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
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
just military history, September 4, 2007
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
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
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.