“As turf is thrown, a remarkable battle begins”: A martial game in the late-medieval town of Hirschberg, Silesia

“Oh, milk-giving walls!”: The fortified town of Hirschberg in the late fifteenth century

Silesia is a region in today’s southern Poland which throughout the whole Middle Ages maintained close relations with the German and Czech cultural circles (Fig. 1). In effect, the process of urbanisation started relatively early there in comparison to other lands claimed by dukes or kings of Poland. Hence, when medieval Silesian towns become traceable in the historical record they are often already chartered and quite developed. Such is the case of Hirschberg – today’s Jelenia Góra (Polish); formerly known also as Hiršberk (Czech) and Mons Cervini or Cervimontium (Latin). As early as the thirteenth century, the town would have a mill and enjoyed an urban charter granted by Silesian dukes. However, it must have been founded not long before, as there are no accounts about the town walls prior to 1341 – a reliable indicator, as burghers were obliged to erect fortifications by their charters[1]. Nevertheless, despite its small size[2] – dictated partially by its location on a rocky outcrop at the foot of the Karkonosze Mountains (Czech: Krkonoše; Silesian: Riesageberge) – the town developed quickly[3]. Before 1350, it was fully fortified with walls, gates, and towers and in 1346 became an active member of the League of Towns (Stadtebundt) of the Świdnik-Jawor Duchy. The latter information is especially relevant here, because such membership meant that Hirschberg had to participate in military actions undertaken by the League, mostly to secure trade routes from robber knights and brigands[4]. In 1377, the Council bought out the town’s voigtship, thus rendering Hirschberg effectively independent from ducal jurisdiction, whereas when the whole Duchy was inherited by Czech kings in 1392 Hirschberg had its privileges confirmed and even expanded[5].

Figure 1: Location of the town of Jelenia Góra (German: Hirschberg) on the contemporary map of Poland and the neighbouring countries. Wikimedia Commons.

On the downside, Hirschberg’s incorporation into the Czech monarchy brought not only exciting trading opportunities, but also grave threats when the Hussite Wars broke out in the early 15th century. Luckily, for them, the town’s residents apparently invested their resources well in the times of prosperity, as they managed to repel three Hussite assaults during a siege in 1427[6]. Moreover, they did not rest on their laurels and continued to develop town’s defences (Fig. 2). In 1433, Hirschbergers bought and demolished the neighbouring knightly castle and re-used the resources obtained this way to strengthen their own fortifications[7]. When their armed expedition decisively defeated local robber knights’ family and razed their castle in Borowy Jar (ca. 1450), town’s security seemed complete. After a period of peace, however, new measures became necessary at the turn of the centuries, when the Turkish threat rose in the south-east. Unsurprisingly, the proactive Hirschbergers responded by building a second ring of fortifications with ten guardtowers (bastei) and artillery posts. In effect, a Silesian geographer and chronicler, Bartholomäus Stein, noted in his Descriptio Totius Silesiae (1505), that Hirschberg “is a small town, but splendidly fortified”[8]. This commitment and trust shown by the burghers towards their fortifications, as well as still quite vivid memory of their victories against the Hussite besiegers and robber knights, clearly echo in yet another description of Hirschberg, Panegyricus Silesiacus by Pancratius Vulturnius (1506), which praises the town’s “milk-giving walls” (O manantia moenia lacte)[9] and martial prowess of its inhabitants:

Oh, town of great fortune, praised throughout centuries! / Laud joyfully your all-encompasing defender [i.e. Saint Pancratius[10]]. / Under such general you shall return to your walls victorious / whenever your warriors encroach castles grim[11].

Figure 2. Reconstruction of the town of Hirschberg and its fortifications in the fourteenth century. After S. Firszt, Architectura militaris urbis Montis Cervini (budownictwo obronne Jeleniej Góry). In K. Stąpór (ed.), Rola wojska w rozwoju intelektualnym Jeleniej Góry, Jelenia Góra 2008, p. 25, fig. 2.

