Coexistence and conflict in Asia Minor cities during the first decades of the 14th century

By the end of the 13th century the Asia Minor territories of the Byzantine Empire were under threat by the incursion of various Turkish tribes. In 1302 the Byzantines were defeated by the early Ottomans in the battle of Bapheus. That was the first pitched battle between Byzantium and the Ottomans. In 1303 the byzantine emperor Andronikos II Paleologos hired the Great Catalan Company, a battletested group of mercenaries, to cope with the Turks in Asia Minor. The Catalans scored a few successes against the Turks but soon they broke off with the Byzantines and turned against them. Thus, during the early years of the 14th century while the Byzantine Empire was confronting the Catalan Company in the western provinces, the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor was completed. The available sources provide several but scattered information on the military operations that took place. Byzantium faced a dire state of affairs in Asia Minor since the countryside was under the complete control of the Turks and the Byzantines were kept blockaded in fortified towns such as Nicomedia and Nicaea.[1]

View of the Gate of Constantinople or the Northern Gate of Nice from outside the walls, LABORDE, Léon Emmanuel Simon Joseph. Voyage de l’Asie Mineure par Alexandre de Laborde, Becker, Hall, et L. de Laborde, rédigé et publié par Léon de Laborde, Παρίσι, Firmin Didot, 1838.

A significant degree of Turkish-Byzantine cooperation had been achieved in the city of Sardis, as the Turks had been granted a part of the city to live freely. This area was separated from the Byzantine sector with a wall. The Byzantines suspected that the Turks would change their mind and attack to fully occupy the city. As a preemptive measure they called in friendly troops. During a night the troops secretly entered the city and massacred the Turks.[2]  The byzantine emperor Andronikos II assigned the stratopedarches of the crossbowmen Sgouros and his soldiers to relieve the fortress Katoikia that was besieged by the Turks. The defenders were encouraged by the reinforcements and decided to confront the Turks in the open field. The Turks, numbering about 5,000 warriors, performed the following stratagem: they took control of the road leading to the city, where they stayed in ambush. Another part of their army attacked the Byzantines and forced them to retreat to the city walls safety via the only open escape route. But then the Turks in ambush attacked and thus the retreating Byzantines were encircled and finally defeated. As the inhabitants of Velokoma had rushed to the aid of Katoikia, the Turks took advantage of the opportunity and occupied the unguarded Velokoma.[3]

In Tripoli of ​​Meander, another case of “cooperation” between Byzantines and Turks has been recorded, which in this case led to the occupation of the city by the Turks. Due to the long lasting blockade and the lack of supplies, the Byzantines allowed merchants of turkish origin to enter and supply the city. After a short period, the Turks instead of supplies, loaded war trumpets on their animals and carried them into the city. During the night the merchants opened the gates and sounded the trumpets as a signal for the soldiers outside the walls to attack. The frightened and surprised Byzantines fled and the city was conquered.[4]

The Ottomans, despite the losses inflicted on them by the Byzantine archers, captured by force the fortress of Trikkokia, near Nicaea. They filled in the moat surrounding the wall with stones, tree trunks and soil and stormed the walls. The fall of Trikkokia was followed by a massacre of the population (1307).[5]

The ottoman chronicles outlook

The information of the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres regarding the conquest of Asia Minor and especially of Bithynia by the Turks is corroborated by some Ottoman chronicles, which preserved the related oral tradition.[6]

 (a) The Ottomans occupied Velokoma using a stratagem. They managed to put into the city some oxen loaded with big containers in which soldiers were hiding. As soon as it was night, the soldiers defeated the guards, opened the gates and the castle was occupied (it can be compared to the fall of Tripoli of Meander, as described by George Pachymeres).[7]

(b) In order to occupy a castle in the region of Nicaea, the Turks divided their army into three parts, only one of which attacked, while the other two remained hidden, one near the fort and the other in a nearby valley. After a few days of operations, the Turks pretended to abandon the siege and the Byzantines, deceived by the false information of a prisoner, left the fortress to pursue them. At this stage the Turks near the fort occupied a gate while the rest of the turkish army counterattacked. The Byzantines retreated only to find that their way back to the city was blocked. The Turks had managed to surround them (the Turkish tactic is reminiscent of the one described by George Pachymeres that led to the fall of Katoikia).[8]

(c) The strong fortifications of Bursa were not a match for the ottoman siegecraft and they opted for a long-term blockade combined with the construction of two “counter-fortresses” that completely cut-off the communications of the Byzantines.[9]  

The control of the countryside by the Turks, the blockade of the Byzantines in the fortified cities as well as the inability of Constantinople to send substantial reinforcements were the main causes that forced the Byzantines to surrender their cities in a process vividly described by the ottoman chronicles.[10] The Turks were unable to occupy the fortified cities by force while the Byzantines could not count on a relief force so a fragile model of coexistence between “besiegers” and “besieged” was established. But time worked in favor of the besiegers and sooner or later the Turks took advantage of this coexistence and made use of stratagems to occupy the fortified cities. Under these circumstances it was a matter of time for whole Asia Minor to be lost for Byzantium.

[1] Georges Pachymérès Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 24, 4 vols (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984 – Paris:Institut Français d’études Byzantines, 1999), IV (1999), pp. 451-59.

[2] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 441-43.

[3] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 455-57. George Georgiades – Arnakes, Οι Πρώτοι Οθωμανοί. Συμβολή εις το πρόβλημα της πτώσεως του Ελληνισμού της Μικράς Ασίας (1282-1337), Texte und Forschungen zur Byzantinisch-Neugriechischen Philologie 41 (Athens:1947), pp. 142-43.

[4] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 475-79.

[5] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 701-03.

[6] Elizabeth Α. Zachariadou, Ιστορία και Θρύλοι των Παλαιών Σουλτάνων (1300-1400) (Athens: National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, 1999), pp. 69-75.

