Entrepreneurs and Early Modern warfare: an overview

In my subjective opinion military entrepreneurs are one of the most interesting aspects of Early Modern warfare. They certainly constitute a major topic that is impossible to cover in one article. Hence I plan to illuminate some facets of their notorious craft in my future post.

But right now I’d like to give you a starting point by citing a brief (but very accurate in wording) overview of the military entrepreneurship that successfully avoids several old misunderstandings of that phenomenon. For example, it is a common simplistic approach to think that military entrepreneurs flourished only for some decades before and during the Thirty Years’ War and vanished afterwards. In fact they were common enough in Late Middle Ages and even in Eighteenth century, although in somewhat different forms.

The following quote is taken from: Frank Tallett and D. J. B. Trim. ‘Then was then and now is now’: an overview of change and continuity in late-medieval and early-modern warfare. // European Warfare, 1350–1750. Ed. by Tallett and Trim. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

“Medieval forces were raised by contract and by semi-feudal forms of obligation. Even when captains supplied troops by contract (by indenture as it was known in England), they often did so simply by mobilising their household servants and retainers. This continued to be the case in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but by then rulers were also having increasing resort to military entrepreneurs. These men – and there were over 300 of them operating in their Thirty Years’ War heyday – raised and equipped forces on their own initiative, using their own money or credit networks. Their troops were then available to the highest bidder. For such men, contracting and sub-contracting was a business, rather than a mechanism through which their personal followers, tenants, and dependents were mobilised for the service of their prince. These entrepreneurs de guerre, or military enterprisers, often sub-contracted with other, lesser captains, who in turn either drew on their personal affinities, or instead recruited by public appeal solely on a cash basis. Army units were owned by the enterprisers who raised them; proprietorship as well as entrepreneurship thereby became significant in warfare. A whole army, such as those led by Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar in the Thirty Years’ War, thus represented the accumulation of venture capital on an enormous scale.

The virtues of this system were that it allowed rulers to obtain large, trained, and experienced forces quickly, and that it obviated, to some degree, the need to negotiate with elites in society. However, military entrepreneurship by its very nature represented an affront to a prince’s sovereignty, and military enterprisers had the potential to act autonomously and against their employer’s wishes. <…> Rulers accordingly began to phase out the use of military enterprisers from the late seventeenth century.

Yet the commercialisation of warfare continued, in two respects. First, small principalities, notably in central and western Germany, began to hire out their forces en masse to larger powers, although these forces were now recruited and officered by the state rather than by entrepreneurs. Furthermore, they formed a declining proportion of armies, the balance of which was raised and paid for by state authorities. Second… proprietorship remained a prominent feature of such armies, since the officers purchased their positions through the system known as venality (after the early-modern French term vénalité). In theory things had changed, because, in principle, officers enjoyed ownership only of their military office, rather than of the troops they commanded (unlike in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries); however, in practice, they were still expected to invest in their command by using their personal resources to recruit, equip, and feed their men. Right to the end of the eighteenth century, wealthy individuals who raised a regiment for the Austrian and British armies would often be rewarded with its colonelcy as a result. The regiment was under state control; but proprietorship and entrepreneurship endured”.

The only point I’d like to add to the afore-cited overview is that although some entrepreneurs tried to act against their employer’s wishes, almost always the employer eventually overruled them by revoking their patents and titles together with simple cessation of further payments or the opposite tactics of buying-out entrepreneur’s own officers and troops.

But that was an oversimplification too. Relationships between entrepreneur, his mercenaries and the ruler were much more entangled and less straightforward than it is usually thought. There was more to it than just buying or selling an army “from the shelve”, because cogs of patronage, courtly favours and political objectives tended to be far more important than money.

The only certain thing I can say is that employment of entrepreneurs was not a process of delegating some state authority to private sphere. As lawyer, I want to note that it was simply one of the many contractual systems that were essential for Early Modern states, and contractual obligations should not be considered as less progressive than obligations springing from laws. Early Modern states used contracts while Modern states use laws and coercion, none of two systems is better, they are just different approaches to same issues.

I hope to continue this theme next time by addressing the most famous of all entrepreneurs  – Wallenstein – and the credit system behind his army, so stay tuned.



Filed under Strategy

3 responses to “Entrepreneurs and Early Modern warfare: an overview

  1. I just wanted to drop by and show my appreciation for your articles.

    As someone who’s main interest of History in regards to Europe is between the years 1580 to 1618 I have to say this blog is great!

    Also if you decide to do any articles on Eastern European warfare journeying the late 16th and early 17th centuries it would be greatly appreciated! Very hard to find english works focusing on those particular regions.

    Kind regards,


    • Thank you!

      Funny thing: I live in Moscow but prefer Western History :) However, I know that Eastern Europe is still land of myths and military history of Eastern Europe in English is no exception. Thus sometimes in future I shall write something about it.

  2. *during the late 16th and early 17th centuries*

    Apologies for the spelling mistake.

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