Schiltberger tried to escape from slavery several times. The first excerpt describes an early, failed attempt to escape from Bayezid I’s court. Although Schiltberger and his companions were able to conceal their plan effectively and get away from the city with horses, they were unable to evade pursuit. Eventually they agreed to return with a promise that their lives would be spared. This promise was honored. Some of Schiltberger’s companions died in prison, but those who survived were not only spared but reinstated in their positions with higher salaries than before.

The second excerpt describes Schiltberger’s final, successful escape. By that point he had passed through the hands of multiple owners, including several Timurid rulers. Abu Bakr ibn Miran Shah, one of Timur’s grandsons, gave Schiltberger to the Jochid prince Chekre, who had been living at his court. Chekre took Schiltberger back with him to the Ulus of Jochi (also known as the Golden Horde), where he became caught up in its political struggles. Upon Chekre’s death, Schiltberger passed into the hands of one of Chekre’s advisors, who fled first to Caffa, a Genoese colony in the Black Sea, and then to Mingrelia, a region of the medieval kingdom of Georgia in the Caucasus. It was at this point that Schiltberger and several companions seized the opportunity and escaped to the Black Sea coast. They were eventually able to find a ship with a Christian captain willing to take them to Constantinople, where Schiltberger met German merchants who allowed him to travel home in their company.  

This detailed description of Schiltberger’s return journey appears in some but not all of the surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts. Langmantel’s printed edition, the basis for the other passages translated on this website, was based on the Nuremberg manuscript[1] and does not include the story of Schiltberger’s final escape. In order to offer a translation of this final passage, it was necessary to turn to Neumann’s printed edition based on the Heidelberg manuscript.[2] More information about the various surviving manuscripts of Schiltberger’s travels can be found here.

[1] Now München, Stadtbibliothek, Cod. L 1603, f. 190r-249v.

[2] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 216.

Excerpt 1

Translated from the German by Kathryn Greenberg and Hannah Barker. Published in Hans Schiltbergers Reisebuch, ed. Valentin Langmantel (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1885), section 6, pages 13-14. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

6. Schiltberger involves himself in a Christian prisoner escape attempt

And so Bayezid I came to his capital and planned to stay for a while. During that time, we 60 Christians agreed how we would like to go away. Thus we made an agreement between us, and we swore to each other that we would die or succeed together. And then we took some time to separate ourselves according to the oath for a time. And so we all came to each other at the time, after we had then separated from each other. And so we chose two leaders among us, and whatever they did or declared, to that we should be obedient. And so we woke up after midnight and rode to a mountain, and as the day broke, we arrived at the mountain. And as we came to the mountain, we dismounted and let the horses rest until the sun rose, and then we remounted again and rode the same day and night. When Bayezid I heard that we had escaped, he sent 500 horses after us and declared that when we were found, that we would be caught and brought before him. They reached us at a narrow valley and shouted at us to give ourselves up. We did not want to do that, and so we got off of the horses and went on foot against them and defended ourselves and protected a while against each other. When the leader saw that we defended ourselves, he came forward and called for a peace for one hour, and so we gave a peace. After that, he came to us and requested  that we give ourselves up, and he would keep our lives safe. Then we gave him an answer, that we wanted to discuss it among ourselves. So we went to each other and discussed it; after that, we gave him an answer, how we knew well that as soon as we gave ourselves up and marched back, we would have to die, so it would be much better for us to die here with a defending hand through Christian faith. The leader saw that we were thus determined, so he spoke again and requested that we give ourselves up. He would promise us by his oath that he would preserve our lives, and if it happened that the king was so furious that he wanted to kill us, he would let himself be killed first. He promised us this by his oath and so we gave ourselves up and he took us to the king as prisoners. He brought us before the king, who ordered us to be killed immediately. Then the leader who had taken us prisoner went and knelt down before the king and requested that he allow us to live, because he had taken comforted in his [the king’s] mercy and had promised us by his oath that he would preserve our lives. So the king asked him if we had done harm in the land. He said that we had not done any harm. He therefore put us in prison, where we stayed for nine months. In that time, twelve of us died. When the heathen’s Easter[1] came, his oldest son, named Mirmirsiriamon,[2] asked for us and so the king let us go free. After that, we were taken before the king, whom we had to promise that we would never again escape. Then he gave us back our horses and increased our pay.

[1] Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the Ramadan fast.

[2] Emir Suleyman.

Excerpt 2

Translated from the German by Kathryn Greenberg and Hannah Barker. Published in Reisen des Johannes Schiltberger aus München in Europa, Asia und Afrika von 1394 bis 1427, ed. Karl Friedrich Neumann (Munich, 1859), section 67, pages 157-161. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

67. Through which lands I came out

And when Chekre [Zegra] was defeated as it is already written, then I came to a lord named Manstzusch. He was the councilor of Chekre. He went forth and turned to a city named Caffa[1] where there are Christians. And it is a strong city, and there are six religions within it. He stayed there for five months and thereafter crossed over an arm of the Black Sea and came to a land, called Circassia [Zerkchas]. He stayed there for a half of a year. When the Tartar king knew of this, he sent to the lord of the land and requested that he not allow the lord Manstzuch to stay in his land, which would be doing him a big favor. Manstzuch turned to another land called Mingrelia [Magrill], and when we came now into the land of Mingrelia, then the five of us Christians decided how we wanted to go from heathendom back to the land of our birth, as we were now no more than three days away from the Black Sea.

