Letter from a Knight on Rhodes

Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of St. John, quartered on the Isle of Rhodes, to his dear cousin and brother in the Lord, Wolfgang Capito.

Greetings to you my dear friend, and all the blessings which God can bestow. Your recent letter reached me just yesterday with the arrival of our supply galleys from Venice.

Selim I

This past year, a new and vigorous Ottoman Sultan arose, who goes by the name Selim. He deposed his father Beyezid, whom he considered too weak. Selim quickly killed all his brothers and nephews.  He remembers the challenge to his father’s rule by his uncle Djem, who fled to our protection on Rhodes.  (Beyezid made an agreement with the Pope to keep Djem in luxurious restraint until he died, thereby preventing a civil conflict in Constantinople.)  The new Sultan is called “Selim the Grim.”

Local Greeks report that Selim seeks to unite the many Islamic realms by force, to present a united front against us. Selim claims the title of “Caliph of Islam.” Our spies report that Selim prepares his forces for a clash with Ismail, Shah of the powerful Safavid Empire of Persia. Selim is a fervent Muslim of the Sunni faction, and passionately wants to surpass the Shi’ites of Persia, and assume their leadership. He is well aware of Ismail’s power and resilience, but he places much hope in his corps of Janissaries, who are well trained in the use of firearms, a device which Ismail holds in contempt. If Selim gains Syria and Mesopotamia, he will be nearly impossible to stop.

Our spies also suggest that he may move against the Mamelukes, the Islamic slave-soldiers who have ruled Egypt for centuries. By my faith, control of Egypt and the Holy Land would give Selim the lucrative pilgrimage road to Mecca and Medina, and the title Defender of the Holy Places, which carries enormous religious prestige even among the Shi’ites.

Since the Turks have long since gained control of most of Greece and the mainland of the Levant, we alone on Rhodes remain as an armed outpost of Christendom. Our fleets of war galleys terrorize their spice convoys from Asia and shipments of grain from Egypt. They do not wish us well, and when the day of reckoning comes, the fighting will be severe. Let us hope that our walls will defeat the hoards of unbelievers, as happened in 1480. May God and Holy Mary continue to protect us.

In these present days, all is quiet on our beautiful island, but the threat of invasion is never absent. My fellow brothers in the Order’s German langue never stop their training and preparations for the assault which we know must come. We have amassed vast stores of food, powder, shot, arrows, and counter-siege apparatus.

Our fortifications are no doubt the finest and best crafted in the world, and yet we continue to strengthen our masonry, deepen our moats, and multiply our cisterns. We boast to the other seven langues that our German bastion is the best defended section of the walls, and that we hope that the Turks make their first assault against us, so that we may teach them a lesson.

Last week I accompanied three of our galleys on a raid to capture stores of powder in the magazine of a Turkish village. We spared the women and children, as well as men who raised no weapons. While I do not agree with Erasmus that a Christian should not go to war, I do agree that if we slaughter the innocent, as the Turks do, then we have become Turks of the spirit and not Christians.

I am disturbed to hear your news of the bickering among theologians in your district. Their issues mean very little to me. I understand the need to stamp out corruption and greed among the clergy, but why fall into hostile factions over theories that no normal person wishes to understand? If only your friends could see the great threat posed by the Turks against our poor outpost here on the East of the Great Sea. There has never been a time in history when devout Christians needed to honor their common beliefs more than now.

With all that said, my brother, do not worry about my welfare. Our situation on Rhodes is most pleasant for now. Like all the other auberges of the Knights, our German residence palace is comfortable and strong, a true fortress within a fortress. Our supply of food and wine is generous and delicious, more than you could wish.

We maintain our rhythm of prayer as devoutly as our military preparations. The spirit among our Knights and our other helpers is warm and fraternal, as I wish that your own companions might be. As I fondly remember your kindness to my own dear mother, I wish you the Lord’s choicest blessings.

