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Mercenaries

MERCENARIES

MERCENARIES. Mercenaries were paid soldiers who were bound to their employers by profit motive rather than loyalty. They existed in European armies from antiquity and fought in large numbers in the early modern period.

MERCENARIES IN FOURTEENTH- AND FIFTEENTH-CENTURY ITALY

Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian states took the lead in using mercenaries. The accumulation of wealth by towns in the northern and central part of the peninsula created the means to spend, while incessant wars and weak feudal structures provided the need to hire military power. In the fourteenth century, the Italian military scene was dominated by foreign adventurers. These were mostly Germans, French, and Hungarians who fought in local armies. They coalesced into "free" companies: private armies led by captains elected by their troops, available for hire to the highest bidder. In the absence of pay, these armies roamed the countryside plundering and extorting money. There were several German "Great Companies," but the most famous of the bands was the English "White Company," which descended into Italy in 1361 during a truce in the Hundred Years' War (13371453). Sir John de Hawkwood, a captain of the White Company, became the most successful soldier of the era. When he died in 1394, his last employer, the government of Florence, buried him with high honors in the cathedral.

John Hawkwood's emergence apart from his band was part of a larger process whereby individual mercenary commanders became valuable commodities. This development resulted from the late-fourteenth-/early-fifteenth-century economic and political consolidation on the peninsula that reduced the number of states that could hire mercenaries. This consolidation also strengthened a fortunate few mercenaries, who now sought lasting arrangements with men of assured reputations. Powerful states like Milan and Venice took the lead in granting long-term mercenary contracts and establishing more permanent armies. The new generation of mercenary captains was almost exclusively Italian, and prolonged service had the unfortunate consequence of mercenaries sometimes seizing political power in the states they served. An example is Francesco Sforza (14011466) from the Romagnol town of Cotignola, who took control of Milan in 1450.

Mercenaries were hired in Italy by means of a condotta, 'contract'. The term condottiere, 'contractor', Italian for mercenary captain, derives from condotta. A condotta typically spelled out the number of troops, the conditions of service, and the amount of pay. Most condotte involved horsemen, the most valued troops, but they could also include infantry. In fifteenth-century Italy mercenary cavalry comprised units known as lances, which consisted of three men and three horses. Employers usually retained the right to inspect the brigade; the mercenaries claimed a share of the booty and ransoms. Different kinds of men fought as mercenaries. Some, like Niccolo Piccinino (13801445), came from humble backgrounds; others, like Federigo da Montefeltro (14221482), were learned men from noble families. Niccolò Machiavelli criticized mercenaries as cowardly in battle, "thirsty for power, undisciplined and disloyal," but many were in fact reliable and competent fighters. Musio Attendoli Sforza (13691424) and Braccio da Montone (13281424) were two of the most skilled tacticians of the fifteenth century. Musio exhibited considerable expertise maneuvering large armies and making effective use of his infantry. Braccio distinguished himself for his audacity in battle and his penchant for dividing his army into small units and committing them piecemeal into battle. Many of the captains of the fifteenth century fought under either Musio or Braccio and adopted their methods.

MERCENARIES IN OTHER PARTS OF EUROPE

Mercenaries were used in significant numbers elsewhere in Europe, particularly in wars in France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Swiss emerged in the fifteenth century as a frightening fighting force. Unlike the condottieri in Italy, the Swiss formed infantry units, which were phalanxes of men armed with swords and halberds (a type of battle axe on a pike) for fighting in close order. Their weapons protected them from cavalry charges and gave them considerable counteroffensive striking power. Whereas capture and ransom were a fundamental part of Italian warfare, the Swiss did not take prisoners and often skewered their opponents with their sharp weapons. In the service of the French monarch, the Swiss scored impressive victories against the armies of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 14761477.

In Germany, Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519) created his own infantry, the Landsknechts, to rival the Swiss. Predominantly drawn from southern Germany, this infantry trained in the Swiss manner and were armed with pikes. They distinguished themselves by wearing loud, colorful clothing, and they incorporated handguns into their units as these weapons became more common on European battlefields. Their battles with the Swiss, whom they hated, were some of the bloodiest of the era.

The sixteenth century saw the rise of what the historian Fritz Redlich has called the "German military enterpriser." This breed of mercenary bore a certain resemblance to the Italian condottiere but operated on a larger scale, raising whole armies, extending credit to large cadres of soldiers and, generally, treating war as a business enterprise. The phenomenon reached its peak in the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years' War (16181648). At one point during the war, more than 400 military enterprisers were active. The most famous was Albrecht von Wallenstein (15831634), a petty nobleman of Protestant background from Bohemia. He fought for the Catholic Habsburgs, raised armies in excess of 100,000 men, and acquired states stretching from Bohemia to the Baltic. He organized arms production on his lands, recruited men, and retained the right to promote officers. His was a highly paradoxical personality: A convert to Catholicism, he remained intensely superstitious. He supposedly disliked noise so much that upon arrival in a town he ordered all the dogs and cats put to death.

