties throughout England and southern Wales, including Essex, Suffolk, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Kent and Pembrokeshire.[5] In Essex, for example, he held Hadleigh Castle and the nearby manors of Thundersley and Eastwood, while in Kent he held the manor of Milton, near Gravesend, and Marden in the Kentish heartland. It is unsurprising to see that the majority of his sub-captains, for whom we have geographic data, hailed from these regions.

Fig. 1: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Les Vigiles de Charles VII, Manuscrit Français 5054, fol. 24v.

One of the duke’s Suffolk manors was Great Wratting. Roughly 25 miles east of Great Wratting lived his sub-captain Thomas Deschalers.[6] An individual who dwelled even closer was William Creessoner. He was a young man at only 23 when he mustered under Gloucester in 1415. As a child, he resided at a manor in Hawkedon, less than 10 miles from Great Wratting.[7]  Having proved his age in 1414, Cressoner inherited his father’s other properties in Suffolk, Huntingdonshire and Essex. One of the Essex manors which he inherited was Ferrers, today known as South Woodham Ferrers. This property was only 12 miles from Gloucester’s castle at Hadleigh, and 10 miles from his estates in Thundersly. One of Cressoner’s immediate neighbours was John Tyrell, who held the close-by manor of Rawreth.[8] Tyrell, in fact, possessed a number of estates throughout Essex, for example at Ramsden Crays, Hockley and Heron. In 1412 he was residing at Heron, near Brentwood.

A neighbour to both Cressoner and Tyrell was Thomas Berwick. He lived at Stanford Rivers and had been a retainer of Gaunt’s from 1388 until the duke’s death in 1399.[9] This evident ‘regional comradeship group’ also included Sir Thomas Morley (grandson of Thomas, fourth Lord Morley, d.1416), whose family possessed estates in Great Hallingbury, less than 15 miles from Stanford Rivers. Returning to John Tyrell, he was also closely bound to the Kentish sub-captain Sir Nicholas Haute.[10] Following the death of his first wife, Alice, in March 1400, Sir Nicholas married Eleanor, who was the widow of William Tyrell and mother of John.[11] By this marriage, Sir Nicholas Haute became John Tyrell’s step-father. Haute was a military veteran, having served Gaunt on a number of occasions. Sir Nicholas was also associated with Sir Thomas Clinton. In addition to having served alongside one another during the 1386 campaign, they were also neighbours. Haute’s estates at Waltham were near to Clinton’s at Bensted.[12] The two had also served together on a Commission of Array in Kent in January 1400 and both acted as witnesses to a Charter of Warranty in November 1408.[13] The 1415 campaign was the final time the two friends served together, as they both died either during the campaign, or shortly afterwards.


That regional comradeship groups evidently existed among the sub-captains from Suffolk, Essex and Kent demonstrates that these, villages, towns and cities were good places for a captain to recruit. Indeed, as the work of Craig Lambert and Ayton has revealed, the estuarine communities of East Anglia, and of Essex in particular, had been ‘making a disproportionately heavy contribution to the war effort’, for both naval and land-based campaigns, during the late fourteenth century. [14] This high level of militarisation from the late fourteenth century was evidently still present in the early fifteenth. The urban centres of East Anglia were fertile lands for captains to recruit soldiers from. These bonds of shared regional heritage would have given the retinue a degree of stability and cohesion. This would have negated, to some extent, the almost complete lack of shared military service ties between members of Gloucester’s retinue. Moreover, that similar regional groups have been identified in the fourteenth-century indicates that, at least in this respect, a degree of continuity within the mechanics of the recruitment process existed in the early fifteenth-century. If there was space to open the lens of this investigation wider, many more such cases as provided here could be given.[15] So, while previous military service ties in Gloucester’s retinue were generally absent, other ties existed which gave it a degree of stability and cohesion, and assisted it to function effectively, endure the hardships of the siege of Harfleur, and stand stalwart at the Battle of Agincourt.

[1] E 101/45/13 (Gloucester).

[2] On sub-retinues, sub-contracts and the English military community, A. Ayton, ‘Military Service and the Dynamics of Recruitment in Fourteenth Century England’, The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century, ed. A. R. Bell and A. Curry (Woodbridge, 2011).  

[3] On the ‘Dynamics of Recruitment’., ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 12.

[5] CIPM, 20, p. 7; CPR, 1399-1401, p. 143; CPR, 1401-1405, pp. 121, 160, 256, 468; CPR, 1405-1408, p. 191; CPR, 1408-1413, p. 303; CPR, 1413-1416, pp. 170, 387, 397.

[6] L. S. Woodger, ‘Deschalers, Thomas’, History of Parliament (online).

[7] CIPM, 19, pp. 300-301; CCR, 1413-1419, p. 137; CPR, 1408-1413, p. 278; C 138/10/49.

[8] J. S. Roskell and L. S. Woodger, ‘Tyrell, John’, History of Parliament (online); R. Horrox, ‘Tyrell family (per. c.1304–c.1510)’, ODNB; J. S. Roskell, Parliament and Politics in Late Medieval England, 3 vols (London, 1983), 3, pp. 277-315.

[9] C 76/56, m.31; S. Walker, The Lancastrian Affinity (Oxford, 1990), p. 264.

[10] L. S. Woodger, ‘Haute, Sir Nicholas’, History of Parliament (online); P. Fleming, ‘Haute family (per. c. 1350–1530)’, ODNB.

[11] CIPM, 18, p. 5.

[12] Ibid; L. S. Woodger, ‘Clinton, Sir Thomas’, History of Parliament (online).

[13] CPR, 1399-1401, p. 211; CCR, 1405-1409, p. 468.

[14] A. Ayton and C. L. Lambert, ‘Shipping Troops and Fighting at Sea: Essex Ports and Mariners in England’s Wars, 1337-1389’, The Fighting Essex Soldier, ed. C. Thornton, J. Ward and N. Wiffen (Essex, 2017), pp. 98-143 (p. 132). See also, S. Gibbs, ‘The Fighting Men of Essex: Service Relationship and the Poll Tax’, Ibid, pp. 78-98.

[15] These will be presented in my forthcoming monograph, to be published by Boydell.

‘Une piteuse bataille’: A trial by combat between commoners in Valenciennes, 1455

When Jacotin gouged out both of his opponent’s eyes, the broken man cried out for mercy from the Duke of Burgundy. Philippe le Bon could not fulfil this request and he let justice be done by the town, according to its franchise.[1] After Mahiot confessed his crimes to the priests, the executioner put an end to the misery of the murderer. This awful spectacle was watched by a large audience in the market of Valenciennes. The Duke of Burgundy was ashamed by that terrible spectacle according to his chronicler Olivier de la Marche. He promised that he would show the citizen of Valenciennes how chivalry was properly done that following year, by organising a tournament. Two knights fulfilled that promise by  performing an emprise d’armes in 1456, ‘properly armed for fighting on foot, with one throw of the lance and twenty-five blows with the axe’.[2]

The Plot

In Valenciennes (Hainault, Burgundian Low Countries), Jacotin Plouvier, a burgher of the town, accused Mahiot (Mahiénot) Coquel, a tailor from Tournai, of murdering one of his parents. A trial by combat that followed the town’s charters was agreed upon by the magistrate. Preparations lasted more than a year, and the combat finally took place in May 1455

Three chronicles relate the event, mostly depicting it as terrible, awful, and out of place.[3] The combatants, whose hair and nails were cut, wore a tightly fitted garment made of leather, covered in grease ‘so that they could not grapple each other’, their hands covered with ashes ‘so that they could handle their shield and mace’.[4] The maces are described as being made of hardwood (medlar for d’Escouchy – mellier bien nouteilleux and de la Marche – mesplier). After a few exchanges of bloody mace blows and throwing sand in the eyes, both men wrestled on the ground; one gouged out both his opponent’s eyes, and broke his limbs and back.

The ‘famous’ master-at-arms Hans, hired by the town

The town provided both the grounds and security for the combat, and took all necessary measures to ensure a fair fight. Both men were held in custody before their trial. The town supplied the weapons (wooden shield and mace) and installed barriers around the designated duel space. Each combatant was permitted to paint holy symbols on their shields at their own cost. Two masters at arms were hired to offer training to the combatants. The duration of this training for trials-by-combat (usually six weeks) is given by other contemporary sources.[5] The master attributed to Mahienot Coquel is named ‘Hans’ in the Chronique of Chastellain.[6] The other master was Jean de Bourges, apparently less experienced. We do not have any other information regarding these masters. With a little bit of imagination, one could argue that ‘Hans’ may have been Hans Talhoffer.[7] He was a contemporary fencing master active in Southern Germany who specialised in trial by combat and authored several fight books (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Detail of a trial by combat with mace and shield, Hans Talhoffer, Fight Book, 1448. Gotha, Forschungsbibliothek, Hs Chart A558, fol. 42r.

Trial by combat in towns at the end of the Middle Ages

Trial by combat is seen as an anachronistic procedure, gradually fading in oblivion at the end of the Middle Ages. The old-fashioned tradition of defending one’s honour by right of arms is cared for by the aristocracy, and mostly reserved for them in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, it rivalled new judicial procedures at the end of the Middle Ages as the state developed more administration for its judicial apparatus, such as requiring combatants to present proofs. This is the picture painted by chronicles and the study of judicial and normative documents in places such as France, but neighbouring kingdoms and states also followed the same practices.[8] This representation is not always quite accurate, but it certainly followed the official position of the authorities, religious and secular alike. Several regions preserved this practice throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century. trial by combat was still regulated by customary laws, especially in franchised towns. It can involve commoners, clergy men, and even women.

