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

Bernese connection to “new military history” @Forschungstag 2019, University of Bern

Our team presented the project with our posters at the annual Science Day of the Humanities Faculty of the University of Bern. We were glad to be neighbours with the team of Philippe Rogger (Prof. Dr. André Holenstein), who are also busy with military history matters and martial culture with their project focused on military entrepreneurs in Switzerland (16-17th c.).

It was a nice occasion to showcase the connection between our two projects. The University of Bern is indeed hosting two four years research projects financed by the Swiss Science Foundation with a focus on new ways to do military history. In fact, this would make us not far of being a competence centre on the matter. Maybe for the Future… Our performance at the Science Day put aside, we are also working to communicate about this connection with a forthcoming Institute podcast. Stay tuned!

We had the opportunity to present the specificities of our projects to the colleagues of the Faculty, but also to the Dean and the Director of the Science-City program. We explained how far we stand from the common ideas and representation about what is military history. We showed how our research questions intersect with urban history and cultural history matters (but also methods!). Of course, we are convinced of our plans and first achievements, the idea is to convince others! We are working to reach not only scientific communities, but also broader audience with our project of our travelling exhibition in 2021-2022. You will read about this project soon on our website and our blog

Learn more about the project Holenstein: Militärunternehmertum & Verflechtung http://www.hist.unibe.ch/forschung/forschungsprojekte/militaerunternehmertum_amp_verflechtung/index_ger.html

And note the call for paper for their upcoming 2020 international conference: https://www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-40136

and learn more about our own project by visiting our website:

Martial Culture in Medieval Towns:


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