Just when Georg was about to pass the whole scene by, a colorful group literally fell out of the door of the tavern. In the lead, there was a tall, good-looking and well-dressed sergeant and right behind him, two stalwart young men spilled out of the door. Outside, the drummer and the musketeers were already waiting for them as a guard. To make sure that the youngsters wouldn’t get the wrong idea to cut and run. It was definitely not the first time Erdhart saw a scene like that. He once was on duty guarding a flock of freshly recruited boys. The recruiting sergeant Fraccaro, was already starting to abandon the role of a kindly uncle brimming with promises and began commanding everyone to form and get ready for departure. Erdhart mused once again and the idea sparked the deed.
Erdhart started to chat with the sergeant. When two soldiers meet each other like that, it doesn't take long for them to see right throw each other. And Bartolomeo saw with his experienced eye that Georg was broke and the lack of work during the winter was causing the furrowing of his brow. The thought crossed his mind that bringing in an already experienced soldier could earn him some additional reward. After all, only novices had been signing up so far. And so Bartolomeo didn't hesitate and behind the backs of the others, he pressed some extra change into Georg's hand – just between two brothers in arms.
Erdhart soon became acquainted with the two youths – the new recruits. He did not especially trust them at first. The beaming faces unmarked by the hardships of the battlefield was evidence of a life on a farm somewhere or in a town workshop and gave away the fact that none of them knew what they really signed up for. That might be the reason why Georg appeared grumpy and odd to them. But the road to the mustering point was long and soon they were engaged in conversation.
Richard, the younger one of the two recruits, used to make his living as an assistant carpenter. For the young man however, the job was nothing but a poorly paid routine. He yearned for something more in life. But he came from a poor family and he was one of many siblings and for a long time, the promise of a better life had been just a fantasy for him. One day however, together with the other carpenters, he was paid to help with the construction of a new house. The new owner was a wachmaister of the cavalry and Richard happened to overhear a conversation between him and some visitors of his. From what he heard, he understood that on one hand, the army was a rough trade, because the conversation revolved around fallen comrades several times, but it was also a place everybody can come into money, because when the men began talking money, amounts were named that Richard could not even imagine. It didn’t take long and Richard left his family home with the decision to get himself recruited. It took couple of days, but thanks to the rumors of the folks along the road, he soon tracked down the recruiting group of sergeant Bartolomeo. It was but a coincidence that he met up with him the same day Erdhart did.
The second one of Georg’s new brothers in arms was a journeyman named Peter. A mountain of a man, who commanded respect with everyone, he was so assured of his capabilities that he soon grew tired of counting change. Additionally, his rebellious, almost arrogant nature often brought him trouble. The farm he used to work at was dealing with barren years and when Peter was last receiving his pay from the landowner and it was smaller than usual, Peter could not contain himself and beat the landlord in anger with a broom handle. Events took a quick turn and Peter left the estate. He scraped by for a while as a journeyman as best he could but it wasn’t enough. He entered the tavern right at the moment when the recruiting sergeant Bartolomeo was already there, seated comfortably. Words of fame and getting rich fast in the military service took Peter by surprise but it only took couple of cups of wine to make him realize where he would fare the best. He will serve and then he will have money to burn. And who knows? Maybe he will win glory on the field of battle and no one will ever refer to him as some poor journeyman. An opportunity presented itself so why not take it.
Stories such as these could be told by nearly never-ending rows of men fighting in various conflicts of the first half of the 17th century. And most of them took up the soldier’s trade voluntarily. The armies were made up by mercenaries. A mercenary is a person that signs up to serve voluntarily for a certain amount of time and provides the service for a fee – a soldier’s pay. Usually, they do not owe allegiance to any nation or side but will offer their services to anyone and perhaps even to different competing sides. Erdhart was not an exception. After all, in 1625, he was joining the army of the Principality of Transylvania, only to end up in the imperial army, in which he lived through many years, but which he will eventually exchange for a different employment in one of the following chapters.
Our main inspiration, Peter Hagendorf, also switched sides two times and in the surviving records of actual warriors, there were almost none that spent their entire military career with one “employer”. However, mercenaries were regular people. Common men that did not, with exceptions, stand out in any way. The three characters mentioned above also share a number of things related to their entry into military service.
First of all, it is their age. Richard, Peter, even sergeant Bartolomeo were between 18 and 25 years old when they joined the army. This was the typical age range and most of the soldiers fell into the interval between 15 and 29 years of age. Officially, boys of around 15 years were allowed to join but exceptions younger than that can be found. The situation was similar with the other limit of the range of the age. According to the custom of the era, a soldier was considered too old from the age of 46. But there were many men serving in the army until the age of 60. And even then, interesting extremes can be found. One of the protocols with the soldiers of the Spanish army that rebelled in Flanders shows that in the company of Spanish rebels, there was even a seventy- and an eighty-year-old man!
Another typical feature of the mercenary trade was, that the soldiers came from all around Europe. Erdhart himself came from Košice. In contrast, two characters from the previous Chapter, the unfortunate Greek and corporal Hanz came from different regions and cultures. Sergeant Bartolomeo is an Italian and Richard and Peter are Germans. National representation this colorful was quite common on all sides of the conflict.
Most often, the soldiers came from the regions where the fighting was taking place. A major reason for that was the fact that the campaigns drained the area of all resources. It was not just the pillaging but also regular requisitions. For the poor inhabitants that were settled there, there was no difference. Marching armies brought problems and many preferred joining rather than suffering through it.
