Anglophones are taught from an early age to believe firmly in the notion of the inevitability of progress, which is one of our strongest, albeit secular, religious tenets. We all know that life before the era of the car and the jet was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, and even worse for Americans, frequently inconvenient. Therefore it follows quite reasonably that we, as a people, know very little about the Middle Ages, and even less about anyone who wasn’t either English or a King or preferably, both.

Even these people are known to us primarily from 1970’s Monty Python films, comic books or bizarre soap operas on Showtime.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of continental figures whose accomplishments are so spectacular that they have achieved fame in spite of this powerful bias against ‘ferners’ and non-English speakers of the “dark ages”. Most of these are Italians: Christopher Columbus, who had the wisdom to “discover“ America; Michelangelo; Leonardo Da Vinci; Galileo Galilei who as every militant atheist knows, nearly died for science; and of course for those Poli-Sci and Philosophy majors, Machiavelli, (who more Americans should probably read) as well as a few French people like Joan of Arc and Charlemagne*. This is reasonable: the French and Italians, after all, provided most of our restaurants before we learned about sushi.

* don’t even try it he’s French according to my mother, who learned it at the Sorbonne.

It’s far rarer for us to know anything about anyone from that confusing mish mash of places in the middle or center of Europe. The rarest medieval celebrities of the Anglophone world fall into this category: people whose discoveries were so momentous that they were clearly aligned with the modern Anglo-American world of machines and technology. So important that they seemed like one of us in other words even if they spoke a language with too many consonants.

Prominent among this elect group are Nicholas Copernicus, and Johannes Gutenberg, inventors, respectively, of the flawed but clever heliocentric theory of the universe, and the clumsy but brilliant movable-type printing press. It’s an indication of how strong our bias is however, that Copernicus is considerably less famous among my countrymen than Galileo, even though his De revolutionibus was published 20 years before Galileo was born. But it’s understandable, since Copernicus, known as Mikolaj Kopernik to the Poles, doesn’t even have the common decency to have a clear ethnic affiliation, so it’s hard to understand what side he’s on.

Well, it turns out these two cats had a little secret which may be of some interest to fencers.

Part One: Copernicus, a man of many talents



In spite of living in the time depicted in American movies as muddy, adorned with earth-tones, and accompanied by incessant recorder music, Copernicus was a smart guy.  He could read and write Latin, German, Polish, Italian, and Greek.  He attended several Universities in Poland and Italy, three in total, and in addition to astronomy, philosophy and all those ‘STEM’ skills they talk about so much on NPR, he was also a trained physician, a priest, and an astrologer.

Today that would be enough for most people but Copernicus was not satisfied with this limited range of interests. In close alliance with his uncle, the enigmatic Lucas von Watzenrode, Copernicus was like many in his day, a man of numerous skills.


Lucas von Watzenrode, bishop of Warmia. The intelligent and resourceful uncle of Copernicus

Aside from his day job as a canon of the church, an administrator, and the personal physician and assistant to his Uncle the Bishop and nominal ruler of Warmia, Copernicus also translated Greek poetry, performed diplomatic and spy missions, dabbled in economic theory (he wrote an influential treatise on coin debasement), looked at the stars and played with lenses and prisms of course, and… in addition… he was a warrior.

Yes, here is something I bet you didn’t know. Nicolas Copernicus, the famous astronomer who published his heliocentric theory in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium 20 years before Gallileo was born, defeated the Teutonic Knights in battle in 1521.

