The Arms & Armour of the Guilds in the Leugemeete Chapel: A Case of Individual Taste?

Brugsepoortsraat (roughly translating to “Bruges Gate Street”) was a major thoroughfare in medieval Ghent, running through most of the western sections of the city outside of the walls proper. In the early fourteenth century, alongside considerable interest in re-fortifying much of the city itself, the existing gates that enclosed the extramural sections were heavily fortified and new ones were built; this effectively enclosed previously opened sections of the city and brought them into the corpus urbanum proper.[1] One such property that was effectively absorbed into the city itself was the Chapel of Saint John and Saint Paul; later known as the “Leugemeete” or “liar” due to a broken a clock on its façade.[2] Demolished in 1912, the chapel housed a suite of monumental wall paintings, which are now preserved in a series of watercolour paintings and wax calques.[3] The chapel was founded in 1316 as a charity for women, and then patronised by the guilds circa 1334.[4] The visual programme included patron portraits of its titular saints, a donor portrait in the form of a prayerful Count Louis I of Flanders (c. 1304 – Aug. 25, 1346), his son Louis II (1330 – 1384), and his wife, Margaret I, Countess of Artois (1310 – May 9, 1382), and a depiction of Christ in Resurrection on the eastern wall—perhaps suggesting the presence of an Easter chapel. Most importantly for scholars of late medieval guilds, however, were the series of monumental guildsmen painted in procession along the upper sections of the chapel, accompanied by pennants and trumpeters and marching towards the altar (Fig.1).[5]

Fig.1: Water colour rendering of the Leugemeete murals by Felix DeVigne, circa 1846. Archive, UGhent 446419BE

            The degree to which autonomous towns and cities such as Ghent took their defence seriously can be inferred by how much money and effort they spent on organising their civic defenders.[6] However, cultural artefacts such as the wall paintings in the Leugemeete are also indicative of the degree to which certain guilds and confraternities asserted their influence throughout their respective urban communities. Just as importantly, liminal visual representations of the guilds—scarce though they may be—provide insight into facets of their organisation and armament that are otherwise lost within armoury inventories and expenditure reports. The relationship between civic defenders and their local arsenals has recently gathered renewed interest among historians of the period, though most of the information at hand is reserved to the early modern period.[7] There are eight distinct, extant groups depicted in procession: the city watch (known as the Witte Kaproenen or “white caps” for their unique head coverings),[8] the Brotherhood of St George (as indicated by a standard bearing a singularly large cross), two unidentified cohorts, the butcher’s guild, the fishmonger’s guild (or poissoniers), and finally for the south wall the baker’s guild. The only extant guild iconography on the north wall is the textile cutter’s guild.[9] All of these attributions are predicated upon the renderings of De Vigne and Bethune, which will prove more than adequate for the purposes of this essay.[10]

Fig.2: Calque reproduction by Jean-Baptiste Bethune and company, circa 1860.
STAM, Ghent, 09555.6-6

            Starting with the city watch, a number of weapons appear alongside the defenders (Fig.2).[11] The mounted man atop the front-facing horse holds a spurred crossbow aloft, while the crowded assemblage of men next to him wield a mix of bows, spears, goedendags (the infamous Flemish spiked club), and small swords at their sides. The diverse nature of their weaponry seems conducive to the aims of a permanent military force, and the specific emphasis being placed on the presence of skilled weaponry such as the bow would appear to corroborate this. Next we have the Brotherhood of St George, who uniformly exhibit their weapon of choice—the crossbow. After them come the first of the two unidentified groups of soldiers, their standard emblazoned with two shields and five crosses. This group carry shields, as well as a variety of spears and goedendags. The second group, similarly unidentified, is of particular interest. They carry shields, like the group just before and dissimilar to the city watch and the Brotherhood of St George, but contain a plurality of weapon varieties that are not present elsewhere in the visual programme (Fig.3 and Fig.4).[12] Lead by a helmeted soldier with his visor upraised, the group contains spears, goedendags, falchions, and axes. The latter two stand out, as aside from a single curved blade seen amongst the ranks of the fishmongers; this group is the only extant cohort of soldiers wielding these specific weapons. The first inclination here is to fixate upon the presence of the axe—single bladed and attached to a long wooden haft—to potentially identify this particular assemblage. Save the unidentified confraternity marching in front of them, this group appears between the civic associations of the city watch and Brotherhood of Saint George, and the beginning of the gathered craft guilds. Using said context, the presence of the axe could indicate a particular craft guild with which said implement would be associated; woodworkers (scrinewerkers, coopers, etc.) of some fashion. However, the prominence with which the falchion is displayed in conjunction with the axe seems to indicate that these weapons function less as indicators of occupation and more as signifiers of prestige. This is most apparent in the last soldier in the party, his massive falchion ostentatiously set against his shoulder for all to see. These members of the militia are defined as being both skilled and wealthy enough to afford particularly notable weapons, and though the contribution of burghers to town militias became much more prominent in the early modern period, could indicate that these specific militiamen were separate from both holy confraternity and craft guild—or at the very least are attempting to indicate as much.[13] The presence of a group of artisans who were not necessarily affiliated with the craft guilds is not without precedent in medieval guild procession, as demonstrated by the participation of the cloth-sellers guild in Leuven and Mechelen.[14] Contemporary documents list the constituent parts of the corpus urbanum as “the mayors, the aldermen, the council, the headmen of the burghers, the deans and sworn men of all the craft guilds, and all the collective commons”, and this descending hierarchical list is reflected in the order by the groups are marching in the Leugemeete.[15]