In Swiss towns there are also traces of judicial combat procedures. For example, the custom of Moudon ruled trial by combat in the towns of the Pays de Vaud (western part of Switzerland). By 1468, one noble and seventeen commoners (including one monk and one woman) had been implicated in the custom.[9] Apparently, most of these serious ventures were not seen through to the end. The authorities usually tried to force compromise upon the parties before trial by combat could take place. It was also a costly endeavour, and took a long time to plan. For the case of Valenciennes, it was a franchised town under the realm of the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke tried to avoid the practice for two years (a first schedule for the trial was August 1454), but was forced to allow it by law when the parties did not come to any agreement, despite concerted efforts to do so. After this episode, the Duke gradually revoked the privileges for the trial by combat in the towns of his duchy. We find contemporary descriptions of similar events in England as well, where chroniclers also showed disgust when relating any trial by combat involving commoners.[10] Duels were about to disappear, or at least undergo a profound transformation into ‘duels of honour’, which decimated both nobles and commoners alike across the next century.

[1] The Duke was forced to let this be carried out, according to Georges Chastelain in the manuscript additional fragments of his chronicle (London, British Library, MS 54156), edited by Jean-Claude Delclos, Chronique de Georges Chastellain. Les fragments du Livre IV (Geneva: Droz, 1991), p. 325.

[2] Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires, ed. by Henry Beaune and J. d’Arbaumont (Paris: Renouard, 1884), t. II, p. 406-7.

[3] Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin, La villes des cérémonies. Essai sur la communication politique dans les anciens Pays-Bas bourguignon (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 311-7. For a review of the historiography regarding the Valencienne case, see also Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardins, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire dans les villes des anciens Pays-Bas bourguignons: Privilège urbain ou acte de rébellion?’, in Agon Und Distinktion. Soziale Räume Des Zweikampfs Zwischen Mittelalter Und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015),pp. 187-88, note 28.

[4] Ilz avoient les testes raises, les piedz nuz, et les ongles coppez des mains et des piedz; et au regard du corps, des jambes et des bras, ilz estoient vestuz de cuyr bouilly, cousu estroictement sur leurs personnes. Olivier de la Marche, ed. by Claude-Bernard Petitot (Paris: Foucault, 1825), vol. 9, p. 404. […] deux bassins plains de gresse, dont les habillemensfurent oingtz et engressez, affin que l’ung d’eulx ne peust prendre prinse sur l’autre. […] deux bassins de cendres, pour oster la gresse de leurs mains, afin qu’ilz puissent mieulx tenir leurs escuz et leurs bastons. Olivier de la Marche, p. 405.

[5] Daniel Jaquet, ‘Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat. Instruction and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats’, in Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jörg Rogge (Biefeld: Transcript, 2017), pp. 131–64.

   [6] Or ont eu ces deux gens-icy par longue espace leurs maistres emprès eux, qui leur ont appris leurs envayes et deffenses, et tout ce en quoy il les espèrerent à sauver, et avoit Mahienot empès lui un nommé Hans, le meilleur qu’on savoit en nul pays, […] Chastelain, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove (Bruxelles: Heussner, 1863), pp. 44-5.

  [7] Eric Burkart, ‘Die Aufzeichnung Des Nicht-Sagbaren. Annäherung an Die Kommunikative Funktion Der Bilder in Den Fechtbüchern Des Hans Talhofer’, Das Mittelalter, 19.2 (2014), 253–301.

[8] Claude Gauvard, ‘De Grace Especial’: Crime, État et Société En France à La Fin Du Moyen Age (Paris: Publ. de la Sorbonne, 1991)

[9] Claude Berguerand, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire au Moyen Âge dans le Pays de Vaud au travers du duel d’Othon de Grandson’, in Duel et Combat Singulier en Suisse Romande: De l’Antiquité au XXe Siècle: Actes du colloque des 7 et 8 Mai 2010, ed. by Olivier Meuwly, Nicolas Gex, and Georges Andrey (Bière: Cabédita, 2012), pp. 59–67.

[10] Ariella Elema, ‘Trial by Battle in France and England’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2015). See also Jacob Deacon, ‘‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London’, Martial Culture in Medieval Towns, 2019 <> [accessed 20.08.2021].

Ritterspiele und Adelkultur am Beispiel des Turniers von Schaffhausen 1436

An Fasnacht 1436 erlebte Schaffhausen den Ausnahmezustand: Rund 200 adlige Turnierkämpfer drängten sich in Begleitung von Knechten und Damen in der eher kleinen Stadt. Allein die Unterkunft und Versorgung dieser Personen und Pferden dürften eine grössere logistische Herausforderung dargestellt haben. Das Turnier von Schaffhausen stellt aber auch in anderer Beziehung ein ungewöhnliches Ereignis dar. Wohl kein anderes Ritterspiel des Mittelalters ist so gut bekannt und beschrieben wie jenes von 1436. Zwar prägen Ritterturniere bis in die Gegenwart die Wahrnehmung der mittelalterlichen Gesellschaft und stehen die zahlreichen nachgestellten Turnierkämpfe der Neuzeit für die anhaltende Faszination solcher Wettbewerbe. Unser bescheidenes Wissen über Turniere steht aber in keinem Verhältnis zu dieser Wahrnehmung. Die Überlieferung ist ausgesprochen disparat und lückenhaft; erst die (kurzlebige) Blütezeit um 1480 im Zeichen der Vier-Lande-Turniere erlaubt einen genaueren Einblick in Ablauf und Organisation von Turnieren. Umso ungewöhnlicher 1436: Ein spanischer Beobachter schilderte detailliert die Vorgänge in Schaffhausen und ging besonders auf ihm wenig vertraute Aspekte ein, die er anschaulich beschrieb, erklärte und so einordnete. Kein Wunder, gehört dieser Turnierbericht zu den am meisten zitierten Quellen in Sachen Ritterspielen.

Fig. 1: Grünenberg Turnier mit stumpfen Waffen aus Faksimile.

Der einzige «Schönheitsfehler»: Abgesehen von diesem Bericht und einer ergänzenden Beschreibung in der Konstanzer Stadtchronik fehlen weitere Hinweise zu diesem Turnier, so enthalten die Stadtrechnungen keine entsprechenden Einträge. Es fehlen aber auch Aufschlüsse auf eine Trägerschaft. Der spanische Gesandte, der auf dem Konzil in Basel weilte und den Abstecher nach Schaffhausen unternahm, ging pauschal auf die Trägerschaft des Turniers ein, ohne Namen oder Institutionen zu nennen. So dienten die Ritterspiele ihm zufolge nicht zuletzt dazu, die isoliert auf ihren Burgen lebenden Adligen zusammenzubringen. Dabei gehe es nicht allein um Kampfspiele, sondern auch um das Knüpfen von Freundschaften, die Schlichtung von Streitigkeiten, das Anbahnen von Heiraten oder die Vertretung gemeinsamer Interessen. Wer aber 1436 zum Turnier in Schaffhausen aufgerufen hat, entzieht sich ebenso unseren Kenntnissen wie die Namen der Teilnehmer. Immerhin informierte die Konstanzer Chronik über die Anwesenheit eines Hans von Hewen, der Brüder Jakob, Eberhard und Jörg Truchsess von Waldburg, der Grafen von Werdenberg, von Basler Adligen sowie von rund 20 Gesellen der Konstanzer Gesellschaft zur Katze. Die Teilnehmer des Schaffhauser Turniers stammten offensichtlich aus einem weiteren Einzugsgebiet, das durch den Bodenseeraum, den Hochrhein und die nördlich und südlich angrenzende Landschaft zwischen Donau und Aare definiert wurde.

Tatsächlich fanden in Basel, Schaffhausen oder Konstanz im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert wiederholt Turniere statt, ohne dass wir jedoch über die Abläufe und Organisatoren allzu viel wissen. Trotz dieser eigentlich enttäuschenden Überlieferung wird die enorme Bedeutung solcher Ritterspiele für den Adel deutlich: Wettkampf, Geselligkeit, Kultur und ständische Politik gehen Hand in Hand. Kein Wunder, nehmen Turniere innerhalb der mittelalterlichen Adelskultur einen zentralen Platz ein. Einen Schlüssel zum besseren Verständnis dieser Turniere bieten dabei Adelsgesellschaften. Die Blütezeit der Turniere, das haben die Forschungen vor allem von Andreas Ranft betont, entspricht einer Blütezeit von adeligen Gesellschaften, die sich im späten Mittelalter zu genossenschaftlichen Gruppierungen zusammenschlossen, die je nach Betonung mehr das Turnierwesen oder eher ständische Interessen im Auge hatten. Die Grenzen zwischen Adels- und Turniergesellschaften verliefen in der Regel fliessend; hinzu kamen auch Adelsgesellschaften, die auf Landesfürsten ausgerichtet waren. Innerhalb des südwestdeutschen Raumes spielten diese Organisationen eine wichtige, lange unterschätzte Rolle und waren Vorgänger der späteren Ritterschaften und Ritterkantone, die ein charakteristisches Element des herrschaftspolitischen «Flickenteppichs» bildeten und erst im Zuge der napoleonischen Neuordnung Europas um 1800 verschwanden. Es lohnt sich deshalb mit Blick gerade auf die Staatlichkeit, diesen Adelsgesellschaften grössere Aufmerksamkeit zu schenken. Turnieren sind die eine Seite einer Adelskultur, die in anderer Hinsicht über genossenschaftliche Organisationen in Oberschwaben, am Bodensee, Hoch- und Oberrhein längerfristig Bestand hatte und im übrigen auch den Adel auf dem Gebiet der heutigen Schweiz einband.