The Teutonic Knights were a German military order who had grown to power between the 13th and 15th Centuries by acting as the conduit of European crusaders who voyaged every year to the Baltic area to help forcibly convert, or if necessary destroy pagan Europeans who lived in this area, as well as occasionally fighting the Mongols who controlled the nearby Golden Horde. The Teutonic Knights became very powerful in the 14th Century by gaining control of fertile land and several prosperous trading towns in Prussia (today northern Poland) and Livonia (today Latvia and Estonia and the Kaliningrad Oblast which may lead to WW III), all welded together under the disciplined and efficient, if harsh, control of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. Much of the lucrative Baltic trade was subject to their taxes and tithes. By the end of the 14th Century however their crusade had petered out as the tenacious Lithuanians, who lived in a huge impenetrable forest, had vastly improved their military techniques and kit. They were soon able to deal with both the Muslim Tartars and the Christian Crusaders with equal skill. The pagans even had the nerve to launch their own “anti-Crusades” every year against the Order, and these tit for tat reysa left the borderlands between them in a ragged stalemate.

Meanwhile the aggressive and uncompromising Order had alienated their onetime ally in Poland and the Poles were trading and occasionally forming alliances with the Lithuanians. Both the Poles and the Luthuanians were pragmatic, and increasingly saw eye to eye in spite of their religious differences. This was greatly assisted when a remarkable Polish lawyer named Pawel Vladimiri won a major legal case in the early 15th Century Council of Constance establishing the right of Poland to make treaties with the “heathens”. By the early 15th Century the Order had suffered a shattering defeat from an alliance of the Poles and Lithuanians at Grunwald, and in the mid 15th Century (1454-1466) the nominally German cities in Prussia who were the subjects of the Order, elected to join with Poland and launched a successful revolution against their overlords. By the time of Copernicus Poland and Lithuania were closely allied and the once mighty Teutonic Order was back on it’s heels, dreaming of revenge and reconquest. The largest trading cities like Danzig, Elbing, and Torun (Thorn) were safe behind their walls, but the smaller cities in the rich lands of Prussia were caught in between the two powers.

Though his ethnicity (Polish, German or something else) is often still bitterly disputed to this day, and Copernicus grew up in German speaking areas, he himself had no confusion about his political loyalties – he was pro-Polish and pro-independence all the way. This was mainly because Poland was at that time a comparatively democratic place, with a well proven “live and let live” policy toward allied towns and districts, regardless of their ethnicity, and this included Warmia where Copernicus and his uncle were highly placed in the government. The (mostly German) Teutonic Knights by contrast had a ‘my way or the highway’ point of view. Or more like a ‘my way or I’ll torture you to death and kill your family’ point of view to be more specific. So many if not most of the German burghers in the region still sided with Poland instead of with the Order.


The tower of Copernicus in Frombork

Trouble started when the Teutonic Order invaded Warmia in 1519 with 5,000 soldiers, and in 1520 the Teutonic Knights burned the beloved home town of Coperrnicus, Frauenberg (“town of women”) including his house which was burned to the ground. Copernicus was forced to move to the small walled town of Allenstein (Polish Olsztyn), where in his capacity as a civic leader, he was placed in charge of the defenses. Initially he only had 100 men to defend the town so he immediately wrote to the Free city of Elbing to send for reinforcements and 20 cannon. Copernicus set to work organizing the defense, improving fortifications and stockpiling food. Though his message was intercepted by the Order, the Polish King got wind of the crisis from other channels, and sent 200 infantry under the command of the Czech Condottieri Henryk Peryk of Janowice. Later another 700 cavalry arrived under the command of Rotmistrz Zbigniew Slupecki, along with supplies of Elbing including lead, salt, and 16 cannon.


Ruins of the city walls at Allenstein

The Teutonic Knights arrived on January 16, 1521 with 400 infantry, 600 heavy cavalry, 400 light cavalry, and an unspecified number of cannon. The first stage of the defense consisted of small ambushes by skirmishing units meant to slow the advance at choke points and defensive positions along the roads. As the Teutonic Knights gradually fought their way past the skirmishers, they sent a messenger ahead demanding the surrender of the town, but Copernicus refused. Ten days later, on January 26, the Teutonic knights arrived in force and attacked.


a modern, somewhat fanciful image of Copernicus directing the defenses of Allenstein. The real battle probably involved a lot more guns, but this conveys the general impression.

