Kenneth Fowler, Medieval Mercenaries - Volume 1: The Great Companies
published by Blackwell Press Oxford and Malden Massachusetts, 2001, xiv +
384 pages, 50

To start with a classic reviewer's cavil.....  The title of this work is misleading.  Instead of a general study of the role of mercenary troops throughout the European Middle Ages, we have a work which focuses on a relatively short period of time- essentially the 1360's- and a limited geographical area (France and Spain).   Volume 2 will, it seems, cover the same period in Italy and bring the story on some way into the 1370's.

            Fowler's focus is on the activities of the men who found themselves facing unemployment after the Peace of Bretigny in 1360.   Disbandment of armies at the end of protracted hostilities has always been a problematic affair and so it proved in this case, with many bands of men conspicuously reluctant to give up the profession of arms whatever the terms of the peace treaty said should happen.   The book follows their activities in the subsequent decade, through their ravages in southern France, their employment both in the Foix/Armaganac war and in the continuing hostilities between that inveterate plotter Charles of Navarre and the French monarchy to the various crusading schemes dreamed up to remove them from France.   The only one of these to get off the ground rapidly mutated into an intervention in the Castilian civil wars between Pedro I and his half brother Enrique de Trastamara.    This in turn led to the famous English intervention on the side of the former, crowned with success at Najera in 1367; a triumph reversed in less than two years by Bertrand du Guesclin's victory at Montiel.   The book finishes with the resumption of the Anglo-French wars and the destruction of many of the English elements in the Great Companies at Pontvallain in 1370.

            Fowler's book is a detailed, slightly old fashioned blow-by-blow account of these campaigns and of the politics and diplomacy which surrounded them. It also looks at some plans which failed to come to fruition, including an Aragonese proposal to employ du Guesclin in Sardinia in 1368-9.   The writing is solid rather than exciting and the general approach very source led.  There are some interesting new angles of approach to what is in general terms a fairly well known story- the important and often overlooked Aragonese role in the diplomatic and military history of the period is for instance brought into sharp relief.   For long spells, however, the supposed subjects of the account, the Great Companies, disappear behind the activities of their employers, including the Black Prince, Enrique de Trastamara (himself a mercenary captain in his exile days) and, especially, Bertrand du Guesclin.

            Indeed this raises a broader conceptual issue, which Fowler rather glosses over.   Who precisely were "the Great Companies"?   The term was undeniably in use at the time but not every band of men at arms on the rampage in the 1360's was regarded as being part of the Great Companies.   There seems to have been some sense of identification among the units themselves (English bands raising havoc in Normandy in 1368 apparently refer to themselves as "the English routes of the Great Companies") but this did not extend to any very visible sense of corporate identity.  There was no overall captain (though Seguin de Badefol may have aspired to this role in the first part of the decade) while "Great Company" units fought against each other in Spain and supported different sides in the renewed Anglo-French war after 1369. Equally, entrepreneurs like du Guesclin was happy to hire units whether they belonged to the Great Companies or not.  Perhaps it is now impossible to say what made a company part of "the Great Company" (though judging from Fowler the plural usage was perhaps more common than the singular) but it would have been interesting had Fowler made some effort to do so.   

            Fowler interprets the Great Companies as purely a product of the uneasy years of peace between 1360 and 1369 which obliged units formerly in English or French obedience to launch out on their own account.   He starts the story rather abruptly in 1360 and once companies "sign on" for formal service in English or French pay after 1370 or so they stop being part of the Great Companies.   This seems a rather simplistic view.  On the one hand, many of the units nominally in French or (especially) English service pre-1360 appear to have had only the most tenuous links with those whose allegiance they claimed to be in.   On the other, even the supposedly "free" companies of the 1360's were always very keen to find some "legitimate" authority whom they could claim to be fighting for, be it the Count of Foix, Charles of Navarre (Seguin de Badefol's search for the doubtful legitimacy afforded by Charles even at the moment of his own greatest success is revealing) or Enrique de Trastamara.   Clearly notions of "legitimate" war had a hold on even the most hardened semi-brigand.   One suspects that service for the King of England in the 1350's, as part of the Great Companies in the 1360's and back to the King of England in the 1370's may not have felt very different to an ordinary man at arms (if he lived that long), nor to those unfortunate enough to get in his way.  Certainly the speed with which English ex-Great Company commanders were reintegrated into royal service after 1370 suggests that no stigma attached to their activities in the 1360's.   Fowler does from time to time recognise this.  He suggests that French allegations that the English crown did little to exert authority over the Anglo-Gascon majority in the Companies because it valued their role in destabilizing France may have had some validity and further claims that the activities of English routes demobilised from Spain after Najera may have contributed to the collapse of the peace.   Much more however could have been made of this aspect.  

            The rather narrow focus of the book means that there is very little discussion of the wider social and political issues arising from the activities of the Companies- their possible impact on tax policies or military administration, for instance.   To be fair, Fowler says he hopes to discuss this in a subsequent book.   Nor is there any data on who was in the ranks of the companies.    Admittedly no muster lists survive but Fowler does not appear to have used the JJ series in the Archives Nationales, whose criminal records are a fruitful source of information on the lives and crimes of ordinary fighting men in the following century.  A few "lies from the archives" (to borrow Natalie Zemon Davies' assessment of the JJ dossiers) would have given a human dimension to what is at times a rather dry tale.

            This is all the more disappointing because there are clearly interesting stories to tell, from Sir Hugh Calvely's marital misadventures in Aragon (his Sicilian wife became mistress of the heir to the throne after he left to resume service with the Black Prince) to the equally strange tale of Sir Walter Bennet, given safe passage through Navarre with his men to retrieve his wife forcibly from a convent in Seville.   Fowler also notes that he has been quite unable to locate a single archive reference to the Bascot de Mauleon, self-appointed historian of the Great Companies supposedly met by Froissart in the Inn of the Moon at Orthez in 1388.   This must surely suggest that one of the great anti-heroes of medieval chronicle literature was a pure invention and raises interesting questions for historians and literary specialists alike.

            In summary, a useful but rather narrowly focused study stronger on recounting events than the interpretation of wider contexts- and, as an account of an era full of violence, plotting, treason and mayhem, surprisingly bloodless and unexciting.


Brian G H Ditcham