Victual Brothers

The Victual Brothers, Vitalien Brothers[2][3] or Vitalian Brethren[4] (German: Vitalienbrüder,[1]:146[5][6] Norwegian: Vitaliebrødrene[7]) were a loosely organized guild of 14th century Germanic privateers that initially included Mecklenburg nobility, but that later became more thoroughly the efforts of commoners, and turned to outright piracy.[1]:146ff[5][8] The guild had a clear historical effect in that era on maritime trade in the North and Baltic Seas.[3][5] As privateers, they provisioned blockaded locations[7] and otherwise served as a naval contingent on behalf of regional rulers,[9] with clients that included the Queen of Denmark, and rulers of Mecklenburg and East Frisia.[3][1]:146f As their activities turned to piracy, the aims devolved to personal enrichment.[3]

Victual Brothers, Vitalien Brothers, Vitalian Brethren
German: Vitalienbrüder
Named afterFrench: vitailleurs (provisioners, Hundred Years' War)[1]:146
Formationca. 1393
Dissolvedca. 1440
HeadquartersVisby, Gotland, Sweden
Northern Europe
MethodsPrivateering, blockade running, piracy
ca. 1400 persons
Official language
(Middle) Low German

The pledge of their adopted base of Gotland to the Teutonic Order by King Albert of Sweden led to that island's invasion and the destruction of Visby by Konrad von Jungingen and the Order in 1398;[10] this disruption, the executions of some of their band in Hamburg,[3] and the Hanseatic League's continuing effort to control and make safe trade on the Baltic Sea led to changing maritime influences and a decline of the band.

The Victual Brothers band either were also sometimes known[1]:147 or possibly became a somewhat distinct group otherwise known as the Likedeelers. Klaus Störtebeker was identified with both, as a subordinate in the Victual Brothers[2][5] and as one in command in the Likedeelers.


The Victual[2] or Vitalien Brothers,[3] names drawn from the German Vitalienbrüder[1]:147ff[5][11] and associated with the Norse vitaliebrødrene,[7] were a loosely organized guild of privateers, later turning to piracy, who affected maritime trade during the 14th century in the North and Baltic Seas.[3] The name Victual Brothers is derived indirectly from the Latin word for provisions, victualia, and makes reference to their first mission, which was to supply the besieged city of Stockholm.[12] More directly and specifically, as Dirk Meier explains in his Seefahrer, Händler und Piraten im Mittelalter (Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages):

During the Hundred Years' war [1337-1453[13]], the people who provisioned the army were called vitailleurs. In 1394, when Mecklenburg was at war with Denmark, the Dukes of Mecklenburg hired pirates (known as Vitalienbrüder) whose job was to maintain a supply of food for the city of Stockholm, under siege by the Danes.[1]

As privateers, they served as a naval contingent on behalf of various regional rulers,[14] work that included provisioning blockaded locations,[7] with clients that included the Queen of Denmark, and rulers of Mecklenburg and East Frisia.[3][1]:146f Eventually, as the efforts became more thoroughly the efforts of commoners, and especially, as the band turned to piracy, their activities were aimed at their own enrichment, and not the provisioning of others.[3][5] As historian Jörgen Bracker of Hamburg's Municipal Museum notes, the "Vitalien Brothers divided up all their loot among themselves", arguing that the notion that "these men were willing to give up any of their booty" was a false notion.[3]

