Reply To: Armed citizens in medieval Europe

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Hans Hellinger

Yes, and it was the city which over and over bans the carrying of arms. When people live scattered across the land and there are few recognized authorities, its often customary for men to carry arms, partially because they usually have weapons in reach for hunting or field work anyways, and partially to assert their claim to be free men who can enforce their rights in an uncertain world. These societies usually present the keeping of arms in individualistic terms, like honour, or as a way to enforce hierarchies within society: rich over poor, men over women, free over unfree, and community members over resident foreigners.

When large numbers of people start living together in close quarters and seeing many strangers come and go, they usually notice that carrying arms leads to many woundings, robberies, and bullyings and start to restrict it and push other means of settling disputes. These are the societies which usually present the keeping of arms in civic terms: the community against its neighbours, against wannabe one-man rulers, or against kings. That is the logic behind the Athenian customs which Thucydides describes and the Roman customs which Cicero, the canonical gospels, and Petronius take for granted.

It sounds like in the 16th century some of the German towns had a hybrid of the individualistic and the civic approaches that depended on special customs around violence.

This would be incorrect if you are trying to imply that it was a new situation in the 16th Century. To the contrary, it was probably beginning to decline by the 16th Century in many places as the religious wars started up and some towns lost their rights and autonomy.

City self-management was not ever a ‘one size fits all’ situation. What may have seemed obvious to Thucydides or in Athens did not necessarily make sense in Strasbourg or to the citizens of Wroclaw.

Part of what makes the medieval period so interesting is that there was such variegation in governmental and legal systems. In Central Europe, the approach taken to the issue of an armed citizenry was to manage the violent actions not the carrying of the weapon. This was quite a conscious decision, they wanted to keep the citizenry actively involved in the defense of the town rather than follow the model of so many Italian towns and turn it over to the Condottieri. Machiavelli commented on this quite a bit, noting “German cities are completely independent, don’t have much territory around them and obey the emperor only when it suits. They are not afraid of him, nor any other powerful rulers in the area. This is because these towns are so well fortified that everyone realizes what an arduous wearisome business it would be to attack them. They all have properly sized moats and walls;
they have the necessary artillery; they have public warehouses with food, drink and firewood for a year; what’s more, to keep people well fed without draining the public purse, they stock
materials for a year’s worth of work in whatever trades are the lifeblood of the city and whatever jobs the common folk earn their keep with. They hold military exercises in high regard and make all kinds of arrangements to make sure they are routinely practiced.””

Athens was a slave state with a strict hierarchy. Towns like Zurich or Hamburg were quite a bit more republican in their outlook and more democratic in their system of management. Not to say they had Universal Suffrage or anything, but the rulers ruled at the sufferance of the governed and were routinely overthrown.