Landsknechte. “Companions of the country.” French: “lansquenets.” Mercenary infantry originally formed in the late 15th century from petty war bands (“Knabenschaften”) of wild youths. These were unemployed older apprentices overflowing from the highly restrictive Guilds, or other surplus young males produced by a time of demographic expansion. Such “lads” (“Knechte”) waged private wars that usually amounted to little more than rural banditry against unarmed peasants; or they sometimes banded together to threaten extreme violence to extort money from vulnerable towns. In the 1470s all Europe was deeply impressed by the stunning defeat of the “rational” and “modern” army of Charles the Rash by the lowly Swiss during the Burgundian- Swiss War (1474-1477). Desire to emulate the Swiss fighting for France led to creation of Landsknechte infantry that drew in the “Knechte” of the country and trained them in service to the Holy Roman Empire. These “lads” were supplemented, and eventually replaced by, veteran mercenaries from Alsace and the Rhineland, the Low Countries and Scotland. Landsknechte were trained (initially, by Swiss renegade instructors) in the tactics of the Swiss square. Hence, they were mainly pikemen and halberdiers, though most also carried short swords (Katzbalger). Like the Swiss, many Landsknechte fighting behind the front ranks of the square wore little body armor so that they could better wield 18-foot pikes, swing their halberds, and fire crossbows and muskets. This origin in imitation contributed to an intense hatred the Landsknechte had for the Swiss, an animosity that was wholly reciprocated and which lasted many decades.

The first Landsknechte unit was formed in Bruges in 1487. The next year, the “Black Guard” was formed in Friesland by Emperor Maximilian I, who gave them special license and exemptions from civil law that the Landsknechte exploited to the hilts of their swords. For over a decade his “Black Guard” fought a savage frontier war around the North Sea, until it was wiped out by a large peasant army at Hemmingstedt (February 17, 1500). Other Landsknechte units fought in Hungary, but they mutinied and abandoned the campaign once they collected sufficient booty. To counter this tendency to indiscipline Maximilian seeded Landsknechte companies with noble officers (the Emperor himself set an example by marching like a common foot soldier, pike on shoulder) and imposed strict military discipline. Rather than replacing the old service nobility, later German emperors persuaded or compelled nobles to join Landsknechte units, thereby reinforcing aristocratic control of the new infantry. Finally, although many Landsknechte were northern Protestants they remained loyal to Catholic emperors because the latter did not try to catholicize the troops, even permitting them Protestant chaplains. Also, they paid well. As for the emperors, they tolerated religious dissent in the very armies that they used to fight prolonged wars to repress confessionalism in German and European society.

The Landsknechte first encountered the hated Swiss in battle during the Swabian War, at Dornach (1499). They fought hard but were defeated and then massacred by the ferocious Swiss. About 9,000 Landsknechte under Francis I fought and helped defeat the Swiss at Marignano (1515). Landsknechte fought for Charles V against Francis I at Pavia in 1525. Afterward, many returned to Germany to fight for the Swabian League in the German Peasant War (1525), against peasant bands sometimes led and stiffened by other Landsknechte in their ranks. It was Landsknechte mercenaries who sacked Rome in 1527. However, at Dreux (1562), they fared so badly in comparison to Swiss mercenaries that the French crown never again hired Landsknechte.

Bestallungbrief. “Letter of appointment.” A document issued to a mercenary captain laying out terms of payment and the number of men he was expected to recruit, and naming him or some other officer as the Obrist (colonel) of the Landsknechte Company raised.

Doppelgänger. “Counterpart” or “dead ringer.” In a Landsknechte company or regiment, recruits passed through a symbolic portal erected in the camp. As they passed, the muster officer called out their name, rate of pay, and the military equipment they were required to possess. Other officers watched to ensure that no “Doppelgänger” passed through the portal to collect double pay, and to prevent recruits wearing armor or carrying weapons borrowed solely for the purpose of the walk-through but whose actual absence would leave the company underarmed for battle. This was important to ensure a company’s head count was correct and that all men carried the arms called for in the mercenary contract.

Doppelsöldner. “Double pay.” An experienced mercenary in a Landsknechte company who earned double pay (Sold) for standing in the front ranks in battle. In an army of Landsknechte a Doppelgänger, in the sense of “dead ringer,” was always engaged in scamming the company whereas a Doppelsöldner received honest double pay for assuming extra combat risk.

Wachmeister. “Master of the watch.” The officer charged with ensuring the camp and train of a Landsknechte company or regiment was well guarded, and if necessary, also fortified.

Feldarzt. “Field surgeon.” A rough doctor in a Landsknechte or other company or regiment, responsible for amputations of wounded limbs, sewing up gaping wounds, and other crude medical treatments. The Feldarzt supervised those doing the actual cutting and sewing.

Feldobrist. “Field colonel.” A much higher rank than Obrist, an officer of this stature would command a whole army, one comprised of cavalry and artillery as well as Landsknechte infantry. Modern German usage is “Oberst.”

Feldweibel. “Field sergeant.” The lowest rank of Landsknechte officer selected by the company or regiment colonel. He was put in charge of all drill, including the precise order of battle. This was a crucial assignment, especially when Landsknechte met a Swiss square in battle. For this reason the Feldweibel was usually an older, experienced mercenary.

Hurenweibel. “Whore sergeant.” In a Landsknechte company or regiment this officer was responsible for overseeing the baggage train. The train included women, many of whom were prostitutes, which gave the position its unusual name. He was charged with making sure fights among the men did not get out of hand, but his most important duty was to maneuver the train out of danger when contact was made with the enemy. It was important not only to prevent the train from interfering with field maneuvers but to reduce the likelihood that an enemy threat to the women of the baggage train would entice fighting men to abandon their positions in order to save their wives and children, and other valuables.

Nachrichter. The official executioner in a Landsknechte company or regiment. Some dressed in red and carried a two-handed executioner’s sword and a noose, the latter serving as symbol of their office.

Oberster Feldweibel. The officer responsible for setting the order of battle in a Landsknechte company.

Pfenningmeister. “Penny master.” The officer in charge of a Landsknechte company’s common funds.

Provost. The officer responsible for maintaining military discipline in a company or regiment. In a Landsknechte regiment or army he was often the most outlandishly dressed man in a company of men famous for strange and flamboyant attire. He was responsible for what today would be called “military policing” of the camp. This included not merely prevention of desertion or mutiny but keeping the men happy by overseeing markets set up by sutlers, in return for which he got a piece of the sutler action. The Provost also profited from a percentage of the business done by the baggage train, including laundry, gambling, whoring (a duty shared with the Hurenweibel, or “whore sergeant”), and sometimes nursing.

Rottmeister. “Rotamaster.” A minor officer in a Landsknechte company. When in pike square or Gevierthaufen formation each Rottmeister was in charge of a file of about 20 men.

Schultheiss. The officer responsible for overseeing all legal matters in a Landsknechte company or regiment, including reading out and enforcing the Articles of War and rulings by the Provost.

Sold. The unit of pay earned each month by a Landsknechte mercenary: 4 guilders. Over the course of the 16th century this rate did not change, which showed the declining value placed on pikemen of the Landsknechte sort as musketeers came to dominate the battlefield.


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