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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arming the citizens : a crossbow distribution inventory

Like other towns in the Holy Roman Empire, Fribourg relied on its citizens to defend its walls during war. Moreso, possessing enough military equipment was essential for its inhabitants. The town itself stored a large quantity of small arms and armour in its arsenals, which had to be distributed to fighters during sieges and before military expeditions. To be able to retrieve the distributed weapons, the municipal authorities produced weapon inventories to trace the lent items. In this article, such an inventory will be presented, one which was written during the war against Savoy in 1447-1448.

Since 1440, Savoy and Fribourg (which was under Habsburgian authority) had contentious economic and diplomatic relations. The situation escalated in 1445, when Savoy closed its border to merchants from Fribourg, after 4000 florins were stolen from a papal envoy by a Habsburgian vassal. To prevent economic disaster, Fribourg prepared itself for war by raising an extraordinary tax, buying artillery, and distributing weapons to the male population. In December 1447, Fribourg attacked several Savoyan villages. However, the war turned in favour of Savoy, as they secured an alliance with Bern. Attacked on both sides, Fribourg surrendered in July 1448 and became a Savoyan subject in 1452[1].

On May 9th, 1447, a crossbow distribution took place in the town and the surrounding countryside. 443 people received – for the most part – a crossbow, with a quiver and a dozen bolts. A 12 folios long inventory was produced to keep track of each item, so that the city could retrieve them after the war. The inventory is not the only list in the main document, as the scribes wrote it after a series of other weapons and ammunition inventories. This type of documents was thus a work document, as the numerous annotations and marks show.

Fig. 1: AEF, Affaires Militaires, I-7, fol. 5r. Circles and crosses indicate that the inventory was updated later after the first writing.]

To illustrate this, the inventory’s first folio is transcribed here:

« Cy contient per escript le delyvrance de l’atilliement de messegniour de la ville de Fribor, delivree per la main de Hensly d’Englisberg et de Glaudo d’Autignie. Ordoney per messegniour le dilon apres feste Sainte Croyx en may l’an mil cccc xlvi.

o Item Jorgoz d’Englisperg ·i· arbelester por son garson riset et tot sen qui appertien mex Gorgo, ·vi· pfil, i wind.

l+ Primo Jacob d’Englisperg le Jone a· receuz ·una· dozaine de karre· bon und ein krieg winden me xii pfil guot, i totzen pfil.

o+ Item Hensly Ferwer a receuz ·i· dozaina de karre bon.

o+ Item Piero ·und· Johan Mossu hatt ·ii· tozen pfil der besten.

+ Item Jacob Fogilli hat ·i· arbrest núw mit ein krieg (i wind), ·i· totzen pfil mex ·i· wind.

o+ Item Williemoz Chaste hat ein krieg wind mex una arbelestaz, une foure et xv ·flotze per l’avoie […], i karkey.

Item Piero Perrotet hat ein krieg wind und ein arbrest.

Item Glaudo d’Autignie hat ein arbrest mit der hulft und ein krieg, ·ein· hulft totzen pfil ein kocher lidrin.

Item Williemo Stadler a· xii flotze bone.”

The crossbows – as well as firearms and armour − were preserved in the courthouse (salle de justice), situated in the city centre near St Nicholas cathedral. In 1465, this building stocked 332 crossbows, 36 maille armours, 145 helmets, 61 pairs of arm protections and 46 pairs of gauntlets. Bigger items – such as cannons – were stored in the city arsenal or on the fortifications.

Other documents preserved in Fribourg’s state archives give more insights in the citizens’ military involvement. For example, it is possible to identify the socio-economical level of some of the persons cited in the crossbow inventory, thanks to a tax book written in 1445, which gives the wealth of individual citizens. In preparation for the war against Savoy, about 3150 households were taxed (represented generally by a male member), each on 1% of their wealth. Thus, it is simple to calculate one’s total wealth. On an economical level, Fribourg’s society can be divided into three classes: a relatively large lower class (25 pounds or under of wealth, 704 households), a large middle class (25,1 to 1000 pounds of wealth, 2256 households) and a small upper class (1000,1 to 40000 pounds of wealth, 190 households). The gap between the extremes in wealth was massive, as the wealthiest citizen in Fribourg owned 1600 times more than the poorest. However, this gap was not considered during the crossbow distribution. Indeed, like citizens from the lesser classes, upper class citizens could receive military material to defend the city. For example, the donzel Jacob d’Englisberg (member of the upper class, with a wealth of 14700 pounds in 1445[2]) received bolts and a war cranequin[3]. On the other hand, Jean Gottrou (considered by the tax book as a poor household, with 25 pounds or less of wealth in 1445[4]), received a crossbow, a quiver, a dozen bolts and a belt[5].

Although Fribourg’s walls were never under siege during the war – as the town’s authorities accepted piece quickly after Bern’s alliance with Savoy –, the population was ready to defend the fortifications. Some were even nominated by the municipal authorities to man precise parts of the fortifications or the canons. Here, an example indicates that men belonging to the upper class had to defend the wall, although according to their status: Johan Pavilliar – owning 8300 pounds of wealth – was captain on one of Fribourg’s gates – the Porte des Étangs[6]. These examples show that defending the town was a concern for the whole urban community, independently of one’s wealth.

[1] Roberto Biolzi, « Avec le fer et la flamme ». La guerre entre la Savoie et Fribourg (1447/1448), Lausanne 2009, pp. 13-29.

[2] AEF, Stadtsachen, A576a, fol. 31r.

[3] AEF, Affaires Militaires, I-7, fol. 5r.: “Item Jorgoz d’Englisperg ·i· arbelester por son garson riset et tot sen qui appertien mex Gorgo, ·vi· pfil, i wind.”

[4] AEF, Stadtsachen, A576a, fol. 67v.

[5] AEF, Affaires Militaires, I-7, fol. 5v.: “Item Johan Gotrou a ·i· arbelestre à foure, ung walkrapf, ·i· karkey, ·i· dozanna de floze et ·i· boudrey.”

