Georg von Ehingen fights infidels in North Africa (1457)

Georg von Ehingen (1428-1508) came from a very wealthy German knightly family, and from his youth  served the Austrian Habsburgs in various capacities. He made a career as a traveler and diplomat, journeying first to Palestine in 1454, where he was held captive by Arabs for a time, and then through all the major courts of western Europe, including as ambassador at courts in the Iberian peninsula and Great Britain. During his time at the court of the Portuguese King Afonso V, known as “the African” for his conquests in North Africa, Ehingen took part in a number of battles that he described in the excerpts below. His account of his battle with a powerful “infidel” captain illustrates how the campaigns were perceived as a manichaean struggle between Christianity and Islam but also how Muslims were depicted as worthy enemies who behaved in a recognizably noble manner. 

Travel reports like these became more common as Christian Europeans expanded their contact with the wider world through trade and conquest, and their circulation in Central Europe provided a new source of information on non-European peoples, who appeared at once curiously exotic and threatening. This was especially true in the context of Christian victories against Muslims in the Iberian peninsula (Reconquista) and Ottoman Muslim victories over Christians in Anatolia and the Balkans.

Among certain information which came to our ears at court was the news that the King of Portugal was engaged in serious warfare by land and sea with the infidels of Africa, and especially with the heathen King of Fez, for the King of Portugal had taken from him some years before a great town across the sea in Africa called Ceuta, and we were advised to proceed with all speed to Portugal. We therefore begged leave of the King of Navarre, which was graciously granted, and departed in great honour with the assurance that we should be treated through the Kingdom with great respect.

About this time an urgent message arrived for the King from Africa, from the chief captain at Ceuta, reporting that the infidel King of Fez, assisted by other African kings, was mobilizing and preparing for war, and was intending to march agains Ceuta with a great army, to the end that he might conquer it and take it again into his hands. The King sent for us and told us the news. Whereupon we begged his Majesty to fit us out to fight against the infidel, which he did most graciously. He gave each of us a strong jennet, and to each of our attendants a suit of tilting-armour called brigandin, and orders were given for a great company from the court and elsewhere to set out for Ceuta. When we were once on the sea we were shipped quickly from Portugal to Africa, for at that place the sea is narrow. On the night when we arrived at Ceuta in the great town, the whole company assembled in a vast square with armour and weapons at hand, and that night many messages were received, reporting that the infidels were approaching in great numbers.

When the Portuguese King was informed of the serious nature of the attack, he proposed to come in person and to ride into Ceuta with all his forces, with intent to attack the infidels from the town and to fall upon their armies, for it was not possible to engage them in any other way. When the infidels learnt of this they stormed us for three days in succession, commencing at day-break and continuing into the night. Then, indeed, there was much labour on both sides, and although countless numbers of infidels were shot and thrown down about the town, in the ditches and by the walls, it happened so frequently that the Christians were repulsed by the attacks when the captain was not ready with his counter-attack, and we were therefore in difficulties. But when the infidels had assailed us for three days, as before mentioned, and had lost an extraordinary number of men, an evil stink arose from the dead bodies, and they ceased their attacks and withdrew.

And when evening came on, certain of our men drew near and reported that a mighty man among the infidels desired to engage in combat with a Christian in the plain between the two hills. Then I begged the captain that he would send me, for I was well arrayed and very apt in tilting-armour. I had also a strong jennet which the King had presented to me. The captain consented and caused the signal to be blown to cease fighting, and the hosts reassembled. Then I made a cross with my spear, and holding it in front of me I rode from our army towards the infidels across the valley, and when the infidels saw this they returned also to their armies. Our captain also sent out a trumpeter towards the infidels, who blew a blast and gave the signal. Then, very speedily, one of the infidels appeared, riding across the plain on a fine Barbary steed. I did not delay, but rode at once to meet him. The infidel threw his shield in front of him, and laying his spear on his arm ran swiftly at me, uttering a cry. I approached, having my spear at the thigh, but as I drew near I couched my spear and thrust at his shield, and although he struck at me with his spear in the flank and forearm, I was able to give him such a mighty thrust that horse and man fell to the ground. But his spear hung in my armour and hindered me, and I had great difficulty in loosing it and alighting from my horse. By this time he also was dismounted. I had my sword in my hand; he likewise seized his sword, and we advanced and gave each other a mighty blow. The infidel had excellent armour, and although I struck him by the shield he received no injury. Nor did his blows injure me. We then gripped each other and wrestled so long that we fell to the ground side by side. But the infidel was a man of amazing strength. He tore himself from my grasp, and we both raised our bodies until we were kneeling side by side. I then thrust him from me with my left hand in order to be able to strike at him with my sword, and this I was able to do, for with the thrust his body was so far removed that I was able to cut at his face, and although the blow was not wholly successful, I wounded him so that he swayed and was half-blinded. I then stuck him a direct blow in the face and hurled him to the ground, and falling upon him I thrust my sword through his throat, after which I rose to my feet, took his sword, and returned to my horse. The two beasts were standing side by side. They had been worked hard the whole day, and were quite quiet.

