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T. Kew

Location: London, UK
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PostPosted: Mon 15 Feb, 2021 8:10 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Paul Hansen wrote:
Anyway, regardless of whatever reasons those nobles may have had, it was clearly not in the interest of the towns let alone the farmers.

Sure, no argument here. But it's important to remember that "towns disagreed with nobles on whether a particular feud was justified and whether the actions taken in pursuit of it are legitimate" is a very different situation from "They [the nobles] maybe tried to spin it that way [as a feud] but I doubt they even believed it themselves. " The nobles involved could (and normally did) absolutely believe in their own cause as a legitimate feud; despite the town's disagreement on that point.

Not that it necessarily makes much of a difference in practice to the unlucky merchant.

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Dashiell Harrison

Location: California
Joined: 14 Jun 2014

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PostPosted: Mon 15 Feb, 2021 2:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jean Henri Chandler wrote:
Since you are working on a novel, here are three somewhat overlooked literary sources you might want to look at -

Louis L"Amours The Walking Drum, an earlier period and a bit further north, but in the ballpark of your subject and surprisingly good.

Mika Waltari's "The Adventurer" - a picaresque novel set in Central Europe (mostly) in the 16th Century, but this guy really understood the late medieval mindset, both the scholar's and commoners point of view.

Finally Tim Powers "Drawing of the Dark" is quite interesting. Also in the 16th Century, in the HRE, but this guy too does a good job getting into the mindset and IIRC some of the action does take place in the Brenner Pass. Plus I think Marozzo is in it..? Or Fiore? I forget which fencing master. But one of them.

These look like fun! I'll have to give them a look. Thanks Jean!
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Michael P. Smith

Location: Muncie, Indiana
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PostPosted: Tue 16 Feb, 2021 7:40 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I don't have a ton to add here other than I travelled through that pass on the way from Innsbruck to Venice a couple summers ago. It really struck me how many castles there were on the way. A local Tyrolean professor who was on the trip mentioned that the route was dangerous, but that the local castellans charged "tolls" (e.g. protection money) for merchants. And sometimes raided them anyway or some or all of their goods. He mentioned that Padua and Innsbruck had a small industry in providing armed guards for trips through the pass. BUT... he did not provide any sources for any of this, so I have no idea how much was "tourist talk" and how much was documented. It sounded plausible.... and I've never seen so many castles in such a small area.
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Jean Henri Chandler

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PostPosted: Tue 16 Feb, 2021 1:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's not unusual. Many parts of the Rhine valley are the same way.

This is Burg Maus, near St. Goarhausen Germany. About half a mile down the river, on the other side, is Burg Katz...

... which was owned by a rival family. They say that the barons used to come out and shake their fists at one another across the river. It's a very spooky place, right next to where the Lorelei wrecks ships (last time a BASF barge around 2017 IIRC). If you take google maps and zoom in you'll find collections of castles every 5 or 10 miles. Just look for the word 'burg'.

Many other choke points, navigable rivers, valleys, sections of the Via Regia, Via Imperia, the Silk Road, Amber Road, Camino de Santiago and so on were like that. Quite a few were actively patrolled by town militias, but even where the towns were very formidable and strong, that was no guarantee of safety.

I was at this spot in 2019, we ate at a little restaurant in St. Goarhausen called "Das Rheingold". We had curds and some superb beer. I attached a photo of the little town (with burg Katz looming up above it) from the spit where they put the bronze statue of the Lorelei, may she have mercy on all mariners and travelers. Of course the little town was fortified as well. Never know who might be coming down the river.

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Dan Howard

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PostPosted: Wed 17 Feb, 2021 1:17 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This might help explain why there were so many castles in the region. It is a letter written by Ulrich von Hutten in 1518. It is reply to a suggestion that if he was not happy he could return to his peaceful life in the country by Willibald Pirckheimer after Pirckheimer read an earlier letter from von Hutten recording his experiences at court.

"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?"


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Jean Henri Chandler

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PostPosted: Thu 18 Feb, 2021 8:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Yes, von Hutten is an interesting character. University educated Humanist, and clearly a gifted writer as you can see. He was involved in the Reuchlin affair, ridiculing the anti-semites who wanted to ban the study of Hebrew with biting, scatalogical and often hilarious satire called the "EpistolŠ Obscurorum Virorum" But in that letter, he is describing a situation here that was changing and coming to a head.

Being the time and place that it was, it's complicated. But I'll try to summarize the circumstances that tie him specifically to the phenomenon of Robber Knights and bandits.

This was a time of major change and rapidly increasing tensions between all the estates in Central Europe: the Church, the princes, the Emperor, the towns and the gentry, and the peasants too. Emperor Maximillian I had banned private feuds (in theory) in his Ewiger Landfriede "Everlasting Landfrieden" of 1495, considered one of the early attempts at state building in the HRE. The lower nobility, (many of whom had non-noble origins as ministerials) correctly saw this as an attack on their rights and a power grab by the princes. But others (also correctly) saw it as an attempt to establish peace and law and order within the HRE.

