Johann Schiltberger's travel narrative, The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, indicates that he was an unwitting and unwilling explorer of the Middle East. Indeed, he was a prisoner for the large majority of the time period covered in his account. However, his narrative is significant in that it provides numerous details pertaining to medieval Muslim culture. In order to survive for so long as a prisoner, Schiltberger had to, more than likely, either reject or carefully conceal his Christian faith. His depiction of aspects of the Muslim faith, such as "Of the Infidels' Easter Day," "How a Christian Becomes an Infidel," and "Of a Fellowship the Infidels Have among Themselves" suggests a familiarity with the Muslim faith denied to Christians of that time.
Schiltberger was born near Munich in 1381. Little is known of his family except that they were probably a well-placed family of Bavarian burghers, marshals, and dukes. Schiltberger left his home at an early age; in 1394, at the age of 14, he set off with his master, Leonard Richartinger, and immediately entered into military service. Richartinger served in the auxiliary forces under Sigismund, the Hungarian king. At that time Hungary was threatened by invasion from Turkey, prompting King Sigismund to summon as many Christian warriors as possible to help defend him from the Muslim Turks.
Two years after his departure from Bavaria, Schiltberger entered into a battle that would exert a lifelong impact. In 1394 Sigismund instigated a military engagement with the Turks over Nicopolis, a city on the Danube River. While Sigismund had been successful in earlier battles, he was quickly overwhelmed at Nicopolis and forced to retreat. The Turkish Duke of Iriseh, also known as the despot, overwhelmed the Christian soldiers, who fled in disorder. Many of the soldiers fighting under Sigismund were either slaughtered or drowned.
Schiltberger was taken prisoner and narrowly escaped execution. The Turkish king, overwhelmed by grief at the numbers of his army that had been slain, was determined to avenge their deaths. Many of the prisoners were led to the battlefield and beheaded. Schiltberger, who was 16 at the time, escaped death; the king's son ordered that he be left alive because he was still a youth.
Schiltberger's narrative is filled with humble depictions of his numerous close brushes with death. Several years after his initial capture, for instance, a group of 60 Christians decided to escape from King Weyasit. They made a pact between themselves that they would succeed, or die in the attempt. When Weyasit learned of their escape, he sent 500 horse-mounted soldiers to capture the group, who defended themselves in order to avoid capture and death. The commander of the king's troops vowed to the prisoners that he would die at the king's hand before allowing the king to execute the prisoners. The group consented and returned with the commander. Upon their return, the king ordered that the prisoners be killed immediately, but the commander interjected. Instead, they were imprisoned for nine months.
Schiltberger remained a slave until 1427. His position in Muslim society was not to be envied. However, this position enabled him to participate in Muslim culture to a much greater extent than may be expected. He witnessed many military conquests during his travels, but was also present for events such as the marriage festivities of the nobility. His narrative provides a fairly accurate account of Muslim beliefs and details the daily lives of his captors.
However, after his escape Schiltberger expressed little sympathy for the Muslims. While in Mingrelia, a Christian country situated along the Black Sea, he secured passage on a European ship, fled to Constantinople, and, in 1427, finally returned to Bavaria. Upon his return he thanked God for his escape "from the Infidel people and their wicked religion," and was honored as the chamberlain and commander of the bodyguard to Albrecht III.