[6] AEF, Affaires Militaires, Places-Hôpitaux 3, fol. 2r.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231

[14] Maurer, Erzwungene Ferne, p. 201

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Item ein wiss ross.

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

Item vil máls und vil fleisch rindris und schwinis.

Item fúnff silbrin schalen und sechs silbrin léffel.

Item drýg moeschin kertzstall.

Item zwo gross zangen ze muren.

Item zwo brigantynes.

Item xi stechlin armbrust mit ir bereitschafft.

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

Item ein krepss.

Item acht komet.

Item drýg pein armbrust.

Item xi handbuchssen.

Item iii haockenbúchssen.

Item ein kúris hinder und vor von der mitty uff.

Item ein helmlin.

Item ein hundzkappen.

Item ein halben lagel mit schweubel.

Item ein lagel mit salpeter.

Item ein vierteil pulfers.

Item ein klein secklý zúntpulfers.

Item ein rosshut und ein kuohut.

Item vier ýsný und zwo grossen slangen búchssen.

Item ii alte kurtze ysne búchssen.

Item xii betty guot und boess.

Item will bicklen und steinachssen.

Item lxv ysnen weken.

Item zwein ambos und ein horn ambos.

(2r) Item ein vilkloben.

Item ein messgewand, ein betstein und die buecher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.

In the town of Metz, the weaver Philippe de Vigneulles (1471-1522) wrote his mémoires. His text is full of anecdotes about “his” world, one of merchants who made their fortune within the walls of the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire. He tells us about the acrobats that he likes to see dancing on ropes in the square of Viller. One of them is “a master above all masters” (maistre par sus tout les aultres maistre), coming from the city of Luca (Lucques) in Italy.

“when the Italian master came to play, he surpassed all the others and did incredible things, that no one could believe without seeing him, on the small rope as well as on the big one. It seemed to touch neither the sky nor the earth, so light was he. And this master was so well dressed that there was no lord in Metz who had a more beautiful dress than he had. He was a master of the sword, the battle-axe, the short dagger and all other weapons and the buckler.”[1]

The city of Luca is known for its martial games.[2] It is also not surprising to read about Italian masters who excel at “playing” with weapons. What is interesting here is the list of his martial expertise, which can be tied to urban fencing competitions, the so-called fencing schools.[3] Such competitions were organised by travelling master-at-arms, some of them belonging to interurban networks, guilds of masters of the sword. The most famous one in the Holy Roman Empire, the brotherhood of Saint Marc, received imperial privileges in 1487. Other masters were not member of such guilds and call themselves “free-fencers”. Other were associated with jugglers, dancers, bear watchmen or other kind of performers, as represented by figure 1. On this illuminated painting of 1480, decorating a house book, one can see a snake charmer, a dagger swallower and a fire eater, next to a pair of wrestlers and a pair of fencers. In between the fencer holding longswords is a master-at-arm holding the staff used to referee a fencing bout. Pairs of long knives, daggers and staffs are lying on the ground at the feet of the fencers. All of these weapons represent known martial disciplines to be found in the corpus of fight books, strongly connected with urban fencing practices at the end of the Middle Ages. The poses can also easily be recognised with fencing “guards” in the technical literature about fencing. In passing, the illuminated painting is attributed to master E.S., who produced other works of art related to fencing and other games, such as playing cards (fig. 1).[4]

Fig. 1: Anonymous, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.

The status of master at arms, or master of the sword, does not correspond to a trade in its own right at the end of the Middle Ages. Apart from a few exceptions such as masters who managed to obtain the protection of a prince in a court, most of the fencing masters mentioned in the archival documents, or authors of the fight books do have another main occupation, most of the time unrelated with fencing. For example, Jorg Wilhalm is a hatter in Augsburg, but he is also specialised in fencing in armour with all weapons. We also find craftsmen such as furriers, candle makers, cutlers, etc, who hold regular fencing schools in Swiss towns as early as 1463.

Those with acrobatic skills who frequent in or accompany travelling people from city to city were keen to play with swords in public. Such is the case of a troupe of foreigners who performed at the city of Estavayer on the shores of the lake of Neuchatel in 1454 and 1459. They are mentioned in an accounting document as ‘poor Sarracens recently made Christians’ (ppovre Sarragin qui se sont fait cristient), who received ‘eight jugs of wine’ for their performance of ‘a play with two-handed swords’ (qui juerent de l’espée à due main).[5] The show was attended by the town council and the wine was drunk from the cellar of a burgher, member of the council. The circumstances of this performance and its specific kind is unclear, as is usual of dry mentions in accounting documents, but it is likely that it was either a competition, or a sword-dance. Sword dance are cultural practices documented in the late Middle Ages in the whole Europe, and tied to either guild practices in cities, or festivals in more rural areas.[6] Such performances can be very elaborated and include competitions as illustrated in fig. 2. On this painted drawing kept in Nuremberg, two fencers cross their swords from a platform made of inter-laced swords held by other performers.

Fig. 2: Sword dance and play of the sword of the cutler’s guild of Nuremberg. Drawing, ca. 1570. (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, HB 2286). Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledgement: This blog is an expansion of an excerpt of the monograph of Daniel Jaquet, Combattre au Moyen Âge: Une histoire des arts martiaux en Occident (XIVe-XVIe siècles) (Paris: Arkhê, 2017).

Title page image credits: Detail of the children of Luna, Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg, 1480 (taken from Christoph Graf zu Waldburg Wolfegg (ed.), Venus und Mars. Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch aus der Sammlung der Fürsten zu Waldburg Wolfegg (New York / Munich: Prestel, 1997)). Wikimedia Commons.

[1] quant ledit maistre ytalliens vint à juer, il paissoit tout les aultre de bien juer et faisoit chose incredible et non à croire à gens qui ne l’airoie veu, tent sus la petitte corde laiche comme sus la grosse. Et n’y ait homme qui sceust raiconter les tour qu’il faisoit sus la dite petitte corde, et sambloit qu’il ne touchait ny à_ciel ny à terre de legiereté qui estoit en lui. Et estoit ledit maistre cy bien acoustré qu’il n’y_ait seigneurs en Mets qui eust de plus belle roube qu’il avoit, et estoit maistre jueulx d’espees, de la haiche d’airme, de la courte daigue, de toutte airmes et du bouclier. Paris, BNF, nouv. Acq fr. 67120, edited by Fanny Faltot, Les Mémoires de Philippe de Vigneulles, unpublished PhD thesis, Paris, École des Chartres, 2015, pp. 128-129. I would like to thank the author for kindly sending me her edition.