And now, when it seemed to us right and suitable to come from there, all five of us split from the said lord and came to the land’s capital, named Batumi [Bothan], situated on the Black Sea. We asked to be taken across, but it was not granted. We fled from the city and rode along the sea there and came to a mountain range, in which we rode until the fourth day, and came to a mountain from which we saw a small ship [einen kocken] in the sea, about eight Italian miles [welschen milen] from the point. We stayed on the mountain until night and made a fire. When the captain saw the fire, he sent people on a boat [einer züllen] to look at us who were on the mountain and by the fire. When they now crossed over to us, we made ourselves known. They asked, what kind of people we were? We said, we are Christians and were taken captive when the King of Hungary was defeated at Nicopolis, and we have come here with the help of God. Now might we come onward over the sea? Because we had a faith and a hope in God, that we might yet come back to our homes and to Christian faith. They would not believe us and asked, if we could recite the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and the Creed [Glouben]? We said yes, and said them. Thereafter they asked how many of us there were? We said five. They told us to wait on the mountain and went back to their lord and told him how we had talked with them; he ordered us to be brought. They came with boats and took us to the small ship.

And on the third day that we were on the small ship, there came robbers with three galleys, and they would have gladly damaged us because they were Turks. They hunted us for three days and two nights. They wanted us but could not win. We came to the city of Amasra [Sant Masicia], where we remained until the fourth day, so that the Turks went on their way again, and after that we went back on the sea. We wanted to go to Constantinople, and now when we came out on the sea, so that we saw only sky and water, there came a wind and beat the small ship back a good eight hundred Italian miles to a city that is called Sinope [Sinopp]. There we stayed eight days and went again thereafter further and went for another month and a half on the sea, so that we could not come to land. And we ran short of food, so that we had nothing more to eat or to drink. We came to a rock in the sea. There we found snails and spider crabs that we clubbed off and ate for four whole days.

We traveled one month on the sea before we came to Constantinople. And when we now came there, there I and my companions stayed. The small ship continued through the gate to the Italian land.[2] And when we passed through the gate into Constantinople,  they asked us where we were from? We said, we had been captives in heathendom and have come from there and want to return again to Christian faith. They then took us to the Greek emperor [keiser].[3] He asked us, how we had come to heathendom? We told him from the beginning until the end, and when he had heard it, he told us that we should not worry, he wanted to bring us to our goal. He sent us to the patriarch, whose seat was also in the city, and ordered us to wait there for his brother, who was with the king of Hungary, to whom he would send a galley, on which he would help us leave for Wallachia.[4]

Therefore we were for three months in Constantinople, which was surrounded by a city wall eighteen Italian miles around, and the city wall had fifteen hundred towers. The city had one thousand and one churches, and the head church was called Hagia Sophia, which was built and also paved with polished marble. When one goes into the temple, who has not been in it before, he might think that the church is full of water because of the marble’s shine. It is entirely vaulted and covered in lead. It has three hundred and sixty towers, and under them are one hundred all brass.

And now after the three months, the Greek emperor sent us on a galley to a castle called Kilia. There the Danube [Tunow] flows into the Black Sea. At the castle, I separated from my companions and came to [some] merchants. Then I turned with them to a city, called in the German language the White City,[5] that lies in Wallachia. Thereafter I came to a city named Asparseri[6], and then a city named Suceava [Sedshopff] which is the capital in Little Wallachia[7], then in one called in German Lemburg [Limburgch] which is the capital of White Russia the Lesser.[8] There I lay sick for three months. Then I came to Krakow, which is the capital of Poland. After that, I came Meisen [Neichsen] in Saxony, and in the city of Breslau [Bressla], which is a capital in Silesia. After that I came to a city called Eger. From Eger to Regensburg, from Regensburg to Lantzhut, from Lantzhut to Freising, near where I had been born.

And with the help of God, I have come home again and have come to the Christian faith. Thanks be to God the Almighty and all those who have helped me. And when I held myself almost reckless, that I would never return from the heathen people and from their evil faith in which I had to live for 32 years, also after I did not fit closely into the community of holy Christendom anymore, and thus miserably reckless about it, had to separate myself from it, then God Almighty saw the great longing and concern that I had after the Christian faith and its heavenly joy and has mercifully saved me from the distress of perishing in body and in soul. For this reason I ask everyone who has read this book or heard it read, that they think well of me before God, so that they never endure, there and forever, such difficult and un-Christian captivity.

[1] A major port, a Genoese colony, on the Crimean Peninsula.

[2] The Italian merchant communities were based in Pera, now Galata, a suburb of Constantinople.

[3] Emperor John II Palaiologos.

[4] This region corresponds to present-day Romania.

[5] This city was located at the mouth of the Dniestr River. It was also known as Akkerman and a number of other names in various languages, all of which meant White City.

[6] The name Asparsarai means White City as well.

[7] A reference to Moldavia.

[8] The eastern part of the region of Galicia.

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare Schiltberger’s first and second escape attempts. What aspects of the first escape were successful? What aspects caused it to fail? What made the second escape more successful than the first?
  2. One of the reasons that Schiltberger wrote this narrative was to make the case that he could reintegrate into Christian society after having lived for so many years as a Muslim. How does each passage add to or detract from his case? 
  3. Death was the punishment used to threaten slaves who might think about escaping. In the first passage, what punishment did Schiltberger and his companions actually suffer? Why do you think that his captor and the king were willing to reduce the punishment?

Related Primary Sources