Definition of an early modern mercenary

Speaking about Renaissance wars without mentioning mercenaries is the same as discussing politics without mentioning scoundrels. But who is a mercenary in Early Modern Europe? Lets find out.

Modern legal definition of a mercenary is given by the UN, though this most widely accepted international definition of a mercenary is not endorsed by some countries, including the United States. The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 states:

Art 47. Mercenaries
1. A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.
2. A mercenary is any person who:
(a) is especially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
(b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
(c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
(d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
(e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
(f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

At the 72nd plenary meeting on 4 December 1989 the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 44/34, the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. It entered into force on 20 October 2001 and is usually known as the UN Mercenary Convention. It has some minor additions to the definition of a mercenary, but the main points still stand.

The main problem with the UN definition of a mercenary is that it is made to embrace all mercenaries but designed to cover the activities of mercenaries in post colonial Africa. The aim of this definition was to strip mercenaries of all protection that is granted to combatants under international laws of war, to depict them as something utterly evil. Just think about it: even Nazi Werhmacht soldiers were protected by laws of war, but UN denies similar rights to mercenaries!

Mercenaries of early modern Europe were much the same as soldiers of Fortune that fought in Africa. Armies of 16th and 17th centuries are called “mercenary armies” but that is not correct. These armies were a unique collection of men with various motives, so to simplify is to distort. I’ll try to define a mercenary without referring to the UN Conventions. The aim is to have a definition for a group of soldiers that was clearly distinct from other combatants. We don’t need artificial grouping that contemporaries didn’t perceive.

The basic definition of a mercenary is a “combatant who fights for money’. Not for religion, motherland, honour and other ideals, but for soldo (that’s the origin of the word “soldier”). However, it is a common mistake to assume that every soldier has only one motive. People are complex beings, we can fight for lots of reasons, all at once. What makes the combatant a mercenary is his attitude toward payment. For a mercenary war is not something temporary and catastrophic. It’s just a job. Anyone who doesn’t think of war in that way is not a mercenary even if he gets his payment.

There were many men in early modern armies who were impressed into service — they receive the usual payment but they are not mercenaries. There were many men who joined the army because bad harvest or enemy soldiers left no other means to earn bread — these poor fellows are not mercenaries either. There were men who took up arms out of boredom and desire to learn something new — they are not mercenaries. The real mercenary is a soldier who doesn’t want to master any other profession but profession of arms. He goes to war voluntarily and stays in the army as long as he can hold his pike or musket. When the war is over the mercenary finds himself a new one.

In early modern armies such soldiers formed a very distinct group, usually called “veterans”. Grizzly reality of war disillusioned other men quick enough. Many former peasants who tried to earn their bread with pike in hand soon left the army to find a more peaceful occupation. Many fanatics soon lost their religious zeal and returned home. Impressed fellows just deserted in great numbers. Amateurs without iron hearts also deserted or were killed quick enough. You have to be a unique kind of person to love war. So while an early modern army consisted of many combatants aside from mercenaries, its veterans were mercenaries almost to a man.

In many first-hand accounts of Renaissance wars you’ll find that these veterans had a special value to commanders. Often they received bonuses and double pays. The reason for such admiration lies in the lack of drill and training. As I have mentioned in my earlier post, early modern states usually didn’t have enough resources to properly train their soldiers. Every war was called a “school” by nobleman, but it was also a school for common soldiers. They learned how to fight only during wars. Periods of peace led to swift deterioration of any army. In such circumstances a veteran mercenary was the best soldier.

Experience made a huge difference in early modern warfare. Veterans could shoot twice as fast and far as newbies, they could move in formations and obey orders much quicker, they could hold the line when others flee. In battles certain tactics and manoeuvres could be performed effectively only by veterans, else a disaster could occur. And battles were just a small fraction of campaigns. In skirmishes, raids, ambushes and other small-scale war veterans were considered even more useful than on the battlefield because of initiative and individual skills. The duke of Alba said that he could win a battle with newbies if their number is sufficiently high, but in everyday war in Flanders with few pitched battles one couldn’t win without veterans. That’s why real mercenaries were clearly distinguished from all other combatants in 16th and 17th centuries. Today drill and training can negate many of former differences.

If you have any suggestions about the subject I’d be very happy to see it!

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2 Comments

Filed under 16th century, 17th century

2 responses to “Definition of an early modern mercenary

  1. Pingback: The Dark Side of “Soldier of Fortune” Magazine: Contract Killers and Mercenaries for Hire « Hawaii X News

  2. darksideoftheshrub

    Another excellent post!

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