History of the Guild

During the 14th century, Queen Margaret I of Denmark was battling Albert of Mecklenburg for Scandinavian supremacy; Albert had been King of Sweden since 1364 and Duke of Mecklenburg since 1383.[12] Queen Margaret imprisoned Albert and his son Eric of Mecklenburg in order to subdue the Kingdom of Sweden,[12] and her forces began a siege of Stockholm.[7] As the dukes of the House of Mecklenburg were without a navy, they sought instead to wage a Kaperkrieg (Privateers' War) against Denmark and in the relief of Stockholm; to do so it engaged both the owners of commercial ships and the seafaring masses through issue of letters of marque to authorize the taking and disposal of plundered goods—letters that included the ports and towns of Rostock, Wismar, Ribnitz, and Golwitz and that, in the words of Dirk Meier, likely offered a way that the "nobility of Mecklenburg", through their "compact with bands of roving and unorganised pirates", could also encourage some among the minor aristocrats of Mecklenburg to "support and indeed join the pirates, in the hope of sharing some of ther booty".[1]:146f Through these letters, Mecklenburg was able to raise a force of Baltic Sea pirates that would rise to number on the order of 1400 persons,[7] a force that in 1392 was pressed into the fight against Denmark, including as blockade runners in the supply of Stockholm.

These privateers and pirates came to be known as the Vitalienbrüder[5], and later, in English, the Victual Brothers,[12] and they brought food and other provisions through the Danish forces to keep the city supplied,[7][5] and otherwise engaged in war at sea.[12] Alongside their breaking the blockade, Margaret and Albert came to agreement in 1395, with Stockholm "pantsatt til hanseatene [pledg[ing] to the Hanseatic League]", that led to Albert's freedom;[7] city and sovereign thus freed, the troops of Queen Margaret were withdrawn, and peace returned.[5] Despite having been denied a "grunnlag [basis, for operations][7] and being expected to disband, some sources indicate that the commanders of the privateers—yet "mainly nobles from Mecklenburg"—did not, instead moving their base of operations to Visby, on the island of Gotland.[5] (At this time, the storied German pirates Klaus Störtebeker and Michael Gödeke had not yet risen to command.[5])

Organized as a brotherhood or guild, the Victual Brothers' main naval enemy in 1392 was the powerful Hanseatic town of Lübeck, which supported Denmark in the war. Apart from Lübeck, the Hanseatic League initially supported the Victual Brothers. Most of the Hanseatic towns had no desire for a victory for Denmark, with its strategic location for control of the seaways. For several years from 1392, the Victual Brothers were a strong power in the Baltic Sea. They had safe harbours in the cities of Rostock, Ribnitz, Wismar and Stralsund. They soon turned to open piracy and coastal plunder.[15] In 1393 they captured the town of Bergen for the first time (plundering it again in 1429), proceeding in 1394 to Malmö and Visby.[7] They occupied parts of Frisia and Schleswig, and plundered Turku, Vyborg, Styresholm, Korsholm and Faxeholm castle at Söderhamn in Hälsingland.[15][16]

At the climax of their power, the Victual Brothers occupied the island of Gotland, Sweden, in 1394 and set up their headquarters in Visby. They also operated from the Turku archipelago;[Knut Bosson, who was the chief of Turku Castle from 1395 to 1398, had allied himself with the people of Mecklenburg, and so he supported the hijacking activities of the Victual Brothers and allowed them to operate in the area.[17][16] Maritime trade in the Baltic Sea virtually collapsed, and the herring industry suffered from their depredations. Queen Margaret even turned to King Richard II of England and sought to charter English ships to combat the pirates. From 1395 onwards, Queen Margaret gained the upper hand politically. She united Denmark, Sweden and Norway and formed the Kalmar Union. The Hanseatic League was forced to cooperate with her[10][18]


King Albert of Sweden conceded Gotland to the allied Teutonic Order as a pledge (similar to a fiefdom), which was followed by an invasion led by Konrad von Jungingen (1355–1407), the Grand Master of the Order, who conquered the island in 1398—destroying Visby and driving the Victual Brothers out of Gotland.[10] After the Victual Brothers' expulsion from Gotland in 1398, the Hanseatic League tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to completely control the Baltic Sea. Records indicate that some of the band were executed in Hamburg.[3] Many remained at sea, after losing influence in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and Gotland, operating instead from the Schlei, the mouth of the river Ems, and other locations in Friesland.


