A ‘new’ book from the 15th Century has just been translated and published. The book was originally published in 1458 by Pope Pious II, originally known as Aneas silvius Piccolomini. translated by Robert Brown. Pious II was famous for being one of a handful of Humanist Popes, which seems an odd concept for most modern readers though we currently have a rather radical Pope in the Vatican today, so perhaps it’s not so strange after all. Pious was something of a reformer though he was certainly no Franciscan. He was known during his relatively short reign (1458-1464) as Pontiff for his attempt to launch a Crusade against the Turks, and for his advocacy of Classical Greek and Roman poetry.
But Piccolomini was famous for his writing, and he was extremely prolific. He also wrote a history of Asia during his lifetime (and was one of the first people to distinguish Europe from Asia specifically as a region), and perhaps most infamously, he wrote erotic letters, an obscene comedic play, and an erotic novel which remains popular today1.
But it was Piccolomini’s interest in history that I was drawn to, and I waited a long time for the release of this book, which reflects his travels as a diplomat, ambassador and agent during an eventful career in his younger years. Piccolomini had traveled throughout Europe and some of his comments on military matters are often quoted. So I was eager to see the source of many of them, which was in this book. The book I am reviewing can be found on Amazon.2.
The book, like most of his other writings, is an easy read, written in a breezy, conversational style with a great deal of wit He has entries for most regions and nations of Europe which we would recognize today, plus several that most people would because they have become part of larger States. Each entry is different, some include ancient history of the region (derived from such Classical Auctores as Pliny, Virgil, and Caesar) or it might be a gossipy account of courtly intrigue within the rulers family, or the accounts of various wars that took place, or simply amusing anecdotes seemingly unrelated to anything. In one section he describes a battle between crows and falcons. In another he describes a battle between two formations of clouds which the footnote says was actually a tornado that was recorded at that particular time and place.
Piccolomini’s loose and casual style belies a keen intelligence, and many of the comments he makes are corroborated by other sources, in some cases he ads very interesting details to some already known events such as famous battles. In others he demonstrates his own political biases by leaning heavily toward one side or another.
I’ve excerpted a few passages which I found particularly amusing, which I will share here in a moment in no particular order of priority or logic (as an homage to the authors style). Overall I think this book is a good read, fascinating in parts, and would probably be a good introduction to European history and ‘the lay of the land’ of the first half of the 15th Century for most HEMA fencers. I’m very glad I bought it. Finally the book itself is a very nicely bound hardback, with a few images and a lot of footnotes. The translation seems to be good. At any rate the wit and literary skills of Piccolomini certainly come through. In the passages below I have inserted some notes within brackets [xxx]
The book divulged many miracles and wonders, for those of you who appreciate Vikings, pagan religion and so on, from his entry on Lithuania. Keep in mind, Lithuania had only technically converted to Christianity in 1380 and it was a very incomplete process at this time.
On the unruly noblewomen of the Lithuanians
…the Noblewomen of the Lithuanians openly keep lovers, who are called ‘marital assistants’, but for the males of the noble houses it is considered disgraceful to commit adultery.
On their pagan practices and apostasy
Piccolomini is recounting an account told to him in Poland by Jerome of Prague, a missionary who had been evicted from Lithuania by Duke Vytautus). Make of this story what you will.
Going further inland, he found another tribe which worshiped the sun, and venerated, with remarkable devotion, an iron hammer of extraordinary size. When the priests were asked about the meaning of this cult, they replied that once upon a time the sun disappeared for several months because a mighty king had captured it and confined it in the dungeon of a strongly fortified tower. A giant had then come to the help of the sun and smashed the tower with a huge hammer, releasing the sun and restoring it to humanity. The tool with which mortals had recovered light was therefore worthy of veneration. Jerome laughed at their simplicity and showed it to be an empty fable. He explained that the sun and the moon and the stars are actually creations of almighty God, with which he adorned the heavens, bidding them shine with everlasting light to the benefit of mankind.
On the violent and rebellious Swiss Confederation
He seems to accuse the Swiss of barbarity here, but also (far worse among Europeans) poor table manners:
The Swiss are a fierce mountain people. When the people of Zurrich reneged on a pact that they had formed with them, they mustered an army and marched into their territory, destroying everything in their path. When the people of Zurich ventured to meet them in battle, they were massacred. Such was the brutality and savagery of the Swiss toward their defeated foes that they held a feast on the very spot where they had won the victory. They piled up the bodies of the slain to make tables and chairs, and, slitting open the corpses of the enemy, they drank their blood and toor out their hearts with their teeth.
This was a reference to the battle of St. Jakob an der Sihl3. That’s, incidentally, the mayor of Zurich on the bridge there fighting a holding action so the majority of his troops can retreat back behind the town walls. They don’t make mayors like they used to. (I suspect the last sentence may have been slightly hyperbolic)
On the other hand, Piccolomini seems to have a high opinion of the Swiss for courage, notably at the battle of St. Jakob and der Bris, where 1,200 Swiss commoners fought all day against 20,000 French cavalry:
…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 retributio0n for their wounds.
This speaks to the issue of fighting after a mortal wound, which many of us have discussed lately. Louis, incidentally, wisely decided to forgo the planned attack into Swiss territory where he faced 20,000 more picked Swiss militia.
A form of dueling on horseback in Germany
In his passage on Franconia diverts into a passage about Duke Albrecht III “Achilles” and seems to describe a type of mounted duel I hadn’t heard of, anyone heard of something like this in the records?
