Introduction: So what happened to the Second Estate?

Most of my own HEMA-related historical research in the last ten years has been focused on the Free Cities and City States which are the origin of so many of the known fencing manuals. But that doesn’t mean one ought to ignore the obvious links of the Second Estate of the warrior aristocracy to the legacy of historical fencing. Knights were a real thing and were definitely involved in the development and practice of fencing in the medieval period. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons, knights are not easy to precisely define or understand as a phenomenon. Nor is the concept of Chivalry which is so often bandied about in the context of HEMA.


A contemporary portrait of Duke Philip ‘the Good’ of Burgundy, one of the principal paragons of Chivalry during the 100 Years War.

The story of the military activities of the Second Estate is so intrinsically mixed up with elements of fiction, myth, fantasy and legend that it can be really difficult to separate the hard edged truth from the highly embellished, even ludicrous fiction. This is not just limited to modern tertiary literature, but also includes many of the primary literary sources. As vastly entertaining as it has been for generations of young men and women, (and it was as popular in the middle ages -including among real knights- as it remains today, if not more so), the Legend of King Arthur and it’s various ancillaries and derivatives have about as much to do with the reality of medieval life as a Harlequin Romance novel set in 18th Century France has to do with the modern United States. To date the 1975 Monty Python satire of the King Arthur Legend is probably the single most influential portrayal of medieval Europe in the Anglophone world (and beyond) and defines many if not most of our beliefs about it. Which would be fine if people really understood it was a satire!

St George slays the dragon (or jabberwock?) painting by Paolo Uccello, circa 1470

St George slays the dragon (or jabberwock?) painting by Paolo Uccello, circa 1470

Fortunately there are other more reliable sources on the martial world of the hereditary aristocrats of Europe than King Arthur legends, the Song of Roland, and Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps the single most important of these ‘real world’ sources is the French cleric, historian, and chronicler Jean Froissart. Froissart wrote a voluminous history of his own dramatic times, consisting of over 1.5 million words. His chronicles are among the most influential of today’s primary sources on all matters Chivalry, as well as arguably the most important single source on the destructive, eventful 100 Years War between England, France, and Burgundy (which saw many knightly deeds of renown, as well as various atrocities and disasters). But it is chiefly to his fame in the 15th and 16th Centuries that Froissart owes his influence today, because so many copies of his work were written then. Over 150 manuscripts in Dutch, English, Latin, Spanish, Italian and Danish have survived. More importantly, many of these MSS were beautifully illustrated by talented Flemish artists, giving us striking visual representations of such events as the Battle of Crecy or the Wat Tyler rebellion, and dozens of other incidents, heroic and despicable alike.

So what is “Chivalry” anyway?

Chivalry is a hard concept to precisely define. Very loosely, we can say that it is generally thought of as a code of conduct for medieval knights. Outside of romantic fiction it appears most often as a sort of professional courtesy among the knights themselves, and to some degree extended (at least in theory) to others outside of the warriors trade, so to speak. Maidens and so on. And in some cases dragons, possibly. Sources like Froissart give us more concrete examples of Chivalry than the King Arthur tales, and provide us some examples in the real world. These hinge around members of the hereditary nobility and the knightly class (not precisely the same groups of people in all cases) performing a range of gestures and acts of honor, piety, and romance.

On a practical level, these could range from sending gifts to enemies on the battlefield, fighting one on one duels for honor, in some cases also on the battlefield, to perhaps most important, holding fellow knights for ransom, sometimes with great courtesy and in comfort, rather than killing them. The gestures and attitude of Chivalry have a certain fascination for modern people, because they stand in such stark contrast to the ruthless modern “Total War” principles of the 20th Century which we are taught to expect. This fascination even extends to the foreign enemies of Chivalry, for example the Kurdish warlord and Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, nemesis of the Christians during the Third Crusade, was celebrated for centuries throughout Europe due to his famous Chivalrous gestures toward the Crusaders.

The Combat of the Thirty, from one of the 15th Century editions of Froissart’s Chronicles

The Combat of the Thirty, from one of the 15th Century editions of Froissart’s Chronicles

One incident stands out as one of the most famous examples of Chivalry in practice. Described in detail by Froissart, the famous Combat of the Thirty was a remarkable event during the Breton war of Succession in the midst of the 100 Years War. 30 picked champions from the Breton side faced off against 30 champions from the English side in some kind of arranged group-duel, resulting in 15 deaths in a day long organized joust. The fight was punctuated with organized breaks to exchange prisoners, send each other gifts of wine and eat lunch. The victors, the Breton side, treated the vanquished with great courtesy and allowed them to depart after paying token ransoms. This is exactly the kind of ‘cavalier’, stylish nonchalance in the midst of mortal peril that draws modern people so much toward tales of knights and Chivalry, and it also thrilled people during the late medieval period: the Combat of the Thirty was celebrated for centuries as an ideal example of medieval gallantry.

But how reliable is our source? Even as accomplished and prolific a chronicler as Froissart was not entirely immune to the pull of the medieval Romance novel. In fact he wrote an Arthurian romance himself, 30,000 lines worth, so it’s hard not to wonder if the man’s interest in Chivalric legends might not have colored some of his descriptions of the battlefield. Froissart also seems to have certain biases toward the class of people he worked for as a courtier and a scribe. While he reveled in the deeds and lives of the upper nobility who he served, as Sir Walter Scott noted, he had “marvelous little sympathy” for the “villain churls.”

