We’ve explored a few old sources here, under our The Past is Another Country category, but we don’t think we’ve gone this far back before. Through the good graces of the University of Pennsylvania — egads! We’re saying good things about one of the gormless-DOD-suit-producing Ivies — we have the Feüer Büech, an Old or Middle German version of the 1970s hippie mischief manual, the Anarchist’s Cookbook.
It’s one of the treasures of the Penn library, and is considered “Manuscript Codex 109.” They have a photographic, full-color facsimile of every page online. The default of the image is 1/8 normal size, but you can blow them up to full size if you like.
The library site also provides vital meta-information about the book. It is a handwritten, German cursive script document with about 22 lines per text page. There are 235 pages and 34 illustrations, two of which seem to have been cut out of another book and pasted in (remember, in all history before Gutenberg, books were handcrafted, expensive, and rare treasures. It’s surprising there isn’t more such recycling in evidence). The Feuer Buech may be related in some way to another Fireworks Book that’s held by the State Library in Berlin, and that one may date to 1420.
(Given the impermanence of things made by the hand of man, and what’s happened to Berlin over the past century, it’s astounding that this older book has survived).
Lavishly illuminated with what appear to be watercolors, it’s what a book was when they were ultra-valuable, one-off, hand-copied items. And this one is right up our alley: it’s the medieval equivalent of a demo and pyro manual!
The accessibility of the material is somewhat limited, unfortunately: it’s written in a medieval version of fraktur script, and in an archaic version of German. So at first it’s hard to figure out what letters spell out the words, and then once you think you have succeeded in that, you may have a word that is not a cognate of its modern German analogue. Decoding such a text is rather a tough bit of work. Fortunately, there are illiustrations.
Occasionally, a heading is clear enough. For example, the one on Page 16 r. promises that the text below will explain “Das Ziel der büch,” the objective of the book, but we’re not at all sure we’re breaking out the sub-head clearly: “To explain, how a halberdier develops a knowledge of fire and learns how to test that fire out.” (Probably every single detail of that is wrong).
Unfortunately, it does not seem that there’s an online transcription of this work easily discoverable. Since we can hardly be the first ones interested in this ancient codex, and odds are some of our predecessors have a better knowledge of old German script and language than ours (which is functionally nil), then there has to be scholarship on this document out there in the medievalist community. Yes?
One of the many interesting illustrations is this fire arrow, on a page hand-numbered 83. A conical base of the arrow serves in place of fins, to move the center of pressure aft and provide stability. The arrow appears to have been made of all metal (which makes a certain amount of sense, as it’s supposed to be a host and delivery means for flaming stuff), and we’ll also say it does not appear to be the sort of arrow one would nock and fire from a longbow.
The incendiary material is tightly bound high and low to the arrow, and fluffs out in the middle. Our best guess is that this was meant to be fired from some kind of arquebus, in the sense of that word indicating a crew-served, large crossbow. As most of these weapons were constructed from wood and rope or rawhide, firing flaming stuff from them must have been interesting.
The last illustration is a man loading a cannon: a hint of things to come. It’s hard to deduce too much from the illutration, which falls far below the aesthetic and proportional standards of classical antiquity’s art, but it’s possible that it represents a brass or bronze barrel with iron bands, mounted on a surprisingly modern-looking field carriage. Powder kegs, cannon balls, and loading and swabbing tools would have been familiar to any gunner from the age of muzzle-loading cannon, all the way to the second half of the 19th Century. It’s hard to tell if a curious structure on the dorsal aspect of the breech of the cannon represents a touch hole, or something else.
Several illustrations of men like this one show them carrying sticks with primitive cannon fuse on the end, and having what appear to be cloth “matches” hanging on their clothing.
The medieval era was not, as is commonly supposed, bereft of thought and common sense. In fact, a great many social institutions that still shape our society (for instance, the university) began then. Middle-ages mobile and siege warfare, far from being a pale imitation of classical antiquity, was highly developed and sophisticated.
Hat tip, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who warns us: Do Not Try to Recreate This 16th-Century German Cat Bomb at Home. The cat-incendiary is similar to fire-animals noted in a number of period manuscripts, creatures that would sometimes be released by hand and sometimes actually catapulted over walls with siege engines.
Good ideas never die, but that’s probably because bad ideas never do, either. The Russians cooked up a weirdly analogous weapon in what they called the Great Patriotic War: the dog mine. It was hard on the dogs, of course, and had other unintended consequences — but that’s another story.