Mercenaries in the age of the Crusades

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Mercenaries sometimes appear as the outcasts of twelfth-century society along with Jews and lepers. The Lateran Council of 1179 excommunicated them and their employers, explicitly associating them with heretics of southern France, an association later echoed by Walter Map and Innocent III. The decree promised to all who fought against them some of the privileges of the crusader to Jerusalem, laying the juridical foundation for the later Crusades against heretics. But they were a fact of life. The Council of Anse in 990 mentioned them at about the same time as Richer of Rheims, at the very beginning of our period. They were much used by the Conqueror and his sons, formed an important part of the armies of Henry II, Frederick Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus, John and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and served the Hohenstaufen and the Italian cities in the thirteenth century. Our sources sometimes convey the impression of mercenaries as a people set apart by their brutality and barbarism, killers of the innocent and robbers of churches. They were often called by the names of the places they came from – Aragonese or Basques but most commonly Brabanters, a word which became a synonym for mercenary. The general terms Cotereaux or Routiers were applied to them, recalling their purpose as destroyers and pillagers and their wandering, rootless way of life.

Churchmen excoriated mercenaries because churches were so often attacked. The protests of ecclesiastics, coming from a particularly disturbed area of central France, prompted the Lateran Council decree of 1179. Once this situation was brought to its notice, the papacy was anxious to play to the full its role in establishing social order: it is no coincidence that the same council passed decrees against tournaments and reaffirmed the Truce of God. 15 Noone can doubt that mercenaries were savage and destructive, but there was nothing peculiar to mercenaries about such behaviour. The Chanson des Lorrains, written between 1185 and 1213, describes an army setting out through enemy territory:

The march begins. Out in front are the scouts and incendiaries. After them come the foragers whose job it is to collect the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. Soon all is tumult . . . The incendiaries set the villages on fire and the foragers visit and sack them. The terrified inhabitants are either burned or led away with their hands tied behind their backs to be held for ransom. Everywhere bells ring the alarm; a surge of fear sweeps over the countryside. Wherever you look you can see helmets glinting in the sun, pennons waving in the breeze, the whole plain covered with horsemen. Money, cattle, mules and sheep are all seized. The smoke billows, flames crackle. Peasants and shepherds scatter in all directions.

Mercenaries were often employed as ravagers, and the very word raptores is used as a synonym for them, but they were not alone in this. William Marshal was a great ravager, and delight in this savage business is often to be found in the Chansons de Geste, which were written for the consumption of the upper class. But although such gentry were also responsible and, as the ultimate commanders of ravaging armies, were at least as guilty as those they commanded, it was difficult for the Church to bring pressure to bear, and its efforts against the great were limited, to say the least. The mercenary was the surrogate for the wrath of the Church, which accepted the violence of the upper class in an effort to control it. Of course, the Church could justify its unequal treatment of the mercenary and his master by reference to intention. The famous penance imposed on the victorious Normans after the Conquest of England fell more heavily on those who served for gain than on those who served by way of duty to a lord, and this was echoed in canon law. But in the end this was an evasion, because all conditions of men fought for gain. Churchmen were prisoners of one of the basic conditions of medieval society. The Church was staffed and run very largely by the upper class; it was part of that immense structure of power which sustained a very small proportion of the population in dominion over the rest. In a sense, ravaging was part of the taxation paid by the clerical aristocracy for the support of their lay colleagues, so there was a limit to criticism; after all, what the mercenary did, his master was usually responsible for.

Our view of mercenaries as deeply hated alien presences in Christian society is derived from particular incidents which have been given enormous prominence. There was alarm in the 1180s when large numbers of mercenaries paid off from the wars of Angevins and Capetians and the conflicts in Languedoc gathered in the Limousin and Auvergne and began to dominate the area. The Church encouraged confraternities of local people – peasants and gentry alike – to resist. A famous body of peasants, the “Capuchins”, was led by the visionary carpenter, Durand, and they played a notable role in destroying the mercenary hordes. For relatively humble men in the form of mercenary bands to take power was entirely unacceptable – it is worth remembering that it was the raising of men of low status under King John that so aroused anger in England against mercenaries. Ultimately, the lords, with the support of the Church, employed the remaining mercenaries to destroy the peasant militias who had acquired a taste for freedom in arms. A century before, when Archbishop Aimo of Bourges had formed a peasant militia to enforce the Peace of God, that too had been destroyed. In the early thirteenth century, Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade, denouncing the mercenaries in the pay of the heretics as subverters of the social order. The “Brabanters” were feared and hated, as were all soldiers, but this was given a different dimension when they went into business on their own account. In an armed society, that was a threat to the social order: it is very notable that the English barons complained bitterly about the mercenary leaders of King John, but it was those of low birth who were most hated and most harshly treated.

