I started outlining my new book this week, Warrior Knight, and in the early stages, the main character becomes involved with a company of mercenaries. This led me to research the 'Free Companies', which were armies of mercenaries formed between the 12th and 14th centuries. They first appeared in England during the wars over succession between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (1137 – 1153). Similar groups appeared in France and were integrated into the armies of Phillip II.
Unfortunately for the mercenaries, the hundred years war had a period of peace, resulting in the dismissal of large numbers of soldiers. Many of them formed armed bands and made a living by pillaging the region of southern France. The name 'Brigands' was eventually applied to these troops, a term that was used for many centuries afterwards.
Perhaps the most notorious free companies were those that fought in 14th century Italy, where they became known as condottieri. This stems from the Italian word Condottiero, which means 'contractor'. Condottieri (note the 'i' on the end) eventually became synonymous with a military leader and was then applied to the people in charge of these groups of mercenaries.
The end of the Free Companies came about as the Italian states centralized their power and raised their own armies. In 1889, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) attended a lecture on the Middle Ages. He was so impressed by what he learned that he dove into further research about the period, including the Free Companies, eventually producing a story called "The White Company". This story was originally published in installments in a magazine called Cornhill Magazine, but is available now, free of charge, from the Gutenberg Project.
Fascinating what you can learn when you go down the rabbit hole we call the Internet.
Until next time,
Paul Bennett, Writer of Epic Fantasy Adventures.