Aspects of Urban Military Organisation in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period: The Case of Freiburg i. Ue. (c. 1440-1500)

This essay discusses focuses on Fribourg as a case study for military organisation in French-speaking Switzerland in the second half of the fifteenth century. The martial responsibilities of individuals and the city are discussed in a wider context, explaining the background behind the formation and equipment of armed companies. Additionally, the methodology and primary sources used for this type of research are addressed in detail. This presentation was intended for the International Medieval Congress 2020 at the University of Leeds, as one of the three papers of the panel “Martial Culture I: Within the Walls of the Medieval Town.” The Congress was cancelled due to the Covid-19 situation, and only a smaller version was conducted virtually. Two of our speakers decided to release their paper on video format. Watch or listen this paper by following the link below.

Watch the video of the talk here

Abstract of the panel: Our research project (2018-22) considers towns as producers, organisers, and brokers of martial culture within the rapidly changing political world of late medieval Europe. It examines how towns transformed and were transformed by military techniques and urban ‘marti­al culture.’ The latter developed at the intersection of legal prerogatives, political requirements, and the evolving ownership and use of weapons. It integrates a number of historiographical approaches that are usually explored separately: ur­ban institutional, social, and political history; military history; arms and armour; urban martial competitions; knowledge production and dissemination; fighting expertise, and the transformation of the urban space itself. (Paper A : Martial Experts. Experts. Fencers, Gunners, and Arbalesters as Masters in Swiss Towns. Paper B : Aspects of Urban Military Organisation in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The Case of Freiburg i. Ue. (ca. 1440-1500). Paper C :  The Spaces of Martial Culture in Late Medieval Towns).

This paper is also available on the Bern Open Repository and Information System (BORIS) with the following DOI: 10.7892/boris.145107

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "Aspects of Urban Military Organisation in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period: The Case of Freiburg i. Ue. (c. 1440-1500)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 17/07/2020,

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.

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "Drawing of a soldier from Fribourg’s state archives," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 29/06/2020,

[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.

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.

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "An iron hand for a master gunner injured in the Burgundian wars," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 01/08/2019,

[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 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.

Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "A lazy secretary found an innovative way to do his (boring) job – Fribourg, 1439," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 25/03/2019,