Thursday, March 1, 2012

People: 16 Cups in One Gulp and A Headless Stroll

When we think of Medieval Europe we are more likely to envision castles and knights, fair damsels with impossibly tall headdresses and maybe a burning witch or two. What we are not likely to have in the forefront of our thoughts are pirates. Perhaps that should change, as the story of today’s curiously mythologized sailor points up.

Klaus Stortebeker or, alternately, Stertebeker, is thought to have been born in Wismar, Germany sometime in the 1360s. He grew up in a frenetic time for merchants and seaman alike, an era that saw the first bloody birth pains of capitalism in the western world. After over 300 years of unending Viking raids, Europe had finally buttressed itself against the invaders of the north by formulating the feudal system. This, for many people, seemed like trading one master for another and in fact it was. Through uprisings of serfs and the expansion of a merchant class, some cities in Europe began to shake off the feudal yoke and supplant it with a new system: free trade.

Of course, as any of the Brethren will tell, once there are merchant vessels on the high seas there are pirates to take them. One of the earliest of these Medieval freebooters, Eustace the Monk, has been discussed here before.

With all this potential wealth in jeopardy, the merchants began to form a safety net. Known initially as Leagues, these groups of coastal cities with ports banned together so that they could afford protection, usually in the form of arms but sometimes including men-of-war as escorts, for their vessels and merchandise. The first successful group was known as the Hanseatic League. Begun to protect commerce between the cities of Hamburg and Lubeck on the Baltic in 1241, the League included 19 other “free” cities by the turn of the 14th century. You can find a map of the area protected by the League, known in its time simply as “The Hanse”, here.

Because of the instability caused by constant warfare in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, piratical activity was not only hard to stop but frequently encouraged. Though commissions and letters of marque proper were not yet in use, certain vessels were granted “rights of reprisal” against the ships of enemy countries. Our man Stortebeker, who probably began his career at sea aboard merchant cogs, was given such an order of reprisal by the city of Stockholm some time in 1392.

Stockholm was under siege by Denmark’s Queen Margaret, who seems to have been both power-hungry and clever. To her doubtless frustration, Stortebeker and his boys managed to keep Stockholm so well fed, at least in part by attacking Margaret’s own ships, that she eventually had to give up the siege. Stortebeker’s success would earn him and his men the moniker of Vitalienbruder: the Victual Brothers.

Stortebeker is himself more legend than man. Even his name comes into question when closely examined. It seems to mean “empty in one gulp” or “a cup in one swallow”. Allegedly this comes from the pirate’s ability to gulp down sixteen cups of beer from one stein. Whether or not his first name was really Klaus or Niklaus is open to debate as well. He is now held in great esteem as a folk hero by certain factions, particularly in Germany where he is considered a “freedom fighter” and compared to Robin Hood or – perhaps unfortunately – Che Guevara. All the requisite trappings are along for the ride: Stortebeker was incredibly strong, an honest friend, married to a beautiful woman of higher station and sailed from an impenetrable stronghold, possibly located in Frisia.

In fact, it seems that Stortebeker and his cronies, sometimes given names like Hennig Weichmann, Magister Weigbold and Godeke or Godekins (the last is mentioned by Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, though Stortebeker himself is not), decided to turn pirate after their success in Stockholm. By 1398 these men were raiding the ships of the wealthy and powerful Hanse. Probably because of Stortebeker’s success, his pirating could not be tolerated.

War ships were sent out from Hamburg and they managed – how has not come down to us other than a legend that says Stortebeker was betrayed by a traitor aboard his ship – to capture over 50 of the pirates including their hard-drinking leader. The actual number of men arrested is still debated, but legend says 73. These men were taken to Hamburg and sentenced to death by beheading.

Historians agree that the pirates now known as the Likedeelers because they shared their prizes equally were beheaded in October of 1401 in Hamburg. Beyond that, the details are again most certainly legendary. The story goes that Stortebeker made a pact with the headsman; asking to be beheaded standing on his feet, he made the executioner promise to spare as many of his men as his headless corpse could walk past.

The man agreed and proceeded to disengage Stortebeker’s head from his neck. The body then lurched forward, passing 11 men before the executioner finally tripped it up himself. In a second act of treachery, the headsman turned and lopped off the heads of all of Stortebeker’s men, those 11 certainly astonished sailors included. The legend adds a bit of irony, though; when asked by the Hamburg senate if he was not tired after so much exertion, the executioner replied emphatically no. He felt quite refreshed, and could cut off the heads of all the senate if asked. For this response, the executioner lost his own head, some stories say at the hands of the youngest member of the senate.

A skull, which eventually became associated with Stortebeker, was found in Hamburg in 1878 and placed in a local museum. There it remained, with a huge spike through it, until it was stolen in 2010, possibly by a gang of bikers. This defilement has led to even more ghastly tales of the pirate’s headless corpse being spotted near his execution site, probably in search of his head.

So much of Stortebeker’s story is shrouded in tall tale and legend that picking out the bits that might be true are quite literally impossible. All we can say for sure is that there was once a group of seamen known as the Victual Brothers, who became equal sharing pirates in the cold North sea and paid for their success with their heads.

Header: Reconstruction based on the skull found in 1878, allegedly belonging to Stortebeker, via Wikipedia


Charles L. Wallace said...

Ah, good reading.... thank you, Pauline. I had not heard of this guy before (knew of the Hanseatic League, but not in much detail).
Plus, ghosts and bikers! What fun! :-)

Pauline said...

Strange stories about this guy, and they're all over the place, too. There is a memorial statue to him in Hamburg so you have to figure at least the bare bones of the legend are true. After that, well, it's like an old fashioned Hammer House of Horror film. In a good way.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That was a good one. The Victual Brothers sounds like a rap group... or maybe a group of chefs... or rapping chefs? Anyway, it's all good.

Pauline said...

I like this story, and thought for a bit about saving it for Horror on the High Seas week. But I just couldn't wait.

So, now I want to see "The Victual Brothers" on Chopped.