Reply To: 1360s Doublet Project

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Hans Hellinger

Most large western European armies between the 14th and the 17th century contain a big contingent of poor people, because they were easy to recruit (and because if you were a male servant, getting a weapon and calling yourself a soldier was a step up in status). The French told stories about English archers, the English told stories about Scots and Welsh, crusaders told stories about Turkomen. So no special pleading why one example to illustrate a trend does not count! In a forum post I can’t provide a lot of examples with footnotes.

Well, the thing is, the economic side of that always made sense, but the fighting part didn’t add up very well at least not between the High and Late Medieval periods. Most medieval armies weren’t very large. Nor were they made up of cannon fodder. That is a much later invention.

Medieval armies, as a rule, tended to be fairly well kitted out, well trained, and small. And expensive. Those things went together, because experienced, properly equipped warriors didn’t risk their life for cheap. Of course princes were always running out of money and routinely tried to (and sometimes succeeded at) not pay their soldiers & make them fight for nothing. But the Swiss weren’t the only ones who would do an about-face and march home as soon as the boss (or client) missed a payment.

During the middle of the 13 Years War, after brutal sieges, the Bohemian mercenaries working for the Teutonic Order managed to capture 3 Prussian towns. But the Order had run out of money and was unable to pay them for 3 months. So the soldiers promptly turned around and sold them back to the Prussian Confederation for a huge price, and then went home rich men.

Destitute serfs could be used to fight, and were sometimes called up in levies, but they could not win many battles so they were not used much. So this is why expensive mercenaries, militia, or feudal vassals were the typical people doing the fighting. And those were not typically poor people, because in this period in order to fight you needed kit – typically at least some body armor, primary weapons like crosbows, guns, bows, or pikes or polearms, and a sidearm. Or most expensive of all – horses.

Of course there was some place for poor soliders. So every army had their valets and servants. Each lance of four or five riders had one mounted valet. Each handgunner in the Hungarian Black army had a valet too. So serfs could do those kinds of jobs, however traditionally these were not people from poorer estates but rather just younger members of the same estate.

To learn how to ride or to shoot and load a handgun or shoot and span a military grade crossbow effectively took money and leisure time. The economic status of ‘yeomen’ longbow archers is England is pretty well known, let it just be pointed out that crossbowmen in Central Europe were not paid less than English longbowmen. Those guys paid to enter schützenfest and fechtschüler, and spent many hours ‘shooting the popinjay’, hunting, and other forms of target practice. Contrary to what they portrayed so often on the History Channel you couldn’t just hand somebody a military-grade 15th Century crossbow and send them out into the field to fight.

The Landsknechts were the first experiment in raising an army made up primarily from destitute serfs up to the level of professionals. It was a fairly radical experiment, but it worked. The Spanish basically copied the Landsknecht model. This ultimately led to the pike and shot type of warfare, in which troops were far less well trained or equipped, and less effective on a man for man basis than a medieval army, but were so much cheaper the armies could be ten times the size. And as Joseph Stalin said, quantity has a quality all it’s own.

The L/s/d currencies in the Archivo Datini di Prato seem to be worth about 1/10 as much as English money (so an Italian soldo is about an English penny in the late 14th century). IIRC, a florin was about 3 shillings English in the late 14th century, and Datini usually reckoned 23 soldi of Provence or 32 soldi imperiali made a florin. The big thing was that other money was being randomly debased, but gold florins and silver English money more or less kept their value (and if you use one and only one L/s/d system, there is no confusion). But then the Tudors come in, and Cortez and Pizarro, and things become pretty hopeless to track for a couple of hundred years.

L/S/D currencies did fluctuate a great deal due to devaluation. English currency was a bit more stable than Italian currencies because England had those big silver mines in Cornwall, and because England was a fairly large Island Kingdom, so was often under less acute financial crises than individual Italian City States. But England wasn’t the only polity with silver mines, the big mine in Kutna Hora in Bohemia was quite significant and there were others around Central Europe, I think currencies were a bit more stable up there. Anyway, roughly 12 ounces of silver to a mark seems to be at least in the ballpark of reality for most of the 15th Century, though it did fluctuate with the wars, plague and other major events.