The summary execution of Störtebeker, 1401; tinted woodcut by Nicolaus Sauer, Hamburg, 1701 (Hamburger Staatsarchiv)

Some component of, or successors to, the Victual Brothers came to be known in the written records by the name Likedeelers ("equal sharers"),[1]:147 the name's interpretation being either one of equal sharing of raiding booty among themselves, or—in proposed distinction to the Victual Brothers pirate band—of sharing booty with the poor of the coastal population.[19][20] They expanded their activities into the North Sea and along the Atlantic coastline, raiding Brabant and France and striking as far south as Spain.

Their most famous leader of the Likedeelers was Klaus Störtebeker, born in 1360 in Wismar,[3] a ship captain who first appears in the record as a Victual Brother around 1394. The Low German word Störtebeker means "down the beakerful", a name he is alleged to have been given because could swallow four liters of beer without taking the beaker from his mouth (though the name is possibly just a surname of Wismar). In 1401, the Hamburg warship Die Bunte Kuh, leading a small fleet under Commander Simon of Utrecht, caught up with Störtebeker's forces near Heligoland; after a 3-day running battle, Störtebeker and some of his followers were overpowered, trapped and executed. Contrary to this account, Historian Jörgen Bracker of Hamburg's Municipal Museum notes that "[w]hile… other Vitalien Brothers were executed in Hamburg, 'there's no evidence that Störtebeker was among them'",[3] though artistic renderings of the Störtebeker execution, from that city, exist.

Other Likedeelers, sans their leader, continued their piracy and coastal raiding until about 1440, with maritime trade in both the North and Baltic Seas remaining in serious danger of attack.

