Protected by walls

More about the founding of the towns



Foundations of towns - under the protection of walls

Protected by walls

In the thirteenth century several larger settlements in Carinthia were elevated to the status of towns. With the increasing sense of identity and civic pride that this engendered, their citizens started organizing themselves in new ways: trade associations and guilds regulated the economic and social life of artisans and tradespeople. Unfree peasants frequently came to the towns from the surrounding countryside – whoever lived behind its walls for ‘a year and a day’ without being reclaimed by their overlord was regarded as free. As ‘spear-burghers’, they defended the town against external enemies with simple weapons. Within the town precincts order was kept by the town judiciary, symbolized by the staff and sword of the town magistrate.

St Vitus

This late Gothic altarpiece with eight episodes from the life of St Vitus originally hung in the parish church of St Vitus in Sankt Veit an der Glan. It is remarkable both for its choice of motifs – above all the realistic depictions of the town in the background – and its superb artistic quality. Legend has it that during the course of the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, Vitus survived various gruesome execution methods, eventually dying peacefully in southern Italian Lucania and being taken up to heaven by angels. The St Vitus altarpiece was probably donated by the wealthy Kaltenhauser family. Originally from Nuremberg, they had close connections with the Habsburg ruler Frederick III.

The Virgin Mary in an enclosed garden

In the late Gothic art of the south-eastern Alpine region, depictions of the mystic hunt of the unicorn were popular and widespread, as demonstrated by this early example from the pilgrimage church of Maria Saal. The ‘hortus conclusus’ or enclosed garden is the place where the Virgin Mary receives the joyful news of the annunciation. A wealth of Christian symbols from the Old and New Testament stand for Mary’s virginity and the redemption of the world through the birth of Christ. On the left in the foreground is the Archangel Gabriel accompanied by four hunting hounds symbolizing the main divine virtues, while the kneeling figure on the right depicts the biblical military leader Gideon. 

Charitable patron saint

By the time Elizabeth of Thuringia died in 1231 at the age of only twenty-four, her selfless dedication to the poor and infirm had already made her widely known and loved. Her canonization in 1235 led to the veneration of her relics and the establishment of numerous new shrines. One of these was in St Veit, then the provincial capital, where a house for the poor and those afflicted with leprosy was built together with an affiliated chapel. The almost life-size statue of Elizabeth installed there was executed by an unknown artist from the circle of the Earlier St Veit Carving Workshop (c. 1515) and shows the youthful saint with a water pitcher in the form of a pewter ewer and a loaf of bread as symbols of her social ministration and charity. 

By all that is right and fair

The ceremonial rod of the town magistrate was the symbol of the judicial power vested in the magistrate who presided over court sessions. The magistrate’s sword also represented the town’s judicial sovereignty.

The executioner’s sword was used for mutilations or decapitations, while for particularly gruesome executions the hangman employed the dreaded wheel of execution, with which the limbs of the condemned were shattered. Minor misdemeanours were punished with branding, ‘masks of ignominy’ and special portable pillories (‘double fiddle’).

A gift from a bishop

The bishop of Gurk, Urban Sagstetter, donated this magistrate’s rod to the Carinthian town of Strassburg in the sixteenth century. Each of the eight faces of the octagonal haft bears a line of an inscription recording the gift and exhorting the magistrates to judge everyone justly, whether the accused is a fellow townsman or a stranger.

The rod terminates in a silvered brass sheath bearing the figure of a bishop. Engraved on the knop are the arms of Bishop Urban Sagstetter.


Branding as a punishment was common during antiquity and continued in the Middle Ages. Criminals were branded with the mark of the town and an image of their wrongdoing. Felons were branded with a symbol of the wheel or gallows. Both the branding irons on display date from the early seventeenth century and come from the registrar’s office of the Imperial-Royal Inner Austrian Appellate Court in Klagenfurt. 

By the wheel

Breaking by the wheel is a method of execution used in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The condemned person was tied to the ground before the executioner let the wheel fly with full force onto his body. The process usually began with the breaking of the legs and continued upwards to the arms. Sometimes the executioner was permitted to kill the condemned during the act of breaking his bones. If this reprieve was not granted, the body was threaded – dead or alive – onto the spokes of the wheel and put on public display. 

Klagenfurt sword of justice

Swords are symbols of power, ruling over life and death. They are also, however, symbols of high jurisdiction. The sword of justice is a purely ceremonial weapon, not to be confused with the sword used by the executioner. The sword of justice on display here dates from 1587. Etched on its blade are images of Christ on the Cross with a wheel, and the Virgin and Child with a gibbet.

Masks of ignominy

Punishment by wearing a ‘mask of ignominy’ was a mark of dishonour, exposing the wearer to public mockery and ridicule. The type of mask worn indicated the misdemeanour one had been accused of: women who made a habit of bad-mouthing others were fitted with scold’s bridles, masks with large mouths or protruding tongues. Someone who pried into other peoples’ affairs was given a mask with outsize ears, and someone convicted of indecency wore a mask shaped like a pig’s head. They were sometimes fitted with small bells to alert people’s attention when the wearer walked the streets.

Humiliating punishment

A neck fiddle is a device made of wood or metal that was a very popular method of punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern period, particularly in the German-speaking lands.

For minor infringements of the law such as theft or brawling, the delinquents were locked into a double neck fiddle. They were thus not only chained to each other but almost unable to move. As with all such humiliating punishments, they were led about town or taken to the pillory and exposed to the mockery of others

Armed philistines?

In medieval times, the term ‘Spiessbürger’ (literally meaning a ‘spear-burgher’ but in modern German denoting a petit bourgeois philistine) still had a very positive connotation: less wealthy burghers proudly provided protective and defensive services with simple weapons, for example, halberds or lances, and in doing so underlined their sense of belonging to the civic community. With the advent of firearms their lances and halberds became useless. All those who nonetheless refused to let go of them were mocked as ‘Spiessbürger’, a term which from the seventeenth century onwards has been used derogatively about anyone who closes their mind to progress.

Guild life

In the eleventh century the artisans in the towns organized themselves in guilds with their own customs, traditions and symbols. A guild sign expressed the collective perception of the trade in question and incidentally provided an important aid to getting one’s bearings in a medieval town. The guild chest was used for the safe-keeping of important documents and also played a major role in ceremonies. The guild ewer or tankard represented the pride of the craftsmen in their work and was likewise used in a ceremonial function when new master craftsmen were inducted into the guild.

One particularly influential guild in Carinthia was that of the shoemakers, who according to a contemporary source were the most numerous of all craftsmen in the late Middle Ages.

Tankard of the Klagenfurt Guild of Blacksmiths and Wainwrights

Dating from 1606, the tankard of the Klagenfurt guild of Blacksmiths and Wainwrights displayed here is undecorated and has a slightly tapering form. It is made of pewter and stands on spherical feet. On the lid is a griffin holding a shield bearing the tools of the trade and 

The cities of Cartinhia

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