Warriors and the Tools of Their Trade I

Changes in the supply of and the demand for medieval and Renaissance mercenaries reflected the attractiveness, or lack of it, of alternative employment. Prosperity drove down the supply of mercenaries because then there were many better-paid and far less hazardous civilian jobs to be had. On the other hand, economic downturns, or even temporary and localized outbreaks of peace, increased the supply because there were fewer alternatives. That said, consistent warfare, like that of the Hundred Years’ War, opened up military careers, steady employment, and the hope of ransoms.

Because of the violence, importance, and duration of the Hundred Years’ War, a few words on it may be useful here. This was a very bitter, protracted, and intermittent series of conflicts between England and France which extended from about 1337 to 1453 and which France eventually won. This victory was due in part to the great medieval French general Bertrand du Guesclin (ca. 1320–1380), who as commander of the mercenary companies of France used a Fabian strategy to win back most of the territory that France had lost to the English. (A Fabian strategy, named after the Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, avoids pitched battles and frontal assaults and concentrates instead on wearing down an opponent through a long war of attrition.)

In the broadest terms, the underlying cause of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) was the gradual breakdown of the feudal order in Western Europe and its replacement by a new order of nations which paid increasing attention to their own national ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses. In narrower terms and less soaring language, the Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of France and their various allies for control of the French throne.

The belligerents in the Hundred Years’ War included:

• For the House of Valois: France, Castile, Scotland, Genoa, Majorca, Bohemia, the Crown of Aragon, and Brittany.

• For the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou: England, Burgundy, Aquitaine (contemporary chroniclers used the names Aquitaine and Gascony interchangeably), Brittany, Portugal, Navarre, Flanders, Hainaut, Luxembourg, and the Holy Roman Empire.

In this war, as in many other medieval and Renaissance conflicts, the differences between noble knights, on the one hand, and cutthroat highwaymen, on the other, were never very clear. The military equipment of the day could be used equally well by any man trained to handle it. The dagger of the knight, for example, was not significantly different from the dagger of the highwayman. As the modern scholar Nicholas Wright explains,

Captains of the Free Companies, who acquired their wealth and reputation as freebooters, moved in and out of princely service with an ease which suggested no sense of impropriety: they married into the traditional aristocracy, acquired titles of nobility and offices of high command within the armies of rival kings, and they achieved immortality alongside the Black Prince and Sir John Chandos in the pages of Froissart’s chronicles.

Perhaps we should explain here that Jean Froissart (ca. 1337–ca. 1405) was a French historian, poet, priest, and one of the most important chroniclers of medieval France. He focused very hard on his writing, describing it as being like the labor of a blacksmith. He tells us: “je suis de nouveau entré dans ma forge pour travailler et forger en la noble matière du temps passé” (“Once again I entered my forge [i.e., my office] to hammer out there something from the noble material of former times”).

The text of Froissart’s famous Chronicles is preserved in more than 100 illuminated manuscripts, illustrated by a variety of miniaturists. One of the most lavish of these copies was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuse, a Flemish nobleman, in the 1470s. Its four volumes, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), contain 112 colorful miniatures by well-known Brugeois artists of the day. In the Conclusions chapter of our own book, we will specifically direct the reader’s attention to one of these volumes, namely BNF FR 2643, because it contains such exceptionally useful pictures of medieval warfare.

Froissart’s avowed purpose was to describe, for the edification of future generations of warriors, the “great enterprises, fine feats of arms, which took place during the wars waged by France and England.” To this extent, he was not an impartial observer, being too prone to glorify the often-sordid military events of the past as examples of true chivalry. Nevertheless, he is such a good observer and he is still so readable that we shall quote him frequently in this book, referring to him simply as “Froissart.

