Martial Culture in Medieval Towns

Forschungsprojekt Abteilung für Mittelalterliche Geschichte
September 2018 – August 2022
Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation

This project will focus on towns as producers, organisers, and brokers of martial culture within the rapidly changing political world of late medieval Europe, examining how towns helped transform and were transformed by trend-setting military techniques and urban ‘martial culture.’ This martial culture developed at the intersection of legal prerogatives, political requirements, physical skills, knowledge, and the evolving societal significance of the ownership and use of weapons. The project will thus integrate a number of historiographical approaches that are usually explored separately:

urban institutional, social, and political history; military history; the history of weapons and weapon use; the history of urban martial competitions; the history of knowledge production and dissemination; the history of fighting expertise, and the transformation of the urban space itself.

Amidst an ongoing historiographical fascination with the long term causes of Europe’s global economic ascendency, and with the origins of the modern state system, the role of military capability been gaining attention. It is furthermore now generally agreed that the technological, tactical and societal changes giving rise to increasingly large, costly, well-organized and equipped military forces in the early modern period emerged out of gradual evolution over prior centuries, rather than as a “military revolution” by which small bands of lightly armed feudal knights, stone fortifications, and long sieges were swiftly eclipsed by huge infantries, firearms, cannonry and centralized political control. The crucial reinforcing role of urbanization in economic growth, state formation, and military development has also been underscored by recent studies, as has the noteworthy catalytic role of late medieval wars and of Swiss foot soldiers in exemplifying these trends. As yet little studied, however, have been local level archival sources documenting the organization of fighting forces, institutional support, and weaponry, and the bottom-up mechanisms by which military capabilities were constituted, maintained, and adapted over time, and how, in practical application, these developments interacted with the rise of urban centers. The goal of this multi-pronged research project will thus be to systematically uncover and explicate vital, yet so far only lightly and sporadically explored, connections between the military history and urban history of the medieval Swiss regions.

The research will be carried out by three independent, but connected subprojects with a common point of reference in the town-dweller who owned and used military weapons. It will concentrate on towns in the centre of the European urban belt in what is today Switzerland and southern Germany, from the 13th to the early decades of the 16th century. Subproject 1 will investigate urban public festivals as hubs of communication on martial knowledge and expressions of urban active self-promotion. Subproject 2 will address how urban military organization changed with shifting political circumstances and analyse the social effects of these changes. Subproject 3 will investigate how buildings and urban space used for military purposes changed the towns’ appearance, and how this, in turn, impacted local martial culture. We anticipate that these subprojects will contribute to an improved and expanded understanding of how martial culture became a driving force of urban development in the late middle ages, and how this, in turn, influenced state building on a European scale.

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