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Hans Hellinger

Ok before I go any further, let me stipulate. When I am speaking somewhat definitively, I am referring to Central Europe, that is to say primarily High or Low German speaking, or West-Slavonic speaking polities very roughly between the Rhine and the Vistula, and I am referring to high to late medieval sources. Once you get back to the Carolingian era or Migration Era my knowledge is pretty limited, as it is more generally for Western Kingdoms such as Scotland, England, France, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castille, Portugal, and so on.

So the earliest Latin document I can find in the German-speaking areas which (apparently) mentions the right to carry a sword dates back to the 10th Century, but I have not been able to find a transcription or translation of the actual law yet.

Prior to that of course we have Germanic, Norse, Slavic, Baltic, Gallic and etc. tribal laws which usually mandated that free men could carry a weapon, but I’ll circle back to that later.

The 10th Century Law was from the Franconian King Heinrich I known in later years as ‘Der Vogler’ (the fowler) for his love of falconry, and who was known chiefly for his successful campaigns against the Magyars in what is now Hungary. All of the Schützenfest clubs in Germany, Austria and Switzerland mention this. The purpose was to arm settled communities against sudden Magyar or Slavic raids to which they were vulnerable, though at this time walled towns were relatively rare, most had a citadel. This is similar to (from what I understand) Alfred the Great’s organization and arming of burhs in Saxon England to help defend against the Vikings.

The next big change in the German speaking areas came about during the great German interregnum which started either 1250, 1254, or 1256 (depending on how you assess it) and ended in 1270. There was a sharp rise in noble feuding, a sharp decline in princely protection and Towns had to suddenly start fending for themselves. They began forming the first really strong medieval town leagues north of the Alps (about 100 years after the Italians here) and began relying more heavily on the artisans and other commoners in their town militia.

For example in the (at the time German-Polish) town of Kraków in Poland, the city was sacked by the Mongols during their big invasion in 1241, though most of the population survived by hiding in the citadel or in the forests. The same thing happened again in 1257. Fortuitously for them, the burghers sided with the Polish prince Leszek the Black in 1282 and 1285 during conflicts among Polish nobles. The burghers hid the princes family in their town citadel while he went to Hungary and got a relieving army. When he got back, he was so grateful he gave them town rights including the right to build a wall.

Jan Dlugosz says (from page 227 of his Annales, in the entry for AD 1285:

“The rebels are convinced that success depends on their being able to capture Leszek himself, and the whole army is moved up from Sandomierz to Cracow. Leszek is filled with doubt as to what he should do, though common sense indicates that, if he is to keep Cracow as his capital, he must install a strong garrison with a good number of knights in the castle; but this is far from easy, for most of his knights have deserted him. In the end, he has an inspiration: he turns to the citizens of Cracow who are of German origin, entrusts his wife and the castle to them and promises to reward them generously once the enemy has been defeateed. Then, on July 14, he leaves the city with a small retinue and makes as swiftly as he can for Hungary and King Laszlo to seek his help.

The citizens of Cracow, seeing that there is no likelihood of their being able to defend the city with it’s low walls and poor defenses, leave it and crowd with their wives and children into the castle and prepare to defend it against all attacks. So, when Duke Conrad [of Masovia – Laszlo’s nemesis] arrives, he finds the city deserted and quarters himself in it. He sends some courtiers known to the defenders of the castle to tell them that if they will surrender the castle and submit voluntarily to him, whom the other lords and magnates have unanimously elected their duke, he will treat them justly and kindly, granting them immunity for what they have done; but otherwise they will call down upon themselves all the full extent of his wrath.

After a brief discussion, the city fathers tell the Duke that, having already sworn loyalty to Leszek – as have all the magnates and knights of Cracow and Sandomierz – they cannot stain their honor with such a gross breach of faith and, as long as Leszek is alive, they have no right to, and cannot renounce the loyalty they have sworn to him. The Duke vents his anger at their reply on the innocent dwelling houses: fires are started in several places and the whole beautiful city is burned to the ground [Dlugosz himself lived in Krakow during his own life in the 15th Century and loved it]

Leszek is now on his way back from Hungary with an army of Hungarians and Kumans [Steppe nomads] provided by King Lazlo. Conrad wants to force an encounter, for he is convinced that with his superior numbers, he can deal with Laeszek’s army; so he moves on from Cracow and battle is joined on August 2, a pitched battle fought on level ground near the river Raba. Both sides suffer heavy casualties; but when Conrad himself is wounded in the head, victory goes to Leszek and Conrad seeks the safety of his castles in Mazovia.

Leszek rewards his Hungarian helpers and sends them back to Pannonia. He grants their liberty to any of the gentry he has take prisoner and restores those who beg forgiveness to their former state of favour. The defenders of Cracow, whose loyalty preserved the city for him, are granted a number of privileges: they are allowed to ring the city with ditches, ramparts, bastions and walls, and also, despite the protests of the knights and nobles, allows the city itself to be administered exclusively by Germans [This really just means the German speaking burghers, some of whom are actually Poles and Czechs]. Leszek is now of such sympathy for, and liking of the Germans, that he adopts their manners, dress and way of doing their hair.”