This doesn’t matter to us today one way or another except to the extent that it influences our own perceptions of the data. For example, for centuries we used to think that holding captured prisoners for ransom and releasing them safely was something only limited to the knightly or aristocratic classes (due, if we are to believe Froissart and many others, to the inherent moral superiority of nobles), but more recent research has shown us that was not the case. Thanks to studies published in the last few years we now know that ordinary soldiers of the 100 Years War had a well developed system of ransom and prisoner exchange, if anything more consistant than that for aristocrats. Here is one published work on that subject and here is a scholarly review of the book.

Europe beyond England and France


Coat of arms for the Máriássi family of Hungary from 1504. This image depicting black armor is often used to denote the Hungarian Black Army (Fekete Sereg) of Janos Hunyadi, which held the Turks at bay for more than two generations.

This doesn’t mean Froissart is wrong, Froissart is an excellent primary source. But considering both his interest in Chivalric mythology and his bias against Estates other than those he consciously promoted, it would be very helpful if we could verify his stories, ideally from a different region.

So how do we verify western sources like Froissart when it comes to Chivalry? One way is to find other literary sources. Fortunately the late medieval period was full of erudite, literate figures, and was extremely well documented with a treasure trove of primary sources. There are dozens of fascinating characters who documented their own eras every bit as thoroughly as Froissart did, and in some ways, more skillfully and accurately.

Unfortunately very few of these works have been translated into English, so if you are like me and have little Latin and only a rudimentary grasp of medieval German dialects, you have to wait for translations to appear. But they do appear, and some of these sources are true gems on par with Froissart or even better.

One particularly good example of this is the Italian cleric, diplomat and courtier, and later in his life, Pope, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini aka Pope Pius II. During his career as a high ranking diplomat in the service of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, Piccolomini took copious notes on his experiences and the people he dealt with, and later in life he wrote extensively about them. Unlike Froissart he was a University educated scholar, a humanist, a translator of Greek and Latin poetry and a highly regarded, highly skilled poet of the first order himself. He wrote several accounts of his travels, histories of Europe and Asia, an erotic novel, and an analysis of Bohemia among other notable manuscripts. Some of his work has been translated, last year I briefly reviewed one of his works here on HROARR, a history of Europe during his own lifetime, which offers many fascinating insights into Europe in the 15th Century. I’m looking forward to more of his work becoming available.

Jan Długosz and the nexus of Polish law and history in the middle ages

Polish Knights, detail from the painting of the Battle of Orsha by Hans Krell, 2014

Polish Knights, detail from the painting of the Battle of Orsha by Hans Krell, 2014

But there are other, even better sources for medieval history. For example, an individual once again, a member of the Church, and who like Piccolomini, was a was a gifted polymath, University educated and highly intelligent, who worked as a diplomat and agent at the highest levels of late medieval society. Like Piccolomini, within his own lifetime this individual was personally acquainted with most of the powerful Kings, Prelates, Captains and military commanders of his day.

Though he too was a skilled writer, his approach was slightly less poetic, but considerably more rigorous. It represented an historical tradition which had been established in Poland for at least two generations by the time he began writing. Genius Polish lawyers like Paulus Vladimiri had been using carefully documented research to back up cases being argued in some dangerous Clerical conferences (for example at the Council of Constance where Jan Hus was burned for heresy).

Vladimiri and other Polish lawyers won important legal victories against the Teutonic Order in Imperial and Vatican courts in 1385, 1420 and 1440 which set the legal and theological groundwork for the rapprochement with and nominal Catholic conversion of pagan Lithuania starting in 1387. This in turn led to the eventual merger of the Royal houses of the Kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania which gradually took place (in fits and starts) through the 15th and early 16th Centuries.  These lawyers relied on other clerks and men of letters to research through old manuscripts to build up a solid basis for their arguments.  One person in particular epitomized this role for Poland and Central Europe more generally, for he was a man of international experience.

The individual I’m referring to here is Jan Długosz, priest, scholar, diplomat and eventual  Archbishop of Lwów. There is a partial English translation of his Annales, finished in 1480 (but not published or widely known outside of Poland until the 18th Century). The Annales are written in a more even-handed manner than Froissart’s Chronicles, and the author personally knew all the important figures of his own day. For the Poles history was a tool, and an ally, something to be researched and written with great care so that it could withstand the scrutiny of princes, clerics and magistrates in court cases.

Długosz saw the flaws of his own people and the nuances of his own times, and the history shows villains and heroes, and more often, people who are neither or both, on every side of the complex multifaceted conflicts of medieval Central Europe. He was often critical of the military forces of his own day and pointed out their excesses and mistakes, though he was also able to recognize their accomplishments and triumphs. Długosz was highly knowledgeable of a wide range of subjects and was able to dip into technical issues with ease.

It is hard to overstate the value of this manuscript (and to me personally, of the excellent English translation of it by Maurice Michael). I consider Jan Długosz to be essentially the medieval Herodotus. So without further ado, some excerpts from the Annales, completed in 1480.