[7] Zachariadou, pp.143-44.

[8] Zachariadou, pp.  157-58.

[9] Zachariadou, p. 152; Die altomanischen anonymen Chroniken, trans. by Friedrich Giese, 2 vols(Breslau: Selbstverlage, 1922 – Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1925), II (1925), pp. 19-20.

[10] Zachariadou, pp. 153-55, 159-60, 162-63.

An Englishman at the Siege of Guînes (1558)

In January 1558, a small force of English, Spanish, and Burgundian soldiers garrisoned at Guînes castle attempted to hold off a French besieging army. Calais had fallen earlier in the year, constituting a major English defeat – Guînes was the last bastion of English power in the Pale of Calais, a region that they had held for more than two centuries. By 1558 the Hapsburg-Valois War (1551-1559) saw the English, under the reign of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I, once again drawn into conflict with their longstanding rivals from across the channel. Amongst the soldiers garrisoned at Guînes was the young soldier-poet Thomas Churchyard.[i] His defence of the town was recorded in his 1579 General Reheresal of Warre or Churchyard’s Choise, a collection of military accounts and memoirs from the past four decades that showcased exemplary English military conduct.[ii] Churchyard’s Choise contributed to a burgeoning genre of printed military news, treatises, and histories, an industry that was largely restricted to London due to overarching state regulation.[iii] Thus, Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard became a hub of commercial activity which sated a public appetite for literary consumption. Churchyard’s 1579 account of his service at Guînes provides an insight into how contemporary reports of war could be contested within London’s literary milieu and sheds light on how a culture obsessed with honour and reputation came to terms with defeat and surrender.         

Anonymous, Siege of Guînes (1558), depicting encampments and French forces breaching the walls, The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 721026.

The Siege

The loss of Calais and Guînes was a devastating blow to English strategic interests on the continent and was felt more widely in popular culture. Churchyard begins his account by acknowledging that the defeat was still being discussed despite occurring over twenty years prior: ‘by some fortune or misshape (let the blame faule where it ought) we lost Callice, and Gines … sondrie reports hath been raised thereof, by those that never knewe, or understood the matter’. Churchyard’s motivations are clear, he sought to challenge contemporary accounts and revise the narrative surrounding the loss of Guînes, presenting the English surrender in a more favourable light. Amending the story of this famous English defeat served to further Churchyard’s own sense of honour, whilst bolstering the image of the English military. His account would show the ‘verie trothe’ of the matter, his own martial experience thus imparting greater veracity and credibility.

Anonymous, A View of the Keep and Part of the Walls of the Castle of Guines, France (1540?) The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.12.

Churchyard discusses his own role in the defence of Guînes with a distinctly rich level of detail.[iv] He makes it clear that the English were proactive and took the fight to the French, meeting the initial enemy probe with ‘a hotte and stout skirmish’. In one successful ambush he managed to take prisoners and even acquired ‘a couple of faire horses’ from a contingent of French soldiers ‘that came from the spoil of Callice’ – a hollow reprisal. The English were eventually forced back to the castle under increasingly heavy ‘great canon’ fire. At this point the account appears vivid in its reports of casualties. Commander Harry Palmer had his leg broken by shot, a wound he would later die of, and ‘master Waikes’ had his head taken off by shot whilst ‘slepyng vnder a greate tree’, a fate shared by Churchyard’s captain. He paints a picture of utter carnage and destruction in which his men are being indiscriminately killed and maimed by modern weapons of war; the level of detail and palpable sense of peril serves to illustrate the hardships endured by the garrison.

Anonymous, A Coloured Plan of “the towne and castle of Guynes” (1541), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.23.

A series of French assaults ensued and Churchyard places himself at the centre of the narrative. The defenders take heavy losses and Churchyard is hit: ‘Captain Lambert was crossed with a greate shot, and myne arnour with the breaking of a greate peece, was stricken flat vpon my bodie, but being unbraced I might continue the service’.[v] The initial assault is repelled, despite the garrison being heavily outnumbered, and Churchyard comments on how the assault was ‘so terribly handled by the Frenche’. Further assaults continue ‘into the very darcke night, with as much crueltie as could be devised’. The French are depicted as a hoard, unskilled but numerous, whilst the English are depicted as well-drilled and motivated yet hopelessly outnumbered:

‘alwaies when the enemies first men did wax feeble with labour, there was a seconde and newe relief of fresh bandes to continue the assault … it seemed by the fight the bloodie broile hath no ende, nor season to take breath in’.[vi]

The French eventually took the castle court and sent two thousand men to attack the isolated bulwark. The defenders were forced to leap into the dikes below or face certain death, whilst Churchyard and a few of his men managed to escape to the remaining fortified positions. Terms of surrender began to be discussed.   

Richard Lee, The Town and Harbour of Calais (1535), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii f.70.

The Surrender

Churchyard once again places himself at the centre of these negotiations. He states that he was chosen by the captains to parley with the French commanders, a task that involved a perilous journey to the French camp: ‘I must wade over water in which lay  … great bordes, full of long spikes of iron … I was taught daintily to tread’.[vii] The French took pot-shots at him in the dark, yet he arrived safely. Churchyard defiantly addressed the French command, expressing his desire that his men be permitted to retreat orderly with ‘bag and baggage’, retaining the valuables that the French sought to loot: ‘our soldiers had sworne, rather to dye in their defence, then not to marche awaie like men of warr’. The Duke of Guise remined Churchyard of his hopeless position: ‘there was no hope to be had, but to become all captives and prisoners of the French king: not so sir, I answered, and that should the nexte assault make trial thereof’. Seemingly moved by Churchyard’s determination, the French nobles agreed to his terms on the condition that the officers would become prisoners. The besieging troops became furious when hearing the news, threatening to cut Churchyard’s throat if the castle was not yielded and attempted to breach the castle gate. Order was restored and Churchyard describes the fate of his men:

‘looke what promesse Mounsier Degwise made, it was so well kept and obserued, that our soldiours marched awaie with all their wealthe, money, and weapons: and greate wealth was by them borne from Gines … the bandes that parted either sicke or sounde, hurte or whole, were honestly conueighed, and truely dealte withal.’