The Thirty Years' War notwithstanding, the seventeenth-century European military trend was toward more centrally organized professional state armies. But governments did not hesitate to employ mercenaries when the need arose. Prussia recruited men from outside its frontier, often from lesser German states. The army of the Prussian ruler Frederick William I (ruled 17131740) was only two-thirds native. One of the most well-known suppliers of mercenaries at the time was Hessen-Kassel, a relatively poor state. Hessian mercenaries served opposing sides the War of Austrian Succession (17401748) and were used by the English in the American Revolution (1776).

See also Italy ; Military ; Prussia ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Wallenstein, A. W. E. von .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, M. S. The War of the Spanish Succession, 17401748. London and New York, 1995.

Hale, J. R. War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 14501620. Baltimore, 1985.

Howard, Michael. War in European History. Oxford, 1976.

Mallett, Michael. Mercenaries and Their Masters. London, 1974. Classic account of the Italian condottieri, which reassesses their broader role in society.

Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years War. London and New York, 1984.

Redlich, Fritz. The German Military Enterpriser and His Work Force. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 19641965.

William Caferro

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mercenaries

mercenaries

Warfare went through an important change in the late Middle Ages. Once the domain of mounted knights who fought in the service of their feudal overlords, war became a matter for professional mercenary armies that fought for powerful kings. The mounted knight was no match for masses of archers and crossbowmen, who dominated the battlefield during the Hundred Years' War in France. This war, which dragged on for generations until the final defeat of the English in the 1450s, demanded permanent armies in the field. A permanent force was an impossibility under a feudal system that demanded only forty days of annual service from a king's vassals.

At the same time, the economy of Europe was expanding through better transportation and communications, and the new international banking system relied on credit, money, and bills of exchange. This made it possible for rulers to borrow and to hire mercenaries to fight their battles. Mercenaries could take the field for as long as they were paid, allowing kings and princes to mount long campaigns against their rivals and undertake sieges of enemy fortresses. The system had its roots in the practice of scutage, or payment by a vassal in lieu of military service. The payment of scutage allowed feudal lords to hire professional soldiers, who trained from a young age in the military arts and often proved more able than hereditary knights who simply fought out of traditional obligation.

Mercenaries came from all corners of Europe, but they were especially numerous in Switzerland, then a poor land where young men looked elsewhere for opportunity. The Swiss infantry enjoyed a reputation as skilled fighters, well disciplined and well armed with fearsome halberds, which could kill an armored knight at a single blow. Mercenary captains assembled small armies, drilling them relentlessly with formation and fighting tactics, in which infantry, archers, and cavalry were carefully coordinated.

The city-states of Italy favored mercenaries as an alternative to levies of the citizens. Bankers, industrialists, and merchants did not want to go to war, and disrupt the commerce that was essential to their prosperity. Instead, they hired condottieri (a word that means contractors) to fight their battles. The best mercenary captains were well paid and in very high demand, and were honored by their patron cities with noble titles and monuments. Not everyone in Renaissance Italy appreciated the service of mercenaries, however. The diplomat and political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli detested mercenaries as a symptom of a divided and weak Italian nation, one that was losing out while rival societies were organizing themselves into powerful, centralized kingdoms.

The French king Charles VII organized a standing army of mercenaries, organized into compagnies d'ordonnance. These permanent armies of France as well as the Holy Roman Empire invaded Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and eventually put an end to the independence of the Italian city-states. By the end of the Renaissance, mercenary armies that were hired for short campaigns were obsolete. They were replaced by standing national armies, which were raised by levies, and permanently garrisoned in strongholds.

See Also: Macchiavelli, Niccolo; Montefeltro, Federigo da

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Mercenaries

MERCENARIES


Mercenaries are soldiers for hire. They differ from a normal army to the extent that mercenaries fight only for money, or for anyone who will hire them, and not out of allegiance to a flag or their homeland. Sometimes "mercs," as they are also known, will sell their services as individual warriors. At other times a government in need has hired entire armies. The use of mercenaries has a long history. The practice dates back at least to ancient times. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians used mercenaries. Greeks served as mercenary soldiers in Hellenistic states. In the late Roman Empire, emperors hired tribes from the outer regions of the empire to fight their battles. In the decades since World War II (19391945) mercenaries have fought post-colonial wars in Africa, cocaine wars in South America, and from the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia. The typical mercenary is a former soldier who took up fighting for pay after his own army no longer needed him. Defeated German soldiers from World War II served as mercenaries in many small wars around the globe. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw many former Russian soldiers plying their trade as mercenaries. Sometimes dictators with an unruly population may hire mercenaries rather than risk arming their own people. The British army has a long history of loaning out its soldiers to former colonial nations to train and command local armies. Former U.S. Army soldiers have also served as mercenaries. There seems little doubt that mercenaries will continue to see a demand for their services in a world so rife with conflict.

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