In general, war or no war, medieval mercenaries consistently received wages comparable to those earned by skilled civilian craftsmen. This was not unreasonable because they were in fact skilled military craftsmen. Unlike their civilian counterparts, however, mercenary soldiers could also profit (more or less legally, or at least with minimal fear of any punishment) from the many opportunities to rape, loot, and pillage that came their way in the course of campaigning. This could be a very lucrative calling. For example, an unidentified mercenary, campaigning near the prosperous towns of southwestern France in the mid–14th century, reported that

when we rode out seeking adventure, we captured several rich merchants from the towns of Toulouse, Condom, La Réole or Bergerac. Every day we did not fail to stuff our pockets with superfluous and pretty things.

Peasants were unarmed except for their knives and were usually too intimidated to offer any resistance to mercenaries who planned to pillage their villages, but there are some documented exceptions. In December 1373, for example, according to the testimony of 10 “poor laborers” of the parish of Saint-Romain-sur-Cher in the French province of Loir-et-Cher, two strangers armed with swords and wearing heavy jackets rode into their village with the clear intention of stealing property, demanding ransoms, and raping women. They were known as pillars (i.e., pillagers) and were part of one of the larger companies of soldiers who were then terrorizing the district. The villagers were so terrified that all of them fled into the nearby woods and stayed there for several days. They seem to have plucked up their courage later on, however, for this account ends with the death, by drowning, of the two pillars.

During the High Middle Ages (from about 1000 to 1300), major military operations were very complicated undertakings. Italian armies of the 13th century, for example, consisted of feudal, militia, and mercenary elements, with a gradual but steady increase of mercenary companies by the end of the century. Armies could easily include a wide range of forces. The king or leader could bring his household and other close followers on campaigns with him. He might also be accompanied by the retinues of his great vassals and sometimes by allies over whom he had very limited control. Retinues were divided into horse and foot. Some men were present only because of their tenurial or other obligations to a superior, but pay was also widely used as an inducement. (Under feudal law, a tenurial obligation was one in which a person held land from a superior in exchange for providing military or other service to that superior.) By the end of the Middle Ages—and, indeed, long before then—it was not always clear which men fought because of their military obligations and which fought of their own free will. In fact, both certainly expected to be paid. As the modern scholar John France tells us,

Perhaps the best indication that there were large numbers of knights and foot-soldiers who served for pay is the celebrated penance of Henry II for the murder of Becket [Archbishop of Canterbury], which provided that the king was to finance 200 knights to serve with the Knights Templars [one of the most famous Christian military orders].

Thus while all mercenaries were paid men, not all paid men were mercenaries.

The question of pay became an important one in social terms. In classical Latin, the word mercenarius simply means “hireling” but it came to have very negative connotations in the Middle Ages because, in the Gospel of St. John, Christ describes himself as the Good Shepherd—in sharp contrast to the unreliable hired shepherd who is only a hired man (in Latin: quia mercennarius est), who does not own the sheep himself, and who thus feels no responsibility to take excellent care of them.

In medieval times, then, to label a man as a mercenary was to imply that he was merely an unreliable paid man of lowly birth, rather than a chivalrous warrior of high social standing. Mercenaries were never to be trusted: church bells rang to alert the residents of villages and towns in southern France when they were sighted.12 Rank-and-file mercenaries (though not their senior officers) stood only on the far fringes of society and were thought by their social superiors to lack the ethics necessary to bind them to good behavior.

Perhaps for this reason, contemporary chroniclers tended to avoid applying the term mercenarius to real mercenaries. Geoffroy de Brueil, the abbot of Vigeois (France) from 1170 to 1184, knew many mercenaries and was horrified by the damage they caused. He was an eyewitness to their deeds and was prominent at the time of the Capuchin movement—an anti-mercenary movement by townspeople and peasants whose prosperity was threatened by mercenary depredations. But when he used the term mercenarios, he was referring not to such soldiers but rather to clergymen who had been corrupted by rich living.15 Indeed, many medieval chroniclers had a very low opinion of mercenaries. As the troubadour Bertrand de Born confessed in 1194,

I have as much affection for the Basque routiers as for greedy prostitutes. [Routiers were freelance soldiers fighting on their own account; the mercenary companies to which they belonged where known as routes]. Sacks of sterling pennies and Capetian moutons [i.e., French gold coins] offend me when they are the product of fraud. A household knight who shows himself greedy ought to be hung, along with the magnate who sells his services. No man ought to pursue Lady Greed, who sells her favours for money.

