The other group of mercenaries whose contribution to the eventual emergence and flourishing of military enterprise is of central importance are the Landsknechte, to whom might be added the other substantial group of German mercenaries hired by foreign warlords from the 1530s onwards, the pistol-armed cavalry, or Reiter. The Landsknechte appear to have been recruited from the time of Maximilian I, specifically as a response to the Swiss Haufen, with the Germans employing the same weapons, formations and tactics. Maximilian threw his own weight and reputation behind the levying and organization of the Landsknechte, seeking to overcome German noble disdain for infantry service by carrying a pike himself and rewarding successful Landsknecht commanders with honours and titles. Rather more rapidly than the Swiss, the Landsknecht regiments started to substitute arquebuses and the heavier muskets for halberds and other short-handled weapons. By 1570 each company (Fähnlein) contained 200 infantry with firearms against the remainder (somewhere between 100 and 200) armed with pikes. Like the Swiss Haufen and the Spanish tercios, the size of the combat unit gradually declined: a Landsknecht infantry regiment would be recruited at 4,000 men in the 1560s, but the numbers of effectives would usually be lower than that, with a company of 300 on paper being closer to 220 in practice. As with most other European infantry the numbers within a regiment or its equivalents were drifting down towards a typical 1,500–3,000 troops by the end of the sixteenth century. The system of recruiting and operating the Landsknechte differed from that of the Swiss in the absence of any equivalent of the cantonal structure and authorities to authorize, control, and in many cases administer the levy and deployment of troops.
The Landsknechte were raised throughout the constituent territories and jurisdictions which formed the Holy Roman Empire. The initiative to raise infantry on a scale and in formations large enough to match the Swiss on the battlefield probably came from Emperor Maximilian. But Imperial authority was not capable of coercing or demanding a military contribution from the innumerable rulers over whom the Emperor possessed ultimate juridical authority but little practical power. Any equivalent of the cantons’ universal military service was a pipe dream of theorists like the writer, soldier and Imperial councillor Lazarus von Schwendi. In the face of a generally perceived common threat, the territories of the Empire might agree to provide financial contributions to the Emperor as defender of the common interest through the regional assemblies of the Reichskreise, the ‘Circles’ or regions of the Empire. The one threat in the sixteenth century which was likely to command some consensus was Ottoman pressure on the Habsburg lands and on south-central Germany; for this a military tax, the Römermonate, was collected in accordance with the agreement made with Charles V at Worms (Wormser Matrikel) in 1521. A single Römermonat involved the collective levy of 15,371 infantry from the Empire, with a monthly pay and upkeep cost added to this of 88,500 gulden. Depending on the nature of the military emergency, the Diet could vote multiple tax grants which would maintain an Imperial army for an agreed period. The Emperor could draw upon the tax revenues to finance the campaign, and the territories within the Circles would undertake or contract the levy of the specified numbers of troops. Römermonate from the Circles might occasionally be available for the pursuit of Habsburg dynastic interests in Italy, or directly against France, but in general this would be funded by direct and indirect tax resources, extraordinary lay and clerical subsidies from the Habsburg lands.
