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Hans Hellinger

I don’t know if you were following this discussion (I thought maybe you were) but the passage Dan quoted here from the famous Humanist knight Ulrich von Hutten in a letter written in 1518 gives a pretty good insight into the conditions for a median ‘Lehnsmann’ in the increasingly volatile first quarter of the 16th Century.

I quote the letter here for convenience:

“Do you know what sort of place it is to which you ask me to return? Do not make the mistake of equating your own situation with mine. You city people, who lead comfortable, placid easy going lives, seem to think that a man in my position can find peace and quiet in his country retreat. Are you so ignorant of the turmoil and insecurity to which my sort is subject? Do not imagine that your life has anything in common with mine. Even if our estates were large enough to support us and our patrimonies ample, there are many troubles that deprive our minds of peace. Our days are spent in the fields, in the woods and in fortified strongholds. We lease our land to a few starving peasants who barely manage to scratch a living from it. From such paupers we draw our revenues, an income hardly worth the labour spent on it. To increase our revenues would require enormous effort and unremitting diligence.

Most of us are, moreover in a position of dependence on some prince to whom our hope of safety is attached. Left to ourselves we would be at everyone’s mercy, but under princely protection we still live in constant apprehension. Indeed, whenever I leave my tower I face danger. If I fall into the hands of those who are at war with my overlord, they seize me and carry me away. If my luck is bad I lose half my patrimony in ransom… No wonder we must spend large sums on horses and arms and employ retainers at great expense to ourselves. I cannot travel a mile from my home without putting on armour. I dare not even go hunting or fishing except clad in iron. Not a day passes without some dispute or altercation breaking out amongst our retainers. Often it is nothing more than a contention among stewards, but every quarrel must be approached with caution, for if I respond aggressively to a wrong done to one of my men, I may find myself embroiled in war while submission or concessions lay me open to extortion and a thousand new injuries springing from the first. And, remember, these quarrels arise not among foreign rivals but among neighbours, relatives and even brothers.

Such then are our rural delights; such is our leisure and our serene peace. The stone structures in which we live, whether they stand on a hill or in the plain, are built for defence, not comfort. Girded by moats and walls, they are narrow and crowded inside, pigs and cows competing with men for space, dark rooms crammed with guns, pitch, sulphur, and other materials of war. The stench of gun powder hangs in the air mixed with the smell of dogs and excrement and other such pleasant odours. Knights and retainers go to and fro, among them thieves and highway robbers, for our houses are open to all, and how can we tell one armed man from another? There is a constant din of sheep bleating, cows lowing, dogs barking, men working in the fields and the squeaks and creakings of carts and wagons. Wolves can be heard howling in the woods beyond.

Each day is filled with anxiety over what the morrow might bring – worrisome trouble, perhaps, or tempests. We must think about digging and ploughing, pruning the vines, planting trees, irrigating the meadows, sowing, spreading manure, cutting hay, reaping the grain, threshing and picking the grapes. Let the harvest fail, and we suffer terrible privation, with poverty, confusion, sickness, misery all around us. Is it to this life, then, that you are inviting me to return? Shall I leave court for an existence which is anything but the calm have you city people imagine? Do you really think that peace and tranquillity await me in my tower? And if you do not think so, what strange twist of your mind has led you to offer me such advice?”