Led by Wilhem von Schaumber, they attempted to storm the Mill Gate (Brama Mlynska). The moat was frozen so early one morning, the Knights were able to quietly bring up ladders and a battering ram and try to storm the wall. Using the ram they were able to smash the gate in just a few minutes. Their attempt at surprise failed however when a sentry sounded the alarm, and the Poles, Czech mercenaries and German burghers rallied to the defense. Copernicus is believed* to have come out onto the walls and directed the defense personally at the critical phase of the fighting. The Knights were repulsed and forced to withdraw.

* by the Polish historian Jerzy Sikorski, the guy who was the guy who found Copernicus’ grave

By the end of the month more reinforcements had arrived from Elbing and the Teutonic Knights, running out of money to pay mercenaries, had to abandon their siege.  By the end of 1525 the Order began negotiations with the Polish King, Copernicus negotiated the terms of the treaty which followed, spelling the effective end of the Teutonic Order’s grab for power in the region.  They never invaded Warmia again and not long after many of them converted to Lutheranism.

Part Two: Gutenberg and the Strasbourg Militia fight off 25,000 ‘throat cutters’

I am being a little bit misleading here already, because I don’t know very much about Gutenberg’s role in the Strasbourg militia, yet! All I know is that he was in it. He was registered in the militia rolls several times between 1436 and 1444, in which he is listed both as a half-member of the patrician Constaffler society (armed cavalry guild) and as a half-member (possibly a journeyman) of the Goldsmith’s guild.

Though born of a good family in Mainz, due to an uprising by the craftsmen there Gutenberg left home in the 1430’s. He wrote in a letter that he was in Strasbourg in 1434. In 1436/7 he was sued by a Strasbourg woman named Ennelin von der Isern, for breaking a promise of marriage*. There are few other records about him, however, the most interesting I’ve found so far has him listed with the patrician Konstofeler society with an obligation of “half a horse” for the year 1443/44. He seems to have left Strasbourg shortly afterward in 1445.

*This phenomenon, people suing one another over promises of marriage, is an interesting story to explore on another day.


Now this is where for me, it starts to get very interesting.

I am lucky enough to consider as a friend a certain Olivier Dupuis, a skilled and respected researcher in the HEMA community who lives in Strasbourg. Olivier often helps me with my research out of the kindness of his heart, so I asked him if he knew anything about military activity in Strasbourg in the early 1440’s. It turns out that yes, yes he did indeed know of some.

Olivier told me that Strasbourg was contending with a massive invasion from France in 1444, the last year of Gutenberg’s documented membership in the militia and the elite Constaffler society. It seems that a huge (by medieval standards) force of “Armagnacs” invaded and terrorized the area that year, and that Strasbourg responded to the larger force with commando raids and ambushes. This caught my attention immediately because it matches a pattern described by  Jan Dlugosz in his epic Annales*. He described how Krakow used similar tactics in the 13th Century, responding to two different invasions by Polish Dukes, and then with a bit more detail, how Wroclaw used the same tactics in the 15th century while responding to an invasion by Bohemian heretics. In both cases the strategy was successful. I’ve covered the details of this in a paper I wrote for the Acta Periodica Duelletorum in 2013.

*Which is the best history book I ever read, bar none.

This is especially interesting to me as a fencer since these kinds of small unit actions, battlefield duels and commando raids are more likely to involve sidearms (i.e. swords) than regular open-field, large scale infantry and cavalry actions. And because they are kind of epic, I mean, what’s cooler than defeating a larger force through daring raids and ambuscades? I had to learn more, if nothing else, I owed it to the legacy of Gutenberg who brought me so many happy hours of enjoyment reading printed books, to restore his reputation as a warrior, if possible.


The Dauphin

The Armagnac’s were a political faction originating in the duchy of Aramgnac (which is where the fancy booze of the same name comes from), closely allied with the French King Charles VII, and rivals to the Duke of Burgundy. Essentially the term represented the Royal faction in the 100 Years War.  They were also more specifically associated with tough Gascon mercenaries who fought against the English and Burgundians during the 100 Years War.