From that point on all disputes were supposed to be settled in the Reichstag, the diet or sort of the proto-parliament, of the whole HRE. But the lower ranking nobles, especially the Lehnsmannen or vassal knights like von Hutten, felt that only the princes and prince-electors had representation there. The feud (fehde) was their one last resort if the (princely) courts unfairly sided against them. The towns, though they struggled against the robber knights, were also very wary of the princes. The EpistolŠ Obscurorum Virorum reflected an already deep seated distrust and dislike of the Church which had been prevalent in Central and Northern Europe at least a Century before Luther. The Emperor and the prince-electors however mostly sided with the Church and saw the spread of Lutheranism and it's many variations as a threat to their power, and to public order.

Tension escalated sharply after Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Worms Cathedral. Most of the gentry, peasants and burghers north of the Alps, and quite a few princes too, were sympathetic to the reform ideas of Luther, or even if they didn't understand them in detail, were in favor of a reform. Ulrich was later allied with Franz von Sickingen in the so-called "Poor Baron's uprising" or "Knights Revolt" of 1523, which itself was really just a feud between Sickingen and some other knights against the Archbishop of Trier, with religious sectarian overtones. Sickingen, who had been one of the most formidable captains of Charles V, failed in his revolt. He was unable to get support from the burghers of Trier and ran out of gunpowder. His (once thought impregnable) castle was destroyed by cannon in a week and he died. Von Hutten, suffering badly from syphilis (the sudden and devastating onset of which was definitely affecting the religious-political climate) died in the Swiss Confederation a few months later.

Shortly after the "Poor Baron's Uprising" in the Rhineland, over to the eastern side of the HRE in Franconia more trouble flared up. Nuremberg went on the warpath. Under escalating pressure from violent robber knights instigated by the (Hohenzollern) Prince-Elector / Margrave of Brandenburg, and especially enraged by a certain Thomas von Absberg, who liked to cut off the hands of his kidnapping victims including Nuremberg town councilors, they invoked the Swabian League's Landfrieden and instigated the Franconian War I mentioned earlier. Nuremberg militia along with the forces of 20 other towns and a half dozen princes, systematically besieged and burned 23 "Raubritter" castles, all of knights whose names were in their feud book. They had a painter with them, Hans Wandereisen, who has been called an Early Modern 'War Correspondant', as he painted portraits of every castle they burned.

This is the castle of von Absberg, the forces on the bottom right are Nuremberg militia (red and white striped flag).

You can see the other 23 castles here:

These two events taken together were a heavy blow against the lower nobility or knightly estates, signaling their decline though not their end by any means, and feuding (with associated banditry) was a major cause. The next year, 1524, the series of peasant uprisings which we call the "German Peasants War" began, and as many here may be aware, none other a notorious feuder and occasional robber knight as the Free Imperial Knight G÷tz von Berlichignen was briefly one of their generals.

Ulrich von Hutten seems like a sympathetic character, (his satirical writing is worth looking for) but in his eloquent letter describing the perils of being a Lehnsmann and the misery of going fishing in your armor, he lets slip the link between the knights and regular bandits or brigands:

"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?"

It's also interesting to note how he contrasts his own precarious circumstances in a rural castle with the relative peace and safety of the towns. This is notably in contrast to the conditions of the rural gentry in other parts of Europe, such as say, England.

And it was their failure to act with discipline as an estate, and gray area between just regular banditry and feuding, which ultimately cost the lower nobility so dearly. There were attempts at this, including interesting experiments in collective enterprises like the so called ganerbenburg, but ultimately they couldn't unify and probably more important, couldn't make effective alliances across the boundaries of the estates, except on a small scale and locally. The towns had a similar problem in reverse, though more of them were able to weather the storms of the 16th Century, if not without some damage.

The circumstances in the 1520s however were rather extreme, and religious sectarian conflict would increasingly define a lot of the events in Central Europe from that point onward. It is around here where the turning point between late medieval and Early Modern begins to really pivot, arguably. So you should just keep in mind that conditions were a little different in the medieval context.


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Jean Henri Chandler

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PostPosted: Wed 24 Feb, 2021 10:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Here is an interesting excerpt from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) about a particularly infamous Robber knight crime, a deed carried out during a feud, known as the "Prinzenraub". This is from FOLIO CCLXXXII verso

"I am content to mention the daring deed of just one person from this place,- a man named Cuntz von Kauffen, born in a noble region of Saxony. He was experienced in military affairs, quick in action, and unafraid. He felt that he had been unjustly deprived of his paternal inheritance through Duke Frederick of Saxony, and on that account committed an unbelievable offense in this manner: There is a castle in the country of Meissen situated on a sharp and craggy rock, called Altenburg, and below it lies a beautiful and secure little town of many people. In this castle, Ernest and Albert, the two young sons of Duke Frederick, were being reared. Pursuant to information given him by the preceptor of the two young princes, Cuntz von Kauffen entered the castle during the night by means of ladders and seized the two youths while asleep; and when they awoke he threatened them with death should they cry out. He secured them with cords and led them away, confidant that once in Bohemia with them, he could sell them for a large sum of money and thus avenge himself. When he reached the Bohemian forest with the two lads, he believed himself beyond all danger. When the youngest of the two princes, weary and hungry, desired rest and food, the robber → was so moved by his plea that he went to a charcoal burner and requested him to take bread and beer to the lad. In the meantime this new event caused a hue and cry at Altenburg. The burghers speedily followed the footprints of the ← robber and fortunately came upon the path which led directly to the charcoal burner. And there Cuntz von Kauffen was seized while handing the food to the youth; taken to the duke, and beheaded for his avaricious misdeed."

Further details on the rather complex background of the incident from German Wikipedia here:

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