See also

References and notes

  1. Meier, Dirk (2006). Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages. Translated by McGeoch, Angus. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell Press. ISBN 9781843832379. Retrieved January 28, 2022. [p. 146] During the Hundred Years' war… people who provisioned the army were called vitailleurs. In 1394, when Mecklenburg was at war with Denmark, the Dukes of Mecklenburg hired pirates (known as Vitalienbrüder) whose job was to maintain a supply of food for the city of Stockholm, under siege by the Danes. … [ p. 146f] The ducal house of Mecklenburg was unable to equip a navy… but instead sought allies among the commercial ship-owners in what became known as the Kaperkrieg, or Privateers' War, against Denmark… the first time in the history of Nordic hostilities that use had been made of pirates. The Chronicle of Lubeck, by the scribe Detmar [says]: 'In the same year, when the ships from Rostock and Wismar were setting sail for Stockholm under Duke Johann, the men from [those towns] made a proclamation that whosoever wished to try his luck as a freebooter at his own expense, in order to harm the realms of Denmark and Norway, should assemble… to be given 'letters-of-marque'… which gave them leave freely to share out, exchange, and sell the plundered goods. The Prince ordered that the same be proclaimed, and that the ports of Ribnitz and Golwitz should be opened for all… who wished to harm those aforementioned realms.' In this way, the nobility of Mecklenburg entered into a compact with bands of roving and unorganised pirates… The poverty of some of the minor aristocracy may well have encouraged them to support and indeed join the pirates, in the hope of sharing some of ther booty… [p. 147] The Vitalienbrüder became a new and unpredictable power, no longer beholden to anyone. In the written sources, we not only find the name 'Vitalienbrüder', but also 'Likedeeler' ('equal sharers'). Yet the risks the pirates took were not small. Note, the sole reference to Likedeelers in this book is in this quotation. In the rest of the book, only Vitalienbrüder is used for the band.
  2. Konstam, Angus (2011). Piracy–The Complete History from 1300 BC to the Present Day. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 27–28. ISBN 9780762768356. Retrieved January 28, 2022.
  3. Stegen, Gudrun (August 23, 2011). Bowen, Kate (ed.). "Germany's Most Famous Pirate a Cross Between Robin Hood [sic], Odysseus". Deutsche Welle/ Retrieved January 28, 2022. …Störtebeker was born in Wismar in 1360, and hooked up with the Vitalien Brothers, a pirate syndicate… regularly commissioned by various clients to rob ships in the Baltic Sea. "Customers" ranged from the Danish queen to the rulers of Mecklenburg to the chieftains of East Frisia. / Historian Jörgen Bracker [of Hamburg's Municipal Museum] doesn't see anything heroic in thievery… and [he] is one of the few experts in all things Störtebeker. / 'These Vitalien Brothers divided up all their loot among themselves… People should surrender the notion that these men were willing to give up any of their booty'… Either way, people love a legend… [and] Störteneker's death is… part of that legend… While the other Vitalien Brothers were executed in Hamburg, 'there's no evidence that Störtebeker was among them,' Bracker said. Note, the headline chosen for this article, with its reference to the altruistic thief Robin Hood, appears to contradict the actual content of the article.
  4. Rohmann, G. (2017). Did the activity of the ‘Vitalian Brethren’ prevent trade in the Baltic area? In M. Balard & C. Buchet (Eds.), The Sea in History - The Medieval World (NED-New edition, pp. 585–594). Boydell & Brewer.
  5. Note, the following is a children's source. Bachmann, Birgit & Müller, Stefan R. (2002). "Piraten in Norddeutschland [Pirates in North Germany]". (in German). p. 3. Archived from the original on February 10, 2013. Anfang 1389 herrschte Dänemark fast schon über ganz Schweden, nur Stockholm, eine Stadt hanseatischer Kaufleute, leistete noch Widerstand. Die Dänen versuchten Stockholm zu gewinnen, in dem sie die Stadt belagerten und so die Bevölkerung immer weniger Lebensmittel erhielt. Die mecklenburgischen Städte Rostock und Wismar stellten Kaperbriefe für alle aus, die auf eigene Faust versuchten, dem dänischen Reich zu schaden, wann immer es ging, um Stockholm zu helfen. So riefen diese Hansestädte ihre alten Feinde um Hilfe. Und diese ließen nicht lange auf sich warten. Als Verbündete, genannt die Vitalienbrüder, weil sie Lebensmittel nach Stockholm durch die dänischen Linien brachten, gelang es den Piraten, die dänische Blockade zu brechen. Stockholm war wieder frei, Königin Margarete zog ihre Truppen zurück und ein Jahr später kam es wieder einmal zum Frieden. / Eigentlich sollten sich auch die Freibeuter wieder auflösen, da der Krieg ja nun zu Ende war, aber das taten sie nicht. Auf der Insel Gotland, in deren Hauptstadt Visby, schlugen sie ihr Hauptquartier auf. In dieser Zeit waren Störtebeker und Michael Gödeke noch keine Kommandanten bei den Freibeutern, dies waren vorwiegend Adlige aus Mecklenburg.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. For a machine translation of the German quote in the Bachmann & Muller (2002) citation, see below.
