Orderly Knighthood

“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.

The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.

Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”

War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)

As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.

The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.

The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”

With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.

The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.

Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.

The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.

The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.

The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.

Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.

Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.

In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.

The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.

To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.

The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.

At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.

The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castlebuilding spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.

One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.

One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.

The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.

The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.

But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.

The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.

The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.

War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.

The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.


The Salian (German, Salier) dynasty, which produced four kings or emperors in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, traced its roots back to at least the seventh century to a kinship group (Adelssippe) known as the Widonen that held high administrative positions and occasionally occupied the episcopal chair in Trier. At an early date they established a proprietary monastery (Hauskloster) at Mettlach on the Saar River, and by 742 or shortly before, they had founded a second such institution at Hornbach in the Bliesgau (Blies District, now in Rheinland-Pfalz). In about 760 a small monastery, that of St. Philip at Zell, west of Worms on the Pfrimm, belonged to the Widonen as well. The main center of Widonen power lay more or less in the area between Metz, Trier, Idar-Oberstein, and Pirmasens.

The Widonen appear as important helpers of the Carolingians. They and other noble families played a major role in building up the Frankish government as the Carolingians once again began to renew lordship rights east of the Rhine. At the end of the eighth century, the Widonen kinship split into various branches that established bases of power in Britanny, in the area of the lower Loire, and above all in the duchy of Spoleto. Duke Wido of Spoleto was ambitious and powerful enough that in 888 he laid claim to the throne of Burgundy. Though this lofty plan failed, he did manage to acquire the imperial crown in 891.

One branch of the family remained in the original homeland, and in the course of the ninth century their lordship spread outward from the Bliesgau (centered at Hornbach, since Mettlach was lost early on to the archbishop of Trier) into the Wormsgau and Speyergau. At the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth centuries, we encounter a Count Werner in the Wormsgau (891), Nahegau (891), and Speyergau (906), who was most probably a member of the Widonen kinship and from whom the line of Salian ancestors continues without interruption. Werner appears in the narrative sources as a violent man who gave his support to the Conradian monarchy; he even married one, probably a sister of Conrad I (911–919), which placed his family in the direct vicinity of the king.

Although the German crown passed to Henry I, duke of Saxony, in 919 and, upon his death, to his son Otto I, the Conradings struggled to create a Rhine-Frankish duchy for themselves; their defeat in the rebellion of 939 made way for the rise of the Salians as the dominant family on the Middle Rhine. Count Werner’s son Conrad, surnamed “the Red,” appears as count in the Nahegau, Wormsgau, and Speyergau, but also in the Niddagau, north of Frankfurt. As early as 941 he appears in the closest proximity of Otto I, and his ties to the Ottonian house were solidified by marriage in 947 to the daughter of Otto I, Liudgard. In 944 (or 945) he obtained the duchy of Lorraine from the king, i.e., the region from Alsace to the mouth of the Rhine, between the Meuse and the Rhine, with the tasks of defending the realm on the west and of subduing the Lotharingian nobility.

But Conrad the Red was perhaps too ambitious, and in 953 he joined a rebellion of Otto the Great’s oldest son, Liudolf, against the king. Otto retaliated by stripping Conrad of his duchy in 953/4 and transferring important comital, or ducal, rights in the city of Mainz and in the area of Bingen to the archbishop. Conrad shortly thereafter made peace with the king, and in 955 he led the Frankish forces at the battle of Lechfeld; he died during the conflict and was buried at Worms Cathedral, in a fashion normally reserved for kings and bishops.

By now, Worms had become an important family center. It was the site of a Salian Grafenburg, an old Carolingian royal pfalz, or fortification, and it was also the center of family property and of important lands held by them. In 956, Conrad’s son, Otto II, appears as count in the Nahegau, which he inherited from his father, and in the following years he united the Wormsgau, Speyergau, Niddagau, and other countships between the Neckar and the Rhine (Elsenzgau, Kraichgau, Enzgau, Pfinzgau, perhaps Uffgau)—an almost solid countships-complex in the Middle and Upper Rhine. This accumulation of power caused concern for Emperor Otto II, who, in an effort to remove him from his power base, appointed him duke of Carinthia and margrave of Verona in 978.

Deprived of his dukedom in 985, Otto II returned to his power base on the Rhine. Contemporary sources of the late tenth/early eleventh century refer to him as der Wormser (he of Worms) as a means of distinguishing him from a similarly named duke of Swabia and Bavaria who, like him, was a grandson of Otto the Great. Otto Wormatiensis also appears with the appellation Wormatiensis dux Francorum, a somewhat idiosyncratic term since he in fact had no duchy: he was simply put a “Frankish duke of Worms,” and the royal court seems to have accepted this earliest instance of a “titular dukedom” in German history, a dukedom that rested on the ever increasing nobility and comital lordship with its center at Worms.

The prestige of Duke Otto of Worms helps account for the nomination of his son Bruno, now imperial chaplain (Hofkaplan), to be the successor of Pope John XV. He took the name Gregory V, and it was from him that Otto III, his kinsman, received the imperial crown on May 21, 996. His pontificate was painful, however; there was great resistance from Rome and he was driven out. An antipope (John XVI) was installed briefly, and although Gregory V was restored in February 998, he died in February 999. Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac) succeeded him.

The family position also came under attack closer to home. The concentration of power in the area of Worms inevitably brought about a struggle with the bishop for temporal control. Following the election of Henry II in 1002, the new king heaped favors on the church at Worms that had supported him. With the full backing of Bishop Burchard, King Henry II forced Otto to renounce claims over Worms in October 1002. The decreasing importance of the Salians can also be seen in the fact that, although Otto’s son Conrad briefly held the duchy of Carinthia, when Conrad died in 1011, King Henry passed over Conrad Jr. in favor of Adalbero of Eppstein.

The fortunes of the Salians were dramatically altered by the death of Henry II in July 1024, which left the empire in shambles. Seeking a quick solution, the German princes selected Conrad the Elder, cousin to Conrad Jr., as king. He was consecrated at Mainz on September 24, 1024. He had previously married Gisela, daughter of Duke Hermann II of Swabia, to whom he was closely related. Their son, Henry III, succeeded virtually unopposed to the German throne in 1039, but his early death in 1056 left a small boy as heir. Born in 1050, Henry IV had received consecration as future king on July 17, 1054, and assumed personal rule on March 29, 1065, at Worms. His reign was characterized by the rising opposition of the German nobles to Salian policies and by the prolonged struggle with the papacy (particularly with Gregory VII) over the issue of lay investiture of high church offices. The conflict called forth the most bitter exchange of letters, bulls of excommunication, and depositions. For its shear dramatic value, nothing exceeded the picture of the emperor standing outside the walls of Countess Mathilda of Tuscany’s fortress at Canossa in early 1077, seeking forgiveness from the pontiff, who was determined to travel to Germany, where he planned to preside over Henry’s formal deposition. Canossa prevented that from occurring, and it clearly led to Henry’s gaining the upper hand over Gregory. Henry died in August 1106, just weeks after he himself had escaped from confinement.

His son and the last Salian, Henry V, inherited a very different world than the one his grandfather had known. By 1100 the self-awareness of the nobles as representatives of the interests of the empire was on the rise. This required a new set of relationships between the king and the princes. For the ecclesiastical princes this was the Concordat of Worms of 1122; for the lay princes, it meant incorporating them into a new system during the twelfth century, the Heerschildordnung (order of the coat of arms). Henry V’s death on May 23, 1125, without male heirs gave the German princes the opportunity for a free election: ignoring the blood-right claims of Duke Frederick I of Swabia, who had married Agnes, the daughter of Henry IV, they selected instead Conrad II of Franconia.

The Salian age was one of great building activity in Germany; hardly any Carolingian buildings survived past the mid-eleventh century. Recent scholarship has shown that Conrad II intended from the very beginning that Speyer and not the abbey of Limburg-on-the-Haardt become the family burial place. Speyer appears circa 1000 as a dilapidated bishopric and city, and he breathed new life into it. Construction began in 1025, and by the time Conrad II died in 1039, the crypt was sufficiently completed for his remains to be buried there; his wife, Gisela (d. 1043), and Henry III were buried alongside him. The cathedral was completed and consecrated Oct 4, 1061, by Bishop Gundekar II of Eichstätt. During the reign of his son Henry IV (1080s), however, it was expanded once again, under the direction of the Bauleiter Bishop Benno II of Osnabrück (1068–1088), who also built his own cathedral.

Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy refers to a late phase of eleventh-century Church reform, lasting from ca. 1078–1122. Sometimes, however, the term is used incorrectly to cover the entire period of reform from the 1050s to 1122, the date of the Concordat of Worms. The term describes the struggle between the papacy (sacerdotium) and the European monarchies (regnum) over the participation of the ruler in the making of bishops and abbots through the handing over of the ring and crosier (bishop’s staff) with the words “receive the church.” The wording of this phrase shows that an investiture referred to the bishopric or abbey in general and did not distinguish between the office and the rights and property that came with it.

The term “investiture” did not occur before the second half of the eleventh century, but the custom reached back to the tenth. The investiture ceremony differed according to place and time, but the handing over of the symbols of ring and staff—they had been sent to the royal court after the death of the previous bishop—often occurred in conjunction with the commendation of the candidate to the king and a promise of fealty. Both ceremonies had been described as homage (hominium or homagium) since the late eleventh century. In many sources these terms are implicitly included when only investiture is mentioned.

Investiture should not be confused with election or consecration, although investiture was the single most important factor in the success of a candidate. For many years popes did not object to investiture, which was seen as the natural and customary expression of secular influence and power. The ceremony assured rulers of the loyalty of the wealthy and politically powerful bishops and abbots who were required to fulfill the servitium regis, or obligations to royalty, consisting of property fees, hospitality, military support, and court attendance. In the Empire, the Ottonian and early Salian rulers at times added to those obligations the rights and properties of counties.

Pope Gregory VII pronounced the first general legally binding prohibition of investiture by any lay person at the Roman Council of November 1078. No cleric was allowed to obtain the investiture of a bishopric, abbey, or church from the hands of the emperor or king, or any layman or lay woman. The prohibition was strengthened at the Lenten synod of 1080. Gregory’s successors continued to uphold these decrees, which Pope Urban II expanded to include homage at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Under Pope Paschal II the reference to homage was omitted in the case of England, but, apart from a short period in 1111/1112, when his hands were tied by the privilege Henry V had extorted from him, Paschal, too, insisted on strict prohibition of investiture. He succeeded in obtaining the acceptance of these principles in France (1107) as well as England (1105/1106). The settlement of the dispute for the Empire had to wait until 1122.

When Gregory VII deposed and excommunicated King Henry IV for the first time in February 1076, the investiture prohibition had not yet been fully formalized, but Henry’s investiture of bishops in Milan, Fermo, and Spoleto doubtless was the provocation behind his excommunication. Beginning in the tenth century, German kings and emperors had relied to such an extent on the collaboration with ecclesiastics (Ottonian-Salian Church system) that the prohibition of investiture, which had assured them of the control of bishoprics and abbeys, threatened to undermine the monarchy entirely. At the assembly of Worms in January 1076, the German and Italian episcopate, with a few exceptions, had remained united behind the king. However, the investiture prohibitions, the election of the anti-king Rudolf of Swabia (March 15, 1077), and the final condemnation of Henry IV by Gregory VII (March 7, 1080) forged a powerful coalition between the noble opponents of the monarchy and papal adherents among bishops and abbots. Negotiations and battles between the two parties, which varied only temporarily in composition, followed upon one another for nearly thirty years. Not until 1109 (Tractatus de investitura) were there any signs of compromise. Henry’s nomination of Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna at the synod of Brixen (June 25, 1080; consecration in St. Peter’s Basilica as Clement III, March 24, 1084) transformed the Investiture Controversy into a struggle between regnum and sacerdotium, as evidenced by the numerous polemical writings edited in the Libelli de Lite.

The Investiture Controversy in France was much less dogmatic than in the Empire. The French kings Philip I (1059–1108) and Louis VI (1098–1137), as well as the nobility, also used the wealth, power, and property of bishoprics and abbeys in order to strengthen their own positions, but their situation was very different than either Germany or England. The kings and nobles of France divided among themselves the secular influence over the French church. Only about twenty-five French dioceses out of a total of about seventy-seven were open to royal influence. The tensions between Rome and Philip I were acute, but the issues in this case were the introduction of ecclesiastical reform and Philip’s marital problems. Philips excommunication and the interdict pronounced against him were purely pastoral punishments and had nothing to do with investiture. In France the investiture prohibitions of 1077/1078, first pronounced by the legate Hugh of Die, were only a minor additional irritant in the exercise of royal influence in those dioceses where the Capetians had always had to anticipate difficulties. Both popes and kings were always willing to compromise on investiture when absolutely necessary.

