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.
Cite this article as: Daniel Jaquet, "Dancing on the rope, swallowing knives, juggling with daggers. Sword players in the 15th century.," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 15/04/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1240.

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).

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

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, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/982.

[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.