The situation that Strasbourg found herself in during the last year of Gutenberg’s military service was related to a side-episode which took place near the end of that great conflict. To the cynical it might be described as an attempt by the French monarchy to rid itself of the hordes of ruthless, dangerous mercenaries who had been sucking dry the royal exchequer and ravaging the French countryside on and off for 3 generations. This could be compared to how the Fox in Aesops fable holds a stick in his mouth and swims a little deeper and a little deeper into cold water so that the fleas move higher up his body to his head and finally jump on to the stick which is then released to float away.


My apologies, I simply couldn’t resist

Medieval life though is quite complex and of course, the French King had other reasons, in this case, he was responding to an increasing flea-like irritation, which he hoped to eradicate or at least chastise. This rash on his ass was caused by a series of Free cities in the Rhineland, and their occasional allies the Swiss Confederation. In theory, (and this is how it’s written in most English language text books) the Free Cities of Central Europe had already been chastised thoroughly by their defeat at the Battle of Doffingen in 1388 and no longer played any role in European politics. The reality was rather different. The Kings and Princes liked the towns for their money, technology and military support, but hated the possibility that they could side with a rival Prince, and really hated how difficult the towns were in refusing to follow orders the way peasants are supposed to do. In the game of thrones taking place between the Holy Roman Emperor, the Duke of Burgundy, and the King of France, all three at different times made their attempt to squash the Rhineland cities and the Swiss Confederation.

All three failed miserably.

The Swiss Thermapolae

The brave young Dauphin confronted a small force of 1,500 mostly Bernese militia in the battle of St. Jakob an der Birs in August of 1444. This should have been a slaughter, 30,000 (some say 20,000) hardened cavalry against a mere 1,500 commoner militia infantry, mostly from the Swiss city of Berne. It was a slaughter but it wasn’t nearly one-sided enough. The Swiss who could have avoided the fight elected to stand their ground (always a bad sign), and the French lost between 2,000 and 5,000 men, mostly (expensive) cavalry as well as a large number of horses. The Swiss lost most of their guys, 1200 out 1500, with only about 300 managing to slip through the forests to tell the tale.

But the Dauphin was shocked.

It was kind of the ‘Thermapolae’ of Switzerland and to this very day some Swiss will still bend your ear about this day if you let them (don’t believe them however if they claim first-hand knowledge of a scene in which William Tell led a mob of topless, ripped, Swiss Reislauffer into doomed heroism while screaming “THIS! IS! DER SCHWIZERISCHE EIDGENOSSENSHAFT!!!!” as they hacked apart Gascon knights. Simply don’t believe them, Swiss have a weird sense of humor.)

One contemporary figure (Aneas Silvius Piccolomini, who became Pope Pious II) described the battle this way:

…Louis, the Dauphin of Vienne, led almost the whole French army into the territory of Basel and struck great fear into the people of that city. The Swiss, in accordance with a treaty of alliance, sent four thousand soldiers drawn from the pick of their young men to reinforce the city. When the dauphin observed them approaching, he positioned himself with his whole army midway between Basel and the Swiss. The Swiss did not shrink from battle, though they had to fight on foot and could see a line of thirty thousand horsemen stood facing them. Both sides fought with all their strength. Finally, the Swiss, les vanquished than exhausted by victory, paid the penalty for taking on too audacious a task. Except for a handful who escaped by flight, they all lay slaughtered on the field of battle. Nevertheless, few of the Swiss died unavenged. Many who had been pierced with lances slipped through the rain of spears to kill an enemy and exact retribution for their wounds.

