The Sense of Humor

among the

Teutonic Knights

of the

Thirteenth Century

We seek to understand our ancestors by studying their thought through political documents, religious treatises, and literature as much as by examining the physical remnants of their civilization and reading accounts of their deeds. An important but neglected aspect of thought is humor.

Certain aspects of medieval humor are well-known, thanks to the perennial popularity of Boccaccio and Chaucer, but these authors are generally considered to be exceptions to a rather dull and stuffy age; and, while specialists can point to numerous other authors who knew how to turn an elegant phrase of recount memorable anecdote, most would agree that some members of medieval society seem more notable for their lack of humor than for an excess of it. One of the least humorous groups was the crusading order, a body of knights devoted to poverty, chastity, obedience, and war against infidels and pagans. This, indeed, was the attitude which the Church sought to inculcate among these warriors--singleminded devotion to God and duty--and the success it attained is shown by the contemporary reputation the orders had among both its allies and its enemies.

The crusading orders were renowned for their terrible fervor and their contempt of death, but also for their mutual jealousy, great ambition, and avarice. Consequently, every accusation cast at them found an audience willing to believe the most exaggerated charges; and when the orders fell upon evil times, Christian monarchs confiscated their lands and sent the crusader monks to the stake with the same feeling of justification held by those Moslem princes who beheaded the prisoners who came into their power. Perhaps few organizations can be suspected of having as small a sense of humor as did the crusading orders; and, of all the crusading orders, none would be less credited with a comic sense than the Teutonic Knights, whose already impressive reputation for coldness and austerity was enhanced by subsequent generations of professional soldiers in Prussian service. Yet, as we shall see, the Teutonic Knights did have a sense of humor.

The surviving documents do not lend themselves easily to investigation of this personality trait: state papers do not often contain jokes; three of the four chronicles (Peter of Dusburg, Nicholaus of Jeroschin, and the Rhymned Chronicle of Livonia) were composed as Tischrede, edifying historical works to be read to the assembled knights during meals; the other chronicle (Henry of Livonia) was a report drawn up to inform a papal legate about the history of the crusade in the north; and hearings by papal officials were intended to reconcile disputes among the contentious political and religious groups in the Baltic.1) It would be possible to amass more examples of humor by extending the research into the 14th Century, but the Teutonic Knights made a decisive break with their past as that century began. Forced out of the Holy Land, they concentrated their energies upon the crusade in Prussia and Livonia, where they fought Christian Poles as enthusiastically as they did pagan Lithuanians and "schismatic" Russians. And, at the same time, European society was becoming more sophisticated and worldly-wise, so that the recruits brought with them rather different attitudes than were prevalent in the 13th Century.

Surviving materials are voluminous by definition, filling a small shelf with histories, letters, and reports in Latin, middle high German, and middle low German. But most of these are strictly of a political, military, or economic nature, and the remainder is censored by its priestly authors so as to avoid scandal or any possibility of encouraging the readers and listeners to improper activity.

In this way, mention of the subject of sex was extremely rare (the authors being fearful that the knightly monks might take their vows lightly), and the two examples found in Nicholas of Jeroschin might be more typical of the mid-14th Century than the 13th, so that we would omit them if other stories were available; but no other tales exist, and indubitably these two stores were passed down from earlier times. The first anecdote describes a raid upon a Lithuanian wedding party; after the handful of Christian warriors had disposed of the drunken guests they crept up to the bridal chamber "and then they awakened the bridegroom roughly and also the bride with screams, interrupting the honeymoon." The author then added an aside, "I swear, though, if it had been up to me, they could have slept on as they wished to; but it wasn't, so they had to get up."(2) The second anecdote concerned commander Bruhaven of the Konigsberg garrison, who as a youth wanted to join the Teutonic Order but had doubts that he could keep the vow of chastity. Accordingly, "he took a maid, young, pretty, and clean, who not equalled by anyone in the neighborhood for bodily beauty. And he lay all night in bed next to herl And Bruhaven kept this up for a full year and then took an oath and gave proof that he had never deflowered her."(3)

This story was probably accepted in the same spirit that the knights would have read Ripley's "Believe It or Not." The warriors were a jolly group, famous for their meals and entertainment, and the secular atmosphere, the political gossip, and the jokes were such a hindrance to good religious discipline that the Virgin Mary once appeared to a knight to complain about his companion's conduct. That they would have allowed the preceeding tale to pass without comment strains credulity.