As exemplified in writings of the canonist Ivo of Chartres at the turn of the century, the argument for a differentiation between the temporalities and spiritualities connected to bishoprics and abbeys slowly gained ground. This differentiation would allow a king to invest an ecclesiastic with the temporalities (secular rights and property) of a see not by the ring and crosier, but by using some other symbol. Ring and staff had come to be understood as spiritual symbols that were not to be touched by the hands of laymen. It appears that, at the meeting between Pope Paschal II and the French kings at St. Denis (April 30–May 3, 1107), an agreement was reached on this basis. If a candidate were elected canonically, the king could invest him with the temporalities of his see. The king renounced the use of investiture, but in the case of a bishop, the bishop would promise fealty.

William I (1066–1087) brought to an end the English isolation from continental developments. However, papal willingness to compromise postponed a struggle over investiture till the time of Henry I (1100–1135) and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. As an exile, Anselm had been present at the Roman synod of 1099 where Urban II had repeated the prohibition of investiture and homage. Anselm considered himself bound to obey the papal decrees and, therefore, refused to accept investiture from Henry I. After negotiations beginning in Normandy in July 1105, Henry I declared that he would no longer insist on investiture but would continue to require the homage of prelates. Relying on the papal right to grant dispensation, Paschal II allowed Anselm of Canturbury in March 1106 to consecrate bishops who had done homage to the king but had not been invested by him. This compromise was criticized at an assembly in August 1107.


Böhn, Georg Friedrich. “Salier, Emichonen und das Weistum des Pfalzgräflichen Hofes Alzey.” Veröffent-lichungen des Instituts für Geschichtliche Landeskunde an der Universität Mainz 10 (1974): 12–96.

Boshof, Egon. Die Salier. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1987.

Blumenthal, Uta-Renate. The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Büttner, Heinrich. “Das Bistum Worms und der Neckarraum während des früh- und Hochmittelalters.” Archiv für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte 10 (1958): 9–38.

Das Reich der Salier 1024–1125: Katalog zur Ausstellung des Landes Rheinland-Pfalz. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1992.

Weinfurter, Stefan. Herrschaft und Reich der Salier: Grundlinien einer Umbruchzeit. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1992.

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.

Warriors and the Tools of Their Trade II

Daggers were important, too. A dagger has a double-edged blade and is primarily designed for stabbing or thrusting. A knife has a single-edged blade, which is best at cutting, although some daggers and knives can be used for stabbing, thrusting, and cutting. In the Middle Ages—and, indeed even today—daggers and knives are usually backup weapons designed for last-ditch personal survival.

With the appearance of plate armor during the Middle Ages, however, the dagger came into its own as a very useful offensive weapon. It could be used to stab through the gaps in an enemy’s armor, e.g., under the arm, with the objective of piercing the heart. One type of dagger—the stiletto—was known as the “misericorde,” meaning “mercy.” Its pointed, strong blade was used to give a fatally-wounded opponent the coup de grace (“mercy strike”) to end his suffering. A rondel dagger could penetrate a suit of armor either through the joints or under the visor of a helmet. This dagger had a long, slim blade tapering to a needle point. “Rondel” means round or circular; the weapon gets its name from its round hand guard and pommel. It could be used to force a wounded knight, or one who had been thrown from his horse and was stunned by the fall, to surrender and be held for ransom.

A mace is a strong shaft with a heavy head made of metal or stone. During the Middle Ages, mail and later plate armor protected the wearer from edged weapons and projectiles, e.g., arrows and crossbow bolts (crossbow bolts were also known as quarrels). Solid metal maces were able to injure or kill an armored man, bloodlessly, because the shock of a heavy blow from a mace was enough to cause a concussion (a traumatic brain injury) without actually penetrating the armor or tearing the flesh. Flanged maces, however, had protruding edges which allowed them, when swung by a strong arm, to dent badly or even penetrate the very best armor.

In the Bayeux Tapestry (an embroidered cloth, made in England in the 1070s, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066), Bishop Odo of Bayeux is shown swinging a mace at the battle of Hastings in 1066. Clergy often used maces in warfare to avoid the religious prohibition of clerics shedding blood: maces caused wounds or death by concussion. Clergymen fought on the battlefield in person until about 1540. William the Conqueror is also depicted in the Tapestry carrying a mace. Finally, the mace was a favorite weapon of the Italian mercenaries in the 14th century.

The bayonet on a modern rifle is the descendant of ancient polearms, such as the spear. After the waning of the Roman Empire, the spear continued to be used by almost all Western European cultures. Cheap and easy to make, it remained the main weapon of the common soldier in medieval times. To withstand cavalry attacks, the butts of the shafts could be set into the ground, with the spearheads sharply angled upward toward the enemy. In the 11th century, when used on horseback with stirrups and high-canted saddles to help the rider keep his seat, the spear—now in the form of a nine-foot-long lance—became a most formidable weapon.

We must note here, in the interests of historical accuracy, that the word “lance” was also used in Italy in the mid–15th century to describe a three-man combat team. This consisted of a man-at-arms, who was the lance-bearer and sometimes—but not always—a knight; his sergeant, and his page. Outfitting a lance was always expensive: in early 15th century Poland, for example, it cost the equivalent of 30 head of cattle.

In the “couched lance” technique, a mounted knight would grip his lance firmly with one hand, tucking it securely under his armpit, and would use his other hand to guide and control the horse. When mastered after long years of practice, all the momentum of horse and rider was focused on the tip of the lance. The medieval sport of jousting help knights to practice and perfect their skills with the lance.

A pike is a very long thrusting weapon used by infantrymen, both for attacks on enemy foot soldiers and to defend themselves against cavalry charges. Ranging in length from 10 feet to over 20 feet, a pike had a wooden shaft with a metal spearhead attached to its end. The great length of pikes presented an oncoming enemy with a formidable concentration of spearheads, while at the same time keeping the pikemen themselves at some distance from their targets. Pikes were too long to use in close combat, however, so a pikeman also had to be armed with a sword, mace, or dagger to defend himself if enemies broke through the wall of pikes. By 1600, musketeers had driven all but the pikemen from the battlefield because the musket was able to pierce armor at 80 meters.

In the Middle Ages, urban militias such as the Flemings (natives of Flanders) and the lowland Scotts were the principal users of pikes. So long as pike formations stood their ground, mounted men-at-arms could not overrun them, but these densely-packed formations were very vulnerable to massed fire from archers and crossbowmen. If the pike formations could be weakened or broken in this manner, they could then be attacked by dismounted men-at-arms. Knights fought on foot either when the terrain was too difficult for combat on horseback or when they wanted by their example to stiffen the ranks of the foot soldiers and to encourage them. The soldiers understood very well that, when dismounted, the knights were as fully committed to the fight as they were: they had no way to escape.

The deep pike attack column was very effective in the late medieval period. The Swabian War of 1499 between the Old Swiss Confederacy and the House of Habsburg involved both Swiss and Swabian pike-armed mercenaries and in all but a few minor skirmishes the more experienced Swiss soldiers defeated the Swabian and Habsburg armies. The Swabian War was the first conflict in which both sides deployed large formations of well-trained pikemen, but the ever-improving skills of artillerymen and arquebusiers proved, later on, that the time of the pikeman was already passing.

We turn now to two of the most famous weapons of medieval warfare and thus of medieval mercenaries—the English longbow and the Italian crossbow. Both are weapons that project arrows by means of their elasticity, i.e., they are a type of spring. As the bow is drawn, energy is stored in the limbs as potential energy. Physics teaches us that potential energy is the stored energy of position possessed by an object. When the bow is not drawn, i.e., when it is in its usual equilibrium position, there is no energy stored in it. But when its position is altered from its usual equilibrium position, i.e., when an archer is ready to shoot, the bow is able to store energy by virtue of its new position. This stored energy of position is referred to as potential energy.

Draw weight is a measurement of how much effort is required to bring a bow to full draw. The most powerful English longbows had a draw weight of up to 200 pounds at 32 inches of draw. They were thus far more powerful than the average hunting bow, which traditionally had a draw weight of only about 50 pounds at 28 inches of draw. Because of their constant practice since youth, English archers could handle very heavy bows. Ninety-two fairly complete English skeletons recovered from the wreck of the warship Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent (a stretch of sea separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland of England) in 1545 and was raised in 1982, give proof of repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder and lower spine—almost certainly the result of constant practice with such bows. English (and the Welsh) archers used their powerful longbows to great effect in the civil wars of the times and in the Hundred Years’ War against the French. A skilled longbow man could release 10 to 12 arrows per minute. A modern commentator has remarked, “The longbow was the machinegun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of long range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missiles was likened to a storm.”

There are many contemporary reports about the tremendous power of longbows in the hands of experts. In one such account, we are told by the archdeacon Giraldus Cambrensis that during the siege of the Welsh castle of Abergavenny in 1182, arrows pierced an oak door four inches thick. The arrows were left sticking in the door, their tips being just visible on the inner side of the door. In another account, a knight was pinned to his horse by an arrow that went through the flap of his mail shirt, pierced his mail breeches, his thigh, his wooden saddle, and came to rest in the flank of his horse.

Good as the longbow was, the crossbow had its merits, too. The Saracens called the crossbow qaws Ferengi (“Frankish bow”) because the Crusaders used it with such great success against Arab and Turkish horsemen. A crossbow had a short, very powerful bow (known as a prod), made of wood or steel and mounted on a wooden stock made of yew, ash, hazel, or elm. Crossbow bolts were much shorter than arrows. Unlike a longbow, which was extremely difficult to draw and which could not be held at full draw for more than a second or two seconds, a crossbow was cocked by means of a mechanical device (a lever or a crank on a ratchet) and did not require a great deal of strength to operate.

It was thus an ideal weapon for a young soldier or even for a boy (it required much less upper body strength than a longbow) or for an exhausted adult soldier. Moreover, thanks to its trigger mechanism, it could also be kept cocked for a long period of time with no effort on the part of the crossbowman. This permitted more accurate aiming when it was finally time to shoot: there were two or three notches on the stock in which to rest the thumb, which could then be lined up with the crossbow bolt to form a rudimentary sight. Early wood crossbows in the Middle Ages had an effective range of about 350 yards; the later powerful steel crossbows were more accurate, had a flatter trajectory, and a longer maximum range (of up to 500 yards).

On the battlefield, a crossbowman was very vulnerable when reloading his weapon—a slow and complicated process. He therefore protected himself by ducking behind a broad, four-to-five-foot-high convex shield known as a pavise, which when marching he carried slung across his back. Before a battle began, he propped up the pavise in front of him so that it would stay put. A pavise could also be used as part of a defensive screen called a pavisade, which was formed by setting up a row of pavises side-by-side. In this whole process, the medieval crossbowman was often assisted by one or more helpers.

Crossbows could not be fired as rapidly as longbows (their rate of fire was only about two crossbow bolts per minute) but they released more kinetic energy. Most of these crossbow bolts could penetrate mail; sometimes, with a solid hit at close range, they could even kill a knight in full armor. Moreover, a raw recruit could be taught how to use a crossbow in only one week, whereas combat competency with a longbow required many years of constant practice. The ability to use the crossbow was widespread. For example, all Venetians learned how to fire one as part of their civic obligations, and it was the usual weapon of garrison troops and town guards.

Anna Comnena (1083–1153), a remarkable Greek aristocrat who was the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium (and also, in her own right, a scholar, a doctor, and a hospital administrator) gives us, in her book the Alexiad, a description of a very powerful crossbow. It was, she says, a fearsome new weapon:

The crossbow is a weapon of the barbarians, absolutely unknown to the Greeks. In order to stretch it one does not pull the string with the right hand while pushing the bow with the left away from the body; this instrument of war, which fires weapons an enormous distance, has to be stretched by laying almost on one’s back; each foot is pressed forcibly against the half-circles of the bow and the two hands tug at the bow, pulling it back with all one’s strength toward the body…. Along [a groove in the stock of the crossbow] arrows of all kinds are fired. They are very short but extremely thick with a heavy iron tip. In the firing the string exerts tremendous violence and force, so that the missiles wherever they strike do not rebound; in fact, they transfix a shield, cut through a heavy iron breastplate and resume their flight on the far side…. Such is the crossbow, a truly diabolical machine.