Turniere und Turnierkultur

Das Schaffhauser Turnier von 1436 ist nicht der einzige Wettkampf, der in der Überlieferung deutlichere Spuren hinterlassen hat. Bekannt sind beispielsweise die «böse Fasnacht» 1376 oder der Schaukampf des spanischen Ritters Juan de Merlo 1428 in Basel. 1361 soll anlässlich des habsburgischen Lehenstages in Zofingen ein grosses Turnier stattgefunden haben, während 1368 zahlreiche Adlige und städtische Patrizier zu einem Ritterspiel nach Zürich kamen. Besonders häufig dokumentiert sind Wettkämpfe während des Konstanzer Konzils. Der Chronist Richental schildert etwa das bekannte Stechen zwischen Herzog Friedrich von Österreich und dem Grafen Friedrich von Cilli vom 20. März 1415, das von der Flucht von Papst Johannes XXIII. ablenkte. Er geht aber auch auf «Gestech» ein, die um Weihnachten 1415 für einen Ring als Auszeichnung veranstaltet wurden. Anfang März 1416 organisierte Pfalzgrafen Ludwig ein Stechen, an welchem drei Herzöge, sechs Grafen und viele Ritter und Knechte wie auch Konstanzer Patrizier teilnahmen, insgesamt 38 Helme. Anfang Dezember 1417 hielten verschiedene Herren auf dem Fischmarkt ein Stechen ab, und an Fasnacht 1418 beteiligte sich auch König Sigismund von Luxemburg «mit verbundenem Helm und mit kainem Wappen», also inkognito, erfolgreich an einem Turnier.

Fig. 2: Grünenberg Helmschau aus Faksimile.

Die von Richental jeweils knapp geschilderten Wettkämpfe waren wohl nur die Spitze des Eisbergs. Papst Johannes XXIII. rechtfertigte seine Flucht ausdrücklich mit der Belästigung durch Turniere, die mit «grossem Lärm und Trompetenschall» auf der Pfalz, vor den päpstlichen Gemächern stattfanden. Angeblich hatte König Sigismund diese Ritterspiele absichtlich dort veranstalten lassen, um den geistlichen Vater zu stören und zu schmähen. Dass der König ein begeisterter Turnierreiter war, steht ausser Zweifel, und die Anwesenheit zahlreicher Adliger begünstigte das Abhalten von Turnieren zum Zeitvertreib, auch wenn am 12. Februar 1415 ein an das Münster angebautes Haus einstürzte, weil sich allzu viele Leute darin aufhielten, um einem Stechen zuzuschauen.

Das Konstanzer Konzil bot dank der Anwesenheit verschiedener Fürsten den idealen Rahmen für solche spielerischen Wettkämpfe. Auch landesherrliche Hoftage beispielsweise der Habsburger, Wittelsbacher oder Württemberger brachten im Spätmittelalter die Gelegenheit zu einem sportlich-festlichen Zeitvertreib, wo das Turnier, eine Art Massenschlägerei, oder das Stechen zu Pferd von Tanz und Musik begleitet waren. Charakteristisch ist aber auch die städtische Bühne. Einzig das städtische Umfeld bot eine passende Infrastruktur für adlige Veranstaltungen, die eine mehrhundertköpfige Schar anziehen konnte und enorme logistische Bemühungen erforderlich machte. Für Städte bedeuteten solche Turniere eine besondere Attraktion, aber auch eine Gratwanderung zwischen Fest und Ausschweifung, geregeltem Kräftemessen und chaotischer Gewalt. Verhaltensregeln und bewaffnete Wächter suchten hier vorbeugend regulierend einzugreifen, konnten aber nicht verhindern, dass Tribünen oder gar Häuser einstürzten sowie Verletzte und Tote zu beklagen waren. Ritterspiele waren gefährliche Vergnügungen, die jedoch bis ans Ende des Mittelalters wesentlicher Bestandteil adliger und patrizischer Kultur blieben. Die fürstlichen Veranstaltungen stehen Seite an Seite mit genossenschaftlichen Turnieren, wo eine Adelsgesellschaft als Organisatorin auftrat und wo die Veranstaltung nicht auf einen Fürsten ausgerichtet war. Nach der spätmittelalterlichen Blütezeit dieser Gesellschaftsturnieren gehörte den fürstlichen Turnierfestlichkeiten die Zukunft.

Das genossenschaftliche Turnier von Schaffhausen

Wie ein solches genossenschaftliches Turnier ablief, erläutert anschaulich der spanische Bericht zum Turnier von 1436 in Schaffhausen: Nach dem Eintreffen der Kämpfer wurden am Sonntag deren Helme und Wappen öffentlich zur Schau gestellt. Am gleichen Tag kamen die Damen in Schaffhausen an und wurden von den Adligen in Begleitung von Musikern begrüsst. Am Abend spazierten die Adligen zuerst in Gruppen durch die Stadt, besichtigten den Turnierplatz und fanden sich später in einem repräsentativen Saal, wohl der Rathauslaube, zu einem grossen Fest zusammen. Der Montag war dem Probestechen gewidmet; anschliessend prüften die Damen an der Helmschau die Kämpfer. Wer der Teilnehmerschaft für nicht würdig befunden wurde, dessen Helm wurde entfernt oder gar auf den Boden gestossen. Danach erfolgte die Einteilung in zwei Gruppen. Ein erneuter, aber bescheidenerer und kürzerer Festabend beschloss diesen Tag. Am Dienstag fand dann das Turnier statt; dabei wurden Adlige wegen des Verstosses gegen den Verhaltenskodex gezüchtigt, allenfalls sogar auf die Schranke gesetzt. Der ein bis zwei Stunden dauernde Kampf fand mit einem Stechen eine Abschluss. Am Abend erfolgte im Rahmen eines Festes die Preisverleihung sowie die Ankündigung des kommenden Turnieres. Am Mittwoch ging die Schar wieder auseinander.

Der spanische Beobachter interessierte sich auffallend intensiv für ihm fremd erscheinende Aspekte wie die Kleidung der Damen oder die Art des Kampfes, insbesondere aber für die gesellschaftlich-disziplinierende Funktion eines Turnieres wie die Helmschau oder die Züchtigung am Turnier selbst. Wer unter dem Stand heiratete, wer sich «unadelig» verhielt oder die Interessen seiner Standesgenossen missachtete, wurde bestraft und mit Prügeln aus der Gemeinschaft ausgeschlossen. In Kastilien würden die Tapfersten gekürt, merkte der spanische Beobachter an, in Schaffhausen hingegen würden die Schlechtesten auf zweckmässige Art und Weise ihre Strafe empfangen. Damit spricht er eine Eigenheit an, die charakteristisch ist für die genossenschaftlichen Turniere. Der militärische Wettstreit verband sich mit Geselligkeit, wobei der Frage der Zugehörigkeit grosses Gewicht beigemessen wurde. Solche Turniere dienten nicht zuletzt der Definition von adliger Identität. Nicht ein fürstlicher Landesherr, sondern ein genossenschaftliches Kollektiv von mehr oder weniger gleichgestellten Adligen bestimmte über die Zulassung zu einem Turnier und damit über die Zugehörigkeit zu ihrer Gruppe. Der Rang allein spielte nur eine beschränkte Rolle. So wurde gemäss dem spanischen Berichterstatter gerade der Ranghöchste, wohl der Markgraf Wilhelm von Baden-Hochberg, abgestraft, weil er nicht mit seiner Frau zusammenlebte.

Turniere nahmen im adligen Selbstverständnis eine wichtige Stellung ein und boten Adelsgesellschaften eine ideale Bühne, sich und seinen Stand vor einem städtischen Publikum in Szene zu setzen. Die Definition eigener Werte und die Abgrenzung gegenüber «unadeligem» Verhalten gingen dabei Hand in Hand.

Die Ritterschaft zum St. Jörgenschild

Der Bericht von Schaffhausen geht zwar ausführlich auf das Turnier ein, verliert jedoch eigenartigerweise kein Wort über die Träger dieser Grossveranstaltung. Auf die Begeisterung von Sigismund für Ritterspiele wurde bereits hingewiesen, und tatsächlich lud der König 1433 zu einem Turnierhof in Schaffhausen ein, der möglicherweise nie stattfand. Weit wahrscheinlicher als eine nicht weiter belegbare königliche Initiative ist die Beteiligung einer regionalen Adelsgesellschaft, die dank königlicher Unterstützung in den 1420-/30er-Jahre eine erstaunliche Blütezeit erlebte – die Gesellschaft zum St. Jörgen- oder Georgenschild. Diese entstand 1406 in Zusammenhang mit den Appenzellerkriegen und bedeutete den Versuch, den Adel am Bodensee und in Schwaben zu einem politischen wie militärischen Bündnis zusammenzuschliessen. Gegen aussen vertrat die Gesellschaft die Interessen ihrer Mitglieder, gegen innen suchte sie allfällige Konflikte gütlich zu regeln.