[2] Alessandra Rizzi, Statuta de ludo: le leggi sul gioco nell’Italia di comune (secoli XIII-XVI) (Roma : Viella, 2012). The author mentions martial games, including shooting, throwing javelins and the so-called battagliole (team game including fencing).

[3] About fencing school see Daniel Jaquet, ’Die Kunst des Fechtens in den Fechtschulen. Der Fall des Peter Schwizer von Bern’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag 2016), 243‑58 and Christian Jaser, ‘Ernst und Schimpf – Fechten als Teil städtlicher Gewalt- und Sportkultur’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2016), 221‑42.

[4] See Stefan Krause and Christoph Kaindel, ‘Das Grosse Kartenspiel des Meister E.S. – Frühe gedruckte Fechtdarstellung’, Zeitschrift für historische Waffen- und Kostümkunde 55/1 (2013): 1‑18. The attribution to Master E.S. is a matter under debate, since these images are part of a relative large cycle. For a discussion about this matter, see Daniel Hess, Meister um das „mittelalterliche Hausbuch“. Studien zur Hausbuchmeisterfrage (Mainz: Von Zabern, 1994).

[5] I would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing his discoveries back in 2013. The text is edited by Barbey (1911), quoted in Daniel Jaquet ‘Fighting in the Fightschools, late 15th – early 16th century’, Acta Periodica Duellatorum 1 (2013), 47-66 (54, note 29).

[6] Stephen D. Corrsin, Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (Enfield Lock: Hisarlik, 1997).

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

One man against a city

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

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

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

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

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

The efforts of Lyriman and Grymmenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[3] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 23–24.

[4] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 17–18.

[5] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 32–33, p. 75.

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

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

[8] Roth, Lyrimans, pp. 59–61.

[9] For the production of gunpowder.

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

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

Drawing of a soldier from Fribourg’s state archives

A peculiar piece of art can be found in the military collection of the “State Archive of Fribourg”. An ink sketch of what appears to be a sixteenth century warrior, with his weapon and a banner, has been drawn on the first folio of an administrative document.[1] The creator or the purpose of this drawing are unknown, but its location, on a 1433 members list of Fribourg’s Bakers’ guild, provides the opportunity to talk about a particularly interesting element of Fribourg’s military organisation: the Reisgesellschaft.

First, the drawing needs to be examined. The figure depicted is wearing typical rich and opulent sixteenth century clothing, as well as some type of a one-handed sword, most likely a katzbalger. An inscription designates the figure as a “Hans Schzeker” (or maybe “Schzekel”). The artist/author is unknown, and no specific details are known in regards to the specific identity of the person depicted besides a potential name. Could it be a representation of one of the Bakers’ guild members as a fighter? As it seems logical, some elements can contradict this hypothesis. The banner represented in the drawing displays a Saint George’s cross, which does not correspond to the two keys traditionally displayed on the Bakers’ guild banner.[2] Additionally, the name mentioned, Hans Schzeker (and its potential variation), cannot be traced to any of the fifteenth and sixteenth century guild lists. However, it is worth mentioning that no research has yet been done on the identity of the individuals mentioned in them. The chronological gap between the production of the document and the addition of the drawing is most intriguing. Because of the nature of the document, it is possible that any member of the Bakers’ guild with access to this document could have drawn on it. However, as puzzling as it is, the drawing is not the only interesting element of this document.

Ink drawing of a warrior, Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Boulangers 3.1, 1433, fol. 1.

The type of document on which the little piece of art was drawn is a list of members of the “craftsmanship and travel company” (Hantwerck und Reisgeselschaft). The word Reisgesellschaft is important in the context of Fribourg’s military history, because it was systematically used since the 1460s to define any armed company mobilised for military expeditions. During those military enterprises, documents were produced to register the names of men involved, their salary and the expedition’s overall spending. They provide invaluable information on the evolution of the armed companies, mainly because they indicate that more specialised personnel (scribes, priests etc) was integrated in the companies since the 1490s. The complexity of those documents also increased during this period and they became complete “travel books” (Reisbücher). Lists of men constitute an important body of sources not only in Fribourg’s archives, as more than a hundred are preserved in its military collections, but also in other Swiss cities. Documents that can be labelled as “Harnischrödeln” were produced during the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in many Swiss towns, such as Luzern or Brugg.[3]

In Fribourg, craftsmen’s guilds were organisations that originally served religious and social purposes. Similarly to religious brotherhoods, the craftsmen guilds gathered during religious events and cultivated solidarity between the guilds’ members.[4] A charter written in 1464 tells us more on the practical purposes of the Reisgesellschaft, which relied on the solidarity between its members to adjust to certain situations, such as covering travel expenses, being kept as prisoner during war or even death while participating in a military operation.[5]

Fribourg’s military organisation was similar to other cities in the Holy Roman Empire, where citizens were mobilised based on their districts or their guilds. For the citizens of those cities, it was a civic duty to participate in the defence of the walls or in military expeditions. For example, craftsmen guilds in the city of Liege had an active military role and guilds had to finance the collective expense of the expedition, such as the supplies, the transport and the military decorum.[6] One notable practice was the creation of a banner, which served as an identity element for guilds members. In the case of fifteenth century Fribourg, the four districts (Bourg, Auge, Hôpitaux, Neuveville) were systematically involved in military expeditions, and their guilds were mobilized mainly between the 1460s and the first decades of the sixteenth century. During this period, more than fifty armed companies can be identified within the limits of the city walls. If every guild, such as the Tailors or the Smiths, were organised in armed companies bearing the name of their craft, other groups were named after objects or mythical figures such as the Star (Lesteile), the Flying Stag (von dem Fliegenden Hirtz), the Red Griffin (Le Griffon roge) or the Tree (Larbere). This Golden Age for the Reisgesellschaften can be correlated with the closer ties between Fribourg and the Old Swiss Confederation, with numerous military campaigns.[7] The first occurrence is the conquest of Thurgau by the Confederation in 1460, when a conflict between the Pope and Sigismund von Habsburg pushed the Swiss to seize part of the Archduke’s territory. Reisgesellschaften were thus integrated in a large scale military operation (for the city of Fribourg), with members of the patrician families in commanding roles (Captain, advisors), a treasurer and an artillery master. The companies were paid by the city and composed the largest body of fighters, as 186 of the 264 men mobilized went under their guilds’ banners.[8]