Yet, in point of fact, pay was always important. In 1261, Brother Thomas Bérard, master of the Knights Templar, complained in a letter to Brother Amadeus, the grand commander of the Order in England, that in the Holy Land the Order was having great difficulty hiring mercenaries there. These men (quite understandably, to our eyes) wanted to receive not only their daily living expenses but also danger pay as well. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries many nobles hired mercenaries from the Rhineland (i.e., the lands on either side of the River Rhine in Central Europe) and from the Meuse (named after the River Meuse in northeastern France). In 1297, 1300, and 1302, hundreds of mercenaries were recruited into the army of the counts of Flanders. Although all these men fought bravely enough on the battlefield, they made a bad impression on contemporary chroniclers because they fought purely for money. The Belgian chronicler Louis of Veltham, for example, says that they loved only wine, good food, and money.

The medievalist John France explains this anti-mercenary prejudice in the following terms:

there were very strong social and cultural reasons for a framework of language which hides much reality from us. Roger of Sicily, of the Hauteville family who conquered South Italy in the eleventh century, was happy to tell his family historian that once he had lived as a brigand.19 But in the twelfth century the European nobility [was] rather more fussy … about how it presented itself and anxious to stand aloof from others. Hence care was taken to distance the “proper soldiers,” the aristocrats and their dependents, from others who fought. Somewhere in that grey and uncertain gap a man might become a mercenary, but quite where the change took place is uncertain. In a world where a landed knight might serve both as a vassal and as a paid man, this is hardly surprising.

Social niceties aside, it is clear that the combat abilities of medieval forces varied considerably. Virtually all the knights and men-at-arms were exceptionally well-trained, having begun learning their military skills as boys. At the age of seven, for example, they were sent to the castles and homes of wealthy relatives or local lords to begin the years of training needed to become a knight. From the age of seven to fourteen they served as pages in these households. From fourteen to twenty-one they were in effect apprentice knights and were known as squires. Each young man had to develop excellent equestrian skills, a very high level of physical fitness, and the ability to use a wide range of weapons effectively—beginning, perhaps, with wooden or blunt swords.

It is also probable that at least some of them were taught how to swim. In 1167 King Henry II of England deployed tactical units of mercenaries at the siege of the town of Chaumont in France. In a brilliantly executed tactical operation, he secretly sent his Welsh mercenaries swimming down the River Epte towards the town, while he approached the gates of the town at the head of his army. His presence there goaded the French to sally forth to meet the English in battle. As the French troops left the gates and began to form up into their battle array, the Welsh swimmers were able to enter the town from behind and to set fire to the buildings. The French forces, trapped between Henry II’s army and the burning town, rushed back into Chaumont to douse the flames. Henry II and his men followed hard on their heels, however, and victoriously took possession of the gates and thus the town.

Virtually nothing is known today about how the “common mercenary,” to coin a phrase, was trained. In order to be hired as a mercenary, he had to persuade his employer that he had the military skills his employer wanted. Most probably, he mastered them on his own, during earlier campaigns in the field. In this learning process, he doubtless got some friendly advice from his fellow soldiers and no end of blisteringly-harsh criticisms from his immediate superior, who was probably a corporal, i.e., the lowest-ranking non-commissioned officer.

Some knights and men-at-arms were full-time professional mercenaries. Not much is known about their tactics, but they were probably the same as those used by non-mercenary knights.23 They could fight as well on foot as well as from the saddle. Philippe de Commines (1447-ca. 1511), a writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France and a good observer of the local scene, reported that in the late 15th century

it was then the most honourable practice among the Burgundians [i.e., among their knights] that they should dismount with the archers, and always a great number of gentlemen did so in order that the common soldiers might be reassured and fight better. They had learned this method from the English.