Underlying feudal society and its celebration of noble chivalry was the blunt fact that armies needed large numbers of lesser men to perform necessary tasks, ranging from feeding horses to operating specialized siege machinery. Yet the arming of the “poor” was to be feared, and permitted only under controlled circumstances. The peasants who joined the peace militias of the early eleventh century ultimately inspired deep hatred, while the contempt of clerical writers for the masses of the “Peasants’ Crusade”, allegedly led by a goose and a goat, is well known. In the mid-twelfth century the movement of Eudes l’Etoile was savagely put down. On the Second Crusade, Odo of Deuil was shocked “For lords to die that their servants might live” when the humble escaped in the partial rout of Louis VII’s army on Mount Cadmus. The peasant militias who helped to defeat the mercenaries of the Auvergne and the Limousin in the 1180s were crushed when the taste of armed freedom went to their heads. On the Third Crusade, the author of the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre expresses satisfaction about the defeat of his own foot, who had become so proud that they had tried to do in war what their betters, the knights, had refused to contemplate – to seize Saladin’s camp. In the thirteenth century the “Childrens’ Crusade” of 1211-12 and the “Pastouraux” of 1251 were put down by main force. In Flanders the affair of the “Pseudo-Baldwin” in 1224-5 precipitated social conflict. In these cities, the militias were reorganized along occupational lines, so that they could the more easily be controlled by the urban patricians, who were increasingly in league with the rural aristocracy.

As long as they did not threaten the accepted social order, mercenaries were such an accepted part of contemporary armies that they were often not clearly distinguished from others: some writers who described the Archbishop of Cologne’s attack on Saxony in 1179 noted the presence of mercenaries, while others simply remarked on the number of foot, or even the total number of armed men. At the same time, there are casual references to them in the armies of Frederick I. It is interesting that medieval writers adopted generic descriptions such as Routiers and regional designations such as Brabanter, rather than use blunter terms which intimately connected such people with money. They did so because so many others, often of gentle origin, were paid for fighting. John of Salisbury refers bluntly to “mercenary knights”, but this is very rare. The plainer terms for mercenary were highly pejorative: mercenarius is the word for the self-serving hireling of John 10:11-14. Marianus Scotus did use the term in a neutral sense to describe the armed followers of an archbishop but, far more typically, Aimo of Fleury applied it to the inconstant Franks of an earlier generation, hiring themselves out to one side or another in royal feuds, while Robert Curthose rebelled against his father who, he claimed, treated him as a mere mercenarius by refusing to give him land to rule. Stipendiarius carried with it the overtones of clerical income and it could imply one who held a fief; its frequent use as an adjective to describe knights suggests honourable connotations, and indeed Peter Cantor tells a very flattering story about story of a miles senex et stipendiarius. However, William of Tyre clearly intended an insult when he so described Reynald of Châtillon, as did Ordericus when he referred to Geoffrey of Anjou claiming Normandy as a stipendiarius of his wife. Robert of Torigni equated stipeniarios et mercennarios with the sole followers of Henry II in the Toulouse campaign. The almost equally blunt solidarius seems to have developed in the later twelfth century. In 1168, Baldwin V of Hainaut sent a force to aid Henry of Namur against Godfrey of Louvain: it consisted of 700 knights, all of Hainaut, except for two mercenaries who were carefully distinguished as duobus suldariis. However, the term enjoyed little popularity until the thirteenth century, when it gave us the English word “soldier” and the French soudoyer. This relatively mild and evasive language is simply a reflection of the fact that, in war, cash relationships were common and extended to the ranks of those considered honourable. Moreover, some mercenaries were mounted, and therefore doubly difficult to distinguish from their social betters. They were accepted to the extent that they could rise high if they were lucky. Mercadier lived to be the famous leader of Richard I’s mercenaries and a baron of the Limousin, but we first hear of him as a leader among the notorious mercenary bands who were attacked by the “Capuchins”, who they were later used to destroy. His association with Richard and his apparent conformity to aristocratic norms seems to have made him acceptable in a way which others were not.

It is clear that the Routiers were peasants, the kind of people who were dragged into war by their lords anyway. What distinguished them was that they were willing to fight. Their regional designations have aroused much attention; our sources offer various lists, but always the most prominent are the Brabanters and other Flemings, closely followed by those from Gascony and Aragon. Overpopulation and the search for a living is a possible explanation, for Flemings were prominent in the colonization of eastern Germany. But what the areas mentioned all have in common is that they are zones of political turbulence, where an armed way of life was probably more than usually necessary. It is worth noting that, in the estimation of the twelfth century, the Count of Flanders could raise more knights than the king of France; this was the fruit of living in a disputed and fragmented border area. For the same reason, there were plenty of armed infantry – because war bred soldiers. Gislebert of Mons probably inflates the numbers of footmen in the armies of the various principalities of the Low Countries, but we can see these as indications of substantial numbers.

