|Johann (Hans) Schiltberger was a German traveller and writer born of an old aristocratic Bavarian
family. At age 14, Johann joined knight Lienhart Reichartinger in 1394 as a page and fought under
King Sigismund of Hungary against the Turks on the Hungarian frontier. When Sultan Bajazet I.
defeated the Christians in the Bulgarian city of Nikopolis in 1396, Schiltberger was wounded and
taken prisoner. While some prisoners were ransomed, most were murdered. Since Schiltberger was
only 16 years old, he was spared, and from 1396 to 1402 served the Sultan as a foot runner. He
accompanied Ottoman troops to certain parts of Asia Minor and to Egypt. Schiltberger spent the first
six years of his captivity with the Turks and learned strange languages and saw new regions.
When once he dared attempt escape with sixty other Christians, he was caught and served nine
months in the dungeon. Twelve of his companions did not survive the experience.Throughout the
lands of the Danube and from there on to the regions which had fallen under the Turks, on to the sea
and throughout the Ottoman dominions in Asia, he diligently recorded his experiences and
observations. On Bayezid's overthrow at Ankora in 1402, Schiltberger passed into the service of
Mongolian Khan Timur (Tamerlan), Bayezid's conqueror.
It was said that the notoriously cruel Tamerlan once took five thousand Turks prisoner and had them
buried alive. Tamerlan also had all of the inhabitants of some conquered cities beheaded and then
had pyramids made from their heads. It appears Schiltberger followed Tamerlan to Samarkand and
perhaps also to Armenia and Georgia.
After Tamerlan's death in 1405, Schiltberger ended up becoming became a slave to Tamerlan's son
Shah Rukh, then to his brother Abu Bekr, whose troops roamed up and down Armenia as nomads,
travelling with women, children, cattle and all their property from place to place. He next
accompanied Chekre, a Tatar prince, to Siberia, the steppes of Russia, the lower Volga and on to
Azov or Tana, still a trading center for Genoese merchants. He had even more travels in the Crimea,
Circassia, Abkhasia and Mingrelia.
Schiltberger's Reisebuch contains not only a record of his own experiences and a sketch of various
chapters of Eastern history, but also an account of countries and their manners and customs,
especially of those countries which he had himself visited. Despite some flaws, his unique journey
provided a priceless historical document. Schiltberger saw the Ottoman dominions, Greece, Bulgaria
and Turkey. He became acquainted with Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Persia, Mesopotamien,
Armenia, Georgia and even part of India. He journeyed to the edge Siberia, then to the Crimea with
its great Genoese colony at Kaffa, where he spent five months.
He tells of Siberian dog sleds, Indian war elephants, the river Euphrates, the cultivation of pepper and
enormous treasures of jewels, as well as the customs and religions of exotic peoples. Schiltberger
even wrote in his journal of wild people in Mongolia who have nothing in common with other human
beings. He claimed to have seen two of them himself that had been captured by a local warlord. He
speaks of Buddhism, Islam and the Persian religion of Zarathustra. Schiltberger is possibly the first
Western European writer to give the true burial place of Muhammad at Medina. He describes the
splendor of Istanbul in the Byzantine period; the imperial palaces adorned with mosaics, the
Hippodrome where tournaments took place, the obelisks, and the 300 brass doors of Haghia Sophia,
all at a time when foreigners were forbidden to wander freely in the city. He notes the legend that
Alexander the Great artificially created the Bosphorus to link the Black Sea to the Marmara.
Once in Constantinople, he lay hidden for a time; He had waited patiently for 32 long years for a
chance to escape and here he seized it and fled with four other Christians together on an Italian ship
leaving Constantinople. He then returned to his Bavarian home in 1427 by way of Kilia, Akerman,
Lemberg, Kraków, Breslau and Meissen. Once home in Munich, he wrote a book, the Reisebuch,
about his experiences. It was a "best seller" in the Middle Ages when reports of journeys to far away
places from people like Marco Polo were greedily devoured. Duke Albrecht III. employed him as a
treasurer; when the duke mounted the throne in Munich in 1438, Schiltberger retired to his property,
where he died years later as a bachelor, living such a withdrawn life after his return to his Bavarian
homeland that nobody even knows when he died. It is assumed to be around 1440.