Chivalry of the victor

A Chivalric tone was set shortly after the crucial Battle of Grunwald / Tannenburg, a crushing defeat for the Teutonic Order from which it never fully recovered, and a stunning victory for Poland and Lithuania which set them on the path toward eventual political merger and dominance over the region that would last for the next two centuries. In a magnanimous gesture, the Polish / Lithuanian king, Władysław II Jagiełło (also known as Jogaila) released 14,000 German (and Czech, Scottish, French etc.) mercenaries and militia he had captured on parole, effectively on their own recognizance. From the entry on 1410:

“Sunday, October 12. The Poles leave Kornowo with their prisoners, Michael Kuchmeister [the highest-ranking surviving Knight in the Teutonic Order, who would later become Grand Master of the Teutonic Order], Conrad of Niemcza and many of Sigismund’s courtiers, and booty and move to Bydgoszcz, where they spend three days distributing the booty equally among themselves. They then go on with their many horses and waggons to Inowroclaw, where the King is. Behind them come the prisoners, some in the sixty waggons sent by the King for that purpose, some on horseback, others on foot. The King orders a banquet to be prepared for them and for their wounds to be carefully dressed. He even details several knights to wait on the prisoners at the banquet, and later in the night, goes in person by the candle-light visits the Polish wounded in their quarters. There is none who has not received the medicine he needs, and the King speaks to each, so that one might have thought him a private individual and not a King. Each Polish knight receives a truly regal gift in reward for his services. The next day, after recording the name, station and rank off each prisoner, the King appoints the day and place at which they have to report, and dismisses them all, with one exception of the Vogt of Nowa Marchia, Michael Kuchmeister, who is sent in chains to the castle at Teczyn.”

This may have actually been more shrewd than a purely altruistic move. There are underlying principles you can describe in Game Theory (or in other less formal ways) by which this ‘charitable’ act actually fed into King Jogaila’s agenda. Jogaila knew that many of the subjects of the Teutonic Knights were disgruntled, and by presenting himself as a reasonable and moderate sovereign, which for all practical purposes he in fact was, he effectively drove a wedge between the Teutonic Order and their mostly German subjects in Prussia.  Jogaila had another reason, in the menace he faced from the Eastern Steppes of Central Asia.  As dangerous and problematic as they were, he might actually need the Teutonic Knights around in the future.

Within a few years serious rifts would appear between the Ritterbruder and their subjects, who would ultimately go into open revolt. By the 1460’s they had become part of Poland, retaining their autonomy and ushering in a ‘golden age’ for the next few centuries. But that was two or three generations after Grunwald… and in 1410, Prussia was still a very chaotic and dangerous place.

The Polish version of the Combat of the Thirty

Poles pursue Teutonic Knights in a modern depiction of a 15th Century battle

Poles pursue Teutonic Knights in a modern depiction of a 15th Century battle

Which brings us to our Polish version of the Combat of the Thirty. This is also from Jan Długosz’ entry on the year 1410, it was a battle that took place in the aftermath of the battle of Grunwald, before the prisoner release. Both sides were somewhat in disarray after the battle, and a force of mostly German mercenaries on the Teutonic side was fighting the Poles, Lithuanians and Tartars in the midst of the chaos, trying to take control of various strong points as each side attempted to assert (or challenge) new boundaries. The battle is now called the Battle of Koronovo. From the entry on 1410:

“…the Order’s troops hasten back to their horses and start to withdraw. Their idea is that, if the Poles, who are on foot, get far enough from the town, the rest of the garrison will be unable to come to their assistance should fighting start. However, the Polish archers fire flight after flight of arrows at the withdrawing Knights which wound many of them and allow the Poles to get in among them and kill many more. Every time the enemy turns to attack the archers, these withdraw in among their own knights, where they are safe, and from where they emerge later and start shooting again. This skirmish continues for over a mile, until the enemy reaches a village, Laczko, belonging to the monastery at Koronowo. Here they reform and await the Poles’ attack, confident that the terrain will give them an advantage. However, instead of advancing straight at them, the Poles make a detour to the steeper side of the hill. The men of both armies are well experienced in the art of war, men who will fight with the greatest courage. However, before the two sides actually engage, Conrad of Niemcza, a Silesian [German, more or less] in King Sigismund’s army, on his own initiative rides out and challenges the Poles to a duel.

The challenge is taken up by Jan Szczycki, who unseats the challenger and tramples him. The two ranks then close with great shouts. Each stands firm and the outcome is long uncertain, for the two sides are equal in armament, skill and experience; but eventually they become exhausted and fighting stops, as if a truce had been agreed. One is then arranged, and for a short period the ranks separate, wipe away their sweat, and rest. After a while, the truce is declared at an end and fighting resumes. Many are killed or taken prisoner. When exhaustion again overcomes them without Fortune having given any indication of where the advantage lies, a fresh truce is arranged, during which the knights rub down their horses and themselves, bandage wounds, rest, talk, exchange prisoners and captured horses, send each other wine and clear up the ground of the wounded and those thrown from their horses and unable to get up, lest these be trampled when the fighting resumes; indeed, the scene is such that all of them might have been thought the greatest friends, instead of enemies.

Fighting then starts up for a third time. None can remember so bitter a struggle between two armies of veterans experienced in the profession of arms, who fight on until wounded or taken prisoner. Still the fight is equal, each side fighting under a single standard, that of the poles a dark-red dual cross stitched to a white background, that of the Teutonic Knights a white and red field joined diagonally, which is borne by Henry a knight of French origin. Suddenly, a Polish knight, Jan Naszan, knocks the enemy’s standard-bearer from his horse, seizes the standard, rolls it up and fastens it to his saddle. At once the Poles begin to have the advantage and, the enemy begins to think of retreat. Then as fear begins to outweigh shame, the enemy starts to withdraw and so their defeat becomes a certainty. Many are killed or taken prisoner; the others forced to flee, pursued by their victors as long as these have the strength to run and kill. Then nightfall hides the fugitives.

Later, the family of the knight who lost the Knights’ standard reproaches him for it’s loss; and he would, indeed, have been accounted dishonoured, had not King Wladislaw, at the man’s own request, given him a letter absolving him of the shame. Experts in the art of war consider this battle more important than that fought at Grunwald; and if you consider the danger, ardour and endurance of the combatants, it certainly should rank higher.”

