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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Murphy

Condottiere 1300-1500:  Infamous Medieval Mercenaries

illustrations by Graham Turner. Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2007. 63ppp.ISBN-10: 1846030773 ISBN-13: 978-1846030772. US$17.95 .

The term condottiere (plural: condottieri) derives from the Italian word “condotta” referring to a contract of the sort signed between a mercenary leader and the government or city that he agreed to serve.  Although the earliest condottieri made their appearance around the late thirteenth century, it was the following two hundred years that witnessed their rise to prominence and eventual triumph on the Italian military scene.  During most of the fourteenth century, the major companies were overwhelmingly composed of foreigners who had entered Italy from northern Europe, many, but not all of them refugees from the Hundred Years War.  These companies tended to be multinational in their composition.  By contrast, starting in the late fourteenth century and continuing into the sixteenth, the makeup of condottieri armies changed radically as native Italians came to dominate the  system that increasingly supplied the peninsula with a preponderant  part of its military force.  Unlike the earlier, foreign mercenaries, some of these home grow condottieri, most notably the Sforza family of Milan, used their military muscle to achieve political domination over the cities that had hired them.

These men who exercised extensive influence over Italian warfare throughout the period we refer to as the Renaissance—men who were despised by the period’s greatest political and military theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli—are the subject of David Murphy’s volume in the Warrior Series, one of several military series published by Osprey.  Like other such volumes, this short and heavily-illustrated book is meant to provide readers with a useful introduction, a goal it accomplishes with a fair degree of success.  Not only does Murphy acquaint his reader with many of the colorful condottieri leaders, he also treats their lifestyle, both in peace and at war, their organization, tactics, armor, and weapons, their dealings with one another and with civilian populations, the medical treatment available to them, their beliefs (or lack thereof), etc. Most readers, including most military historians, will come away with a greater knowledge of those men who dominated the military affairs of Italy for over two centuries.

As Murphy indicates, there are two ways in which the term condottieri can be used:  either in reference to the mercenary leaders or to their companies as a whole.  In either sense of the word, a condottiere was a “contractor” who sold his military services to the civil powers.  In the business-like atmosphere of Renaissance Italy, the contract or condotta spelling out mutual obligations between employer and employee tended to be a highly detailed document, one which by the fifteenth century, had achieved a considerable degree of uniformity.  Among other things, it specified the size of the mercenary force to be supplied, the rate of pay and manner of payment (soldiers might receive their money directly or alternatively through their captain), the conditions of employment, the time period the agreement would remain in force, even the compensation paid individuals for catastrophic injury.  Despite this specificity, contracts were not infrequently “honored in the breech” with one or both of the parties violating their agreements.  For example, condottieri were (in)famous for switching sides in the middle of a campaign while city governments on occasion lured to their deaths “employees” whom they had come to fear or distrust.

Murphy argues that in general condottieri had more respect for their own kind, even those against whom they fought, than for the civilian population, including those who paid their bill.  They were, after all, members of the same fraternity who could easily be victors one day, defeated prisoners of war the next.  As a result, they tended to treat prisoners with considerable leniency, not only ransoming leaders, but also turning loose common soldiers unable to provide ransom after having disarmed them.  By contrast, treatment meted out to enemy civilians tended to be far less humane, while even civilians whose state had employed them not infrequently suffered at their hands.

Murphy discusses the critical issue of just how militarily effective condottieri armies really were when they faced one another in the field. This is an issue raised centuries ago by Machiavelli in his signature work, The Prince, where he heaps criticism upon the condottieri for their ineffectiveness and duplicity.  Murphy adopts a more balanced view of the system.  While acknowledging that there were indeed battles in which opposing condottieri at the very least displayed an extreme reluctance to inflict or sustain casualties and may even have conspired with one another, he argues that other encounters proved to be bloody affairs, producing very respectable butcher’s bills, in several of which whole units died to a man.  Unfortunately, little light is shed on why some condottieri battles played out so differently than others.  Nor is any attempt made to examine which of the two outcomes was the more common one.

One particular strength of this book lies in the author’s selection of illustrations.  He has gathered numerous photographs of statues, paintings, prints, line drawings, weapon and armor, etc. that depict condottieri life during the two centuries when the system was at its height.  Unfortunately, given the limitations of an Osprey volume, with the exception of several line drawings and the original artwork done for the volume, most of these illustrations are neither large enough or clear enough to be reproduced for classroom teaching or use in other volumes.  Nevertheless, they are identified sufficiently for the researcher to track down copies that may be more easily reproduced for these purposes.  In short, the author not only acquaints the reader with the leading artistic representations of condottieri, but also their location.

