Iron Men: Fashion in Steel (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) 26 March – 26 June [Exhibition review]

Vienna usually spoils visitors with an interest in arms and armour with the Hofjagd und Rustkammer housing one of the best collections of its kind. However, the ‘Iron Men’ exhibition curated by Stefan Krause elevates this experience and offers a unique educational trip on the subject of armour that mainly spans from the 15th to the 16th century. A combination of harnesses, armour parts and art lead the visitor on an amazing journey.

The field armour from the Eagle Garniture of Archduke Ferndinand II by Jorg Seusenhofer makes a stunning first impression on visitors.

The aim of the exhibition is to present the many functions and contexts of armour: a tool for war, a staggering display of power, a diplomatic gift, an inimitable fashion statement and a unique manner in preserving memory. Visitors will be able to see some of the best examples of field and tournament armour made for some of the most renowned princes of their time, armour designed for children and funerary purposes. Armour is discussed as a method of constructing identities, expressing masculinity and martial prowess. The often-overlooked subject of women in martial culture and in relationship to armour is also presented. The owners of armour, with their bodies imprinted in steel, are first presented as larger than life humans, then as everyday people that could afford unique carapaces that served multiple functions and besides power and wealth also often possessed a sense of humour, style, and an interest to the aesthetically pleasing. These qualities shift historical figures from two-dimensional beings to being somewhat relatable. Since fashion is often at the forefront the decorative methods of armour are explored in depth. The use of fabric as a layer underneath or over armour is demonstrated through amazing extant examples, as well as the use of precious metals and stones. The exhibition ends with past reimaginations of armour in previous centuries both as objects as well as in art, demonstrating how as objects they always spurred interest. Armour is presented as a method of interpreting intercultural barriers or a glorified past with examples of armour alla turca and all’antica.

Whereas the strongest part of the exhibition is unquestionably some of the most impressive examples of armour surviving, the texts accompanying are masterfully written and edited to complement the content of the various rooms. The precision, sensitivity and scholarly meticulousness is balanced with simplicity without dumbing down the content -a sin that many modern museums often commit- and sets the standard for exhibitions on the field of arms and armour. Without relying on the overused crutches of modern pop-culture or the conservative displays of previous decades ‘Iron Men’ shatters many of the norms that armour is usually presented in similar exhibitions, captivates the attention of the visitor, and invites them to imagine and learn.

The ‘Iron Men’ exhibition truly raised the bar regarding the presentation of armour both as an object as well as conceptual ideas. It is engaging, thoughtful and often reinvents how the subject is framed and presented, rendering it a useful educational experience for the general audience as well as for specialised scholars. An excellent catalogue was produced for the purposes of the exhibition covering all objects in it as well as featuring numerous essays on various topics related to armour.

A History of Motivation – Viennese Burghers in Action (or rather Inaction)

The bombardment of the city of Vienna and the storming of its suburbs in May 1485 by Matthias Corvinus led to the final decision of the Viennese citizens to hand over their city to the Hungarian King. In letters to princes and cities of the Empire, the city council claimed that they were forced to surrender because of the famine, the lack of support from the emperor, and the treachery of Bohemian mercenaries. The prestigious city of Vienna was thus in the hands of the Hungarian king. But the so-called “Hungarian War” was by no means over. After the capture of Vienna, Matthias Corvinus went as far as the imperial residence Wiener Neustadt and took it under his control. On the way there, the troops, including Viennese servants, passed through several villages, including Merkenstein Castle. [1] The city council’s accounts book of 1486 lists the damages that mercenaries and servants had suffered and were paid for by the city. One entry stands out in particular:

„hannsenn Gsmachl fur sein hanndtpuxn die er vor Merknstain verlornn hat, Darumb man im Lanng nichts hat gebn wellnn seins vnfleiss halbnn vnd doch yetz durch den Burgermaister das er im ain peltzl kauf vnnd im velde nebenn anndernn beleibn mug Zugebnn bevolhnn hat, 20 t.“ [2]

Hans Gsmachl did not seem to have been one of the most motivated Viennese servants. The city council refused to refund the handgun he had lost in front of Merkenstein Castle because of his apparent limited zeal. In order to persuade him to work hard, the mayor decided to buy him a fur so that Gsmachl would stay in the field with the other servants. With a proud amount of 20 pounds of Viennese pennies, this motivational impulse weighed heavily on Vienna’s finances.

