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The Military Careerist in XIV century England (Dr Andrew Ayton)


- William Caferro, John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy
- Andrew Ayton, Knights and Warhorses: Military Service and the English Aristocracy under Edward III
- Andrew Ayton, The Battle of Crécy, 1346 (Warfare in History)
- Andrew Ayton, The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

How to characterise:

- focus on war
- frequency
- association with professionals
- background + opportunity

So, younger sons of aristocracy, yeomen with some financial support, but also by chance. “Socially embedded” and absolutely “unembedded” service by own reasons, not because of loyalty. Not individualists – fellowships, “primary groups”.


“…most of us think there are differences between sorts of paid service, as well as variations in unpaid service. I set out… to answer three questions. First, can we arrive at a consistent, cross-cultural typology or set of definitions of the varieties of paid and unpaid military service? Second, can we make those definitions correspond, at least roughly, to variations in different societies’ views of variations of military service, especially as they affected notions of the cultural identity of paid fighters? And third, can we do this without, in the words of Bernard Bachrach, ‘committing sociology’?

…my thesis will end up in the form of a distribution field built around two intersecting axes representing the key variables determining a typology of paid military service: first, the ‘embeddedness’ (or not) of the terms of paid service in the social fabric of the employing society; second, the balance between an economic market and politics in setting terms of service.

I propose in this paper a typology built aroundtwo intersecting axes, producing a distribution field consisting of four quadrants. Before discussing the particulars of the resulting graph, I will now define the terms constituting the axes more closely. Both axes, it should be noted, are to be understood not as binary options but as continuums running from one extreme to the other.

The first axis has to do with how embedded in the social fabric of a particular society the service of a group of soldiers or warriors is. By ‘embedded’ I mean that the terms of service of embedded soldiers arise out of the social structure of their society and reflect their social roles and status; the terms of service of unembedded soldiers ignore social relationships or even consciously set the soldiers apart from society in real and symbolic ways. The crucial distinction to be understood here that a group of soldiers may be deeply embedded in the political structures of a state without being embedded in the social networks of the society the state governs.

‘Palace guards’ often play a central role in the politics of the states they serve, intervening in succession disputes, for example, while at the same time being intentionally set off from society through having special status and privileges as well as special restrictions designed to guarantee their loyalty to the ruler over against the interest of powerful social groups. Despite their political role, such troops would count on this axis as socially fairly unembedded. Culturally, the terms of service of deeply embedded soldiers will tend to be constructed in terms of recognized nexuses of social relationships: examples might include service connected to recognition of lordship in a society organized around a powerful aristocracy, service constructed around the principles of Confucian hierarchy in a Confucian society, and so forth.

Those of unembedded soldiers ignore or even violate such nexuses: turning again to the case of palace guards, restriction on their right to marry (or restrictions on who they can marry) recognize by negation the importance of marriage politics to the social ties of many aristocracies.
Different nexuses of social relationships produce different criteria for evaluating the embeddedness of different groups of soldiers. I take the notions of social structure and the cultural or ideological framework of discourse to encompass a fairly broad range of factors, including ideological and political components, though most questions of politics as they relate to formal state power, as opposed to the informal social power exercised in any social structure, I reserve to the second axis of my schema.

That axis runs between two poles: at one end, terms of service that are determined exclusively (or virtually so) by considerations of politics — that is, of the exercise of formal state power; at the other end, terms of service that are determined by the choices available to potential soldiers in a free economic market.

The former sorts of terms of service will tend to be instantiated in terms of laws, edicts, treaties, or other formal state mechanisms, and will often, vis-à-vis individual service, have a more or less compulsory nature. Political terms of service also include arrangements in which obligations arising from social status gain the force of customary law, or in which military service becomes a crucial performance not just of social power but of elite politics, as was the case for most military aristocracies and warrior elites. Economically determined terms of service, on the other hand, will tend to be instantiated in terms recognizable in a free economic market, meaning (most often) mutually binding contracts, voluntarily entered into, whether formal or informal, oral or written, individual or group.

… by using a soldier’s motivation to service not as an independent variable determinative of mercenary (or not) status, but as a piece of an equation evaluating the relative importance of politics versus economics in shaping terms of service, we reduce the impact of the problem of evidence while reframing the question in a broader way that admits more evidence and less speculative interpretation — essentially, institutional arrangements largely replace psychology in the equation.

Another aspect of this axis worth considering in evaluating where particular cases will fall is the presence or absence of market options available to potential soldiers, no matter what their motivation. That is, pay alone is a poor indicator, for pay may exist in conditions where market options are severely limited either by political fiat or by political, geographic, social or other circumstances that limit or eliminate competition for a soldier’s services. In such cases, the political component will necessarily rise in the equation of a soldier’s terms of service.

