Martial sports in the Travels of Leo of Rozmital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cite this article as: Jean Chandler, "Martial sports in the Travels of Leo of Rozmital," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 30/01/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/685.

Crossbow, terror and beauty: an exhibition in Berlin and its catalogue (20.09.19-08.03.20)

Before most of the early art collections, the first ‘civic’ or territorial museums were the arsenals, specialised storage buildings designed to keep, maintain and display arms and armour, as well as other objects that were seen fit to be stored there. It is no surprise to see that many arsenals eventually lost their military functions and became museums. The German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is located in the former Zeughaus (arsenal) of the Brandenburg/Prussian army in Berlin, not far away from the brand new Humboldt-Forum – the museum designed to reflect the former castle of Berlin. But it is in an adjacent contemporary building, designed by the architect I.M. Pei, that the temporary exhibition “Die Armbrust – Schrecken und Schönheit / The Crossbow: Terror and Beauty” is displayed from September 20, 2019 until March 8, 2020.

The exhibition was initiated by Sven Lüken, who leads the department for military collections of the German Historical Museum. The motivation was the scientific description of objects from the museum that can be connected to the crossbow. Whereas the catalogue contains objects exclusively from the collections of the museum, the exhibition has on display, besides items of the German Historical Museum, dozens of objects from other museums or libraries (Heidelberg, Regensburg, Berlin). A visit to the exhibition is recommended particularly because of this pluralism of its displayed material culture.

Insight into the arms and armour collection of the DHM by Sven Lüken, presenting crossbows, windlasses and bolts. Youtube channel of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, September 2019.

The catalogue’s introduction by Raphael Gross and the first essay by Fritz Backhaus, respectively the director and the collection’s department director of the museum, address the paradox of the museum’s ambition – to confront Germany’s past with a critical and enlightened mind and avoid chauvinistic and nationalistic expressions – and the museum’s belongings, since at its core were arms and armour from the former Prussian Arsenal and the German Democratic Republic’s national Historical Museum. Dealing with the crossbow is nonetheless seen as a convenient way to address an exhibition of deadly weapons, and altogether question the point of these collections in a society that rejects traditional martial and violence-glorifying values attributed to them. Sven Lüken addresses the question of the collection’s provenance and history. Whereas most objects are most likely the remnants of the collections of Brandenburg castle storehouses, especially from Berlin, others found their way to the museum during the 19th century, especially with the ‘Blücher’ plunder (objects seized in Paris in 1815 that had been themselves taken by French troops in Germany or Austria) or the acquisitions of the Prussian prince Carl during the 1820’s. During the Second World War, the collections were displaced and partially seized and transferred to the USSR as war compensations: the lost (but often not destroyed) objects and artisan marks are included in the catalogue (p. 314-318 and 319-321). It is striking, though, that (unlike the windlasses) the attribution of crossbow to specific artisans or even to production centres is still uncertain, although most of them are believed to have been made in Southern Germany (Augsburg or Nuremberg). The crossbow selected for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, which may be a gift from the Southern German counts of Zollern, was however identified as the work of a member of the Kadus family which was active in different cities around Lake of Constance (one of them settled in Basel during the 1580s).

The exhibition displays several crossbows from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, although the majority of them are early modern objects. Besides the crossbows, which were carefully restored, we can see paveses, bolts (some of them are archaeological founds from the site of a failed Hussite attack on Bernau in 1432), bolt boxes and quivers, windlasses, and a very rare spanning bank. The detailed and state-of-the-art catalogue (93 objects, p. 113-311) made by Jens Sensfelder, a technical expert, addresses also the question of the technical evolution of the crossbow and compares the objects with other collections. Jens Sensfelder is also the editor of a crossbow-related review, the Jahrblatt der Interessengemeinschaft Historische Armbrust.

Many videos and figures explaining the delicate mechanisms or the crossbows are also on display in the exhibition, as well as shooting videos (one of them re-enacting the William Tell apple shooting).
Since most of the crossbows of the museum had no direct military function, the curators saw fit to put the focus on the symbolic and martial dimensions of the crossbow, which could be seen as an erotic symbol (cf. Jacob de Gheyn) or as a memento mori. The iconographic details (hunting, classical, or Biblical scenes) are wonderfully depicted and compared in Brigitte Reineke’s contribution to the catalogue.

The crossbow remained during the early modern period a weapon for hunting and, especially, a tool for target practice, which explains the focus on shooting contests [1] , deploying not only beautiful festival books by Lienhart Flexel or Ulrich Ertel from the Stuttgart festival of 1560, but also the series of engravings of the festival of Regensburg (1586) by Peter Opel, which was himself a firearm stock-maker. It also features some objects related to shooting competitions, such as letters of invitation (Landshut, 1549 and Regensburg, 1586), the crown given after the Nuremberg contest of 1579 to the Regensburg marksmen, and the stick of the target indicator. The last part of the exhibition addresses the famous William Tell myth, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries with pocket-theatre figures, photographs and postcards.

The temporary exhibition, which could have also emphasised the revival of the crossbow in popular culture, is a satisfying achievement. It certainly raises the question of whether the collection of early modern firearms from the German Historical Museum will benefit from the same exposure one day, showing that a contextualised exhibition about martial cultures is possible.

[1] The author of this review has researched the dynamics of shooting festivals in (mostly Southern) Germany and Switzerland as a tool for civic and aristocratic diplomacy: Jean-Dominique Delle Luche, Sportliches Engagement und städtischer Wettbewerb : Schützenfeste als Ausdruck der Konkurrenz im Heiligen Römischen Reich, in Matthias Schnettger, Julia Schmidt-Funke (dir.), Neue Stadtgeschichte(n). Die Reichsstadt Frankfurt im Vergleich, Bielefeld, transcript, 2018, p. 369-398; Une association d’intérêt public : les sociétés d’arbalétriers et arquebusiers dans les villes du Saint-Empire (XVe-XVIe siècles), in Olivier Richard, Gabriel Zeilinger (dir.), La participation politique dans les villes du Rhin supérieur à la fin du Moyen Âge/Politische Partizipation in spätmittelalterlichen Städten am Oberrhein, Berlin, Schmidt (Studien des Frankreich-Zentrums der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, 26), 2017, p. 241-277 ; Die Schießregister und die Entwicklung der regionalen sportlichen Netzwerke der Stadt Nördlingen (1464–1585), in Jahrbuch des Historischen Vereins für Nördlingen und das Ries, vol. 35, 2017, p. 131-170. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01759024

Acknowledgment: the author of this review has collaborated with the exhibition organisers and presented his research during a public conference in October 2019. His PhD dissertation, which was written in 2015 at the EHESS (Paris), addressed the topic of shooting ‘guilds’ and festivals in the Holy Roman Empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Cite this article as: Jean-Dominique Delle Luche, "Crossbow, terror and beauty: an exhibition in Berlin and its catalogue (20.09.19-08.03.20)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 07/01/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/627.