A Rhineland Army: Composition and Regional Distribution of Cologne’s Contingent to the Imperial Army of 1532

In 1532 the Holy Roman Empire was on the march. Three years after the long, bloody and ultimately successful defence of Vienna in 1529 another large Ottoman army was on its way, led by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and trying to finish the tasked left undone.[1] To meet this threat, the Imperial Diet in Regensburg called for troops from the Imperial Estates, a so-called ‘eilende Türkenhilfe’ (emergency relief force to help against the Turks). The Imperial Army, which had not always proven to be a fast or efficient force,[2] raised about 6000 horsemen and 30.000 foot-soldiers. However, the fortunes of war prevented a big battle, as the Ottoman army was halted by the Hungarian fortress of Kőszeg (then known by its German name Güns). The major Ottoman host retreated south, but smaller contingents remained and raided the surrounding country. Such a group of roughly 8000 men was defeated at Leobersdorf (in today’s Lower Austria) by Imperial troops. This remained their only major battle and with the threat gone, the Imperial army dissolved in October 1532.

The aim of this short essay is to examine one of the contingents sent to the Imperial Army. The Imperial City of Cologne, located on the left bank of the river Rhine in modern Northern Rhine-Westfalia, Germany, was one of the biggest cities north of the Alps. After the formal recognition of its status as an Imperial Estate in 1475, its military and financial resources were frequently used by the Habsburg Emperors for their numerous wars.[3] Troops from Cologne served for the Empire in Maximilian’s wars in Flanders in 1477, in the war against the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus in 1482, in another campaign in Flanders against Bruges to liberate the imprisoned Maximilian in 1488, in the siege of Arnhem in 1505 and in the campaign against the outlawed knight Franz von Sickingen in 1517. Therefore, the army raised to defend the Empire in 1532 belongs in the context of this tradition.

Troops from Cologne guarding an execution in 1587. Detail of: Franz Hogenberg, Execution of Hieronymus Michiels in Cologne, 1587. Rijskmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-78.785-230. (CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) license).

One may wonder why this campaign deserves a closer analysis, as the contribution of Cologne to the outcome of the war was minimal, if not insignificant. For that very reason, the focus lies not on the activities of the city’s men in Austria, but on the composition of this army as such. The archives of Cologne keep a little booklet entitled as Monster zedell (inspection paper), that lists all 500 men, who took part in the campaign.[4] In the document, they are called landtzknecht though we might not necessarily suspect them to be professional or battle-worn soldiers. Their leaders are Andreas of Esslingen, most likely a south German mercenary, and Johann vom Hirtz, a member of a well-established family of the city’s elite. In fact, all of these men were paid for their service. The employment of paid men to guard the city’s walls and to fight the city’s conflicts is a practice that, in the case of Cologne, dates back to the late 13th century. Yet this does not imply in any way, that the city relied on ‘foreign’ troops to keep it safe, but often employed its own citizens as mercenaries.[5] Thus, paid men cannot easily be equated with foreigners, as traditional military history has abundantly done.[6]

One of the aims in the analysis of the Cologne army of 1532 is to highlight this statement, supplemented by the question from which areas the mercenaries came. To answer both a presumption has to be made – one that is important to the argument but cannot be ultimately proven. The great majority of the men enlisted in the Monster zedell are named after places, so-called toponymical surnames. Examples are Daim van Guylich (of Jülich), Hanß van Covelens (of Koblenz) or Hanß Arndtz van Norenberch (of Nuremberg). Such names usually imply an origin from a certain city or region, but do not always prove where the person was born. This can be demonstrated by taking a quick look at the elite of Cologne in the examined period, where families such as the von Siegen, von Heimbach or von Stralen can be found. They might have migrated from the places their toponymical surnames refer to and were named after them when arriving in Cologne, but these surnames were passed on to their families. Therefore, in 1532 e.g. Arnold von Siegen, several times mayor of Cologne, was born citizen of this city and not of Siegen.

This process and information is important to the following analysis. However, while not every man with a toponymical surname might actually originate from that town, there is a strong indication that this still holds true for the majority of the mercenaries. If we consider the 35 men called ‘from Düren’ or the 38 men called ‘from Cologne’ it becomes obvious that we are not dealing with huge families collectively enlisting but with a group of men from the same place.