Although in the 12th century the crossbow almost completely replaced the longbow in most European armies, this was not the case in England. The English preferred their tried and true longbows. Under King Edward I’s sponsorship, Welsh and English archers perfected, through long arduous years of frequent practice, the strength, technique and discipline required to draw the longbow to the ear and then send storms of accurately-aimed arrows into advancing cavalry and infantry formations. Indeed, during the battle of Crécy in 1346, English archers may have fired as many as half a million arrows during the course of this fight. Arrow wounds made horses unmanageable, thus deflecting a cavalry charge; ranks of lightly-protected foot soldiers could easily be decimated.

In the armies of Europe, mounted and unmounted crossbowmen, often supported by archers and javeliners, were assigned to a central position in battle formations. Mounted knights armed with lances were ineffective against formations of pikemen who were combined with crossbowmen, whose weapons could penetrate the armor of many knights. As better mechanisms for cocking crossbows were developed, they could also be used on horseback, leading to new cavalry tactics. Knights and mercenaries were deployed in triangular formations, with the most heavily armored knights in the forefront, some of them carrying small but very powerful all-metal crossbows.

It is interesting to note that crossbows are still said to be used today by commando forces in Serbia, Greece, Turkey, and Spain. Chinese armed forces use crossbows at all unit levels, from traffic police to the elite Snow Leopard Commandos of the Chinese army. One reason for this is the crossbow’s ability to stop persons carrying explosives without the risk of causing detonation. Another is that they kill silently and at a distance—a combination which may be an asset for authorities if they are trying to break up a terrorist or criminal attack.

The rank of commanding officer of the crossbowmen was one of the highest positions in a medieval army. In most European armies, mounted and unmounted crossbowmen, together with archers and javeliners (a javelin was a light spear thrown by hand), were assigned to a central position in battle formations. The crossbowmen would open fire on enemy forces before an attack by the crossbowmen’s forces of mounted knights. Crossbows were also used in counterattacks to protect one’s own infantry.

The arbalest was a later and much more powerful version of the crossbow. It had a steel prod, i.e., a steel bow; was bigger and heavier than earlier crossbows; and, thanks to the greater tensile strength of steel, it delivered far greater force. A large, windlass-cocked arbalest could have up to 5,000 pounds of power and could be accurate (against a very big target, such as a fortification) at more than 900 yards. Arbalests were sometimes considered to be inhumane and unfair weapons because they allowed a lightly-trained commoner to kill, safely and at relatively long range, a noble knight who had perfected his own fighting skills over the course of a lifetime of tournaments and battles.

The same charge must have been levied against the men who learned how to use the first firearms. Soldiers using earlier weapons had needed fitness and skill to operate them effectively. When such men were killed, wounded, or simply ran away, they were very hard to replace on short notice. Gunpowder, i.e., firearms, changed all that. The earliest firearm was known as a hand cannon or as a “gonne,” i.e., a gun. It was a very simple device, consisting of a barrel with some kind of handle attached. In order to fire it, the gunner held the hand cannon in both hands and pointed it in the general direction of the enemy. His assistant then ignited the charge of gunpowder in it by applying a live coal to it, a slow-burning match, or a red-hot iron rod. Alternatively, the hand cannon could be secured to a rest and the gunner could fire it by himself. Projectiles used included small rocks, shaped balls of stone or iron, or very sturdy arrows.

The earliest reliable evidence of the use of gonnes in combat in Europe comes from the 14th century, but it was not until about 1450 that technological advances made them effective on the battlefield. The value of these early firearms was four-fold:

• Unlike the longbow and the crossbow, they could be used effectively by relatively unskilled soldiers. (Flemish and German mercenaries, however, may have been the first men to master these new weapons.)

• At close range, they could pierce heavy armor plate.

• They terrified men and horses that were not used to their fiery, smoky blasts.

• They would contribute greatly to the importance of the infantry, since they spelled the beginning of the end for the armored knight astride his warhorse. In the early 1600s, the Spanish novelist, poet, and playwright Miguel de Cervantes would denounce artillery (and, by extension, firearms in general) as a “devilish invention allowing a base cowardly hand to take the life of the bravest gentleman.”

In the Middle Ages, gunpowder was made from sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal, the proportions of each varying according to different recipes. The earliest manufacturing process used lime saltpeter, which produced calcium nitrate rather than potassium nitrate. Calcium nitrate absorbs moisture very easily, so gunpowder made with it did not last very long. By the 15th century, new techniques for making potassium saltpeter were being developed and gunpowder was being “corned” into granules. This made it a much better propellant, and huge quantities were produced. In 1477, for example, the Duke of Burgundy paid for more than 14,000 pounds of gunpowder. Generous supplies of it were indeed necessary because a large bombard (discussed later) burned about 80 pounds of powder at each shot.

The successor to the hand cannon was the arquebus. This muzzle-loading matchlock weapon was fired from the shoulder, rather than from the hip, which had been the practice with earlier firearms. Used from the 15th to the 17th centuries, it was the forerunner of the musket and the rifle. Good suits of armor might stop arquebus balls at long range but at close range they could penetrate even the toughest armor of knights and other heavy cavalrymen. The first European use of the arquebus in large numbers came about in Hungary under King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490): every fifth infantry soldier in the mercenary Black Army of Hungary carried an arquebus.

Medieval artillery included various kinds of stone-throwing mechanisms and, later, devices using gunpowder, e.g., petards and cannons. A traction trebuchet (a trebuchet is a type of catapult) had a range of up to 1,000 yards and could hurl stones weighing up to 750 pounds. The counterweight trebuchet, developed in the 12th century, could throw 300 pound stones—or, in an early version of biological warfare, the corpses of people who had died from contagious diseases. In 1191, at the siege of Acre in what is now Israel, the English king Richard the Lionhearted had two trebuchets built. One he named “God’s Own Catapult”; the other, “Bad Neighbour.”

When gunpowder weapons were first used in combat, they often had more of a psychological than a physical impact. The First Italian War (1494–1498), for example, pitted Charles VIII of France against the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and an alliance of Italian powers under the leadership of Pope Alexander VI. Charles VIII assembled a large army of 25,000 men and invaded Italy with 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. Both sides claimed victory after a bloody fight at Fornovo, 18 miles southwest of Parma. In that battle, which was largely a stalemate, Charles VIII deployed 3,000 Swiss mercenaries and 28 pieces of artillery. The physician Alessandro Beneditti, who was an eyewitness at Fornovo, tells us in his Diaria de Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War) that at the battle of Fornovo in 1495

on every side the sky repeatedly flashed with fire and thundered with artillery and was filled with wails and cries. Iron, bronze and lead balls sped hissing aloft, and these threw the ranks of cavalry and infantry into turmoil even without slaughter.

Designed to hurl heavy stone balls, a bombard was a large-caliber muzzle-loading cannon or mortar. (A mortar is a short range weapon with a very high-arcing ballistic trajectory.) Perhaps the best surviving example of a bombard is the huge mortar named “Mons Meg.” Built around 1449 and now on public display at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, it could fire balls weighing up to 396 pounds and was designed to bring down castle walls.

Petards, on the other hand, were small gunpowder-filled bombs which were placed against gates and walls to blow them open. In Hamlet, Shakespeare used a now-proverbial phrase: “hoist with his own petard.” This means that if a petard exploded prematurely, the man who placed it would be “hoist,” i.e., blown into the air and possibly killed, by the force of the explosion.

Armor in various shapes and forms was used extensively in medieval warfare. The most familiar (to modern viewers) style of armor is the all-encompassing plate armor associated with the knights of the Late Middle Ages. A knight thus equipped has been wonderfully described by an anonymous contemporary source as “a terrible worm in an iron cocoon.” Common soldiers were not fitted out in full armor because it was much too expensive. They usually had to make do with a metal helmet—known as a “kettle hat,” or chape (or chapel) de fer, literally an “iron hat. They also had padded clothing and, in some cases, a mail shirt.

Contrary to what we might think, a website on medieval weapons and armor assures us that

while it looks heavy, a full plate armour set could be as light as only 20 kg (45 pounds), if well made of tempered steel. This is less than the weight of modern combat gear of an infantry soldier…. The weight was so well spread out over the body that a fit man could run, or jump into his saddle. Modern re-enactment activity has proved that it is even possible to swim in armour, though it is difficult.

Armor was not light but did not slow down a very athletic man too much. A biographer of Jean le Maigre (d. 1421), marshal of France and governor of Geneva, depicts him as being able to jump onto his warhorse while fully armed, without using the stirrup, and as being able to do somersaults in full armor (except for the helmet). Wearing a mail shirt, Jean le Maigre could also climb up a tall ladder leaning against a wall without using his feet, i.e., relying only on his hands. He could then take off the mail shirt with one hand, while hanging on to the ladder with the other hand. He even is said to have worn a mail shirt when he was dancing.

Armor was so critically important to medieval and Renaissance soldiers—their lives literally depended on it—that they devoted a great deal of thought and experimentation to perfecting it. One result was an extensive technical vocabulary from the early 12th to early 16th centuries. The knights and the men-at-arms of the mercenary companies would have been very familiar with all this gear.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, enemy forces wanting to besiege a well-situated, well-provisioned fortress or castle needed to have the right men and the right machines. Their siege devices could include scaling ladders, battering rams, and catapults. In addition, sappers (today we would call them combat engineers) were skilled at digging a tunnel under the wall of a fortress and propping up the tunnel temporarily with wooden beams. When the tunnel was judged to have reached the wall, it was packed with combustible material, the sappers withdrew, and the combustible material was set alight. In due course, the beams burned through and the tunnel collapsed, hopefully (from the attackers’ point of view) bringing a big section of the wall down with it. Infantrymen and archers could then pour through the opening and capture the fortress.

Because a siege was likely to stretch out over a considerable period of time and because it required highly specialized capabilities, the attackers were happy to enlist the help of skilled mercenaries whose time and abilities were for sale. To get some idea of just what siege warfare required, let us meet a remarkable woman: Christine de Pisan, or Pizan (ca. 1365-ca. 1430). She was a poet who has been acclaimed as the first professional woman writer in Europe and even as the founder of the feminist movement.

Born in Venice, raised in Paris, married at the age of 15, and widowed 10 years later at the age of 24, Christine spent all of her adult life in France, first living in Paris and then at the Dominican abbey at Poissy, which is now a suburb of Paris. She wrote poetry because she needed to earn a living for herself and her three children. In addition to her poetry, she also wrote a treatise in Middle French on the art of war: the Livre des faitz d’armes, ci de chevalerie (Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry). This was based on Vegetius and, we can guess, on the details of siege warfare she gleaned from the French and English officers she met in Paris.

In 1408–1409, drawing from the descriptions given her by the officers who were her informants on current military practice, she compiled a list of the items she judged were necessary for a siege. In her time, it was normal to give names to large artillery pieces, whether cannons or stonethrowers. Christine tells us the names of a few of these weapons and the weight of the shot that they threw: “Garite,” 400–500 pounds; “Rose,” 300 pounds; “Montfort,” 300 pounds; and “Artique,” 100 pounds.

Much like ships and bells, great cannons had their own personalities and thus, in a figurative sense, they were somehow “alive” in the minds of their users. They could bear inscriptions in verse, such as this one, translated from the French:

I am Dragon the venomous serpent, who desires with furious blows to drive off our enemies. John the Black, master gunner, and Conrad, Coin and Cradinteur, all of them master founders, made me on schedule in 1476.

All told, in her discussions of siege warfare Christine refers to some 248 cannons and 30,000 pounds of gunpowder. To move this huge mountain of gear from one place to another required a large number of men, horses, and carts. Christine also tells us that a besieging general would need 330 crossbows with 2,000 crossbow bolts, and 300 longbows with 1.2 million arrows.

Many different kinds of horses were used during the Middle Ages, e.g., chargers (war horses), palfreys (riding horses), and carthorses or pack horses. The best-known war horse of the medieval era was the destrier, a word derived from the Vulgar Latin dextarius (“right-sided”). This may refer to the fact that it was led by a squire at the knight’s right side; that it was led with the right hand; or that, in its gait, the horse led with its right leg.

