Wrong place, wrong time – The inclusion of strangers into the urban armed forces

Sovereign cities in the Holy Roman Empire had their own military force. To a significant degree, this armed force was composed of the citizens of the town. Citizens therefore knew that if – or more accurately, when – the day came an urban army was needed, they had to take up arms and march to war themselves.[1]. However, in every town, at any given moment there were strangers[2] present. What happened to people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a city preparing to go to war?

This blog entry explores the relation of these strangers to the urban militia. I will do that based on a specific document in the state archive of Basel-Stadt dealing with the strangers in Basel as the town was preparing to enter into military conflict with Habsburg. (fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher J 1, Rufbuch I, 1417 – 1459, fol. 156r.

In early 1445, the town of Basel was in acute military danger as tensions between neighbouring Habsburg and Basel ran higher and higher.[3] Soon, the city council made the decision to raise the militia and subsequently called all the male inhabitants of Basel to arms. In contrast, and in addition to previous calls to arms, the government this time decided that strangers currently in town also had to be part of the urban military forces. This decision is recorded in the “Rufbuch”[4]. The “Rufbuch” (book of calls) was one of Basel’s many city books (liber civitatis). However, it represents a special category of city book since the Rufbuch was especially created to document what today would be called public service announcements. The “Rufbuch” consist of laws, admonitions and calls to order the city council had decided in the city hall that were then – literally – called out to the people. In order to do this, a town crier stood on the stairs of the town hall and read the entries of the Rufbuch out loud in the direction of the market square situated right in front of the town hall. (fig. 2) Accordingly, these texts were specifically created to be read out loud, and this influenced their appearance. For example, the text is written in noticeably bigger fond then records meant for reading only. Also, there are conspicuously numerous corrections done to the text, maybe indicating improvements made after previous rounds of reading.

Fig. 2: In the front: town hall with corn market. From here the new order was made public. Excerpt from the Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Merian, Matthäus: Gesamtansicht der Stadt aus der Vogelperspektive von Nordosten, 1615, Kupferstich, BILD 1_291.)

In 1445, the city crier would have cried out this new ruling concerning strangers ordered to join the armed forces to the people gathering in the market square. He announced that the city council had conferred and decided that since there was “vil frömdes volkes” (a lot of strangers) in town, these strangers should join the urban militia. The strangers had to show their willingness to do so by swearing that they would march under the city banner. Subsequently, the strangers were ordered to assign themselves to one of Basel’s 15 guilds. This presented a necessary step to become part of the urban forces, since the guilds made up the town’s basic organisational structure. How serious the government took this new practice is made clear in the declaration that everyone not complying to the order would be treated as an enemy of the town.

Basel was apparently especially in need of men with carts, since the townspeaker was pressed to emphasise that strangers in possession of carts and carriages had to have them in good condition and had to freely offer them up for use. This may be explained by the demands made by the course of this specific war, since Basel’s military forces did not only prepare for short excursions, but for longer expeditions which even included sieges. Such ventures required a certain amount of carts for all the needed goods out into the field and in front of the besieged places. Bounty also had to be ferried back somehow.[5]

The town crier also informed the public, that out in the field the strangers in Basel’s army had to wear a red cross on a white surface, signalling the side they were on. This was the standard of the Swiss Confederation – allies of Basel in this war. The sign was usually worn stitched onto a sleeve.[6]

Unfortunately, the city council does not elaborate who specifically they meant by “vil frömdes volk”. Even though it is somewhat obvious, here it bears emphasising that a town’s population did not only consist of its permanent inhabitants. Indeed, at any given moment in time, Basel would have had a wealth of strangers in town – newcomers from near and far who wanted to settle in as well as mere passer-throughs in form of merchants, travelling artisans, pilgrims etc.

Yet, the constant stream of newcomers and passer-throughs must have reached a remarkable dimension in 1445. The threat of war did not only mobilise armed citizens, but also people who fled from it, mostly rural residents from the wider region who sought the protection of the city walls. Basel therefore would have had more far more people inside its walls than usual. In this regard, there is an enlightening addition made in the Rufbuch fol. 156r, after the actual declaration. In it, the government points out that if people from neighbouring Habsburg land were to flee to Basel, they would be considered enemies and be imprisoned.

At the same time, Basel still hosted the members of the council of Basel including a papal court that was regularly joined by important guests. In 1445, for example, Margaret of Savoy visited her father the pope in Basel on her journey towards her wedding destination, bringing her own court with her.[7]

Clerics and diplomatic guests were not the ones addressed by the new order recorded in the Rufbuch though. We can safely guess that the order rather addressed the men who had arrived fleeing from the countryside and from smaller, more vulnerable towns into the relative safety of the city walls. In times of acute military danger, the municipal government of Basel decided to include these strangers currently residing in Basel into the town’s armed forces. With this move, they increased their fighting power and also, maybe more importantly, they attempted to defuse the perceived threat of the unknown the unusual amount of strangers presented. For the government, the order created an avenue of access and control by constructing a situation where either the strangers let themselves be incorporated into the town’s war efforts or the government could remove them for not subjecting themselves to local law.


[1] For the characteristics and composition urban Swiss medieval armies see Regula Schmid, “Bezahlte Bürger – Gratissöldner: Die Zusammensetzung Städtischer Heere Im Spätmittelalter,” in Miliz oder Söldner? Wehrpflicht und Solddienst in Stadt, Republik und Fürstenstaat 13.-18. Jahrhundert, ed. Regula Schmid and Philippe Rogger, 91–114, Krieg in der Geschichte 111 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2019).

[2] In the following, the term “stranger” is understood as either a newcomer from villages or other towns or a passer-through. “Strangers” who did not come from outside, yet who had a sense of “strangerhood” attached to themselves, as for example Jews in central Europe or, to a degree, women, are not part of the following. However their relation to the urban martial community will be a focus point of my dissertation. For the use and meaning of the term “stranger” see Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers, Making Lives in Medieval Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] There was a series of military conflict between members of the Swiss Confederation and also Habsburg between 1436 – 1450, called the “Alter Zürichkrieg”. See Martin Illi, “Alter Zürichkrieg” in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS), version dating 04.05.2015, https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/008877/2015-05-04/.

[4] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher J 1, Rufbuch I, 1417 – 1459, fol. 156r.

[5] August Bernoulli, “Basels Kriegführung im Mittelalter,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 19 (1921), p. 110.

[6] August Bernoulli, “Die Organisation von Basels Kriegswesen im Mittelalter,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 17 (1918), p. 155.

[7] Peter Rückert, “Margarethe von Savoyen in Basel 1445: Herrschaftsrepräsentation und ihre Medien im städtischen Kontext,” in Raum und Medium: Literatur und Kultur in Basel in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, ed. Johanna Thali and Nigel F. Palmer, 201-218 (De Gruyter, 2020).

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