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Charles Morris

Anecdotes of Mediaeval Germany

The Wives of Weinberg

In the year of grace 1140 a German army, under Conrad III., emperor, laid siege to the small town of Weinsberg, the garrison of which resisted with a most truculent and disloyal obstinacy. Germany, which for centuries before and after was broken into warring factions, to such extent that its emperors could truly say, "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," was then divided between the two strong parties of the Welfs and the Waiblingers,—or the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, as pronounced by the Italians and better known to us. The Welfs were a noble family whose ancestry could be traced back to the days of Charlemagne. The Waiblingers derived their name from the town of Waiblingen, which belonged to the Hohenstaufen family, of which the Emperor Conrad was a representative.

And now, as often before and after, the Guelphs, and Ghibellines were at war, Duke Welf holding Weinsberg vigorously against his foes of the imperial party, while his relative, Count Welf of Altorf, marched to his relief. A battle ensued between emperor and count, which ended in the triumph of the emperor and the flight of the count. And this battle is worthy of mention, as distinguished from the hundreds of battles which are unworthy of mention, from the fact that in it was first heard a war-cry which continued famous for centuries afterwards. The German war-cry preceding this period had been "Kyrie Eleison" ("Lord, have mercy upon us!" a pious invocation hardly in place with men who had little mercy upon their enemies). But now the cry of the warring factions became "Hie Weif," "Hie Waiblinger," softened in Italy into "The Guelph," "The Ghibelline," battle-shouts which were long afterwards heard on the field of German war, and on that of Italy as well, for the factions of Germany became also the factions of this southern realm.

So much for the origin of Guelph and Ghibelline, of which we may further say that a royal representative of the former party still exists, in King Edward VII. of England, who traces his descent from the German Welfs. And now to return to the siege of Weinsberg, to which Conrad returned after having disposed of the army of relief. The garrison still were far from being in a submissive mood, their defence being so obstinate, and the siege so protracted, that the emperor, incensed by their stubborn resistance, vowed that he would make their city a frightful example to all his foes, by subjecting its buildings to the brand and its inhabitants to the sword. Fire and steel, he said, should sweep it from the face of the earth.

Weinsberg at length was compelled to yield, and Conrad, hot with anger, determined that his cruel resolution should be carried out to the letter, the men being put to the sword, the city given to the flames. This harsh decision filled the citizens with terror and despair. A deputation was sent to the angry emperor, humbly praying for pardon, but he continued inflexible, the utmost concession he would make being that the women might withdraw, as he did not war with them. As for the men, they had offended him beyond forgiveness, and the sword should be their lot. On further solicitation, he added to the concession a proviso that the women might take away with them all that they could carry of their most precious possessions, since he did not wish to throw them destitute upon the world.


Thusnelda in the Germanicus Triumph.

The obdurate emperor was to experience an unexampled surprise. When the time fixed for the departure of the women arrived, and the city gates were thrown open for their exit, to the astonishment of Conrad, and the admiration of the whole army, the first to appear was the duchess, who, trembling under the weight, bore upon her shoulders Duke Welf, her husband. After her came a long line of other women, each bending beneath the heavy burden of her husband, or some dear relative among the condemned citizens.

Never had such a spectacle been seen. So affecting an instance of heroism was it, and so earnest and pathetic were the faces appealingly upturned to him, that the emperor's astonishment quickly changed to admiration, and he declared that women like these had fairly earned their reward, and that each should keep the treasure she had borne. There were those around him with less respect for heroic deeds, who sought to induce him to keep his original resolution, but Conrad, who had it in him to be noble when not moved by passion, curtly silenced them with the remark, "An emperor keeps his word." He was so moved by the scene, indeed, that he not only spared the men, but the whole city, and the doom of sword and brand, vowed against their homes, was withdrawn through admiration of the noble act of the worthy wives of Weinsberg.

A King in a Quandary

From an old chronicle we extract the following story, which is at once curious and interesting, as a picture of mediŠval manners and customs, though to all seeming largely legendary.

Henry, the bishop of Utrecht, was at sword's point with two lords, those of Aemstel and Woerden, who hated him from the fact that a kinsman of theirs, Goswin by name, had been deposed from the same see, through the action of a general chapter. In reprisal these lords, in alliance with the Count of Gebria, raided and laid waste the lands of the bishopric. Time and again they visited it with plundering bands, Henry manfully opposing them with his followers, but suffering much from their incursions. At length the affair ended in a peculiar compact, in which both sides agreed to submit their differences to the wager of war, in a pitched battle, which was to be held on a certain day in the green meadows adjoining Utrecht.