The surrender itself is presented positively, the English common soldiers walked away with their weapons and wealth as if they were victors. The officers are imprisoned yet treated respectably, whilst Churchyard commends the honour of Guise as a worthy foe.[viii] He stresses the distinguished military service of the English and their allies, stating that the English took 800 casualties whilst ‘the enemie confessed that thei had loste over fower thousand’.  Churchyard ends his account by revising contemporary reports of the defeat:

‘I think our peace was not so dishonourable, as some reporte: for succour had wee no hope of: the next assault had overthrowen … we lost eight hundredth men, in these assaultes and services, which did their dutie so well’.

Front of Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres (London, 1579), printed by Edward White ‘dwelling at the little North-doore of S. Paules Churche, at the figure of the Gunne’.

Concluding Remarks

Churchyard’s account provides the modern reader with an insight into the world of Elizabethan martial culture. We see Churchyard attempting to preserve his own sense of honour whilst describing a difficult moment in his military career, one which he describes as an ‘uncomfortable discourse’. He places himself at the heart of the events and shifts the focus of the account onto the hardships that he and his men endured, the stout defence they put up, the military superiority of the English, the insurmountable odds against them, and eventually the intransigent negotiating that saved his men’s honour. Within Churchyard’s writing, we can observe a genuine admiration for the service of his comrades and a lamentation on those that were killed, yet we also detect pride in his determination to refute the reports that had been circulating in London concerning the defeat. Churchyard may have lost Guînes in 1558, yet in London he was still battling for his honour over twenty years later.

[i] For the life and works of Thomas Churchyard, and particularly his analysis of the Siege of Guînes, see Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, and Ego (Oxford, 2016), pp.101-105.

[ii] Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes choise wherein is fiue hundred seuerall seruices of land and sea as seiges, battailes, skirmiches, and encounters … (London, 1579)

[iii] During this period the Stationers’ Company regulated the printing industry and permitted presses to be operated in London, as well as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. See, Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London, 1960)

[iv] Churchyard’s account reads more like the genre of military memoir in contrast to the more terse or matter-of-fact reports that litter Churchyard’s Choise, a feature noted by Matthew Woodcock, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.102.


[vi] A common trope in contemporary English military literature, the small size of English expeditionary forces and the theme of ‘God’s will’ or ‘righteous cause’ overwhelming a numerically superior enemy feature heavily in Churchyard’s Choise.

[vii] Matthew Woodcock has noted that the account of the negotiations of surrender at Guînes is presented differently in both Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at large (1559) and the account of Arthur Grey, son of Lord Grey, commander of the Guînes garrison. Woodcock notes that Churchyard replaces Grey as the heroic negotiator, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.104.   

[viii] Churchyard treats nobility with exceptional reverence in Churchyard’s Choise. His descriptions of nobles, whether friend or foe, are often complimentary and he reports honourable deeds done by them in and off the field of battle. This courtesy even extends to the notorious Spanish general the Duke of Alva, who Churchyard commends as trustworthy and ‘faithfull’ in his dealings with William Morgan.

Assault ladders in Geneva and Guebwiller: Rare accounts of two failed attempts to scale city walls with ladders

The use of assault ladders is well-documented in literary sources from the Middle Ages and the early modern era, including siege accounts, illuminated documents,[1] and various models presented in treatises on siege tactics (fig. 1). However, there are very few extant examples of such ladders []. With seventeen segments surviving, the modular ladders used in the attempt by Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy (1562, 1580-1630) to seize Geneva during the nights of 11 and 12 December 1602,[2] currently in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de la Ville[3] [], constitute a remarkable historic ensemble. The “Night of the Escalade” [] was the most notable episode in the perennial struggle between the fortress on Lake Leman and the powerful House of Savoy: this brazen surprise attack lives on in Geneva’s popular memory.

Fig. 1. Double assault ladder, Kriegstechnik, illustrated manuscript, Upper Rhine, c. 1420-1440, fo 80r, watercolour drawing © Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. hist. 33b (

The success of such assaults was far from assured,[4] and the failure of a mission that was “so well organised and so poorly executed”[5] in 1602 can certainly not be blamed on the ladders that were deployed; they functioned exactly as intended, allowing an elite corps of some 350 men to easily scale the city walls before triggering an alarm and alerting the city’s defenders to mobilise.

Fig. 2. Anonymous, The Escalade of Geneva, 1602 · View with scrolled inscriptions, Geneva, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 20.5 x 72 cm © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, gift of Jean-Pierre Rivière, 1834, inv. 11572, photo: Y. Siza.

By the time the battle ended, the ladders had been ripped down and partially destroyed by cannon shrapnel as the assailants fled in panic (fig. 2). The devices were retrieved and claimed as trophies along with the rest of the material that had been abandoned by the Savoyards.[6] A few days later they were hung “beneath the town hall in commemoration” of the event.[7] Following a brief and fruitless incursion by the Swiss into enemy territory,[8] the ladders entered the Arsenal’s collections. Various accounts bear witness, as early as the seventeenth century, to the presence of these ladders “[which] are in Geneva, worthy memorials of its deliverance”[9]—a deliverance that the inhabitants of this Protestant city devoutly attributed to “the arm of the Almighty” (see fig. 2, scroll). Mounted as trophies in the Armoury Room in the Arsenal, they were transferred in the same configuration to the the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire’s Armoury Room in 1910.