The actual levy of troops was a local matter, in which the smaller German territorial princes and the subject nobility of medium and larger states might play a role as military contractors. But above all it was the activity of the independent (Reichsunmittelbar) Imperial knights (Reichsritter). These latter figure largely in the contracts for the hire of Landsknechte, and include many of the names most closely associated with the military history of the period: Berlichingen, Ems zu der Hohenems, Sickingen, Schertlin von Burtenbach, Fürstenberg, Truchseß von Waldburg. In most cases they were noble landowners for whom the additional financial attractions of successful military service were considerable, and who were unconstrained by the juridical complications of being princely subjects. The extent that this became the knightly métier can be seen from its continuation into the Thirty Years War, with no less resonant military names like Pappenheim and Hatzfeld emerging from this class. Though rather like the social rise of the condottiere in the fifteenth century, the later, larger-scale and more complex military enterprise of the seventeenth-century Empire became the province of the younger sons and brothers of princely families. In contrast, sixteenth-century mercenary activity in the Empire was dominated by the Reichsritter. There were a few exceptions: the most famous of all Landsknecht commanders, Georg von Frundsberg, was from a noble family who were subjects of the Habsburg archdukes of the Tyrol. Martin Schwarz, notorious from British history as the captain of 2,000 Landsknechte led against Henry VII at the battle of Stoke in 1487, seems to have been a cobbler before he progressed through the military ranks in the 1470s. At the other end of the scale, some of the German princes, like their Italian counterparts, did become directly involved in raising and hiring out bodies of soldiers: Albrecht Alkibiades of Brandenburg provided a notorious example in 1552 when he hired out his army corps to the French for an invasion of the Habsburg Netherlands. But the German soldier trade remained dominated by the Imperial knights at least until the second half of the sixteenth century, and their claim to make contracts with any warlord they wished – the principle of Reislaufen – had direct consequences for the capacity to satisfy external requests for the service of Landsknechte or Reiter. The strongest opponent of this claim was the Emperor himself, to whom all of these otherwise Reichsunmittelbar knightly captains owed allegiance. Under Emperor Charles V, contracting to serve the French king meant, more often than not, direct military opposition to the Emperor, so the debate about ‘foreign’ service intensified. The one victim of judicial proceedings to assert this principle was Colonel Sebastian Vogelsberger. Brought to trial for having served François I in the 1530s and having offered to recruit troops for Henri II at the time of the Schmalkaldic War, he was executed in 1548. But Vogelsberger, though enjoying wealth and office from his military service, had been born the son of a small farmer and schoolmaster in the Rheinpfalz; he had none of the political immunities of the Reichsritter, and his example had no real impact on subsequent willingness to continue contracting abroad.
If in practice most German mercenary colonels could negotiate contracts without any fear of restraint or prosecution, it was also the case that the military resources of the Empire were incomparably greater than those available to their Swiss counterparts. As contemporaries pointed out, it was not difficult to recruit large numbers of soldiers to serve as Landsknechte and recruiters could in many cases be selective, taking only those who came with their own weapons and armour, and looking for those with previous military experience or good health and physical strength. Recruitment in 1555 by Colonel Georg von Holle around Wildeshausen easily generated 5,000–6,000 potential recruits at the assembly point although funding was only sufficient for the contracted 3,000.130 Given the concern of the Swiss authorities to control the overall numbers of Swiss in foreign service, it was largely German Landsknechte who were raised to soak up the extra demand.
Moreover a completely new gap in the market was filled by the German Reiters with their pistolier tactics. Recognizing that lancers and cavalry armed with sabres would stand no chance of breaking a well-formed, pike-ringed square of Swiss or Landsknechte, ordinary armoured and light cavalry were deployed on the flanks and in reserve to take advantage of weaknesses or breakdown in the infantry centre of an opposing army. But the Reiter, deploying the pistol tactic of the caracole in large, cohesive units, offered the prospect of a more direct role for elite, well-drilled cavalry. Though the caracole has frequently been dismissed as little more than ineffectual choreography, the technique by which successive ranks of a cavalry column rode up to within yards of an enemy formation, discharged their heavy, armour-piercing pistols and wheeled away to allow the next rank to fire, could prove effective – psychologically as much as in terms of casualties inflicted. Pistols repeatedly fired at five to ten paces into a static infantry formation whose own firearms had already been discharged, mostly ineffectively and at greater range, could be highly intimidating, as the collapse of the infantry of the Protestant princes demonstrated at Mühlberg in 1547. More consistently decisive was the impact of pistol-armed Reiter on traditional heavy cavalry armed with lances; it was the use of cavalry pistoliers, rather than the infantry pike-square, which ended the battlefield role of fully armoured heavy cavalry. The main reason why the caracole and similar cavalry tactics were talked down by many contemporaries was that such tactics would only work in the hands of experienced, disciplined and well-trained units of cavalry. Just like the pike-square, the caracole would prove a disaster if deployed by inexperienced troops with no sense of unit identity or cohesion. Hiring German units of Reiter who had this practical experience of providing disciplined pistol fire on horseback was the obvious, ready-made means to acquire this military capacity, despite the cost of 12 ducats per month for an ordinary cavalryman.
