Tlusty on Bearing Swords in the Later Middle Ages
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Tlusty on Bearing Swords in the Later Middle Ages

the cover of B. Ann Tlusty's book "The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany" with a painting of two men in doublets and hose fighting with swords while a man behind a desk hangs his head in his hands

A classic problem in social history goes like this: in the thirteenth century CE, the heaviest weapon that was commonly worn in European towns was a dagger or long knife with a blade up to 30 cm long. By the sixteenth century CE, towns were full of men wearing swords, particularly in the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, and Bohemia (in Italy and Spain wearing swords may have been restricted to gentlemen). How and when did this change happen? This has caught the attention of academics because it is linked to the civilizing process, state formation, and the monopoly on violence and those were fashionable at universities in the twentieth century. Back when I was in contact with them, the people who study German fencing from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tell people that one book shows that medieval Germans wore swords everywhere just like people in the sixteenth century: B. Ann Tlusty, The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Palgrave Macmillan: 2011). What does it actually say about medieval law?

the privilege of bearing arms was occasionally curtailed by local laws during the late Middle Ages and early modern period in the interest of safety, order, and civic peace, although the basic right of free citizens to carry and use weapons was never taken away completely. More often, what has been described as a ban on carrying weapons in the literature was in fact only a situational limitation, for example a ban on walking the streets with concealed weapons, wearing certain kinds of swords, or carrying weapons after dark. In some cases bans on swords applied only to visitors, not to local residents.4 General bans on carrying weapons within city walls did exist in the Middle Ages, but laws such as that of thirteenth-century Freiburg, which expressly allowed “all citizens and merchants, poor and rich” to carry “any kind of weapons that they have,” including swords, bows, crossbows, and even pikes, were also common.5

Tlusty p. 57

The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany continues a few pages later:

In keeping with medieval constructs of civic peace, many cities imposed restrictions on carrying swords and daggers during the late Middle Ages, especially at night. As the weapons culture of the early modern towns reached its peak, and the side arm became a standard fashion statement, these restrictions were relaxed, while newer regulations focused instead on aggressive behavior and on weapons deemed inappropriate for an honorable fight. Local laws in Nuremberg from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries were particularly strict, forbidding residents from carrying swords or other weapons entirely on pain of a fine plus loss of the weapon. Fines were doubled for bringing weapons into public houses, the control of which fell to the innkeepers. Exceptions to these rules applied to public officials and travelers on their way in or out of the city, although they also had to leave their swords behind at their inn when they were moving about the city. Otherwise, only “ordinary bread knives that are not dangerous,” and also not too sharp, were allowed in Nuremberg.25 Valentin Groebner suggests that these rules were not really enforced;26 in any case, Nuremberg’s laws were harsh even by late medieval standards. Many other cities allowed their citizens to carry swords during the fifteenth century. In Augsburg, fourteenth-century laws limiting the length of swords and other blades were loosened for locals in the fifteenth century to apply only to exposed or unusual weapons, even at night. Nördlingen’s restrictions on carrying swords were also limited to non-residents.27 In other cities, weapons were often limited by length rather than type. In fifteenth-century Rothenburg, whose laws seem to have rivaled Nuremberg’s, only knives with blades up to one-quarter ell (around 15 cm or 6 inches) were allowed; elsewhere, maximum allowable weapon lengths seem to have been appropriate for swords, or at least long daggers, rather than knives. Appropriate blade lengths were sometimes inscribed in the walls of a church, council house, or other public building.28

Tlusty p. 61

Some people I have spoken with say that Tlusty shows that swords were commonly worn in German towns before the sixteenth century. The paragraphs above are clearly written but lets go over them one more time (and look at the endnotes, which appear as numbers like 25, 26 above). The first paragraph uses some debate-club tricks, namely defining things narrowly to make it hard to show they existed (what rude people on the Internet call creating a strawman and Plato called sophistry). Canadian law does not include “General bans on carrying weapons within city walls” either but someone who moves around an urban area with an edged weapon, bow, or firearm is likely to get questioned by the police very quickly and have the weapon confiscated if they can’t show good reason for carrying it. Roman law did forbid people to carry weapons within the sacred bounds of a city but its not clear if they covered knives, cudgels, and other weapons not used in war.

Its hard to decide whether to agree or disagree that:

General bans on carrying weapons within city walls did exist in the Middle Ages, but laws such as that of thirteenth-century Freiburg, which expressly allowed “all citizens and merchants, poor and rich” to carry “any kind of weapons that they have,” … were also common.