As an interesting postscript, the first German who was defeated, Conrad of Niemcza, survived being unhorsed and trampled and was taken captive. He later witnessed another battle while in captivity, and then eventually was ransomed and returned to the service of the Teutonic Order. Paroling prisoners and relying only on their honor did not always go smoothly, as Długosz describes a legal dispute which took place between one Polish knight and his purported captive, taking place during a peace summit between the Order and the King of Poland:

“At this meeting Nicholas Powala complains that a certain German, a mercenary fighting with the [Teutonic] Knights, whom he claims to have defeated and taken prisoner during the battle of Kuronowo, had failed to present himself as he had promised, as a matter of honour, to do. The case is referred to a military tribunal, whose members are drawn from both sides, where the German insists that he defeated and took Powala prisoner, and demands that the judges hand the Pole over to him and that they compel Powala to admit that he had been made prisoner.”

Such messy and unchivalrous denouement notwithstanding, and though there are some important differences, in many respects, this account of the battle of Koronovo matches closely the description by Froissart of the famous incident in Brittany. Effectively it does corroborate Froissart’s Chronicles to a large extent.

Długosz is unusually effusive in his praise of the performance of the Polish knights here and of their victory at Koronovo over the Germans (and others). He considers the battle more important than Grunwald, even though it was on a much smaller scale and had no real strategic importance. The significance was that it demonstrated, definitively in the eyes of the Poles themselves and many of their neighbors, that Polish heavy cavalry were at least as tough as their German and Western European cousins when it came to what some modern scholars call ‘shock’ warfare. But what makes Koronovo even more interesting to me is the region where it took place.

English, French, and Burgundian soldiers, (including knights) could be really brutal. The 100 Years War certainly had more than it’s fair share of atrocities. But the risks east of the Elbe were, arguably, substantially more dire. Polish warriors had to be able to do more than go toe to toe with German knights. They also had to deal with another threat, a grim existential threat from an enemy which did not typically indulge in Chivalric gestures of any kind. An enemy who fought using very different tactics than Western Knights, who relied less on the lance charge than on elusive nomadic horse archers shooting waves of arrows and retreating, for whom warfare was a form of hunting. An enemy against whom losing meant catastrophe, capture meant slavery, and defeat a descent into Tartarus.

The hard bitten realities of steppe warfare

A Turk mercenary in Byzantine service, circa 1436

A Turk mercenary in Byzantine service, circa 1436

When the Mongol Horde first arrived in Central Europe in the 13th Century, it was something of a shock for the medieval Europeans. Not because they had no experience with Steppe Nomads, they certainly did. In fact in the 13th Century, before moving to the Baltic and concentrating their efforts against European pagans, the Teutonic Order cut it’s teeth fighting Cuman nomads in Hungary, and proved very capable at it.  (The Hungarians perhaps unwisely evicted the Order when they started building stone castles, against their local charter, shortly before the Mongol invasion.)

But the Europeans had never dealt with the perfected military machine that we call the Mongol Horde, which stretched at that time from China to Russia. Like all great Empires the Mongols aggregated military technology from everywhere they controlled, and it was via China that the Mongols introduced that most unchivalrous of weapons, the firearm, to the European battlefields. In 1241, black powder weapons were as cruelly baffling a surprise for Europeans as they would later be for Native Americans, Malaysians, Filipino’s and others when the Europeans introduced them in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Most Western histories of the Mongols end at the high water mark of their invasions of Europe, the year 1241, and if one is to believe dozens of popular accounts (written and on TV) you might think that the Mongols went away forever after the death of Ögedei in 1242.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The Mongol Golden Horde [so-called for it’s direct links to the Golden Family of Genghis Khan] remained an unfriendly neighbor for the next 800 years.  After Mohi, the Hungarians fought a guerilla war against the Mongols, finally driving them out by the 14th Century.  They never had a permanent presence in Poland but launched major invasions in 1259 and 1287.  After 1287 the Mongols changed their strategy but still conducted major raids every few years for the next several centuries.  In this second 13th Century invasion, the Mongols were checked by the recently rebuilt city walls of Krakow, but as Jan Dlugolsz noted, they were sometimes even more dangerous in defeat than they were in victory [excerpt from the entry on 1287 AD]:

“The barbarian Tartars, believers in the …doctrine… of Mahomet and enemies of all Christians, are suffering from a famine, to relive which a horde of them under Nogay [great grandson of Genghis Khan and de-facto ruler of the Golden Horde] and Telebuga [great grandson of Batu Khan and official leader of the Golden Horde] descends on Poland, devastating as it passes that part of Ruthenia [modern day Ukraine and Belarus] it has to cross to get there, even though its inhabitants are already paying them tribute.  Having collected quantities of provisions, the Tartars descend like a cloud of locusts on Lublin and Mazovia, moving on to Sandomierz, Sieradz and Cracow, despite severe frost and deep snow.  They burn a number of monasteries, churches and fortresses in which people have taken refuge, but, on the advice of the Ruthenians accompanying them, refrain from attacking the monastery 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 or 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 [King Leszek II the Black] takes his wife and some of his court to Hungary, and when the Tartars learn of this from prisoners, they ravage the country as far as the Pannonian alps.”

