Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

From Footmen To Soldiers

Great advances were also made in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the areas of weapons and tactics. The result was the advent of a new type of men-at-arms: professional soldiers. In the Middle Ages, knights were the prototypical warriors on the battlefields of Europe. Because of their extremely heavy equipment, they moved about on horseback. Dressed first in coats of mail and helmets, they were eventually enveloped from head to foot in suits of steel armour. Those who fought on foot, or footmen as they were generally known, were usually archers and pikemen. They were poorly equipped and were even forbidden to carry the weapons of gentlemen, such as swords, which might have saved their lives in combat. They had little defensive equipment, even though they were very exposed in battle.

The situation changed when armies of knights began to suffer stinging defeats at the hands of simple footmen. This occurred in the fourteenth century during a number of battles pitting knights against bands of rough Swiss mountaineers armed only with longbows, crossbows, long pikes and halberds, which are pikes with axe-heads such as those still carried today by the Pope's Swiss Guards. Assembled in close formation, the pikemen and halberdiers formed a kind of gigantic porcupine which the knights and their mounts proved unable to penetrate. The nobles suffered terrible losses, while the Swiss acquired a military fame that accompanied them for centuries, due to this new technique that revolutionized the art of war.

The fourteenth century also saw the advent of firearms on battlefields, in the form of heavy bombards, the ancestor of cannons, which were especially useful for sieges. It was not until a century later that harquebuses, the first portable firearms, made their appearance. They were capable of penetrating armour.

In the Middle Ages, knights and noble lords regularly maintained in their retinues "sergeants" and "archers," who trained and led other subjects who were obliged to serve in the army for forty days per campaign. As the infantry became the heart of the army, the importance of footmen increased, as did their relative numbers and the length of time they had to serve. Rarely paid, these men often survived by looting and extorting money and goods from humble people living near the battlefields. When the military campaign ended, some of them became veritable public dangers. They were even called "looters and eaters of the people." In order to mitigate these abuses, princes gradually began to pay men to devote themselves to the practice of war. The French word solder meaning "to pay" was thus the origin of the "lovely name of soldier" 12 by which they came to be known. In the fifteenth century, the practice of paying men to take up the trade of soldiery became widespread.