Contemporary sources describe the destrier as “tall and majestic and with great strength” and refer it as the “great horse.” However, medieval horses were not huge by modern standards, so it was probably smaller than these words might suggest. What is clear is that a good destrier was very expensive. Its price varied from between 20 and 300 livres parisis (Paris pounds), compared to only 5 to 12 livres parisis for a normal courser, i.e., a light, fast, strong horse. In 1277 Florence hired a number of Provençal (French) mercenaries with clauses in their contracts that each of them must have a horse, presumably a destrier, worth at least £30, i.e., the equivalent of 133 days’ wages. In fact, although the destrier was highly prized by knights and men-at-arms, it was not very common and may well have been best suited to the joust.

Cavalry could be extremely important in battles and in sieges for sallies or countering them. As a website on medieval warfare explains,

Once one side coaxed their opposing infantry into breaking formation, the cavalry would be deployed in an attempt to exploit the loss of cohesion in the opposing infantry and [would] begin slaying the infantrymen from horse-top…it is much easier to kill a man from the top of a horse than to stand on the ground and face a half-ton destrier carrying an armed knight.

A cavalry charge by knights must have been (for an observer standing in a very safe position) an exhilarating spectacle. For the knights and particularly for the foot soldiers who were facing such a charge, it must have been a terrifying and sometimes fatal experience. A key element in a successful charge, and one which required great practice, disciple, and favorable terrain to pull off, was for the charging knights to ride roughly abreast of each other and gradually to accelerate to their top speed until they crashed into the enemy’s battle lines. The modern scholar J.F. Verbruggen describes such a charge. He says:

Even if some of the knights did not carry on the charge to the utmost [it was very difficult for them to force their horses to charge into formations of foot soldiers who were armed with long pikes, the butts of which rested solidly on the ground and the sharp points of which faced the horses], a terrible shock followed. This came with a hellish din when the armoured formations charged a wall of foot-soldiers, exactly as when two knightly armies met each other.

[Verbruggen uses the following first-hand quotes from contemporary chroniclers to describe such a charge.]

• “Four hundred carpenters would not have made so much noise.”

• “They closed in with such force that the clash of weapons and the din of blows made the air ring, just as though trees in the forest were being cut down by innumerable axes.”

• “The fighters were like woodcutters, chopping down the trees of a forest.” “The din was so frightful that one could not have heard even God’s thunder.”

• “It was as though all the smiths in the world in Brussels and Bruges were striking their anvils.”

Often the knights would charge in several successive waves, at full gallop. If the couched lance of a knight hit the shield or the armor of an enemy knight, it might easily knock him off his horse. After their initial charge, the knights would drop their heavy lances and would continue to fight on with whatever secondary weapons they had, such as swords and maces. If a foot soldier was hit by a couched lance, he would be knocked backward with such force that several of his fellow soldiers might well be killed or wounded, too.

The Prince-Bishop

The Prince-Bishop Albero of Trier

Archbishop Albero von Montreuil – Archbishop of Trier in Lorraine from 1131 to 1152 – was an energetic Prince-Bishop involved in the Church reform, imperial politics and territorial rule.

This Prince-Prelate often worked with Pope Innocent II, Pope Eugene II and St. Bernard of Clairvaux to defend the independence of the Church.

He clashed with the Emperors Henry V and Lothar III, and helped elect King Conrad III of Germany to maintain the Church’s freedom.

He lived in the aftermath of the Investiture Controversy of 1076-1122. This conflict between the Church and the German Emperor centered on the question of who should control the appointment of Bishops and invest them with their powers.

The motto of the reform movement was libertas Ecclesiae, or liberty for the Church. Tensions between the temporal and spiritual powers remained high even after the Concordat of Worms in 1122, and Albero quickly established himself as a champion of the papal party.

As a Prince-Bishop, Albero directed the spiritual affairs of the Church in Trier while exercising political rule over the principality. In the latter role, he led and commanded armies of men. His exploits were recorded in Balderich’s Gesta Alberonis, or the Deeds of Albero, which presents a fascinating record of a 12th-century clerical hero, a Bishop who took up arms to defend the territory under his political rule and the privileges of the Church.

Portrait of the famous ministerial Ulrich von Liechtenstein (1200–1275) from the Codex Manesse


Comprising a class unique to medieval Germany, the ministeriales (Latin ministeriales; German Dienstmänner, or men in service) arose out of the uncertainties of the post-Carolingian period, as various German magnates sought to find a remedy for their labor needs in a number of areas, including administration, personal bodyguard, and military operations. Opting against the free nobility, whom they considered too independent and thus less reliable, great churches of the tenth century turned to the unfree peasantry for such individuals. Since the ministeriales were unfree, they remained obligated to serve their lord, but they could also be granted to other lords; yet they were more than mere serfs. They were trained as warriors and endowed with both allods (ceded land) and fiefs from which they supported themselves in a manner similar to feudal vassals. References to such individuals are found at the beginning of the eleventh century in narrative sources, while texts from the 1020s regulate their rights and duties.

Under the Salian kings and continuing into the Hohenstaufen epoch, secular rulers turned to extensive use of ministeriales as well. Conrad II (1024–1039), in his efforts to establish a strong royal authority independent of the lay nobility, relied heavily on the ministeriales, while the growing power and influence of the ministeriales at the courts of Henry III (1039–1056) and Henry IV (1056–1106) caused great antagonism toward the kings by the nobles, which lasted into the reign of Henry V (1106–1125). Yet, despite princely opposition to the use of ministeriales to exclude them from participation in the governance of the empire, the status of the ministerial class improved during the era of the Investiture Controversy and the accompanying civil war. In time, many lay princes and lesser nobles acquired ministeriales as well.

Although the vast majority of the ministerial families remained modestly successful, the career of the imperial ministerial Werner II of Bolanden demonstrates the heights to which some of them rose. This man not only served Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, but he also owed service to forty-five other lords from whom he held property; he possessed seventeen castles, and he was the lord of eleven hundred knights. A descendant of his became archbishop of Mainz in the mid-thirteenth century. Equally successful was Markward of Anweiler, whom Henry VI had earlier manumitted and created duke of Ravenna and the Romagna, and to whom Henry in 1197, just prior to his death, entrusted the regency of Sicily; in short, the future of Henry’s young son Frederick was placed in the hands of this loyal retainer.

After the collapse of the Hohenstaufen empire, the imperial ministeriales formed the unruly estate of the imperial knights (Reichsritterschaft). In many thirteenth-century German dioceses, cathedral canons of ministerial origin openly challenged older families of the higher nobility for the highest ecclesiastical offices. Thus, in Trier we find the family of de Ponte (von der Brücke) competing with the counts of Wied; at Speyer, Conrad of Daun (de Tanne) became bishop in 1233; while at Worms, Conrad of Dürkheim succeeded to the bishop’s chair in 1247. Other members of various ministerial families married into the high nobility; in numerous cases we find them merging into the urban patriciate (ruling class) as well.


The diocese is a telling marker of the decline of the Roman Empire, the concomitant rise of Christianity, and the growth of medieval Germany. Originally an occasional unit of Roman civil administration, the diocese was employed by Diocletian (284-305) in his reorganization of the empire when, on top of the existing provincial structure, he added four prefectures and twelve dioceses. As the emperors of the following century adopted Christianity as the sole official religion of the empire, what had been largely an urban religion now necessarily had to expand into the countryside (pagus) to embrace the pagani (pagans) living there. And in the rapidly disintegrating West in particular, bishops came to govern these areas increasingly called “dioceses,” although these were much smaller than those of Diocletian.

The original eight dioceses of what later became medieval Germany were largely defined by the outer limits of Roman occupation, in a line along the Rhine running from Constance to Cologne and including Trier on the Moselle. According to tradition, bishops are attested in all these cities in the fourth century. While it is unclear whether Augsburg had bishops this early, in these cities it is problematical whether bishops continued to rule during the disasters of the fifth and sixth centuries. Continuity does exist from the seventh century onward here as well as in Augsburg, Brixen, and Regensburg. Thereafter the progress was steady and marched pari passu (side by side) with the work of conversion and, increasingly, of conquest conducted by both the Franks and the Bavarians. Thus around 700 Salzburg came into being, and in the eighth century the Bavarian dioceses of Freising, Passau, Würzburg, Eichstätt, and Bremen were founded. In the ninth no fewer than eight new dioceses were created, and at least another ten in the tenth. To provide order for this extraordinary growth, metropolitan or archiepiscopal sees were established de novo (as new) or by elevation of existing bishoprics: Mainz, Salzburg, Trier, and Cologne between circa 780 and 800; Hamburg-Bremen in 848; and Magdeburg by 968. New dioceses continued to be founded into the thirteenth century as expansion into Scandinavian and especially Slavic lands continued. Thus for the Teutonic Knights (Die Deutschorden) Prussia was divided in 1243 into four exempt dioceses whose bishops were completely subject to the order. But elsewhere the outer limits of the German church and empire had already been demarcated by the popes’ creation between circa 1000 and 1164 of archdioceses and primatial (church officials’) sees for Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Significantly, however, the diocese of Prague, created in 973, remained in the province of Mainz until its separation and elevation to an archbishopric in 1344-a clear sign of the special place of the kingdom of Bohemia in the empire.

By 1500 there were about sixty dioceses in Germany. It is difficult to be precise about the number, for much depends on whether one counts exempt dioceses and especially those in the penumbra of the empire (e. g., Metz, Toul, Verdun, Besançon, Breslau). Although German dioceses varied greatly in size, they were on average much larger than those in Italy (where there were nearly 250) or even England (17). Even more distinctive was the fact that from the High Middle Ages about four dozen of them developed into prince-bishoprics whose incumbents ruled both dioceses as bishops and territories (usually called Hochstifte, Erzstifte in the case of archbishoprics) as princes. Dioceses and Hochstifte were never coterminous, and in the case of Constance the bishop ruled the largest diocese and one of the smallest Hochstifte in the empire. This disparity became increasingly significant in the fourteenth and especially the fifteenth centuries with the progressive extension of princely power over the church. In those regions where one form or another of “Reformation” was introduced in the sixteenth century, the “diocese” subject to Catholic bishops came to be effectively restricted to the confines of the Hochstifte until the end of the Old Reich (empire).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Gatz, Erwin, and Clemens Brotkorb, ed. Die Bischöfe des Heiligen Römischen Reiches 1448 bis 1648. Ein biographisches Lexikon. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1996. Hauck, Albert. Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands. 5 vols. in 6, 1911-1929; rpt. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1954. Jedin, Hubert, et al., eds. Atlas zur Kirchengeschichte. Freiburg: Herder, 1970. Bosl, Karl. Die Reichsministerialität der Salier und Staufer, 2 vols. Stuttgart: Hiersmann, 1950–1951. Pötter, Wilhelm. Die Ministerialität der Erzbischöfe von Köln vom Ende des 11. bis zum Ausgang des 13. Jahrhunderts, Studien zur kölner Kirchengeschichte 9. Düsseldorf: Schwann 1967. Schulz, Knut. Ministerialität und Bürgertum in Trier. Rheinisches Archiv 66. Bonn: Röhrscheid, 1968.

Medieval Free Companies I

The free companies of 100 Years War soldiers made redundant by the truce of Bordeaux and the Treaty of Bretigny and later by the truce of Tours. Although many of the companies of the first phase went back into their own nation’s service when the war broke out again, some that had moved to Italy stayed there and drifted into formal contractual relationships with Italian city states. Prominent among these were the English “White Company” under John Hawkwood, the German “Company of the Star” under Albrecht Sterz and Hannekin Bongarten, and the Breton and Gascon company of Bertrand de la Salle. They were gradually replaced by native Italian condottieri, the last to disappear being the Company of the Rose in 1410.

Mercenaries who lost their jobs as a result of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) soon coalesced into the Great Companies. One of the most famous of these mercenary companies was the White Company, led by the English chieftain John Hawkwood. Chandos Herald tells how, in 1367, the Black Prince used mercenaries effectively in the civil war in Spain. The conversation between the colorful mercenary commander the Bascot de Mauléon and the chronicler Froissart in 1388, and the battles of Brignais (1362) and Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410) are also covered below.

The Great Companies were newly-minted military units, drawn from the many thousands of experienced but out-of-work mercenaries who were trying to survive after the Treaty of Brétigny between the kings of England and France in 1360.1 By the spring of 1362, the process of evacuating fortresses and transforming territories between England and France was nearly finished. However, the unforeseen result was that many of the disbanded forces quickly became independent companies under new captains. When they joined forces, they were sufficiently powerful not only to seize well-defended fortresses and towns, but also to undertake major engagements in the field.