Fig.3(A): Calque reproduction by Jean-Baptiste Bethune and company, circa 1860.
STAM, Ghent, 09555.4-6
Fig.4(B): Calque reproduction by Jean-Baptiste Bethune and company, circa 1860.
STAM, Ghent, 09555.5-6

            The presence of a group of burghers wielding a personalised assortment of weaponry is notable, as it disrupts the traditional narrative that town militias were dominated by the craft guilds and indicates a broader level of civic participation in their collective defence that is usually relegated to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It also suggests that these weapons were provided—and prized—by the individuals wielding them; a luxury that may have been unattainable for many craft guilds but demonstrably possible for other civic associations. Above all else, I hope this essay has demonstrated the inherent value in utilizing guild iconography to further understand the functions of a considerable substrata of urban life in the later medieval period.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Dr Kelly DeVries for the exchange from which this essay stems.

Cite this article as: Noah Smith, "The Arms & Armour of the Guilds in the Leugemeete Chapel: A Case of Individual Taste?," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 31/12/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1169.

[1] For a breakdown of the urban development of fourteenth-century Ghent, see Dumolyn et al: Jan Dumolyn, Marc Ryckaert, Heidi Deneweth, Luc Devliegher, Guy Dupont, Medieval Bruges c.850-1550, ed. by Andrew Brown, Jan Dumolyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 152-195

[2] Jeannine Baldewijns, Lieve Watteeuw , ‘Calques van de muurschilderingen uit de Leugemeete met vourstelling van de stedelijk milities (1861-2004)’, Handelingen der Maatschappij voor Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde te Gent, LX, (2006), 337-367 (p.340).

[3] The water colours were done by Felix De Vigne, an antiquarian who initially discovered the paintings under whitewash in 1946 and published his illustrations the following year: Félix De Vigne, Recherches Historiques sur Les Costumes Civils et Militaires des Gidles et des Corporations de Métiers, leurs Drapeaux, leurs Armes, leurs Brasons, etc. (Rue des Peignes: Gyselynck, 1847). The calques were undertaken by Baron Jean Baptiste Bethune and a team of historians and architects circa 1860 and are now housed in the STAM museum in Ghent.

[4] J.-B.C.F. Béthune de Villers, Alfons van Werveke, Het godshuis van Sint-Jan & Sint-Pauwel te Gent, bijgenaamd de Leugemeete, 2 edn (Gent: Annoot-Braeckman, 1902, p.IX

[5] Appendix, Fig. 1, Archive, UGhent 446419BE

[6] Jean Henri Chandler, ‘A brief examination of warfare by medieval urban militias in Central and Northern Europe ‘, Acta Periodica Duellatorum, 1, (2013), 106-150 (p. 109).

[7] For an overview of state armouries during the early modern period, see: Kelly DeVries, ‘State Armies in Theory and Practice during the Renaissance’, Krieg in der Geschichte, 111, (2019), 43-69.

[8] Carina Fryklund, Late Gothic Wall Painting in the Southern Netherlands (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepolis, 2011), p. 53

[9] As identified by Felix De Vigne.

[10] There is some evidence of artistic invention in the antiquarian renderings of the wall paintings; I unpack this in my thesis, which is still forthcoming.

[11] Appendix. Fig. 2, STAM, Ghent, 09555.6-6

[12] Appendix, Fig. 3, A / STAM, Ghent, 09555.4-6, B / STAM, Ghent, 09555.5-6.

[13] Chandler, p. 112

[14] Jelle Haemers, Artisans and craft guilds in the medieval city, in V. Lambert & P. Stabel, Golden times. Wealth and Status in the Middle Ages in the Southern Low Countries, Tielt, Lannoo, (2016) 209-239, p.213

[15] Jan Dumolyn, ‘Guild Politics and Political Guilds in Fourteenth-Century Flanders’, The Voices of the People in Late Medieval Europe, Communication and Popular Politics, ed. By Jan Dumolyn, Jelle Haemers, Hipolito Rafael Oliva Herrer, Vincent Challet, Turnhout 2014 (Studies in European Urban History, 33), p.15-48, p. 15

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.