Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mercenaries and Techniques

Mercenaries and Techniques

by Richard Marsden

Northern Italy saw the mixing and interaction of martial arts and became a place where techniques were shared, or otherwise learned. In particular, the use of the longsword was codified by Fiore and most likely influenced by a variety of nationalities (including his own)-thanks (in part) to mercenaries. Mercenaries themselves, however, did not write down their techniques, nor were they the intended audience of any written martial material.

During the 14th century in Italy, particularly in the walled city of Florence a Renaissance was occurring. However, while thoughts on science, architecture, sculpture and painting were being revitalized in an atmosphere of high culture and more importantly wealth, there was another more martial Renaissance taking place.

Unable, or unwilling, to fight, the city-states of Northern Italy fell into the practice of hiring soldiers to conduct the dirty business of war. These soldiers had come pouring over the Alps after the Pope, who was in a state of self-imposed exile in Avignon, literally paid marauding bandits to 'go away'.

Pope Innocent VI's, albeit reluctant, decision in 1361 to pay armed men to leave him alone only encouraged more freebooters. A momentary pause in the Hundred Years War between England and France did not help either, with soldiers on both sides suddenly finding themselves without employment. Armed men, eager for work and glory marched into Northern Italy to find a countryside ripe for plunder, divided by internal squabbles, and more importantly, drenched in wealth. This wasn't the first time Italy had drawn in soldiers looking for work, with former-Crusaders, roving Spaniards and nearby Germans having done so before in the preceding centuries, however this time the sheer volume of armed foreigners outpaced what had been seen in times past.

Genoa, Florence, Milan, the Kingdom of Modena, Pisa and other states in Northern Italy all took up the practice of hiring outsiders. These mercenaries took on the name, condottiere which is based on the word 'contract'. The word mercenary itself comes from the Latin word mercenarius or the more general term mercedes, both of which imply someone who does something for pay. The word 'merchant' and 'mercenary' come from the same root and in the context of the times, both the seller of silk and the seller of war were seen as a necessary evil.

These initial mercenaries were by and large, not Italian, though locals quickly enough got involved in 'the game'. The city-states for the most part lacked the able-bodied, or interested population to conduct warfare on their own, or as in the case of the famous crossbowmen of Genoa, they went elsewhere to fight! This lack of Italian soldiery was much to the annoyance of Machiavelli who in the 1500' saw mercenaries as a blight and hoped for a more citizen-based

army to replace them. His arguments against mercenaries included such valid points as their price, their reluctance to engage in pitched (and potentially costly) battle and a growing and accurate sense that the more organized neighbors of the Italian city-states were becoming increasingly dangerous. France and the Holy Roman Empire in particular were meddling heavily.

In his own words, "The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way."
Alas, Machiavelli's complaints about mercenaries was correct, but he was fighting against a practice that, by his lifetime, was well-established in Italy. There were even born and bred Italian condottiere by the time Machiavelli was writing The Prince, merrily fighting their own countrymen for whoever would pay the most.

Who were these vile men, needed by Italy, yet written about with scorn by one her greatest political thinkers?


The men who marched into Italy in 1361 were not a homogeneous collection. The White Company, for example was captained by a German, Albert Sterz, and populated with a wide variety of Europeans including a great sum of Englishmen. When John Hawkwood took command of the same company, it consisted of Englishmen, Hungarians, Germans and eventually, Bretons and Frenchmen. Men, who in France had been at one another's throats, found themselves working together in Italy.

Working is the correct term. Mercenary companies had a Great Captain, but he in turn sub-contracted for men. Rule was partially democratic with a Great Captain having to keep his contractors happy, well-paid, and busy. Idle mercenaries tended to sack the nearest town.This great collection of men in Italy increased as anyone with skill in swordsmanship, archery or the use of the lance could find themselves in great demand in the relatively pleasant climate of Italy.

Meanwhile, political events continued to attract mercenaries to the peninsula. The pause in the Hundred Years War freed up hordes of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, Milan and the Visconti's desire to increase their influence was a continual source of strife, and thus work for mercenaries. Papal and Holy Roman politics didn't help either, with the occasional Holy Roman Emperor crossing the Alps, or papal division stirring up trouble, such as when three separate men were proclaimed the pontiff of Rome at the same time.

The petty and continual wars in Italy was a source of income for many a foreigner and in some cases even more. John Hawkwood became so powerful that he was able to marry Donnina Visconti, illegitimate daughter of Bernardo, master of Milan. Later, having switched sides and contracting with Florence (his wife didn't mind), Hawkwood was given lavish pay and died comfortably in a little villa outside the city. Wisely, Florentines were reluctant to let foreigners inside their walls, unless they were dead. Hawkwood was buried within the city and had a monument in his name constructed. His corpse was later sent back home to England by special request of the king. Not bad for an outsider!