Some confusion has been caused in thinking about mercenaries by an undue emphasis on their military qualities and organization. Despite assertions to the contrary, all the signs are that mercenaries throughout this period were recruited as individuals and were somewhat fallible as soldiers. In August 1173, a substantial number of Henry II’s Brabançons were defeated at St Jaques-de-Beuvron by local peasants; in 1176, a peasant militia destroyed another group at St Mégrin, while in the following year those licensed by Richard of Aquitaine to ravage the Limousin were defeated by a local force. A few years later, as we have noted, large mercenary forces were defeated by peasant militias in the affair of the “Capuchins”. Mercenary infantry of this type seem to have had their greatest successes when used with other forces and under proper leadership. For mercenaries were only retained for as long as they were needed, and this must have meant that, like all other forces, they lacked the cohesiveness which only corporate identity over a long period can bring. Everything points to mercenaries being raised as individuals or in small groups. Even in thirteenth-century Italy, where we hear an enormous amount about mercenaries, both infantry and cavalry, they continued to be recruited only to supplement the native forces of the cities and so retained their essentially casual nature. In England and elsewhere, the thirteenth century saw the raising of large infantry armies, but their quality was generally poor. The “Grand Catalan Company” is famous for its conquest of Frankish Greece after 1303, but it was formed in the long war of the Vespers, which came to an end with the Peace of Caltabellotta in 1302 – continuous existence gave it cohesion. It is interesting that the social inferiority of the company seems to have been the main reason why it was so universally hated. In the fourteenth century, with the development and frequent use of Commissions of Array in England, forces which were in some real sense regular began to appear.

The ruling elite of the West controlled war. The ethos of decentralized political structures required them to be militarized as the guarantee of their social position. This is the obvious reason why all ruling castes must control the apparatus of war, but what is peculiar about the medieval situation is that the elite were not merely an officer caste. They claimed a monopoly of war, and this was accepted and legitimized by the Church. The system of landholding, by which men held of the great lords and castellans and in return were rendered military service, only worked very imperfectly as a military structure, and throughout this period household and paid knights remained common, while even those who did serve by reason of a tenurial connection came to be paid for their service. The real function of the tenurial system was political – to control the countryside. Its essential military function was to generate a sufficient supply of armed men who shared the honourable concerns of their social superiors. Social mobility meant that the ranks of the cavalry were filled by a wide variety of people who, by one means or another, could afford the right kind of equipment and find employment. From about the mid-twelfth century, the aristocracy increasingly closed ranks, but continued to employ cavalry from the ranks of the gentry below, who were associated with them. Cash was a vital element in the relationship between lord and armed follower, but it was modified by gentility and a common way of life, although the importance of the need for reward on top of it should never be overlooked. The growth of wealth and the development of states, opened to the elite and their followers new paths to fame and fortune; and, increasingly, those who adopted the military life were a specialized group, pre-eminently of the relatively young. But this was a group through which many passed to later eminence in civil life and, in any case, all who were of the elite had to remain militarized to a degree, because that was a mark of status.

This self-conscious military elite needed the services of others. Infantry could provide simple mass, which was at times useful, although they tended to play a more passive role in combat, where the initiative usually lay with the cavalry. Bowmen and crossbowmen added power to any army, while even in this age certain kinds of technicians were needed, to build and operate machines or dig mines. Such ranges and numbers of people could not be provided generally from the entourages and estates of even great lords and so had to be hired when needed. However, the episodic nature of war, and the obvious contempt of the ruling elite for all others, meant that such forces were rarely provided with the continuity that they needed to become coherent forces. Even in the thirteenth century, when royal and princely states waged war on a considerable scale, it was only rarely that units were kept together long enough to realize their military potential. This was largely the result of financial circumstance, but social exclusivity played its part: the Grand Catalan Company was universally hated when it destroyed the flower of the chivalry of Frankish Greece. This period witnessed an aristocratic domination of war, but the official doctrine of a monopoly was a myth. War demands excellence, and this is rarely confined to a convenient social group. By the end of the thirteenth century in England, we find that catch-all term, “man-at-arms” emerging. The wide diffusion of good weapons and the growth of royal arsenals was expanding the range of those admitted to the military elite, but social exclusivity continued to influence armies throughout the Middle Ages.

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One thought on “Mercenaries in the age of the Crusades

  1. Pingback: Episode 125: Deal with the Consequences Later: Vigilantes – Just A Story

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