The Reisgesellschaften are an important part of Fribourg’s military history and it is not a surprise to find a drawing of a soldier in a guild members’ list. However, this drawing is one of a kind in Fribourg’s archives (or, as far as we know based on ongoing research, in Switzerland) and a small indirect and beautiful piece of evidence of the importance of armed companies. They were more than groups of citizen-fighters; they were an integral part of the guilds’ function and were based on the solidarity between the guilds’ members.

[1] Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Boulangers 3.1, 1433, fol. 1.

[2] “Der Pfisternn geselschaft die fürenn zweii schusset”, Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Affaires Militaires IV, 7, fol. 61.

[3] Regula Schmid, “The armour of the common soldier in the late middle ages. Harnischrödel as sources for the history of urban martial culture”, Acta Periodica Duellatorum, vol. 5, 2 (2017), pp. 7-24.

[4] Hellmut Gutzwiller, “Die Zünfte in Freiburg I. Ue. 1460-1650”, Freiburger Geschichtsblätter, 41-42 (1949), p. 6.

[5] Archives de l’État de Fribourg, Stadtsachen A 265, 1464.

[6] Guillaume Mora-Dieu, “Les corporations et la défense d’une ville: l’exemple de Liège”, Médiévales, 73, 2 (2017), pp. 198-199.

[7] Gaston Castella, “La politique extérieure de Fribourg depuis ses origines jusqu’à son entrée dans la Confédération (1157-1481), Fribourg – Freiburg, 1157-1481, Fribourg: Fragnière (1957), p. 176 et ss.

[8] Albert Büchi, “La particiation de Fribourg à la conquête de la Thurgovie (1460)”, Annales fribourgeoises, 18 (1930),pp. 21-33.

Holy gunpowder™ purchased from the Pope for the Solothurner master gunner in 1444

Buried in the lines of the accounting books of the City of Solothurn lies a mention of the purchase of saltpetre from the pope himself in 1444 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Item dem fürmann der den salpeter von unsern heiligen vatter dem bapst bracht 2 gulden (For the wagoner which brought the saltpetre from our holy father the pope. 2 gulden). Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 105. Transcribed and photographed by the author.

The Pope in Basel… dealing saltpetre?

Pope Eugene IV (1383-1447, see fig. 2) was indeed present in Basel, several times during the longest Ecumenical Council (1431-1449) in history.[1] This council assisted in the city’s great economic expansion and cultural development. Even the Medici opened a banking agency there between 1433 and 1444. Emperor Sigismund was responsible for the safety of the council and expected the Swiss Confederates (with the assistance of the allied towns of Fribourg and Solothurn) to ensure peace during the assemblies. This explains why the city of Solothurn was heavily involved in discussions about matters regarding defences – especially about artillery – between Basel, Bern and Fribourg. It does not explain, however, why the Pope would deal in saltpetre.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Pope Eugenius IV after Jean Fouquet (in the miscellany of Onofrio Panvinio, Rome, 1568). Wikimedia Commons.

 Saltpetre in the recipe… with vinegar or urine?

Gunpowder was used in Europe from the fourteenth century onwards. Its basic components are: saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and coal, but a lot of additional elements found their way into the early recipes, such as wood shavings, urine, wine, vinegar, a variety of salts, camphor or salammoniac. The anonymous author or compiler of the Firework book (Feuerwerksbuch) of ca. 1420 explains how to corn gunpowder into “lumps” (Knollen) to deal with the problem of dampness:

Moisten a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal with “good wine vinegar. And grind the mixture together with a wooden mortar and make it so moist with the vinegar that it will clump together, and then roll the lumps as large as you want them to be. Then take a glazed round deep saucepan or a pot or a copper bowl and press the lumps in wet just as you would force a cheese into a pot; then knock it out onto a board – it will come out easily.”.[2]

This process is illustrated in another Firework book kept in Zürich (Fig. 3) where one can see the air-drying process in the sun. These Knollen are then prepared by the master gunner to ready the gunpowder to fire. The process of producing gunpowder in Europe is not well documented before the second part of the fifteenth century, and remains somehow obscure or even ‘magical’, mostly because its production remained to a large extent experimental.

Fig. 3: Making of Knollen (corning gunpowder) illustrated in anonymous, s.t. [War Technology], Upper Rhine, around 1420-40 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek,
Ms. Rh. Hist. 33b, fol. 36v). E-codices,

The least stable element in the mixture is the saltpetre because the potassium nitrate is obtained through a process that involves bacterial action (discovered, in the 19th century, by the microbiologist Serge Winogradsky). Saltpetre was indeed produced in Europe, for example in Frankfurt.[3] However, better-quality saltpetre arrived at the time from the Orient, [4] with northern Italy being one of its most important commercial gateway int Europe. In the same year saltpetre was purchased from the pope, the Solothurn accounting book also registers a greater amount of saltpetre bought at the fairs in Geneva, without, however, giving an indication of its original provenance.[5]

Guns on the wall and master gunners at service

Already in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, several master gunners were hired by towns or princes for their well-needed services.[6] In Solothurn, the first documented master gunner appears in the sources in 1442.[7] By 1444, the accounting books mention at least two master gunners: Master Berchtold and Master Heinrich.[8] Several lines in the accounting books of these years show these masters traveling to Bern and Basel and buying gunpowder, portable firearms and cannons to equip the town’s defences and fighting forces. Portable guns were also produced locally by the skilled metalworkers (here by the armour maker in 1444)[9]. The security of the Council of Basel was not the only concern of Solothurn. East of the town, war was waging in fits and starts (the so-called Old Zürich War of 1436-1450), and in the West, conflict arose with the “Armagnacs”, French mercenaries under the command of the daupin, the future Louis XI (Battle of Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444, see fig. 4). The city of Fribourg, and old ally of Solothurn, follows the same timeline, with the first master gunners in service of the town in 1443/4. But just like in Solothurn, firearms were already in use earlier.[10]