Locals could do even better. Francisco Sforza, whose father had been an Italian-born condottiere was able to work for Milan, married the Visconti's duke daughter, then switched sides and worked for Florence. Milan had apparently not learned from their dealing with Hawkwood that marriages were no guarantee of loyalty. When the Duke of Milan died without an heir, Francisco Sforza stepped in and took the reins of power- by force. He was one of the first, but not last, Mercenary Kings.

The lure of riches and political power drew soldiers to Italy continually until larger, powerful neighbors, namely France and the Holy Roman Empire, intervened - just as Machiavelli feared.

Martial Practices

Identifying the techniques used by the mercenaries of Northern Italy is not easy. Despite their long stay in Italy, details on the individual lives of the soldiers was never a concern to those who were writing at the time. Machiavelli, for example, was more interested in the long-term consequences of mercenary employment, rather than how they used their weapons.

There are glimmers however, and some loose connections that can be made.

Records indicate that the English who crossed the Alps in 1361 fought in units of three known as a lance. The lance consisted of an armored soldier, a page, and a longbowman. All three were mounted, but fought on foot with the armored soldier using a foot-lance.

Archery, was probably a skill that could not be easily shared or taught. Mastery of the longbow took years of practice, which is why France, for example, had to rely on crossbowmen during the Hundred Years War.
The use of the lance, mounted and on foot, was something easier to teach and there is no reason to think that German, Breton, or Italian soldiers didn't pick up on English practices and vice-versa.
In the case of the longsword there is more compelling, but still passing evidence of shared techniques and a blending of styles.

The founder of the German school of thought on the use of the longsword was Johannes Leichtenauer. He did not invent the longsword's use, but he did travel about and get information on its use. A poem of his techniques is attributed to the year 1389.

In England, a series of verse holds within its cryptic writing longsword techniques. The author of MS Harely 3542 is unknown and currently the manuscript is believed to date to the 14th century.

In Northern Italy, a complete fighting manual, with verse and pictures, was created by Fiore de Liberi and printed in 1410 for Nicolo D'Este, master of Modena, who incidentally had replaced a retiring John Hawkwood as leader of the Papal forces opposing Visconti expansion.

All three documents were probably written by masters who were in their fifties or older. These men, as Fiore admits to in his own introduction, traveled around to learn their art and wrote down what they saw as 'best' practices. Neither Fiore, nor Liechtenauer are seen as originators of the art, they are instead well-known teachers of it, and like all good teachers, had their own
way of presenting information and their own preferences.

Where men like Liechtenauer or Fiore traveled to is difficult to say. When it is said Liechtenauer traveled to many countries, this very well might mean he visited the various kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire and learned from only German speaking masters. Whoever wrote MS Harely 3542 may very well have never left England. Making a case that national styles blended using these two sources is shaky at best.

Fiore, however, provides ample clues of a more mixed learning of style. Fiore traveled to many lands and met many masters, and even if he meant he traveled to the various city-states and never crossed the Alps, it is almost a certainty he had access to many masters of a variety of nationalities- namely mercenaries.

It is logical to assume that the great swarm of mercenaries flooding Italy would be, at the very least, mildly interested in how to use their own weapons! While Machiavelli claimed they hardly fought a battle, this is not true. Pitched battles, while rare, did occur such as at Castagnaro, and skirmishing and raiding for plunder was a continual tactic used by the Great Companies, a technique which had come from the English chevauchees (raids) of the Hundred Years War.

Fiore's formative years were during the years when mercenaries, such as John Hawkood and Albert Sterz, were making names for themselves in Northern Italy. These Great Captains were not foolish men, and if they sub-contracted, there is no reason to think they would not want men of skill. Masters of various weapon systems would have been in high demand. More importantly, masters would have come from all over Europe.

Fiore could very easily have encountered men who had been taught, or at least influenced by Leichtenauer and the author of MS Harely or their contemporaries. Englishmen, Germans, Bretons and more all brought to Italy soldiery, there is no reason to think they did not bring their techniques with them as well.

Were these techniques vastly different? Did an Englishman use his longsword in a way that a German might find alien? Probably not, given a longsword can be used only so many ways and the human body too has only so many movements it can accomplish. However, the texts we have from England and Germany indicate there was no unified way of teaching the use of the longsword (they aren't identical) and that different masters preferred different techniques.

Fiore, for instance, is clear in that his fighting manual covers the safest and best techniques, not all of them. Fiore's idea of safe and best is not necessarily what Liechtenauer would say was best, or the author of MS Harely were they ever to meet.

All the elements of a blending of national 'styles' is evident in Italy during the mid to late 1300's. Soldiers, who clearly knew their craft, flooded Northern Italy and hailed from a variety of places. There was already a documented system of the use of the longsword in both England and Germany and those nationalities were heavily involved in Northern Italy throughout the mid 14th century. Fiore, an Italian master of the era, stated in his own introduction he traveled around and met (and dueled) many masters. Given how many warriors in Italy were non-native at the time, it's hard to believe Fiore would exclude non-Italians in his quest for knowledge.

