Town vs Gown in 15th Century Silesia

Medieval cities often had fraught relations with their regional clergy. Many towns at some point called their local bishopric overlord according to Feudal law. But eventually, some forced the episcopal ruler out of town and established their autonomy by acquiring the charter of a free city or free imperial / royal city.

The prelates of the Church, many of whom were from families of the warrior aristocracy, did not take this lying down, and there were many ongoing disputes between burgher and bishop lasting multiple generations. Sometimes these broke out into pitched battles, such as when the town of Strasbourg defeated their prince-archbishop Walter von Geroldseck in an open field battle at Hausbergen in 1262[1], capturing 86 of his knights and killing 1370 of his men; or when the Archbishop of Mainz Adolf II von Nassau sacked and recaptured that city in 1462[2], executing 400 people, exiling many more (including Johannes Gutenberg) and ending the autonomy of that town.

More often these conflicts consisted of endless lawsuits, diplomatic wrangling, occasional raids and kidnappings, and small skirmishes. The prince-bishops also used their unique episcopal powers such as the ability to place individuals or entire communities under interdict or even excommunication. In extreme cases, they might also attempt to invoke the inquisition.

Partly because these rivalries went on for so long, it’s difficult to find comprehensive let alone unbiased histories of the ongoing feuds between town and bishop. But one good if not perfect source is the magisterial history of the cleric, and eventually bishop Jan Długosz of Poland. His ‘annales’ which cover the history of Poland from 965 to his own death in 1480, are not free of bias but are quite thorough, well written, and by the standards of the day, fairly even handed.

From these annals, we find here an interesting example of strife between the citizens of Wrocław (aka Breslau to it’s German-speaking inhabitants, and Vratislav to its Czech overlords) vs their local Bishopric. This lasted from 1337 through 1341, during the reign of bishops, Nankier Kołda (aka Nanker).

The following excerpts from the annals of Jan Długosz[3] cover the key incidents of the conflict:

Wroclaw helps King John of Bohemia ransack the bishop’s cathedral and castle, with the help of wine – From the entry for 1337

The King of Bohemia [King John the Blind], having by intrigue, flattery or promises subjugated the Polish dukedoms in Silesia and illegally occupied the town and duchy of Wroclaw… now plunders the cathedral at Wroclow, which the Silesian dukes endowed. He orders the Bishop and Chapter to surrender its castle at Milicz, and, when Bishop Nanker, a courageous main, disdainfully refuses to obey, the King brings up a powerful force, reinforced by some citizens of Wroclaw, and attacks the castle which was held in the name of the Wroclaw chapter by Henry of Wierzbno the archdeacon. Seeing that it will not be easy to capture it, for the castle has good defenses, and learning that the Archdeacon is an inveterate wine-bibber, he sends him some friendly Silesian knights with bottles of wine in profusion, as a result of which they are eventually able with threats and promises to induce the Archdeacon to evacuate the castle with his entourage.

The Bishop sends letters and messengers to the King, demanding the return of the castle, and when this is refused, imposes an interdict on the whole diocese. Further attempts to obtain the return of the castle are made later, when the King comes to Wroclaw. When these, too, are unsuccessful, the Bishop, ordering all his clergy to accompany him, goes to the King …they find the King in a small room adjacent to the refectory. They knock loudly on the door, and, when the King tells them he is occupied with other matters and cannot give them audience… the Bishop takes hold of his crucifix and says: “By the authority of Almighty God I excommunicate you as a plunderer of Church goods and pronounce you excommunicated in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Ghost.”…

The Bishop leaves Wroclaw and orders all churches in Wroclaw to be closed. Nonetheless the doors of the three parish churches of St. Mary Magdelen, St. Elizabeth and the Holy Ghost are forcibly opened and services are resumed on the orders of the King and the city-fathers. Pope Benedit XII, who is in Avignon, praises the Bishop for what he has done and orders him to persist. He also confirms and increases the penalties imposed on the King and the citizens of Wroclaw, on whom he pronounces anathema.”