The German soldier trade of the sixteenth century was thus able to meet considerable external demand. If the first and greatest contracting warlord was the Emperor, as early as 1515 the army of François I which opposed the Swiss at Marignano contained 23,000 Landsknechte. By the mid-1530s the French campaigning forces included 6,000 Landsknechte raised by Wilhelm von Fürstenberg and a further 7,000 raised through other colonels. In the early 1550s Henri II was regularly campaigning with between 10,000 and 13,500 Landsknechte, while at the well-documented review of Henri’s army conducted at Pierrepont in 1558, as many as 19,000 German infantry were supplemented by 8,200 Reiter (in an army totalling 40,500). France was not alone: in 1544 Henry VIII sought to raise 2,000 Landsknechte under Maximilian d’Ysselstein, count of Buren, together with seven independent companies of German cavalry totalling some 1,500 horse. He would certainly have raised more, but the difficulties that he encountered were an indication that the contracting activity of both the Emperor and the king of France had come close to draining even the large pool of high-quality German soldiers available for hire. The kings of Denmark hired both regiments of Landsknaegtene raised by their own nobility, and contracted German units to supplement these throughout the sixteenth century. As early as 1502 German Landsknechte were sent by the margrave of Brandenburg to serve under contracts drawn up by King Hans of Denmark.
What could turn these Germans with varied and diverse geographical and social backgrounds into units of soldiers whose military reputation was sufficiently impressive that rulers would compete at great expense to hire them in preference to their native soldiers? The Landsknechte could not in general draw upon the obvious strength of the Swiss Haufen, close-knit and homogenous peasant communities which could reinforce group solidarity and cohesion. There was far less sense of community and no distinctive ‘geography of recruitment’ either for the Landsknechte in general, or for the individual units. The social and economic backgrounds also varied widely, with townsmen as likely as peasants to volunteer, and with a wide social spectrum of recruits, from lesser nobles enlisting as ‘double-pay men’ down to the urban unemployed. If there was no strong regional or social solidarity, neither was there any powerful sense of emergent ‘German-ness’ that could create bonds. Georg von Frundsberg might try to stir up anger amongst his own followers against the 5,000 Landsknechte in French service at the battle of Pavia, but there was little real sense of cultural identity that could be used to stimulate cohesion. Appeals to Imperial service and common duty as the Emperor’s vassals cut little ice when pay was in arrears, as Frundsberg himself discovered in Verona in 1510 and again in 1527 at San Giovanni near Bologna. And unlike the Swiss, the German soldiers, infantry and cavalry, had few reservations about fighting each other as hired soldiers of opposing powers, partly of course because recruitment across large and diverse German territories outweighed any strong sense of a common culture. The captain of the Zug contingent who told the soldiers of the leading Swiss Haufe at Marignano that the battlefield would be their churchyard, then appealed to them to ‘be courageous and think of their home’. It is difficult to see that this shared concept of ‘home’ could have an obvious collective German equivalent.
Nor could religious identity be easily pressed into service by the military authorities. Despite the distinctive piety and popular beliefs of the Landsknechte – similar to those of the Swiss – on the eve of battle or after military successes, soldiers and their officers were remarkably resistant to the currents of evangelical reform unleashed from the 1530s and 1540s. Attempts to foster a strong, confessional identity amongst the Landsknechte failed, as did most attempts to demonize enemies in terms of their heterodox religious beliefs. Recent work continues to maintain the judgement of Anton Schindling that armies in the Empire were confessional ‘free states’ in the early modern period, in which religious piety and practice was certainly evident, but strong confessional divisions and antipathies much less so. That this was not necessarily the case with all early modern soldiers can be seen through the example of the Spanish soldiers of the tercios, whose behaviour and group indentity was strongly shaped by a powerful, militant Catholicism.
It is easy to depict the sixteenth-century mercenary as driven straightforwardly by greed or need; whether they were seeking to exploit their military role to extort money from society, or whether they were victims of that society, forced to become soldiers by a harshening economic environment, their motivation was crudely material. When his own Landsknechte surrounded Frundsberg at San Giovanni, threatening him with violence over their arrears of pay, shouting ‘Money, Money’, and then declaring that they would undertake no further military action until their arrears were paid, it might seem perverse to question this bottom line of their motivation for service. Like the Swiss, the Landsknechte received decent wages: at four Rhenish gulden a month, this was typically half a gulden less than the Swiss, but still double the pay of a farm labourer and more than a skilled journeyman. With the appropriate, privately purchased equipment of pike and half-armour, and especially if drawn from a higher social rank, the recruit might qualify as a double-pay soldier (around 10–20 per cent of the company), with what would then be a substantial wage. It certainly was not the case that the majority of those volunteering and enlisting as ordinary soldiers were from the lowest economic groups in society. Many were the sons and brothers of middling or prosperous peasant families, others were from urban artisan and journeyman backgrounds, while some were from the urban patrician class seeking adventure or experience. In any case, and a point so often missed when discussing these privately raised troops, while financial gain might have explained their enlistment, it would not explain the military qualities of either Swiss or Germans.