|The "German Marco Polo”
|The Battle of Nicopolis (1396), according to Johann Schiltberger
I, Johanns Schiltberger, left my home near the city of Munich, situated in Bayern, at the time that
King Sigmund of Hungary left for the land of the Infidels. This was, counting from Christ's birth, in
the thirteen hundred and ninety-fourth year, with a lord named Leinhart Richartingen. And I came
back again from the land of the Infidels, counting from Christ's birth, fourteen hundred and twenty-
seven. All that I saw in the land of the Infidels, of wars, and that was wonderful, also what chief
towns and seas I have seen and visited, you will find described hereafter, perhaps not quite
completely, but I was a prisoner and not independent. But so far as I was able to understand and to
note, so have I [noted] the countries and cities as they are called in those countries, and I here make
known and publish many interesting and strange adventures, which are worth listening to.
Chapter 1 – Of the first combat between King Sigmund and the Turks
From the first, King Sigmund appealed in the above-named year, thirteen hundred and ninety-four, to
Christendom for assistance, at the time that the Infidels were doing great injury to Hungary. There
came many people from all countries to help him; then he took the people and led them to the Iron
Gate, which separates Ugern from Bulgaria and Wallachia, and he crossed the Tunow into Bulgaria,
and made for a city called Pudem. It is the capital of Bulgaria. Then came the ruler of the country
and of the city, and gave himself up to the king; then the king took possession of the city with three
hundred men, good horse and foot soldiers, and then went to another city where were many Turks.
There he remained five days, but the Turks would not give up the city; but the fighting men expelled
them by force, and delivered the city to the king. Many Turks were killed and others made prisoners.
The king took possession of the city also, with two hundred men, and continued his march towards
another city called Schiltaw, but called in the Infidel tongue, Nicopoli. He besieged it by water and by
land for sixteen days, then came the Turkish king, called Bayezid, with two hundred thousand men,
to the relief of the city. When the king, Sigmund, heard this, he went one mile to meet him with his
people, the number of whom were reckoned at sixteen thousand men. Then came the Duke of
Wallachia, called Werterwayvod, who asked the king to allow him to look at the winds.
This the king allowed, and he took with him one thousand men for the purpose of looking at the
winds, and he returned to the king and told him that he had looked at the winds, and had seen twenty
banners, and that there were ten thousand men under each banner, and each banner was separate
from the other. When the king heard this, he wanted to arrange the order of battle. The Duke of
Wallachia asked that he might be the first to attack, to which the king would willingly have
consented. When the Duke of Burgundy heard this, he refused to cede this honour to any other
person, for the just reason that he had come a great distance with six thousand men, and had
expended much money in the expedition, and he begged the king that he should be the first to attack.
The king asked him to allow the Ungern to begin, as they had already fought with the Turks, and
knew better than others how they were armed. This he would not allow to the Ungern, and
assembled his men, attacked the enemy, and fought his way through two corps; and when he came
to the third, he turned and would have retreated, but found himself surrounded, and more than half
his horsemen were unhorsed, for the Turks aimed at horses only, so that he could not get away, and
was taken prisoner. When the king heard that the Duke of Burgundy was forced to surrender, he
took the rest of the people and defeated a body of twelve thousand foot soldiers that had been sent to
oppose him. They were all trampled upon and destroyed, and in this engagement a shot killed the
horse of my lord Lienhart Richartinger; and I, Hanns Schiltberger, his runner, when I saw this, rode
up to him in the crowd and assisted him to mount my own horse, and I then mounted another which
belonged to the Turks, and rode back to the other runners. And when all the Turkish footsoldiers
were killed, the king advanced upon another corps which was of horse.