This turned out to be a very important development for Kraków, because two years later in 1287 through 1288 the Third Mongol Invasion of Poland (under Nogai Khan and Talabuga) took place. Fortunately for the citizens they not only managed to rebuild some of their town in that two year span, they had very quickly followed up on the new rights granted by Leszek and built some apparently quite formidable defenses, part of which have survived in slightly altered form to this very day. When the Mongols arrived in Kraków again on Christmas they were stymied by the new town walls, lost some men during an attempt to storm the town and had to retreat. Of this Jan Dlugosz (page 230 for his entry on 1287) says only:

“… the Tatars descend like a cloud of locusts on Lublin and Mazovia, moving on to Sandomierz, Sieradz and Cracow, despite severe frost and snow. They burn a number of monasteries, churches and fortresses in which people have taken refuge, but, on the advice of the Ruthenians [Ukranians or Belarussians] accompanying them, refrain from attacking the monastgery of the Holy Cross on Lysa Gora, only to be shamefully defeated after spending a couple of days vainly attacking the town and castle of Sandomierz. They reach Cracow on Christmas Eve and mount an attack, but lose some of their more eminent warriors and, abandoning the attempt, ravage the surrounding country instead. To do this, they scatter, so that it would have been possible to capture and kill some of them at least, had it not been for the heavy snow and the low morale of the Polish knights. Frightened by the situation, and having no confidence in his knights, Leszek takes his wife and some of his court to Hungary, and when the Tatars learn of this from prisoners, they ravage the country as far as the Pannonian alps.”

The significant aspect of this for our discussion is who built and manned the town walls, and in particular the defensive towers of Kraków. This is the main gate of Kraków, known as St. Florians Gate. The roof and the little copper ceiling were added in late medieval and Baroque times respectively, but the main tower itself was part of the original 13th Century stone walls.

Brama Floriańska - St. Florian's Gate, Kraków

The tower is also called ‘The Furriers gate’ because it was built and manned by the “Furriers guild”, or I think more properly, the Furriers craft. Each of the 47 other towers which were in the original town wall were built by one of of the craft-guilds of the town: the Carpenters tower, the lacemakers tower, the joiners tower, and so on.

The prominence of the Furriers in manning the main gate of the city (this is the gate which is on the royal road) and of the other crafts in manning most of the other 49 towers, is a reflection of their importance to the town militia. They staged a series of risings against either patrician (wealthy merchants on the town council) or Seignorial (the King or his Vogt in the Krakow castle) in 1257, 1288, 1291 and 1297. They won an expanding series of rights in the aftermath of these incidents, and it’s not a coincidence that when the town charter was revised in 1313 the craft guilds were made part of the city council.

According to Leonard Lepszy in his book “Cracow, the royal capital of ancient Poland: It’s history and antiquities” the crafts celebrated their victory in the last 13th century town uprising in an annual march on Corpus Christi Day in June, in which they proceeded not only carrying swords but with the blades drawn:

““At religious processions, like that on Corpus Christi Day, all craft guilds displayed extraordinary splendour; the members appeared corporately, in holiday clothes, and armed. The seniors, with badges and maces, marched ahead, followed by the brethren of the guild, in closed ranks, with ensigns spread and swords drawn.

There was a great parade of the craft guilds on the occasion of the coronation of a king, or a marriage in the royal family, or the triumphant entry of some victorious general. The guilds, marching in arms, gave quite the appearance of a well equipped body of troops ready for fight- thus reminding the spectators of the important part they had played in the past in defending the city from enemies*. For in those times they were the proper defenders of the town walls, providing the bastions with ammunition and implements of war; they all belonged to the rifle company and practiced shooting at the municipal range. The fortified walls of the town had gates, which are mentioned by name in the very oldest book of records: St. Florian’s Gate, the Slawkow Gate, St Stepehn’s, the Shoemakers, the Vistula, and St. Nicholas’ or the Butchers Gate; …Of the towers, the first one, at the outlet of Hospital Street to the east, is perhaps the richest and most graceful. It belonged to the lace-makers guild. ….”

According to the Balthasar Behem Codex, the first mention of a law in Krakow against drawing (as sharply distinct from carrying) a sword was in 1379. I got the Gassman’s to help me out with a rough translation of the relevant passage for my second Acta paper in 2013 – this is the translation:

It is decided with agreement worthy of blessing, of all the elders to hold fast. Here being, he who draws, or has drawn sword or knife, wherever it is drawn, in street or house or hall of the city, shall give half a mark in fines to the city. He who does not pay the fine shall be confined to a tower for eight days and the armament that is drawn shall be taken by the lord, as according to the privileges about which are given.

You can find this passage in Latin in the Balthasar Behem Codex, the transcription I used was Bucher, B, 1505/ 1889 Balthasar Behem Codex (Die Alten Zunft Und verkehrs ordnungen dr Stadt krakau nach Balthasar Behem’s Codex picturatus in der K. k. Jagellonischen Bibliothek, Vienna 1889)

So this puts the first law against drawing a sword in Kraków at 1379. This is in fact how violence was controlled, with laws like this.

Now this is just one town but I’ll add some more as I have (indirect) access to the records of some Alsatian and Swiss towns, and I may have some for several Hanseatic cities as well. Stand by for more.