Fig. 4: Battle between Armagnacs and Swiss forces in front of Basel (Saint-Jacques sur la Birse, 1444), illustrated in Benedikt Tschachtlan Bern chronicle, 1470 (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms A120, p. 861). E-manuscripta, Zentralbibliothek Zürich, https://doi.org/10.7891/e-manuscripta-85723

 Papal gunners and holy gunpowder

The use of gunpowder advanced in the fifteenth century, and so did the manufacturing technology of guns and canons, gunpowder circulation and the master gunner’s trade. However, it remained unpopular in discourses and depictions, where gunners are easily associated with diabolic figures. The first printed edition of Saint Augustinus’ De Civitate Dei (printed in Basel by Johann Amerbach in 1489) for example depicts a devil shooting a gun (fig. 5). Despite this widespread association, the papacy had fully embraced the progress of the artillery since early on.[11] Pius II (1458-1464), the third Pope in succession to Eugene VI, owned 13 guns, which he named after the 12 apostles and his mother, Vitoria[12].

Fig. 5: Devil shooting a gun, details, illustrated in the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

The papacy hired a master gunner in 1450, Jörg of Nuremberg. He was captured by the Turks when casting guns in Bosnia for the Duke Stephen the Great of Moldavia in 1456. He then served the Turks until 1480 when he was sent to Alexandria from where he escaped and returned to papal services.[13]

But what about the pope as dealer of saltpetre in 1444? It remains unclear if this was a regular papal side-business or if some cunning sellers of gunpowder benefited from the presence and fame of the pope in Basel to sell their product to the Solothurn master gunner. With Basel being at the centre of widespread trade at the time, and in view of the fact that a good-quality product from the Orient might have easily found its way to the upper Rhine region, one call well imagine how a “trademark” of holy gunpowder could have impressed a town involved in war at the time.

Credit for the main image:  Frontpiece of the De Civitate Dei of Aurelius Augustinus (woodcut from Meister des Haintz Narr), printed by Johann Amerbach (Basel, 1489), detail. Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum (BSB – Ink A-863 – GW 2888) urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00025317-8

[1] The 17th Council had 25 sessions in Basel, Florence and Ferrara between the year 1431 and 1449.

[2] Translation of Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 71. The digitized manuscript and bibliographical information about it are available at the University Library of Heidelberg (online: https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg585, accessed 20.05.2020).

[3] Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 58.

[4] Wilfried Tittmann, ‘China, Europa und die Entwicklung der Feuerwaffen’ in Europaïsche Technick im Mittelalter: 800-1400. Tradition und Innovation, edited by Uta Lindgreen (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1996), pp. 317-32.

[5] Item fazin hatt bracht von Ienf Salpetter und zentner 18lib Ienf gewicht tut an Solott’ gewicht 10 zentner 61lib da hort ein zentner nach Ienfer 12 guld und 12gross. tut in einer / summa 29 gulden und 1gross SS. Solothurn, Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444), p. 82. Transcribed by the author.

[6] Leng, Rainer, ‘Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Krieg in den illustrierten Kriegslehren des 15. und 16. Jahrunderts’, in ‘Mars und die Musen’: das Wechselspiel von Militär, Krieg und Kunst in der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Jutta Nowosadtko and Matthias Rogg, Herrschaft und soziale Systeme in der frühen Neuzeit, 5 (Berlin: Lit-Verl, 2008), pp. 33–58, here p. 40.

[7] Item ein Büchsenmeister der die büchsen beschiessen sollte verzart an Clewin lopsinger 10SS. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 2 (1442). Transcribed by the author.

[8] Louis Jäggi (500 Jahre Schützengesellschaft Der Stadt Solothurn, 1462-1962 : Die Entwicklung Des Schützenwesens Der Stadt Solothurn von Ihren Anfängen Bis Zur Gegenwart (Solothurn: Union Druck, 1962)) mentions the two masters in 1444, but ommitted the master mentioned in 1442.

[9] Item dem Harnascher im Hensli peters hus vmb siben handbüchsen 7guldn. Staatsarchiv, BB25, vol. 4 (1444). Transcribed by the author.

[10] In a document of 1431, large and medium cannons equiped already the fortification walls. For references and details about the master gunner, see Willy Schulze, ‘Freiburgs Krieg Gegen Savoyen 1447-1448 : Kann Sich Eine Mittelalterliche Stadt Überhaupt Noch Einen Krieg Leisten?’, Freiburger Geschichtsblätter, 79 (2002), 7–54 <https://doi.org/10.5169/SEALS-391870>.

[11] Bernard Rathgen, ‘Feuer- und fernwaffen beim päpstlichen Heere im 14. Jahrhundert’, Zeitschrift für historisches Waffenkunde 7 (1915-17), 1-15.

[12] According to the writings of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464). I would like to thank Kelly DeVries for this reference.

[13] Based on the master gunner own account (printed in the 1480s), see A. Vasiliev, ‘Jörg of Nurember: a writer contemporary with the fall of Constantinople’, Byzantion, 10 (1935), 205-9, quoted and commented in Peter Purton, The Medieval Military Engineer (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2018), p. 260.

Fencing with the blessing of the authorities: Patent for a fencing master in Neuchâtel in 1546

Fencing lessons and competitions are an urban phenomenon, documented as early as from the fifteenth century in Switzerland. Since these activities carried out potential risks for urban peace, early traces of attempts to regulate these activities by town authorities can be (sometimes) found in archives.

Henry de Sainct Didier, Les secrets du premier livre sur l’espée seule, Paris: Jean Mettayer et Matthurin Challenge, 1573, plate 33-34. Taken from the Facsimile of the Société des Livres Anciens et Modernes, Paris 1907.