Out of the total of 500 men 288 could be assigned to 106 (identifiable) places. Their medium distance from Cologne is 89.83 km, but many of them are located in the Rhineland region close to the city. The majority of places (69 in total) is just mentioned once, 12 are mentioned twice and 9 three times. This geographical distribution gets more precise if we now extract the 17 places mentioned the most. They provided 168 landsknechts, thus only 16 % of the places provided 58.33 % of the 288 men that could be assigned. Leading amongst them is Cologne itself with 38 men, followed by Düren (42 km Distance from Cologne) with 35 men. Next are Linnich (53 km) with 14, Jülich (46 km) with 13 and Nijmegen (135 km) with eight men. Seven mercenaries came from Aachen (71 km) and Euskirchen (35 km), six from Geldern (85 km) and Kempen (66 km), five from Herzogenrath (68 km) and Neuss (37 km), four from Bergheim (25 km), Bonn (28 km), Kerpen (23 km), Sittard (83 km), Wijk bij Duurstede (179 km) and Zons (24 km). Thus, the majority of men came from a medium distance of just 58.82 km. More than every tenth originated from Cologne itself.[7] Besides this strong regional aspect, there is a minority, which came from rather distant places such as Trier (155 km), Frankfurt (173 km), Osnabrück (188 km), Delft (243 km), Bruges (288 km) or Nuremberg (382 km), but all of these cities are mentioned only once.

In conclusion we see that the army of 500 landsknechte the city of Cologne fielded in 1532 was in large parts drawn together from the city itself and the surrounding Rhineland with a clear emphasis on the left bank of the river. In this region, the city could rely on its longstanding network spanning the lands between the Rhine and the North Sea. At the same time, it is clear that even in the age of the mercenary an army raised based on paid service could still have strong local ties. Constructing a clear opposition between the local militiaman and the foreign mercenary, as Niccolò Machivelli so famously did in his Il Principe (Cap. XII) is an unsuitable simplification, that should be avoided by modern research.

[1] A brief contextualisation of this campaign can be found in: Alfred Kohler, Das Reich im Kampf um die Hegemonie in Europa 1521–1648 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1990), pp. 13-14.

[2] The best in-depth study of Imperial Armies to date has been written by Patrick Leukel, „all welt wil auf sein wider Burgundi“ Das Reichsheer im Neusser Krieg 1474/75 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2019), who outlines the problems involved in raising an Empire-wide army.

[3] Brigitte Maria Wübbeke, ‘Die Stadt Köln und der Neusser Krieg 1474/75‘, Geschichte in Köln, 24 (1988), 35-64.

[4] Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln, Best. 50 (Köln und das Reich (K+R)), A 30.

[5] A practice that will be discussed in detail in my forthcoming dissertation of Cologne’s late medieval elite.

[6] The distinguished military historian Charles Oman, to give one of many possible examples, called the mercenary “A stranger to all the nobler incentives to valor, an enemy to his God and his neighbor, the most deservedly hated man in Europe.” Charles W. Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages, ed. and rev. by John H. Beeler (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), pp. 65-66.

[7] One might argue that all those men without toponymical surnames might also be inhabitants of Cologne and thus there was no need to note their place of origin. Yet this is a hypothesis that can only be proven by a prosopographic in-depth analysis.

To Stab the French!

Unrest on the River Banks of the Reuss

On 1 September 1512, a letter was written to the city council of Lucerne that described recent, rather unusual events that threatened to break the peace.

Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The letter, from an anonymous writer, describes what seems to be a plan by locals to attack a convoy of people from France who were travelling on the river Reuss. He shares the results of his inquiries into the planned attack by detailing to the city council what he had learned from different people he had interviewed. He himself was not involved with this proposed action. The letter was written in Merenschwand, a village under the rule of Lucerne and situated next to the river Reuss, which represented the border between the city states of Lucerne and Zurich. Both sides of the Reuss, and the river itself, feature heavily in the narrative (see Map1 and Map2).

Map 1: This detail of a map by Jos Murer from 1566 shows the concerned region, the villages mentioned in our source are highlighted. The dotted line on the river Reuss represents the border between the territories of Lucerne and Zurich.

