Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Tragic Tale Of Puncker—A Masterful Archer From 15th-Century Germany

In the 15th century, there supposedly lived a man named Puncker (or Punker), who was renowned as a showman and a warrior in the Holy Roman Empire, an empire that consisted of Germany, Austria and other surrounding Central and Eastern European lands. The life of this legendary or semi-legendary person, interestingly enough, was recorded in the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, a text on witchcraft and demonology that was published around 1486 or 1487.

According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker lived in Rohrbach and served under a certain noble named Eberhard Longbeard. The text did not specify anything further on this lord, but the authors could be referring to Duke Eberhard I of Württemberg (c. 1445-1496), who was also known as Bearded Eberhard. Other tales and bits of folklore claim that Puncker also interacted with the Rhineland Palatinate ruler, Louis III (r. 1410-1436). In both versions, the story has the same basic core elements, despite some differences in chronology and reasoning as to why parts of the story came about.

In any case, Puncker was likely one of the greatest bowmen to have ever lived. In his most famous archery exhibition, spectators watched with nervously beating hearts as Puncker aimed his arrow at a small coin precariously placed on a hat worn by the archer’s own son. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker flawlessly hit the coin with his arrow, and did so without harming the boy or even scratching the hat.

Puncker, however, was not just a showman who liked to show off his archery skill on inanimate objects. He was also a warrior whose talents were greatly utilized by the aforementioned Eberhard. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker played a major role in Eberhard’s siege of a certain Lendenbrunnen Castle. Putting to good use his uncanny accuracy, Puncker quickly became the scourge of the castle’s defenders by sniping at least three enemies every day. The bow seemed to be an extension of Puncker’s eyes—if he could see a defender, he could hit the defender. At the end of the siege, when Eberhard finally seized the fortress, Puncker was rewarded with a ring from the castle’s gate as a trophy of war. The famed archer proudly hung the ring from the door of his home in Rohrbach.

By this point in the story, many readers may be wondering why the feats of Puncker were recorded in the Malleus Maleficarum, which is a text on witchcraft, and not in a military history. Well, the Malleus Maleficarum was interested in the marksman’s story because 15th-century gossips believed that Puncker’s archery prowess was not natural. In fact, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum believed that Puncker was a bizarre kind of wizard that specialized in archery magic. According to them, Puncker’s miraculous accuracy was nothing more than a diabolical spell. They wrote that Puncker had prepared before every performance and battle by disrespectfully shooting arrows into a crucifix to infuse them with demonic power. According to the inquisitors’ theory, whenever these same diabolical arrows were shot for a second time from Puncker’s bow, demons would swoop in and ensure that the projectiles hit their targets. That is why, they explained, he would only hit three targets per day during the siege—he could supposedly only prepare three bewitched arrows on a daily basis.

Eventually, as Puncker’s renown grew, such accusations of magic began to gain momentum. In non-Malleus Maleficarum accounts of the story, the previously mentioned archery exhibition where Puncker shot a coin off the top of his son’s head was actually an attempt for the archer to clear his name of witchcraft allegations. In that version of the tale, Puncker claimed that if he was a wizard, God would punish him for his use of magic by making the arrow fall off course and hit the boy.

For whatever reasons, witchcraft or otherwise, Puncker eventually fell afoul of his neighbors and eventually suffered a painful end. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker was hunted down by a mob of peasants and beaten to death with shovels.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of archery practice by Geoffrey Luttrell, c. 1325, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971). 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Leucothea—A Mortal Greek Woman Of Myth Said To Have Become A Goddess

Among the exclusive club of Greek deities that could claim to have originally been mortal humans was an interesting immortal named Leucothea the White Goddess. She began her days as a proud Greek princess in an important Boeotian city, but, after a life of tragedy and madness, she became a protective goddess of the sea.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Downfall of Callisthenes, The Official Royal Historian Of Alexander The Great

Alexander the Great had such confidence in himself and his army’s ability that he must have believed wondrous deeds would be an inevitable part of his future. So, before invading the Persian Empire in 334 BCE, Alexander the Great hired an official historian to document his military campaigns. The man tasked with this job was Callisthenes of Olynthus. Like Alexander, Callisthenes was a student of Aristotle. In fact, he and Aristotle had co-written a piece on the Pythian Games. Yet, Callisthenes was best known for his ten-volume history of Greece, covering events that occurred around the years 386-355 BCE. As a result, it is not surprising that Callisthenes came highly recommended when Alexander the Great put out a request for a royal historian to attend him on his journeys. The fact that Callisthenes was Aristotle’s nephew also undoubtedly helped in the selection process.

While accompanying the conquering king, Callisthenes was not just any historian—he was also Alexander’s propagandist. His job was not simply to document Alexander’s campaigns, but to write it in the way that best promoted the king’s public image. Callisthenes understood this second role of his and did indeed fill his history of Alexander with propaganda. From fragments of the history that survive, as well as references and critiques aimed at it from other ancient authors, we know that Callisthenes’ account was filled with stories of divine interventions on the Macedonian king’s behalf, and he was also one of the first to write down rumors alleging that Alexander may have been fathered by a god.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Lu Wan—A Childhood Friend Of Emperor Gaozu Who Abandoned The Han Dynasty And Became A Nomadic Ruler

Lu Wan hailed from the village of Feng, in the region of Peixian (modern Jiangsu province), near the eastern end of central China. Lu Wan’s father was a close friend of the so-called Venerable Sire—the name given to the father of Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty. The friendship between the two fathers passed on to their sons, with Gaozu and Lu Wan becoming inseparable friends. Legend even claimed that the two boys were born on the same day, something that the villagers thought was significant.

Although Gaozu (known then as Liu Bang) was destined to become an emperor and Lu Wan a nobleman, the two began their lives as peasants. The friends began their upward mobility during the reign of the Qin Dynasty (222-206 BCE). The pair studied together and Gaozu succeeded in qualifying for a position as a village official. Lu Wan presumably did not fair as well as his friend in the examination, for he did not seem to receive a local government post and he instead followed Gaozu wherever the future emperor went. Gaozu eventually moved to Pei, where he married the daughter of Master Lü, a friend of the region’s magistrate. It was there that Gaozu and Lu Wan would begin their great rise to power.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Other Side Of The Roman Scholar, Suetonius

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, better known simply as Suetonius, was born around the year 70 to a family of the equestrian order—a Roman equivalent of knighthood. The exact location of Suetonius’ birth is uncertain, but many point to the ancient city of Hippo Regius, in Algeria, where a memorial inscription in his honor was excavated in what had been once the city square. Although his family was not among the highest elite of Rome, they still had considerable influence. Suetonius claimed that his grandfather had contacts in the inner circle of Caligula (r. 37-41). His father, too, was a prominent figure, serving as a military tribune during the short reign of Emperor Otho (r. 69). Suetonius’ popularity and fame, however, would rise far higher than that of his forefathers, and he would accomplish that feat not with military victories or political maneuverings, but with education and writing.