Ladders of “admirable ingenuity”

Apparently manufactured in Turin to avoid arousing suspicion and discretely conveyed to the theatre of battle, the Savoyards’ ladders were constructed based on measurements taken directly on location. There were originally eight of them, each incorporating eight segments. Only three of these were actually used, formed of five interlocked sections with a total height of 6.89 metres, sufficient for scaling the wall, which was about 6.50 metres high. The ingeniousness of these ladders must have made a lasting impression on the contemporaries of the Escalade, who were unanimous in celebrating their “admirable ingenuity.”[10] One of the accounts, written soon after the events by a notable Genevan,[11] provides an exceptionally detailed description: “Very well suited for a clandestine mission,” they included “several pieces of only four rungs,” which were easily transportable, fitting “very readily and securely” together, facilitating the assembly of ladders “that could be shortened and lengthened as desired” depending on the height of the targeted objective. Their stability was assured by “two massive nails” attached to the lower extremity of the side rails of the segment resting on the ground (fig. 3, compare fig. 1 and 7), while the upper extremity of the side rails of the top segment bears a “covered castor on a padded cloth” allowing the ladder to be easily and noiselessly slid up against the wall (fig. 4, idem). “All the other ends of said ladder parts” were strengthened by a “joint reinforced by iron” (fig. 5), which provided a double interlock “because said pieces of ladders were broader at the bottom than at the top.” The upper rung, which extended about 5.5 centimetres on either side of the siderails, served to support the lower extremity of the next component, whose second level in turn accommodated interlocking devices of the lower segment (fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Segment of the Escalade ladders (detail of the upper extremity), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 41, photo: F. Bevilacqua.

Fig. 6. Two segments of the Escalade ladders (detail of the interlock), Turin ?, c. 1602 © MAH Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Geneva, inv. F 57 and F 46, photo: C. Borel. All the segments bear reference marks in their side rails which are numbered from 1 to 7 from the top of the ladder, although the intermediary segments are completely interchangeable.

1445: The Armagnacs’ attempt to take Guebwiller

Although the Genevans were perennially fascinated by these modular assault ladders, such devices were not a novelty (fig. 7). One hundred fifty years before the Savoyard attack in December 1602, an attempt to scale the walls of the small Alsatian town of Guebwiller provided another valuable piece of material evidence.

Fig. 7. Rope ladder and dismountable ladder, Hausbuch of the castle of Wolfegg, c. 1480, fo 53 v1, watercolour drawing © Wikimedia Commons.

The Armagnac mercenary army, known as “Écorcheurs” (“Flayers”), led by the French Dauphin (the future Louis XI, 1423-1483), achieved a hard-won victory over the Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs (26 August 1444). The Armagnacs then proceeded to ravage the Alsatian territories where they settled into winter quarters. During the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445, the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day, a gang of looters in search of plunder, probably part of the Wattwiller or Einsisheim garrisons,[12] attacked Guebwiller. This small town was under the protection of the prince-abbot of the neighbouring abbey of Murbach. The Armagnacs scaled its curtain wall (fig. 8 a-b), which was slightly higher than the Genevan wall climbed by the Savoyards; Guebwiller’s fortification, of which only small vestiges survive, was about 8 metres tall.[13]

Fig. 8 a-b. Johann Martin Weis II (1738 – after 1807), after a drawing by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738-1826) dated 1759, Gebvilla aspectus ab Oriente (Guebwiller seen from the east), copper engraving illustrating a work by Johann Daniel Schoepflin, Alsatia illustrata Germanica, Gallica, Colmar 1761, page 65. In the mid-eighteenth century, the city still retained its crenelated medieval curtain wall. Detail: the Dominican priory and, to the right, the parish church of Saint-Léger.

The event was not in itself exceptional. The Écorcheurs routinely engaged in such nocturnal stealth attacks. They were renowned as fighters who were skilled in this art, known as escheleurs, and they were widely admired and sought after.[14] This attack was a relatively minor episode during a particularly troubled era. The failed assault on Guebwiller—whose population is estimated at 1,400 inhabitants at the end of the fourteenth century, compared to 13,000 in Geneva at the time of the Escalade—did not have a comparable impact on the small town. Calvin’s city experienced considerable political and religious repercussions from the Savoyard attack. In contrast to that assault, events in Guebwiller did not give rise to contemporary eyewitness accounts, iconographic descriptions, or records. The attack is best known through the Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller.[15] This account was written in German during the first two decades of the eighteenth century by Séraphin Dietler, the prior of the Dominican abbey in Guebwiller, based on older archives and chronicles.[16]

Fig. 9 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the altar dedicated to Saint Valentine. Built following the Great War, it shows the escalade of Guebwiller by the Armagnacs during the nights of 13 and 14 February 1445. Detail: the assailants put to flight by Brigitte Schick and the apparition of the Virgin © Photos: C. Borel.

He describes how, around three o’clock in the morning on a cold February night, the Armagnacs erected ladders against the curtain wall, near the town’s baths. The soldiers began to climb up, knocking down stones and creating a clamour that awakened the guards, who were warming themselves. Roused by their cries, the citizens hastened to the town’s defence. Bridt (Brigitte) Schick, “a valiant woman who held the city’s welfare close to heart,” grabbed straw bundles that she lit on fire and hurled over the wall into the moat “with force and loud cries,” arousing fear among the enemy who fled in haste, “not without the special intervention of God.”(fig. 9 a-b). The population witnessed, “not without awe, the glorious mother of God and the holy saint and martyr Valentine, surrounded by a nimbus of dazzling light, hovering along the wall to show that they had taken the town and its inhabitants under their protection.” The apparition overwhelmed the fleeing soldiers with “prodigious terror as powerful as the fear they themselves might cause to an army amidst the order of battle.” On the following day, the prince-abbot of Murbach summoned the town authorities who took council and undertook to “forever celebrate and honour Saint Valentine’s Day[17] […] so that, through the intercession of Mary and the holy Bishop Valentine, the town and its inhabitants might be protected from all attacks and evils.”