…two short notes. First, ‘soldiers of fortune’ and others who fight for gain but on their own initiative do not appear on this graph because they enter into no employment relationship, and it is the dynamics of employment relationships that the graph is designed to analyze. Second, the relationships that hold a band of soldiers together need not be the same as those that bind the band as a whole to an employer. A purely mercenary band vis a vis an employing state may, internally, be a purely political grouping constructed by lordship, for instance.

By combining these two axes we get a distribution field divided into four quadrants.

Embedded, Political: ‘Social Armies’

This quadrant, especially at its extreme, contains those military formsthat reflect a tight integration of social structure and politics: the triad of militia, conscripts and warrior elites are not only closely related but often appear together as complementary parts of many military systems. Soldiers in this quadrant serve largely out of a combination of social obligation (in the case of warrior elites) and legal obligation (in the case of conscripts) or both (militia), though these obligations do not preclude such service being compensated: conscripted forces are almost always paid, and warrior elites often receive compensation both informally, in the form of their share of plunder and as political rewards and gifts, and formally in terms of stipends, per diems, and replacement of lost equipment.

The economic component of fief holding (in medieval western Europe) is larger than for the other types exemplified in this quadrant, but fief-holding remains a predominantly political system, at least when functioning as a system of raising military manpower. The later history of European fief-holding as a legal structure of landholding retained some political character, but as it became predominantly economic it also became non-military in nature.

On the other hand, the socially embedded nature of fief-holding — both in terms of the importance of fief-holding arrangements to elite social bonds (second only to and tied up with marriage alliances) and in the local social and legal power fief-holders exercised over the peasantry—remained constant whatever the military use of the system.

The lack of such local authority over peasants made Japanese shōen holders of the Kamakura period less embedded in this way. And although their embeddedness in elite social relationships was similar to their European counterparts, the more one-sided nature of their relationship to their superiors also decreased their political options.

In short, military manpower types that fall into this quadrant tend to be heavily shaped by the sorts of internal politics that reflect important social divisions and groupings. The care taken by European states adopting the Prussian system of universal military conscription in the 19th century (including Prussia itself) to indoctrinate its conscripts with nationalist ideas and education reflect such political concerns and the perceived dangers of arming the working classes.

Embedded, Economic: ‘Stipendiaries’

In this quadrant, the level of social embeddedness can still be very high, but market considerations play a much larger role in the creation of armed force. The extreme and paradigmatic case is a national volunteer army such as the current US military, both the regular army and even more the national guard. Such forces are clearly deeply embedded in the social and cultural matrices of their societies: one must be a citizen to serve, and US National Guard soldiers, training and serving (in normal, non-Iraq War times) only for several days a month, retain their civilian identities.

Yet this National Guard is not a true militia because there is no universal obligation to serve that is activated only in times of emergency. Rather, just like their regular army counterparts, such soldiers serve not out of social or legal obligation, and not just out of a sense of ideological commitment to their society, but as much or more for the pay (and related compensation such as support for college tuition). The competition for military recruiters here is not from other potential military employers but from other potential employers in the domestic society: note the lengths to which recruiters must go to make this job attractive, including television advertising with carefully crafted slogans: ‘It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!’

Indentures, the medieval European form of a military service contract, mostly fall in this quadrant as well, as military service represented one option among other domestic employment opportunities for those who signed on to serve, say, Edward III in the Hundred Years’ War. The political component of service arising from a hierarchical society and monarchical polity was undoubtedly higher than in the modern U.S., but remained secondary to the economic incentives on offer.

Drawn from the ranks of local society, indentured soldiers were clearly socially embedded, though long service overseas could loosen their local ties considerably, moving them somewhat towards the unembedded side of that axis. Money fiefs, essentially indentures enforced with the oaths of vassalage that bound fief-holders, combined the reality of economic service with the form of political obligation, moving them slightly higher up the political axis. Socially, an apparently contradictory impression may be resolved by close analysis. On the one hand, the oath-vassalage form would seem to reflect social embeddedness. On the other hand, the lack of land holdings necessarily separated money-fief holders from local peasant society.

The use of money fiefs to attract warriors who were not political subjects of the employing monarch or, as in the use of money fiefs in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, who were not native to the local society, argues further for unembeddedness. The oath-vassalage form appears clearly from this perspective as a mechanism designed to encourage greater embeddedness and political loyalty, in amoral language widely recognizable for those very characteristics, on a form whose economic motivations could call the embeddedness and related loyalty of money fief holders into question.