The most common type of story (and the one most approaching a joke) concerned pratfalls and misadventures in war. The knights were particularly sensitive about teeth. The crusaders who ran a naval blockade on the Vistula River huddled on the decks under a heavy missile fire, but the only casualty mentioned was that the Prussians "knocked a tooth out of brother Conrad."(4) In that combat against the Semgallians led by King Vester, "Brother Marquart was watching for him and charged toward him as soon as he saw him. He was born in Barbach and was a good knight. He guarded his honor well and many men praised him. May his soul be happy! But his horse carried him too wide and Vester knocked out I don't know how many teeth! Then he escaped into the castle. Brother Marquart was not very happy that he had gotten away."(5) Similarly, they liked to ridicule pretension:

There was a certain knight among the vassals of Swantopolk who so disliked the Teutonic Knights that he expressed his contempt whenever he heard their name mentioned. And it happened one time that the duke was relaxing in a certain village and had called some of his knights to him for fun and said, "Let's send a servant to the fields and after a while have him come back and say that the Teutonic Knights are comingwith an army, and let's see how cowardly this knight proves to be." They liked the idea and sent a messenger to carry out the business. The Teutonic Knights, as it happened, were coming along not far from the village, and when the messenger went out and saw the brothers coming with their warriors, he was stupified and made pale with fear, and with great shouts and a drawn sword he returned to Swantopolk and said, "get up fast and escape, because the Teutonic Knights are coming with an army." Those who knew what was happening smiled, but the cowardly knight, hearing the name of the Teutonic Knights, jumped up from the table and fled. But the messenger kept repeating his first words earnestly and swearing with oaths that the Teutonic Knights were nearby with an army. And the duke left the others smiling with one companion, who was killed by a knight who followed them to a certain stream, where he could not catch the duke, but the other knights were captured and killed.(6)

This tendency to moralize may tell us more about the priestly chroniclers than about the knights themselves. We may suspect that the warriors like a good story for its own sake, because examples such as the following abound:

In this battle a certain brother Gerhard, a Saxon, was chasing the fleeing Prussians and cut off the head of one with a sword, but the wounded man did not fall to the earth immediately but an on without his head after the others for a good distance and then died. The knights who saw this were all astounded and said that they had never seen the like.(7)

Some of these stories have an ancient and honorable lineage. The monk of St. Gall would recognize the conversation between Ottokar of Bohemia and a Prussian nobleman:

The King of Bohemia led his army to the castle Balga, where he met through the brothers a certain old man named Gedune... who knew everything about the military capabilities of the Samlanders. And the King asked him when he saw the first unit of the army if it was strong enough to succeed, and he answered no. Then the second unit came, twice as strong, and after seeing it he responded as before. When the third unit came, three times as strong, he said that it was sufficient. Then came the rest of the army, which covered the ice like locusts cover the ground, and when the King asked if such an army could act in Samland, he answered, "It is sufficient to go anywhere you wish."(8)

All the skills of the storyteller were invoked to interest the knightly audience that listened to the reading of the history of the order. Consequently, the authors interspersed witty remarks through the text, remarks that probably reflect the wit used in everyday conversation. Phrases such as "to make widows and orphans,"(9) "to tear this crane's nest into little pieces,"(10) and "he killed enough of the nobles of the land"(11) are found commonly. Puns were used now and then.

The knights appreciated boorish ignorance of the social graces: "Some of them were so impolite, that they had to lay down and stretch out their feet toward the castle when death broke their hearts."12 And they were conscious of their duties as hosts: "Nearby us dwelt some evil guests,"13 and "Death had overburdened us with these guests who want to harm us. We want to plunk out their feathers in several places."14 Conversations were imagined:

When Mindaugas came to Wenden and heard that the Russians had led him onto thin ice (that is to say, they had left him to devastate the land with fire and sword by himself), he said, "Traniate, tell me, you evil man and absolute coward, now that the Russians had betrayed me and now that you have turned the Master into my enemy, what advice can you give me?15