“Curiously fashioned” ladders

The chronicle also recounts how, on the following morning, “when day began to dawn and the gates of the city were opened,” the inhabitants discovered “still hanging from the walls a number of curiously fashioned ladders composed partly of ropes and partly of wood” that could be folded up to be “hung within the parish church as an eternal memorial.”

Fig. 10. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the Chapel of Saint Valentine with ladders © Photo : C. Borel.

A few components of these ladders still survive in the chapel of Saint Valentine in the south aisle of the church of Saint Léger in Guebwiller[18] (fig. 10). These vestiges were evidently once more numerous. In 1844, it was noted that “it would be desirable for the administration to take certain protective measures. It seems that several of these curious monuments have already been removed, motivated by a love unrelated to the study of archaeology, nor by affection for souvenirs.” [19]

Fig. 11. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the preserved rope ladder © Photo: C. Borel.

The rope ladder that has come down to us is 40 cm wide and composed of cylindrical wooden rungs with bulbous extremities, supported in the centre and on the sides by securely knotted rope side rails (fig. 11). In the case of the “foldable” wooden ladder, four similar sections are still suspended under the vault (fig. 12 a-b). Slightly longer and narrower than those in Geneva (200 x 40 cm), they consist of siderails that all terminate in an identical interlocking device in the form of a mortice reinforced by metal plates and five equidistant rungs. Extending horizontally beyond the siderails, the rungs at the extremities are rectangular in section; some of them have two notches to facilitate assembly. The three other rungs are cylindrical.

Fig. 12 a-b. Guebwiller, church of Saint-Léger, south aisle: the four remaining components of the wooden ladder “that could be folded” © Photos : C. Borel.

A few similarities

These attacks had very contrasting origins and backgrounds. In the case of Geneva, it was a significant strategic, political, and economic event, a strike long plotted by the Duke of Savoy, who wished to make the city the capital of his domains, re-establishing Catholicism there. The attack on Guebwiller was a simple case of attempted looting by idle soldiers. However, these two failed acts of aggression offer interesting parallels. The two scenarios are very similar. A winter night when the guard has been let down because of the cold. A dawn attack–which is standard procedure in this type of operation. Most strikingly, a hundred and fifty years apart, attackers who deployed modular ladders that they abandoned in their retreat. Recovered by the inhabitants the next day, these devices assumed the status of trophies, even ex-votos. Still more remarkable is the very exceptional preservation of some of these fragile assault devices that are made of perishable materials. Finally, these surprise attacks continue to be memorialised to this day.[20] In both cases—in a small Catholic town of the mid-fifteenth century and in the “Protestant Rome” of the early seventeenth century—the “miraculous” salvation of the beleaguered target is attributed to divine intervention.

[1] See the collection of depictions of sieges in illuminated manuscripts assembled by Marina Suardini, “L’échelage dans la guerre de siège, aspects technique et matériel (XIVe – XVe siècles),” in Christiane Raynaud (dir.), Cahiers du Léopard d’or, 14, Armes et outils, Paris 2012,pp. 63-88.

[2] According to the Julian calendar then in use in Calvin’s city, which lagged the Gregorian calendar by ten days.

[3] The surviving components include three lower segments (inv. F 41, F 44 [!m/Object/490244/form/ObjObjectFrm] and F 47), two upper segments (inv. F 46 and F 49 [!m/Object/486951/form/ObjObjectFrm]), and twelve intermediate segments (inv. F 42, F 45, F 48, F 50, F 53 to F 60) among which seven originally included struts that were wedged against the wall to support the ladder. See José-A. Godoy, L’Escalade et ses souvenirs, Geneva 1980, pl. 1, pp. 24-27; idem, “Échelles de l’Escalade”, Geneva, n. s. L, 2002, Album, pp. 98-99.

[4] An account by the military engineer and tactician Antoine de Ville (1596-1656) was published in a treatise in 1629. It included a chapter devoted to escalade attacks that was in part based on the recent events in Geneva. It comes to the following conclusion: “Rarely are towns taken these days by means of escalade, due to the difficulty of executing these operations in Places that are even minimally fortified and defended.” (Antoine de Ville, Les Fortifications du chevalier Antoine de Ville Tholosain, avec L’Ataque & la Defence des Places, Lyon 1629, ed. Lyon 1640, Book II, Part I, chapter VIII, p. 240).

[5] Jacob Spon, Histoire de la Ville Et de l’Estat de Geneve. Depuis le premiers Siecles de la fondation de la Ville jusqu’à present: Tirée fidellement des Manuscrits, Lyon 1680, vol. II, p. 163.

[6] [Melchior Goldast], Histoire de la supervenue inopinée des Savoyards en la ville de Genève […], [Geneva] 1603, ed. Frédéric Gardy, Geneva 1903, p. 83.

[7] Journal d’Esaïe Colladon ∙ Mémoires sur Genève 1600-1605, Geneva 1883, p. 50.

[8] Three months later, on 26 April 1603, the Genevans made their own attempt at the same type of attack against the Savoyard fortress of Étrembières (ibid., p. 79).

[9] According to Maximilien Misson, who visited the city in 1688 (François Maximilien Misson, Nouveau Voyage d’Italie […], III, The Hague 1691, 3rd ed. 1698, letter XXXVII, p. 74.

[10] Goldast, op. cit., p. 71. See also Colladon, op. cit., p. 44, and Pierre Matthieu, Histoire de France, & des choses memorables advenues aux Provinces estrangeres […], Paris 1605, ed. Geneva 1620, vol. II, book V, 7th narration, p. 446.

[11] Vray discours de la miraculeuse delivrance envoyee de Dieu à la ville de Geneve, le 12. jour de Decembre, 1602, [Geneva] 1603, pp. 12-13.

