Michael Mallett, Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy (Albright)

Michael Mallett

Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy

(Pen & Sword, 2009) 304pp.  $39.99

Mallett Italian Mercs

Eschewing the common focus of military history books on mere biographical history, this work serves as a particularly excellent example of a book written from the war & society perspective in the best way, one that gives full credit to both war and to its larger cultural, political, and societal context. This aim can be understood from an examination of the book’s structure, which begins with a summary of 13th century warfare as practiced in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the Near East, and ending with a short conclusion that shows Italy in the 16th century, largely ruled over by foreigners, with its division rather than the mercenaries themselves blamed for Italy’s subjugation. The remaining chapters inside these chronological bookends contain several chapters that discuss various phases of mercenary activity in the intervening period, first looking at the age of the great companies, soldiers of fortune, and a focused look at the Condottieri and their Employers. After this comes a series of chapters dealing with organization, the art and practice of war, and the relationship between soldiers and society. Each of these chapters exists with very few subheadings and are nearly absent of footnotes, but the endnotes demonstrate the quality of the research conducted by the author.

Throughout the book, Dr. Mallett maintains an excellent and crisp prose style, clearly discussing his aims for the book, as when he says: “Much work, even of a biographical nature, remains to be done on the lesser figures in the Renaissance military hierarchy, the 99 percent of soldiers who did not aspire to become princes or control the destinies of states. But above all we need to look beyond the individuals to the organization and practice of war, and the role of war in Renaissance society (3).” This openness and honesty even extends to his discussion of the relentless dishonesty of Renaissance warfare: “The Italians regarded themselves as the most intelligent and highly educated people in Europe, and while it is certainly wrong to think of all Italian captains as students of the classics and devotees of the principles of classical warfare, one of the most popular of the small group of classical military writers whose work was widely read in Renaissance Italy was Frontinus. Frontinus’ Strategemata is a casebook of military deceptions and reflections on the role of a sort of primitive psychological warfare. For Frontinus any military methods were justified by a successful result—victory, and while few leaders had actually read Frontinus most would have agreed with his principles (202).” The fullest appreciation of the learning and research behind these comments requires an examination of the endnotes, as the contents of the book rarely directly betray the scholarship of the author, which was a common feature of the history of the author’s time when the book was originally published in 1974, but is not the usual habit today.

Despite the fact that the author generally seeks to avoid writing a narrative history or a biographical history, there is plenty of narrative here about noteworthy battles of the Renaissance period, like Aquila, and also the notable condottieri and the civil leaders of the time, especially the various Popes and Dukes of Milan, and rulers of Naples. This information serves to provide historical context, but so does the author’s focus on such matters as the contracts that bound mercenaries or companies to the service of various states. Among the more intriguing aspects here is the tension that existed between the desire of the mercenaries for a stable income and the preservation of life and limb and the desire of cities for lower military expenditures and more decisive results. In looking at these contracts, he finds that the volatility of them went down, and as states increased their organizational capabilities and soldiers and their leaders were better integrated into societies, the tension between the two sides was reduced, even if never entirely eliminated.

Another aspect of interest here is the contrast between various states. Perhaps ironically, given the fact that the book deals at length and in detail with Machiavelli’s various criticisms of the dependence on mercenaries, is that the Florentine state is shown as being the most backwards among the major Italian states in its development of institutional strength, and was the least faithful in its dealing with mercenaries, which created an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Given the many and sometimes brutal way in which quite a few of the mercenary captains died, whether being shot to death in attacks at the end of sieges, in murders after battles, besides the many unsuccessful attempts at poisonings, this book manages both to demonstrate that Machiavelli’s assertion of mercenary combat being bloodless and imaginary combat was a clear exaggeration, and also dispels any romanticism one might have about mercenary service.

Yet this avoidance of romanticism serves many benefits, including the fact that mercenaries were clearly integrated into the Italian societies (and the other militaries, like the French) of their day. The pay of mercenaries was frequently in arrears and paid in kind, later mercenaries were given various responsibilities apart from fighting, and lest we forget, mercenaries served as civil servants protecting states and also seeking to expand their borders against neighbors in an atmosphere of frequent and pervasive violence. Not only did civilian officials appointed by the state accompany troops and provide inspections to ensure a high degree of quality, so that the city got the most force for its florins, but mercenary contingents were often combined as part of large forces that included infantry, cavalry, artillery, and even riverine forces (especially in the Po Valley and its tributaries). Furthermore, many mercenaries themselves, and not only on the highest level, were embedded into local society through shared goals of gaining glory and preserving reputation and honor, but were often embedded into the feudal or aristocratic structure of cities, inheriting their military positions through birth and/or marriage. Thus mercenaries, regardless of their commercial relationship with the cities that hired them, were still embedded within the larger class structure of the states they served.

For a reader who is interested in understanding the nature of mercenary warfare in Italy and both its medieval antecedents as well as its continuing influences into contemporary warfare, and who have a strong interest in contextual understanding as well as a practical and logistical approach to military matters, this book has a lot to offer. Despite its age, it is still a landmark work in its field, and a worthy introductory reading for a history student who wants a fundamental understanding of mercenary combat in Italy. From the study of battle tactics, social and political analysis (including an astute examination of factions within cities), case studies using a biographical approach to areas like logistics and contracts, this book offers a defense of the legitimacy of mercenary warfare and places them in a larger context as servants and not mere outsiders to the Italian society of the 14th and 15th centuries. In doing so, it looks at the weaknesses of Italian states themselves and not the mercenaries themselves as being the cause of the loss of Italian independence in the aftermath of France’s invasion of Italy in 1494 and the reply of the Austrians and especially the Spaniards to the initial French attacks. Although this is by no means a new book, it is an excellent one, and one that still merits close study and appreciative reading.

Nathan Albright

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