Medieval figure in armor

Abuses by private military contractors in Iraq in recent years have contributed to moral concerns about the increasingly widespread use of mercenaries around the world—the most recent chapter in the profession’s centuries-long history, which is mottled with suspicion and ostracism, says a Longwood University historian.

Mercenaries in the 12th century faced widespread condemnation—some of it well-deserved, said Dr. Steven Isaac, a specialist in medieval military culture.

Some, but not all, of those who fought for pay in the 1100s were outcasts from society, scorned for their cruelty and extortion, condemned by the Catholic Church and often called wolves, said Isaac. “This comparison rested on stereotypes—often exaggerated—that were accepted about how both wolves and mercenaries supposedly behaved,” he said.

“Mercenaries in the 12th century were hated for their wanton violence, for breaking things for the sake of breaking things,” he added. “Some of them reveled in wanton violence, extorted from towns, and attacked and desecrated churches in between paychecks and employers.”

It was more their out-of-control and often brutal behavior, rather than their accepting money for military service, that earned mercenaries censure from the Catholic Church and the public, said Isaac. Contributing to their outsider status was the fact that mercenaries, of lower-class backgrounds and often foreign, were recruited from the fringes of society. The fact that they killed for pay was just more ammunition for those who already resented them, said Isaac.

“The threat of excommunication, in the Third Lateran Council in 1179, shows how bad their odor was,” said Isaac. “They were interlopers on the margins who were kept well outside acceptable bounds.”

They were interlopers on the margins who were kept well outside acceptable bounds.

Dr. Steven Isaac, Simpson Distinguished Professor and a specialist in medieval military culture

Despite their disrepute, mercenaries were effective soldiers, said Isaac. “If you threw them at a problem, that problem tended to be dealt with.”

When Isaac started studying mercenaries in the 1990s, they “still had a bad reputation.” This prejudice has decreased with the increasingly prevalent use of private military contractors since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, though this trend raises thorny moral questions, he added.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a mercenary and what we call a volunteer or freedom fighter or patriot. Is the ex-serviceman who works for a Blackwater or DynCorp a mercenary? There is a moral gray area. As war has become privatized, perceptions have changed, and the use of mercenaries is more permissible.”  In the Middle Ages, much warfare was already private instead of public or state-led, so the legitimacy question gets further muddled.

As war has become privatized, perceptions have changed, and the use of mercenaries is more permissible.

Dr. Steven Isaac, Simpson Distinguished Professor and a specialist in medieval military culture

Medieval historians like Isaac who study mercenaries face a daunting task. The modern idea with its associated military function didn’t exist in the 12th century even though the term did, he said. The word comes from mercennarius, Latin for “hireling,” which appears in the Bible.

“Mercenaries are hard enough to define in the modern world, let alone in the 12th century when no consistent term for a hired warrior existed. There is a confusion of terms for those who fought voluntarily for money, so the scholar has to figure out who was, and was not, a mercenary. I have to second-guess the sources.”

Wolflike metaphors were widely applied to hired warriors in the 1100s and were intentionally pejorative, so they are one of the markers Isaac has found for medieval mercenary activity. Wolves at that time had a reputation for “ravenous, insatiable hunger” and were despised by cattle farmers and sheepherders, said Isaac, who recently published an article in one of France’s leading medieval studies journals on this topic.

“Wolves were viewed as rapacious and bloodthirsty, trespassing exiles, outright devils—just like the wolfish soldiers whom historians have labeled as mercenaries,” he said.

Isaac’s article, “The Wolf and the Mercenary: A Metaphor of Exclusion in the XII Century,” appears in theJournal of Medieval Civilization, published by the Center for Advanced Studies of Medieval Civilization. The center is affiliated with the University of Poitiers in France, where Isaac has continued research every summer since being a Fulbright Scholar there in 2010.

The article, in French, is an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation on 12th-century mercenaries, the focus of his research for more than 20 years. That work has led to related research on urban siege warfare of that era.

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