The Free Imperial City of Nuremberg (Freie Reichsstadt Nürnberg)was one of the more important settlements in Central Europe. Depending on precisely when and how you measure urban populations, during the late medieval period it was one of the top five to ten in terms of size, with a population of roughly 22,000 denizens in 1431, of whom 7,146 were full or partial citizens qualified to bear arms, with 381 priests, and 744 Jews and foreigners[i]. Comparable towns included Cologne, Prague, Wroclaw, Strasbourg, Frankfurt am Main, Gdansk, Augsburg, and Hamburg. In terms of diplomatic and economic power, Nuremberg was also formidable, with strong trade links along the north-south Via Imperii trade route (linking the Baltic to Italy), and a well-developed manufacturing sector including a renowned metalworking and armaments industry. Nuremberg was also the first and most frequent location where the Reichstag, the Imperial diet or proto-parliament of the Holy Roman Empire, would meet.
Many of the larger Free Cities in Central Europe were located in clusters of dozens of small and medium sized towns. These shared complimentary economic and cultural links which, during times of crisis, were often the basis of mutual military support. Their collective strength also helped to make diplomacy with regional nobles and princes more harmonious. The most notable urbanized zones include Swabia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands), and the towns of the Hanseatic League mainly along the Southern Shore of the Baltic.
Nuremberg was a bit different in that it was located in more rural Franconia, and didn’t have so many walled cities for neighbors. Instead, their neighbors included the (from 1420s) semi-pariah heretic Kingdom of Bohemia, and the mighty princely domains of Bavaria and Brandenburg. Closer to the town, the regional petty nobility were often involved in feuds which impinged on the freedom of travel and personal safety of Nuremberg’s citizens, including some of her most prominent merchants.
Part of the problem was exacerbated by the great princely houses, and one in particular. Nuremberg, like most free cities, was not fully autonomous all at once, but rather had to struggle to gain rights one step at a time. The last step, a big one, was the elimination of the position of Burgrave of the city, and the takeover of the castle of the Burgrave, which was within city limits. Tension between the town and the Margrave of Brandenburg, who held the position since 1411, increased and the town even built a special tower (the Luginsland ‘look into the land’ tower), just to spy on the Burgrave’s castle. There were numerous conflicts between the burghers and the princely forces, and legal disputes about the authority of the Burgrave.
Finally, in 1420, the Burgrave’s Castle was destroyed in a fire during a skirmish between the forces of the Margrave of Brandenburg and the Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt (instigated, rumor had it, by the town authorities). The city purchased the castle ruins and the forest around it in 1427. From that time the city effectively had full autonomy. The margrave of Brandenburg however, of the formidable Hohenzollern family, did not consider the matter settled and continued to apply considerable legal, diplomatic and military pressure toward Nuremberg. One way they did this was to encourage barons and ministerial knights to enter into feuds with the town.
Like most Free Cities, Nuremberg had the legal right to defend her citizens and property by force of arms. The city was granted an imperial privilege in 1320 which allowed town militia to capture ‘harmful people’ (schädliche leute) beyond the town walls[ii], and punish them according to their own laws. Emperor Sigismund confirmed this right at his coronation in Rome in 1433, and Frederick III did the same in 1440. The result of all this was that Nuremberg was free to punish anyone who had harmed its citizens according to the judgement of her own magistrates (schöffe). So long as the town forces could catch them.
They didn’t catch them all, but they caught quite a few. Sometimes these knights were ransomed back to their families, and some kind of Rezeß was negotiated to end further hostilities. But in some of the more egregious cases, these nobles were hanged as common thieves and murderers (which a few of them essentially were). And in very severe cases the town militia would mobilize and go out with cannon and destroy the castles of these knights, which spelled catastrophe not only for the individual baron but for his whole family and lineage.
Needless to say, the regional nobility did not appreciate commoners taking the law into their own hands in this manner, even if they had permission from the emperor. Though there were both formal laws (based on the 1356 Golden Bull of Charles IV[iii]) and informal rules, all of which tended to moderate the violence and prevent escalation on both sides during feuds, fighting between regional nobles and town forces could get quite nasty, especially when certain barons passed the threshold from feuding aristocrat to full-fledged raubritter.
