13 Italian and 13 French knights and the Disfida di Barletta

13 February 1503 on the plains between Corato and Andria in Apulia, the Disfida di Barletta, the Challenge of Barletta, was fought out between 13 Italian and 13 French knights.

"If you wish it, I will allow," answered La Motte," that the German cuirassiers are an available soldiery, and perhaps they held out against the French gendarmerie for a while, on the day at Benevento ; but as for your thousand Italians, oh, indeed ! if two hundred years ago they were what they are now, it was not necessary for the French to waste their time in crippling their poor horses. During these last five years that I have been battling in Italy, I have had a good chance to know them. I have followed King Charles under the brave Louis d'Ars; and I assure you their bad faith has given us more work than their swords. They pursue a kind of warfare in which French chivalry is entirely unpractised." (Massimo D'Azeglio, “Ettore Fieramosca”)

One of the Italian painter Tommaso Minardi’s (1787-1871) 15 tables illustrating episodes of the Disfida di Barletta

It was the swansong of the Italian Renaissance and the beginning of the end of the glamour of the powerful city states and thalassocracies, once the envy of the world. But the world was changing, rapidly and with the discovery of America, the unification of Spain, a distinct loss of Papal influence and the Fall of Constantinople, the geopolitical focus had moved away from the Mediterranean to the west and now France, unified after the turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War, and Spain had the ships, the men and the money, too, to scrap over the pieces of the Italian cake. In 1494, the Italian Wars began in earnest and a few years later, in 1501, the French and the Spanish were pitted against each other for the first time over the question who was to rule the Kingdom of Naples. Folks in Apulia sided, if they could, with Spain and many fought as mercenaries for the Gran Capitano Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba y Aguilar, like the knights that overheard the insults uttered by Charles de Torgues, sometimes called Guy de la Motte in later sources, actually a POW, held at Barletta.

Remembering the 400th anniversary of the Disfida di Barletta back in 1903

Emperor Maximilian who died in 1519 was often called the last knight and the Age of Chivalry was certainly a thing of the past, knights of every national persuasion however still had a very touchy sense of honour, even if they were actually nothing better than well-equipped mercenaries with a half-forgotten title. Ettore Fieramosca, a famous condottiero and mercenary captain, would not leave de la Motte’s insult of Italian mercenary knights uncommented and challenged the French to a duel. 13 of his and 13 of de la Motte’s and may the better mercenary win. Back in the day, tourneys were still a popular spectator sport, even though they usually took place in major cities only by the 15th century and that might explain the immense attention the melee of the mercenaries received from the rural population at the back of Apulian beyond. And, by and large, it was a melee, the organised mass tournament with two large teams fighting to capture each other for ransom. Usually with blunted weapons. Only that the two early modern national teams taking the field on neutral grounds between Barletta and Andria deliberately overlooked that specific part of the rules. The contest was, by and large, rather bloodless, typical for knightly combat in the late medieval and early modern period, since a knight who had yielded could be ransomed and his wickedly expensive equipment and horse fell to the victor to the contest. In the present case Ettore Fieramosca’s Italian team. And the event would have been duly forgotten if nationally aware local historians had not put the rather curious event forward during the days of the Risorgimento, the political and social movement that consolidated different states of the Italian peninsula into the single state of the Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century as a matter of national pride.

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