From your own, Diether

Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

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Index by Subject

Your Capito, Best Reader, has taken to frequent wandering in the back rooms of this publishing house called WordPress (though it can’t hold a candle to the Amerbachs).  He delights to know how visitors land here.  What were they seeking?  A few days ago, someone searched for Humanists Latin Names.  Clearly, this researcher wanted to know why we scholars of the humanities take Latin names.  Or perhaps, how we arrive at our new appellative.  Perhaps he was thinking of redefining himself.  Or reviving the custom. 

This same back room also presents a list of posts viewed each day.  Oh disappointment!  The poor seeker of names never found my most excellent discussion of this topic, for that post was not viewed that day.  (I modestly say it is the best article I’ve ever seen on the subject.)

Naturally, I wanted to jump on a fast horse and chase the searcher down, but unless that horse would be Pegasus, able to travel through the ether, I can not do it.  A courier can usually be bribed to reveal the name of an anonymous sender, but Capito has no way to contact this seeker of names.

Several researchers come to this site daily looking for specific information, so Capito has decided to create an Index by Subject to aid those looking for posts about a particular topic.  However, if you just want to sit around the Hog’s Snout and pass a costrel, we won’t need an Index.

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Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 8:18 am  Leave a Comment  

The Frankfurt Book Fair Part 2

The Frankfurt Book Fair     Part 1

The Business of Books

The Fair bells chime  from 11:30 to midday to “ring in” the fair.  Thus begins the period of special Fair liberties, relaxing the normal trade rules.  Strangers may sell goods in the city (though book dealers are not strictly regulated at any time, so great is the demand for their wares.)  The Fair Police, in full force, inspect weights and measures and apprehend thieves among the throngs of people moving like cold honey through the alleys and open squares between St. Leonard’s Church and the River Main. 

Books, books, books are everywhere, in fair booths or permanent shoppes along Book Lane.  Religious, scholastic, mystical.  Latin grammars, Saints’ legends, legal books.  Satirical stories, romances of chivalry, droll tales.  Household medicine, arithmetic, cookbooks and cook booklets.  Tracts on how to avoid alcohol, shun gambling, have a happy marriage.  It is said that if a particular title is popular, 1000 to 1500 copies may sell here in a few days.  In the streets around the booths and shoppes, hawkers peddle broadsides, calendars, cheap novels, and fine new songs.  It is a reader’s dream.

Here, too, one finds the men behind the books.  Writers, scholars, printers, publishers, correctors, proofreaders, typesetters, woodcut makers, binders, all gather to discuss next year’s projects.  It is not unusual for multiple printers to work on one book.  Publishers, who are not printers but supply the capital, are becoming more and more necessary.  The book dealers or stationarii also grow more important, as the high demand for books leaves printers less time to forsake their presses to attend markets. 

The Art of Books

Artists are here, including Dürer.  Though the world did not end in 1500, as was generally expected, Dürer’s Apocalypse, first published in 1498, remains popular.  It was the first book to be written, illustrated, and published by an artist.  This year, he has reprinted it in a combined edition with his Life of the Virgin and Large Passion. 

His single prints are flying off the shelves, proof that an artist can appeal to the common man.  For prints are usually uncommissioned work, not dictated by the desires of a patron.  Therefore, the artist has more freedom in his subject matter, but is dependent on the public taste.  The public loves Albrecht Dürer, and no wonder.  Not only is he a genius, but he cuts a dashing figure. 

How I long to meet him, but what can I say to such a great talent?  His godfather is Anton Koberger, who has printing presses all over Germany and offices abroad.  Koberger’s books are among the loveliest.  He printed the Nuremberg Chronicle, that famous history of the world.  It is available here in both Latin and German.  Dürer did some illustrations for it.  He holds forth at Koberger’s shoppe, but each time I wander casually by, the artist is speaking earnestly to a crowd gathered about him, giving his ideas on perspective, or he leans head to head with a blockmaker.  His designs, so full of many tiny lines, must surely tax their art to its ultimate expression. 

 The War of Books

I might have meandered back toward Dürer for another attempt to meet him, but who should I encounter but Pfefferkorn!  Still an ass, he and his wife are hawking his latest vile slanders against the Jews and against Reuchlin.  This libel is called Handspiegel or Hand Mirror

Reuchlin’s defense to this attack, Augenspiegel or Ocular Mirror, is also for sale here at the fair, though the scholar himself is not present.  Reuchlin only wishes to lead a quiet life of authentic scholarship, but Pfefferkorn gorges himself on attention.  I long to grab an armload of Augenspiegel myself and take to the streets, but Fabri cautions prudence, and he is right. 