Wroclaw sees off the inquisitor – From the entry for 1339

“Bishop Nanker of Wroclaw realizes that sterner measures will be required, if the obstinate rebellion of the citizens and city fathers of Wroclaw is to be quelled, since those taken by their own bishop, and indeed, by the Holy See, have achieved nothing in more than a year; indeed, the situation is getting steadily worse and doing considerable harm to the Church. So, the Bishop summons the Inquisitor of Heretical Faults in the diocese, Brother John of Schwenkenfeld of the Dominicans, a man of blameless and exemplary life, and explains to him the obduracy of the citizens of Wroclaw and requires him to take action against them for disregarding the punishments laid on them Church, thus making themselves suspect of heresy [In therefore, in theory, legally liable to investigation by the inquisitor]

Brother Jan is well acquainted with the misdemeanours of the citizens of Wroclaw and promises to try and exert his authority. He goes to Wroclaw and, one Sunday, from a pulpit set up before the City Hall, speaks to a huge throng, rebukes them for abusing holy places and for their obstinacy and begs them to return to the bosom of the Church. He concludes by challenging them to appear before him the next day and answer the accusations laid against them. When the citizens concerned fail to appear, the Inquisitor, inspired by the Holy Spirit, goes in person to the City Hall and calls upon the city fathers he finds gathered there to delay no longer in returning to the bosom of the Church, for otherwise they will call down upon themselves the wrath of God.

He tells them, too, that he is determined to use all the means his office allows to quell their intransigence [in theory this would include excommunication, torture, execution etc.]. After a long discussion, the Inquisitor concludes that he is getting nowhere and leaves the City Hall pursued by curses, insults and grinding of teeth; indeed, he is lucky not to have been assaulted.”

The old Bishop dies, Wroclaw pays assassins 30 marks to kill the Inquisitor – from the entry for 1341

Bishop Nanker of Wroclaw dies on April 10, apparently suddenly, but it is also said that he was ssecretly killed on the orders of the King of Bohemia [King John, Luxeumburg family, father of Emperor Charles IV, died at Crecy] in retaliation for his public excommunication of the king. The city fathers of Wroclaw are delighted by the death of their bishop and regard this as a victory over the Church. They now go to King John and register against the Wroclaw inquisitor, alleging that he has insulted and condemned them. …

“While spending the night at the Dominican monastery of St. Clement, two thugs come to the Inquisitor’s cell and knock on the door, demanding to be given confession. The Inquisitor is preparing a sermon and tries to put them off, but they tell him that, if he does not listen to them while they still have a spark of contrition left, it will be too late. At this, the Inquisitor emerges, receives three thrusts from their two swords and drops down dead. The King suspects the starosta of having planned the murder with the city council and arrests them, but when they on oath deny their guilt they are released. A year and a half later the two thugs are arrested on another charge and condemned to death. They then confess to the previous crime and tell that they had been bribed by two of the burghers from Wroclaw, who gave them thirty marks for the deed.”

In these excerpts from a fifteenth century history, we can see that while prelates such as bishops wielded extraordinary diplomatic, military, and spiritual power, towns also had many tools at their disposal, and were not afraid to resort to violence to protect their interests. The inquisition was not a common event in the late medieval period, but they did happen. In Wroclaw itself, during a visit by Franciscan arch-zealot and future saint John Capistrano in 1451, the population was whipped into a frenzy and engaged in a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ and a vicious anti-Jewish pogrom at the instigation of the traveling cleric[4].  Such disruptions were not welcomed by town authorities, who could find their own head on a pike as the result, which helps explain the extreme measures they were willing to take, up to and including assassination, to prevent the bishop and his inquisitor from establishing control. 

[1] Hans Delbrück, [translation 1982], History of the Art of War, Volume III, The Middle Ages. Translated by Renfroe, Walter. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood. p. 369-372. ISBN 0803265859.

[2] Aloys Schmidt: Zur Mainzer Stiftsfehde 1462, in: JbBistumMainz 3, 1948, pg. 89–99

[3] This is all from the Maurice Michael translation IM Publications, UK, (1997) ISBN 1 901019 00 4

[4] See Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1, Richard S. Levy, (ABL-CLIO, 2005), page 96

“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”.

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.

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