The great barbican at Krakow, part of the system of walls

Jan Długosz goes on to make a rare generalized commentary on the Mongols and their techniques of warfare:

“The Tartars wage war in a way quite different to that of other nations.  They fight from a distance, pour a rain of arrows round and on the enemy, then dart in to attack and swiftly withdraw; and always they are on horseback.  Often they pretend to flee and then wound or kill those who thoughtlessly pursue them.  They use neither drums nor trumpets.  often they leave the battlefield in the full fervor of the fight, only to return to it shortly afterwards.  It is almost as if they regarded war as a sport and are trying to make things more difficult for themselves.  By nature they are conceited, recalcitrant, sly and arrogant, greedy for plunder or gifts, and taciturn.  They are never averse to stirring up civil or foreign disturbances.  They are inclined to be dissolute, fond of drink and other delights. They never keep their word or their promises, unless it is to their advantage to do so.”

Though their check at the walls of Krakow set tem back and marked a turning point in the relationship between the Golden Horde and Poland, the Mongols were not done with this raid yet, but it would be the people of the Ukraine who would suffer the most.  From the entry for the year 1288:

“The Tartars, having distributed the loot they took from Poland and sold their Polish captives to various peoples, decide to leave Ruthenia and to destroy the Ruthenians before they go; unable to do this overtly, they poison the rivers and waters by placing in all still and running water stakes on which are spitted hearts taken from the bodies of Poles, killed for ritual purposes of divination, saturated with a very strong poison, against which no medicine is of any use, so that all who drink the water die. It is not until this poison has claimed a large number of victims that the Ruthenians stop drinking the water.”

But it wasn’t just the weapons or tactics which made the Mongols, or Tartars as they came to be known by the 15th Century, so feared. When we think of slavery today, we tend to think of the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. 12.5 million slaves over 350 years. But this wasn’t the first or the only slave industry to blight the history of mankind.

There were several other regional zones of slavery, including several in Europe. One of the European slave zones was centered on the Crimea, center of the Mongol and later Ottoman slave trades, for whom Europeans from what are today Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Russia, the Balkans and much of Europe East of the Elbe to quote an article I’ve linked below – “…between 1200 and 1760, an estimated 6.5 million prisoners were shipped off to new and often intensely miserable lives in places ranging from Italy to India.” 

An excerpt from the entry from Jan Długosz entry on 1438 demonstrates how dangerous it was to resist Tartar slave raids.  Though they could be defeated, the slightest mistake could lead to utter catastrophy:

“About Whitsun, the Tartar Khan, Szadchmath, leads a great army into Podole [in modern day Ukraine] and, as is the Tartar way, plunders the land and carries many off into permanent slavery.  His troops have with them instruments of intimidation: images of people astride a horse; but these have no effect [possible attempt here to use black magic, which the Mongols often tried in war].  The knights and nobles of Ruthenia, considering it better to die in war than to watch the destruction of their own people, assemble a sufficient force and organize a pursuit of the Tartars, whom they outnumber.  The Tartars withdraw into a boggy area, part of which they cleverly harden, as if it had been asphalt, and there await the other’s attack.  The Poles, unaware of the sunsuitability of the terrain, rashly do attack ,only to sink into the bog, with costs many their lives.  Yet good might have come of it had others circumvented the area and attacked the Tartars from the rtear.  As it was someone in the van raises a cry which those in the rear, ignorant of what is going on, misinterpret as a general call to retreat and take to their heels.  Seeing this, the Tartars attack, causing general confusion.  The Tartars press home their attack, and, suddenly the entire Polish army takes fright and runs.  So savage are the Tartars, that they take not one prisoner, but spear them all.”

A postscript reveals the courage it took to deal with the Tartars, on a personal level.  Długosz continues:

“This disaster, the tale of which is to be told down the ages, encourages the Tartars to increase their raids into Ruthenia [Ukraine].  In one of these a certain Jan Wlodkowicz, weakened by several wounds, collapses between two piles of the dead stacked to await burial.  Some Tartars start stripping him, where he lies pretending to be dead.  Unable to remove a ring, they cut off the finger with the ring on it. To get his thigh-pieces and boots they slit these open with a sword, leaving a long cut down each leg from thigh to foot, the scars of which I myself have seen, for he survived both death and slavery.”

Janissary_Recruitment_in_the_Balkans-SuleymannameHere is a well researched article on the Eastern slave trade, specifically regarding the slave trade of Finns, some of the most sought-after exotic ‘livestock’ for Central Asian slave markets. The term livestock is not an exaggeration here, the Mongols and other steppe nomads literally regarded the people from this region as such, and they referred to their slave raids as ‘Harvesting the Steppe’.

Some excerpts from that article are enlightening, and can help make it clear what kind of reality the people of Central Europe were facing. Male captives were likely to be castrated, women and boys raped, and the whole group marched briskly, encouraged by whips, down to the Sarai or the Crimean slave markets to be sold. Another major slave zone in Central Europe was in the Balkans, under steady and increasing pressure from the Ottoman Empire.

Defeat against the Ottomans in battle often meant thousands of men impaled on poles, and women and children taken away for slavery. Once the initial chaos settled down and the occupation became more normalized, this particular horror did not abate. The main Ottoman tax on the Balkans, the Christian subjects or Rum, were subject to a special tax called the Devşirme, which was a tax paid not in silver, gold, salt or grain, but young human beings.

Once domination by these powers from the Steppe was established, it was not easily broken. The German, Poles and Czechs only needed to look to their neighbors and sometimes trading partners the Russians to see what the reality of domination by the Mongols looked like. In 1380, the Rus principality of Moscow rebelled against their overlords from the Golden Horde, and defeated them in the Battle of Kulikovo field. A huge Mongol army was defeated there, partly with the help of firearms, possibly as many as 100,000 being killed. But the very next year the Tartars came back and settled the score. They captured and burned Moscow and put nearly the entire population to the sword. Such was life as a vassal of the Khan.