These companies would remain active in much of Western Europe until the renewal, in 1369, of the war between England and France. The modern French scholar Jean Favier defines such a mercenary unit as follows:

A company consisted of from 50 to 200 men under the orders of a captain, who was both the organizer and executive officer of this military society and its leader in combat.

One of the best summaries of how the companies arose is that offered by the modern Italian scholar Franco Cardini. In an article first written in Italian, then translated into French, and now quoted here in an edited free translation into English, Cardini explains that two factors were at play in this process:

On the one hand, if businessmen, entrepreneurs, and bankers had now become the governing class, most notably in the urban communes of Italy, they did not have, despite all that, a style of life they found suitable to their new status. In fact, they remained fascinated by what could be called the ”knightly-courtesy” manner of life and were eager to duplicate it in their own city palaces and country estates. On the other hand, however, they did have to tend to business and thus could not afford to throw themselves into the periodic military expeditions which were popular at that time.

This state of affairs was the principal reason why companies of mercenaries multiplied in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The leaders of these companies made all-inclusive offers to potential employers: they had their own weapons and their own equipment, which were immediately available and were more or less in good working order. But the fact that the mercenaries had to fight simply in order to live created real problems of its own.

In the first place, it was in their own interest to prolong conflicts: for them, peace meant idleness and poverty. Thus the battles the mercenaries fought were never decisive. By mutual agreement, commanders tried to reduce their manpower losses and the expense of fighting. Finally, in times of peace, the mercenary companies became terrible bands of brigands. For these reasons, even when they had no military need to do so, governments preferred to prolong wars indefinitely and to pay the high price of hiring mercenaries: it was much better to pay this price rather than letting the mercenaries roam around freely without any money.

There was no single overall organization or individual guiding the formation of the Great Companies, which were simply larger versions of existing mercenary companies. About 166 mercenary captains are known to have commanded companies operating in or from France during the decade after 1360; 91 of these men are referred to in contemporary sources as being the captains of one or another of the Great Companies. (Of these 91 commanders, eight are known to have died in battle, one was poisoned, and one was executed.) Thus there were at least 91 Great Companies and may possibly have been even more.

The formation of these companies was a spontaneous, need-driven process. Mercenaries were of many “nationalities” (to use a modern term)—for example, Italian, German, Hungarian, Spanish, Greek, Albanian, French, Swiss, English, and Scottish. They enlisted under commanders who they hoped could win battles and who would pay them well. As the modern scholar Guido Guerri dall’Oro explains,

The effectiveness of the mercenary companies was chiefly a function of their organizational skills, of their strict discipline, and of their military competence. These features made them superior in combat when compared to the heavy cavalry of the aristocrats, who in general aspired only for personal glory and who knew nothing at all about the rules, the tactics, and the techniques of war….

Pay for the mercenaries: that was the essential thing. To hire mercenaries was not hard to do; to pay them regularly, whether one won or lost a given battle, was indeed hard to do. If an employer could not honor his contract with mercenaries, his problems began then and there….

There is no single, definitive figure on the total strength of the Great Companies. Their numerical strength was in fact a function of the number of mercenary bands that could be recruited for a given operation, and on the size of each band. Contemporary sources, however, do give some rough indications about how many men could be involved.

We will soon meet, for example, a memorable Basque mercenary, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon. Both variants of this title mean “a soldier of fortune.” In an interview in 1388 with Froissart, the Bascot indicated that 12,000 men had been available in 1360 after the conclusion of peace at Brétigny; of these, 3,000 to 4,000 were, he added, “really fine soldiers.” The rest, it must be assumed, were rank and file mercenaries with no special skills but were competent fighters nonetheless.

In 1363, the governor of the regions of Berry and Auvergne estimated the strength of the companies who congregated around the city of Brioude during the week after its capture at 2,000 lances (as indicated earlier, a “lance” was a three-man combat team), plus 1,000 mounted archers and infantrymen.8 The mercenary companies sent into Spain by the French and the English in 1366–1367 probably included around 3,000 men-at-arms.9 In a letter written in 1367 by King Peter IV of Aragon to the governor of Roussillon, the king said that a rival noble had recruited 13 captains of the companies then serving with the Black Prince; these captains commanded a total of 1,600 lances.10 Froissart says that when war between England and France broke out again in 1369, some 4,500 mercenaries joined the armies of these protagonists.

Here is a sampling of what some contemporary observers had to say about the Companies:

• The author of the Grandes Chroniques de France says that “At that time [November 1360], there were great numbers of English and others in Brie and Champagne, who ravaged all the countryside, killing and ransoming men, and doing all the evil they could, of whom some called themselves the Great Company.”

• Froissart mentions gatherings of such men in Burgundy and Champagne, some of which were known as les Tards-Venus (“the Latecomers”) because they were foraging in provinces that had already been stripped by other mercenaries.

• The Carmelite friar Jean de Venette says that “these sons of Belial [i.e., these sons of lawlessness] and men of iniquity [were] warriors from various lands who assailed other men with no hope of right and no reason other than their own passions, iniquity and hope of gain, and yet were called the Great Company.”

• The monk Henry Knighton had this to say about the Anglo-German company commanded by Albert Sterz:

At this time [late 1361] was organized a certain company of strong men called the Company of Fortune [Societas fortunae; later it became known as “the White Company” and is covered at greater length later], which some called the Great Company. It was composed of men from different parts, who, now that there was peace between the two kingdoms [England and France], had no means of livelihood other than through their own efforts. They were bold and warlike fellows, experienced and strenuous, who congregated together from different nations, and who lived by war, since in time of peace they had nothing.”

• An institution’s own interests could strongly influence its views on mercenaries. For example, when the famous English mercenary John Hawkwood fought for Milan against the papal armies in 1371, the pope denounced him as being “a son of Belial.” But, the next year, when Hawkwood sided with the pope and won several battles, he was praised as being “an athlete of God and a faithful Christian knight.”

It should not be a surprise to learn that being the commander of a Great Company could be a very hazardous calling. Consider, for example, what happened to a previously-successful mercenary leader named Guillaume Pot (also known as Guillemin Pot or Guillampot) in 1364. This account comes from a letter written by Guillaume de Clugny, the bailli of Auxois (a bailli was a local administrative officer in northern France), to the ducal council:

Very dear and good friends, on Wednesday [18 September 1364] Guillemin Pot, who was lodged at Maisières, was passing by Beaune with 120 good lances and at least 100 other combatants, not counting the pillagers. As soon as they had passed we mounted our horses and pursued them until we took four or five of their men-at-arms and some 30 pillagers, who were killed, hung or taken prisoner, the others returning to their quarters.

We then continued our journey to Dijon, as was our intention, and this Thursday morning the marshal [i.e., Gui de Pontallier, the marshal of Burgundy] sent 15 glaives [a glaive was a polearm, that is, a single-edged blade mounted on a pole, but the word is probably used here to mean “a well-armed soldier”] to form an ambush on the road they [Pot’s mercenaries] would have to take, but it was discovered and the entire route [Pot’s mercenaries] fell upon our men, who fled to Givrey, where they fought for a long time at the barriers…

…and while passing between Rouvres and Dijon we fell upon them [i.e., upon Pot’s band] … and with God’s help they were defeated and either killed [in the engagement], taken prisoner or put to death. And Guillemin Pot and others of his route have been taken prisoner to Dijon.

Pot was released under certain stringent conditions which required him not to act illegally, but he subsequently ignored them and returned to his old ways. He was recaptured by a Burgundian knight in October 1364 while raiding merchants who were attending a fair at Chalon. The knight handed him over to the duke’s officers for a reward of 200 livres (the approximate price of a good sword]. Pot was then executed. His head was pilloried in the main square of the town, where it remained on pubic view for some eight months before being carried off by another mercenary company as a ghastly souvenir.

Popes were concerned not only about the wanton destruction inflicted on the countryside by the Great Companies but also because these bands jeopardized papal supply lines and the constant flow of clergy, bankers, and courtiers going to and from Avignon, the current seat of papal power. (From 1309 to 1378, the years of the Avignon Papacy, the papacy was based in Avignon, not in Rome.) Urban V, for example, issued three bulls against the companies. The first was Cogit nos (27 February 1364), which provided spiritual support for the anti-mercenary forces of Languedoc. It stated in part:

The wickedness of our age, in which the sons of iniquity have multiplied and, fired by the flames of their own greed, are dishonestly attempting to gorge themselves on the labour of others, and for that reason rage the more cruelly against the innocent peoples, compels us to draw on the resources of the apostolic power to counter their evil stratagems and to strive with even greater energy and effectiveness to organise the defense of these peoples, especially of those whom the wicked men have so far attacked, and are now attacking.

This bull called on princes and other leaders to fight against the mercenaries, and offered a plenary indulgence for two years to those who were killed in such battles. (An indulgence is the full or partial remission of spiritual punishment for sins which have already been confessed and forgiven.)

The second bull, Miserabilis nonnullorum (27 May 1364), was also cast in terms designed to isolate the companies. The pope ordered them, under threat of excommunication, immediately (i.e., within one month) to disband their troops, to surrender the places they were occupying, and to repair the damage they had done. Clerics and laymen alike were forbidden to join them, hire them, or favor them in any way. Anyone who provided them with money, food, horses, arms, carts, boats, and any other provisions or merchandise, or who aided or advised them in any way whatsoever, would also be excommunicated. Bishops were ordered to report the names of the mercenaries and their accomplices so that action could be taken against them. A plenary indulgence was granted to anti-mercenary forces if they were killed in action.

The third bull, Clamat ad nos (5 April 1365), focused on those who hired and led the mercenary companies, as well as on those who joined or supported them. It provided that all towns, villages, and individuals who negotiated with the companies and who paid protection money to them would be dealt with severely. It appears, however, that these bulls had little if any real impact on the ground, though some mercenary captains did take advantage of these opportunities to get absolution for their many sins.

Mercenary commanders were well-known and were often feared in their own times, but probably the most famous of the lot was the Englishman John Hawkwood (d. 1394). Variously said to have been the second son of an Essex tanner or the son of a tailor, Hawkwood served initially in the English army in France during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. He reportedly fought in the battles of Crécy and/or Poitiers but was demobilized after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. Moving to Italy, he served with the White Company (discussed below)—a group English and German mercenaries under the command of Albert Sterz. In 1361 he joined the small mercenary groups known as the free companies and later served with the Great Company when it fought against papal troops near Avignon. By 1365, he had risen to become the commander of the White Company, a mercenary force so named either because of reflections from the men’s brightly-polished plate armor or because the men originally wore white surcoats over their armor.

This job paid him very well. Income data for the 1360s are not readily available but an idea of wages then can be formed by looking at some of the comparable incomes in Florence in 1390. At a time when the estimated subsistence level for a man was 3 soldi per day, earnings were as follows:

   Typical construction worker—9.4 soldi per day

   Farm laborer roughly—9.4 soldi per day

   Spinner of wool cloth—12.17 soldi per day

   Master builder—17.1 soldi per day

In that year, Hawkwood’s salary was 37,500 soldi per month—a sum 72 times greater than the wage of a master builder and more than 140 times greater than that of a construction worker. Most of his troops were paid adequately but not handsomely. For example, a lance unit, consisting of three men with three horses to maintain, earned a total of 44 soldi per day. Crossbowmen earned 9.7 soldi per day. However, common infantrymen with no special skills were paid only 3.8 soldi per day.

Medieval Warfare VIII.1

Theme: John Hawkwood in Italy

  • William Caferro, ‘An English mercenary in Italy – The career of John Hawkwood’.
  • David Balfour, ‘The massacres at Faenza and Cesena – The dark side of a hero’.
  • Sean Manning, ‘The merchant of Prato’s little secret – Hidden protections’.
  • Nick Bohmann, ‘Why did city-states hire mercenaries – The dilemma’.
  • Niccolò Capponi and Kelly DeVries, ‘Hawkwood’s greatest victory – The Battle of Castagnaro’.