Military Duty of Burghers in Vienna
It is not too surprising that such listlessness and idleness is not only to be found among servants and mercenaries who financed their lives through their war craft and services, but even more so among citizens of the city who were bound to readiness for duty due to their personal military service.

The official duties of the citizens included assignments both inside and outside the city. A district division of 1444 makes the four tasks of the Viennese citizen visible: “[…] sie sullen in zirken, wachten, schützen, raisen mit einander leidn“. [3] According to this, the war duty included patrols through the alleys and streets of the city (zirken), guarding the city walls (wachten), protecting the city and community in case of need (schützen) and participating in military campaigns (raisen). It is not surprising that this list of duties corresponded more to an ideal conception and can hardly be found in reality. This was among other reasons due to the growing demands of previous centuries. If the city privileges of 1237, 1247 and 1278 granted Viennese citizens the memorable right to leave the city on military expeditions only to the extent that they could return by daylight on the same day, this passage disappeared in the following city privileges. When the great wave of plague in the middle of the fourteenth century did not even stop at Vienna and carried away approximately one third of the city population, this also affected the military duties in the city. While the guarding of the city wall was previously the responsibility of the bowyers, fletchers and their journeymen, from 1361 onwards, all citizens had to perform this service due to a lack of male population. [4]

Meisterlin Sigismundus, Augsburger Chronik, Augsburger Bischöfe, Anonyme Chronik 1368-1406 – SuStB Augsburg 4 Cod Aug 1 (Cim 70), Augsburg, [um 1480], 144r

Reasons to Become Unmotivated
Since those services, especially campaigns, on the one hand represented risky undertakings and thus danger to life and limb, and on the other hand had a negative effect on living costs in terms of time and money, the outsourcing of tasks gradually begun.
In Vienna, the proof of the earliest transfer of military duty to a surrogate can be found in a mention from 1368. However, this method was not to become widely practiced until the fifteenth century. The financial outstanding of the campaign against robbers and mercenary leader Pangratz of Galicz in 1449 gives us an insight into this proxy service. In the already mentioned city council’s bills, outstanding debts for this campaign can be found in the period from 1450 to 1462 as citizens still owed the city treasurer the corresponding payment for the services of the mercenaries recruited for them.

The fact that the Viennese increasingly only hired mercenaries but stayed away from the field themselves had already angered those people who were dependent on horsemen. In 1425, Duke Albrecht V was upset to discover that the Viennese citizens were asked several times until they became active themselves:

„Als wir ew vormaln geschriben vnd emboten haben daz ir von der Stat ze Wienn zwayhundert werlicher ze Rossen zu vnsern lantmarschalch soltet schikhen. haben wir vernomen wie ihr das vntz her vertzogen habet Das vns vast missvellet.“ [5]

Because of invading Hussite troops, Albrecht V demanded 200 citizens on horseback from the Viennese but at the time of writing they had not yet arrived at the Marshal, to whom they should have been subordinated. It is understandable that the Duke was displeased with this but this did not prompt the Viennese to make up for the omission immediately. About 50 days later, there were still only a few mercenaries at the Marshal’s place but hardly any Viennese citizens. [6] Only after further correspondence did this situation change.

The numerous drafts and war taxes, which were considered necessary, hardly encouraged the willingness of the Viennese. Moreover, political entanglements, marauding mercenary troops in the surrounding area, ever worsening minting conditions, bad harvests and famines in the city made the life of the contemporaries more troublesome. Reason enough for the sovereign and city council to appeal in ordinances to the obedience and morality of the citizens but at the same time to threaten with punishment in accordance with social disciplining if the appeal is not complied with. When the robber Ledwenko of Ruchenau tried to invade the country with 1,500 men, the Viennese were put on alert. They should inform each other and be ready to move together with horses, carts, and be as well-equipped as possible, to where they should be called upon in case of need. But whoever was in default had to expect to be severely punished without mercy. [7]

Reasons to Become Motivated
Nevertheless, up to the end of the fifteenth century, Viennese citizens repeatedly did not provide mercenaries but participated personally in a military action or appeared as adventurers. There may have been several and individual reasons for this but in general, two emerge as particularly plausible: first, the person concerned was probably financially unable to pay a surrogate, and second, the prospect of prey and thus a lucrative business.