Were the Manuals on Combat By Mercenaries for Mercenaries?

There is no documentation that mercenaries read about any formalized techniques. Hawkwood, for example, was illiterate, or nearly so with his wife conducting much of his affairs when it came to letters and documents. The audience of the manuals on swordplay are also difficult to ascertain.

Fiore's 'Flower of Battle' was written for a well-read and well-learned noble. D'Este at the time he received the book was not in a position to engage in the practice of dueling (he was too important)- yet Fiore states his own victories in five deadly duels and recounts the more 'friendly' bouts of his students in the barriers, and Fiore shows certain techniques, such as caustic powder in a pole-axe, that seem more directed to dueling, (sneaky or otherwise) than warfare. On the other hand, the techniques in Fiore's manual work in and out of armor and he shows a complete system, ranging from the use of the dagger, spear, sword in one hand, two, the lance, mounted combat, pole-axe and more! Self-defense? Battlefield? Dueling? Perhaps the line between all three is not concrete?

In the case of Liechtenauer and his tradition, the later manuals seem more directed toward judicial dueling than battlefield use as seen in Jeffrey Hull's, 'Knightly Dueling'. However, what techniques work in a German judicial duel would be of value in one of the many skirmishes, that plagued Italy where small forces engaged one another more often than mass formations.

MS Harely's audience can only be guessed at, though it can be read to be a system that could tackle multiple opponents in what might be a skirmish setting, as portrayed by Benjamin Bradak and Brandon Helsop's 'Lessons on the English Longsword', or it could be simply a series of drills that encourage changing direction. There are few clues!

What is certain, is that the manuals were not for mercenaries nor by mercenaries. Mercenary masters may have influenced them though, especially in the case of Fiore given the atmosphere he lived in.


Mercenaries from many nationalities, in particular England and German speaking kingdoms were active in the mid to late 1300's in Italy. These mercenaries were in many cases veterans of the Hundred Years War.

Mercenaries, by their very nature, needed to know how to use their weapons and there is no reason to think that masters of arms would not be drawn to Italy to train mercenaries.

Some weapon systems were too difficult to teach. The use of the longbow, for example, required too many years and almost a 'lifestyle' to use properly. Other weapon systems, namely the use of the longsword, was easier to pass on.

The use of the longsword well-predates the mid-1300's, however three manuals on the use of the longsword, from three different masters, from three different nationalities appear roughly in the same time-period.

Fiore, one of those masters, lived in Northern Italy during the time when mercenaries were prevalent and traveled around to learn his craft. Given how many soldiers from various nationalities were active, there is no need for him to have left Northern Italy to learn the art of combat.

Mercenaries, by and large didn't read. John Hawkwood, one of the most famous mercenaries, was barely literate and he was the man in charge!

Mercenaries were not the intended audience of the written manuscripts by Liechtenauer, Fiore and whoever wrote MS Harely 3542. The intended audience was literate, probably noble in origin (as was the case of D'Este), and looking at Fiore and later German works, probably interested in judicial duels and self-defense- though battlefield use, especially in skirmish scenarios, cannot be entirely ruled out.

Mercenaries probably influenced Fiore's writing, the alternative would involve Fiore turning a blind eye to the sea of experience around him. All the professional warriors of his day were mercenaries, and at the time the majority were not Italian. While the mercenary masters did not write their techniques down, it would have been pointless, Fiore did and compiled them into a 'best practices' manuscript that he adapted to his audience.

This leads to the conclusion that the use of the longsword was less national in style in the case of Fiore, but rather a collection of techniques from many nationalities brought over by the great mercenary influx of 1361. These techniques stemmed specifically from German speaking soldiers and English, both of which were common in Northern Italy and would have been hard to ignore. Italian masters of arms assuredly existed before, and assuredly after this influx, but Fiore would have to willfully exclude experienced foreigners if he were to create a specifically Italian style.

Records on mercenaries, despite their long use in Northern Italy is spotty. Even the most illustrious of mercenary captains were considered outsiders. John Hawkwood was considered by the Florentines as a savior from Milanese domination. However, they ensured he stayed outside their city-walls whenever possible. The common mercenary soldiers are poorly documented. This may be because the line between mercenary and bandit, especially in 14th century Italy, was very thin- and who wants to write about how bandits swing their swords?

Suggested Reading

"Italian Medieval Mercenaries" David Nicolle and GA Embleton
"The Art of War in the Middle Ages" Charles Oman
"Medieval Warfare" Peter Reid
"The Devil's Broker" Francess Saunders
"Medieval Mercenaries" William Urban

NOTE: the labels for this post (there weren't any) have been added by me. - B.

1 comment:

JH said...

Well done sir. I appreciate your willingness to present supportable conjectures despite the know-it-alls who never do anything. Thanks!