By William Caferro
The Historian 58 (1996)
Introduction: “A multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside. . . .” Thus pope Urban V described the bands of mercenary soldiers that rode throughout Europe in the fourteenth century. This essay will focus on the impact of these mercenaries on Italian cities. It will discuss what recourse was available to towns in guarding against mercenary attacks, and will sketch the far-reaching economic and consequences of what was, along with plague and famine, one of the most severe scourges of the era.
Although mercenaries had plied their trade for centuries, the bands of the fourteenth century were particularly burdensome. Known collectively as “free comyanies,” they were large, autonomous units tied together in loose confederations under the command of an elected captain. Continuous wars, combined with a lack of economic opportunity, had swelled their numbers, which included professional soldiers, restless knights, and assorted adventurers from all over Europe. Their organization was corporate, with a well-articulated hierarchy of sub-commanders and chancellors, and an internal machinery that oversaw the democratic distribution of loot. They took romantic and self-important names such as the Great Company, the Company of the Star, and the Company of St. George.
In times of war, they sold their services to the highest bidder; in times of peace, they became marauders, raiding and ravaging the countryside, committing the atrocities Urban V enumerated above. In France, where they were also known as routiers or icorcheurs, they fought in the battles of the Hundred Years War. During truces, they laid waste to various regions, including Burgundy, Limousin, Auvergne, the Ile-de-France, and the hire and Rhine valleys. In Spain they were active in the war between Peter the Cruel of Castile and Peter the Ceremonious of Aragon.