Fencing was a needed skill for citizens who had to carry out (potential) military duties for their town, but also to prove to their peers that they were trustworthy and able to fight and defend their community. Therefore, displays of martial skills, such as fencing competitions, were needed for the town inhabitants that were willing to show that they adhered to what Ann Tlusty coined as “martial ethic”.[1] Different forms of regulation exist because such practices were usually not institutionalised before the second half of the sixteenth century or even later. However, town authorities developed different policies regarding fencing activities happening within their walls. For example, petitions of fencing masters willing to hold fencing schools can be found in town council minutes, as can expenses due to fencing activities sanctioned by the town council. But, for most of the cases, fencing activities were organised by local or pan-urban networks of fencing experts gathered in associations (corporations such as guilds or brotherhoods). For France, Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire, several of these corporations are known, and they received privileges from town authorities or even the highest princes such as the King or the Emperor. On a more local level, several cities edicted fencing ordinances, or delivered patents and certificates to fencing masters.[2] Such is the case for the document presented here from the mid-sixteenth century in the county of Neuchâtel.

Patente de maître du jeu de la Grande Épée à deux mains, en faveur de Nicolas Lambelet des Verrières, 1546. Copie tirée d’un receuil de minutes de notaire, 1558 (Archives d’État de Neuchâtel, AS-24.31). © Archives d’État de Neuchâtel, reproduced with permission.

This document is actually a draft for the preparation of letters of a notary, full of erased words and lines, revisions on margins or in between lines, and with spaces left blank. Most of the original patents have not survived, since they were handed over to the individuals. This collection of drafts and copies of documents delivered by several notaries is dated to 1558, but the date of the fencing patent is 1546. It would have been signed by the notary, under the authority of the mayor of the small town of Les Verrières, located near the border of modern-day Switzerland and France.

The county of Neuchâtel was under the suzerainty of the Valois, and after that of the Habsburgs. Close to the Duchy of Burgundy through the Châlons with the Franche-Comté (Free-County) as a border, the county formed a network of ties through treaties of combourgeoisie with Swiss towns such as Fribourg (1209), Bern (1308) and Solothurn (1369). It only became part of the Swiss Confederation in 1814. The particular place where the fencing patent originated is les Verrières, a small town in the north eastern valley leading to the castle of Joux. The city was under the rule of the Counts of Neuchâtel. The mayor of the town was at the time Claude Lambelet (mentioned in the document). It must be noted that he was part of the same family as the certified master Nicolas Lambelet.

Nous […] establÿssons [Nÿcolas Lambelet le Jeusne des dites Verrieres de Neufchastel] maistre dudict jeulx de ladicte grande / espee; pour en jouer a pris et dehors pris / en tous lieux et par devant toutes gens de / quelque estatz ou quallitez qu’ilz soyent; et encontre / tous ceulx quilz luÿ plaira […]

Nicolas Lambelet is certified “master of the play of the great sword” (maistre dudict jeulx de la dicte grande espee). Fencing activities include several disciplines. The mastery of the different disciplines is carefully noted in such documents, here only with the two-handed sword. He can therefore “play with or without prize” (this specifies participating is fencing competitions) wherever he wants and in front of audiences of any status, against whoever he wants.

aÿanz le / serement aux dict jeulx de ladicte grande espee [added in margins: et aux ordonnances d’icelluÿ], et qu’ilz / ha desja [added in margins: par cÿ devant] estez passez en ses deffences par les maistres / du dict jeulx

It is mentioned that he pledged an oath and that he passed the final test against other masters, which is called “passing in defence” (passez en ses deffences). It consists of standardised fencing bouts where the applicant is evaluated. More interestingly, there is a mention added in margins about the “ordinances” in relation to the oath he pledged. Several fencing ordinances are known in France, the earliest in Mazan (1501). We do not know to which ordinances the document is referring to, but the closest known was the one of Dijon in 1520.[3] If Neuchâtel edicted a fencing ordinance, there is not a single mention to it in documents surviving in archives. No fencing ordinances are known from this period in Swiss towns, but several documents and petitions of fencing masters offer sporadic details about legal and illegal fencing activities.[4]

En luÿ baillant et concedissant par ces dictes presentes / toute puissance, auctorité et faculté de tenir escolle / et escolliers par dessoubz luÿ en tous lieux ou / il luÿ plaira, et de havoir et recepvoir tous escolliers / qui ledict jeulx vouldront apprendre et recorder, et / de faire et constituyr ung lieuteuant ou plusieurs / soit en escolle, pris ou jeulx, pour par le dict / ou lesdictz lieutenantz leurs aprendre ledict jeulx, comme / sÿ luÿ mesure le dict maistre ÿ estoit present, le tout / en la forme, mode et maniere quil se doit jouer / et que par cÿ devant du temps passez en ha estez jouez / et user [rajout en marge : et de passer escolliers en leurs deffences]

Lambelet received the right and authority to organise fencing competitions and deliver fencing lessons (faculté de tenir escolle et escollier par dessoubz luÿ). He can also name “lieutenants”, which is a rank like “provost”, also mentioned earlier in the document. This technical terminology is widespread and can also be found in fight books (such as the one on the cover image of the blog post, from the fight book of Henry de Sainct Didier published in 1573). It is also mentioned that he can do so (name a lieutenant) in different contexts, that is fencing school, prize fights, or competitions (escolle, pris ou jeulx).

A previous (partially erroneous and incomplete) transcription of this document has been published by Nicolas Piaget in 1922 in the local journal Musée Neuchâtelois (vol. 9, pp. 207-8) with a brief introductory comment. We would like to thank Olivier Dupuis for sharing this reference; Anne-Caroline and Dominique LeCoultre who also have studied and reviewed the original document; and Jacob Deacon who participated in the new analysis of it.

[1] Ann B. Tlusty, B. Ann, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).

[2] For France and for information about neighbouring spaces see Olivier Dupuis, “Organization and Regulation of Fencing in the Realm of France in the Renaissance”, Acta Periodica Duellatorum (3), 2015, pp. 233-54.