When the appointed day came both sides assembled with their vassals, the lords full of hope, the bishop exhorting his followers to humble the arrogance of these plundering nobles. The Archbishop of Cologne was in the city of Utrecht at the time, having recently visited it. He, as warlike in disposition as the bishop himself, gave Henry a precious ring, saying to him,—

"My son, be courageous and confident, for this day, through the intercession of the holy confessor St. Martin, and through the virtue of this ring, thou shalt surely subdue the pride of thy adversaries, and obtain a renowned victory over them. In the meantime, while thou art seeking justice, I will faithfully defend this city, with its priests and canons, in thy behalf, and will offer up prayers to the Lord of Hosts for thy success."

Bishop Henry, his confidence increased by these words, led from the gates a band of fine and well armed warriors to the sound of warlike trumpets, and marched to the field, where he drew them up before the bands of the hostile lords.

Meanwhile, tidings of this fray had been borne to William, king of the Romans, who felt it his duty to put an end to it, as such private warfare was forbidden by law. Hastily collecting all the knights and men-at-arms he could get together without delay, he marched with all speed to Utrecht, bent upon enforcing peace between the rival bands. As it happened, the army of the king reached the northern gate of the city just as the bishop's battalion had left the southern gate, the one party marching in as the other marched out.

The archbishop, who had undertaken the defence of the city, and as yet knew nothing of this royal visit, after making an inspection of the city under his charge, gave orders to the porters to lock and bar all the gates, and keep close guard thereon.

King William was not long in learning that he was somewhat late, the bishop having left the city. He marched hastily to the southern gate to pursue him, but only to find that he was himself in custody, the gates being firmly locked and the keys missing. He waited awhile impatiently. No keys were brought. Growing angry at this delay, he gave orders that the bolts and bars should be wrenched from the gates, and efforts to do this were begun.

While this was going on, the archbishop was in deep affliction. He had just learned that the king was in Utrecht with an army, and imagined that he had come with hostile purpose, and had taken the city through the carelessness of the porters. Followed by his clergy, he hastened to where the king was trying to force a passage through the gates, and addressed him appealingly, reminding him that justice and equity were due from kings to subjects.

"Your armed bands, I fear, have taken this city," he said, "and you have ordered the locks to be broken that you may expel the inhabitants, and replace them with persons favorable to your own interests. If you propose to act thus against justice and mercy, you injure me, your chancellor, and lessen your own honor. I exhort you, therefore, to restore me the city which you have unjustly taken, and relieve the inhabitants from violence."

The king listened in silence and surprise to this harangue, which was much longer than we have given it. At its end, he said,—

"Venerable pastor and bishop, you have much mistaken my errand in Utrecht. I come here in the cause of justice, not of violence. You know that it is the duty of kings to repress wars and punish the disturbers of peace. It is this that brings us here, to put an end to the private war which we learn is being waged. As it stands, we have not conquered the city, but it has conquered us. To convince you that no harm is meant to Bishop Henry and his good city of Utrecht, we will command our men to repair to their hostels, lay down their arms, and pass their time in festivity. But first the purpose for which we have come must be accomplished, and this private feud be brought to an end."

That the worthy archbishop was delighted to hear these words, need not be said. His fears had not been without sound warrant, for those were days in which kings were not to be trusted, and in which the cities maintained a degree of political independence that often proved inconvenient to the throne. As may be imagined, the keys were quickly forthcoming and the gates thrown open, the king being relieved from his involuntary detention, and given an opportunity to bring the bishop's battle to an end.

He was too late; it had already reached its end. While King William was striving to get out of the city, which he had got into with such ease, the fight in the green meadows between the bishops and the lords had been concluded, the warlike churchman coming off victor. Many of the lords' vassals had been killed, more put to flight, and themselves taken prisoners. At the vesper-bell Henry entered the city with his captives, bound with ropes, and was met at the gates by the king and the archbishop. At the request of King William he pardoned and released his prisoners, on their promise to cease molesting his lands, and all ended in peace and good will.

Courting by Proxy

Frederick von Stauffen, known as the One-eyed, being desirous of providing his son Frederick (afterwards the famous emperor Frederick Barbarossa) with a wife, sent as envoy for that purpose a handsome young man named Johann von WŘrtemberg, whose attractions of face and manner had made him a general favorite. It was the beautiful daughter of Rudolf von Zńhringen who had been selected as a suitable bride for the future emperor, but when the handsome ambassador stated the purpose of his visit to the father, he was met by Rudolf with the joking remark, "Why don't you court the damsel for yourself?"

The suggestion was much to the taste of the envoy. He took it seriously, made love for himself to the attractive Princess Anna, and won her love and the consent of her father, who had been greatly pleased with his handsome and lively visitor, and was quite ready to confirm in earnest what he had begun in jest.