Another theme that runs through humurous remarks is money: The pagans "pushed forward to the storm enthustiastically and advanced on the castle. But some had gotten up too early that morning and had to leave as pawn the body that they had brought there."16 Indeed, their contempt of the money-grubbing merchants brought the knights into conflict with Riga. The citizens protested the destruction of a bridge over the Dvina River, saying that it had cost one hundred Marks to build, whereupon the local convent officer had responded, "What are a hundred Marks to you?"17

When the citizens threatened to fight over the issue, the officer responded further, "Who you? You would resist us? We would rather die at your hands than succumb to the pagans!"18

In a similar manner the knights mocked the secular priests. At the siege of Dorpat, the crusader monks advanced into battle while the priests fled into shelter: "The Russian army was very large, and the bishop feared them and he ordered the army to the castle. The priests (pfaffen) feared death greatly, as is their ancient tradition and their present custom."19

The numerous references to pagans are characterized by a fascination with their simplicity and naivete. A Samland noble who visited Balga to see whether the knights were made of flesh and bone or were a new type of metalic monster was reported to have told his fellow countrymen that, "they ate grass like horses. Who can withstand people who can sustain themselves in the wilderness and eat grass for food?"20 The knights had probably been eating cabbage that day. No doubt this raised merry comments from the listeners about the quality of the diet they were consuming.

Nicknames were given to individuals. Master Hartmann of Grunbach, for example, called Watmal from the poor quality cloak he tried to force the knights to wear.21

In all the examples that can be cited, however, the belly laugh remains absent. The closest any author came was a description of the pagans who attacked Königsberg:

It happened that the Samlanders with their attacking army so overwhelmed the castle that one brother among those who were stationed on defense had to abandon his already-strungcrossbow and narrowly escape. Then one of the Samlanders hung the crossbow around his neck. The others standing around admired this greatly because they had not seen anything like it before, and, touching it in diverse places with their hands, one depressed the trigger; and the bowstring cut his throat so that he died shortly afterward. From this the Prussians feared crossbows very much.22

The knights, however, had their own appreciation of remarks we might consider simply bad taste. One gibe that was repeated often was first made during a confrontation at Dünamünde when a monk threatened to appeal to the Pope for help against the crusaders' oppression; a Teutonic Knight responded that they already had a Pope among them, and when the monk asked where he was, the knight pulled out his weapon and said, "the sword is our Pope and it is never far from you."23 This statement damned the reputation of the crusading order for all subsequent generations, being repeated by enemies as proof that the order was nothing more than a pack of land-hungry, irreligious troublemakers; and the knights repeated it, too, apparently persuaded that it was a great joke.

Unfortunately, the era did not encourage comedy. The Teutonic Knights were fighting for survival both in Livonia and Prussia, and they lost the fight in the Holy Land. Threatened by pagan armies, episcopal ambitions, a renewed Polish national feeling, papal hostility, and warned by the fate of the Templars that they, too, might be destroyed, the crusaders developed a cynical outlook on life that reinforced the already dour atmosphere that permeated the bleak convent life of isolated castles on a cold and distant frontier. That their humor was ironic and heavy is understandable.

The knights were not witty or greatly imaginative, if the few (and perhaps untypical) examples are to be believed. They appreciated the method of storytelling more than the story, so that the style of the delivery was as important as the tale; and they liked puns--facts difficult to appreciate in English. But the characteristics of this humor are so in keeping with those found elsewhere at this time that we may feel assured that we are not mistaking the stylistic genius of the few authors for the peculiar qualities of the group. Although the subject matter does not lend itself well to analysis (Who would ever suspect Henry Kissinger of having a keen wit from reading his official reports or a history of his diplomatic activities?), but it does provide us with occasional glimpses of the personalities hidden behind the iron helmets and cloister walls. Anyone associated with sports or the military will recognize the humor of Teutonic Knights: their locker-room jokes have been subjected to an intense censorship that suppressed references to sex and excrement; eliminate these from the rather limited vocabularies of any all-male group and what remains is the humor of the crusading orders.

