Armed citizens in medieval Europe

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    Hans Hellinger

    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.

    “Imperial city” in the middle ages though means something completely different. It means a city which has Imperial Immediacy.

    I don’t mean to be rude but this is pretty basic stuff.

    Venice had some territory under their influence but they did not seek out to conquer the world and break all their rivals the way Rome did. Their territory in Dalmatia and Crete and Cyprus were all part of their trading network. Their main rival was the other trading city of Genoa. The goal was to keep the silk and pepper flowing from the Silk Road and the gold and silver flowing from all over Latin Europe and the Middle East.

    Rival trade routes Venice and Genoa

    However both Venice and Genoa were true City States and were not truly within the Immperial system – the HRE extended some power South of the Alps but after Legnano nobody was in fear of the Emperor.

    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.

    Though it may not make sense to you on a personal level, it is the historical reality and it is the result of the political compromise between the corporative bodies which made up the city. It is just how the German speaking towns, and before that most of the Latinized European communes all around Europe, decided to handle it. The Germans were somewhat unique in their emphasis on laws intended to control violent behavior among armed men.

    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.

    Please show me where “everyone agrees” to this? Lol!!!

    That one specific lecture focused on 16th Century sources because it was derived primarily from Professor Tlusty’s book as I stated pretty clearly in the beginning of the lecture, and she only deals with Early Modern sources for the most part (though she extends Early Modern to the 1450’s)

    However the notion that everyone across 1,000 years of European history made the decisions that you and Thucydides think made sense is somewhat ludicrous. The existence of the laws against drawing (as opposed to carrying) swords go back to the 13th Century in most towns under German Town Law, and this is hardly a secret. It also affected fencing masters and other famous people.

    Johannes Paulus Kal for example was fined the standard 3 gulden for drawing his sword during an altercation in Nuremberg on 17 March 1449. You can read about it here. It’s worth noting that Kal was not a noble, but was rather an artisan.

    ““Item meister Paulus Schirmeister von des fridpruchs wegen zwey teil widergeben und von werzuckens wegen gar nemen.” Master Paulus breaking the peace by drawing his arms. (10)”

    The famous Pirate Störtebeker was similarly fined 3 gulden and exiled from Wismar in 1380 for drawing his sword and breaking a mans bone with it. This was recorded in the Liber proscriptorum (“fortification book”) of Wismar though I don’t remember the page.

    These kinds of incidents, and those specific laws, are found all over the Holy Roman Empire and in all the regions around it where towns followed German town law, including Poland, Livonia, Sweden, Finland, Bohemia, Silesia, Lusatia, Austria, Hungary, the Swiss Confederation, the Rhineland, and to a large extent, the Low Countries.

    Hans Hellinger

    I think your confusion here, as I have pointed out before, is because you are more focused on other regions where there was more control over the citizenry.

    In German speaking towns, the various factions of citizens simply did not trust anyone other than themselves to be in charge of their security. The citizens had to be armed so that the town would not be sold by someone who was not invested in it’s freedom. One of the incidents in the lecture where armed journeymen on their way for an after work beer came to the rescue of the captain of the town guard illustrates quite well why they had these laws. In the medieval world carrying arms was equated with knowing how to use them (rightly or wrongly) and being ready to protect the Stadtfrieden.

    The northern Italian towns started out the same way, certainly in the era of the Lombard League and for a while after, but they were worn down by vendettas and the Guelf-Ghibelline conflicts, and rivalries between one another, and eventually gave over their security to contractors who eventually took most of them over. Venice was the exception to the rule as they had an abnormally stable government and a more cautious foreign policy.

    South of Lombardy and Tuscany though (Rome and the Kingdom of Naples) things were more typically Feudal in Italy, and therefore more like France or Spain.

    England of course was it’s own world. I remember reading a bit about some of the towns which were linked to the Hanse, like London, York, Boston and so on, but beyond that I really never focused on it, and that was a long time ago. My understanding is that those towns were reigned in during the 1390’s. The German Hanseatic Kontor in London (called the Steelyard) was self-administered and when the King tried to curtail their rights and rob some of them in the 1470s it lead to a war between England and just a few of the Hanse cities, which was won by the Hanse. They left them alone after that until the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

    Hans Hellinger

    What is true in one part of Europe was not true in all of Europe. What was true in 400 BCE in Athens, or 2020 in London, wasn’t necessarily true in Hamburg in 1400.


    In that regard, I am told that the French were armed with poor hygiene, something their neighbors to the north seemed to be less adept at. Granted, this comment was directed at Louis XIV, but it does in general paint a picture of the various diverse cultural practices across the continent.

    Pardon the sarcasm, gentlemen – I can see myself out! 😛

    Hans Hellinger

    Well I guess that settles it lol

    Hans Hellinger

    Philologus, give me a couple of days and I’ll get you some more specific data on precisely when these laws came into effect in a few more specific places. I’ve already got a few things sourced, but I want to track down a few more. Getting into this level of granularity (individual as opposed to corporate rights) takes a bit more doing, and I’ve got a lot going on right now. But it’s worth exploring seriously, it’s just not something that has come up in about ten years.

    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.

    Hans Hellinger

    Had someone translate this tidbit for me from the city council records of Strasbourg from 1336, regulations for the “schwertag” – the sword day or oath day, when all citizens and residents swore allegiance to the city.

    It speaks to bringing arms to this meeting which was a commonplace practice though it does not speak to carrying arms day to day, so it’s of limited relevance here. Still, primary sources are always interesting:

    106. Es soll ein yeglicher so vil er süne oder knechte hat fürderlich bestellen und allewegen stetes in seinem hus haben sovil redelicher gewere, es sigen hallen- barten stritaxe oder schwinspies auch Schwerte oder lange messer, die zur gewere gut
    sint, also das sin süne und knechte yeglicher domit gerüstet sy, wann es noth thüt, das dan yeglicher mit solichem gewere mit im für des münster gen sol und sollent semlichc süne und knechte ston hinder denen, die harnasch anhaben, und sol yeglicher by sins
    hantwerks baner bleyben, er würde dan von dem ammeyster oder sin botschaft anders- wo hin geordet, des sol man auch gehorsam sin by dem eid.


    Everyone should acquire and have in their house as many good weapons as they have servants or sons for defence, such weapons like Iron halberds, war-axes or pig(boar)-spears also swords or long knives are good for defence, so that all of the sons and servants of everyone can therefore be armed if the need arises, that then everyone with such arms should go to the cathedral and have all their sons and servants stand behind those who have armour, and everyone should stay close to their crafts(guild) banner, unless he should be ordered elsewhere by the master or his messages(or herald), then one should honour the Oath.

    Hans Hellinger

    Sorry correction, it was 1322

    Hans Hellinger

    There is a ban on riding horses with swords from the 14th Century and a ban on carrying swords and langes messers longer than a certain specified length in 1453.

    Hans Hellinger
    Hans Hellinger

    Olivier Dupuis gave me some more from Strasbourg:

    1400 a law in the ‘Knechtordnung’ banning apprentices, day laborers and servants (knechten) from carrying swords, messers or axes above a specific size unless they were in the employ of the city.

    1407 a day laborer was exiled for being caught for the third time carrying a langes messer

    1418 – regulation stipulating that no-one was to carry a sword or langes messer with a blade wider than the length of a finger.

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