After this, either Louis or his mercenaries (sources disagree) decided it would be a bad idea to go deeper into the Swiss Alps and confront the now even-more-than-usual keyed up army of 20,000 more Swiss militia who were grinding their teeth and sharpening their halberds.  Instead, the Dauphin and his army retreated back to Alsace, where he decided to take advantage of the defensive posture being adopted by the Swiss to see if he could break down some of these tasty walnuts along his border, and while Gutenberg was probably* experimenting with his new printers metal and special inks, (as well as a side job he got into making “magic” mirrors for gullible pilgrims going to an event in Rome) he may not have been aware that his new home town was about to come under a terrifying existential threat.

*I’m still not certain if he was actually still there by this time, though he was there- and in the militia- in the beginning of the year


Strasbourg, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Argentina was the old Roman name, referring to a silver mine.

This, at any rate, is where Strasbourg comes in.

Historians disagree about what the actual intention of the Dauphin was. His army, formidable as it was (some estimates now blow it up to 40,000 men, but it was probably at least 20,000 cavalry which is really big by medieval standards) was not big or strong enough to take a major walled city like Strasbourg, not without a huge artillery train anyway. The goal may have been to starve the city out, break it’s will, or simply to punish it for supporting the Kings enemies. Or he may have been the fox swimming around in the cold water and Strasbourg was supposed to be the stick in his mouth.

In the event, the Dauphin and his army began a brutal scorched -earth campaign against the farmland, villages, and smaller towns which surrounded and were in many cases owned by Strasbourg, and Strasbourg settled into to defend against a long siege.

You can read the account of the entire subsequent campaign in this (pretty good and fairly readable) automatic software translation of a very good French article, which itself appears to be mostly derived from a medieval Chronicle called the Chronique de Koenigshoven.

But I’ll give you the highlights, and trust me they are fascinating.


Enter the Ecorcheurs

Strasbourg had been worried about an invasion from the West in 1442. Frederick III, the future Holy Roman Emperor, noted intensive military preparations going on, allegedly to his surprise, during a visit in 1442. Among other steps, the city was building huge granaries to store food in the case of having to take in large numbers of peasants from the countryside should they have to flee behind the town walls.

Since the peace treaty in 1435 between the French King Charles VII and Philip le Bon, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, the war of the Roses was winding down, and bands of mercenaries once in the employ of the French king had been roaming around robbing villages for their supper. Already once before they had been in the region of Strasbourg where they had established an evil reputation for themselves by killing, raping and burning indiscriminately.

The Strasbourgers called them “skinners” or “throat cutters” (ecorcheur) due to their ruthless battlefield behavior. It was customary in the region at that time for a certain level of moderation to take place in the fairly routine military disputes that often sprang up between noble families or between the towns and the gentry. The practice had been established of ransoming military captives, even common soldiers, and sparing civilians at least to some extent, as well as avoiding damage to key civic infrastructure such as bridges, mills, churches, wells, and so on. The main reason for all this was very pragmatic – scorched earth tactics used in the past often lead to famine and famine led directly to plague. Since 1348 when the Black Death first arrived in Europe it returned to most areas usually at least once per generation. It was, needless to say, greatly feared, and many steps were taken to alleviate its effects, it was in everyone’s interests to impose some limits on the ferocity of war.

But the ‘Armagnacs’ did not adhere to this policy, and were known to murder any captives who they could not make immediate use of (sometimes after a good raping, murder came later) or who looked like they could pay a huge ransom. Hence the name ‘ecorcheurs’. Alarmed, the Alsatian towns sent delegations to the Imperial diet, where in theory they should expect support from the Emperor and the Princes, and to the French king, but to no avail. King and Emperor had made a secret pact, and both wanted to see of Louis and his band of killers could make a dent in the Swiss Confederation.

“The man,
the man,
the armed man,
The armed man
The armed man
should be feared,
should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself With a coat of iron mail.”