When the infidels saw that I had conquered they drew off their forces. But the Portuguese and Christians approached and cut off the infidel’s head, and took his spear, and placed the head upon it, and removed his armour. It was a costly suit, made in the heathen fashion, very strong and richly ornamented. They took also his shield and horse, and carried me back to the captain, who was beyond all measure delighted, and clasped me in his arms, and there was great joy throughout the whole army. But on that day great numbers of men and horses on both sides were wounded and shot down. The captain commanded that the infidel’s head, his horse, shield, and sword should be carried before me, and that the most famous lords and knights with their attendants should follow after. I had to ride with them preceded by a trumpeter, and so they carried me in triumph through the great town of Ceuta. The Christians were all greatly rejoiced, and more honour was shown me than was my due. Almighty God fought for me in that hour, for I was never in greater danger, since the infidel was a very mighty man, and I was conscious that his strength far exceeded my own. God, the Lord, be praised in eternity.

In den dingen hüorten mir an dem hoff, wie der küng von Portugall vil krieg uff land und wasser mit den haiden usz Affrica hette und sunderlich mit dem haidischen küng von Fessa [Fez, lat. Fessa]; dan der küng von Portugal hette im vor ettlichen jaren ein grosse statt, jennem mers [jenseits des Meeres] in Affrica gelegen, abgewunnen, mit namen Septta. Also wurden mir zuo rat, uns dester fuurderlicher in Portigal zuo thon [uns desto eilliger nach P. zu begeben]; batten den küng ump herlopnusz, dasz uns dann gnedig geben, und wurden ehrlich abgefercket, mit gehäsz [mit dem Geheiss], dasz in seinem küngrych uns alle eer geschehen sollt.

In den zyten kam der küng ylende bottschafft usz Affrica, von dem grannakapytany [Grandcapitain] zu Septt [Septa] ziehen wellte, und understönd die zuo herobern und wider zuo sinen handen zuo bringen. Also wurden mir vir den küng beschickt, liesz uns sagen söllich bottschafft. Daruff begerten mir, das uns sein künglych würde wellte wider die haiden abfertigen, das er och gantz gnediglich dette. Der küng gabe och unser jedem ain starken Jennetta, und vir unsere knecht jedem ain ringharnisch, brigenndin genant. Also ward ain guot folk vom hoff und sunst verordnet, hin zuo ziehen. Als mir nun guot folk vom hoff und sunst verordnet, hin zuo ziehen. Als mir nun uff das meer kamen, schifften mir gar bald hiniber usz Portengall in Affrica…

Als nun der küng von Portengall die schwere belegerung vernam, war(t) er selbs mit aller macht uff gen Septt hinein zuo ziehen, der mainung, usz der statt hinausz den haiden in irre schanzen und her zuo fallen; dan inen sunst den stryt zuo geben [denn sich mit ihnen auf eine andere Weise in den Kampf einzulassen], war im zuo thond nit wol müglich. Do die häden dasz vernomen, sturmpten sie uns dry tag nach ain ander, und all tag morgens frie angefangen und gesturmpt bisz in die nacht. Da war warlich uff bäd syten grosz arbät; und wie wol iber die massen vil häden herschossen und herworffen, umb die statt in dem graben und an den muren lagen, begab esz sich dannoch zuo vil maln, dasz die kristen von irn werrinen abgetriben wurden, wa der kapetany mit dem folk zuo rosz und fuosz, wie vor gesagt, nit zuo gesprengt oder getretten, dass unserhalb nit wol ergangen were. Als nun die häden die dry tag, wie gehört, nach ain ander so ernstlich gestürmt und treffentlich vil lüt verloren, dasz dann ain grüsselicher geschmak [Geruch] von den dotten war, herhuoben sich die häden und zugen hinweg.

