Armed citizens in medieval Europe

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  • #1604
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Carrying swords was not only extremely ubiquitous, not only guaranteed but required by most forms of German Town Law. Peasants were also clearly armed throughout Central and Northern Europe (though I can’t say about the British Isles).

    #1611
    Philologus
    Participant

    Could you give sources from before the 16th century? The only types of laws I have read in the 14th century are ones requiring free men to have arms for the militia and bring them to practices or musters, and ones restricting the carrying of arms within city limits or near parliament. That supports what we see in the art and the 14th century English coroner’s reports where a typical killing is a stabbing with a knife or a bludgeoning: working people who want to look tough in 14th century art or poetry wear a dagger, knife, or basilard. Sydney Anglo made some noises about how this might not be the whole story in Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, but he did not have much evidence to cite.

    As I said in the other thread, there is a big difference between having arms and carrying arms, because the social implications are very different.

    #1612
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    If I wanted to fit the policy of a typical pre-1917 Eurasian state on weapons into a tweet, I would say “all free full citizens have to keep as many weapons as the state can make them in their homes, and carry as few weapons as the state can make them in public.” (That is a massive oversimplification, but its close enough often enough to get people thinking).

    So there was a big difference between having arms and carrying arms. From the Roman Republic to 19th century North America, we tend to see laws requiring citizens to own arms, and banning anyone from carrying weapons, especially swords and knives, within city limits.

    Perhaps the operative word here is “State”?

    There were no real States in Europe other than Byzantium (sort of) and then the Ottoman Empire, in the High to Late Medieval period. France and England, some of the Iberian Kingdoms, and the Teutonic Order were trying to become States, but they weren’t quite there yet.

    Anyway, the reasons we can speculate all day long about, the reality is that citizens routinely walked around armed in basically every town under every form of German Town Law, with a couple of exceptions. That is essentially what Prof. Tlusty’s book was all about (though she starts around 1520) and it’s certainly a big part of what my lecture was about.

    Armed citizens, down to the rank of Artisan, appear routinely in the civic artwork of the period, their right to carry arms is specified in the town charters, it is discussed and litigated in the town council records, it is mentioned by chroniclers and in memoirs. And this was the case from at least the 11th Century through at least the 17th in at least 500 cities I know of. If you doubt my word on this which type of evidence would you prefer?

    As for how they managed to have all these people carrying swords without constantly hacking chunks off of each other, Tlusty gets into that a lot and so does my lecture. There were a lot of formal laws against things like drawing your sword, various forms of making threats with it, and so on, and if you hurt someone in a fight you better have a good reason.

    This is a mural in Augsburg by George Breau circa 1530, there is one for each season (you can see the others here)
    Augsburg, Summer

    Note all the people carrying sidearms!

    Note German Town Law was used from Flanders to Romania and from the Swiss Confederation to Finland. It wasn’t just in Germany.

    #1613
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    The only exceptions (per above) were towns which had been through civil wars in which the artisans were defeated, like Nuremberg, in which case there were some limitations such as how long a sword could be or how much gunpowder they could keep in their house. But they were still armed and could still walk around with sidearms, in fact they were expected to do so except when at work or at the baths or something like that. They even went to church armed.

    #1614
    Philologus
    Participant

    So what evidence from the 14th and 15th centuries do you have? There is all kinds of evidence that the wearing of swords and big knives was very common and respectable in most parts of 16th century Europe, not so much in the 14th.

    Citing a painting from 1530 does not help us understand where this peculiar custom in many parts of 16th century Europe came from.

    #1615
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Well, I told you where it comes from (at least in Central Europe), it is in the town charter. I didn’t see where you had made the distinction between ubiquitous in the 16th century and unheard of in the 14th.

    I guess before going to look for primary sources (?) for the 14th Century I would counter your question with another – once the towns had walls and militia, who was going to dictate to them whether or not their citizens could bear arms or anything else? Seeing as they routinely defied kings and emperors on any number of policies (right up to and including fighting pitched battles against them), and were governed by their own citizens, the only thing which could prevent citizens from bearing arms or exercising any other rights would be a very strong internal monarchy or dictatorship of some kind. So far as I know these were pretty rare north of the Alps, though in Italy you did have some Condottieri taking over towns. This is how the citizens of Milan lost many of their rights for example.

    Give me a bit and I’ll find some sources, it’s been a while since the idea of armed burghers was an issue in any discussion I’ve had, I’ll have to find some old stuff.

    #1616
    Philologus
    Participant

    These kinds of discussions can be difficult because everyone has a view based on the sources they have read which come from different periods and different parts of Europe. Here are some sources from the period I am interested which ends around 1410.

