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  • Headless Races March 27, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    After all those head lice (see previous posts) Beachcombing gets back to some decapitation stories, not least because it would be the most efficient way to solve his family’s present problems. In any case, before anyone makes contact with the social workers…

    In response to an earlier beheading post RR wrote in with the following appealing story. ‘I recall reading about a man in Britain or France who was beheaded, but made a request of the executioner to pardon his half-dozen comrades if he could run past them as they stood in a row.  After losing his head.  I recall he did this.’ With the help of fellow bizarrists – Jason from Executed Today and Mathias B. – Beachcombing has now tracked the tale down to a certain Klaus Stortebeker (obit c. 1400).

    Klaus was the leader of a bunch of thugs known as the Victual Brothers. The Victual Brothers were essentially a group of mercenary seamen who turned – as mercenaries invariably do – against their own masters and began causing havoc in the Baltic and North Sea in the late fourteenth century.

    However, by that strange perversion of human nature that makes heroes out of villains, folk songs and legends gathered around KS and his men: think of modern t-shirts of the Manson ‘family’…

    Did the Victual Brothers deserve their Robin Hood reputation? Beachcombing doubts it. But their celebrity might explain how such an unlikely and biologically impossible legend attached itself to Klaus’ head.  He was the focus of popular story.

    There are different versions of the story and it would, naturally, be interesting to track down the earliest: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com However, the gist is precisely as RR had it. Klaus makes a deal with the mayor that as many men as he can run past once beheaded will be pardoned. He manages some eleven of the seventy plus with whom he was captured c. 1400. But – and RR didn’t include this – the eleven are killed anyway.

    The moral?

    You can’t trust the ruling classes, whereas homicidal mariners are just dandy.

    Beachcombing doesn’t believe this story for a second, but it is attractive enough that he has been wondering if it didn’t predate Klaus. Well, this week another correspondent, Luis – to whom many thanks! – wrote in with this tale:

    ‘I contact you because last weekend I saw a documentary about Reichenstein’s castle whose warden was telling the story of Dietrich von Hohenfels [obit 1282], a knight who was beheaded in gruesome conditions. He was the owner of the castle and part of group called the robber knights. They taxed all the boats passing along the Rhine river and eventually turned rogue… and got captured after a long siege by Rudolf von Habsburg. Dietrich begged the king Rudolf to spare his sons. The king agreed but said ‘Look you murderer, here are all your sons. In a moment your head will roll into the sand, but should you manage to walk past your brood I will keep everyone of them alive whom you manage to pass’. Which Dietrich managed to do, once he had his head off he passed along his 9 sons who were standing in a row before falling to the ground.’

    Luis kindly sent links to Dietrich’s headless billy-goating.

    The story again is pleasing. Perhaps more pleasing still is the way that it attaches in both cases to Germanic outlaw figures connected with boats. Was there simply a mix up in an eighteenth-century tourist guide, which was then passed down to us? Or are we dealing with an ancient metropolitan legend that was told in previous ages about, say, Loki? Attentive readers will have noticed that RR got the country wrong in his original email ‘Britain or France’: or are there other cross channel or Latin versions? Beachcombing is going to put a small wager that this tale will have been told across Europe about a half dozen dodgy heroes ‘of the people’. He’ll offer an almost valueless first edition of Somerset Maugham if anyone feels like calling him on it.

    For any poor innocent being sucked in by Google, Beachcombing feels it his duty to point them in the way of a previous post on Viking speculations about headless trunks: Mathias was ‘responsible’ for that too.

    To his more regular readers Beachcombing must signal the fact that Klaus’ skull has recently been stolen from its home in Hamburg History Museum for which thanks, yet again, to Mathias.

    It wasn’t Beachcombing, though if anyone is selling…