The Mongols come to visit a knightly tournament


Charles Bronson was perhaps the most famous Lipka Tatar in the US. Little did those punks from Deathwish III know who they were really dealing with…

Which makes it all the more interesting to see Chivalry not only existing, but thriving in an environment which such grim threats were gradually becoming integrated with European armies. The Lithuanians began accepting Mongol tribes into the fringes of their Duchy shortly after their defeat of a huge Tartar army at the Battle of Blue Waters in 1362.

It wasn’t long before the Poles began making similar arrangements. By the time of the battle of Grunwald Tartar contingents often accompanied Polish armies, to serve as light cavalry screen and scouts. The so-called Lipka Tatars lived in the forests on the edge of the Steppe and were at least nominally allies of the Poles, if not necessarily safe to be around. Długosz often singles out Mongol forces among Polish armies as committing the worst of the atrocities against civilians.

A far more dire threat was presented by the continued existence of the Golden Horde and the establishment in the 15th Century of the Crimean Horde. But by this point the relationship was very complex. The Italians, specifically Genoese and Venetians, had gained control of the big Black Sea trading towns in the Crimea, and from there controlled much of the Mongol slave trade. The Mongols still had a predatory attitude toward the Germans, Poles, Hungarians and so on, and still viewed them as livestock, essentially, but their tactics and techniques, while still formidable, were no longer any kind of mystery to their neighbors of two centuries.  Gradually the Poles, Germans, Czechs and Ukranians learned to cope with the raids and became more aggressive in their response to them.  The Mongols, in response, became more wary of the Latin armies and tried to time their raids when there was no-one around to protect the civilians.

The Teutonic Order, Poles, etc. were usually at each others throats, but sometimes alliances of convenience took place against common foes. For example Genoa once financed a “Crusade” in the late 1390’s which included Teutonic Knights, Lithuanians, Genoese and a faction of Tartars against another faction of Tartars.  Jan Długosz, entry for 1397:

“Duke Alexander Witold [Grand Duke of Lithunaia] … organizes the first campaign against the Tartars in the hope of gaining recognition as a Catholic prince.  He crosses into Tartar territory and devastates it as far as the River Don, which in Latin is called the Tanais.  Meeting with no opposition, when near the greatest of those rivers, the Volga, he infiltrates one of the Tartar permanent camps called ordas, captures several thousand Tartars with their wives and children and cattle and conducts them back to Lithuania.  Half of these he sends to the King as proof of his victory, and the rest he retains in Lithuania.  The king settles his Tartars in Poland, where they abandone their pagan errors, accept Christianity, and, by intermarrying, become one nation with the Poles; while those kept in Lithuania persist in their Mohammedan faith and continue to live in accordance with their old ways and religion.” [eventually Poland would adopt the Lithuanian approach and adopted a policy of religious tolerance for the Muslims, as well as Jewish  and others.”

This Crusade was initially successful from 1397-1398, contributing to a major land grab of what is now Belarus by Lithuania, and nearly led to the total collapse of the Golden Horde.  It was ultimately stopped by the intervention of the formidable Turko-Mongol warlord Tamarlane, who invaded with an army nearly twice the size of the Crusaders, defeated their army and put an end to 3 years of “Crusading” in 1399.

But I have to admit I was a little surprised when I stumbled across this particular passage in Jan Długosz Annales, describing a tournament in Buda, Hungary, from the entry on 1412:

“A tourney is held on July 3 with a hundred knights fighting in the lists. The jousting lasts for two whole days and from morning until evening. Those taking parts are of many nationalities; Greeks, Italians, French, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians and Franconians, knights from Meissen and the Rhine; Lithuania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Italy, Albania and Rasko. On the first day, Archduke Ernst, whom [Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary] Sigismund hates and has not invited to the tourney, dubs several knights and, after taking his official leave, departs, but secretly returns and is present throughout the tourney. Extra splendor is given to the occasion by the presence of the King of Bosnia, Charwen, and his wife, especially as his knights, tall men of slender build, acquit themselves well, showing great endurance and courage. Before the King leaves Buda he is waited upon by envoys from the Tartar khan, Zeledin, who presents him with three camels with woven coverings and other gifts. The envoys suggest sending all the Khan’s forces to reinforce [King of Poland] Wladyslaw against any of his enemies. The presence of the Khan’s envoy’s causes consternation among the representatives of other nations. Wladyslaw, wishing to reciprocate Sigismund’s kindness, wants the Khan to make the same offer to Sigismund, who uses their presence to threaten the Venetians.”

This, in my opinion rather hilarious passage offers us many insights into the awkward diplomacy of Muslim and Christian, Catholic and Orthodox, in the midst of a Chivalric event. The presence of representatives from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece suggests that Orthodox Christians were welcome at this event. The event was clearly an important diplomatic venue. The ‘Sigismund’ mentioned in this event would be Sigismund of Luxemburg, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary among many other titles. Sigismund seems to have left a poor impression on nearly everyone he ever met.

In texts from German, Italian, Czech, and Polish sources, he is portrayed as sort of an inept villain, kind of an incompetent would-be Emperor Palpatine, whose machinations often unravel, and whose openly cynical, devious nature was rarely even hidden, as he seems to have often made sarcastic remarks in the midst of solemn negotiations in which others were at least feigning sincerity. The fact that he was using the Mongols to threaten one of his worst enemies, the Republic of Venice, at a jousting tournament is particularly amusing. The whole episode illustrates pretty well how the reality of Chivalry (including the Chivalrous, if sinister, gesture by the Tartar Khan toward the Polish King) lived cheek by jowl with the brutal specter of Total War with the Steppe Nomads.