The best illustrative material consists of eight brilliantly-colored, highly-detailed plates by artist, Graham Turner, accompanied by a lengthy commentary on each drawing, explaining exactly what it depicts.  These are so well-rendered in the volume that they can be easily reproduced for classroom use.  Three of Turner’s illustrations, in particular, stand out.  The first and last of the eight depict what a well-armored condottieri would wear in the early fourteenth and late fifteenth centuries; the third pictures a late fourteenth century lance, the five-man tactical unit into which many condottieri companies were divided.  That the publishers of the volume also hold Turner’s drawing in high regard is demonstrated by the fact that one of them replaced a sixteenth century painting as the cover illustration. 

Despite its overall value as an introduction to this subject, Murphy’s volume is not without faults.  To begin with, there is a degree of repetitiveness on the part of the author, as not infrequently, the same point is made several times using much the same wording.  Although the visual material is well-chosen, Murphy often refers to illustrations on pages of the text where those illustrations do not actually appear.  As a result, if a reader wishes to view an illustration at the time the author mentions it, he or she will have little choice but to thumb through the volume in order to find it.  In this reviewer’s opinion, placing brief parenthetical cross references (e.g. “see page...) into the text would have considerably facilitated the readers’ task.  Even Turner’s superb illustrations suffer from a similar drawback:  they themselves have been grouped together near the middle of the volume, while their descriptions are collected at the end, again necessitating flipping back and forth.

Another problem is characteristic of Osprey books in general:  since they eschew the use of footnotes, short of contacting the author, there is no way to discover his own source for various assertions found in the text.  While this is probably not very important to the general reader, it can pose a problem for scholars using the volume. For example, Murphy alleges that the earliest gunpowder weapons in the west date to the late thirteenth century (p. 27).  Historians have long singled out two items from the year 1326 as the first verifiable pieces of evidence for the existence of such weaponry.  Is the author referring to an earlier solid example of gunpowder weaponry than those of 1326?  Or is he simply following various other historians in arguing that the 1326 evidence suggests such weapons had already existed for several decades?  The absence of footnotes leaves this and several other issues in doubt.

Finally, Murphy makes some statements that appear to be either erroneous or contradictory, necessitating correction or further clarification.  For example, if Roger de Flor, characterized as the first condottieri, was born around the mid-thirteenth century (as Murphy indicates that he was) (p. 8), then he would have been extremely hard put to begin his active career in the service of Emperor Frederick II, a man who died in the year 1250.  The great fourteenth century mercenary leader, a hero from Brittany who rose to be constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin, would be surprised to find himself identified as “a Norman knight.” (p. 47)  And for Murphy to identify the treaty of Brétigny (1360) in a chronological summary of the period as having ended the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) is extremely misleading; though on this issue, he redeems himself elsewhere in the volume by indicating (correctly) that the treaty ended only the first phase of this conflict.

What appear to be contradictory statements on the treatment of mercenaries by the city of Florence supply very different pictures of that city’s involvement in the system.  At one point, Murphy identifies Florence as the highest paying employer of mercenaries (p. 11); several pages later, however, he depicts the city as being extremely stingy in making available sustenance to its military employees (p. 15).  Although both statements might be true, no attempt has been to reconcile them.  Or again, what is one to make of the following two statements:  on page 22, the author indicates that “the 14th century was the era of  the great condottieri companies”; on the next page, he states “in the 14th century, condottieri companies were smaller and perhaps more self-contained.”  At least to this reader, these appear to be contradictory assertions calling for clarification.

One of the most serious inconsistencies involves Murphy’s use of the significant term “collaterale.”  The collaterale are originally introduced into the text as city officials appointed to keep track of the hired help (pp. 10-11); in other words, men delegated by a city employing condottieri to be certain that the city got its money’s worth.  In this capacity, they were charged with fining condottieri leaders who did not provide the forces specified in the contract.  In almost the same breath, however, collaterale are identified as officials appointed by condottieri leaders [in both cases, my italics] to look after the financial and logistical considerations of the group.  On the basis of Murphy’s divergent definitions, such officials seem to be serving two masters with highly divergent interests.  Or were there two different kinds of collaterale?  Whatever the case may be, this demands a far clearer explanation than one finds in the text.

In the opinion of this reviewer, the text of Condottiere would have profited from one final editing, supplied either by the author or the publisher.  Nevertheless, on the whole, the volume does deliver a useful and readable account of the Italian condottieri system, accompanied by well-chosen illustrations and a brief biography.

L. J. Andrew Villalon

University of Texas at Austin <avillalon@austin.rr.com>

Page Added: September 2008