We go about our business of buying books for Zasius and the University, having them crated, and arranging their passage by boat on the River Main.  Then, at the shoppe of Aldus Manutius I meet a Venetian who knows much about the Turks. 

The Nuremberg Chronicle


Capito wishes to acknowledge the following:  A History of the Frankfort Book Fair by Peter Weidhaas; The Frankfort Book Fair by Henri Estienne (1528-1598); The Life of Albrecht Dürer of Nurnberg with a translation of his letters and journal and an account of his works by Mrs. Charles Heaton.

The Frankfurt Book Fair     Part 1     Next→


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The Frankfurt Book Fair Part 1

Vergil printed by Aldus in 1501 (Rylands copy)

The Fates smile on Capito Zasius is sending Fabri to the Frankfurt Fair to make acquisitions for his library.  And Capito accompanies him!  How I have longed to see this most wondrous event, held each year from Assumption (August 15) to the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8). 

Here writers and scholars from many lands gather to meet one another and to arrange deals with printers and publishers.  The printer, Aldus Manutius from Venice, will present his wares.  That alone is worth the journey.

But in addition to books, there will be goods from every point of the compass.  Cloth from England and the Low Countries, spices from the East, wine from the South.  There will be fish, horses, hops, and glass.  Iron, silver, tin, and copper.  There will be linen, fine cloths, veilings, tapestry.  There will be gold and silver wares, oils and sausages.  Dentists, medicine purveyors, and a seller of spectacles. 

There will be Meistersingers and musicians, beggars, pickpockets, prostitutes, mountebanks, conjurers, and fortune tellers.  Once there was an ostrich on display and once, the animal known as an elephant.  To commemorate that event, a life-sized painting of the elephant remains on a house in the garden where it was displayed, and the house is known as Zum Elefanten.  Oh the glorious chaos!

But first, we must get there.  Tonight, we arrive at an inn.  It is no worse than most inns in a German land.  In fact, those that are better would be the exception.

Upon arrival, we initiate the ritual necessary to secure a bed.  We stand out in the yard for an interminable time and yell.  God forbid that the innkeeper should greet us, for we Germans consider it demeaning to trawl for paying guests.  After you announce yourself until your throat is cramping, some head thrusts forward from a tiny window and you inquire about lodging.  If they have none, they say so.  But if they do, they don’t answer your question, but simply withdraw, to meander out a little later, feigning indifference.

Fabri asks about a stable for the horses and is answered with a vague wave.  We attend to the animals ourselves, and with extra care, for they belong to Zasius.  There are no servants for this, as travelers report that there are in other lands.

We then enter the common room, which is indeed common, as all guests are here, in their boots, with their baggage and road dust.  There must be eighty or ninety people, for many are traveling to Frankfurt.  There are some who clearly can afford nicer accommodations, but on the road, one takes what is available. Several are decidedly ill, but these are housed with the rest of us.  Men, women, children, rich and poor, sick or well, all share the same fetid air, for Germans consider it the height of hospitality to warm their guests to a lather.  There is not a man present whose clothes are not dark with sweat, but when Fabri dares open the window a little, a terrible clamor of indignation is heard.

The wine is of the most inferior sort, and I ask if there is any better.  I am ignored.  Then Fabri asks and is given a murderous look and informed that “many nobles and lords stay in this inn and none complain about the wine.  If you don’t like it, seek another.”  Indeed, we Germans are rude and consider only our own nobility to require courtesy.

At last, the food.  A meat broth with bread, followed by a piece of meat so frequently warmed over that it is dried to leather.  There is also some salted fish, but I don’t get any. 

The inferior wine flows, and soon the overcrowded, exhausted travelers are arguing, yelling, pushing, scuffling.  Fabri and I stay close to the wall as it trembles from the brouhaha.  Sleeping is impossible, and all guests in a German inn are expected to retire at the same time, so we wait, miserable, until the others drink enough to fall onto the hard beds which are our accommodations.  