-Popular Church song from Flanders, 1453 AD

But the Swiss didn’t take prisoners either, ransom or no ransom, and the ghastly results of the battle of St. Jakob an Der Birs put paid to the plans of invading the Alps, which looked like a bad place for a vacation even for a king. Maybe Alsace looked like a softer target. The bottom line was that Strasbourg was on her own. Nervous burghers watched from their walls while smoke rose from the hamlets and farms scattered throughout the heavily forested countryside as far as the horizon, and a stream of peasants walked through the gates with all their belongings and livestock.

Initially the Alsatian nobility was sympathetic to the French king, since they didn’t like the burghers, but their enthusiasm quickly faded when they observed the Armagnac mercenaries at work. Villages were burned, churches, convents and abbeys, looted. Stragglers were killed in gruesome ways, fields and mills were destroyed wholesale. Much of the land around Strasbourg belonged to the Bishopric of Strasbourg, which was a distinct and often hostile entity from the city, but the Armagnacs made no distinction. Like the local gentry, the bishop was initially sympathetic to the Dauphin, but soon realized that he might lose his entire estate if the looting and burning went on unabated. On October 24 a unit of the French army entered ‘Haut-Rhin’, led by the Dauphin himself, where they besieged the town of Dambach and captured it after three days. To save the population, the bishop sent the Dauphin two beautiful horses. The Dauphin who had been badly wounded in the knee by a crossbow bolt, dispersed his army to winter quarters, from where they continued cruel raids, seeking to break the morale or economic lifeline of the city.

The chronicles tell of frenzied cruelty by the Armagnacs, groups of women and children burned inside churches, villages put to the sword, wells and springs poisoned. As a rule, they took no prisoners, instead cutting the throats of anyone who fell into their hands. In response, the town announced a policy that no Armagnacs were to be taken prisoner for ransom, but rather they would be drowned, since hanging was considered too soft a punishment for them. A campaign of ambushes, raids, and counter raids began to warm up between the two sides.

On November 1st, 1444, the town fathers of Strasbourg received a letter from two captains of the Armagnac army, Jean Fol and Amadee Valpergue.

You lords and governors of the district and city of Strasbourg, it was found that through you and your council people are waging War against us by the fire, this is what our lord the Dauphin will not tolerate and we also believe you will end up like you started. Believe me, for every fire you start, we will light a fire in a village near Strasbourg. Please send us a man with whom we can negotiate, this letter will serve as a safe conduct. Signed, Jan Fol and Ame de Valperga.


The Strasbourg militia deploys, copy of a stained glass window depicting an action in 1392. Infantry in the top row ride on carts, under their respective craft guild banners. The patricians of the constaffler society, of which Gutenberg was a member in 1444, ride horseback on the bottom, under their family crests.

Strasbourg replies with sharp blades and flaming arrows.

The response from Strasbourg was different than expected. On Thursday, the day after All Saints Day, 800 Armagnacs set out from their main camp near Rosheim to go foraging around Geispolsheim, where they had a small stronghold, intending to gather horse fodder and food for the army. The citizens of Strasbourg could probably see the group on the move from observers high up in the spires of their gigantic 460 foot high Cathedral, which on a clear day can still be seen from 15 miles away. Absorbed in a conference, the Aramagnacs did not expect to find 100 burghers from Strasbourg, who quietly made their way to the village and fell upon them. In the confusion, the Strasbourgers killed 150 men and captured two hundred horses with loaded carts.


The gigantic, beautiful Cathderal of Strasbourg, at the time it was the largest man made structure in the world.

The Armagnacs fled initially but quickly started to regroup, and began infiltrating back through the village. The still heavily-outnumbered Strasbourgers retreated to the small castle where they took up defensive positions. Hiding in the houses and behind carts and hay stacks, the Armagnacs began to shoot at them with crossbows, longbows and hook-guns, preparing to make a rush. The Strasbourgers responded by shooting flaming arrows into the village and the many stacks of hay that had been gathered there for horse fodder, setting it quickly aflame, and another 100 ‘throat cutters’ perished in the resulting inferno. The rest retreated back to Rosheim.

