Mercenaries’ honour

“Why throughout history certain individuals were chosen, or most often recruited, to become a soldier, and why they should want to do fight for someone whom most had never met or knew little about is among the most difficult questions facing military historians of any period”. (Kelly DeVries. Medieval Mercenaries: Methodology, Definitions, and Problems.)

My smartest readers may have already guessed that I pay special attention to mercenaries in my history readings. Therefore I couldn’t agree more with the quote above. It’s not an easy question, yes. However, difficult things are often also the most interesting ones.

For many authors the question “why should they want to fight” has a simple answer regarding mercenaries of XV-XVI centuries: money. Of course, “oversimplification” doesn’t even begin to describe quality of that answer. Too many factors come to mind: purchasing value of wages, irregularity of payments, non-monetary parts of salary, additional reasons in play, be it religion, gloryhunt or booty, etc. The other curious trend is that defenders of “mercenaries fought for money” thesis like to give examples of mercenaries who demand extra money in excess of previous contract or betray the employer for the higher bidder. Examples of employers who breach contracts and delay or refuse to pay are in fact more numerous in sources but who cares.

I’d like to make a note regarding situations when mercenaries with payment in arrears refused to stay in the army unless owner of the army would pay all debts to them. Most soldiers of 16th century could wait for months if not years before such ultimatum would be given to the employer. In Spanish Army of Flanders there even was a special procedure for such mutinies and in difficult fiscal years they became the only way to receive salary from Spanish Crown. But there were those who demanded from employers a more dutiful approach to terms of contract. In particular, Swiss and landsknechts were famous for unforgiving attitude in cases of breach of agreements (more so in the 1st half of XVI century when they both were in vogue). As a result, e.g., French Crown usually managed to find money for the Swiss and landsknechts while native French troops still had pay in arrears.

Two thoughts come out of that. The first thing to ask is whether the Crown would improve regularity of payment for native troops if they would bargain as hard as the Swiss did? In other words, could readiness to defend one’s rights prevent infringement? Or did the difference in battle quality deprive inferior soldiers of bargaining possibilities? It becomes harder to tell if instead of France with its awful native infantry we would look to Spain with its elite tercios who outmatched all other soldiers in the eyes of Spanish commanders, but could tolerate long delays in payment longer than the Swiss and landsknechts.

The second thought is how much readiness to mutiny in case of any breach of contract came from non-pecuniary motives? I have a strange feeling as if for mercenaries of 16th centuries it was also a matter of honour. Military profession had certain dignity that raised soldiers above commoners, but such motives were strongest in Swiss and Landsknechts regiments. The Swiss had pride of people who successfully fought for independents against Burgundian and Imperial knights. Landsknechts had a special esprit de corps which was enhanced by Emperor Maximilian (the Emperor took the pike on some occasions and invited noblemen to serve in Landsknecht ranks). Maybe strict observance of contracts was another matter of honour: if nobleman enters into contract with common soldiers, he raises them to equal ground. If nobleman breaches the contract, that may be perceived as a sign of contempt, as if he does not consider contracts with lower classes as binding ones. Ultimatum “pas d’argent — pas des Suisses” may have been a way to say “we are equal (therefore respect the contract!)”. But that’s just my theory and I know no special studies on that matter.

The only thing I could find is the fact that in times of mutinies frightened government officials suddenly changed words when referring to soldiers. Instead of “filthy beggars” and “scum of the earth” they wrote to them as to “magnificent gentlemen” and “honourable soldiers” (Geoffrey Parker has mention of it in his article on mutinies in Spanish Army of flanders and corresponding chapter of the book about Spanish Road). There are also studies of mutinies and civil unrest where scholars point us to the expressed need of rebels to be “someone”, to be finally noticed by higher circles and entered into agreement.


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