At the heart of the success of the Landsknechte lay a distinctive, complex and to some extent paradoxical sense of corporate identity. This was also present with the Swiss, though shaped in their case by the demand for military service, so that the military organization – at least when organized cantonally – was a closer reflection of the wider community. For many Landsknecht, and more like the Swiss ‘free companies’, military service was a professional choice for the individual. At the same time Landsknecht professionalism contrasted with that of the Italian condottieri companies, who were separated from their surrounding society, indeed had often been hired in order to ensure that this society had little to do with the practicalities of military activity. It was the concept of the collective ‘Regiment of the Landsknechte’ which systematized a strong sense of corporate identity that was about both belonging and social distance. What service as a Landsknecht offered was a defined and collective social status which ranked the soldier amongst the respectable and honourable elements of society. This status was measured not primarily in terms of good wages and other economic benefits – which were decent on paper but in reality frequently failed to come up to expectations – but in terms of honour and ‘freedom’. Military service as a Landsknecht was an honourable career, freely chosen and with a status which was measured by rights and privileges akin to those of members of other corporations in early modern society. Understanding the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknecht requires forgetting entirely the eighteenth-century perception of ordinary soldiers as social detritus, separated as much as possible from direct contact with respectable ranks of society by close confinement to barracks and the drill square.
One obvious manifestation of the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknechte was simply outward respect. The soldiers were members of a corporation which provided military service, itself a highly regarded activity. The terms in which they were addressed reflected this. Emperor Maximilian consistently referred to his ‘Liebe Landsknechte’, or his ‘fromme Teutsche’ or ‘ehrliche Kriegsleut’. Taking the example from the top, and even more aware of sensibilities in this respect, an effective commander like Frundsberg referred to his ‘lieben Söhn und Brüder’, while respectful adjectives like fromm, tapfer and ehrlich were regularly used in collective address. Civil society took its cue to some extent from this respectful tone within the corporation: ambiguities in attitudes to the soldiery did not challenge the idea that the profession was honourable and accepted its evaluation of itself. The fascination with the Landsknechte in contemporary painting, copperplate engraving and woodcuts bears powerful witness to an attitude which was certainly not free of moralizing disapproval, but was also accepting of the soldiers’ claim to a distinctive status and role in society.
A more substantial factor in determining the German and Swiss soldiers’ sense of self-worth was an element of democracy and self-determination in the military organization. Each company in a unit of Landsknechte had a complement of ‘Gemeinämter’, officers who were directly elected by the collectivity (Gemein) of the soldiers to represent their interests, namely a Führer, two Waibel (Gemeinwaibel) and a Fourrier per company. These officers shared between them the administrative oversight of troop movements and lodgings, divided up the allocations of supplies and munitions, allocated watches and other responsibilities, and represented the interests of the soldiers to the captain in all areas of duties, discipline and rights. To these duties the Führer added the all-important function of acting as advocate and adviser for the common soldiers in matters of justice. The existence of the Gemeinämter was a reflection of the rights of the ordinary Landsknecht or Swiss soldier, but so was the manner of their election. The entire company would assemble in a large circle and the names of candidates for these posts would be shouted by soldiers to the scribe, who would note them down in preparation for voting by simple majority. Moreover the company drawn up in their circle was a crucial element in other areas of decision-making: the forum for negotiation with the senior officers, the mechanism for taking collective decisions, and the context in which the trial and punishment of members of the company took place.
