By Richard Abels
Mercenaries and Paid Men: The Mercenary Identity in the Middle Ages, edited by John France (Brill, 2008)
Introduction: Mercenary soldiers played a crucial role in both the birth and death of Anglo-Saxon England. What is odd, however, is how little evidence there is for their presence in Britain between the end of the fifth century and the turn of the millennium. What makes this even stranger is that there is considerable evidence for soldiers who fought for wages throughout this period.
I found myself pedagogically wrestling with the distinction between mercenary and paid soldiers while teaching American midshipmen Machiavelli’s Art of War. Machiavelli’s famous (and, in historical context, ironic) denigration of the ability and effectiveness of professional mercenary troops in comparison to patriotic citizen militias led to a spirited discussion in class about how one might classify the United States’ all volunteer military. When I asked the midshipmen how many of them were attending the Naval Academy in order to serve the nation out of patriotic duty, all but a few raised their hands. When I followed up by asking how many of them would still be sitting in these seats if they were not going to be paid to serve in the Navy and would be responsible for their own sustenance, every hand went down. A number of students protested that I was creating a false dichotomy. Certainly, they expected to be paid for military service. How could they otherwise serve? Without pay they could not support themselves, let alone their family. But they had not chose the profession of Naval officer for its material rewards, they insisted, but out of a sense of patriotism. The midshipmen, in other words, conceived their military service as rooted in obligation and loyalty to a nation; their pay, while essential to the performance of that duty, was incidental to the reason they had chosen the profession of Naval officer.
By protesting the implication that they were mercenary troops, my students were underscoring the negative connotations that this term now possesses. They were also suggesting a distinction between those who fight purely because they are paid to do so, regardless of their employer, and those who fight because of a sense of duty to a state or nation, even if they receive wages for doing so. The distinction raised here is between what Stephen Morillo, in the useful typology that he proposes in this volume, therms soldiers ‘unembedded in the society of the their employer’ who ‘sell their services according to the the best offer among potential military employers,’ the ‘classic mercenary,’ and soldiers embedded in the moral economy of their society but for whom, nonetheless, market forces play an important role in their choice of the military profession, the stipendiary soldier. Understood in this way, the relationship between the mercenary and his master is purely – or, at least, primarily – commercial, while that of other categories of paid troops is not.