    • You can find a selection of militia laws in this Armour Archive thread on Aketons, Pourpoints, and Gambesons There are also some from Scandinavia around the 12th and 13th century which require people of a certain status and property to own certain weapons or pay a fine. Acta Periodica Duellatorum has a 14th century list of who had what from Germany or Austria, a list from Troyes in 1474 in Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae 5 came up on MyArmoury
    • The London Coroner’s Rolls from 1300 to 1340 are available in a book from 1913 or a complicated website, the London Medieval Murder Map.
    • Two Prague city laws from 1327 and 1331. On 8 September 1327 (law no. 19), the judges and burgers of the city of Prague decreed that no one present or living in the city of Prague shall carry sword or stabbing knife in the city of Prague unless they have at least ten marks of property. In 1331, they expanded this: “Sword and stabbing knife and all forbidden weapons and harness, as they are generally called, shall be forbidden to the poor and rich, the lords and country people, the burgers and to all in general within the city, so that no one from now on shall carry them.” (law number 37)
    • A number of English royal or parliamentary decrees from around 1330 against bringing swords, daggers, axes, bows and arrows, aketons, steel caps, etc. to Westminister to disturb peace and the holding of parliament (probably on British History Online, I can’t find them in the time available)
    • The Luttrell Psalter, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Sienna, and the Tacuinum Sanitatis MSS
    • English civic laws, from Matt Easton:

      Which was the topic of my lectures at both SWASH and Dijon. People were not allowed to walk around in the streets with swords in any English city, unless they were a knight, the squire of the knight, an alderman or one of the Mayor’s other officials, or a traveller arriving or leaving the city. However, ownership of swords was never mentioned in law, because everyone owned swords and were expected to for the defence of the realm (and longbows, of course). … Inn keepers were required by law (between the 13th and mid-15th centuries) to keep safehold of travellers’ weapons during their stay in the city. That law was repeated several times during the 14-15thC. Outiside of the cities anybody could carry whatever weapon they wanted.

      One of the reasons that fencing and jousting was conducted at Smithfields was that it was on the edge of the City boundary, so outside the law.

      By the 16thC sword carrying by anybody and everybody seems to have been socially acceptable in cities, and the old laws were ignored.

      He is not great at citing things, but in one thread he cites Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: H: 1375-1399 (1907) Folio lxiii

      Ordinances for safeguarding the City, to the effect (inter alia) that the gates of the City be fortified with portcullises and chained, and have “barbykanes” in front; that the quays between the.
      Folio lxiii b.

      Tower and London Bridge be bretasched (bretassez), and the keys of the City gates kept by two persons of the neighbourhood; that the Aldermen keep the names of hostelers in their Wards, and cause each inhabitant to swear that he will be ready with his harness (hernoys) to maintain the peace, if affray arise; that all hostelers and those dwelling with them be taxed according to their estate, except servants and apprentices, at the discretion of the Aldermen; that special guard be kept at the gates in view of the forthcoming expedition; that no one carry any arms except a baselard by day, but a Knight to have his sword borne after him, his page having a baselard, but not a dagger; that each Alderman put his Ward into array under his pennon, bearing his arms in relief, and lead his men whithersoever commanded for the defence of the City

      This was passed when Edward III was dying and there was fear of a French raid or invasion, I’d love to see what other sources he found but he’s more interested in Victorian stuff these days.

    • Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales where anyone of substance carries a knife in a fancy sheath but only a few travellers carry swords and bucklers and the ?miller? who carries too many big knives is mocked
    • “Prenegard, prenegard, Thus bere I myn baselard” which makes fun of someone who gets a fancy knife in a fancy sheath and starts parading around with it and causing trouble https://archive.org/details/songscarolsfromm00wrigrich/page/84/mode/2up

    I am not as knowledgeable about the late medieval and early modern Germanies as you are, and a lot of the things we ‘know’ about medieval Europe are true for England or France but not Florence or Bohemia (or true in one century but not another). But what I see in those laws from Prague and 14th century German and Austrian art is not so unfamiliar.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    #1618
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    In other words, in medieval Cologne or Strasbourg, the citizens were the police and the army. So laws and regulations were at their sufferance, and when they didn’t like them, they overthrew the government.

    #1620
    Philologus
    Participant

    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 reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    #1623
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    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.

    #1624
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    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.

    #1625
    Philologus
    Participant

    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.

    And the same in Thucydides’ Athens and Cicero’s Rome: they had elections every year, and both Thucydides and Cicero were exiled because they got elected to an office and messed up (Thucydides was away from his post when the Spartans attacked, Cicero executed Roman citizens without a trial). Both were imperial cities like Venice, because that kind of city is the one which leaves us the best evidence. Its really only in the last thousand years that we know much about life in the kind of town where people minded their business and did not dream of taking over the next town.