Eigendtliche und grundtliche Verzeichnung aller Stetten, Graffschafften, Herrschafften, Landen, Gerichten und Gebieten so einer Statt Zürych zugehörig […] zu Zürych : by Christoffel Froschower, 1568.
Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Kartenslg Schw Ca 1.
Map 2: The two villages Merenschwand and Maschwanden and their location between the cities Lucerne and Zurich. In 1512, Merenschwand belonged to Lucerne and Maschwanden to Zurich.
GoogleMaps, 5. 9. 2019.

The first witness is Hans Wy of Merenschwand. He states that, as he was threshing grain in front of his home, five armed people came down the river Reuss, and that he recognised them as being from the Zurich side of the river. Curious at the sight of these armed men, Wy inquired after their business, but to no avail. He later heard from a boy that “sÿ wend die franntzosen stechen” (they want to stab the French). Our anonymous writer also managed to talk to this boy himself, who seemed to have confirmed the statement.

First paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

The next witness is Hans Maler, also from Merenschwand, whose testimony provided more concrete details. He describes an event in Maschwanden, a village on the Zurich side of the Reuss (see Maps 1 and 2), where a group of armed men were also seen passing through. He stated that the local innkeeper, upon seeing the men, asked what they were doing and they told him that they were after some Frenchmen, who they wanted to capture. Here we learn, that the supposed French must have been travelling by boat on the Reuss. Upon hearing that the armed men wanted to “schuffen und stechen” (hit and stab) the French, the innkeeper went to get his harness and pike and joined them in their mission. He was not, however, alone: apparently the whole village solidarized with them and joined in.

Last paragraph of the letter.
Staatsarchiv Luzern, AKT 13/3456, Projekt eines Attentates auf den französischen Agenten auf der Reuss bei Merenschwand, Kundschaft, 1. 9. 1512.

Hans Maler further relates to our anonymous author that a local official instructed the people that, at his order, they should throw stones at the French if they refused to come ashore. Who exactly this local official was and where his authorities lay is unclear.

Another official, Felix Schwend, had a different stance on the matter. He was an important official from Zurich, as he represented the city’s jurisdiction in this region of the Zurich city state. Schwend told the people that he would not help them kill the French, but he would also not hinder them. Schwend, who had been a city councilman in Zurich and part of the “Constaffel” society, belonged to the ruling elite of Zurich.[1] With this in mind, it is not surprising that he would not support such an unlawful attack, but he was clearly also not a part of the pro-French faction either.

Finally, in the last segment of the letter, we learn a little more about this French convoy on the river Reuss. They were probably travelling from Lucerne, where they had secured a deal to hire mercenaries. We know this because, as Maler says, he was not willing to help kill the French, even for a 100 gulden: another replied, in turn, that he would do it for less, “wann sin herrn inn nitt gleitt geben hetten” (if his lords did not give them escort. Meaning mercenaries). Since we can assume that this person is also from Merenschwand, “sin herrn” would refer to the city council of Lucerne. This is further supported by the fact that the Frenchmen were travelling down the Reuss, as it flows down the region from Lucerne.

It is important to remember that this document has to be analysed in the context of the Italian Wars and the ongoing discussions and discontent regarding the “Pensionen”. This was a practice in which money was given, either to a Swiss political body or individual person, from a foreign ruling elite to gain political favour and access to Swiss mercenaries. The French kings were chief agents in this market. This led to a series of revolts by the rural populace in the Swiss Confederation, known as the “Pensionenunruhen”: they include the curiously named “onion war” (1513-1515) in Lucerne and “gingerbread war” (1515) in Zurich among others.[2] They exemplify the deep discontent held by the rural populace against the “Pensionenwesen”: our document gives us a fascinating glimpse into the growing dissatisfaction of the people in the rural areas of Lucerne and Zurich against the urban, pro-French elites. The authorities in Lucerne therefore had good reasons for wanting to know exactly what had happened in the region of Merenschwand, who was involved, and what they did. It is further noteworthy, that the anonymous author of the “Kundschaft” only mentioned people in the jurisdiction of Zurich actively participating in the planned attack, while the people of Merenschwand are all described as mere onlookers. This could well be a deliberate narrative to appease the city council of Lucerne.

Whether or not the attack was actually carried out has not been determined thus far. Further sources from Lucerne, such as the minutes of the city council, make no mention of this matter. It may, however, be possible to find additional information in the Zurich state archives.