What are the key words and symbols associated with their humor? What unlocks their subconscious for us, so that briefly, so very briefly, we may look into their minds and souls? First is duty. Theirs was a very special service, one threatened by priestly moralisms, episcopal avarice, and bodily temptation. Their humor was pointed at these targets, either lightly or with heavy sarcasm, depending on the degree that these threatened the goals of the order. Bodily temptation was not a great problem, and therefore was dealt with lightly, but priests and bishops who attempted to force the knights to obey them were deadly enemies, enemies of the duty the owed the Church and the Empire, the Pope and the Emperor. Under duty are marshalled the concepts of honor, courage, and military skill. Second comes nobility, which was only barely a fit subject for joking. The jibes about base-born individuals or burghers make it clear that the knight had few things to be proud of in their semi-cloistered world; and their birth was one of their highest objects of pride. Consequently, they despised the pursuit of money or trade, and they respected their noble pagan enemies. Third come pride, particularly pride in appearance and bodily beauty. The loss of a tooth was a painful experience that most of the knights must have known. The humor came int he knowledge of the frustration and embarassment that such a minor injury brought. Fourth comes a morbid fascination with death that was approached ironically. All the various ways of becoming a corpse are mentioned in the chronicles, and the demise of countless numbers of enemies is recorded joyfully, and, in a subtle way, almost humorously. Lastly, there were the vicissitudes of life in the convent--poor food, the burden of chastity, the cold--that the knights faced relatively cheerfully. Perhaps that is a commentary on the low level of comfort in the 13th Century. Not even nobles had a varied diet or warm rooms, and the knights lived fairly well by contemporary standards. They hunted and fished, hawked and traveled much like other lords, and their business of government and war kept them occupied more than was the case of many secular lords.

In short, what does the humor of the Teutonic Knights tell us about the ideals and practices of the membership, in contrast to what is told about the elite leadership by the treaties and documents? It says that duty, nobility, pride, and death were the subjects of greatest concern--approximately what the order stated its objects were. Larger questions of life, of philosophy, of theology are conspicuously absent, as are references to major political figures, contemporary personalities, and events. Perhaps these larger questions, which form an important part of the modern intellectual's concept of what is funny, were present but simply not recorded. Perhaps, but not likely. The sample of humor, limited though it is, is sufficient to form a consistent picture of 13thCentury noble humor--local, earthy, ironic--filtered through a deeply felt commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The traditional view of the crusading order is upheld--their fervor and concept of death remains, as does their jealousy, ambition, and avarice--but no longer should one see the knights as unsmiling.


1 Petri de Dusburg's "Chronicon terrae Prussiae" and Nicolaus von Jeroschin's "Die Kronike von Pruzinlant" are in volume one of Scriptores rerum Prussicarum (Leipzig, 1861; reprint Frankfurt/Main: Minerva, 1965); Heinrici Chonicon Livoniae (2nd edition. Hannover: Hahnsche, 1955) is available in English translation by James Brundage, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1961); Livländische Reimchronik (Paderborn, 1876; reprint Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1963), is available in English translation, The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (trans. Jerry C. Smith and William Urban, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1977); volumes one, two, three, and six of Liv-, Est-, und Curländisches Urkundenbuch (12 vols. Reval, Riga, and Moscow: Kluge and Strohm, Kymmel, and Deuber, 1853-1914) and volume one, parts one and two of Preussisches Urkundenbuch (Königsberg: Hartung, 1882 and 1909) contain most of the printed documents; and Das Zeugenverhör des Franciscus de Moliano (1312) (Königsberg: Thomas und Oppermann, 1912) is the most important papal investigation of this era.

2 Jeroschin, p. 519.

3 Ibid., p. 524.

4 Ibid., p. 423; Dusburg, p. 95.

5 Dusburg, p. 79

6 Reimchronik, p. 41.

7 Dusburg, pp. 78-9.

8 Ibid., pp. 106-107.

9 Ibid., p. 91.

10. Reimchronik, p. 90.

11 Ibid., pp. 86-87.

12 Jeroschin, p. 539.

13 Reimchronik, pp. 230-231.

14 Ibid., p. 87.

15 Ibid., p. 126.

16 Ibid., p. 149.

17 Ibid., p. 89.

18 Liv-, Est-, und Curlandisches Urkundenbuch, I, p. 567.

19 Ibid., p. 710

20 Reimchronik, p. 152.

21 Jeroschin, p. 416.

22 Dusburg, p. 95.

23 Ibid., p. 107.

24 Zeugenverhör, p. 51; also Liv-, Est-, und Curländisches Urkendenbuch,I, p. 747.

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