    It looks like if I ever have time I should look at this other Tlusty book. Matt Easton does not really answer email and I don’t know if he is willing to dig up the sources from England which he found all those years ago. But even in England, France, and northern Italy, the question about when and how carrying swords becomes common is still open.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    #1628
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    You do realize Imperial City in the Classical era of Athens, Sparta or Rome and “Imperial City” in the medieval period mean two completely different things, right? Even Venice had relatively little interest in conquering other cities – what they wanted to do was secure their trade routes and supply lines. Imperial or Royal cities in Central Europe just meant they had Imperial immediacy, meaning no prince had any authority over them except the Emperor or King, and in the case of the HRE, that basically meant Laissez Faire.

    I don’t think it actually is an open question at all. It’s a recognizable process. Jurg Gassmann and I found a bunch of records a few years ago which described the process in Bologna – regulations for their Armed Societies in the years between mid 12th century through the early 13th. I believed he published something on it though the emphasis was on the use of urban cavalry in the militia not so much on individual citizens rights, but they were also in those records.

    It was simply a matter of when the larger part of the population, usually meaning the artisans, became a substantial part of the city government. In most places this took place in roughly that same time period, in some a little earlier, in others a bit later. For example in Flanders the biggest changes took place after the big victory at the Battle of Courtrai in 1302. The craft artisans played a major role in the war so they demanded great rights in the town government.

    Most towns went through a phase where they became independent, usually ruled by their merchant class or so-called ‘patriciains’, then they went through a second phase where the artisans other middle or working class estates took some power in the government, typically in the high medieval period.

    By the late medieval period, towns which still had autonomy, mostly in Central and Northern Europe, had some kind of mixed or hybrid government which involved some representation by the crafts and some by the patricians and wealthier merchants.

    For example Strasbourg had a Senate consisting of 300 craft alderman, a council of thirteen (for defense) a council of fifteen (for finance) and a council of twenty (for guild laws). The first two were split between craftsmen and patricians, the last was patrician only. It was a shared power arrangement which was agreed to after the craftsmen had won a series of successful uprisings.

    Most towns with an artisan or partially artisan government had pretty liberal weapon laws for citizens. Again, this is because the citizens made up the bulk of the town watch and the militia. That’s the difference between north and south of the Alps. The Italian towns were getting worn out by war and invasions and gradually gave over control of their militias to military contractors, who eventually took over, ala the Sforza and Visconti in Milan.

    In France and England the monarchies were much stronger, and the same eventually became the case in the Iberian kingdoms. But all of the dynamism in the High to Late medieval period was in North-Italy, Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire in roughly that order. You really don’t see that much great art or literature coming out of France or England compared to the more urbanized regions of Europe in this period. Their heyday was later, with the opening of the Atlantic in the Early Modern Period.

    #1630
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    To get more specific than what I just outlined you just have to go through the town charters, and all of the changes to the charters, of each individual town. There are some strong similarities, because many towns copied the same charter. For example there were 29 different cities which adopted the Lübeck Law charter before the 15th Century. But each town went through it’s own pattern of when each specific right was won, or added to the charter, which was a process that may have taken 200 years or more. Many started out as more or less territorial towns and ended up Free or Free Imperial cities, then lost the rights again gradually in the Early Modern period.

    As an example of such a source, you can read the charters of a few dozen Slovak towns here, mostly in Slovak, but you can use auto-translation.

    http://forumhistoriae.sk/documents/10180/71257/Lexikon-stredovekych-miest.pdf

    #1631
    Philologus
    Participant

    You do realize Imperial City in the Classical era of Athens, Sparta or Rome and “Imperial City” in the medieval period mean two completely different things, right?

    Imperial city is a modern technical term for cities which go down the path that Babylon and Athens and Carthage and Rome went down of conquering their neighbours. Many cities in medieval Italy did this on a small scale (Florence and Sienna and Pisa Prato).

    Venice’s empire in Crete, Cyprus, and at one point most of the Peloponnese (not to mention the terrafirma and Dalmatia) was not just a snack! I think they got into a big fight with Maximillian in the Alps.

    Most towns with an artisan or partially artisan government had pretty liberal weapon laws for citizens. Again, this is because the citizens made up the bulk of the town watch and the militia.

    That does not follow at all. A very common solution, in the country I was born in and others, is requiring people to own weapons and keep them at home but sharply restricting how and where they can be carried. People usually pass these laws themselves because they are tired of armed people making trouble.

    The talk had some great details I had not heard before, but it made some broad claims about weapons in daily life and then supported them with evidence which was overwhelmingly from the 16th century. Maybe it was delivered for someone like the Meyer Freifechter folks who are focused on the 16th century, but the sixteenth century is not medieval! Everyone agrees that swords and weapons are much more visible in everyday urban life in 16th century Europe than 14th century Europe, so we can’t just extrapolate back from the 16th century any more than we can extrapolate forwards from those early medieval law codes about every free man having to carry their spear and shield to the assembly.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
    • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by Philologus.
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