Tlusty cites two examples of laws which asserted the right of free men to bear arms, one from thirteenth-century Freiburg and another in the Österreichische Weisthümer, oral legal traditions collected by the Gebrüder Grimm between 1840 and 1863 (endnote 5 points readers to page 59 of this book by Eberhard Freiherr von Künzberg as well as Mörtzsch, Otto. “Das wehrhafte Freiberg im Mittelalter.” Zeitschrift für Historische Waffenkunde 7 (1915–17): 216–224 Rural Austrians are still keen on their right to carry knives but that hardly makes this a law or a medieval law! Law in the Holy Roman Empire was highly fragmented and different jurisdictions were fierce in asserting their authority over particular people or areas of life (please don’t make me get out Berman’s Law and Revolution). Without reviewing all of the evidence and presenting it, how can anyone decide what was most common?

For what it is worth, I have found five laws from medieval central Europe which restrict the bearing of swords, daggers, or large knives without even looking for them, just while looking for laws on other topics for my own research (the Pax Bavarica of 1256, and city laws from Old Prague, Brno, Nürnberg, and Strassburg). I have not encountered any laws like the one from thirteenth-century Freiburg in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.

The second paragraph largely supports the conventional view that the wearing of arms became more common in the 16th century than earlier.

In keeping with medieval constructs of civic peace, many cities imposed restrictions on carrying swords and daggers during the late Middle Ages, especially at night. As the weapons culture of the early modern towns reached its peak, and the side arm became a standard fashion statement, these restrictions were relaxed, while newer regulations focused instead on aggressive behavior and on weapons deemed inappropriate for an honorable fight.

She gives examples of these laws being relaxed from the fifteenth century onwards. Tlusty’s publisher forced her to use endnotes rather than practical footnotes, but this section seems based on the following:

  • Groebner, Valentin. “Der verletzte Körper und die Stadt. Gewalttaetigkeit und Gewalt in Nuernberg am Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts.” In Physische Gewalt. Studien zur Geschichte der Neuzeit, edited by Thomas Lindenberger and Alf Luedtke. Frankfurt a. M., 1995.
  • His, Rudolph. Das Strafrecht des deutschen Mittelalters. 2 vols. Vol. 1: Die Verbrechen und ihre Folgen im allgemeinen. Leipzig, 1920. {especially often cited are vol. 1 pp. 168-174} Mistakenly limited to search only
  • ——. Das Strafrecht des deutschen Mittelalters. 2 vols. Vol. 2: Die einzelnen Verbrechen. Weimar, 1935.
  • Magin, Christine. “‘Waffenrecht’ und ‘Waffenverbot’ für Juden im Mittelalter – Zu einem Mythos der Forschungsgeschichte.” Aschkenas 13 (2003): 17–33.
  • Strätz, Hans-Wolfgang. “Waffengebrauch.” In Handwörterbuch zur deutsche Rechtsgeschichte, edited by Adalbert Erler and Ekkehard Kaufmann. 5: 1079–80. Berlin, 1998.
  • ——. “Waffenrecht.” In Handwörterbuch zur deutsche Rechtsgeschichte, edited by Adalbert Erler and Ekkehard Kaufmann, 5: 1080–3. Berlin, 1998.

I don’t think many fencers in the USA have tracked these down, since most of them are only available in large academic libraries in Europe. The entries by Strätz are very brief but the 1920 book by His might be more detailed.

Tlusty also points out that medieval legislation was often not enforced. One common example was benefit of clergy: clerks (a very broad category including the teenaged students at medieval universities) claimed exemption from many secular laws and were often able to enforce this through armed violence or the power of the church. Gentlemen often objected to town laws and sometimes had enough power to ignore them.

photos of an axe, a club carved with a crude ball, and a haft
A club and axe from the sacrificial deposit at Alken Enge (meadow) in Denmark from the centuries on either side of the year 1. Wooden ‘croquet mallets’ were found at the Bronze Age battlefield at the Tollense River on the south shore of the Baltic. As late as the 19th century, people in the rural British Isles often carried heavy canes to use as weapons. Some aspects of violence culture do not change very much over the centuries! From Holst, Mads Kähler et al. (2018) “Direct evidence of a large Northern European Roman period martial event and postbattle corpse manipulation,” PNAS, Vol. 115, No. 23 pp. 5920–5925 Supplementary Information 13

I agree that the medieval paintings, laws, and records of fights and killings might not prove what they seem to prove. Medievalists such as Sidney Anglo have questioned whether there was such a break between late medieval and early modern practices. Artists often show extreme violence, or peace and harmony, as in the Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Sienna. Court proceedings record violations of norms (and are sometimes tweaked so that outsiders have no grounds for interfering with the court’s judgment). Legal records from England mention a lot of staves and knobbed clubs which are invisible in art and high literature, probably because there was nothing glamorous about ordinary people beating each other senseless. It is even harder to understood what happened on the roads and in the country where few things were written down and even fewer were preserved. I agree with Tlusty that other societies’ ways of thinking about bearing arms and violence can be hard to understand, and that its tempting to force them into familiar categories.