Die Wahrung des Friedens im breitesten Sinn stand im Zentrum der Aktivitäten, die mit dem Zusammenbruch der habsburgischen Herrschaft 1415 akut wurden. Unter den führenden Vertretern des Jörgenschildes finden sich nach 1415 auffallend viele Adlige, die – durchaus mit Blick auf eigene Interessen – den König in seinem Kampf gegen Herzog Friedrich IV. von Österreich unterstützten. Dazu zählten beispielsweise Hans von Lupfen, Frischhans von Bodman, Johann von Tengen, die Truchsessen von Waldburg oder Hans von Homburg. Für sie bot die habsburgische Landesherrschaft zwar Karriere- und Bereichungsmöglichkeiten, aber auch die Gefahr einer allzu grossen Abhängigkeit. Umgekehrt setzte Sigismund von Luxemburg gerade auf solche ehrgeizigen Adligen, um den habsburgischen Rivalen auszumanövrieren, und förderte später diese Adligen als eine Art Reichsadel, indem er die genossenschaftlichen Bündnisse 1422 ausdrücklich anerkannte und den Adel 1431 in einem Erlass gegen die städtische Einbürgerungspolitik schützte. Der König und der schwäbische Adel standen sich in dieser Zeit inhaltlich wie personell so nahe wie nie mehr in der Geschichte; beide verfolgten dabei aber sehr wohl eigene Anliegen.

Fig. 3: 1549 Breitenlandenberg Stammheim, Trinkstube, Foto Peter Niederhäuserjpg.

Die Ritterschaft zum St. Jörgenschild, die sich in mehrere Teilgesellschaften im Raum zwischen dem Hegau und der Oberpfalz gliederte, war ein lockerer Zusammenschluss und blieb in ihrer Politik ausgesprochen flexibel. Die Wahrung des Landfriedens und der adligen wie wirtschaftlichen Interessen führte zu einer Annäherung an Städte. So bestanden nach 1422 Bündnisse mit Schaffhausen, Konstanz, Überlingen, Lindau, Wangen, Buchorn, Radolfzell oder Diessenhofen, und noch im ausgehenden 15. Jahrhundert wurden Kontakte zu den Reichsstädten nördlich des Bodensees gepflegt.

Fig. 4: Portal Radolfzell Ritterschaft Foto Peter Niederhäuser.

Wie weit sich Anspruch und Realität deckten, ist unklar. Die Adelsgesellschaft zum St. Jörgenschild blieb ein Zusammenschluss des nichtfürstlichen Adels, der immer nur auf Zeit bestand, nie eine Mehrheit des Adels einbeziehen konnte und auch nie straffere Strukturen auszubilden vermochte. Er profitierte nicht zuletzt vom Fehlen eines mächtigeren Landesherrn, der seine Macht auf Kosten des Adels durchgesetzt hätte, wie das Habsburg im Tirol gelang. Unbestritten ist jedoch die ständische Bedeutung solcher Organisationen: Auch wenn wir über Geselligkeit und Kultur so gut wie nichts wissen, waren die gemeinsamen Ziele wie auch die mit dem Georgenschild-Zeichen sichtbar gemachte Zugehörigkeit zu einer Gruppierung mit gemeinsamen Werten verknüpft. Regelmässige Zusammenkünfte, die Wahl von Hauptleuten oder auch häufige Schiedstage boten die Gelegenheit zu einer Stärkung dieser Identität. Diesem Zweck könnten auch Turniere und andere Festlichkeiten gedient haben. Gut möglich, dass der Jörgenschild an der Organisation der für Schaffhausen mehrfach belegten Turniere beteiligt, wenn nicht verantwortlich war.

Adel und Turnierwesen – von der Adelsgesellschaft zur Reichsritterschaft

Die Mitgliedschaft beim St. Jörgenschild war weder selbstverständlich noch exklusiv. Viele Angehörige der Ritterschaft gehörten auch anderen adeligen Vereinigungen im südwestdeutschen Raum an, so den Gesellschaften zum Leitbracken oder vom Fisch und Falken. Diese ebenfalls genossenschaftlich organisierten Gruppierungen widmeten sich hauptsächlich dem Turnierwesen und trugen ihrerseits zum adligen Selbstverständnis bei. Adelsgesellschaften kümmerten sich nämlich nicht allein um adelige Interessen, wie die Politik des St. Jörgenschildes deutlich machte, sondern bestimmten gleichzeitig adelige Identität. Die Blütezeit dieser Organisationen entsprach einer Blütezeit der Ritterspiele und einer Adelskultur, die erhöhte Ansprüche an den einzelnen Adligen stellte. Die Sanktionen gegen adlige «Abweichler» am Turnier von Schaffhausen 1436 sind kein Einzelfall, sondern finden sich regelmässig in den Quellen. Turniere nehmen damit über die militärische Ertüchtigung hinaus einen wichtigen Platz für das adlige Selbstverständnis ein. Es fällt nämlich auf, dass im ausgehenden Mittelalter der Zugang zu Turnieren zunehmend von Ahnenproben und der früheren Teilnahme von Familienangehörigen abhängig gemacht wurde. Wie weit das dynastische Bewusstsein solche Anforderungen überhaupt abdecken konnte, bleibt noch zu erforschen. Deutlich wird aber die Bedeutung von Turnierbüchern wie dem berühmten Werk von Georg Rüxner von 1530, der nicht nur Wettkämpfe bis ins 10. Jahrhundert zurückverfolgte, sondern auch gleich die Teilnehmer auflistete. Was aus historischer Sicht eine plumpe Fälschung ist, entsprach der Nachfrage eines Adels, der seinen Rang über solche Werke legitimierte und sich auf diese Weise eine passende Vergangenheit schuf.

Fig. 5: Stammbaum Hinwil Hohenlandenberg 1541 Ausschnitt, ZB Zürich.

Ritterturniere stehen damit für ganz unterschiedliche Bedeutungen: Wettkampf, Geselligkeit, aber auch Selbstvergewisserung eines Adels, der seinen Stellung sowohl von Seiten der Fürsten wie der Städte beziehungsweise städtischer Aufsteiger bedroht sah. Mit der genossenschaftlichen Organisation schuf sich der Adel eine autonome Institution, mit der Kontrolle über das Turnierwesens definierte er gleichzeitig Identität und Zugehörigkeit. Die Region an Bodensee und Hochrhein bot dank der Fragmentierung der Herrschaft gute Voraussetzungen für eine solche Adelskultur, die eine eigene Politik zwischen Städten und Fürsten verfolgte und letztlich auch behauptete. Auch wenn Habsburg nach der Katastrophe von 1415 seine Stellung wieder stärken konnte, blieben die Herrschaftsverhältnisse in Schwaben offen. Die Gesellschaft vom St. Jörgenschild und andere Adelsgesellschaften verloren zwar an Bedeutung, bestanden jedoch fort und gingen im 16. Jahrhundert in die Reichsritterschaft mit Ritterkreisen in Schwaben, Franken, am Rhein und im Elsass auf. Der Ritterkanton mit Sitz in Radolfzell setzte die genossenschaftliche Tradition fort, aber ohne entsprechende Turnierkultur. Die Erinnerung an adlige Vergangenheit und Ritterspiele blieb präsent, der finanzielle Aufwand für solche opulenten Inszenierungen dürfte allerdings das Festhalten an diesen exklusiven Veranstaltungen zunehmend verunmöglicht haben. Anders die Fürstenhöfe, die Turniere als Teil von reich ausgestalteten Hoffestlichkeiten pflegten. Nicht gemeinsame adlige Identität, sondern der fürstliche Glanz stand fortan im Zentrum einer Renaissancekultur, die dem kleinen Adligen bestenfalls eine Nebenrolle zugestand. «Adel» blieb zwar durchaus ein Leitbild, nach 1500 verschwinden aber Hinweise auf Turniere in den Städten am Hochrhein. Die sportlich-geselligen Wettkämpfe, die im 15. Jahrhundert ihre Blütezeit erlebten, gehörten rasch der Geschichte an, bestimmen jedoch bis heute die Wahrnehmung von Adel und Adelskultur.

Literatur und Quellen:

Der Beitrag stützt sich auf das Begleitbuch zur Schaffhauser Ausstellung: Ritterturnier. Geschichte einer Festkultur, hrsg. von Peter Jezler, Peter Niederhäuser und Elke Jezler, Quaternio Verlag Luzern 2014.

Weiterführende Literatur:

• Das ritterliche Turnier im Mittelalter. Beiträge zu einer vergleichenden Formen- und Verhaltensgeschichte des Rittertums, hrsg. von Josef Fleckenstein (Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 80), Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen 1985;

• Andreas Ranft: Adelsgesellschaften. Gruppenbildung und Genossenschaft im spätmittelalterlichen Reich (Kieler Historische Studien Band 38), Jan Thorbecke Verlag Sigmaringen 1994;

• Werner Paravicini: Die ritterlich-höfische Kultur des Mittelalters (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte Band 32), R. Oldenbourg Verlag München 1994.


Ritterturnier mit stumpfen Waffen


Helmschau: Knappen bringen die Helme in einen Raum, wo Damen und Herolde die Teilnehmer eines Turniers kritisch überprüfen. Rechts wird ein Helm

Wappenbuch des Konrad Grünenberg

Im Zeichen der beiden Gesellschaften vom St. Jörgenschild und vom Fisch und Falken: Wappenscheibe des Jakob von Breitenlandenberg, 1549, Gemeindehaus Unterstammheim (Kanton Zürich).