  7. Salvesen, Helge. "Vitaliebrødrene [Vitalie Brothers]". In Opsahl, Erik (ed.). Store norske leksikon [Large Norwegian Encyclopedia] (in Norwegian). Trondheim, Norway: Norwegian University of Science and Technology Trondheim. Retrieved January 28, 2022. [The Vitalie Brothers… were about 1400… pirates who operated specifically in the Baltic Sea. / The name was especially used about hijackers from northern German ports who tried to bring food (victuals) to Albrecht of Mecklenburg, who was besieged in Stockholm by Queen Margrethe's army in 1389. The hijackers captured Bergen in 1393 and Malmö and Visby in 1394. / An agreement between Margret[h]e and Albrecht in 1395 led to Albrecht being set free and Stockholm pledged to the Hanseatic League. This deprived the Vitalie [B]rothers of their foundation, but they continued with piracy and plundered Bergen as late as 1429.] For the machine translation of this page that was used for the chapter and title translations, see this link.
  8. The point at which the transition from privateers to pirates occurred is not clear from sources, and some sources use the terms seemingly interchangeably. Hence, the children's source Bachmann & Müller (2002) refers to the group, at its advent, when it involved nobility and was employed by Queen Margaret to provision Stockholm, as "pirates". See this source, cited above.
  9. See, for instance, Meier, p. 146: "The ducal house of Mecklenburg was unable to equip a navy of its own…".
  10. Schulzke, Marion (2001). Dombrowsky, Rainer (ed.). "Die Vitalienbrüder". [Das Internet-Magazin und E-Bibliothek] (in German). Berlin, Germany: JaDu—Internetworld. Archived from the original on February 4, 2005.
  11. The following is a machine translation of the German quote from Bachmann & Müller (2002): "At the beginning of 1389, Denmark ruled almost all of Sweden, with only Stockholm, a city of Hanseatic merchants, still resisting. The Danes tried to win Stockholm by besieging the city and so the population received less and less food. The Mecklenburg cities of Rostock and Wismar issued letters of marque to anyone who tried to harm the Danish Empire on their own initiative whenever they could to help Stockholm. So these Hanseatic cities called their old enemies for help. And the[y] were not long in coming. As allies, dubbed the [Vitalienbrüder] because they brought food to Stockholm through the Danish lines, the pirates managed to break the Danish blockade. Stockholm was free again, Queen Margarete withdrew her troops and a year later peace was restored. / The buccaneers were supposed to disband, since the war was over, but they didn't. They set up their headquarters on the island of Gotland, in the capital Visby. At this time, [Klaus] Störtebeker and Michael Gödeke were not yet commanders of the privateers, these were mainly nobles from Mecklenburg." Emphases added; translation by Google Translate, January 28, 2022.
  12. Bjørkvik, Halvard (February 13, 2009). "Dronning / Margrete Valdemarsdatter [Queen Margrete Valdemarsdatter, Margaret I of Denmark]". In Bolstad, Erik (ed.). Norsk biografisk leksikon [Norwegian biographical lexicon] (in Norwegian). Trondheim, Norway: Norwegian University of Science and Technology Trondheim. Retrieved January 28, 2022.
  13. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia (January 2022). "Hundred Years' War". Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved January 28, 2022.
  14. See, for instance, Meier, p. 146: "The ducal house of Mecklenburg was unable to equip a navy of its own…".
  15. Engström, S. (1921). "Vitalianer". In Westrin, Th. (ed.). Nordisk familjebok: Konversationslexicon och Realencyklopedi [Nordic Family Book: Conversation Dictionary and Real Encyclopaedia] (in Norwegian). Vol. 32 (Uggleupplagan [Owl (2nd)] ed.). Stockholm, Sweden: Nordisk Familjeboks Förlags AB. pp. 859–861. Retrieved January 28, 2022.
  16. Suikkari, Riikka (19 August 2022). "Pahamaineinen merirosvosakki herätti keskiajalla kauhua Suomen rannikolla – Katso kartasta, missä vitaaliveljet ryöstelivät ja majailivat". Yle (in Finnish). Retrieved 21 August 2022.
  17. Harjula, Janne; Hukantaival, Sonja; Immonen, Visa; Ratilainen; Tanja & Salonen, Kirsi (2018). Koroinen: Suomen Ensimmäinen Kirkollinen Keskus. Turun Historiallinen Arkisto (in Finnish). Vol. 71. Turku, Finland: Turun Historiallinen Yhdistys [Turku Historical Society]. p. 17. ISBN 9789527045084. ISSN 0085-7440.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. Jähnig, Bernhart (1980). "Konrad von Jungingen". Neue Deutsche Biographie (in German). 12: 517–518 via
  19. See Meier (2006), op.cit., where the term Vitalienbrüder is used throughout the book, and Likedeeler only appears once, seemingly as a synonym (p. 147).
  20. But see Stegen & Bowen (2011). There, the Likedeelers are not specifically mentioned, but the case is made, in the context of a museum installation about Klaus Störtebeker, that the pirates he associated with were not charitably inclined.

Further reading

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