Nuremberg required the roads to be clear and free of tolls and robbers, or commerce would collapse and the city itself would die. Harsh measures were taken when raubritter took their feuds too far, resulting in some legendary rivalries. One of the first well known incidents took place during a feud between Nuremberg and the baron Eppelein von Gailingen, born in Illesheim in 1315. In the 1360s von Gailingen got into the habit of robbing and kidnapping merchants from Nuremberg along the imperial road, and became enough of a menace that the town indicted him in 1369 and sent an expedition to burn his castle in 1372, capturing him shortly afterward.
According to the legend, the raubritter was about to be hanged by the burghers, when he asked to sit on his horse one last time before dying. Cracking a joke about how he seemed to have no interest in seeing his wife and kids, the townsfolk brought him his horse. Despite his hands being bound, Eppelein spurred the horse and leapt over the walls and moat and escaped. It’s not clear how close to the truth this story was, but the legend took on a life of its own. The tale was so popular that murals of Eppelein leaping over the wall began to appear all over Germany, even in Nuremberg. The town’s forces captured him regardless in 1381, and had him broken on the wheel. But the legend lived on.
The Feud Book
Eppelein is also the first figure to appear in the manuscript Hs 22547. This is the ‘Feud Book’ (Fehdebuch) of the Imperial City of Nuremberg[iv], covering the period 1381-1513. Eppelein appears on the first page, in an entry for the date 1381. Perhaps the gruesome nature of his execution compelled the town authorities to document the incident in a bureaucratic manner.
The book has 121 pages with names on 115 pages and 92 coats of arms on 70 pages. Not all entries show the coat of arms. Most pages include one or two entries, many just show a name, while a few have a few lines of text listing out the misdeeds of the individual or family named. The book covers activity over 132 years, during which at least one feud was active at almost all times. Some of these are variations on the same family coat of arms (different branches for example) and some coats of arms appear more than once (trouble with the same family over time).
The first coat of arms in the book is the infamous Eppeilen von Gailigen on page 3 (1r). Other notable figures include Konrad Schott von Schottenstein (41v and 49r) and Christoff von Geich (49r) -more about them in a moment-, and the famous Götz von Berlichingen (folios 55r, 55v, 56r). It’s also worth noting that some family’s coats of arms appear over and over. Von Berlichingen’s coat of arms, a wheel on a black background, appears five times going back to the 14th Century (14r, 39v, 55r, 55v, 56r), possibly indicating that his family may have had disputes with the town for multiple generations.
Feuds among the nobility were most often directed toward each other[v], with the town typically being collateral damage. Under feudal law, each district and each stretch of road belonged to one noble or prince or another, so declaring a feud against say, the Bishop of Wurzburg might result in burghers being captured in his territory. Burghers had the additional advantage of often carrying very valuable cargo. On the other hand, burgher’s caravans were well defended, and even a successful capture could result in dire consequences.
Nobles were concerned about the possibility of their name ending up in Nuremberg’s feud book[vi]. The town sent out patrols of heavily armed horsemen to escort their caravans and sweep ahead to ensure the safety of the roads, while the nobles built block-houses, castles and earthen berms to establish observation and choke points where they could stage ambushes. Nuremberg routinely sent groups of between seven and eighteen men up to about 30-50 km from town[vii] for an average of four days from a total force of about 60-100 men who were permanently tasked with this job[viii].
Some of these horsemen were militia of the town, and some were nobles with whom the town had a military alliance[ix]. But one weapon which the town deployed that was the most hotly resented by the Franconian nobles in general was a corps of paramilitary horsemen whom the nobles contemptuously referred to as ‘staghounds’ (Hetzrüden). These men, who could be of a somewhat dubious background, patrolled the roads, arrested bandits and kept an eye on the more boisterous barons. One of these Hetzrüden was none other than the famous fencing master Hans Talhoffer, who was involved in the murder of the nobleman Wilhelm von Villenbach in 1434. Talhoffer was later captured by his brother, Hans, and was nearly executed, but was saved by the intervention of a nobleman and woman, and his willingness to write a letter blaming the murder on his six accomplices[x].
