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.
Source: Malcolm Letts, ed., The Diary of Jörg von Ehingen (Oxford: Oxford University, Press, 1929).
Georg von Ehingen fights infidels in North Africa (1457) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.