[12] Antoine Gardner, “L’assaut manqué des Armagnacs contre Guebwiller dans la nuit de la St-Valentin 1445,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller 1957-60, Mulhouse 1961, p. 34.

[13] Antoine Gardner, “Les fortifications du Vieux Guebwiller,” Annuaire de la Société d’histoire des régions de Thann-Guebwiller, 1961-1964, Mulhouse 1965, p. 42.

[14] Alexandre Tuetey, Les Écorcheurs sous Charles VII […], Montbéliard 1874, vol. I, p. 284, note 2.

[15] Conserved in the Library of the City of Colmar (Ms 725-1), the original  manuscript was published by Xavier Mossmann (Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller, publiée avec des pièces justificatives […], Guebwiller 1844) and by Johannes von Schlumberger (Die Gebweiler Chronik des Dominikaners Fr. Seraphin Dietler […], Guewiller 1898). For the French translation, see Philippe Legin (dir.), Frère Séraphin Dietler · Chronique des Dominicains de Guebwiller 1124-1723, Guebwiller 1994, pp. 91-322 (account of the escalade of Guebwiller, pp. 129-130).

[16] Specifically, for the event concerned, the chronicle written in the first half of the sixteenth century by Hans Stoltz (1475? – after 1545), municipal court clerk of Guebwiller (Ursprung und Anfang der Stadt Gebweyler, Library of the City of Colmar, Ms 539).

[17] See Xavier Mossmann, op. cit., pp. 423-424, supporting document XIV.

[18] Inventaire général des monuments et des richesses artistiques de la France, Haut-Rhin · Canton Guebwiller, Paris 1972, v. 1, p. 56, and v. 2, p. 112, fig. 260. The author thanks Dr Stefan Maeder for calling his attention to these ladders.

[19] Mossmann, op. cit., p. 64, note 1.

[20] In Guebwiller, the victory is celebrated annually on Saint Valentine’s Day with a mass of thanksgiving. The Fête de l’Escalade is a high point of the Genevan calendar, featuring an imposing historic procession and numerous cultural and athletic observances.

Cursing over the Walls: The case of the Armenian warrior, Kostandin

Autumn, 1137. In what would prove to be one of the closing chapters in the Byzantine campaign against Armenian Cilicia[1], the emperor John II Komnenos personally led a Byzantine force in the siege of Vahka. During the siege, an Armenian aristocrat by the name of Kostandin[2] appeared on the ramparts, and, as Niketas Choniates has it, was “heaping contumely upon the emperor in the Hellenic tongue and vilifying his wife and daughters with obscenities[3]. This incident resulted in a duel between Kostandin and a Byzantine soldier[4], in which, predictably enough, the Armenian was defeated and retreated ignominiously back into the fortress. Captivity was soon to follow, after the fortress fell to the besiegers.  

The Homeric description of the duel and the prominent moral message it contains are only a few of the elements that cast doubt on the historicity of the event. Tellingly, the incident does not appear either in the other Byzantine sources (John Kinnamos, Michael Italikos, et al.) or the Armenian sources (Sparapet Smbat, Samuel of Ani, Vahram Rabout, et al).

So, is this a literary topos? This explanation would certainly be in agreement with the assertions of historians who have discussed similar incidents. Whately, for example, notes in his commentary on Procopius’ account of the Sassanid siege of Amida (502-3), that:

“Their immoral behavior (i.e., of certain women who would occasionally appear on the ramparts) – the lifting of their clothing to the Persian attackers- has three functions in this siege: it foreshadows the sack of the city…it highlights the role of the morality and the divine in a city’s or fortress’ sack or salvation…it marks a turning point in the war itself”[5].

Naturally, Amida is far from the only account of a siege with defenders appearing on the ramparts to hurl abuse, whether verbal or non-verbal, at the besiegers. In 780, during the siege of Samalu by Abbasid forces, an Abyssinian warrior insulted Caliph al-Mahdi’s son, Hārun al-Rashīd. The Arabs remembered this, and punished him in a truly horrific fashion after they had taken the fortress: he “was crucified on one of the towers of the fort”[6]. In 1147, during a crusader operation against Lisbon, the Muslims taunted the besiegers “for the infidelities they claimed the Crusaders’ wives were committing in their absence”[7]. The dozens of accounts of similarly abusive behavior in the medieval sources indicate that this is indeed a literary topos.

However, there might be another interpretation to this incident. According to the tactical snippeting method, when an action is described in multiple sources, it is quite likely to have indeed taken place[8]. It is only natural for people to tend to insult their adversaries in periods of wartime. Anyone unfortunate enough to be subjected to a modern football match in countries with rampant hooliganism (Greece, for example) will instantly spot the similarities between medieval insults and the chants of football fans; the required imagination is minimal, after all.

Thus, even if we reject the historicity of the duel, at least as described by Choniates, there is no reason to doubt that an Armenian commander did indeed direct a torrent of verbal abuse at the female members of the Imperial family. But why did he do it?  

Such behaviors clearly boosted defenders’ morale and instilled a sense of unity and confidence[9]. At the same time, enraging the enemy “had the added benefit of ensuring the defenders fought hard to avoid the wrath of those they so taunted”[10].  And this is, in my view, the answer to our question.

In medieval warfare, fortified positions were, more often than not, taken by capitulation of their defenders. Kennedy has correctly noted that, “when people did use fortifications, the result was more likely to be a period of negotiation rather than an assault”[11]. Medieval commanders wished to minimize risks and losses as much as possible, and often sought bloodless conquests. Tellingly, in all the aforementioned examples (Amida, Samalu, Lisbon, Vakha) negotiations took place between besiegers and besieged. Choniates notes that the Armenian defenders of Vakha had rejected the Byzantine overtures for surrender[12], despite their truly dire situation: Vakha was one of the final fortresses that remained under Rubenid control. The Byzantines had already conquered Tarsus, Mamistra, and Anazarbus[13].