Most mercenaries were not knights or men-at-arms but, to use modern American or British military slang, simply G.I.s or squaddies serving temporary tours of duty. Nevertheless, when compared to the ill-armed, undisciplined, and untrained rabble that comprised the bulk of the infantry, the mercenaries—whether cavalry or infantry—were experienced, skilled soldiers. Since in medieval times there were no organized programs through which a common man could learn and develop military skills, the mercenaries’ on-the-job training was such a valuable asset that a commander would pay well to have them on his side. Let us trace very briefly some of the initial stages of their rise in the medieval conflicts of Western Europe.

There are records of mercenaries in Venice as early as the 10th century. In France, in 991, Count Fulk Nerra of Anjou employed mercenaries—probably experienced specialists such as engineers and crossbowmen—against Count Conan of Brittany. The Old French chansons de geste (“tales of heroic deeds”) of the late 11th century refer to them, too. Pope Leo IX (1002–1054) hired an army of mercenaries in Germany to fight against the Norman knights who had drifted into southern Italy and were working as mercenaries for the local lords. Countess Richildis of Hainault (ca. 1034–1088; Hainault is now part of modern Belgium) used mercenaries against Robert the Frisian of Flanders. William the Conqueror recruited many knights and adventurers in France when he launched his conquest of England in 1066. He hired many others there 19 years later, when Canute IV of Denmark and Robert the Frisian were planning an invasion of England in 1085.

In later chapters we will have much more to say about mercenaries in action, but it is important to note here that despite their formidable military skills, medieval mercenaries also had two important defects. The first was that they were expensive. The second was perhaps more important. While it was easy enough to hire them, it could be very dangerous to fire them. When discharged, having no other source of income, they often metamorphosed into heavily-armed bands of marauders or mercenaries who raped, looted, burned, and pillaged their way across the defenseless countryside. Especially during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), such men variously found employment in royal field armies, in royal and private garrisons, and in private mercenary companies—as dictated by royal policies, by local circumstances, and by their own needs. The English kings, for example, were quite happy to turn their discharged mercenaries loose on France.

Henry Deifle, the great 19th century Dominican historian, wrote that his studies in the Vatican archives (regarding the destruction of churches and monasteries in France during the Hundred Years’ War) revealed that this long war was “an endless and grimly monotonous succession of massacres, fires, pillaging, ransoms, destructions, losses of harvests and cattle, rapes and—to make an end of it—every sort of calamity.” Mercenaries must have been responsible for a good part of these losses.

Whether under contract or freelance, mercenaries used the same weapons as their non-mercenary comrades-in-arms. These can be broadly categorized as follows; a few of them will be discussed in this same order:

• Bladed edged weapons (swords, daggers, and knives)

• Blunt hand weapons (various kinds of clubs and maces)

• Polearms (wooden poles with metal points or blades mounted on them, e.g., spears, lances, and pikes). In the 14th century, the development of plate armor actually encouraged the development of various pole arms: even if they could not always break through the armor, the fierce, well-focused blows they delivered often caused blunt trauma to the knights.

• Missile weapons (that is, weapons used at a distance, e.g., bows, crossbows, early firearms, stone-throwers, and cannons)

• Other medieval weapons and tools of the trade (equipment for siege warfare; chemical, biological, and psychological weapons; armor; and horses)

Because the study of medieval weapons and armor is a specialized and complex calling, in this book we will content ourselves with brief descriptions of some of the most interesting weapons and tools of the trade used by medieval and Renaissance soldiers. Our goal here will be to get a better understanding of this type of warfare.

The first and symbolically by far the most important weapon was the arming sword, also called a knight’s sword or knightly sword. This was the single-handed cruciform sword (i.e., its hilt was shaped like a cross) of the High Middle Ages. A modern expert on medieval weapons writes that

as a knight or professional soldier trained with his weapons, he developed a sense of distance and timing to set him apart from his contemporaries who were not so highly trained. Highly-trained men-at-arms, mercenaries, and the city militias of the guilds learned not merely how to cut [with a sword], or even to cut effectively, but to cut with extreme precision at full force.