  • Kay Smith and Ruth R. Brown, ‘Many questions with few answers – The longbow’.
  • Michael Livingston, ‘If it even happened – The Battle of Hyddgen, 1401’.
  • Joanna Phillips, ‘Why sieges were hard on your health – Besieging bodies’.
  • Georgios Theotokis, ’11th century Norman mercenaries in the Mediterranean – Fame, faith, and fortune’.
  • Murray Dahm, ‘Swords for hire, Hollywood style – Condottieri on film’.

The White Company was composed of many different nationalities, e.g., Germans, Italians, Englishmen, and Hungarians. At its high point in 1361, it could field about 3,500 cavalrymen and 2,000 infantrymen (the latter term also includes the archers); at its low point in 1388, it had shrunk down to a mere 250 men. In its glory days, it was based on the “lances” of three men: a man-at-arms, a squire, and an unarmed page. A group of lances, known as a contingent, was under the command of a corporal, who was frequently an independent sub-contractor. As befitting a tightly-run military organization, the White Company also had an effective administrative staff, consisting of Italian chancellors (men trained in law), Italian notaries, and an English treasurer.

The Florentine chronicler Filippo Villani remarked that if the Company had any military failings, it was only an “excessive boldness,” i.e., aggressiveness, which made the men restless and encouraged them to set up camp “in poor order.” Villani makes it very clear that these men were not angels. The modern scholar William Caferro, quoting contemporary sources, says this:

The band’s first moves on Italian soil were intensely brutal. It entered the Piedmont region setting fires, looting, raping women, maiming non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners. Azario called them “better thieves than any others who have preyed on Lombardy.” Villani said they were “young, hot and eager” and “accustomed to homicides and robbery, current in the use of iron [i.e., the use of swords and other metal weapons], having little personal cares.” Azario describes how the band shut captives in boxes and threatened to drown them to hasten payment of ransoms, how the band systematically dismembered victims, beginning with the hands, then the nose, the ears; the trunks of the corpses were left in ditches outside the castles to be eaten by dogs.

The White Company introduced into Italy a practice already common in France during the battles of the Hundred Years’ War: sending dismounted men-at-arms into battle. When so doing, the Company fought dismounted and in close order, walking forward at a slow pace, often with two men-at-arms holding the same very long spear and bellowing battle cries. The archers followed close behind them. The Milanese writer Azario describes the Company’s battle formation in these terms:

[The soldiers had dismounted from their horses, which were held by pages during battles, and fought on foot.] They had very large lances with very long iron tips. Mostly two, sometimes three of them, handled a single lance so heavy and big that there was nothing it would not penetrate. Behind them, toward the posterior of the formation, were the archers, with great bows which they held from their head to the ground [i.e., the bows were as long as a man is high] and from which they shot great and long arrows.

The White Company would fight under many employers and would change sides whenever this seemed profitable. In 1369, Hawkwood fought for Perugia against the forces of the Pope; in 1370 he joined Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan, in a war against an alliance of cities, including Pisa and Florence; in 1372 he fought for Visconti against his former master, the Marquis of Monferrato; then he resigned his command and the White Company served the Pope for a time.

The White Company distinguished itself as the best force in Italy. In 1363, when the city of Pisa was at war with Florence, its neighbor and rival, and needed more troops, the Florentines were unwilling to pay the very high price demanded by the White Company for its mercenaries, but Pisa was. The Florentine poet Antono Pucci captured this moment in verse to decide whether “the lion,” i.e., Florence, knew more than “the fox,” i.e., Pisa:

In Lombardy there was a band

that was called the White Company

so cruel and with every vice

that it had worn out all of Lombardy.

Florence … refused it [i.e., Florence refused to pay the White Company], and the fox embraced it.

Medieval Free Companies II

Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

Mercenary bands like Hawkwood’s could be accurately described as “traveling city-states.” Hawkwood, for example, had to hire his own spies, informers, treasurers, chancellors to draw up papers, business managers, and different levels of employees to run his estates. Financially, he did extremely well. In 1376, for example, his mercenary army was paid 481,800 gold florins. An army does have considerable expenses but, even so, to understand the magnitude of this figure it must be noted that in 1377 the city of Siena, with approximately 50,000 people, had a total income of only 93,962 florins.

Time does not stand still, however, and after 1370 most of the mercenary companies had ceased to operate under the name of the “Great Companies.” The reasons were that many of the captains who had founded them were retired or dead, and many of their troops had been absorbed into the royal armies of England and France. While some of the descendants of the mercenary officers who had held most of France to ransom in the 1360s were still active in central and eastern France as late as the early 1390s, the glory-days of the Great Companies were by then in the past. Hawkwood, however, still managed to prosper. His 500-florin salary had a great deal of purchasing power: in Florence in 1390, it was worth approximately 992 bushels of grain or about 401 barrels of wine.

It is time now to look at an excellent first-hand account of the role of mercenary troops during the civil war in Spain in the 14th century.29 This struggle pitted the legitimate ruler of Spain, Pedro I of Castile (1350–1369), supported by the mercenary and other forces of the Black Prince, against Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, Count Enrique of Trastámara. Since neither man could win the fight unaided, the civil war became internationalized: mercenary troops joined the fray in 1366.

The source for the following account is Chandos Herald (fl. 1360s–1380s), the author of a long poem about the life of the Black Prince. Chandos Herald is so-named because he was the herald of the English warlord John Chandos, the closest friend of the Black Prince. The following account, set in 1366–1367, shows how the Black Prince prepared for his foray into Spain with mercenary troops and how by the battle of Najera he restored Pedro of Castile to his throne.

The immediate background of this story is that, in the autumn of 1366, Pedro of Castile, an ally of Edward III, asked for the Black Prince’s help in reclaiming his throne, which he had lost to his half-brother, Enrique of Trastámara. The Black Price saw this proposed expedition as a welcome change from the politics of Gascony, in which he was deeply embroiled, and persuaded his father to let him lead his troops and his mercenaries into Spain. As Chandos Herald says,

The prince returned to Bordeaux and got his men ready. He sent for many noble and valiant knights from all over his lands, leaving out neither great nor small; nor did Chandos stay idle, because he went to fetch men of the Great Company, as many as fourteen squadrons, not counting those who returned from Spain when they heard that the prince was going to the aid of king Pedro. They took leave of king Enrique, who let them go and paid them well, for he no longer needed them. He was then king of Castile, and was well content, because he did not think that anyone could overthrow him, since his power was so great….

…as soon as the Bastard [i.e., Enrique of Trastámara] learnt that the prince [with his troops] was hastening to the aid of king Pedro, he did his best to prevent them; he cut off the roads and every morning and evening laid ambushes for them, and got men at arms riding mules and other ruffians to attack them. But the Lord God brought them to the safety of the prince’s lands, which pleased the prince greatly, because he was very keen to achieve his plan. And then he gathered gold, silver and coin to pay his men. All this took place three weeks before Christmas in the year 1366….

…The noble prince ordered payments [to his men] on a generous scale. Then the armourers at Bordeaux forged swords and daggers, coats of mail, helm, short swords, axes, gauntlets, in such number that it would have done for thirty kings….

The prince’s army assembled at Dax [a town in Aquitaine in southwestern France], and all the barons and knights from the country around gathered there. All the companies encamped then in the Basque country [i.e., the traditional homeland of the Basque people, which is located in the western Pyrenees and which spans the border between France and Spain], in the mountains, and waited for two months, with much hardship, until the passes were clear and they could set out on their expedition. They waited all winter, until February [1367], until those from far off and nearby had all gathered.

In April 1367, near Najera, in the province of La Rioja in Castile, the forces of the Black Prince, and their allies met and defeated the opposing army of Enrique of Trastámara, who had to seek shelter in Aragon and in Avignon. Froissart gives local color and sets the stage by telling about the participants in the battle:

Under the pennon [a triangular banner] of St. George, and attached to the banner of Sir John Chandos, were the free companies, who had in the whole twelve hundred streamers. Among them were good and hardy knights and squires, whose courage was proof: namely, Sir Robert Cheney, Sir Perducas d’Albret, Roger Briquet, Sir Garsis du Chastel, Sir Gaillard Viguier, Sir John Charnels, Nandon de Bagerant, Aymemon d’Ortige, Perrot de Savoye, le bourg [i.e., the illegitimate son of] Camus, le bourg de l’Esparre, le bourg de Breteuil, Espiote, and several others.

Chandos Herald explains the battle in these words:

There was not a single man, however humble, in the prince’s company who was not as bold and as brave as a lion…. The Spaniards turned and fled, all giving their horses their heads…. Then the slaughter began, and you could see foot soldiers being killed with daggers and swords….

The site of the battle was a pleasant plain, without a tree or a bush for a league around, beside a fine river, very swift and strong; and this river caused much harm to the Castilians that day, for the pursuit continued as far as the river. More than two thousand drowned there. On the bridge in front of Najera the pursuit was very fierce; you could see knights leaping into the water for fear, and dying one on top of each other. And the river ran crimson, to everyone’s amazement, with the blood of dead men and horses. There was so much slaughter there that I do not think that anyone ever saw anything like it; the dead were so many that the total came to seven thousand seven hundred [almost certainly an inflated estimate] … So the Spaniards were killed and taken, much to the joy of the prince, who waited on the battlefield, his standard raised, to rally his men.

Froissart’s account of how Sir John Chandos fared in this battle gives a vivid picture of medieval hand-to-hand combat:

Sir John Chandos showed exceptional bravery under his banner, and forged so far ahead into the fray that he was surrounded by the enemy and unhorsed. A huge man of Castile, Martin Ferrans by name, whose boldness and courage were far-famed, determined to kill him. But Sir John had not forgotten a knife that he had under his chain-mail; he now drew it and stabbed his attacker to death, when the latter was already on top of him. Sir John jumped up and his men rallied round him.

The battle of Najera was a clear military success for the Black Prince but a clear failure in other terms. Pedro had promised the Black Prince huge sums of money for his help but, in the end, he was unable to provide them. This is not at all surprising, because it is estimated that the ultimate bill for the campaign came to a staggering total 2,720,000 florins—equal to nearly 22,000 pounds of gold. While vainly waiting in hope of payment, the Black Prince caught some kind of dysentery which was to bedevil him for the rest of his life. Moreover, when he returned home to England, he faced discontent both from his own army, which had not been paid, and from the Gascons, whom he wanted to tax so that he could pay off his debts. The illness of the Black Price later became acute and although he would rise from his sick-bed to capture the city of Limoges in 1370, he eventually died at Westminster in 1376.

Reversing usual chronological order, one of the most interesting mercenary leaders, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon, who is speaking with Froissart in 1388, can be introduced here. Bascot invokes the account, written by the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, of the battle of Brignais—a battle which had taken place 26 years earlier (in 1362) but one which the Bascot de Mauléon would still cite with pride as a fine example of mercenary prowess. At that battle, companies of mercenaries had inflicted a heavy defeat on a small French royal army.

The story begins in 1388, when Froissart visited the court of Gaston Phoebus, the Count of Foix, at Orthez in southwestern France. Orthez was an excellent place to collect information on the region. It was the chief town of Béarn, a viscounty located on the French side of the Pyrenees, and shared common frontiers with the kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon. Froissart stayed for 10 to 12 weeks and met many of the men-at-arms gathered there. One of them was the Basque mercenary chieftain Bascot de Mauléon.

This chance meeting would give the Bascot de Mauléon, who in reality was little more than a common highwayman, a modest but permanent niche in medieval history. He would admit candidly, “Sometimes I have been so thoroughly down on my luck that I hadn’t even a horse to ride, and at other times I have been fairly rich, as luck came and went.” In any case, he gave Froissart an excellent and memorable interview. As Froissart puts it:

I saw there [at the count’s court] a Gascon squire, called le Bastot de Mauléon, an expert man at arms, and about fifty years old, according to his appearance. He arrived at the Hostelry of the Moon, where I lodged with Ernauton du Pin, in grand array, having packhorses with him which were being led, as in the case of a great baron, and he and his attendants were served on plate of gold and silver.”

During his meeting with Froissart, the Bastot de Mauléon said:

This treaty of peace [the Treaty of Brétigny, 1360] being concluded, it was necessary for all men at arms and free companies, according to the words of the treaty, to evacuate the fortresses or castles they held. Great numbers collected together, with many poor companions who had learnt the art of war under different commanders, to hold councils as to what quarters they should march, and they said among themselves, that though the kings had made peace with each other, it was necessary for them to live.