Raids like this continued to make life very uncomfortable for the Armagnacs, and the Strasbourgers had a few more successes, but their most notable victory came more than a month later. The Armagnacs had a major fort in the city of Marlenheim, from which they were launching raids and capturing supplies. On the 17th of December, 1444, the city gates of Strasbourg opened and a force of 200 cavalry (constaffler) and 1400 infantry sortied from the town, making their way directly toward the heavily defended Armagnac stronghold. The moat was frozen, and the attackers were able to put ladders directly against the wall.


Ruins of a medieval keep in Alsace

Though the attack was sudden and came with considerable momentum, the defenders were ready and a sharp fight took place. Two important patricians, both former Burgomeisters (mayors) of Strasbourg, were killed in the fighting. One was thrown off of a siege ladder, the other was killed by a gunshot from a hook-gun. Nevertheless the burghers captured the castle, which they proceeded to burn with all its considerable hoard of supplies. Armagnac forces from around the area began to arrive on horseback, attracted by the noise of the gunfire. At this moment, two members of the local gentry, Jacques and Guillame Lutzelstein, arrived to join with the Strasbourg forces, bringing 60 cavalry. In spite of the reinforcements, the Alsatian forces began to retreat toward Strasbourg, under heavy attack. Closely pursued by growing bands of Armagnacs, the militia made a stand behind “a wall of 100 chariots”, which probably means a wagonberg or wagon-fort, of a type which was pretty typical in warfare at this time. The chronicles reported that the Lutzelstein brothers fought valiantly, and one of them was wounded in the arm, their aggressive action helping to buy time for the outnumbered burghers. Soon the gates of the city opened again and a second force of 3,000 militia began to march toward the battle to relieve their comrades, and upon seeing this the Armagnacs retreated.

The action at Marlenheim was an important victory for the Strasbourgers, increasing their notoriety considerably, and two days later the Margrave of Baden came to confer with the town fathers and learn the details of the battle. This may have represented a change in the attitude of the local nobility, as by the middle of January the Count Palatine of the Rhine and his brother Robert, as well as some other Alsatian nobles joined with the city of Strasbourg to field a well equipped force of 700 horsemen, probably half from the nobility. This group headed out into the forest to prepare an ambush. Meanwhile 2,000 of the ‘throat cutters’ from Rosheim were spread out among several farms near Blaesheim, foraging for horse fodder and food. The allied cavalry company attacked suddenly, killing 300 and putting the rest into a rout. The Strasbourgers and their allies returned to the city walls with many prisoners, including three very important captives, all Condottieri captains. The first was Mathelin de Lescouhet , commander of the Breton contingent, the second, Ame de Valpergue, a Lombard from Italy, and a man named Aufferet de Leprafo, a Frenchman. Ame de Valperque was one of the three captains who had signed the threatening letter to Strasbourg. Lescouhet must have been rich, since he was ransomed for the staggering sum of 15,000 florins. Valperque had to pay 4,000 for his life, and Leprafo, 2,000. The rest of the prisoners were mercilessly drowned.


View of Strasbourg, showing some of the medieval fortifications, the Medieval towers of Ponts Couverts. The Cathedral is off in the distance, between them.

The Strasbourg military activity at this time was not limited to the immediate vicinity of the town. They also maintained a garrison in the castle of Kochersberg, 22 kilometers away, and down on the borders of lower Alsace. These forces too saw action. For example on February 2, 1445, 800 ‘Armagnacs’ of the Scottish contingent, possibly Galloglass mercenaries, left their base in Dambach and ventured forth on a major raid toward the town of Ebersmunster on the other side of the hill. As they crossed a defile they were ambushed, met by a sudden volley of cannon and arquebus balls and crossbow bolts from Strasbourg militia. The group was slaughtered, including their captain, Jean Montgomery. His body was transported back to Dambach by the survivors, put in a mixture of oil and wine, and sent back to Scotland to be buried.