Bed bugs & head lice

“How often do you think they wash these linens?” I ask Fabri.

“Oh,” he says, “at least twice a year.”

Nevertheless, I close my eyes, content.  Tomorrow, the Fair! 

The dolphin & anchor mark of the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius

Details of a stay at a German inn as reported by Erasmus.

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The Weird Woman

We were drunken.  I admit it.  Not falling down or even singing.  But we were drunk enough to make an unwise choice.

We were celebrating, but sad.  Hubmaier was leaving, moving to the University of Ingolstadt to finish his degree under Eck.  And I had been named professor of theology extraordinarius, a position that entitled me to a half salary of 25 florins a year.

So we dined at the Quill Tavern, an establishment as superior to the Hog Snout as Pegasus is to a nag.  There we feasted on doves and bacon, white bread, and fruits.  And we had a bottle of dark red French wine.  We all partook except the young monk Michael, who scrupulously obeyed the university’s ban on alcohol.  The rest of us were not so scrupulous.

Then Fabri, who had won a case in court and been paid well by the benefactor, ordered some Feldliner (new) wine.  Then, the proprietor of the tavern, seeing Fabri’s good robe and our looseness with money, brought us a couple pints of mead.

We walked Michael to his house and left him there.  Then someone–I know not which one–said, “Let’s go to the tanners’ quarter.”

The tanners lived downstream from the main city in an inferior suburb call the Neuberg.  But it was not the tanners that we wished to visit, but a house of cards and other vice located between the almshouse and the lazaret, where those with contagious diseases were imprisoned.

No one answered, but as one man, we turned in that direction.  We took a back way through a copse, that we not be met on the main thoroughfare by university acquaintances.  In the midst of this wood, she suddenly blocked our way.  We had one lamp, which Zell raised.

She wore a black cloak and hood with a red sash.  Not a crone, she had smooth skin and eyes jet black.  Alluring she might have been, had she not raised her shoulders and curled her back with a hiss like a cat.

What are these?  Four pretty boys, slipping stealthily without noise?”

We stopped.  After a moment, Fabri said, “Begone!”

You begone, smithy’s son.  The Black Hoffman leaves for NONE!”  She cackled the last word and pointed at Fabri so suddenly that we all jumped back.

Without a word, each man wondered how she knew that Fabri’s father was a smith.

After a moment, Zell said, “We only wish to pass.”

From the future to the past, you shall see your fate at last.”

“Our fate?” Hubmaier said.  “You want to tell our fortunes then?”

“We have no wish to traffic in the black arts,” I said.

The Hoffman blesses with her sight, those who sneak about at night.”

“Let’s just go back,” Zell said.

She turned toward him and walked closely round him, sniffing the air. When she moved, the faint tinkling of bells or charms could be heard beneath her cloak.

YOU will cross the river first; then tow HIM for his great thirst.”  Whirling round, she pointed her finger at me.  I was to be the one with the great thirst.

Then she walked over to Hubmaier and, to his credit, he stood his ground when a lesser man might have cringed, for she stroked the budge trim of his robe and her voice became tender, mournful.  “Like a hare, they run you down. . .

And YOU!” she suddenly whirled and pointed at Fabri with a hiss, “You will be the hound!”

“Four pretty boys, two love,” she pointed at Zell and I.

“Two hate,” she pointed at Fabri and Hub.

“The Hoffman leaves you to your FATE.”  And with that, she simply stepped into the darkness and was gone.

We stood in silence for a long time.  My heart was racing until I could scarce draw breath and shivers ran like mice up my arms and neck.  Then someone–I know not which one–turned back toward town.

We have discussed this endlessly but find no answers to the riddles.  What will Zell cross before me and then aid me to cross?  Will Hubmaier be hounded by Fabri?  Why?

Fabri says she was a crazy gypsy, and that it means nothing.  Hubmaier fears he has been cursed by a witch.  And I know not what great thirst may await me.

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Published in: on July 1, 2011 at 7:21 am  Comments (2)  
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