Foto Peter Niederhäuser

Ahnenprobe des Hans von Hinwil, 1541. Adelsfamilie mit Standbeinen in der Ostschweiz und in Oberschwaben.

Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Graphische Sammlung

Haus der Reichsritterschaft zum Jörgenschild in Radolfzell, frühes 17. Jh. (Foto Peter Niederhäuser, 2015)

Leading the Charge?: Leadership in war in late medieval Scottish burghs

Town governments in Scotland in the late medieval period were commonly dominated by a merchant elite who prioritised the stability, security and trading privileges of their burgh. A burgh council was usually led by an alderman, later known as a provost, and a number of burgh baillies (in Aberdeen there were four) elected annually. When the burgh was threatened, the aldermen and baillies took the lead in defensive preparations.[1] However, a brief entry from the council registers of the burgh of Aberdeen encourages an examination into the role these men played in offensive expeditions as well. The entry from 28th September 1485 noted that the town’s council elections for that year were to be delayed until ‘the aldirman and baillies that now ar[e] into thare officis… thare hamecuming fra the [h]oist quhilkis ar[e] now to pas[s] to the asseging [sieging] of berwick.’[2] Four days earlier an order had been proclaimed to tax the burgh inhabitants to cover the expenses of those who ‘passis to the asseging of berwick.’[3]

Fig. 1: Knight effigy in St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen – often attributed to be Robert Davidson but more likely to be the effigy of Alexander Chalmers, a close relative, probably the father, of the man elected as alderman in 1484. For more information see M. Cochrane Scott, ‘Dress in Scotland, 1406-1460’ (Unpublished PhD, University of London (Courtauld), 1987): 105.

Missing in Action?

Admittedly, further investigation suggests that the burgh officials’ involvement in conflict in 1485 may have been more limited than this extract initially implies. Very little is known about any action around Berwick, a town on the border between Scotland and England, that year. The town had been re-captured by the English in 1482 and an English Crown commission, dated 15th October 1485, warned that a Scottish attempt to retake Berwick was suspected.[4] However, wider evidence suggests that the threatened siege never materialised and Scottish resources were instead diverted to nearby Dunbar Castle which was re-taken by the Scots by mid-1486.[5]  Indeed, additional evidence from Aberdeen’s burgh records suggests that while the alderman and baillies may have left the burgh to go to the site of the gathering of a host it is unlikely they made it to Berwick. The burgh baillies were certainly present in the burgh court on 26th September and appear again to be present on the 3rd October, with the, only slightly delayed council elections, being held the following week.[6] With the option of travel by either sea or land, and the location of the hosting site in 1485 unclear, the possibility that the councillors did, at the very least, leave the burgh cannot be ruled out. However, the limited window of time available, combined with a lack of evidence for conflict around Berwick in 1485, makes any participation by an Aberdeen contingent in conflict that year highly unlikely.

Fig. 2: A section of an early seventeenth century map of Scotland, by Jodocus Hondius. Aberdeen and Berwick are both marked on the east coast of the map. Hosts for royal armies to fight England commonly mustered south of Edinburgh. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Taking the Lead?

What is clear, however, is that, in 1485, Aberdeen’s aldermen and baillies were expected to lead a representation from the town to war. Indeed, this is a view supported by wider evidence. In 1411, Aberdeen’s alderman, Robert Davidson, was killed at the battle of Harlaw while in 1547, two burgh baillies were granted an exemption from attending an army raised by the Scottish Regent but were expected to send their sons in their place. [7] Meanwhile the Edinburgh records make clear that in the early sixteenth century the burgh provost and baillies were all part of the force sent to the battlefield at Flodden in 1513, appointing interim office holders in their absence to maintain urban government.[8] This role for burgh leaders is perhaps not unexpected – all men within Scotland were, at least in theory, expected to fight in this period if required to by the monarch. However, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that those who led in urban communities in Scotland during times of peace were also expected to lead in times of war.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the SGSAH, and the UKRI, for their financial support for my PhD project from which this research is drawn.

[1] i.e. ACA/1/9, p. 294; ACA/1/12, p. 130.  

[2] E. Frankot, A. Havinga, C. Hawes, W. Hepburn, W. Peters, J. Armstrong, P. Astley, A. Mackillop, A. Simpson & A. Wyner (eds), Aberdeen Registers Online (ARO): 1398-1511 (Aberdeen, 2019) <> [22/02/2021].

ARO-6-0934-01. The individuals elected in 1484, were all re-elected as general council members in 1485 and either they, or a relative of the same name, held office as either an alderman or baillie again later in the 1480s or 1490s (ARO-6-0935-02; ARO-7-0079-04; ARO-7-0141-02; ARO-7-0465-02).

[3] ARO-6-0933-01.

[4] W. Campbell, Materials for a History of the Reign of Henry VII, Vol I (1865): 579.

[5] N. Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh, 2009): 200, 312; RPS 1484/2/31; A payment for the building of a boat from Berwick by the Scottish Exchequer was made in 1486, which may relate to the conflict. However, the context of the entry ensures this cannot be definitively proved (G. Burnett (ed.) The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland Vol IX (Edinburgh, 1886): 434).

[6] ARO-6-0933-01; ARO-6-0933-03, ARO-6-0934-02; ARO-6-0934-04.

[7] S. Boardman, ‘The Burgh and the Realm’ in E.P. Dennison, D. Ditchburn and M. Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002): 213; ACA/1/19: 222, 391.

[8] J. Marwick (ed.), Extract from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh Vol I 1403-1528 (Edinburgh, 1869): 142.

How Common Men Shall Be Armed: Equipment of the Common Soldier of England 1450 to 1500

By the second half of the fifteenth century, the martial equipment of the elite class of England was as impressive as it was encompassing. Enclosed in an expertly wrought suit of plate armour from head to toe the knight had never been so well defended. We have a fairly in-depth view of the types of equipment available to the elite warriors of this day as there are several complete harnesses remaining in collections such as those of Mantova and Churburg in Italy, and from a plethora of documentation such as the Hastings Manuscript f. 122b. In this manuscript, the author describes in great detail the armour and supplementary equipment needed to equip a man-at-arms, not only from head to toe but also in sequence. While the elite warrior of the day has been the focus of much research the common soldier typically gains less attention. Perhaps this is due to the rather simple equipment they utilized compared to the much more complex systems of armour that developed for the elite. As well much of the arms of common troops must have been used until its eventual disposal. While the man-at-arms was a crucial part of later medieval warfare other soldiers shared in the burden of war.

English military organization went through major developments throughout the late medieval period. The retinue system came to replace the outdated feudal summons of English knights and other soldiers with a more efficient system of contracted service allowing the king to create armies of soldiers that would fit his needs. While the feudal summons was relegated to near abandonment in England, the old system of the general levy and the more streamlined version of the Commission of Array continued to be used to create the bulk of many English armies. In this article, the martial equipment of commoners of 1450 to 1500 will be examined and the capacity they fulfilled. It will be divided between commoners as levied men by both rural and urban accounts, and last by exploring the types of equipment and soldiers that were used by men in a retinue of a great magnate. By looking at these three areas of recruitment a more complete view of how these common soldiers would have been armed can be made.

The Levy

The General Levy and Commission of Array all go back to the same concept. The right of the English king to demand military service from his male population was an ancient custom by the later medieval period, with evidence of this dating from Anglo-Saxon England and centuries before.[1] In 1495 Henry VII reasserted this right and stated that all men were required to be able to do service if required.[2] He also required that all men be adequately armed and armored to do this service.[3] This was nothing new; from the reign of Edward I on to his grandson Edward III’s reign increasingly heavier demands were required for the arms and armor the men of their kingdom possessed.[4] The use of commoners as soldiers had remained a mainstay through the entire medieval period and continued to be such into early modern times, in many ways intensifying. The king expected the men to be equipped for war but as revealed below the actual items used varied immensely.


Towns were a common recipient of demands for soldiers by the king. They also were charged to maintain their own martial forces, ready, and equipped. A review of such a force exists from the Town of Southampton in 1488. The Southampton Book of Fines 1488 to 1540 sheds light on the types of soldiers and equipment provided by townsmen.[5] This entry from the late fifteenth century is a summary of men present in total, troop types they represent, and their armaments, presumably for fines issued for men not present or lacking such equipment. Unfortunately, the opening page is now difficult to read, but that which is legible shows a large number of soldiers and martial equipment was indeed present in Southampton at that date.

The civic soldiers presented at the time are listed as 150 archers, 295 billmen, and 2 pikemen.[6] There is a possible addition that is hard to make out that appears to be gunners, which would add 17 gunners to the tally. This seems probable as the four wards listed have 120, 119, 75, and 156 men listed respectively, totaling some 470 people, and when listed by troop type there are 464 men listed. With the numbers matching so closely, the addition of 17 gunners seems to fit into the total numbers nicely. That said, traditionally in Southampton, there was a fifth ward which would indicate that these numbers were actually higher than recorded.

Fig. 1: © British Library Board. London, The British Library, The Holkham Bible 1327-1335, Additional 47682 f. 40.

Along with these categories of soldiers and the number of men per ward, there are a number of items listed. These include habergeons, harnesses, jacks, bills, pikes, handguns, and half pikes. Of these most are clear enough to make out with certainty: 23 habergeons, 162 harnesses, 9 jacks, 134 bows, and 120 pikes. The numbers of bills, handguns, and half pikes are difficult to make out entirely. There appear to be at least 200 bills and around 10 handguns, sadly half pikes are simply illegible. In all cases, there are more men listed in the specific soldier category than arms, except for pikes which may make up for the discrepancy with only 2 pikemen and 120 pikes.As well, there is a category under equipment that is difficult to identify though there are 107 of them. If the current trends in such reviews are in common, then they are perhaps sallets as it is an item consistently found in such documents, but conspicuously missing from this one. At times sallets may be included under harnesses as well, which is another possibility.