On seventeen occasions, protected only by a shield and helmet with the rest of his body uncovered (as in a type of duel practiced by the Germans), he charged with pointed lance in hand against challengers armed the same way, without ever suffering an injury or failing to unhorse his opponents.
Piccolomoni on the rough and independent Frisians:
This race is fierce and proficient in arms, powerful and tall in physique, confident and fearless in spirit – and it prides itself on it’s independence. Although Philip, the ruler of Burgundy, calls himself master of the land, in reality Frisia is free and follows its own customs, neither enduring subjection to foreigners nor aspiring to dominate them; in defense of freedom the Frisian willingly embraces death. These people dislike men of military rank and do not tolerate the ambitious man who exalts himself above others. They select annual magistrrates to administer the state with impartial justice. They punish the lasciviuousness of women very severely and are reluctant to accept unmarried priests, for fear they might pollute the beds of others; for they think it scarcely possible and contrary to nature for a man to restrain his desires. Their assets lie entirely in cattle, their land is flat and marshy and very rich in grass. It lacks wood, so they feed their fires with bituminous sod [He probably means peat] and dry cow-dung.
I think this is a reference to the ‘peasant republic’ of the Dithmarschen which was half Frisian and half Saxon4.
Piccolomini on the Swedes and the remarkable queen Margaret of Scandinavia
But when Magnus departed this life in Sweden, Duke Albert of Mecklenburg received the crown at the invitation of the people. Albert felt contempt for the government of his female neighbor and began to provoke war with Denmark and Norway. Margaret mustered her troops and came to meet him, and on a wide open plain they fought a battle which made it seem as if she had donned the spirit of a man and her enemy that of a woman. Defeated, taken prisoner, and led in a triumphal procession, Albert lost his kingdom. When he was finally released, he lived out his old age in disgrace in his fathers home. A women of great fame, Margaret ruled three kingdoms and governed her subjects with majesty and devotion until her old age [Margaret formed the Kalmar union, which worked well enough under her reign but after her death became the cause of many wars in Scandinavia].
The preceding paragraph is about Queen Margaret I of Norway / Denmark / Sweden5
Ultimately when she was enfeebled by age and unable to manage so great an empire by herself, she adopted as her son the fourteen-year-old Duke Erik of Pomerania, entrusted her kingdom to him, and married him to Philippa, daughter of the king of England. After his wife died with producing an heir, he refused to marry again and ruled for fifty-dive years until he was finally deposed by a popular uprising in the reign of Emperor Fredereick. Duke Christopher of Bavaria, his nephew on his sister’s side, was appointed in his place and allowed his uncle to rule the isle of Gotland during the ten years of his own reign. When Christopher passed away, Christian received the crown of Denmark and Norway.
The Swedes, however, disagreed over the choice of a king, some wishing to entrust the kingdom to Karl [this would be Karl Kuntsson Bonde], a distinguished knight, others to Knut, his younger brother Knut [this person seems to be unknown to history]. While the matter of the election was still pending [electing kings was still common in Northern and Central Europe at this time], Karl sent soldiers in and secretly occupied the town of Stockholm, where the king’s residence is maintained. Knut assaulted the fortress with the help of his supporters, and thus began a war between the brothers over the kingship. For a long time, the struggle was indecisive. At last, after many had been killed on both sides, and armistice was arranged on the condition that the power of choosing a king should fall on the common people and that the nobility be excluded [this may be a reference to the Riksdag, the parliament of the four estates of Sweden which was established in 1435 but included Burghers and Peasants for the first time around when Piccolomini wrote his book]. Since Karl enjoyed greater popularity, sovereignty was placed in his hands.
Knut pursued the life of a private individual. Karl, on the other hand, was puffed up and arrogant over his new power and sent an armed fleet to expel the aging Erik from Gotland, where he was harming nobody and keeping to himself. [This is definitely not the case, Erik had given up his kingship of Denmark and reverted to a life of piracy and was in charge of a substantial pirate fleet out of Wisby. He died in 1459 a year after Piccolomini published this book]. He is still alive today and is said to be living in his homeland of Pomerania, content with little. By his example, he teaches how precarious and vain are the affairs of mortals, for, having been stripped of three powerful kingdoms, he was not even able, despite his advanced years, to retain until his death the small island on which he had lived in seclusion for ten years. [practicing piracy].
But neither did the crimes of Karl go unpunished. in the midst of persecuting Christian churches, flouting religion, robbing priests, prohibiting the observance of feast days, and generally disrupting the laws of God and man, he was defeated in a great battle by Jon Bengstsson, the bishop of Uppsala, a shrewd and energetic man who had roused the nobles of the realm to action. [Bishop Oxenstierna appears to have been on the Danish side of what amounted to the civil war of the Kalmar union. His pro-Danish 1457 revolt was overthrown again by Karl Knutsson Bonde in 1464] Driven from the kingdom he [Bonde] is spending his exile on a small island not far from the mouth of the Vistula [is this somewhere near Danzig then…?] Christian [The Danish King], a man superior to him in piety and justice [i.e. friendlier to the nobles and the Church], was chosen in his place and in our time has once again combined the three kingdoms into one. Gotland, too, which was once the abode and homeland of the Goths, is subject to his rule [the piracy out of Gotland continued on and off for the rest of the 15th Century].
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_the_Two_Lovers [↩]
- http://www.amazon.com/Europe-1400-1458-Aeneas-Silvius-Piccolomini/dp/081322182X/ref=la_B001HCW4UY_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1386297557&sr=1-1 [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_St._Jakob_an_der_Sihl [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dithmarschen#History [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_I_of_Denmark [↩]