[3] Ibidem

[4] See Jaquet, Daniel, ‘Die Kunst des Fechtens in den Fechtschulen. Der Fall des Peter Schwizer von Bern’, in Agon und Distinktion. Soziale Räume des Zweikampfs zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015), pp. 243–58

To Stab the French!

Unrest on the River Banks of the Reuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An iron hand for a master gunner injured in the Burgundian wars

The 1479 accounting book of the town of Solothurn mentions, among a range of miscellaneous expenditures (like for broken tavern windows), an artillery accident. On June 22, 1476, near the small town of Morat, the allied forces of the old Swiss Confederation under the leadership of Fribourg and Bern defeated the army of the Duke of Burgundy, thus launching the international reputation of the Swiss warriors. During this battle, the master gunner of Fribourg was injured. He lost one of his hand and two ribs.

„Item. Dem büchsenmeister von Frÿburg 1 lib., so vor Murten ein hand und zweÿ  ripp usgeschossen sind“.

Staatsarchiv Solothurn, BB Seckelmeister Rechnungen, 1479, fol. 137 .

Accounting documents are always quite dry. However, this note contains two relevant indications that allow the identification of the master who is not named in this document. The first is that he was in the service of Fribourg, and the second, that he lost his hand. We do not know why the council of Solothurn paid this master 1 lib. in 1479, three years after the incident. We do know, however, that master gunners were highly desirable specialists who were hired in turn by different towns, or were passed on within established political or economic networks. Indeed, payments to master gunners in Solothurn date back to 1440.[1] The town established the office of master gunner officially in 1463, when Hans Zechender (or Zehnder) from Zürich entered the service of Solothurn.[2] During the time of the battle of Morat, the master gunner of Solothurn was Peter Müller. In the same period, the Fribourg documents actually mention two masters – who both lost their hands! Ulrich Wyss[3] lost one hand and master Gabriel Tucher lost both hands.[4]

The Solothurn entry has to refer, therefore, to Ulrich Wyss. His unfortunate case can be connected to a curious object kept in the Museum of Art and History of Fribourg: a mechanical hand. The hand was made shortly after the accident by Ulrich Wagner, a locksmith and watchmaker, who received the sum of 11 pounds from Fribourg’s city council.[5] The object is 14 cm long and 9,5 cm wide, and weights around 340 grams. The hand was equipped with two mechanisms; one to open and close the hand, and another to place the fingers in at least two positions. As it was a passive prosthesis, it had to be operated by the other hand to change the fingers’ position (operating like pliers). It also received some attention to aesthetic details, such as engraved fingernails.

View of the hand’s palm and back. ©MAHF, Primula Bosshard.

Activities related to the artillery were not only dangerous in times of war, but also when weapons and ammunition had to be stored, handled or even produced. The archives relate a number of incidents. The rare surviving example of a fifteenth century iron hand, connected to archival documentation, is an interesting case study showing not only a very early mechanical prosthesis, but probably also the master gunner’s importance for the town, as the Council paid for this sophisticated creation. Other similar hands are known in the 16th century. At that time, they can be connected to technical literature about prostheses, and to the rapidly evolving field of war surgery that on its part reflected the now widespread use and efficiency on firearms on the battlefield.


We would like to thank Stéphane Gasser, curator at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Fribourg, for his support and the documentation provided.

[1] Louis Jäggi, 500 Jahre Schützengesellschaft der Stadt Solothurn (Solothurn: Union Druck, 1962), pp. 37-38.

[2] Amt des Büchsenmeisters (des büchsenmeisters überkomnusbrieff), edited by Charles Studer in SSRQ, vol. X/2 (1987), pp. 52-54.

[3] The city authorities of Fribourg hired Ulrich Wanner in April 1475, for three years of service: “Per messeigneurs l’avoyer, conseillers et banderets fust receu per maistre des boetes Ulrich Wannere, per 3 ans, chascun an per 3 lib. et une robe chascun an.” Archives de l’État de Fribourg, RM 5, 1471-1479, fol. 129v.

[4] Wyss is first mentioned in 1475 and received the right of citizenship in the same year. His successor is Ulrich Wanner : “Item pour la robe, que lon a schengua a meister Gabriel maister dez boistes, lequel persist les mains devant Morat. etc.”. Freiburger Seckelmeisterrechnungen, n°158, edited by Albert Büschi in « Freiburger Akten zur Geschichte der Burgunderkriege (1474-1481) », Freiburger Geschichtsblätter 16 (1909), p. 99. 

[5] « Item a maistre Ulrich Wagner maistre facteur dez reloges pour una main quil a fait a Ulrich maistre dez boitez ordonne par Messeigneurs ou luef de celle quil persist ou service de le ville en faisant les keygel 11fl. = 22 lib. » Quoted in Raoul Blanchard « Ulrich Wagner – Eiserne Kunsthand (1476) », Blätter des Museums für Kunst und Geschichte Freiburg (2000-2).

A thief’s tale – Bern, 1517

Hans zum Brunnen had been a thief at least for four years when he confessed to his crimes in presence of the two councilmen Hans Tormann and Bartlome Steiger, of the chief bailif Hans Isenschmid, of Adrian Effinger, court clerk, and of all the baillifs of the Gentlemen of Bern – without torture, on August 1, 1517.

Front page of the criminal proceedings concerning
Hans zum Brunnen’s thefts
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01.
Published with the authorization of the State Archive of Bern

His origins were in the Eifischtal (Val d’Anniviers), the valley that leads straight south from Sierre towards the Zinal glacier, and he had left this narrow vale when war had called: on May 1, 1512, the Bernese army under the commandment of Burkhard von Erlach and Hans Ougsburger set out towards Italy. The military clout of the 24’000 men strong confederate troop secured pope Julius’ II. victory over the French. Zum Brunnen might have been among the “free” soldiers who joined the Bernese. In any case, he probably crossed the Rawilpass, 2429 meters above sea-level and descended towards Lenk, in order to join the Bernese troops. It was early summer, the people were out cutting hay, and Hans walked into one of the houses, helped himself in the pantry to enough food, found a woman’s purse with two «fat» coins and a red hat that its owner had decorated with a coin and several sewn on silver buttons. Thus, Hans zum Brunnen committed his first theft on Bernese soil.