Not surprisingly, medieval culture attached a great deal of symbolic importance to the sword. The Song of Roland, a famous 11th century poem, offers proof of this point. This long poem is an important part of the “Matter of France”—a body of literature and legendary material associated with Charlemagne and the history of France. The Matter of France is one of the “Three Matters” repeatedly cited in medieval literature. As the medieval French poet Jean Bodel tells us:

Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,

De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.

[There are but three literary cycles that no one should be without: the Matter of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.]

The Matter of France focuses on the deeds of Roland and of the paladins, sometimes known as the Twelve Peers, who were the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court. The Matter of Britain deals with King Arthur and the legendary history of Great Britain. The Matter of Rome focuses on medieval interpretations of Greek and Roman mythology.

The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, a literary form which flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries and which celebrated heroic deeds. It is based on the battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees in 778, during the Muslim invasion of southern France. The great sword Durendal, swung by Roland, the hero of the story, was said to have contained within its golden hilt a piece of the clothing of the Virgin Mary, along with other precious holy relics. In the story, Roland heroically wields Durendal in a desperate rear-guard action against the Muslims, successfully slowing the advance of the massive Muslim army and thus giving Emperor Charlemagne and his forces the time they need to retreat safely from Spain into France.

In the interests of historical accuracy, however, we must note here that, over the years, local oral tradition seized upon this battle and began to portray it as a major conflict between Christian and Muslim armies. In point of fact, it was a large guerrilla force of local Basques, angered by Charlemagne’s harsh treatment of the Basque people, who attacked Charlemagne’s detachment.

When Roland feels himself near death and sees that the Muslim army cannot possibly be stopped no matter what he does, he vainly tries to break Durendal by smashing it against the mountainside—to prevent it from being captured by the Muslims. To quote The Song of Roland:

Roland gazes at the twinkling sword, murmuring to himself, “Ah, Durendal, how beautiful you are, how you shine, how white you shine! How against the sun you gleam and return fire for fire! … Together we have conquered Anjou and Brittany. Together we have won Poitou and Maine, and fair Normandy, Provence and Aquitaine, Lombardy and Romagna [i.e., Rumania], Bavaria and Flanders, and even Burgundy! Together we have won Constantinople and Poland, Saxony, Scotland, England…. For you, Durendal, I feel such heavy grief. May France never have to say that you are in pagan hands!” Desperately Roland strikes the brown rock with all his power and might. The sword neither splinters nor breaks, only bounces away from the rock.

Since Roland cannot destroy Durendal, he hides it under his body as he sinks down into death. The place where he tried to break this famous sword—splitting the mountain in the process—is still known today as La Brèche de Roland (Roland’s Breach). This is in fact a natural gap in the mountains, 131 feet wide and 328 feet deep, at an altitude of 9,199 feet, located in the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees. Often visited by tourists, it forms part of the border between France and Spain.

The longsword (also spelled long-sword) of the late medieval period (ca. 1350 to 1550) was important in fact and fiction. Up to 4 feet long and weighing as much as 5 to 8 pounds, it had a cruciform hilt and was usually gripped tightly by both hands. Longswords—unsurpassed for hewing, slicing, and stabbing—were prized for their killing capabilities in close combat. Moreover, in hand-to-hand fighting, their long hilts could be used for tripping an opponent or knocking him off balance. A knight armed with a longsword was thus not a man to trifle with. Finally, contemporary accounts assure us that the longsword also provided the foundation for learning how to use other infantry weapons, e.g., spears, staves, and polearms.

A knight’s arming sword was typically used in conjunction with a buckler (a small shield 6 to 18 inches in diameter) and was a light, well-balanced, versatile weapon which could be used both to cut and to thrust. The arming sword was worn by a knight even when he was not in armor; in fact, if he appeared in public without it he would be considered as being shamefully undressed.

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