Non-Book Review: Mercenaries And Their Masters

Mercenaries And Their Masters: Warfare In Renaissance Italy, by Michael Mallett

As someone with a personal interest in mercenaries [1], I was glad to be able to review this book for the De Re Militari when my previous book review on the War of the Roses was posted. The history of mercenary warfare in Italy is colored by the perhaps ironic moral disapproval of mercenaries by Machiavelli. One knows that one has an uphill battle for legitimacy when Machiavelli considers one’s activities to be immoral. Throughout history, and this is by no means limited to Italy, mercenaries have gotten a terrible reputation. The Swiss, of course, fought as mercenaries for centuries, largely because arable land and opportunity overseas were limited as citizens of a landlocked republic largely without natural resources. The money to live has to come from somewhere, and if it comes from fighting someone else’s fights, so be it. The soldiers who fought for blue and gray, and the contemporary “civilian contractors” (among whose illustrious company in Iraq was at least one relative of mine) were all in the same line of business as the famed White Company and others who hired out as military experts to fight battles for elite urban republics like Florence and Milan, which were blessed with a great deal of material wealth but not a great deal of egalitarianism or popular support or patriotism.

The title for this book bodes well. After all, in history, it is the mercenary that has gotten the worst of the trade, having sacrificed honor and reputation for a few florins and evanescent fame. Yet what we have here is a clear case of mutually advantageous service. Many mercenaries fought because it was better to make good money as a professional soldier in a world where their skills and their lack of class status made it hard to make anything close to the same living other ways. For those who were skilled at fighting and were too proud and prickly in their own honor to return home to be mere serfs or peasants, it was appealing to make decent money and live a good life, if a dangerous one, fighting in an area where there were continual wars over towns and villages and over different sides in arcane internecine political struggles. Can a man be blamed for taking up someone else’s offer to be a swordsman or pikesman for hire because his skills are in demand because of the problems of others, and is it just for his “master” to be free to sanctimoniously condemn mercenaries while simultaneously employing them to their best effect, for the preservation of rule by himself and his haughty house over some Italian city-state?

It is my hope that this book, which does not look overwhelmingly long at about 250 pages of core text, addresses these concerns thoughtfully. There is much that deserves a fair hearing, the social context of mercenaries (their national and class origin, for example), the reasons why Italian city-states preferred mercenaries to civilian town levies, the reason why mercenaries were the ones who got the bad reputation rather than the much more wealthy and powerful interests that hired them, and what influences mercenaries have had on contemporary combat. As is often the case in life, those who are merely the obvious symptoms of larger social breakdowns often suffer blame rather than being seen as the canaries in a coal mine that hint at much greater malaise within a society than their own presence and conduct alone. That is a lot to ask for in a book, but let us hope that this book fulfills on a large part of those expectations.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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