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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hirschberg in Pancratius Vulturnius’s Panegyricus Silesiacus

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

“Turf war”

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

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

Closing remarks

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

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

Appendix: Laus Hyrschberge (fragment)

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


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

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

[3] Ibidem, pp. 11-14.

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

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

[6] Ibidem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibidem, pp. 96-98.

[14] Ibidem, pp. 104-109.

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

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

[17] Füldener, op.cit., p. 376.

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

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

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

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

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