(German, pronounced 'LÄNTS-knekht'. Literally, "Land Servant" or "Knight of the Land")

The Landsknechts were a legion of 16th-century German mercenaries, best known for their ferocity on the battlefield, and the wildly eclectic personalities of their fighting units. During the first half of the Renaissance, they were perhaps the most notorious military force in all of Northern Europe.

You see, around the time of the late-1400s, technological advancements were forcing broad changes on the battlefields of the North. Cavalry units were made practically useless by the development of the Harquebus rifle, and lighter and more durable halberds and pikes. At the same time, economic and political pressures led to a steep decline in the heavily armored sword-and-shield warriors, in favor of a light and fast-moving infantry, mainly comprised of versatile mercenary units. This was a climate ideally suited for the Landsknecht.

Modeled after the much-respected pikemen of the Swiss Guard, the first Landsknecht units were established by Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I around 1475, to lay claim to the portion of Burgundy taken by his forces in the Burgundian Wars. Soon after, the Landsknechts made a name for themselves, outstripping even the Swiss by their effectiveness in combat, and by their adoption of new technologies (like the Harquebus) and the "dirty" tactics of modern warfare (such as smoke screens, ambushes and entrenchment).

In terms of armament, the Landsknecht ran the gamut of medieval weaponry, from glaives, broadswords, maces and battleaxes, to halberds and staves, to the latest "modern" firearms and rifles. The period's predominant infantry weapon, though, was the pike, generally a sharpened pole of ash-wood that could be up to 5 meters in length. Foregoing shields for two-handed weapons, a basic pike formation could instantly turn a battalion of footsoldiers into a nearly impenetrable wall of deadly spikes. The most elite and/or suicidal among the Landsknechts were known as the Doppelsöldner (literally "Double Mercenaries"), who received double pay (assuming they survived) for holding the front line and smashing holes through the enemy formations by hacking at the ends of their pikes. Their weapon of choice was the dreaded Zweihänder, a type of massive two-edged broadsword, sometimes flamberge-styled, roughly as tall as the person wielding it and weighing up to 10 kilos or more.

Naturally, as mercenaries, part of their pay was the right to salvage from a battlefield, and lay claim to as much gear and supplies as they could possibly carry away. This quickly became one of the trademark traditions of the Landsknechts, not only equipping themselves with their enemies' armaments, but even going so far as wearing the clothes of the soldiers they'd killed. The typical Landsknecht "uniform" was an ill-fitting and wildly unmatching outfit, sewn together from the bloody uniforms of recently-dead adversaries. Later on, this patchwork style even became a fashion trend among the nobility of the day. In 1503, laws were passed which said that, while all other German troops were required to wear a standard uniform, the Landsknecht were still allowed to dress as motley and disheveled as they chose.

Of course, Renaissance warfare isn't all gold and glory. "Live fast, die young" tended to be a motto of the Landsknechts, and between the living conditions and the constant battles, the average life expectancy for a footsoldier was only about a year. Still, thousands of young Germanic men jumped at the chance to serve with the Landsknechts, and those that managed to stay alive for three years or more could retire as wealthy men.

Did I mention the poor living conditions? I don't think I quite emphasized enough the poor living conditions. The living conditions, as I said, were poor. Simply getting enough to eat on those long cross-country treks through Europe meant... how should I put this... having to help yourself to what's around. Or, as one historian (circa 1645) described it:

Soldiers must be hardy and enduring people, like unto steel and iron, and like the wild beasts that can eat all kinds of food. The Landsknecht must be able to digest the points of their wheel nails; nothing must come amiss to them, even if necessity required that they should eat dogs’ or cats’ flesh; and the flesh of horses from the meadow must be like good venison to them, with herbs unseasoned by salt or butter...

A Landsknecht has neither house nor farm, cows nor calves, and no one to bring him food; therefore, he must procure it himself wherever it is to be found, and buy without money whether the peasants look sweet or sour.... When the householder is driven away with his wife and children, the fowls, geese, fat cows, oxen, pigs, and sheep have a bad time of it. The money is portioned out in their caps, velvet and silk stuffs and cloth are measured out by long spears; a cow is slaughtered for the sake of the hide; chests and trunks are broken open, and when all has been plundered and nothing more remains, the house is set on fire.

Heh, need I say more?

From 1500 on, Emperor Maximillian allowed the Landsknechts to hire themselves out to all bidders. As such, they fought in virtually every major conflict on the continent between the years 1482-1660. By their reputation alone, they were among the most sought-after mercenaries in all Europe, and were commonly hired to settle the disputes among the nobility of the period, usually by means of the time-tested method of wanton destruction and violence.

Not that they were the most trustworthy soldiers, either. It's said that your typical Landsknecht fought for food, money, beer and religion... and generally in that order.

In 1515, for instance, Duke Charles de Bourbon of France convinced a contingent of some 25,000 Landsknechts to turn against their allies and launch an attack against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Lombardy. Eight years later, after a falling-out between Bourbon and King Francis I, Bourbon hired the same mercenaries to switch back over to the side of Rome, and fought against the French at Pavia in 1523. Then, having now destroyed most of the standing armies in Italy, these same Landsknechts turned around and sacked Rome in 1527. In the aftermath, while other troops mostly took what they wanted and went home, the Germans stuck around in the Holy City for more than a year. Eventually, the Romans paid the Landsknechts a king's ransom just to get them to go away.

sources: Landsknecht.com, Encyclopedia.com, Oldnewspublishing.com, http://www.st-mike.org/groups/german, http://www.hillsdale.edu/dept/History/Documents/War/17e/1645-landsknecht.htm

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