They marched into Burgundy, where they had captains of all nations, Germans, Scots, and people from every country. I was there also as a captain. Our numbers in Burgundy, above the river Loire, were upwards of twelve thousand, including all sorts; but I must say, that in this number, there were three or four thousand good men at arms, as able and understanding in war as any [that] could be found, whether to plan an engagement, to seize a proper moment to fight, or to surprise and scale towns and castles, and well inured to war, which we showed at the battle of Brignais, where we overpowered the constable of France, the count de Forêts, with full two thousand lances, knights, and squires.

This battle was of great advantage to the companies, for they were poor, and they enriched themselves by [capturing] good prisoners [who could then be ransomed], and by the towns and castles which they took in the archbishopric of Lyons on the river Rhone.

King John II commissioned Count James Bourbon and Jean de Tancarville to raise an army to put down the “Free Companies” under the informal leadership of Petit Meschin before they could overrun Burgundy. Bourbon and Tancarville gathered their army at Brignais.

The French King‘s forces were besieging the town of Brignais, which had been seized by the Companies in March as an operating base.[4] Never dreaming that the companies would dare challenge them in the open the Royal forces took few steps to secure their camp and when the companies attacked that morning of 6 April 1362 they were taken completely by surprise. In the battle that followed the government army was routed and James Bourbon and his oldest son were mortally wounded.

More can be learned about the details of the battle of Brignais by reading a contemporary account by Matteo Villani (d. 1363), a chronicler from Florence. Petit Meschin, i.e., Meschin the Young, was a Gascon mercenary who would later (in 1369) be drowned in the Garonne River, along with his companion, on the orders of Louis, the duke of Anjou. Louis ordered their execution because they had conspired to hand him over to his enemies, the English.

Villani gives this report of the battle:

In March [1362], the king of France, affronted by the [mercenary] company of Petit Meschin of Auvergne, his fugitive little servant [i.e., his vassal] … hastily assembled an army of around 6,000 cavalry, of French, Germans and others then in France, and having given command of it to Jacques de Bourbon, a prince of the blood, he sent him into Bourbonnais with 4,000 sergeants.

At this time, the company of Petit Meschin had taken one of the king’s castles, called Brignais, and having garrisoned it with 300 men from his company, he raided the county of Forez with [5,000 mercenaries], the major part [being] Italians of his company. Meanwhile, Jacques de Bourbon arrived with his army, camped near Brignais, and believing he would rapidly secure it, besieged the place fearlessly. But, having nothing but contempt for his adversary, he took no proper precautions and was not on his guard.

Petit Meschin, who was experienced in matters of war and captain of a well-organized company which was spoiling for a fight, was a day and a half from Brignais. Having been informed of the disorder in the French camp, with the agreement of his company and tempted by the prospect of considerable booty, he hurriedly retraced his steps and, taking a short cut, arrived unexpectedly above the French camp several hours before daybreak and without any let-up attacked them with great noise and clamour.

Taken by surprise, and frightened by the terrible cries, the French lost heart and although they ran for their arms to repulse the enemy, the companies already pressed so hard upon them that they gave them no time to arm themselves. An army which included so many barons and valiant knights thus had the misfortune to be routed and put to flight, and many were killed and wounded. Those who were able to mount their horses and don their armour nearly all fell into the hands of that vassal of the king of France, Petit Meschin.

So great was the value of the ransoms and booty that all the company became rich. Their victory made them so confident and daring that the court of Rome [i.e., the papacy], which had experience being fleeced by the companies, feared that it would see them arrive at Avignon [then the seat of papal power].

Mercenaries also played a role in 1410 in what the Polish call the battle of Grunwald and the Germans know as the battle of Tannenberg. In the interests of impartiality, both names, i.e., the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg, are used here. This was a complicated struggle which involved many different units. On one side, a total of 16,000 to 39,000 men came from various sources, e.g., from the Kingdom of Poland; from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; and from various Polish-Lithuanian vassal, allied, and mercenary forces. On the other side were 11,000 to 27,000 men from the Teutonic Order, led by its Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen; its allies; guest crusaders; and mercenaries from Western Europe.

The Teutonic Order, whose formal name was the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, was a German medieval military order formed in Acre at the end of the 12th century to help pilgrims in their travels to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. It was also a crusading military order in the Middle Ages, consisting of a small military component which was strengthened by mercenaries as the need arose.

Because the Teutonic Knights had a strong economic base, they could afford to hire mercenaries throughout Europe to augment the troops they could raise via feudal levies. Reliance on mercenaries was sometimes a controversial policy, however. For example, the chronicler of the Teutonic order, Johann von Posilge, expressed dismay at the Polish king’s policy of hiring mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and elsewhere. He complained that such men “spurned honesty and God and went against the Christians to destroy the land of Prussia.”

The Teutonic Order arguably reached its high point in 1407, when it controlled many of the lands lying south and east of the Baltic Sea. Three years later, however, a combined Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order at the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410). Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and 50 of the Order’s 60 most senior officers died in this one fight. Polish and Lithuanian forces seized several thousand captives, keeping those who were rich enough or well-connected enough to pay ransom. The mercenary Holbracht von Loym, for example, had to pay the equivalent of 66 pounds of silver to secure his freedom.

The precise number of soldiers involved in the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg is not known. It is clear, however, that both sides used troops from several states and lands, plus numerous mercenaries. These mercenaries included two Banners of Czechs. (A Banner was not a flag or a standard but the basic military unit involved in this battle. Each Banner consisted of between 50 to 120 lances of two to five men each.) There was also a mercenary Moravian Banner and, in the Banner of St. George, a mixed contingent of Czechs and other mercenaries.

This battle broke the power of the once-mighty Order. The loss of 200 knights and thousands of foot soldiers weakened the Order’s fighting ability so much that it had increasingly to rely on mercenaries. By the end of 1410, some 7,500 mercenaries had arrived in Prussia to strengthen the Order’s forces. But mercenaries were always a mixed blessing for leaders: in 1411, for example, one group of mercenaries in Danzig seized a ship on a local river and turned pirate. In the long run, the Order’s devastating losses in 1410 would prove to be fatal.

Tibetan Empire II

Map of the Tibetan Empire at its greatest extent between the 780s and the 790s CE

One of the most impressive achievements of this period was the invention of a whole system of writing for the Tibetan language. Songtsen had shown his regard for the technology of writing when he asked the Chinese emperor for the secrets of paper and ink. Now Gar had brought back men who could train the Tibetans in these new techniques. At the same time, Songtsen was trying get someone to invent an alphabet for the Tibetan language. The tsenpo had already sent a number of Tibetans to India to learn Indian writing systems, but all had failed, some of them dying in the extreme heat. Now he appointed a young man from the Tonmi clan to go to India and derive from the Indian scripts an alphabet in which the Tibetan language could be written. Having survived the journey, Tonmi was able to procure the services of an Indian Brahmin. He asked: ‘Will you teach me writing?’ and offered half of his gold. The Brahmin haughtily replied: ‘I know twenty different writing systems. Which one would you like to study, child of Tibet?’ Tonmi ambitiously asked to study them all, so the Brahmin instructed him using a pillar on the shore of a lake on which these twenty different scripts were carved. Tonmi was such a good student that he earned the Indian name Sambhota, meaning ‘The Good Tibetan’.

Having learned these scripts, Tonmi returned to Tibet and created a Tibetan alphabet based upon them. Once the alphabet was formulated, it was taught to Songtsen and select members of the royal household. The tsenpo shut himself away for some time in order to learn to read and write Tibetan. His absence caused unrest among the people, upon which the ministers were happy to capitalise. According to one history, a minister said to the people: ‘This tsenpo hasn’t appeared for four years! He’s a know-nothing idiot! The happiness of the Tibetan people is down to us, the ministers.’ Songtsen, overhearing, thought: ‘If the ministers call me an idiot, it won’t be possible to control the people.’ Hence, emerging from his seclusion, he proceeded to set down – in writing – ten laws for the subjects of the Tibetan empire.

So goes the story, anyway. If there really was a Tonmi, he is lost in the misty valleys of legend. Yet the Tibetan letters are based so closely on the writing of Nepal and northern India, which were coming under the sway of the Tibetan empire during Songtsen’s time, that the story of Tonmi may contain more than a grain of truth. The appearance of writing in the middle of the seventh century demonstrates like nothing else the Tibetans’ commitment to becoming a culture fit to stand beside their neighbours. It is rightly regarded by Tibetans as one of their great achievements, one of the reasons that Songtsen became known to posterity as Songtsen Gampo, meaning ‘Songtsen the Wise’.

The new Tibetan alphabet was soon put to work in the administration of this vast new empire. The latter was divided into five ru, or ‘horns’, each of which contained ten ‘thousand districts’, each of which comprised a thousand households. These were sources of revenue through taxes and soldiers through forced draft. The Huns, Turks and Mongols all organised their territories in a similar fashion, which suggests that the Tibetans inherited this system from their nomadic ancestors. If the new way of parcelling up Tibet meant that the clans were split between different administrative districts, so much the better. The power of the clans was still a threat to Songtsen’s lineage.

As for the Tibetans in charge of all this, they needed to be controlled as well. A rigid hierarchy developed in which the noblemen working for the new Tibetan imperial administration were organised with the prime minister at the top, followed by the four chief ministers, then the ministers who held royal insignia granted by the tsenpo – turquoise for the most important, followed by gold, white gold, silver, brass and copper. All of these officials were drawn from the clan aristocracy. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the vast majority of Tibetans, the peasants and nomads whose way of life would remain largely unchanged until the latter part of the twentieth century.

The peasants lived on the estates of the aristocratic landowners. They were bound to their lord from birth, and worked his land, not unlike the peasants in medieval Europe. Thus most of them lived on the same piece of land all their lives, travelling only if the opportunity for trade or pilgrimage presented itself. The nomads (known as drogpas in Tibetan), on the other hand, moved about freely, living in black tents made of yak hair and following the seasons as they moved their herds of sheep, goats and yaks to new pastures. Naturally there were differences among the peasants as well, from those who barely scratched a living from the land to those who dwelt in large houses with their own servants and domestic animals. This whole social structure was a pyramid of power with the tsenpo at its apex. Although it broke down after the fall of the empire, to be reconstituted later in different forms by different rulers, the constant factor was that Tibetan society remained deeply stratified.

For later Tibetans, who came to see Songtsen as the first of the great Buddhist kings, his lawmaking went hand in hand with Buddhist ethics. Though it seems unlikely that Songtsen really did create a new Buddhist system of law, the image of the great empire-building king who was also a compassionate Buddhist proved a powerful one, and Songtsen’s supposed reconciliation of the realms of government and religion became a model to which all subsequent Tibetan rulers aspired. Down the centuries, through to the twentieth century, the Tibetan ideal of government was a union, not a separation, of Church and State.

Bowing to tradition, Songtsen stepped down from the throne when his son reached the age of thirteen. As the old rituals demanded, the glamour of the tsenpo passed from him into the body of his son. But the prince died shortly afterwards, and Songtsen assumed the mantle of the tsenpo again. There was much to occupy his mind. Events during the last years of Songtsen’s life brought Tibet into direct military conflict with India. China had developed a good diplomatic relationship with King Harsha, another great empire-builder who now ruled much of northern India. Envoys had been travelling back and forth between the Chinese and Indian emperors throughout the 640s.

Then, in 648, an embassy of high-level Chinese envoys arrived in India to find that Harsha had died. A new Indian warlord attacked the envoys, killing all except for two who escaped to Tibet. One of these was Wang Xuance, a seasoned envoy who was on good terms with the Tibetans. Songtsen granted him an army composed of Tibetan soldiers and Nepali cavalry to accompany him back into India. After three days of fighting the Indian troops were routed and the warlord was sent to China as a prisoner of war. India, or at least a part of it, thus succumbed to the Tibetans. Having shown how far his reach could extend, Songtsen spent the last year of his reign consolidating the empire. He died in 649, the same year that his old enemy and sometime ally Taizong passed away in China. Songtsen had achieved everything the founder of a new empire could wish for – everything, that is, except leaving a viable heir. After the death of his son, the new crown prince was Songtsen’s tiny grandson. Into this power vacuum now stepped Prime Minister Gar. His moment had come.