There are several phenomena that can be seen here. First, a rather large number of the men present had some form of arms. As far as we can ascertain all men could be provided with a weapon. As well many were armored, at least 42% having some form of armour, mostly ‘harnesses.’ Lastly, if archery was still of importance to English armies Southampton has a rather small proportion of them with only roughly a third being archers. This document, while difficult to decipher, indicates a large number of men largely readied for war with both arms, and to a lesser extent, armour demonstrating what may have been present in the town in the late fifteenth century.

There are some other variables to consider as well. There is significant evidence that the town of Southampton owned arms and armour to equip their townsmen. The steward’s inventory in 1468 lists one linen banner with the king’s arms, another unidentified, three old poleaxes, six lead mallets, five pavises, and rusty, broken harnesses.[7] Not only do we have a list of objects but specific examples of such objects being lent out. John Payn of Southampton bought several brigandines in 1470 for the town armoury.[8] In 1481 the town paid to have three loads of weapons brought from Christopher Ambroise’s house for town use.[9] In March 1484, Henry Brathwayte, one of the collectors of the king’s customs, borrowed a pair of brigandines from town.[10] On the last day of March, Robert Wilson was loaned a pair of brigandines and a sallet.[11] So in addition to the equipment personally possessed by the townsmen from the 1488 review, they also would have been reinforced with equipment from the town which would improve the numbers above.

While these documents are useful to see general arms and types of soldiers provided by urban bodies, individual inventories can give an enhanced view of the types of equipment owned by a single citizen-soldier. York was another important city of England and a frequent provider of soldiers for the armies of the king. We have an excellent source for the types of arms and armour of the men of York in the form of the Probate Inventories of the York Diocese.

From this document, the types of arms and armour the citizens of York possessed are demonstrated. The inventories range from the Archbishop of York, William Bothe, who died in 1464 and owned a fairly large cache of arms and armour, to those with arms only sufficient for themselves such as Thomas Kirkeby. From a total of fifteen inventories which included arms, seven have supplies of arrows but only four have bows. There were fifteen axes present, five swords listed, four knives, and two baselards. Of pole weapons eight bills and two pikes were reported. Regarding defensive armour, there were two bucklers and one shield, nine men had jacks, and seven had sallets. Only two men, Robert Fawcett and John Carter, had any plate armour outside a helmet listed and these were elbow defenses for Robert and a pair of splints for John. With the civic promotion of all men having sallets and jacks, it is surprising that about a third of these accounts lack jacks and half lack sallets.

Fig. 2: © British Library Board. London, The British Library, The Holkham Bible 1327-1335, Additional 47682 f. 29.

Upon looking at these specific examples a few trends are drawn into focus. Few were as heavily armed as a man-at-arms, with most owning little or no plate armour. This is curious compared to Southampton, which had far more harnesses, presumably of plate of some type as their review included both mail and jacks. As well, the lack of sallets in both York and Southampton is interesting as the head is so vulnerable. This may be due to the small sample size of York’s accounts. As for Southampton, as the document is difficult to read we cannot be certain if sallets were originally listed or not. One deduction is that some citizen-soldiers possessed more arms than they could use themselves.

The leading example of a man with far more martial equipment than could be used personally would be William Bothe, Archbishop of York: fourteen jacks, thirty-seven sallets, eighteen handguns, and twenty sheaves of arrows (c.480 arrows).[12] But his was not an isolated case. Robert Fawcette, a pewterer, had a bill, a Carlisle axe, two swords, a variety of arrows, a black quiver with various arrows, seven broad head arrows, a pair of plate elbow defences, doublet, yellow staff, and a shield.[13] Thomas Vicar possessed three axes, two slaughtering axes, an iron pike, and a bill.[14] Richard Symson is reported to have had five old battle axes, three Normandy bills, two broken bills, and an old worn sallet.[15] John Stubbes, a barber, had two bows, and arrows for them.[16] These men possessed more equipment than could possibly have been used by an individual. The Archbishop alone could have armed all the people included in these probate inventories with his jacks, sallets, guns, and arrows. Yet even men of lesser means such as Robert, Thomas, Richard, and John had enough weapons to provide for themselves in a fashion as well as others. Thomas Vivar with a total of five axes, a pike, and bill, or Richard Symson with five axes and five bills, could have provided arms for a half dozen men or more each. And even though bows are lacking in number it is probable archery still played a major part of the town’s military activity as about half the people of these fifteen had archery equipment, especially arrows.

Most men seemed to have had arms largely for themselves. Jack Carter is an excellent example of a man who seems to have been equipped as an individual. Jack Carter, a tailor by trade, had a jack, doublet, sallet, pair of splints, a dagger, baselard, sword, arrows, and a bow maker (a tool to bend the bow used in the shaping process).[17] We see several other examples of men with equipment for themselves including Thomas Kirkeby with a bow, arrows, and jack[18]; John Gaythird, a husbandman, with an axe and bill[19]; John Jakson, a husbandman, with sallet, bow, dozen arrows, Carlisle axe, and pike staff [20]; John Jackson, son of John a husbandman, with jack, bow, and arrows[21]; William Gale owned a sword, jack, and buckler[22]; John Brown with three knives, two battle axes, doublet, and sallet[23]; Jacubus Lune had a sword, buckler, and sallet[24]; Thomas Symson, a parson, had a doublet, sword, and small baselard[25]; and John Stevynson a jack and Sallet[26]. Although no doubt there is a wide variety of equipment owned by these men, these inventories paint a picture of how a common man might have been armed for war.

We can gain further information by examining some of York’s civic documents. York not only enforced the king’s demands for the proper armaments of war but created their own as well.[27] In one example, the minimal required arms and armour are set forth as, “All men in wards should have a jak, salet, bow, arrows and other defensive weapons.”[28] Although rules were created, we don’t know how well the town abided by them. Sadly, we have no muster from this period but we do have other information. With a larger sample of townsmen, the general trends found above might change substantially, but given the information available, the individual townspeople and their inventories give some idea as to how they may have been equipped at least minimally. As we saw before in Southampton, York also helped to equip their troops.[29]


From the villages of England came many thousands of soldiers throughout this period. As the bulk of the population of most European states was rural, it was an invaluable resource for the masses that would fill the ranks of medieval armies. Employed here are two examples of men that would have been raised in this manner. The first is from 1457 at Bridgeport, Dorset County, and the second from c. 1480 in Ewelme, Oxfordshire. Here can be seen the types of soldiers, probable equipment and trends relating to commoners from rural environments of this time.

As Dr. Richardson points out the Bridgeport muster was in response to a commission of array originally ordered in 1453-1454.[30] The muster of Bridgeport included 201 people though not all are legible. Of the 201, some 119 have equipment listed, though 82 have nothing listed. Offensive equipment listed comprises 114 bows, many arrows, 69 swords, 64 daggers, 11 glaives, 10 pollaxes, 10 axes, 5 spears, 3 bills, 3 heavy maces, 2 staves, and 1 hanger. Defensive equipment included 74 sallets, 67 jacks, 27 bucklers, 23 pavises, 4 pairs of gauntlets, 3 mail shirts, 2 brigandines, 2 complete armours, 1 set of leg armour, and 1 cuirass.[31] Of the 119 that appear, it is apparent that some were well-equipped and others had more modest protection.

A few examples demonstrate how a man from the rural environs of England may have appeared. John Cye had come to the muster well provided for with a jack, sallet, sword, dagger, glaive, bow, and two sheaves of arrows. One unknown man brought a full suit of armour with two jacks, two sallets, two bows, two daggers, and two sheaves of arrows.[32] Here it is probable that he was either bringing an extra in case his bow broke or to provide for another man arrayed alongside him.

Several points should be made examining this, first that many had no equipment. Out of 201, 82 were unequipped at all, fully 40% of the men present. Only a third had jacks and 37% had sallets. It is possible that the arrayers would have been required to outfit them for conflict though. A second assertion is that even though there was a great degree of variation, from no equipment to fully equipped, archery was of great importance. There were 114 bows from the 119 armed men present, enough to equip 95% of them with arms and 60% of the total number. Perhaps the most surprising finding is the lack of pole weapons, especially bills with only three.

From the review of arms of Ewelme in Oxfordshire and several surrounding villages in 1480, we can see another such example. The listing of men (including constables) includes about 100 men. Of these, we can only assess the armaments of 30  by looking at their designation of archers or billmen. Of these thirty men, eighteen were archers, six were billmen, five had staves and one had an axe. As the majority of the entries simply state ‘men,’ it is probable that archers, billmen, and other soldiers make up this group of unidentified commoners. If the pattern for these 30 men carried over, the unaccounted 70 men were mostly archers. From this muster, as before, we can see the continued focus on archery. Of the 30 men where details are given fully 60% are archers. And of the total group there are listed 46 in harness. With 46% with some armour, this is actually one of the higher percentages of armored men we have examined here between the urban and rural men raised.

