Wistric’s Weekly Warfare 19: Period Warfare and You   4 comments

In 1503, 8,000 Spanish infantry were dug in on the heights of Cerignola, in Italy, near Naples.  They were in southern Italy, so far from Spain, as part of an agreement between King Ferdinand I of Spain and King Louis XII of France, by which they would divide Naples between the two nations.  Unfortunately, things had gone awry, and now France and Spain were at war with each other.  The Spaniards, from within their trenches, faced four times their number of French cavalry and Swiss pikemen, backed by twice as much artillery as the Spanish possessed.

At the end of the day, the Spanish had lost 100 men.  The French and Swiss had lost 4,000.  A testament to an elevated position with defensive earthworks?  Indeed.  But even more so a testament to the end of an era.  One in eight of those Spaniards had an arquebus.  The French, charging in armor on horseback, didn’t stand a chance.  The Swiss, fighting in tight clumps of pikemen, didn’t either.

Until then (with a few hiccups in northern France in the 14th century) the French cavalryman was king of his field.  After Cerignola, the King of France would rather pay to have Germans and Swiss fight his wars for him.


Swiss Pike

Through the 15th Century, the efficacy of spending a bit of cash on an entire Swiss canton’s worth of pikemen had been proven repeatedly.  The Burgundian dukes, having crossed the Swiss, found out the hard way that heavily armed knights did not fare well against the mass of lightly-armored peasants, all carrying twelve foot long pikes (a few carried halberds), charging headlong into their enemies.

By the time of Cerignola, they were the favored mercenaries of Europe.  Shortly after Cerignola, they would be the bulk of most armies.



As the 15th century grew older, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I realized he needed a counter to the Swiss Pike that his enemies brought to the field against him.  So he decided to make his own.  These were called the Landsknecht, and began as direct German imitators of the Swiss (this made nobody happy, and when Swiss pike and Landsknecht met, in general no prisoners were taken).  Fairly soon, they became mercenaries in their own right, and would eventually usurp the primacy of the Swiss Pike.


The Italian Wars

After Cerignola, things were pretty bad between France and the Holy Roman Empire for, oh, most of the 16th century.  The primary battleground for settling their disagreements was the entire peninsula of Italy.  Armies of Swiss and Germans and French marched up and down, and across northern Italy, and clashed over and over again.

During this period, the French knight dwindled, the Landsknecht grew, and the arquebus spread.  From a ratio of roughly 1/10 in most units at the start of the 16th century, “shot” took up fully a quarter of some armies by the mid century.

The majority of battles followed a similar pattern: pikemen (Swiss or Landsknecht) would charge into each other and come to the “press of pikes”, where the 12-16 foot pikes kept each other from closing to range to do any damage.  Here the arquebusier came into his own: lying beneath the pike, he would rake the front of the enemy formation (where the officers stood) with fire.  Here, also, the Zweihander became useful (they’re really NOT for doing goofy shit on the fencing field): Landsknecht dopplesoldners (“Double Soldiers”, veterans receiving twice the pay of the average footman) wielding the greatsword would cut their way through the pike wall, pushing forward until they could cut into the front ranks of the enemy.


Spanish Sword and Buckler

Also during this period, Maximilian died and the Holy Roman Empire passed into the control of Charles V, grandson of Maximilian and king of Spain (ain’t the Habsburgs grand?).  Now the HRE could call on not just the German forces, but the Spanish, Burgundian, and Dutch as well.  This brought the Spanish tercio to the field.  After Cerignola, the Spanish army was organized into tercios, bodies of 3,000 men.  These were a mix of pike, shot, and bucklermen.  Better trained and organized than the other combatants (they were professional volunteers, not scratch-raised mercenary units), the tercios made their mark at Pavia in 1525, where they captured the French king.

They are most notable for our purposes in that the sword-and-buckler units within a tercio is the closest parallel to the rapier armies we bring to the field.  And it’s not that close.