Such an existence as an adventurer is reflected in a source from the 1441. Two Viennese citizens, Ulrich Cheschinger and Chuntz Voller, took part in an attack on the town of Fürstenfeld in Styria, which was under the control of Frederick IV (later Emperor Frederick III). In letters to their wives in Vienna, they both mention that they made great booty but were now considered enemies of the king. Piquantly, Voller probably did not know in advance against whom he was taking action for in his letter, he affirmed that he only realized afterwards whose possessions were being attacked. Therefore, his wife was supposed to talk to Niclas Teschler, a respected Viennese citizen so that he can defend him in front of the king. Cheschinger, on the other hand, who apparently knew who was being robbed, made plans to cover up his participation in the raid and the course of his return: his wife Els was not to tell anyone that he was in the field with Steiner but with Weihtracher in Hungary, and she was also to send him a letter asking him to return home immediately as soon as he had been paid with his share of the loot. With this letter, he wanted to make an appearance at his captain which should lead to a faster payment and return home.
Voller and Cheschinger, however, were met with the misfortune of their letters being intercepted and delivered to King Friedrich IV. The king expressed his displeasure and requested the Vienna City Council to take up the matter and to punish the people concerned appropriately. [8][9]

After the loss of the privilege of being mobilized only for day trips, the citizens of Vienna had to participate in numerous expeditions until the end of the fifteenth century. This led to a time problem and therefore financial burden, and also posed great danger to life and limb. It is understandable that the motivation of those affected suffered as a result, which is well documented in written accounts. Therefore, the decision of citizens to have their personal military service duties performed by surrogates was a logical development. This process is by no means a special development unique only to Vienna. It rather corresponds to a common practice in many Central European cities of the time. Regardless, some Viennese citizens appear in drafts or as adventurers who, attracted by a supposed prey, decided to become personally active and involved.

[1] Peter Csendes, ‘Geschichte Wiens im Mittelalter’, in Wien. Geschichte einer Stadt. Band 1: Von den Anfängen bis zur Ersten Wiener Türkenbelagerung (1529), ed. by Peter Csendes / Ferdindand Opll (Vienna: Böhlau, 2001), pp. 172-174.
[2] Vienna, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, Oberkammeramt, B1/1. Reihe, vol. 47, 1486, 20r.
[3] Adolf Tomaschek, Die Rechte und Freiheiten der Stadt Wien (= Geschichtsquellen der Stadt Wien 1. Abteilung) (Vienna: A. Hölder, 1877), CXLII.
[4] Vienna, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, Handschriften, A 1/1, Wiener Stadtbuch („Eisenbuch“), fol. 67v-68v.
[5] Vienna, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, HAUrk 2264, 4 October 1425.
[6] Vienna, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, HAUrk 2269, 23 November 1425.
[7] Hartmann J. Zeibig, Copey-Buch der Gemainen Stat Wienn. 1454–1464 (= FRA II/7), vol. 3 (Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staats-Druckerei, 1853), pp. 11-12.
[8] Vienna, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv, HAUrk 2815-2818, 14-16 August 1441.
[9] Gerhard Pferschy, ‘Ein Überfall auf Fürstenfeld 1441, König Friedrich IV. und die Wolfsauer’, in Rutengänge. Studien zur geschichtlichen Landeskunde. Festgabe für Walter Brunner zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Meinhard Brunner, Gerhard Pferschy et al. (= Forschungen zur geschichtlichen Landeskunde der Steiermark 54, = Zeitschrift des Historischen Vereines für Steiermark, Sonderbd. 26) (Graz: Historische Landeskommission für Steiermark, 2010), pp. 98–105.

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