Frederick, the One-eyed, still remained to deal with, but that worthy personage seems to have taken the affair as a good joke, and looked up another bride for his son, leaving to Johann the maiden he had won. This story has been treated as fabulous, but it is said to be well founded. It has been repeated in connection with other persons, notably in the case of Captain Miles Standish and John Alden, in which case the fair maiden herself is given the credit of admonishing the envoy to court for himself. It is very sure, however, that this latter story is a fable. It was probably founded on the one we have given.

The Bishop's Wine-Casks

Adalbert of Treves was a bandit chief of note who, in the true fashion of the robber barons of mediŠval Germany, dwelt in a strong-walled castle, which was garrisoned by a numerous band of men-at-arms, as fond of pillage as their leader, and equally ready to follow him on his plundering expeditions and to defend his castle against his enemies. Our noble brigand paid particular heed to the domain of Peppo, Bishop of Treves, whose lands he honored with frequent unwelcome visits, despoiling lord and vassal alike, and hastening back from his raids to the shelter of his castle walls.

This was not the most agreeable state of affairs for the worthy bishop, though how it was to be avoided did not clearly appear. It probably did not occur to him to apply to the emperor, Henry II., the mediŠval German emperors having too much else on hand to leave them time to attend to matters of minor importance. Peppo therefore naturally turned to his own kinsmen, friends, and vassals, as those most likely to afford him aid.

Bishop Peppo could wield sword and battle-axe with the best bishop, which is almost equivalent to saying with the best warrior, of his day, and did not fail to use, when occasion called, these carnal weapons. But something more than the battle-axes of himself and vassals was needed to break through the formidable walls of Adalbert's stronghold, which frowned defiance to the utmost force the bishop could muster. Force alone would not answer, that was evident. Stratagem was needed to give effect to brute strength. If some way could only be devised to get through the strong gates of the robber's stronghold, and reach him behind his bolts and bars, all might be well; otherwise, all was ill.

In this dilemma, a knightly vassal of the bishop, Tycho by name, undertook to find a passage into the castle of Adalbert, and to punish him for his pillaging. One day Tycho presented himself at the gate of the castle, knocked loudly thereon, and on the appearance of the guard, asked him for a sup of something to drink, being, as he said, overcome with thirst.

He did not ask in vain. It is a pleasant illustration of the hospitality of that period to learn that the traveller's demand was unhesitatingly complied with at the gate of the bandit stronghold, a brimming cup of wine being brought for the refreshment of the thirsty wayfarer.

"Thank your master for me," said Tycho, on returning the cup, "and tell him that I shall certainly repay him with some service for his good will."

With this Tycho journeyed on, sought the bishopric, and told Peppo what he had done and what he proposed to do. After a full deliberation a definite plan was agreed upon, which the cunning fellow proceeded to put into action. The plan was one which strongly reminds us of that adopted by the bandit chief in the Arabian story of the "Forty Thieves," the chief difference being that here it was true men, not thieves, who were to be benefited.

Thirty wine casks of capacious size were prepared, and in each was placed instead of its quota of wine a stalwart warrior, fully armed with sword, shield, helmet, and cuirass. Each cask was then covered with a linen cloth, and ropes were fastened to its sides for the convenience of the carriers. This done, sixty other men were chosen as carriers, and dressed as peasants, though really they were trained soldiers, and each had a sword concealed in the cask he helped to carry.

The preparations completed, Tycho, accompanied by a few knights and by the sixty carriers and their casks, went his way to Adalbert's castle, and, as before, knocked loudly at its gates. The guard again appeared, and, on seeing the strange procession, asked who they were and for what they came.

"I have come to repay your chief for the cup of wine he gave me," said Tycho. "I promised that he should be well rewarded for his good will, and am here for that purpose."

The warder looked longingly at the array of stout casks, and hastened with the message to Adalbert, who, doubtless deeming that the gods were raining wine, for his one cup to be so amply returned, gave orders that the strangers should be admitted. Accordingly the gates were opened, and the wine-bearers and knights filed in.

Reaching the castle hall, the casks were placed on the floor before Adalbert and his chief followers, Tycho begging him to accept them as a present in return for his former kindness. As to receive something for nothing was Adalbert's usual mode of life, he did not hesitate to accept the lordly present, and Tycho ordered the carriers to remove the coverings. In a very few seconds this was done, when out sprang the armed men, the porters seized their swords from the casks, and in a minute's time the surprised bandits found themselves sharply attacked. The stratagem proved a complete success. Adalbert and his men fell victims to their credulity, and the fortress was razed to the ground.

The truth of this story we cannot vouch for. It bears too suspicious a resemblance to the Arabian tale to be lightly accepted as fact. But its antiquity is unquestionable, and it may be offered as a faithful picture of the conditions of those centuries of anarchy when every man's hand was for himself and might was right.