Between Menace and Utility: Handguns in Early Sixteenth-Century Bohemia
By Christopher Nicholson
Skepsi, Vol.3:1 (2010)
Abstract: In 1500, the first Bohemian Land Ordinance was completed; within it was an article that forbade anyone from hunting with a firearm. However, only twenty-four years after the 1500 constitution, firearms had apparently been involved in so much social violence that a specific firearms Ordinance was promulgated in 1524. Ultimately, the handgun had shifted from a rural nuisance to a violent, social problem.
After briefly establishing how the legal mechanisms within the Ordinance functioned, the article proceeds to investigate how firearms were viewed in early sixteenth century Bohemia. Using the Ordinance itself and other judicial and extrajudicial sources, the article examines the vocabulary used to describe firearms and the deviant actions for which they were used. It not only investigates where it was unacceptable to use firearms but also where the law permitted their use, why these instances were exceptional, and if the same qualities that saw firearms labelled negatively also made them suitable for particular controlled uses. Here one must also consider who was eligible to use a firearm in those extraordinary circumstances and how any breach of this trust was punished. Furthermore, to save the article from becoming too parochial, it will make frequent reference to contemporaneous developments regarding firearms elsewhere in Europe, to ascertain whether or not Bohemia was part of a wider trend concerning how firearms were perceived. Ultimately, therefore, the social perception of the firearm, of a new menace and instrument, will be placed firmly within both the Bohemian and European contexts.
The spread and use of firearms was a common problem in early modern Europe, and the Kingdom of Bohemia was no exception. In 1500 the Bohemian Diet promulgated a Land Ordinance (or code) containing an Article that forbade hunting with a handgun (rucnice). This article was based upon a resolution of the Diet held at Posonium (present-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in 1499. The Diet would also rule against handguns in 1510. Yet another Diet, in 1514, looked into the problem of handguns when it resolved that in towns no one was to carry weapons; members of the higher and lower nobility would no longer carry a koncir (foil), kul (stake), sekyra (axe) or halapartna (halberd), while townsfolk were obliged to leave their handguns at home and not to fire them.
It seems that none of these measures had the desired effect, and in 1524 a new ordinance was promulgated which stretches to twenty-two Articles in the new modern edition. It was produced at the Lent Diet of 22nd February 1523 by forty-two people: fourteen from each of the Three Estates, that is, the Lords (upper nobility), Knights (lower nobility) and Burghers. It was, therefore, the most comprehensive effort yet to control the use of handguns in Bohemia. This article will analyse how handguns, their use and their users were perceived in Bohemia, and position the Bohemian response in the context of European anti-gun provisions in the sixteenth century.