Nevertheless, and especially when money fiefs were granted to politically independent powers, as in the 1101 money fief arrangement between Henry I of England and the Count of Flanders, many money fief arrangements could easily slide over and up into the ‘Political Armies’ quadrant as a form of subsidized alliance.

Unembedded, Political: ‘Political Armies’

The extreme case in this quadrant consists of the varieties of Muslimslave soldiers: armies constructed from men whose slave status reflects both an extreme lack of market options on one axis and an extreme separation (especially in the case of foreign slave soldiers, as most were) from civil society. Praetorian guards (palace guards writ large), though less extreme, still reflect the desire on the part of rulers to construct a force deliberately separate from society. Such a desire usually arose from a disjunction between state and society or deep divisions between segments of society that made the raising of socially embedded troops potentially dangerous.

This condition was endemic among medieval and early modern Islamic polities, accounting for the prevalence of slave soldiers at the core of their military systems. It also affected the role of ’iqta holders, who not only often lacked ties to the local peasantry, making them resemble shōen holders in this respect, but also sometimes opposed their nominally pastoralist lifestyle to their agriculturalist peasants culturally. Some ’iqta holders, however, did assume roles that included local social leadership, and so the full scattergram of ’iqta examples would undoubtedly include data points closer to fief holders on this graph. Similarly, Byzantine pronoiars, often foreign and lacking authority over peasant producers, represent military forces that are more a political creation than a social expression.

Forces in this quadrant can also reflect geo-political environments that put a premium on management of external politics, either by the employer or by a state whose forces are employed by another state. Federates and auxiliaries represent politically motivated recruiting by a major power among nominally independent but politically subordinate border states, usually in a mixture of providing employment for and drawing off the potentially disruptive activities of a warlike population and managing political relations with local rulers. This is not to deny, of course, such troops’ purely military utility. Subsidizing allies is another way that major powers, especially those with readier monetary than manpower reserves, have availed themselves of military force. Britain’s support for Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War, which helped occupy French forces while British naval supremacy was brought to bear on French possessions around the world, comes to mind as a paradigmatic case.

Many cases of Italian condotta arrangements, including the military diplomacy of the Varano of Camerino, are better read as subsidized alliance arrangements than as true mercenary service.

The role of formal state-to-state relationships in making subsidized alliances is a key feature distinguishing them from mercenary terms of service. Similarly, freebooting marauders, including many Viking band sand Magyar marauders, who leverage the threat they pose into an employment arrangement with the state they threaten are best viewed as a form of subsidized ally or federate in which the usual employer-employee power relationships are reversed.

Finally, sitting essentially at the intersection of the two axes but probably in most cases falling just inside this quadrant are armies of long term professionals. The Roman legions after the reforms of Marius are one example of this sort of army, as are the royal armies of eighteenth century Europe and the French model of long term professionals in the nineteenth century that represented an alternate solution to the Prussian conscription-plus-indoctrination model for ensuring the political reliability of armies.

The essence of such forces from the perspective of this schema is their finely balanced mixture of characteristics on both axes: armies that are just unembedded enough to serve as an instrument of state power against its own citizens, yet embedded enough to represent the ‘national’ character of the society; armies whose terms of service offer economic incentives tied to service terms long enough as to represent a political choice. The balance could be expressed in interestingly opposed restrictions and opportunities, as with Roman legionnaires who were separated from civil society while active in their careers, but who were actively reintegrated into society on retirement via settlement in military colonies.

Unembedded, Economic: ‘Mercenaries’

The extreme case in this quadrant, the classic mercenary, is not only unembedded in the society of his employer — a condition for which being ‘foreign’ is, as we have seen, a rough but problematic synonym — but sells his services to the best offer among many potential military employers. In other words, one condition for true mercenary service is that there be not only pay, but market options unconstrained by limited numbers of potential employers.

Such limitations might arise either from a real shortage of polities with the monetary resources to hire military manpower or from political and cultural factors that effectively limit the choices of soldiers for hire as to their choice of employer. Cultural factors can include not just obvious limits such as religious affiliation (though the employment of Christian mercenaries by North African Muslim states shows that this factor need not inhibit mercenary service) but the inability of a society to conceptualize market relationships as an option.

This latter factor means that a wider social context of market economics and capitalist or proto-capitalist business organization are likely preconditions for the rise of a true mercenary market. This helps to explain why the social effect of mercenary service, the product of military recruiting as capitalism, is summed up so beautifully by the words of the Communist Manifesto: it ‘puts an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn as under the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” ’

Some mercenary-employer relationships, though theoretically still open to market options, acquire ties of tradition, as for instance Swiss service for French monarchs did in the sixteenth century, and so move up the scale of political influence on terms of service, even if they move very little towards greater embeddedness in their employer’s society.

