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Medieval Mercenaries: the Business of War

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Medieval Mercenaries: the Business of War
William Urban
Greenhill Books, 2006

I have an interest in pre-industrial warfare. I think I have to blame Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V for that (but I digress, and so soon!). I also have an interest in mercenaries (which is absolutely the fault of the Wild Geese). When I saw the book Medieval Mercenaries: the Business of War, I was intrigued. Mercenaries are generally a phenomenon of pre- and post-feudal societies. Though there certainly were those whom we might consider mercenaries operating in feudal societies, these individuals tended to work within the feudal roles, and so are less noticeable and were certainly less organized than, for example, the Italian condottieri.

The best thing about this book is the introduction by Terry Jones (he of Monty Python fame). Mr. Jones has had some success on his own through TV and adapted literature in regards to his series on the Crusades. As such, he has some knowledge of the area, and provides an entertaining read.

Unfortunately, Medieval Mercenaries is much less about mercenaries than it is about warfare. Most of the book recounts a history of medieval warfare in a rather sporadic fashion, not exactly chronological and not exactly thematic. It provides no real insight in this portion of the book, rather it seems to rely on a rather informal style and attempts (some successful) at humour.

Later, getting into the Hundred Years War, there is some discussion of actual bodies of mercenaries, but these are the kind raised through feudal institutions. The author also looks at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s the White Company, but provides mostly a summary of the novel’s events with very little analysis or discussion.

In general, this book might be useful for an individual looking for a light review of the evolution of Medieval warfare (though if looking for a source with actual insight and considered opinion, one would do well to look at something along the lines of Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages or Devries’ Medieval Military Technology.

I still have not found a book to provide the kind of satisfactory exploration of mercenaries in the pre-Renaissance period that J. R. Hale’s War and Society in Renaissance Europe does.

I can’t say this book is useless, but it certainly fails to live up to its title. If one were to find it second-hand or on sale, it might be an acceptable expense. I wouldn’t pay more than $7 (Canadian) for the hardcover or $5 for the paperback.