Also machten mir uns uff mit 400 pferden und 1000 zuo fuosz, der besten so mir gehaben mochten, und zugen inen nach in unsern vortäl. Also zuo vil maln wanten sich ettlich haiden, und scharmitzten mit uns so lang, bisz mir ain berg innamen. Da hetten die haiden ain andern berg in, und war gar ain schön eben tal darzwischen. Als esz nun wol uff den abend ward, kamend ettlich der unsern und sagten, esz wer ain mechtiger haid, der begerte ains kristen ritters, der sich mit im schlahen söllte, glychen platz [in der Mitte] zwischen bäden huffen. Also bat ich den kapitany, dasz er mir söllichesz zuo thon vergünden wöllt, dan ich war gar wol gerüst, und gantz geregnig [regsam, gewandt] in ringharnisch; so hette ich och ain starken werlichen jennetten, der mir vom küng geschenkt ward. Dasz ward mir vom kapetany vergüntt. Also liesz unser kapetany den scharmitzern abblassen; die ruckten all zuo dem huffen. Da macht ich ain krütz mit meinem spiesz vir mich, und ruckt allgemach von unserm huffen gegen dem hälden zuo tal. Da die haiden das hersahen, rucktend sie och zuo irem huffen. Also schickt unser kapitany ain trump(e)ter gegen der haiden huffen; der bliesz und gab zaichen. Also gar geschwind ruckt ain häden, uff ainem schönen barbarieschen pferd [Berberpferd] daher gen tal, der ebne zuo. Da saumpt ich mich nit lang, und ruckt den nechsten gegen im. Der häd warff ein schilt für sich, und legt ein spiesz uff sin arm, und rant gar ernstlich gegen mir här, und schrai mich an. Also liesz (ich) och gegen im her gon; hett min spiesz uff meim schenkel; und als ich gar nach zuo im kam, warff ich den spiesz in dasz gerüst, und rant im uff sin schilt; und wie wol er mich mit sim spiesz in ain flankart oder bantzerermel rantt, gewan ich im doch von mim treffen ain sollichen schwank ab, dasz rosz und man zur erden fielen. Aber sin spiesz hieng mir in dem ringharnisch und irt [hinderte] mich, das ich nit so bald darvon ledigen [loskommen], och von meinem pferd kumen möcht. Er war uff von sinen pferd; ich hett min schwert in minder hand, derglych hett er sin schwert och gefast, und tratten gegen einander, und gab jeder dem andern ain frefentlichen stich. Der häd hett ain guote brigenden [Ringharnisch, sich oben Seite]; wie wol ich im nebend den schilt stach, bracht im kain schaden. Sin stich mocht mir och nit geschaden. Mir fasten ainander in die arm, und arbettend [rangen] so lang, dasz mir bäd zur erden fielen, neben ain ander. Aber der häd war mechtiger stark; er risz sich von mir, und kamen also bäd mit den lyben uffrecht, und doch kniend neben ainander; stiesz ich in mit mi(n)er linken hand von mir, das ich mit meim schwert ain stich uff in herholen [ausholen] möcht, als och geschah. Dan im stosz mit der linken hand kam er mit dem lyb so wyt von mir, dasz ich im ain stich in sin angesicht gab; und wie wol ich den stich nit gar volkumenlich gehaben möcht, verwunten [verwundete (ich) ihn], dasz er hinder sich schwangtt und ettwasz geblentt ward. Also gab ich im erst ain rechten stich in sin angesicht, und stach in uff die erden nider, und trang also uff in, und stach im den hals ab. Also stand ich uff, nam sin schwert, und trat zuo meinem pferdt. So stonden bäde pfärd by ainander; sie waren den gantzen tag fast gearbät worden, und ware(n) gar zem. Do die häden sachen, dasz ich gesigtt, rugkten sie mit irrem huffen hinweg. Aber die Portigalläsz und kristen ruckten ettlich herzuo, und huwen dem haiden sin haupt ab, namen sin spiesz und stackten (esz) daruff, zugen im sin harnisch ab.

English Source: Malcolm Letts, ed., The Diary of Jörg von Ehingen (Oxford: Oxford University, Press, 1929).
German Source
: Georg von Ehingen, Des schwaebischen Ritters Georg von Ehingen. Reisen nach der Ritterschaft, vol. I, edited by F. Pfeiffer (Stuttgart: Literarisches Verein, 1842), 18, 20, 22-24.