When the town decided a more serious situation was at hand, they would mobilize the militia, limber up some cannon and go out to destroy castles. They would also put up large bounties on some of their enemies, for example 2,000 Gulden for the brothers Hans and Fritz von Waldenfels (alive) or 1,000 Gulden (dead) in 1416[xi]. The Hetzrüden and the Feud Book seemed to inspire considerable fear on the part of the knights, and several wrote letters complaining of being chased, watched, or followed by horsemen from Nuremberg, and wrote letters to the Nuremberg council asking if their name had been put into the feud book[xii].
Relations between the estates of burgher and noble were complex. Although the regional nobility and urban patriciate did not intermarry much[xiii], many noble families had strong social and financial ties to the towns to whom they sold raw materials like food, firewood and charcoal (required in vast amounts by the town’s metal-working industries) and from whom they purchased many luxuries and necessities including arms and armor. Some nobles allowed putting out systems and infrastructure like mills tied to urban inudstries to be built in their villages, receiving rents in return. Bur there were also times when the town and Franconian nobility were sharply at odds, almost across the board. One early example of this was during the so called Margrave’s War or South German Town War of 1440-1449.
Without plunging into the full history of this event, which culminated in a failed siege of Nuremberg itself by the Margrave of Brandenburg Albrecht II “Achilles” and a host of Franconian knights, the feud resulted in some damage to Nuremberg’s economy, but overall a stalemate. Brandenburg remained an instigator of conflict between the estates however, and when hostilities once again flared up, one particular figure emerged as a major nemesis of the town. This was the knight Konrad Schott von Schottenstein. Allegedly he is the figure represented in Albrecht Dürer’s famous Knight, Death and the Devil. Schott, and his ally Christoph von Geich proved both adept in evading town authorities (in spite of a hefty bounty placed on his head) and ruthless in his hostility. Nuremberg was never able to catch him but his reputation suffered and the town later got even during the Landshut War of Succession when they took some of his land.
Although Emperor Maximillian I banned private feuds (in theory) in his Ewiger Landfriede “Everlasting Landfrieden” of 1495, this did not stop feuding or static between town and country nobility. While there were always some knights who could play the raubritter game well enough to evade capture, larger towns like Nuremberg were warlike too and very resourceful. They tended to have an edge in military technology such as firearms and cannon, (one notable example was the invention of the wheel-lock pistol in Nuremberg, which became an important cavalry weapon). The feud book too, as a representative of the institutional memory and organized security apparatus of the town, was a weapon in their arsenal.
The Swabian league – at the instigation of Nuremberg, burned 23 castles of Robber knights during the Franconian War in 1523 but even that didn’t end the pillaging by robber knights (and they were unable to catch their main target).
This is the castle of the infamous ‘hand cutter’ and raubritter, Thomas von Absberg, the forces on the bottom right are Nuremberg militia (red and white striped flag). This was during an expedition mounted by the Swabian League, largely at the instigation of Nuremberg, in 1523. Fortunately for posterity they brought along a ‘war correspondent’ painter who made portraits of every castle they burned. You can see the other 23 castles here:
For the original manuscript see also Digitalisat des Bamberger Burgenbuchs der Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
Finding Safety in Feuding. Nobles’ Responses to Nuremberg’s Rural Security Policy in the Mid-Fifteenth Century. / Pope, Benjamin. In: Virtus. Journal of Nobility Studies, Vol. 23, 31.12.2016, p. 11–31.
The Nuremberg Feud Book for 1381-1513:
Hillay Zmora The Feud in Early Modern Germany, (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Hillay Zmora State and Nobility in Early Modern Germany: The Knightly Feud in Franconia 1440-1567 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Staatsarchiv Nürnberg, Reichsstadt Nürnberg
[i] Nuremberg, Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed 05/12/2022
[ii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope), page 19
[iii] Among other stipulations, the person or entity declaring the feud was supposed to issue a formal warning, the A feud letter, or fehdebrief, is a special type of public notification that a feud has been declared. These would typically be posted in several places and in public meeting places such as the front doors of a church or the outer gate of a town.
[v] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope), page 18
[vi] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) pp 21-24
[vii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20
[viii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20
[ix] So called ‘paleburghers’, often granted a special form of citizenship to seal the alliance.
[x] Jens Peter Kleinau has an excellent and highly detailed blog on this incident here: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/1434-the-case-of-wilhelm-of-villach/
[xi] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 21
[xii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 22
[xiii] Finding Safety in Feuding Article (Ben Pope) page 20