For a sense of the incidents between Tartars and the Poles during the lifetime of Jan Długosz, an excerpt from the entry for 1442:

“At Whitsun the Tartars invade Ruthenia and, meeting no resistance, penetrate as far as Lwow, roaming all over the country and carrying off into slavery men and women of every class.  As the Tartars are making their way back, the governor of Gliniany attacks them with a force of his own people.  Though he kills many of them, he himself is killed with all his men; yet he liberates many of the Tartars captives, providing an opportunity for them to escape.  If others had shown the same courage, the Tartars would have never captured so many thousands, nor would Ruthenia and Podole been so continually devastated.”

Jan Długosz, excerpt from the entry for 1450:

“The Tartar Khan, learning of the absence from their country of the nobles of Ruthenia and Podole, seizes the opportunity to raid these territories with a considerable force.  This he splits into units, which then ravage the two countries and carry off numbers of people of both sexes, as well as cattle, sheep and goats.  One detachement, while at Grodek on the border withBelz, all but captures Duke Wladislaw of Mazovia, who is hunting there.”

But as familiarity increased, the Polish knights became more skillful and daring in their countermoves against Tartar raids.  Jan Długosz, excerpt from entry for 1453:

“About the time of the Feast of the Circumcision, a modest force of Tartars  makes a foray into Luck territory and roams almost everywhere unopposed, especially around Olesko, and then returns home with a vast booty of cattle, and it is said, some 9000 men and women captives.   Early in April, the Tartars raid Podole and again carry off captives and cattle.  A certain Jan Laszcz and two others raise a small force and set off in pursuit.  They use surprise to make up for their lack of numbers and attack the Tartar camp by night, this they do successfully and so recover the loot.” [and the prisoners]

But if I left the impression that Jan Długosz never had a good thing to say about the Mongols, it’s interesting to read his description of the late 15th Century leader of the Crimean Tartars, Haci I Giray, which is far greater praise than he reserves fro most Christian princes (excerpt from the entry on 1464):

“A person of outstanding personal values and a perfect governor”

The skills, bravery and the élan, arguably a subset of Chivalry, which the Poles honed fighting both the Germans and the Mongols, among others, came to good use when facing other existential threats to Latin Christendom, such as the mighty Ottoman Empire.  Like the Mongols, the Ottomans had all the skills of steppe warfare, horse archery and so on, which made them so difficult to cope with.  But unlike Mongols, the Ottomans were undaunted by fortified cities or castles, for they had mastered the art of siege warfare, and knew how to manufacture gigantic bombards which could break even the stoutest walls.  In 1463, the Ottomans launched a massive invasion of Bosnia with they swiftly conquered using over 100,000 troops, and in order to protect his flanks, the Ottoman Sultan launched a raid into Hungary as a sort of a spoiling attack.  This is where the Poles come into the story, according to Jan Długosz, excerpt from the entry for 1463:

“At this same time, the Sultan has sent 4,000 picked troops to ravage Hungary, which they do and carry off 17,000.  King Matthias [Corvinas] who is then at Futa and Zaslonia, fearing similar raids into Hungary in the future, sends 500 of his Polish cavalry [probably knights] and 700 Hungarian horse [probably light cavalry] to recover what the Turks have looted.  The Turks withdraw into a fortified town called St. Gregory.  Anxious about the Catholic captives, the Poles decide to launch a night attack on the town; but, when the Hungarian cavalry see that they are being involved in what is obviously a dangerous enterprise [to say the least!], they withdraw to their King’s camp, all, that is, but Duke Peter Sokol, who considering it shameful to abandon the Poles, joins them with seventeen of his own people.  Meanwhile, the Turks have moved on with their captives to the River Sava, where they demand boats to be sent to ferry them across.  There the Poles find them and attack.   Knowing how few  they are, the Poles cleverly attack in a series of waves, each withdrawing when exhausted and being replaced by the next wave.  When day returns after a night of fighting and the Turks see how small a force has inflicted all this damage on them, they are ashamed.  They then split their force, one part attacking the Poles from in front, the other from the rear.  The Turks captives are grouped in several places under guard, so as to prevent them from going to help the Poles, or the Poles from recapturing them.”

From this it sounds like the Ottomans are burdened by the large numbers of captives they are hoping to bring back as loot, forcing them to use much of their larger force as guards, and enabling the Poles to keep them off balance.

 “Fighting starts up again.  This time the Poles, having broken their spears, use sword and arrows.  The boats to ferry the Turks across the river having now arrived, the Turks throng to the bank, the Poles at their heels, abandon their horses [that is to say, the Turks abandon their horses] and crowd onto the boats, almost every one of which is overloaded and sinks as soon as it gets into midstream.  When King Matthias sees how his Polish contingent has returned victorious and almost without loss, yet with much booty and with many of those [captives] the Turks had captured earlier, he praises them publically and gives them special awards.  At this time he castigates the Hungarians for having left their companions in the lurch and orders them to have their heads covered with their breeches and thus to be driven from the camp and not allowed back for three days.”