Wars of Religion and Dutch Secession

After the Italian wars, a lot of soldiers were handy and some old grievances needed settling.  First, the Huguenots rebelled in France.  Shortly thereafter, the Dutch in the Spanish Netherlands decided they were tired of the Spanish part in front of their name and they’d just rather be The Netherlands.

Here again French cavalry re-appeared, as Frenchmen would rather kill each other in good old French ways, though the pike of the Swiss and the Landsknecht never left the field.

Here, also, the Dutch found that the speed of their light cavalry helped them to thwart the Spanish forces sent to quell the rebellion (it took a while, and killed a couple of guys with the last name “the Orange”, before William finally won out, married the princess of England, and became king of England in all but title).

All of this was actually kind of tactically boring (I tried to care when I read about it, I really did, but all I got was “Large armies of infantry shouldn’t try to conquer The Netherlands”).  But it did lead to one last development.


The Storming of La Rochelle

Late in the 16th century, peace came to France as Henry IV, a Huguenot-turned-maybe-Catholic ascended to the throne.  A few barons who doubted his conversion rebelled, but were quelled pretty quickly, and he reigned over a France with no great quarrel in the world for the first time in a century.  So naturally he had to die (in 1610, to a Catholic assassin).

His son, Louis XIII, then had to screw it all up.  Well, really, his son was 9 when Henry died, so Henry’s wife, Marie de Medici, ruled instead.  She tried to reintroduce Catholicism in a highly Huguenot area (something about being from a family that had sat in the Apostolic Palace made her do crazy things), things broke down, and war broke out again.  The Huguenots were forced back to a few fortified towns, including La Rochelle.

In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu, leading loyal French forces, laid siege to La Rochelle and its Huguenot defenders for 14 months.  Supplied by British smugglers, La Rochelle held out admirably, but was eventually overwhelmed by a storm of pikemen (because paid Swiss mercenaries are the most loyal French forces ever).

Why does this matter?  Well, it is the backdrop for the final section of The Three Musketeers.  And, because the rapier community all dream of being d’Artagnan (I’m more of an Aramis or Porthos man myself), each year we gather before the fort at Pennsic and re-enact the storming of La Rochelle.  Unfortunately, we do so with a complete lack of pikes.  Because the only thing better than getting our Musketeer jones fixed is doing so in 100 degree weather, standing in or charging at a killing cup, for an hour on end, and feebly waggling forty inches of steel in front of us.


Goddammit I Wish I Had a Pike

So now you know why I sometimes look off into the distance and say “Goddammit, I wish I had a pike” (and, it’s worth noting, I want a pike that looks like a goddamn spear, not a pool noodle on the end of a fishing rod).  It needs a nice flexible shaft that’s not too heavy (maybe 1 ¼” rattan?  Or flexible fiberglass?), and a couple other shock-absorbing features (spring-mounted Alchem dagger blade is the current vision), so that it will still flex and absorb shock as much as a rapier, and not have so much mass behind it as to crush a rib cage.

One day.  One day.



Charles Chadwick Oman is, quite possibly, The Man of All Men when it comes to medieval and renaissance warfare.  His three book series (okay, really, two books and another) The Art of War in the Middle Ages (vol I and II) and The Art of War in the 16th Century are captivating.  On top of being an excellent scholar, he is an excellent story teller, and makes history books that are hard to put down.  Strange, yes.  He does fall prey to a few of the “myths of the middle ages”, but the man was writing a hundred years ago, so cut him some slack (plus, some of those “myths” aren’t really myths, but don’t say that too loudly around here).

JSTOR has a number of interesting articles available, especially on the Landsknecht (which go into details of their formation, recruitment, and application).

Wikipedia and I play a game: Each day I see what battles show up in the “On This Day” section, and read about them.  If none do, well, it’s never too hard to find something.  While Wikipedia may be bad for information on, say, anything that somebody has their panties in a wad about, nobody cares about the Battle of Nieuwenport, so you can be pretty confident that the information in that article is accurate (and usually written by a PhD, cribbing from Charles Chadwick Oman).

Posted May 15, 2009 by wistric in Melee, Wistric's Weekly Warfare

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