Hirschberg in Pancratius Vulturnius’s Panegyricus Silesiacus

The poem quoted above by Pancratius Vulturnius (actually Pankratius Geier; born ca. 1480 in Hirschberg), a Silesian theologian and humanist, is an important source on the history of the region in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century[12]. According to the author, the work was created during his stay at the university in Padua as a reply to other students praising their homelands – Pancratius allegedly realised back then that nobody had yet composed a poetic laudation of his land[13]. In result, he borrowed from the best Latin classics to create a description of the province in general and its particular towns, of which the largest was Breslau (Vratislavia) and the dearest – his own home town of Hirschberg (Mons Cervini). Whereas his poetic descriptio is quite formulaic in many places, thus raising justified doubts about the author’s actual knowledge of the described places[14], this is by no means the case in his treatment of Hirschberg. In the fragment commonly called Laus Hyrschberge (“Praise of Hirschberg”), poetic tropes are given their most creative use to confer genuine affection and paint a very detailed image of his “little homeland”[15]. Most interestingly, he recounts unique folk customs observed in Hirschberg, which could have not been copied from any classic auctor and thus their descriptions can be treated as reliable historical accounts[16]. Notably, one of these customs is of clearly martial character and shall be discussed below in detail.

“Turf war”

The interesting passage mentioned above comes from verses 392-414 and is quoted in its entirety in the Appendix according to the eighteenth-century transcription published by Johann Jacob Füldener[17]. According to Vulturnius, in early October boys would be relieved from school by their teachers in order to take part in a mock battle, which was an ancient tradition (quae dicenda fuit stans consvetudo per annos). They were divided into two teams, one of which represented defenders of Hirschberg and the other – foreign invaders. They would don helmets, carry shields, and spend the next three days combatting each other in the hills surrounding the town. This noisy and cheerful recreation, vividly described by Vulturnius, is termed a “turf war” (cespite bellum), because the young combatants erected earthwork fortifications and fought at them using turf projectiles as weapons, without complaining even when hit.

Given that Vulturnius was born ca. 1480 and that “turf wars” must have been practiced before he left to Padua, it is possible to date this custom to the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and hence –approximately two generations after Hirschberg’s successful defence against the Hussites in 1427. Based on this, Stanisław Firszt proposed that it was a kind of spectacle commemorating these events[18]. Alternatively, if we believe the poet that it was a long-standing social practice, one may follow Joanna Rostropowicz and speculate that it constituted a local mutation of much older pre-Christian beliefs regarding the eternal rivalry between summer and winter – according to ethnographers, different sorts of folk combative spectacles celebrating it were still performed in Silesia as late as in the 20th century[19]. Regardless of its actual origins, however, it has to be noted that it was a mock siege, not a pitched battle or any other form of skirmish – a choice quite logical in a town so reliant on and proud of its fortifications. Therefore, while it remains unclear whether the helmets and shields used by the boys were actual pieces of armament or just imitations[20], the game itself could certainly serve as a kind of early military preparation tailored to fit local conditions.

Closing remarks

Recent broad-based studies on violence in early-modern German cultural milieu have revealed not only its clear ethical underpinnings and implications, but also deep role played by martiality in period’s ideas of masculinity and social identity, in case of both nobles and common folk. The picture that emerges is that of a society where “violent conflict is not dysfunctional”[21] and knights, clerics, and burghers alike are men socialised into the “culture of the sword”[22]. However, due to the available source base, these studies shed light mostly on the lives of adults already immersed in this culture – such as members of urban shooting fraternities or participants of various feuds. From this perspective, the “turf war” offers an important window into how ludicity was harnessed to turn boys into men capable of standing their ground against real violence. Moreover, by embedding a dose of socially-appreciated violence in the direct geographical vicinity of the town and engaging its residents’ collective memory of siege warfare, it undoubtedly helped young Hirschbergers appreciate the martial aspect of their social and physical environment. Hence, even if we assume that this game was mostly a performative event, a spectacle, the recurring references to town’s fortifications and valour of its defenders made by Vulturnius, presumably a participant in the “turf war” himself, indicate that its impact went beyond entertainment alone. It made young burghers see themselves as inheritors of martial feats of their elders and members of a martial community of their peers –Hirschberg’s future defenders. In other words, in this small Silesian town Barbara Ann Tlusty’s “culture of the sword” manifested itself in such a way that it could be more accurately described as the “culture of the walls”.

Cite this article as: Maciej Talaga, "“As turf is thrown, a remarkable battle begins”: A martial game in the late-medieval town of Hirschberg, Silesia," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 24/03/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1236.