When the Turkish king saw the king advance, he was about to fly, but the Duke of Iriseh, known as
the despot, seeing this, went to the assistance of the Turkish king with fifteen thousand chosen men
and many other bannerets, and the despot threw himself with his people on the king's banner and
overturned it; and when the king saw that his banner was overturned and that he could not remain,
he took to flight. Then came he to Cily, and Hanns, Burgrave of Nuremberg, took the king and
conducted him to a galley on board of which he went to Constantinople. When the horse and foot
soldiers saw that the king had fled, many escaped to the Tunow and went on board the ships; but the
vessels were so full that they could not all remain, and when they tried to get on board they struck
them on the hands, so that they were drowned in the river; many were killed on the mountain as they
were going to the Tunow. My lord Leinhart Richartinger, Werner Pentznawer, Ulrich Kuchler, and
little Stainer, all bannerets, were killed in the fight, also many other brave knights and soldiers. Of
those who could not cross the water and reach the vessels, a portion were killed; but the larger
number were made prisoners. Among the prisoners were the Duke of Burgundy, and Hanns
Putzokardo [Boucicault], and a lord named Centumaranto [Saint Omer]. These were two lords of
France, and the Great Count of Hungary. And other mighty lords, horsemen, and footsoldiers, were
made prisoners, and I also was made a prisoner.
Chapter 2 – How the Turkish king treated the prisoners
And now when the King Bayezid had had the battle, he went near the city where King Sigismund
had encamped with his army, and then went to the battlefield and looked upon his people that were
killed; and when he saw that so many of his people were killed, he was torn with grief, and swore he
would not leave their blood unavenged, and ordered his people to bring every prisoner before him the
next day, by fair means of foul. So they came the next day, each with as many prisoners as he had
made, bound with a cord. I was one of three bound with the same cord, and was taken by him who
had captured us. When the prisoners were brought before the king, he took the Duke of Burgundy
that he might see his vengeance because his people that had been killed.
When the Duke of Burgundy saw the anger, he asked him to spare the lives of several he would
name; this was granted by the king. Then he selected twelve lords, his own countrymen, also
Stephen Synuher and the Marshal Boucicault. Then each was ordered to kill his own prisoners, and
for those who did not wish to do so the king appointed others in their place. Then they took my
companions and cut off their heads, and when it came to my turn, the king's son saw me and ordered
that I should be left alive, and I was taken to the other boys, because none under twenty years of age
were killed, and I was scarcely sixteen years old. Then I saw the lord Hannsen Grieff, who was a
noble of Payern, and four others, bound with the same cord. When he saw the great revenge that
was taking place, he cried with a loud voice and consoled the horsemen and footsoldiers who were
standing there to die. "Stand firm," he said, "When our blood this day is spilt for the Christian faith,
and we by God's help shall become the children of heaven." When he said this he knelt, and was
beheaded together with his companions.
Blood was spilled from morning until vespers, and when the king's counselors saw that so much
blood was spilled and that still it would not stop, they rose and fell upon their knees before the king,
and entreated him for the sake of God that he would forget his rage, that he might not draw down
upon himself the vengeance of God, as enough blood was already spilled. He consented, and ordered
that they should stop, and that the rest of the people should be brought together, and from them he
took his share and left the rest to his people who made them prisoners. I was amongst those the king
took for his share, and the people that were killed on that day were reckoned at ten thousand men.
The prisoners of the king were then sent to Greece to a chief city called Andranopoli, where we
remained prisoners for fifteen days. Then we were taken by sea to a city called Gallipoli; it is the city
where the Turks cross the sea, and there three hundred of us remained for two months confined in a
tower. The Duke of Burgundy also was there in the upper part of the tower with those prisoners he
had saved; and while we were there, the King Sigismund passed us on his way to [Croatia?]. When
the Turks heard this, they took us out of the tower and led us to the sea, and one after the other they
abused the king and mocked him; and this they did to make fun of him, and skirmished a long time
with each other on the sea. But they did not do him any harm, and so he went away.
From The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, trans. J. Buchan Telfer. London; 1879.
|Johann Schiltberger was a 16 year old boy when he witnessed one of the most important battles in
European history on September 25, 1396. The Ottoman Turks, under Sultan Bayezid 1, first
encountered a western European army at Nicopolis. Among the leaders of the Christian crusaders
were Sigismund I, King of Hungary, German and English knights, and French noblemen. Because of
his young age, Schiltberger was spared, and would spend the next thirty years of his life as a captive,
writing of his observations and experiences.
|The German Slave Boy's Account of War