To be fair to the Hungarian contingent of Hunyadi’s international, professional army, they probably did not have the armor the Poles did and unlike the Poles, they had no (relatively) safe land to return to but probably spent most of their life fighting the Turk, as well as al the other enemies of Corvinus among his Christian neighbors.  They couldn’t afford to be rash or impulsive.  This incident is a good example, not limited to the Poles, but perhaps exemplified by them, of how almost suicidal bravery, highly tuned tactical acumen, and a certain esprit de corps could allow the much smaller, fragmented, seemingly chaotic armies of the thousands of Latin principalities, towns, and clans of Central Europe to hold their own with the mighty, monolithic colossus of the Ottoman Empire.  And in this case there is little doubt that the Poles were using the techniques, kit and culture that Froissart would recognize as knightly.

A Chivalric gesture between Royalty

St Mary’s Church in Gdansk, from a distance, while a bronze statue of St. George slays the dragon in the foreground. According to the wiki, the Church of St. Mary can hold 25,00 people.

St Mary’s Church in Gdansk, from a distance, while a bronze statue of St. George slays the dragon in the foreground. According to the wiki, the Church of St. Mary can hold 25,00 people.

To finish part one of my essay I’m going to shoot ahead a few years to another period, and yet another war between the Teutonic Knights and Poland. The year is 1457, the Teutonic Knights, much weakened since Grunwald in 1410 but still tenacious, resourceful and dangerous, are fighting a brutal war to put down a rebellion of 20 of their cities in Prussia, and simultaneously, a war against Poland who is fighting to help ‘liberate’ the Prussian towns, who wish to join Poland.

I’ll get into a lot more details about this war in part II of the essay, but the immediate context here is the Casimir IV Jagiellon, the Lithuanian born king of Poland, is traveling around his Kingdom and dealing with a more or less perpetual series of emergencies. In the lead up to this incident he was rushing north to Gdansk, leader of the rebellious cities in Prussia, in order to try to raise money to buy three other cities from unpaid mercenaries formerly in the employ of the Teutonic Knights, who are now willing to sell the towns to the highest bidder.

He is under enormous pressure from Polish and Lithuanian nobles, who don’t trust each other, from every neighbor of Poland who are restive and eager to attack at any and every sign of weakness, from the Pope who wants him to go on Crusade against the Bohemians, and his allies in Gdansk. Gdansk just agreed with some Royal representatives who negotiated an agreement to use the silver encased bones of St. Barbara as surety for a huge loan to pay the Czech mercenaries, but they insisted the King come to sign the treaty in person. He is on his way to comply, and help bolster his allies at a key moment in the war, when he suddenly runs across an unexpected visitor, the King of Sweden.

“The king, who has spent the last three weeks in Bydgoszcz arranging a supply of provisions for starving Sluchow, sets out for Gdansk. He spends the Saturday night in a village a mile from Stargard, intending to go to Gdansk the next morning; but then the King of Sweden, recently expelled by his people, suddenly arrives on foot, and his followed by processions of all the churches and states, all in their best cloths, come to see their kind, who is clad in armour as if going to battle. As the King of Sweden approaches, Casimir dismounts and receives him not as an exile, but as an equal, whom he then mounts on a regally caparisoned horse, prepared in readiness, and the two ride together through the crowded streets to the Church of the Blessed Virgin [probably the gigantic St. Mary’s Church in Gdansk]. The next few days are given over to displays of swordsmanship and jousting, which everyone watches, forgetful of their work. It is estimated that the King had with him 6000 foot and horse.”

The Citizens of Gdansk were apparently so pleased by all this that they managed to collect 18,000 florins, financed primarily by a great deal of success at piracy during the summer. The King of Sweden in question was one Karl Knutsson Bonde, who would later reign as King Charles VIII of Sweden. Considered by some historians to be a Swedish patriot, he was of a faction opposed to the Danish dominated Kalmar Union, and had been deposed by rival nobles, including an archbishop, who put king Christian I of Denmark in power.

This incident first and foremost gives me hope, maybe some my friends in the HEMA world will be able to come together again soon, forget past petty disputes and give themselves over to “displays of swordsmanship and jousting”, as well as extending a hand of Chivalry to one another.

In terms of understanding Chivalry we can appreciate the significance of this event best by reminding ourselves of many other incidents in which great monarchs were caught in compromised circumstances, and taken advantage of most cruelly by their brothers of the 2nd Estate. In many ways, the cautious, crafty Casimir IV was of the same school of thought as his predecessor Wladyslaw Jagiello. Though according to Jan Długosz and many others, he had many flaws as a leader, Casimir was magnanimous in victory, generous to peers and allies, and usually true to his word. He also enjoyed hunting and fighting above all other endeavors, and the man was apparently a teetotaler and generally had few vices other than hunting (if you can call hunting a vice).

In mid-15th Century Poland, and as we will see in Part II, in Bohemia, we see examples of this kind of ‘enlightened’ Chivalry quite often (as well as it’s opposite). As we proceed further we can begin to examine the specific benefits and costs of these kinds of Chivalric gestures and policies both on the battlefield, and in the diplomatic courts of Europe and beyond.

It’s very difficult to separate the myths from the reality of Chivalry, and similar interesting social phenomena on the battlefield. Partly this is for a very good reason. The same neurological wiring which makes us capable of acting in this manner also makes us susceptible to the mythology of it. The mythology is part of what makes it work, as well as abstract concepts of honor, which have very palpable consequences in the real world. We may not believe that St. George actually slew a dragon, but as H.P. Lovecraft once noted, you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to receive Christmas presents.

In Part II we’ll look further to Jan Dlugosz, and others, for clues as to what the historical patterns of this really were, and what the social and martial mechanisms were that kept it alive.