Appendix: Laus Hyrschberge (fragment)

In ferias septem tu relligiosa diebus Patribus impendis venerans altaria donis et cruce gestata tua figis lumina templis. Tunce placidus pueris indulget iure magister, qui simul in patrios excedunt agmine campos, gestantes galeas, clipeo subeunte coruscas. Vociferant et saxa petunt in montibus alta, seque ipsam subito puerilis dividit aetas. Qui tua felices suxerunt ubera nati, parte manent una: sed et advena turba secundam sortitur partem: stant ambae in rupibus altis. Hinc, ubi tempus adest, evulso cespite multo fortiter accurrens illam petit altera partem, ut redeat valide victrix clamore per urbem. Exoritur mirum vibrato cespite bellum. Terra volat castris, hic cespitis excipit ictum, huius pulvureum perturbat gramen ocellos, ast ille excussos arcens umbone lapillos cespite collecto simulatum vibrat in hostem, haec tribus instaurant pueri sua castra diebus, quae dicenda fuit stans consvetudo per annos.


[1] J. Piekalski, Od Kolonii do Krakowa. Przemiana topografii wczesnych miast, Wrocław 1999, p. 23. It remains possible, however, that a borough functioned there earlier, as claimed by Polish medieval chroniclers who date Hirschberg’s beginnings to the early twelfth century. Nevertheless, archaeological investigations conducted in the town so far do not support such view, cf. S. Firszt, Architectura militaris urbis Montis Cervini (budownictwo obronne Jeleniej Góry). In K. Stąpór (ed.), Rola wojska w rozwoju intelektualnym Jeleniej Góry, Jelenia Góra 2008, p. 11.

[2] Approximately 1000 inhabitants ca. 1329, see Firszt, op.cit., p. 15.

[3] Ibidem, pp. 11-14.

[4] S. Firszt, Uzbrojenie oddziałów miejskich w średniowieczu na przykładzie miast śląskich, Archeologia Historica Polona, 7, 1998, p. 182.

[5] Firszt, Architectura militaris…, p. 15.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Firszt, Uzbrojenie oddziałów…, p. 187.

[8]parvum est oppidum, sed eggregie cinctum, B. Stein, Descriptio totius Silesiae. In F. Nieländer (ed.), Schlesische Kultur. Heft 1, Breslau 1927, p. 28.

[9] J.J. Füldener, Bio- et bibliographia Silesiaca, das ist: Schlesische Bibliothec und Bücher Historie. Volumen I, Breslau 1731, p. 377.

[10] The patron saint of the town and Vulturnius’s namesake. Alternatively, this line may perhaps be interpreted as referring to the fortifications surrounding the town from all sides.

[11] O nimium felix urbs, o dicenda per aevum, / Exulta gaudens hoc undique defensore. / Hoc Duce Martipotens repetes tua moenia victrix, / Irrueris quoties in tetrica milite castra, see Ibidem.

[12] For the most recent and comprehensive study of his life and work, see J. Rostropowicz, Pankracego Vulturniusa Pochwała Śląska. In J. Rostropwicz (ed.), Tradycje kultury antycznej na Śląsku, Opole 1997, pp. 95-125.

[13] Ibidem, pp. 96-98.

[14] Ibidem, pp. 104-109.

[15] P. Bering, Średniowieczne „małe ojczyzny” czy centra świata? Studia Europaea Gnesnensia, 1-2, 2010, pp. 291-292.

[16] Rostropowicz, op.cit., pp. 105-106.

[17] Füldener, op.cit., p. 376.

[18] Firszt, Architectura militaris…, p. 16.

[19] Rostropowicz, op.cit., p. 106.

[20] S. Firszt, contrary to J. Rostropowicz, seems to assume that they were real armaments, but it does not seem supported by the source, cf. Firszt, Architectura militaris…, p. 16 and Rostropowicz, op.cit., p. 106.

[21] H. Zmora, The Feud in Early-Modern Germany, Cambridge 2015, p. 21.

[22] B.A. Tlusty, Martial Identity and the Culture of the Sword in Early Modern Germany. In D. Jaquet, K. Verelst & T. Dawson (eds.), Late Medieval and Early Modern Fight Books, Leiden-Boston 2016, pp. 547-570.

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.