The great ‘Armagnac’ army from France, now much diminished, left Alsace in march of 1445, continuing to suffer devastating attacks as they retreated. In spite of the dismal results of this campaign, the Dauphin went on to become King of France.

The city of Strasbourg remained A Free City for another 236 years. The second movable type printing press ever made was built there in 1460. The city flourished through the 16th Century and survived the apocalyptic horrors of the 30 Years War, managing against the odds to remain neutral and avoid being sacked by the rampaging armies (which destroyed many cities). In 1681 Louis XIV of France surrounded the city with a gigantic army, and they decided to capitulate rather than face annihilation.

Nevertheless, in total, Strasbourg remained a free city from 1262-1681, more than 400 years, and a republic from 1332. That’s a pretty good run for a few thousand craftsmen and merchants.

The military successes of towns like Strasbourg don’t seem to have made it into the English language history books, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But maybe the simple explanation is that most of the histories follow the game of thrones of the Kings and Emperors, and the Free Cities which had their own very different narrative, often show up in these stories as a baffling and frustrating stumbling block.  The cities had the money, the cannons, the engineers, and the ships needed for the Prince to take that all important next step in the climb to power, and in theory they ‘belonged’ to the Prince, but they shockingly refused to help.

War was bad for business, and more powerful Princes didn’t necessarily bring advantages to burghers, often quit the opposite.  The towns preferred instead to try to maintain a balance of power  between the Kings and Princes.  As a result royal histories are full of impassioned excoriations of the towns and their perfidious burghers, insolent, interested only in the good life and disloyal to the crown.  This has influenced our perception of the burghers martial capabilities, and for example plays a role in the analysis of Joachim Meyer.  The cities themselves were mostly interested in their own internal worlds, in trading and making things, in keeping the chaos of the rural world outside of their walls. Their own propaganda  did not spread far beyond those walls, though if you enter one of these cities today, the people still know their history and are justifiably proud of it.

The specific tactics described in this account from the Chronicle of Koenigshoven is very similar to accounts by the Polish historian Jan Dlugosz of similar Free Cities hundreds of miles away in Poland, Bohemia and Silessia. This may have been the typical medieval tactic of the urban commune, at least in certain parts of Europe, when faced by a superior force of mercenaries, or a royal army, or both simultaneously. In a way it mirrors the way castles were used.  The impenetrable city walls, protected by their huge individually named guns, in combination with the huge cathedrals and defensive towers were, offensive as well as defensive weapons, since they allowed good battlefield intelligence and the ability to return to a safe haven. These small unit actions are probably something worth thinking about if you are wondering what a military context for HEMA might be, especially if you are reading a book by Joachim Meyer, Nicholas von Augsburg, Jorg Willhalm Hutter Jacob von Speyer, Lienhart Sollinger, Paulus Hector Mair, or any of the other many fencing masters who appear to have been burghers.

As for Gutenberg, I still don’t know for sure if he was in any of these battles, but from what I understand of the Constaffler society, and similar organizations in other towns, being a member typically meant fighting, unless you were over 60 years of age or infirm. Gutenberg was neither. I don’t, sadly, yet have direct access to the primary source for this account, but it exists and I am going to try to gain access to it. If that chronicle or one of the Strasbourg chronicles lists Gutenberg’s name on one of the surviving battle rosters (which would not at all be unlikely) then we’ll be certain he was a pretty hard core warrior as well as a remarkable inventor. There is really no doubt about one thing, like Copernicus, Gutenberg was a man of many talents, and those probably included military skills. It was the nature of society at this time, in order to have the freedom to accomplish the remarkable things that so many did in this amazing period that some people call the Renaissance, you had to also have the skills to make space for yourself and your comrades in order to achieve great things.  If necessary, and it often was, this had to be done by force. Here once again, is a context for the martial arts of the late medieval and Early Modern European world, only one of many from the various estates which we can associate with the fight-books (the others being the upper and lower nobility, the church, and the universities).