Reviews: ‘The scope of Greenhill's military history books has been enhanced by the publication of this work by the noted American scholar, William Urban. It is indeed a fitting companion to another recent Greenhill publication, The Art of Renaissance Warfare. Medieval Mercenaries is more a social commentary than a nuts and bolts manual of warfare, although strategy and tactics do receive due attention.

The author succeeds in establishing why kings, dukes and other similar potentates relied on mercenaries to defend or expand their territory before massed national armies existed. The diversity of solutions to the problems of recruitment, payment, logistics and disbandment are ably covered, as is the philosophical question as to why mercenaries and bodyguards are so widely employed in the world today.

This is one of those user-friendly books that can be opened at random by busy people and read a dozen or so pages at a time. This means the reader will be rewarded by becoming acquainted with little known but fascinating aspects of European history, including numerous power-brokers, crusaders, warriors, plotters, cynical alliances and such that would rival anything Byzantine.

The author injects into the saga the novelty of a literary perspective of these times by quoting from the works of the likes of Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Shakespeare. The informatively annotated illustrations are an education in themselves which, when taken with the text, can only heighten the reader's grasp of European history and establish mercenaries as a fact of life.

In short, this is a different kind of history book that is highly recommended for the curious or for the academic researcher’

– Syd Wigzell


not just military history, September 4, 2007


Scott A Kessler (Portland, OR) - See all my reviews

William Urban's trek into the world of medieval mercenaries, Medieval Mercenaries: the Business of War, is extremely interesting. Urban mixes historical fact from reputable sources with popular literature to create a better understanding of the mercenary in the tenth through sixteenth centuries. Mercenaries participated in every major and most minor conflicts of the medieval period. A mercenary is a professional soldier who enters into a conflict not for nationalism, but for profit. Urban discusses the intricacies, hazards, and profits of the mercenary soldier.
Urban kicks off his investigation with the Vikings, referred to as the Varangian Guards by the Byzantines, defending the imperial interests at Constantinople. Through their activities, the Varangian Guard helped Harold Hardrada, previously the King of Norway and at the time the commander of the Varangian Guard, gain a reputation as a powerful general. Hardrada had come to Byzantium to seek protection from rebels who had killed his half-brother. The Byzantine emperor employed him in the Varangian Guard, eventually promoting him to commander. This time spent in the employ of the Byzantine emperor and the reputation earned there helped Hardrada regain his throne in Norway.
The activities of the Vikings and the Varangian Guard in Byzantium are followed by the stories of William the Conqueror, Friedrich II, Edward II and III, Charles the Bold, a host of popes and too many would-be kings to name. These stories fill the pages with their quests for power, glory, and greed. At their service are thousands of mercenaries looking to get rich or die trying.
Urban gives extra focus to several medieval heroes and villains, most notably John Hawkwood. Hawkwood's humble beginnings and adventuresome spirit lead him to become one of the most notable mercenaries of the time. Hawkwood and his troop venture through Italy, working for popes and quarrelling noble families, fighting Greeks, Arabs, Italians, and other mercenary groups. Urban does a good job of illustrating how Hawkwood paid, hired, and deployed his mercenary forces, as well as how he dealt with difficult employers.
The business of war is a difficult one. Money runs out. Mercenaries switch sides mid-fight. Peace means unemployment. During the Hundred Years' War, mercenaries came to dominate the battlefield and were employed to supplement the feudal forces. However, during times of peace, they could turn on their employers and start a new conflict. Therefore, it was in the interest of all professionals to keep the wars as long and bloodless as could be managed.
The free companies of mercenaries operated all over Europe and were for hire to anyone who could afford them. The White Company, the Black Company, the Teutonic Knights, and other military organizations operated as standing armies without a nation. These groups did not have to look far to find a fight. Rivalry between kings and religious sects kept the free companies busy almost year round. Great profits were made and lost as mercenaries tried to survive to retirement. Very few died of old age however.
Urban uses several historic documents, as well as modern studies to compile the information of his book. Jean Froissart's writings are expertly placed throughout the book to back up the author's conclusions. Froissart, who lived through the first half of the Hundred Years' War, chronicled many of the events that took place during that horrible time. Urban includes poems by various authors as well as a section of artwork, pictures of castles, and maps of medieval Europe.
William Urban dissects the world of chivalry by using writings from Froissart, Shakespeare, Chaucher, and Mark Twain. Some of the writings examined by Urban are Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucher, The Prince and the Pauper, Saint Joan, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain. Urban devotes additional space to examining nineteenth-century adventure novels, like Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle's novel is given particular attention in a comparison of its accounts with historical accounts of the real White Company's activities.
William Urban is a dedicated author who brings to life medieval mercenaries in a way I had not known before. My knowledge of mercenaries has been strictly from newspaper articles and internet news on "private military companies." The mercenary is a tradesman who fills the very real need for well trained and professional freelance warriors who can go any where, at anytime, and fight. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in military and medieval history.