Four years later, we meet zum Brunnen again. Maybe he had stayed for a while in Italy where the wars against France waged on, and where strong men from mountain valleys had a good time finding adventure, food, and booty. In any case, he was back, but instead of helping Gilyan Ubert of Zweisimmen to saw wood, he helped himself to the contents of Ubert’s purse.

Excerpt of Hans zum Brunnen’s criminal proceedings
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01., p. 2

We can then follow zum Brunnen serving as a servant in winter (and emptying the purse of his employer), marching in spring towards the gentle banks of the lake of Thun – and meeting a fellow Eifischtaler who helped him rob a guesthouse when the innkeeper was in the bath and the wife and daughter in the garden. Italy and the war called again, and both men set off towards Cremona. But many inns lay on the way to Italy and back, and many purses. Marching across the Alps to Italy, they stole in Frutigen and Kandersteg, and on the way back, in Unterwalden and Brienz, in Leissigen and Spiez.

The thief’s way back, highlighted on the sixteenth century Bernese map.
Karte des Bernischen Staatsgebietes von 1577/78 von Thomas Schoepf. Dietikon : Stocker, 1970-1972. Universitätsbibliothek Bern, MUE Kart 402 c. pp. 8-9

Drifting towards east, zum Brunnen meets a fellow from the lake of Zurich who knows where the rich people live, and together they roam the region between Zurich and Lucerne. They have a fight in Baden and part ways. Hans is again drawn towards Bern where he eventually is caught in one of the many farms he frequents on the way.

Zum Brunnen’s misdeeds fill almost five pages of a dossier that is kept in Bern’s state archive in the drawer Urteilssprüche (verdicts). Court clerk Adrian Effinger’s upright, regular handwriting is replaced only in the end. The last words that seal zum Brunnen’s destiny are written by another hand. Its hasty, almost sloppy style matches the gruesome end that it is recording: With his hands bound behind his back, Hans Zum Brunnen from the Eifischtal, thief and occasional mercenary, was led to the gallows where he was “entrusted to the air”.

On the left: Last sections of Hans zum Brunnen’s criminal proceedings
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01., p. 7
On the right: Town of Bern with its two gallows. Hans zum Brunnen was hanged on the one to the right.
Karte des Bernischen Staatsgebietes von 1577/78 von Thomas Schoepf. Dietikon : Stocker, 1970-1972. Universitätsbibliothek Bern, MUE Kart 402 c. p. 9

A monk hired for his magical and martial skills – Basel, 1469

Lost in a box with administrative documents lies a contract between the city of Basel and a monk of the minor order in 1469. The document is written on paper in two versions. The counterpart (the signed copy) is given to the monk and is cut in saw-tooth profile. The latter is not preserved in the archive. Only the original would then fit the pattern with the drawings, so that there can be little chances in faking such a document. This “official” document is evasive when it comes to describing what is expected in return for the money. For fifty rinscher guldin, half of which is due in cash, the monk will serve the town by “breaking the canons in half” and “giving council to the best of his knowledge” during half a year.

Contract, 1469.
Basel, Staatsarchive, Militär Akten A1. © Marcult 2019
With kind permission of the Staatsarchiv Basel.

The real marvel found in the archive is actually another sheet of paper kept with the contract, where the monk’s different skills are listed. We do not know the origin of this additional document. It might be cut off or copied from a promotional letter of the monk himself sent to the city council, referred to in the contract as the rödel.

Sheet attached to the contract, 1469. B
asel, Staatsarchive, Militär Akten A1. © Marcult 2019
With kind permission of the Staatsarchiv Basel.

It lists the different skills which the monk can offer. It includes:

  • How to bring harm to the ennemies in the city or in the field
  • Where to best set up a camp
  • How to protect the city (walls) and supply for damaged parts
  • How to best use caltrops (devices with spikes laid on the ground to harm ennemies)
  • How to best use striking weapons and banners
  • How to show the truth to the important people about military matters in the city and on the walls

Of course, he adds that he could do more upon request. He also details in the end that he could produce an artifact made to preserve life against shooters. Such documents are rare, but show how magical skills are intertwined with martial culture at the end of the Middle Ages.

An edition of the document is to be found in: Urkundenbuch der Stadt Basel, ed. by Rudolf Thommen and Rudolf Wackernagel, 11 vols (Basel: 1901), Vol. 8, Nr. 334, pp. 262-263.

A lazy secretary found an innovative way to do his (boring) job – Fribourg, 1439

Picture yourself as the one following the officer in the review of his militia men. As last year, and the year before, you will have to produce again the same document, listing the names of all inhabitants enrolled in the urban militia, from inside and outside the walls. This includes the check of the defensive and offensive weapons which they carry, and have to possess and care throughout the year by law.

Instead of writing in details the different weapon categories (guns, staff weapons and crossbows) over and over again next to the names, you decide to draw pictograms. Not only is it quicker, but also more efficient when you have to provide sums of armed forces according to weapon categories at the end of the exercise.

Rôle des compagnies, ville et campagne, s.d. (1439). Fribourg, Archives d’Etat, Affaires Militaire 2. © Marcult 2019

The “military” organisation of the town at the time consisted of dividing the city in four quarters (Bourg, Hôpitaux, Auge and Neuveville), all of them having to provide men ready to defend the city in time of need, or from which armed expeditions can be manned. A network of neighbouring villages outside of the walls are assigned to each quarter. Around 1460, compagnies with names and banners appeared, still related to a specific urban space. This was probably influenced by other existing types of military organisation in neighbouring areas. On the one hand, the system of Reisgesellschaft found in Bern is comparable. On the other hand, states’ armies such as the ones of the Duchy of Savoy, which produced ordinances to regulate the compagnies, show similarities as well. No such document has been preserved for Fribourg. However, we do have lists of armed forces since the early fifteenth century during the transitional period before the compagnies’ organisation. Each company then held a book for the record and to report to the city council.

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