Beneath this structure of company and regimental office-holders, all the men in a German or Swiss mercenary company were divided into small, self-selected groups of eight to ten ordinary soldiers, or six double-pay men, the Rotte. This was militarily important in its own right, a classic example of those small-group dynamics which twentieth-century military theorists have regarded as the key to understanding the military effectiveness of larger bodies of soldiers. Its significance was certainly understood by contemporaries, being readily adopted by the Spanish tercios, with their divisions of the companies into small groups of camaradas. Each Rotte informally elected one of its number as the Rottmeister, who would distribute food and munitions, allocate accommodation within the Rotte, fix watches, resolve disputes and generally act as group leader.
Representation was important, and so were its practical implications. Above all the Landsknechte and their Swiss contemporaries served under systems of justice which emphasized collective responsibility for hearing cases and deciding verdicts and punishments. Though the regimental colonel possessed supreme judicial authority and had the right to overrule the collective will of the soldiers, such direct confrontation would normally be avoided. In general the regimental judicial officers, headed by the Schultheiß, would initiate legal proceedings against offending soldiers, and the case itself would be heard within the circle of the assembled soldiers, the defendant having the right to call upon his Rottmeister, the Führer or one of the Waibel, or any other of the soldiers to speak for him in the public context of the trial. While a trial would follow formal procedures and the verdict would be reached by a panel or ‘jury’ which was dominated by officers appointed by the colonel, the rest of the soldiers were present and could either act as a legitimizing force for the verdict and sentence, or might register their disapproval or dissatisfaction with proceedings. In some cases of crimes against fellow soldiers, the company would also act as collective executioner, forcing the condemned to pass along two lines of spear-armed soldiers who would beat and stab him to death. This again was a recognition of the condemned soldier’s status; he would not be humiliated by being handed over to the ‘dishonourable’ charge of a regimental executioner.
The obvious result of this popular participation in regimental justice was to weaken the disciplinary sanctions of the senior officers over their troops. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous to seek to prosecute soldiers who were considered by their fellows to have behaved within acceptable norms, and on some occasions even when they had acted well beyond them. Rather than formal codifications imposed through a military hierarchy, discipline appears more as a collective consensus which might vary markedly in different contexts, for example between the battlefield, the army on the march or in quarters. A capital sentence for insubordination on the battlefield would probably command general approval from the soldiers, while a similar sentence imposed on soldiers who had fallen out of a march might provoke a riot.
The consensual model was more widely reflected in the relationship of officers to men: while the contracting colonel would appoint his officers, they would then be ‘acclaimed’ by the assembled circle of soldiers; this was ostensibly so that they would be recognizable in a military community where there were no external marks of rank, but of course also carried some implications of popular election. Moreover, officers led from the front and by example, which often meant in the front ranks of the Haufen; their authority was demonstrative and repeatedly affirmed by active leadership, rather than established and hierarchical. Unable to deter their Swiss soldiers from a frustrated collective decision to storm the well-defended fortress of Morbegno in northern Italy in 1531, the commanding officers unhesitatingly placed themselves in the front ranks, so that both Dietegen von Salis and Hans von Marmels were killed in the first assault.
As this example also shows, it was not always the case, and especially when pay was in arrears, that the commanding officers would take all military decisions. If the Landsknechte by the sixteenth century had largely abandoned the Swiss model of decision-making by the collective body of the senior officers – the Kriegsrat – both the decisions and orders of Swiss and German commanders could be swept aside on occasions by popular pressure or resistance from their men. All of this would appear to challenge most ideas of what constitutes military command and functional discipline in modern armies, though it is easily recognizable from earlier European and non-European societies, where military forces maintained an edge over neighbouring powers through the combination of their soldiers’ high self-esteem and their cohesiveness and fighting power based on each individual’s sense of participation and responsibility.
Such organizational traits, even if they challenge conventional ideas of military hierarchy, could foster military results that certainly impressed contemporaries. Some other aspects of this strong collective identity excited less favourable reactions. There was a profound ambiguity at the heart of Landsknecht self-identity in society. They wished to be a respectable and honoured part of that society, but at the same time their extremely strong group bonding and the nature of military life gave them a sense of assertive separateness, of being outside the norms of a settled, ‘respectable’ society. If a powerful motivation for enlistment and service was a heightening of social status through the rights and freedoms enjoyed as members of a prestigious corporation, an equally powerful force was the cohesiveness gained from standing as a close-knit group outside of, or hostile to, society. This latter tendency is characteristic of many armies and navies, but it has rarely been carried to such conspicuous extremes as by the Landsknechte, and certainly explains much of the particular antagonism towards this style of mercenary warfare expressed by many of the moralizing writers of the sixteenth century.