This muster is vague in details of the equipment and the types of soldiers provided for most entries. Even the term ‘harness’ is complicated as some are listed as full harnesses in the first entries, but the latter are simply stated as harnesses, present or not. One example from this muster is Richard Slythurst who has a harness and a bow, and another being John Holme with a ‘hole’(whole) harness and a bill. An obvious question raised by this is: what is the difference between a ‘harness’ and a ‘whole harness’ in this document? We can assume a whole harness is more complete protection than simply a ‘harness’ but to what standard? A full plate harness? Head-to-toe protection of textile and iron elements combined? What does that mean of those listed with simply a harness then? Does that include a jack and sallet, or a brigandine and/or jack and sallet? As most simply are listed as to whether their harness is present or not, what do these 46 people actually have as far as armour? So while the document provides excellent information on the types and proportions of troops raised and some of their equipment, there are still a number of unanswered questions.

One other interesting example of the types of equipment common soldiers may have possessed is from a rebellion in the mid-fifteenth century. During the Jack Cade rebellion of 1451 in the Southeast of England, thousands of commoners rose up against the government. Following years of loss in the Hundred Years War, including all English possessions in France but parts of Gascony and Calais, people in several counties in the Southeast began attacking various targets, especially those with links to unpopular government offices. A number of royal records account for these attacks and in addition to  numbers and at times names of men listed as assailants their equipment is often listed as well. One account from this event in Kent states the men were, “armed with staves, bows, arrows, shirts of mail, defensive doublets, battle-axes, briganders, scythes, salets, iron caps, longbills (longis rostris) and other arms”[33] and “swords, ‘jakkes,’ salets, bows and arrows.”[34] Another account from Essex states perhaps summarily that the assailants were “armed with swords, staves, bows, arrows, jakkes and palets,”[35] From such a document we can see a large variety and some of the types of weapons and armour that had disseminated amongst commoners from the beginning of the second half of the fifteenth century. Although the percentages of troop types are not available, this is still palpable evidence that these citizen soldiers were present and armed as listed above.

The Retinue

Retinues were the other major method of raising troops for English kings of the later medieval period. For offensive actions, the retinue was a very valuable means for the king to raise a specific number of soldiers or desired varieties for a specific duration of time. In these contracts, it is clear the king expected these men to be well-armed and armored, which would provide better-equipped troops. Retinues could range from a few archers and the contracted knight or man-at-arms, to archers numbering in the hundreds or more. Larger retinues were often made up of smaller retinues merging into larger ones. A good example of this is from the campaign of 1475.

George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV had one of the largest retinues of the campaign to France in 1475. It incorporated some 120 men-at-arms and 1000 archers.[36] This force was made of smaller units under contract to the Duke of Clarence. One such example was John Archer, esquire. On February 28, 1475, he contracted to serve George, Duke of Clarence, with himself as a man-at-arms and provide three archers. These four men made up John’s retinue and many of these smaller groups together created the 120 men-at-arms and 1000 archers. Something also of interest is that it is stated in the indenture that the archers would be “wele and suffisantly abled, armed and araied.”[37] The strong emphasis on archery remains constant but also provides the means to create such large forces with higher percentages of better equipped men by contract.

One excellent document to see the types of equipment that such men in these retinues may have been equipped with is the Howard House Books. This collection is the accounts of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Lord Admiral of England. Jacks, brigandines, sheaves upon sheaves of arrows, sallets, bows, knives, swords, spears, bills, doublets de fence, mail standards, cuirasses, harnesses, arm armour, gorgets (of steel), greaves, bolts for crossbows, guns, pavises, darts, and other objects show up in Howard’s accounts.[38] Many of these are in large volumes, sallets, brigandines, standards of mail, jacks, bows, and sheaves of arrows being found in the dozens in the ledgers. One entry lists three chests of arrows alone.[39]

It is evident Howard equipped his retainers for his service with these armaments. In 1463-1464 there are a few interesting examples of this process. In one instance there is the provision of ten bows along with twenty sheaves of arrows for his armed retainers. At the same time, John Strawenge is given a brigandine, a standard of mail, a bow, and a sallet with a visor, more or less fully equipping him. One Throston Par is lent a jack, brigandine, and a sallet with visor.[40] Will Hervy received a doublet of fence but already owned his own sallet with visor so he did not need to borrow that equipment.[41] As well the author of the entries includes whether they are on their own horse or not, indicating the duke often has to provide horses. As can be seen, the great magnates of the land could equip many troops at need but it appears to have been to supplement items the retinue soldiers lacked to become ”wele and suffisantly abled, armed and araied” as seen above. Archery once again has a great focus for retinues of the period in these examples. It also appears that the retinues were indeed better equipped than their levied counterparts, for the most part having a higher percentage of well-equipped men to urban or civic soldiers, though in many of these cases lent by the contract captain.


Several phenomena can be seen from these various examples. One is that there were many sources of soldiers available for English kings and nobles. Kings could draw upon towns, villages, and lords to raise armies for their various needs but that does not mean they were all equal in quality. This inequality probably would lead to utilizing soldiers by specific troop type.

From these few examples, archers are obviously important but not overwhelmingly so in all cases. The Southampton review of 1488 shows of the total men present only around a third are archers. While perhaps not indicative of all English towns, Southampton’s proportion of archers compared to the rural musters is a major difference, with roughly half what the Bridgeport and Ewelme had, proportionately. Additionally, the retinues of 1475 also greatly favor archers, with John Archer’s retinue being 75% archers, and that of George Duke of Clarence’s being 88% archers. That said it has been argued that the campaign of 1475 was not characteristic of warfare in the last decades of the fifteenth century. However, we have evidence when reviewing Lord Howard’s accounts that archers made up a large part of the common soldiers in retinues well into the end of the fifteenth century.

What is perhaps surprising is the lack of larger numbers of men with pole/staff weapons in rural environs. In towns such as Southampton and York, pole weapons appear commonly among the examples above, around two-thirds of the Southampton examples being billmen. At Bridgeport, the total staff weapons (bills, spears, pole axes, and more) made up only 10% of the total weapons present. The Ewelme muster indicates roughly a third had pole weapons. Retinues archers do seem of great importance but there are also a number of bills and spears that appear so it is probable that some men of the retinues fought as non-missile infantry troops.

Another consideration is the equipment these men possessed. As far as documented men in harness, the 100 of Ewelwe are the best armoured of those levied with 46%, though by comparison it appears Southampton and Bridgeport were not far behind. While this holds true for armour, Southampton by far has the most arms present numerically, by the percentage they are roughly the same as Bridgeport. With Ewelme we have no finite number. In all cases, arms matched or came close to the number of men present, though many men owned more than one weapon. That said the information from the retinues above indicates all men were expected to be armoured and armed in actuality, not just theory, which indicates that the retinues would have provided a significant number of well-armoured soldiers. Men such as John Strawenge, Throston Par, and Will Hervy were armed with weapons and armour to be well suited for the war of the day. In all these cases there probably were sufficient weapons for all present, though armour seemed to have been lacking for a significant number of the non-retinued soldiers especially. It is worth adding though that the captain they took a contract with did much in providing their military equipment to be fully armed. It is possible that the town and counties provided some degree of equipment to the levied soldiers as well. Though it is unclear how well these levied soldiers were arrayed by the town or county, we have indisputable evidence for retinues of the great lords being very well equipped in this fashion.

One of the most interesting aspects of this research has been seeing the types of equipment commoners owned or were able to access. We can see that men that were from urban or rural levies or in retinues all might possess similar types of armour and arms. Bows, bills, axes pikes, swords, daggers, and other arms seem to have been ‘common’ weapons for ‘common’ soldiers. While it appears to be more common for men in retinues to have been better equipped, men like Jack Carter from York, John Holme of Ewelme, and others could be well-armed and equipped with arms and armour. It is also apparent that some were like the 82 from the Bridgeport Muster, men like Thomas Chere, who showed up with no equipment at all. So in the end, one could be from a retinue or levy and be armed well or even very well, but on the other end of the spectrum, a retinue soldier would be equipped with some form of armour while those of the levied men may not have had any at all.

While commoners often are looked at as being unimportant or a simple rabble of poor, this research shows that is an overly simplistic view. Although there may have been some that closely fit the stereotype of a peasant with torch and pitchfork, there were others that were very much equipped with arms and armour that would have been satisfactory for their required duties. As thousands upon thousands of the soldiers that made up armies from 1450-1500 in England were from this social group and played a vital role in wars, it is well that most were adequately prepared.

Recommended Bibliography:

Claude Blair, European armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London: Cambridge Press, 1958)

Peter M. Konieczny ,”London’s war effort during the early years of the reign of Edward III “, in The Hundred Years War : a wider focus, ed. Andrew Villalon and Donald Kagay  (Boston: Brill, 2005) pp. 243-61 (pp. 244-248).

Clifford J. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives through History: The Middle Ages (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2007)

Thom Richardson, “The introduction of plate armour in medieval Europe”, in Medieval Warfare 1300–1450 , ed. Kelly DeVries (London: Routledge, 2010) pp. 441-46 (pp. 441-43).

Thom Richardson, The Tower Armoury in the Fourteenth Century (Leeds: Royal Armouries, 2018)

[1] Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1288-1296, p. 439; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1296-1302, pp. 112, 388 and 395; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1302-1307, p. 86; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward II 1313-1318, pp. 122 and 201; Calendar of Patent Rolls of Edward II 1324-1327, p. 219; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward III 1343-1346, p. 450; Calendar of Patent Rolls of Edward III 1343-1345, p. 427; Statutes of the Realm volume 1 ( London: 1963), p. 259.