‘Traditional source’ mercenary relationships can be conceptualized in modern market terms as ‘preferred provider’ arrangements, and reflect the advantages of security and reliability of supply such arrangements can create. In most cases commonly identified as ‘mercenary’, some combination of restricted market options, strong political influence on terms of service, or higher levels of social embedding than the model accepts for true mercenary service means that the cases should, by the terms of this schema, be more properly identified as subsidized allies, federates, or some form of stipendiary.

A short list of the major periods of mercenary activity include the fourth century bc with Greek mercenaries employed both within Greece and around the wider eastern Mediterranean; the seventeenth century in western Europe, a period and place where almost every aspect of military service operated according to merchant capitalist models; and the second half of the twentieth century globally, during the age of global capitalism. There have undoubtedly been true mercenaries in other times and places, but they are not common.

Quadrants and Culture

Aside from providing a typology of military service, the graph may offer insight into the cultural identity of various types of soldiers — both outsiders’ perceptions of different types and the self-construction of identity by different types of soldiers. The traditional perception of mercenaries, for example, is that they are ravening wolves prone to disloyalty. These are ‘natural’ perceptions given mercenaries’ lack of social embeddedness, but also given their market relationship to their employer. In fact it may be this as much or more than their perceived status as outsiders that accounts for their foul reputation, for in the traditional world, at least, untrammelled market relationships were commonly seen as destructive of ‘natural’ social and political bonds (as Marx so perceptively noted).

This explains the somewhat counter intuitive affinity on one axis, at least, that the graph makes visible between mass volunteer armies and mercenaries. For mass volunteer armies — largely a product of the mass politics of the last two centuries, but including the spontaneous gatherings of some Crusader forces—have often been viewed with deep suspicion by powerful elites for reasons that bear at least some relationship to those affecting the perception of mercenaries: that their economic freedom renders them dangerously uncontrollable politically. A similar antipathy with the same cause has usually coloured elite views of merchants, with an interestingly gendered difference.

Since mercenaries display a classic masculine virtue by being fighters, the elite cultural response is to bestialize (i.e. dehumanize) them (‘ravening wolves’). Since merchant activity is rarely constructed as inherently masculine (though men often monopolize merchant activity, this results more from its public interface, with women confined to the private sphere), the elite cultural response to merchants more often includes feminizing them. In general, the variable tension between elite politics, social organization and cultural dynamics is a potentially interesting line of inquiry into the construction of military forces highlighted by this graph.

On the other hand, the negative reaction to mercenaries is not so ‘natural’ as to be necessary or universal: it is a construction resulting largely from the conflict between the implicit values of mercenary service and the wider values of different societies. Where no such conflict occurs, mercenary identity need not be negative. The Greek mercenaries of the fourth century BC were an accepted part of the wider social and political arrangements of the eastern Mediterranean, for example, and suffered no stigma for their service either to Greek poleis not their own or to Persian or Egyptian employers.

The responses of various soldier types to the common perception of mercenaries is also telling. Orderic comments on the protests of Robert of Belleme’s stipendiaries at the surrender of Bridgnorth to Henry I in 1102, ‘so that their downfall might not bring contempt on other stipendiaries’. The main concern here seems to me to be these troops’ stress on their loyal service to their lord, loyalty which would distinguish them as stipendiaries from mercenaries by stressing their social embeddedness, even though they serve for pay.

But the response also hints at the tendency to group solidarity and formation of a separate cultural identity with its own codes, dress, membership criteria and mechanisms of self- help that have often characterized groups separated from mainstream society by their economic function, including not just true mercenaries but prostitutes, early modern journeymen, late seventeenth century pirates, and both Hindu outcastes and Japanese burakumin.

Unlike most such groups, however (except perhaps Caribbean pirates at their height), some mercenaries could use their economic specialization in the use of force to attempt a move not along the horizontal axis towards greater social embeddedness, but up the vertical axis toward greater political power—the name Wallenstein can stand as shorthand for examples of such cases…”

Examples: Harald Hardraada, William of Ypres, Nicholas Sabraham, Humphrey de Bohun (6th Earl of Hereford, 5th Earl of Essex), John of Duncaster, Guy de Bryan (1st Baron Bryan), John Neville (3rd Baron Neville de Raby), Sir Ralph de Ferrers, Mike Hoar.


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