[1] Dütsch, Hans-Rudolf. Die Zürcher Landvögte von 1402-1798, Ein Versuch zur Bestimmung ihrer sozialen Herkunft und zur Würdigung ihres Amtes im Rahmen des zürcherischen Stadtstaates (Zürich, 1994), p. 228.

[2] About the pensionen and the Pensionenunruhen in depht: Rogger, Philippe. Geld, Krieg und Macht. Pensionsherren, Söldner und eigenössische Politik in den Mailänderkriegen 1494–1516 (Baden 2015).

A thief’s tale – Bern, 1517

Hans zum Brunnen had been a thief at least for four years when he confessed to his crimes in presence of the two councilmen Hans Tormann and Bartlome Steiger, of the chief bailif Hans Isenschmid, of Adrian Effinger, court clerk, and of all the baillifs of the Gentlemen of Bern – without torture, on August 1, 1517.

Front page of the criminal proceedings concerning
Hans zum Brunnen’s thefts
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01.
Published with the authorization of the State Archive of Bern

His origins were in the Eifischtal (Val d’Anniviers), the valley that leads straight south from Sierre towards the Zinal glacier, and he had left this narrow vale when war had called: on May 1, 1512, the Bernese army under the commandment of Burkhard von Erlach and Hans Ougsburger set out towards Italy. The military clout of the 24’000 men strong confederate troop secured pope Julius’ II. victory over the French. Zum Brunnen might have been among the “free” soldiers who joined the Bernese. In any case, he probably crossed the Rawilpass, 2429 meters above sea-level and descended towards Lenk, in order to join the Bernese troops. It was early summer, the people were out cutting hay, and Hans walked into one of the houses, helped himself in the pantry to enough food, found a woman’s purse with two «fat» coins and a red hat that its owner had decorated with a coin and several sewn on silver buttons. Thus, Hans zum Brunnen committed his first theft on Bernese soil.

Four years later, we meet zum Brunnen again. Maybe he had stayed for a while in Italy where the wars against France waged on, and where strong men from mountain valleys had a good time finding adventure, food, and booty. In any case, he was back, but instead of helping Gilyan Ubert of Zweisimmen to saw wood, he helped himself to the contents of Ubert’s purse.

Excerpt of Hans zum Brunnen’s criminal proceedings
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01., p. 2

We can then follow zum Brunnen serving as a servant in winter (and emptying the purse of his employer), marching in spring towards the gentle banks of the lake of Thun – and meeting a fellow Eifischtaler who helped him rob a guesthouse when the innkeeper was in the bath and the wife and daughter in the garden. Italy and the war called again, and both men set off towards Cremona. But many inns lay on the way to Italy and back, and many purses. Marching across the Alps to Italy, they stole in Frutigen and Kandersteg, and on the way back, in Unterwalden and Brienz, in Leissigen and Spiez.

The thief’s way back, highlighted on the sixteenth century Bernese map.
Karte des Bernischen Staatsgebietes von 1577/78 von Thomas Schoepf. Dietikon : Stocker, 1970-1972. Universitätsbibliothek Bern, MUE Kart 402 c. pp. 8-9

Drifting towards east, zum Brunnen meets a fellow from the lake of Zurich who knows where the rich people live, and together they roam the region between Zurich and Lucerne. They have a fight in Baden and part ways. Hans is again drawn towards Bern where he eventually is caught in one of the many farms he frequents on the way.

Zum Brunnen’s misdeeds fill almost five pages of a dossier that is kept in Bern’s state archive in the drawer Urteilssprüche (verdicts). Court clerk Adrian Effinger’s upright, regular handwriting is replaced only in the end. The last words that seal zum Brunnen’s destiny are written by another hand. Its hasty, almost sloppy style matches the gruesome end that it is recording: With his hands bound behind his back, Hans Zum Brunnen from the Eifischtal, thief and occasional mercenary, was led to the gallows where he was “entrusted to the air”.

On the left: Last sections of Hans zum Brunnen’s criminal proceedings
StaB, Urkunden (C I a), F. Urteilssprüche, 1517.08.01., p. 7
On the right: Town of Bern with its two gallows. Hans zum Brunnen was hanged on the one to the right.
Karte des Bernischen Staatsgebietes von 1577/78 von Thomas Schoepf. Dietikon : Stocker, 1970-1972. Universitätsbibliothek Bern, MUE Kart 402 c. p. 9
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