[2] Statute of the Realms volume 1, p. 336.

[3] York House Books volume 1, ed. by Lorraine Attreed (Avon, 1991), p. 381.

[4] Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1288-1296, p. 439; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1296-1302, p. 112, 388, 395; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1302-1307, p. 86.

[5] Southampton Books of Fines, 1488-1540, SCA 5/1, f. 1 and The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, vol. 1 1488-1540, ed. by Cheryl Butler, Southampton Record Series 41 (Southampton: 2007). 

[6] Unfortunately the number of archers listed is very difficult to read. Over the years I have looked this manuscript page over many times and am fairly confident there are three letters, the first being C and the last L. The middle is very hard to decipher as it is nearly non-existent under special lights or with digital manipulation. Thought if I, V or X it changes the number very little if it were a C it would be far more significant. It may be there that were no other letters and that it is simply CL. Cheryl Butler thought they were two X’s but with the UV lights I am fairly confident the letters are C?L.

[7] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1467-1468, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 34.

[8] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1470-1471, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 1.

[9] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1481-1482, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 19.

[10] The Books of Remembrance of Southampton 1485-1563 vol. 3, ed. by Harry W. Gidden, Southampton Record Society 30 (Southampton: 1930), p.3.

[11] Ibid, p.3.

[12] The Probate Inventories of the York Diocese, ed. byP.M. Stell and L. Hampson (York, 1998), p 133.

[13] Probate Inventories, pp. 58, 129 & 130.

[14] Probate Inventories, p. 101

[15] Probate Inventories, pp. 181-182.

[16] Probate Inventories, p. 97.

[17] Probate Inventories, p. 160.

[18] Probate Inventories, p. 157.

[19] Probate Inventories, p. 180.

[20] Probate Inventories, p. 134.

[21] Probate Inventories, p. 135.

[22] Probate Inventories, pp. 143-144.

[23] Probate Inventories, p. 147

[24] Probate Inventories, p. 168.

[25] Probate Inventories, p. 177.

[26] Probate Inventories, p. 186.

[27] L. Attreed, House Books I, p. 381.

[28] L. Attreed, House Books II, p. 662.

[29] L. Attreed, House Books II, pp. 551 and 662.

[30] Thom, Richardson, “The Bridgeport Muster of 1457”, Royal Armouries Yearbook 2 (1997)p. 1. Thom Richardson’s translation of the Bridgeport muster provides the most current version of this document.

[31] T. Richardson, “Bridgeport”, p. 1.

[32] T. Richardson, “Bridgeport”, p. 2.

[33] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452,  p. 453.

[34] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452, p. 469.

[35] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452,  p. 503.

[36] M.A. Hicks, Bastard Feudalism (New York:1995), p. 190

[37] ER 3/667, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

[38] Howard House Books: The Household Books of John Howard 1425-1485, Volumes 1 and 2, ed. by Anne Crawford (Avon: 1992).

[39] Howard House Book vol 1, p. 440.

[40] Howard House Books vol 1, p. 195.

[41] Howard House Books vol. 1, p. 444.


The Smithfield Tournament of 1467

The tournament at Smithfield took place in June 1467 between Antoine ‘the Great Bastard’ of Burgundy, illegitimate son of Philip the Good, and Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, brother-in-law to king Edward IV.[1] Four records survive, two of which are from the English perspective, and two Burgundian. They are written by Thomas Whiting, Chester Herald (A), an anonymous Burgundian (B), the chronicler Olivier de La Marche (C), and Robert Fabyan a London merchant (D).[2] Together they detail how the tournament was a kind of hybrid of the evolving Low Countries and English tournament traditions, as well as providing a blueprint of a large-scale tournament in an urban centre in England. Descriptions of the physical arena and the locations of other festivities associated with the event illustrate how the tournament mapped out within the city landscape.

                English tournaments generally took place at royal residences or beyond the boundaries of urban centres and were usually hosted or organised by royalty for the aristocracy.[3] This contrasted tournaments across Burgundy and the Low Countries which, prior to the mid-fifteenth century, frequently took place in market squares in towns such as Bruges, Lille and Brussels and heavily involved the urban population and merchant classes.[4] From 1450 the Low Countries, much of which was now part of Burgundy, began to adopt the more exclusive practices of English tournaments.

The 1467 event embraces aspects of both traditions. It took place in a London market at Smithfield which was made up of inns, brew houses and large tenements with pens for livestock on market days.[5] However, it was also considered a boundary area, more typical of English tournament venues, as the market lay outside the city walls.[6] The event also involved the lower classes and broader population of London, a move away from the usual exclusivity amongst the aristocracy and a lean towards the earlier Low Countries’ practices of bringing together the nobility and working classes. For example, at Smithfield the sheriffs were responsible for erecting the barriers to mark out the arena and the lists and the Mayor and other nobles and commoners were given special viewing stands around and opposite the king. There is also mention of a banquet arranged by king Edward at the residence of the Grocers, the merchant Company of Grossers, located on Princes Street.[7]

Fig.1: Detail of a miniature of a joust between Nicholas Clifford and a Frenchman, showing the tournament arena marked out with wooden barriers and with fabric-covered spectator stands. © British Library Board, Royal 14 E IV, f. 81
Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques et anciennes istoires de la Grant Bretaigne
France, N. E. (Lille?) and Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c.1470-1480.

Despite involving the city, the Smithfield tournament must be described as a hybrid event as it remained, largely, an aristocratic enterprise.[8] No merchants, alderman or sheriffs are mentioned by name at any of the martial combats or other festivities. Even during the episode at the Grocers’ residence, there is only mention of the king, queen, lady Margaret and other members of the aristocracy (B).[9] Festivities also took place at more exclusive venues, such as a banquet held at the Duchess of Exeter’s residence (B), a mansion situated on the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge.[10] Many of the feasts and banquets also took place at Westminster Palace, in keeping with the English tradition of hosting tournament events at royal residences. Other locations are recorded as landmarks for meetings, feasts and masses. These situate the event across the wider city, and highlight places associated with the nobility. The Great Bastard is described as lodging at Chelsea (B), attending mass at both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey (B) as well as using the Tower of London (A) and Westminster Bridge (B) as landmarks for meetings and ceremonial processions.

The four texts also provide a blueprint for the set up within Smithfield marketplace.  Lord Scales and the Great Bastard each had an entrance to the arena halfway down the length of the barrier, facing one another (B).[11] Both participants had a pavilion (A, B and C).[12] On the east side (B) of the arena was the king’s stand (A, B and C). There were stands around the king for lords and nobles, and other nobles and commoners nearby (A, B and C) and on the opposite side of the arena, facing the king, was a stand for the Mayor of London (B and C). Beyond the arena the surrounding buildings had their windows open for spectators (B). At the south end of the arena were spectators associated with the Great Bastard (B) and Lord Scales approached from the West, where the Church of St Bartholomew was situated (A). This gives the reader a clear image of how the marketplace was set up for the combat elements of the tournament.

In conclusion, the four accounts provide a record of how a large-scale tournament event took place within the urban centre of London, both the set-up of the arena and notable landmarks which were used for other festivities. Like the earlier tournaments taking place in Burgundy and the Low Countries, London’s population was involved in the organisation, execution, spectating and festivities of the event whilst the aristocracy still retained some spatial distance within their urban mansions and palaces.

[1] For an overview of the event see Sydney Anglo, ‘Anglo-Burgundian Feats of Arms: Smithfield, June 1467’, Guildhall Miscellany, vol. 2, no. 7 (September 1965), 271-283.

[2] Robert Fabyan, Great Chronicle of London, ed. by A. H. Thomas and I. D. Thornley (London, 1938), pp.203-4); Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires, ed. by H. Beaune and J. D’Arbaumont (Paris, 1883-88), III, pp.48-56; Thomas Whiting, Excerpta Historica, ed. by Samuel Bentley (London, 1833), pp.176-212; ‘Jousts of my lord Antoine Bastard of Burgundy done in England [1467], (fols 44r -72v)’, in The Medieval Tournament: Chivalry, Heraldry and Reality An Edition and Analysis of Three Fifteenth-Century Tournament Manuscripts, ed. by Ralph Moffatt, 2010, pp. 92-94, 304-331.

[3] Mario Damen, ‘Tournament Culture in the Low Countries and England’, in Contact and Exchange in Later Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of Malcolm Vale, eds. Hannah Skoda, Patrick Lantschner and R.L.J. Shaw (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012), pp. 247-266, p.253.

[4] Damen, pp.250, 253.

[5] Stowe, John, A Survey of London. Reprinted from the text of 1603, ed., C. L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1908), pp.28-33.

[6] Damen, p.253.

[7] The Company of Grossers of London dealt in spices and other goods,

[8] There is also an argument that the purpose of the tournament was to further an Anglo-Burgundian alliance and marriage negotiations between Charles the Bold and Edward IV’s sister Margaret. However, this is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[9] The anonymous Burgundian author includes a list of the ladies present but these are all titled women.

[10] The Duchess of Exeter was Edward’s sister Anne, married to the exiled Henry Holland.

[11] The market place is described as ’a park made with a double list one hundred and eight paces long and seventy-two wide’ (B), Moffat, p.317. Dimensions of the lists and barriers are also given in text A, Excerpta Historica, pp. 199, 203.

[12] Although both pavilions are mentioned, only Lord Scales‘s is given a location, described in the southeast corner (A), Excerpta Historica, p.205.

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