The actual recipient of Kostandin’s abuse was not, therefore, John, but his own Armenian compatriots. He was thus making it clear that a likely surrender of the fortress would not come hand in hand with guarantees for their safety. Now, even if they should decide to surrender, there was a chance that the enraged emperor would seek to punish those who had besmirched his family’s honor. The Armenian warriors could not have been aware of the punishment suffered by the aforementioned Abyssinian warrior at Samalu, but the stakes were nonetheless clear. Kostandin’s plan ultimately paid off: the Byzantines were compelled to take Vahka by force.


Verbal and non-verbal insults directed by the besieged at the besiegers were doubtlessly a frequently used topos in medieval chronicles. They offered a clear moral message; in most cases the perpetrators of these insults were severely punished for their behavior. However, we must not reject the historicity of such references out of hand. After all, these were men who were sparing no effort to kill each other, and insults and other types of verbal abuse were part and parcel of the proceedings. The case of Kostandin demonstrates how historians may find ulterior motives in such behavior. Treason among the garrison was an ever-present danger during sieges, with traitors’ primary motive being to save their own lives from an impending disaster. Those in command of the defending forces hoped that, by displaying bravado and insulting the besiegers, they could dispel such notions from the minds of their men. By enraging the enemy, Kostandin stated to the defenders of Vahka, in no uncertain terms, that their only chance for survival lay in defending against the enemy to the last.

[1] Regarding this campaign, see e.g., A. Bozoyan, Byuzandiayi Arevelyan k’aghak’akanut’unə Ev Kilikyan Hayastanə 30-70-Akan t’vakannerin (Yerevan: HSSR GA hratarakchùtỳun, 1988), p.99ff. G. Dédéyan, Les Arméniens Entre Grecs, Musulmans et Croises: Étude Sur Les Pouvoirs Arméniens Dans Le Proche-Orient Méditerranéen (1068-1150), 2 vols (Lisbonne: Colouste Gulbenkian, 2003), p.588ff. A. Papageorgiou, John II Komnenos and His Era (1118-1143) (Athens: Irodotos, 2017), p.327ff. For an overview of the history of the Kingdom of Armenian Cilicia, see A. Savvides and V. Stepanenko, ‘Armenian Cilicia, Kingdom of’, Encyclopaedic Prosopographical Lexicon of Byzantine History and Civilization, ed. A. Savvides and B. Hendrickx (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 1:375-380.

[2] On the identity of Kostandin, see Dédéyan, p.543.

[3] Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. by H. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), p.14.

[4] On this duel, see e.g., T. Maniati-Kokkini, ‘Η Επίδειξη Ανδρείας Στον Πόλεμο Κατά Τους Ιστορικούς Του 11ου Και 12ου Αι.’, in Byzantium at War (9th-12th c.), ed. by K. Tsiknakis (Athens: Ίδρυμα Γουλανδρή-Χορν, 1997), pp.239-259 (240-241).

[5] C. Whately, Battles and Generals. Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p.74.

[6] al-Balādhuri, Kitāb al-Futūh, trans. by P. Hitti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916), p.264.

[7] B. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.40.

[8] P. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p.193-196.

[9] On the effect of taunts and counter-taunts on morale, see, e.g., Leif Inge Ree Petersen, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD). Byzantium, the West and Islam, History of Warfare, 91 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp.318-319.

[10] J. Birkenmeier, The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp.200-201.

[11] H. Kennedy, The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State (London: Routledge, 2002), p.183. See also J. Bradbury, The Medieval Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1992), p.325.

[12] Choniates, p.14.

[13] See, e.g., K. Takirtakoglou, ‘John II Komnenos’ Campaign in Cilician Armenia’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 114.3, pp.1329–50 (1337-1339).

Thomas Magistros’ “On Imperial Office” on military preparations

Thomas Magistros, his city and his times

The fourteenth century was a period of turbulence for the Byzantine Empire, and Thessaloniki had a great share of these troubles. The continuous wars and the internal conflicts were affecting the lives and the works of contemporary people, and intellectuals could not have been an exception to that.

Thomas Magistros is believed to have been born around the year 1275 and he died sometime after 1347. The oldest work that we know that he produced dates back to 1301, and the last mention of him is dated to 1346. Between these two dates there is not much information available about his life.[1]

On the Imperial Office[2] is a Mirror for Princes that he wrote between 1324 and 1350, at a time when was a monk, and it was addressed to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. Mirrors for Princes were advisory rhetorical works compiled for princes and young kings. Although their authors had been drawing their content from the same pool of thought, they chose to use different material, changing it from one period to another so that their work could reflect the imperial ideology and the political realities of their time. This rule also applies to their mentions of war preparations and military affairs in general.[3]

In the times of Magistros, warfare, sieges, and political and social turmoil were not rare. The Byzantine scholar was native to Thessalonike: he was born and died there and the only time, which we know of, that he left the city, was to deliver an oration in Constantinople, on behalf of the general Chandrenos, who had defended his city in the past.[4] Therefore, it is safe to assume that his attitude and thoughts were heavily influenced by what he was witnessing and what he knew of his city’s recent past. And the city of Thessaloniki, despite or as a consequence of its considerable growth during that period,[5] had had a troubled history just before the time the Mirror was written, and continued to have such for some time. In 1308 the Catalan Great Company tried to conquer the city only to be stopped by its walls. Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, who unsuccessfully besieged Thessaloniki in 1334 and returned again in 1341, had the same (bad) luck. And the dangers did not only belong to the past, as the attack of the Ottomans in 1383 can attest. The city fell at their hands in 1387 as a result of this attack, only a few decades after On the Imperial Office was written.