Much has been written on Swiss and Landsknecht dress and appearance, and depictions of individuals and groups, whether from life or as caricatures, fascinated contemporary artists, supplying what was evidently a large market for engravings. It is easy to imagine the impact of a group of Landsknechte arriving in some small town or community in central Germany, with their extraordinary, multi-coloured and extravagant costumes, highly individualized, flamboyant in their use of slashing (to reveal other, expensive fabrics beneath the top layer), elaborate stitching and ruffles, feathers, plumes and other decorations, in many cases inspired by lively and colourful Italian styles of dress. Landsknecht costume was about conspicuous consumption: the soldiers had access to cash paid as a monthly sum, intended to cover costs of food, lodging and upkeep, but readily spent on gambling, drinking and the purchase of provocatively expensive clothing. The dress was also unmistakeably about assertive masculinity and sexuality: brightly coloured fabrics and deliberately conspicuous codpieces, puffed and padded jackets which emphasized shoulders and chest, tight leggings, fabric slashing to reveal bare skin on legs, arms and chest. In a communal culture where the disruptive effects of unconstrained sexuality were a strong source of anxiety to religious and civil authorities, the dress and swaggering, aggressively masculine behaviour of the Swiss or the Landsknecht were an open provocation, an incitement to fornication, adultery, and illegitimate children. That they would readily impress non-military young males and encourage them to try to imitate clothing and behaviour, even if they did not seek to enlist, was a further reason for concern. ‘I likewise require modestie in apparell’, thundered the predictably puritanical Justus Lipsius, in a comment that might otherwise appear a low priority in a work on military discipline.
Dress though was only one part of a more systematic rejection of the norms of civil society in the social and cultural behaviour of the Landsknechte and their Swiss counterparts. Their detachment from the settled life of town and country was also embodied in the Troß, a great extended and mobile camp of wagons, carts, porters, draught and pack animals, food and merchandise vendors, servants, women, children and animals that accompanied the regiments of troops to provide a combination of support services, shops and social environment. The Troß was where the soldier stored his possessions and might establish his wife, children or servants, where he bought his food and drink, sold his booty, and could buy the services of tailors, cobblers, barbers, surgeons, notaries and whores. This last service provided by the Troß was notorious amongst moralists and critics of this military system. While they might grudgingly have accepted the practical, physical necessity for the presence of whores with the army – ‘no whores, no war’ was a popular saying from this period – the openness with which the trade was plied and the lack of censoriousness from the senior ranks of the unit presented a sharp contrast with the often tortuous hypocrisy of settled civil society.
The open tolerance of the presence and role of whores within the army camp was embodied in the office of the Hurenwaibel. Although this man in fact had a wider responsibility for the general good order of all of the services, marketing and other activities within the camp, he was specifically identified for his role as the overseer and supervisor of the prostitutes, a post which involved resolving disputes, preventing violence and ensuring that the women were kept in the camp and were separated from the troops when they were directly engaged in military activities. Far from being a modest, low-key position, the Hurenwaibel in a large army enjoyed a status equivalent to a company captain and had a team of assistants. The frequent subject of engravings and descriptions of the various ranks and duties of military officers, the Hurenwaibel was the public face of an army organization which was increasingly at odds with those urgent attempts at moral reformation and discipline that were being launched by spiritual and civil authorities through the sixteenth century.
If the enforcement of discipline amongst the Landsknechte may have reflected collective consensus as much as top-down enforcement of formal regulation, there is little doubt that the consensus was least likely to support the punishment of soldiers who pillaged, stole or perpetrated violence against civil populations, even those within the territory of the warlord who had hired the soldiers. Though many of the senior officers did recognize both a prudential and a moral duty to try to protect civilians from their soldiers, the cultural and social assumptions of the soldiers themselves did little to restrain lawless behaviour against those who were outside the bounds of internal loyalty and recognition.
The roles of both Swiss troops and Landsknechte illustrate the ambiguity of a widespread acceptance of the military qualities of the professional soldiers of the sixteenth century, and yet an unease about the extent to which they were able to define their own relationship to surrounding society. This ambiguity forms one of the most important contexts in which the developing role of military enterprise in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should be seen.