But first it was necessary for Gar and all of the other high officials to attend Songtsen’s funeral. The burial of a tsenpo was a solemn affair, involving a range of ritual specialists and lasting months or even years. In these elaborate royal funerals – which echo those of the Scythians, Huns, Turks and Mongols – the Tibetans preserved the customs of their nomadic forebears. Soon after the tsenpo died, his body was taken to a temple to be prepared for burial. During this period, mourners could pay their respects to the corpse; the nobles showed their grief by ancient symbolic actions such as painting their faces red, plaiting and cutting off their hair, and lacerating their bodies. Many centuries earlier the Greek historian Herodotus had heard about the custom of self-laceration among Scythians mourning their king. The Romans also observed this practice among the Huns, and braids of plaited hair have been found in their excavated graves.

When the time for Songtsen’s burial arrived, the corpse was carried in a magnificent procession to the tomb, a vast earthen structure rising out of the ground. Only a few scattered descriptions of these great funerals remain, but they are sufficient to allow us to picture Songtsen’s procession winding its way through the Yarlung valley under the shadow of the mountain where his ancestors first came down to earth. The tsenpo’s jewelled funeral carriage is accompanied by priests wearing turbans and feathered headdresses, who move to the eerie sound of horns, crashing cymbals and thudding drums. When the procession arrives at the towering earthen tomb, the priests make the final sacrifices of horses and other animals, and intone the sacred words:

The spear is plunged into the body of the bird,

The blade is thrust into the body of the hare,

The power of life is broken,

The carcass is thrown away.

And with that the tsenpo, seated in a copper coffin, is sealed into the tomb. This tomb is no halfway house to heaven. A great trapezoid mound, shaped like the royal tents, it towers over the plain. Even today, Songtsen’s tomb – now surrounded by those of later tsenpos – is still an impressive sight, 13 metres high and 130 metres long. Since their sky cord had been severed, the tsenpos had no way back to heaven. It seems the Tibetans, like the Turks, may have believed that the spirit of their kings lived on inside the tomb, for the latter was made as comfortable as possible, with treasure and everyday necessities all provided. Servants were included too.

In earlier times the custom was that the tsenpo’s closest allies, those ministers who had sworn an oath of fealty to him, would be sacrificed and follow their leader into the tomb. Though this kind of human sacrifice was carried out in the royal funerals of many Central Asian peoples, by the time of Songtsen’s death the practice seems to have been replaced by something a little less cruel, if no less eerie. Instead of being killed, the tsenpo’s retainers became the living dead, spending the rest of their lives within the confines of the tomb grounds, taking care of them and accepting offerings to the deceased tsenpo. The living dead subsisted on what they could grow near the tomb, on the offerings to the tsenpo, and on whatever cattle wandered into the tomb grounds. That which they touched was considered to have become part of the realm of the dead and no living person would try to reclaim it.

Once the interment of the tsenpo was complete, the tomb was sealed with a stone pillar. These standing stones were not just for marking the tombs of the tsenpos. Those clan leaders who had rallied round the tsenpo had their allegiance marked with a standing stone, and the oath was renewed every year under the stone. An animal was sacrificed and those present would vow that the same bloody fate would befall anyone who broke their oath. In Tibet today one still finds heaps of stones piled up at mountain peaks and passes, representing the gods of the sky. Whenever a vehicle passes, the passengers will scatter little pieces of paper called ‘wind horses’ printed with Buddhist prayers and shout an ancient battle cry: ki ki so so lha gyalo! – ‘May the gods be victorious!’

Tibet had now grown to encompass huge swathes of Asia. With Songtsen gone and the new tsenpo a mere toddler, Gar Tongtsen had the freedom to mould the new empire as he saw fit. He turned out to be as impressive a leader as he had been a prime minister. The Chinese historians of the Tang dynasty, famously contemptuous of most foreigners, wrote: ‘Although he was illiterate, he was naturally wise, resolute, strict and honourable, a brave warrior and a skilful general, making a most successful regent.’

But Gar was no Chinese stooge. In fact, he quickly showed that his ambition matched that of his old master. In 663, he crushed the Azha, the semi-nomadic people from the Mongolian steppe who had harried the Chinese and the Tibetans over the past fifty years. After this final defeat they gradually became Tibetanised as they absorbed the language and culture of their conquerors. Gar used the newly invented Tibetan alphabet to conduct a census of the empire’s territories, the better to raise taxes and recruit armies from these newly conquered lands. In a few decades the Tibetans had gone from being a simple alliance of southern clans to being masters of a pan-Asian empire. The only way they could sustain this progress was to raise armies from the lands they conquered. Fortunately, Tibet’s neighbours were also semi-nomadic warriors and made formidable soldiers.

The Tibetans celebrated the fact that their soldiers were superior fighters, capable of winning despite being outnumbered by their enemies. In a bardic version of an encounter between one of Gar’s sons and a Chinese general, the two exchange taunts about the quality of their respective armies. After the Chinese general has flaunted the superior size of his army, Gar’s son replies:

There is no disputing the matter of numbers. But many small birds are the food of a single hawk, and many small fish are the food of a single otter. A pine tree has been growing for a hundred years, but a single axe is its enemy. Although a river runs ceaselessly, it can be crossed in a moment by a boat six feet long. Although barley and rice grow over a whole plain, it is all the grist of a single mill. Although the sky is filled with stars, in the light of a single sun they are nothing.

The Tibetan soldiers wore leather scale armour. Some of these scales have been dug out of an ancient Tibetan fort in the Central Asian desert. They are tough overlapping rectangles covered with bright red or black lacquer and decorated with painted circles. According to some accounts, the Tibetan soldiers wore feathered plumes atop their helmets and carried battle flags on long straight poles, ancestors of the peaceful prayer flags that adorn Buddhist sites in Tibet today. The prowess of this Tibetan army was soon to be tested in one of the most forbidding landscapes on earth: the Taklamakan desert.

At the beginning of the 660s, the Chinese empire still controlled the lucrative Silk Route. But its grasp on the distant colonial territories that were part of this network was starting to weaken. The western Turks were in fighting mood again. This time Gar saw an opportunity to extend his empire further. He had already pushed across the mountains into Kashmir, giving the Tibetans a strategic advantage that the Chinese failed to appreciate until it was too late. Now allied with the Turks, the Tibetans conquered Kashgar, cutting off China’s Silk Route connection.

Poised on the edge of the Taklamakan, the Tibetans were ready to attack the little city-states of the Silk Route. One of the most vulnerable, and one of its greatest prizes, was the ancient city of Khotan. A Chinese pilgrim who stayed there shortly before the Tibetan invasion spoke in glowing terms of the people’s politeness, their easy-going nature and their love of the arts, particularly literature, music and dance. Other Chinese sources tell us that Khotanese women moved freely in society, wore trousers and rode on horseback like the men, and were allowed a certain degree of sexual freedom – at least more than was customary in China. Khotan remained fervently Buddhist until the forced conversion of its people to Islam at the hands of the Karkhanid Turks at the beginning of the eleventh century; the enthusiasm with which the Khotanese practised Buddhism prior to that was regularly remarked upon by visitors.

One popular activity among the Khotanese was the composition of Buddhist scriptures – some of which contained detailed prophecies about Khotan and its dealings with Tibet. The Enquiry of Vimalaprabha is a Buddhist scripture that does nothing to hide its interest in contemporary concerns of the Khotanese in the 670s: the plight of the Khotanese Buddhists at the hands of invaders. The text has a heroine, the Khotanese princess, a kind of Buddhist Joan of Arc, determined to save Buddhism in Khotan from the depredations of fierce warriors whom she calls ‘the red-faced ones’. They are, of course, the Tibetans, who must have been a terrifying sight as they rode into cultured Khotan, clad in leather scale armour, their cheeks smeared with red.

In the story, the Tibetans conquer Khotan and desecrate its monasteries and the sacred Buddhist reliquaries called stupas. The Khotanese princess flees into exile and formulates a plan involving paying off the Tibetans, who are perceived as being motivated more by greed than anything else. Her aspiration is summarised in a prayer: ‘When the red-faced ones and the Chinese battle each other, may Khotan not be destroyed. When monks come from other countries to Khotan, may they not be treated dishonourably. May those who flee here from other countries find a place to stay here, and help to rebuild the great stupas and monastic gardens that have been burned by the red-faced ones.’ It is apparent that the Tibetans made life very hard indeed for the Buddhists of Khotan. Indeed, the Enquiry of Vimalaprabha even has the Buddha pronouncing that the Tibetans have formed a perverse ambition to destroy his religion. The picture of a Tibetan army lacking any respect for Khotan’s Buddhist institutions is surprising, but quite credible at a time when Tibetan interest in Buddhism was still restricted to the court. The advocates of Buddhism did not have the power – yet – to temper the violence of the red-faced warriors.

And so, having gained the respect of the Chinese, Gar had now become their greatest scourge, cutting off the Tang empire from its western conquests and from the trade routes that connected China with India and Persia. He returned from his campaigns an old man. Arriving back in Central Tibet in the year 666, he had an audience with the young tsenpo, who lacked both the power and the will to oppose the de facto leader of Tibet. When Gar died the following year, the Tibetan empire was divided up between his sons. They ruled competently, but conflict was inevitable. At some point a tsenpo would begin to chafe against his role as a figurehead. In the end it was Songtsen’s great-grandson Dusong who took it upon himself to destroy the Gar clan. Dusong had one advantage over the sons of Gar: he was at court while they were constantly away campaigning or ruling over distant territories. In addition, the luck of the sons of Gar was beginning to turn.

In the 690s, as the curtain fell on Tibet’s first century on the world stage, the scions of Gar began to lose their grip on the empire. First, Gar Tsenyen, the governor of Khotan, was defeated by the Chinese. Dusong had him court-martialled and executed. Next, Gar Tagu was captured by Sogdians. Time was also running out for the only remaining son of Gar with real power, the general Gar Tridring. After years of campaigning, his soldiers were restless, and some had begun to defect to the Chinese side. There was an inherent weakness in the Tibetan army, in that it had had to grow rapidly to keep pace with the startling expansion of the Tibetan empire, drafting able men from its conquered territories. But the further these new soldiers came from the centre of Tibetan culture, the more their loyalty was a matter of concern. Now the formidable Empress Wu was on the throne in China. Seeing the weakness of the general’s position, she hatched a plan to defeat him without engaging him in battle.

While Gar Tridring was still loyally campaigning on China’s borders, the empress cleverly offered a peace deal – not to the general himself, but directly to the tsenpo. The Tibetan court, like the army, was tired of battle. A peace deal would leave the last significant member of the Gar clan stranded, and the tsenpo knew it. He therefore accepted. Then he brought all of the members of the Gar clan – apart from Tridring, who was still in the field – together in a hunting party. This proved a deadly trap, and all members of the clan present were slaughtered. Before word could filter to Gar Tridring, the tsenpo led an army of his own towards China. When the army reached Tridring, he knew the game was up. Neither his father nor his brothers had ever openly opposed the tsenpo, let alone led an army against him. To do so would undermine the sacred rationale for the whole Tibetan empire. In acting as it had, the Gar clan had only after all been ensuring that the tsenpo ruled over a kingdom befitting his majesty. Anyway, Tridring’s army was exhausted and close to mutiny. Thus, as the tsenpo approached, the last of the Gars committed suicide and his army fled across the Chinese border.

Dusong had done it: the tsenpo was the true ruler of Tibet again. But Tibet was overstretched and Empress Wu’s army was now pushing its soldiers back from the borders of China, out of Central Asia. The year was 692, just half a century after the Tibetans had started to create their own empire. In that time Tibet had become a participant in the currents of world culture, with its capital, Lhasa, developing into an unlikely cosmopolitan centre, home of Nepalese and Chinese nobility and a destination for foreign missionaries and merchants keen to have a stake in the new expanding empire.

Pushing into the deserts of Central Asia, the Tibetans had crossed and recrossed the ancient Silk Route arteries of world trade that carried silk, jade, spices and slaves between East and West. Of course, these trade routes were conduits for culture and ideas too. Ideas from Rome, Byzantium, Persia, India and China were passed along these ancient arteries throughout the first millennium, making the world a much more interconnected place than is often thought. Tibetan aristocrats wore Chinese silks and sipped Chinese tea; a Persian lion still stands over one of the tsenpo’s tombs. As the seventh century drew to a close, Tibet was poised to take its place among the world’s great cultures. But its own culture was still inchoate, a melting pot swirling with different ideas, rituals and technologies. And the Tibetans were about to encounter another young and vibrant culture: the Arabs. Yet, in the following century, the scales would start to tip towards the Buddhist religion, and the Buddhist holy land of India, as the defining influences on Tibetan culture.