But Thessaloniki had also had troubles coming from within the empire and even the city itself. Andronikos II and Andronikos III tried to claim it as their own from 1320 onwards, and in 1340 the city fell temporarily in the hands of the zealots.[6]

It therefore comes as no surprise that Magistros chose to include in his work advice on military affairs, not omitting, at the same time, to express his thoughts about the preparations of a city so it could withstand an enemy’s siege.

Military affairs in On the Imperial Office

In On the Imperial Office Magistros refers to military affairs several times. First, he states that he wished weapons were never invented and that the emperor should not go to a war led by his greed. On the contrary, he must do anything in his power so that the war is avoided (ζ΄, 457). However, if he wants to secure peace he must always be prepared for war. The scholar justifies his claim noting that weakness is creating enemies and if you only pursue peaceful resolution to conflicts you might draw the enemies upon you. On the contrary, however, if you are prepared and strong nobody will want to wage war on you and this way you can enjoy peace (η΄, 457). Moreover, he advises that the emperor should always be ready in both body and soul and the way to do that is to exercise for the possibility of war. He should not only keep himself prepared, but he should also have his whole army prepared and exercised (drilled) as well (η΄, 457-458). He should also maintain a strong army and navy but he should not rely on mercenaries because they are far from trustworthy. After all, quality is better than quantity, he notes, and the mercenaries are only good to add to the numbers of an army (θ΄, 460-461).

In an excerpt that speaks about justice Magistros also finds the opportunity to mention several factors which he believes that are essential for a city to be safe.  Having been built in a natural feature of the land that helps defense and being protected by walls and fortifications are prerequisites if the city is to be saved from an enemy siege. The human factor, according to the rhetor (Magistros), is equally important towards that end (στ΄, 456). He states that the soldiers should always be kept content and be offered presents because this way they will be kept motivated to train themselves in times of peace and to not lose respect in the face of the emperor. In times of war, this could prevent them from abandoning the battle even if they were injured. They should always be assured that if they lose their possessions in times of war, these will be replaced by the emperor. On top of these, what is of great importance is that they need to know that their children will be taken care of in case they fall in battle. Like the ancient Athenians before them, advises Magistros, the Byzantines must also always take of the children of those who died fighting, until they reach adulthood (ι΄, 461-463).

But strong walls and capable fighters are not enough to ensure that a city will not fall during an enemy siege, Magistros claims. Provisions should be made prior to the attack. The storages should always be kept filled in full with grain and all the other essentials, which should not be available for trade. To that end the emperor must spare no expenses, because money spent for that reason is well spent. These preparations could be life-saving for the people and they bring honour to the king. Because regardless of the cities’ moats and walls, if there are not enough supplies available to feed its population, this city will not be able to withstand a long siege. The rhetor concludes that the storage of food is as important as a strong fortification (κγ΄, 484). It is worth mentioning that this kind of advice is found very rarely in Mirrors. Apart from On the Imperial Office there is perhaps one more similar mention in a work of this genre, in Kekaumenos’ Strategikon (85. 265), something that does not come as a surprise, considering that the author of that work was probably a soldier and thus he took extra care to make long mentions of everything that was war related.


On the Imperial Office is a workthat can provide us with an insight into what an intellectual living in fourteenth-century Thessaloniki was thinking in regards to state affairs. The conflicts of his time, internal and external, and the sieges his city had to withstand had led him to make special mentions of military affairs.

First of all, he advises that a city should have strong walls. And indeed the land walls of his hometown are described as being strong. However, the sea walls failed to provide the same safety to the city.[7] The last attested repairs before the time of Magistros date to the twelfth century, and the same action was repeated a few decades after his death.[8]

The scholar also provides advice and insights regarding soldiers. He states that the emperor should take steps to ensure that they always remain loyal and they do not lose respect for him. The importance of this advice lies in the conflict between Andronikos II and Andronikos III as none of them could afford to see his soldiers joining the enemy.

Magistros also urges the emperor to take measures for the children of the soldiers that were becoming orphans as a result of the continuous wars of the period, even if his real concern is to ensure their parents that a good fate awaits their offspring if they die in battle, and therefore making them fight with more braveness. This mention is a clear indicator of a real problem that might have occurred inside the cities of the empire because of the numerous conflicts.

Last but not least, the rhetor notes that the cities’ storages should always be full of grain, to help the city in case of an enemy’s siege, which was, in his time, a recurring threat to the well-being of Thessaloniki’s citizens.

[1] Nigel Guy Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (London, Cambridge, Mass.: General Duckworth & Co. ltd. And The Medieval Academy of America, 1983), p. 247.

[2] Jacque Paul Migne, Nicephorus Callistus, Theodulos Monachus, Matthaeus Blastares [Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca], Tomus 145, (Paris, 1904), pp. 447-496.

[3] For this notion see Konstantinos Karatolios, ‘From peacemaker to warrior. Changes in the imperial education as illustrated in the eleventh-century Mirrors of Princes’, in Warfare in 11th century Byzantium, ed. by Georgios Theotokis and Marek Meško (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 98-108 (pp. 98-108).

[4] Alexander Kazhdan and Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘Thomas Magistros’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2076-2077 (p. 2076).

[5] Angeliki E. Laiou, Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, (New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 198.

[6] For these incidents see, among others, Vassiliki Nerantzi-Varmazi, ‘Η Θεσσαλονίκη εστία Κοινωνικών Αναταραχών το 14ο αιώνα’, Θεσσαλονικέων Πόλις, 2 (1997), pp. 74-81 (pp. 74-81).

[7] On the sea walls of Thessalonike, see among others Michael Vickers, ‘The Byzantine Sea Walls of Thessaloniki’, Balkan Studies, 11 (1970), pp. 261-280.

[8] Timothy E. Gregory, ‘Thessalonike’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2072-2074 (pp. 2072-2073).

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