However, the laws I have read and the paintings I have seen tend to show a late medieval Central Europe where local governments were concerned with controlling the bearing of arms and where most men did not wear swords in town. Very many men owned swords and kept them in their homes, and many of them were required to own swords, but the average shopkeeper or master craftsman did not walk around town with a sword or an axe in the 1300s or 1400s. I still do not have a clear picture of how and when it became more common to wear swords. The bits of B. Ann Tlusty’s excellent book which I have read do not give me a good reason to change my opinion. Maybe one day someone with similar interests will write a book on martial culture in medieval Germany? (The MartCult blog has “medieval” in its title but often drifts into the 16th-18th century for the same reason that the drunkard looked for his keys under the streetlight).

You can find Ken Mondschein’s academic review of Tlusty’s book here If you can share links, donate, or just talk to your friends about something cool you read here I appreciate it!

(scheduled 11 May 2023, added a link to ZHWK article on 16 September 2023)

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6 thoughts on “Tlusty on Bearing Swords in the Later Middle Ages

  1. dearieme says:

    There were two towns near where I grew up which had hosted foreign soldiers in The War. The Norwegians were popular: when they got drunk they fought like men, with their fists.

    The French Canadians were unpopular: when drunk they fought like heathens, with knives.

    1. Sean says:

      I understand weapons laws in the freeer parts of western Eurasia and its settler colonies from at least the 4th century BCE to 1917 as a dialectic between the people in charge of not being conquered or couped making everyone politically reliable arm themselves as expensively as possible, and the people in charge of local order trying to stop young idiots and vagrants from knifing each other. That is why royal or national laws focus on who must or must not possess various arms, and local laws focus on limiting who can carry what arms (and even national laws restricting weapons tended to focus on political reliability, as when different kinds of Christians in England disarmed each other). 100 years ago anyone politically aware in the English tradition could have walked you through this, but it has been erased from memory because since the later stages of WW I, nobody believes that the key to military power or preventing coups is making the richest 40% of the population buy a rifle and shoot 50 rounds twice a month. Nobody believes that this significantly defrays the cost of war either.

      1. Ryan says:

        That makes sense, that might also explain why Nürnberg had such strict laws. It was ruled by the patricians and not the burghers. I wonder though, if 40% is a rather high percentage. I have recently read that male citizens made about 10% of a city’s population.

        1. Sean says:

          10% where and when? I suspect that your source was thinking of adult men, who before clean water and contraception are never going to be more than 25% of the population or so even before you start excluding the very poor, the old, the disabled, the politically unreliable, and people who powerful people make money by exploiting (eg. foreigners and religious or ethnic minorities).

          Cynical people were always debating how broad to make the obligation to arm yourself and serve when called up. An inclusive system such as Periclean Athens or Republican Rome gave massive military power, but you needed to hand out lots of the goodies to ordinary people (giving up 10 of the best years of your life to the wars is a big ask!) A more exclusive system such as Ptolemaic Egypt or fifteenth-century France provided less military power but could still provide enough to keep the people on top on top. In the systems before the 20th century I am familiar with, there are not many societies with cities where more than 40% of the adult male population are obliged to arm themselves and serve at their own expense, but the details vary.

          Instead of handing out goodies, you could assign the ‘fighting wars far away’ part to foreigners, but they tended to behave badly or just take over. So people of experience such as Aeneas Tacticus explain that at home citizens should be the single most powerful military force. In the British system in the late 18th and early 19th century, that was why you had a nice big militia of prosperous Protestant men at home while the army was full of marginalized men (some of them Catholic (!!)) and overseas as often as possible. Since Elizabeth’s day, England’s wars didn’t reward the ordinary soldiers very well.

          1. Ryan says:

            You mean 40% of the adult male population, in your first post, you just said population without any qualifiers.
            Here is where I got the 10% figure:

          2. Sean says:

            Yes, this kind of thinking up to the First World War was a man’s world! I talked about this in we the people

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