Reply To: Armed citizens in medieval Europe

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Hans Hellinger

Ah ok I see you are coming with a full frontal assault here!

Ok we have two separate issues to resolve here which are getting mixed together somewhat dangerously. 1) Did citizens in Central Europe have the right to carry arms on their person – I think maybe we agree this was in place in towns in German speaking areas by the 16th Century but I am not sure. And 2) When and how did this right arise? We need to keep these somewhat separate.

I also think it is problematic when trying to understand anything in the medieval world to mix and match eras and especially regions when talking about this type of thing. What is true in any part of England in 1399 is certainly not going to be true in Augsburg or Krakow in the same period, let alone in the 15th Century.

My understanding is that English towns had basically the same rights as Continental ones prior to the last ten or twenty years of the 14th century, but England is not my area of interest and as a relatively strong monarchy, does not follow the same laws as Central Europe.

When it comes to towns in Central Europe, they come in four types: 1) Free Cities, for example Lübeck or Gdansk / Danzig (basically city states without even a nominal overlord) 2) Free Imperial or Royal Cities like Cologne, Bern, Zurich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt am Main, Krakow, Buda (essentially city states but with nominal fealty to a King or Emperor) 3) Semi-autonomous Territorial Towns like Brunswick, Stockholm or Rostock (cities at least partly ruled by the Burgrave of a prince but which also have a town council and burgomeisters) and Mediatized Territorial Towns like Trier, Stuttgart or Munich, such as the “residence” of a major prince.

Most of the towns everyone has heard of in Central Europe were of type 2, a few of type 1 and a few of type 3 or 4. Pretty much all of the towns in France or England after the 1390s were of type 3 or 4.

The distinction for something like an armed citizenry is something like when the local prince grants autonomy to the citizens to have the right of self-management. So for example in 1261 King Štefan V granted the town of Košice “exempted the inhabitants of the locality from military duty, exempted them from the jurisdiction , the freedom to follow their own freedoms and customs.

Professor Tlusty traces the origins of the right of free men to be armed to the Sachsenspeigel. She covers the laws on weapons mainly in chapter 3 of her book “Negotiating Armed power”

Some examples she gives are the law of 13th Century Freiburg which specified “all citizens and merchants, poor and rich” can carry “any kind of weapons that they have including swords, bows, crossbows and pikes. She notes that these kinds of laws were common – citing “Das Wehrhafte Freiburg” page 216, Kunzberg, Messerbrauche. She also notes that Nordlingen’s regulations against carrying swords only applied to non-residents (which she sources from the Nordlinger stadrechte, p. 577, and Burgerliche Gesellschaft by Kaisling, pp 94-95.

Some towns did, usually as the result of unrest, pass laws restricting the size of swords people could carry, such as one law passed in Frankfurt Am Main in 1511 stating that “on account of the riots, hereafter no master or journeyman belonging to the shoemakers’ guild shall carry a sword or dagger longer than that which was designated on the Roemer.” But this is just for the shoemakers guild.

More common were laws such as those passed by Augsburg in the 13th Century forbidding the drawing of a sword, the revealing of a sword hilt during a fight (like by opening the coat), or scraping the sword on the cobblestones to make sparks.

Most Free or Imperial cities in Central Europe. had these kinds of laws on the books by the 14th Century. Which would seem pretty superfluous if they didn’t have the right to carry swords.