Furthermore, there was a great representation of ethnicities living on the land belonging to the individual battling sides. Although, in the early modern period there was no such thing as national feeling as we know it nowadays, and so fighting for your homeland or nation was not the greatest motivator. Taking into account where the main part of the Thirty Years’ War was taking place geographically, the most represented group were Germans. Even though Germany as such did not exist at that time, an umbrella term for the German nationality did. But otherwise, Swabians, Saxons, Bavarians and others were being distinguished.
It can be observed in an interesting way in the development of the origin of the soldiers in the army of Albrecht von Wallenstein in the course of several years. In 1625, roughly 60 % were Germans, in 1627, this number had risen to 80 % to reach 87 % in the thirties of the 17th century.
For some regions of Europe, it was typical to “export” mercenaries. These were especially mountainous, not very fertile areas that could not handle the rise in the population. The first boom of mercenaries at the end of the 15th century appeared in Switzerland, which was an area exactly like that. At the time of the break of the 16th and the 17th century and the Thirty Years’ War, these areas included Scotland and the Scottish Highlands, Ireland, Gascony in France, mountainous regions of Spain, the north of Italy, etc.
Therefore, armies were very cosmopolitan groupings. Just how much that was a case can be demonstrated on the often cited example of the Bavarian infantry regiment Gil de Haas in 1645, which constituted of:
14 Bohemians, 43 Burgundians, 2 Croatians, 18 Dalmatians, 15 Frenchmen, 534 Germans, 26 Greeks, 5 Hungarians, 1 Irishmen, 218 Italians, 24 Lorrainians, 54 Poles, 2 Scots, 1 Sicilian, 51 Slovenians, 11 Spaniards and 15 Turks. All together 1034 men.
Originally, the regiment was being assembled in the region south of Munich, in the relatively large area covering several towns (namely Wesserburg, Rosenhelm, Wellheim, Schongau, Tolz, Landesberg and Friedburg). It was there that the individual life stories of the soldiers coalesced into a colorful mix of nationalities and origins.
Social origins was what connected most of the soldiers. A major portion of the soldiers came from the countryside. In villages, there was always a large group of the population that made their living however they could. They did not have any land of their own and if so, it was small. They earned their living working on the bigger homesteads of the wealthier landowners as day laborers or servants. For the men from this social class, making a living was a hard struggle. Times of poor yield or sudden problems could completely deplete their already slim means and so it is not surprising that many of them opted for the path of the military trade. It was a paradox, but in the imagination of many men of that time, the army was synonymous with certain social and economic stability, as opposed to their uncertain day-to-day livelihood.
What was true for the countryside, applies for the developing towns as well. The traditional historical interpretation stated the population of the countryside as the main ground for recruits for military service, but contemporary studies of the sources show that as many as half of the candidates came from the cities. Already in the 16th century, urban life was developing massively all across Europe. Migration of the people from the country to the cities towards the prospect of better earnings and economic stability was happening. The number of apprentices and small craftsmen was therefore rising. But the cities still could not offer as many job opportunities as was needed and the competition was substantial. And so the poor were also rising in numbers, and were the social class ideal for service in the army.
Common soldiers did not come from the wealthy social classes, but they aspired to improve their status and earnings. And that is exactly the reason why the prospect of improving one’s financial standing was the main motivation for joining the army. At first glance, soldiering seemed to be an easy source of income and that is the way the recruiting officers were describing it for the major part of the 16th and the 17th century.
It used to be a common practice that the recruits would receive “enrollment money”, in German known as “Handgeld”. Its amount depended on previous experience, type of army and other factors. The practice of paying out this fee was becoming a profitable “business” in and of itself. As was the case for example with sergeant Bartolomeo. It was therefore necessary to guard the new recruits so that they wouldn’t disappear together with the enrollment money.
In some cases, the number of deserters in this initial stage of the military career reached such a scale that for example in France, it was customary to recruit more man than there was a real need for because of the fact that part of them would run away was factored in.
Apart from the enrollment money though, it was the soldier’s pay itself that they signed up to serve in the army for. However, that is where a bit of a disappointment would arrive. For a common soldier, the amount of the soldier’s pay was very low. As a rule, a common musketeer or a pikeman would, contrary to all the promises of the recruiters, make roughly as much as a common laborer would. A small consolation was the fact that as opposed to the civilian life, the soldiers were free of any tax duty or church levies. Additionally, apart from the basic soldier’s pay, there were various bonuses for guard duty, frontline soldiers, duration of the service, etc. But these bonuses were not a rule. The commanders usually did not have enough money at their disposal that was needed for timely, regular and exact payment of their wages. Also, the amount of the soldier’s pay remained fixed for the majority of the Thirty Years’ War across all the armies, whereas the prices of the food and all of the basic everyday needs could change very dramatically. The amount itself also was nothing extraordinary. In the context of the times back then, it was the same pay as a common laborer would make.
But there was yet another temptation. And that was the plunder. The recruiters often painted pictures with promises of plundering and acquired riches. Plundering and pillaging were a natural part of the military profession. It is true that in some cases the commanders tried to take a stand against that in various ways, mainly to protect civilians against the uncontrolled illegal preying of marauders, to be later able to rob them completely legally due to contributions to meet the needs of their armies. But sometimes, plundering was permitted. Especially heavily resisting cities and fortified places were met with the harsh fate of unrestricted pillaging, when they were finally conquered. It was specifically the conquered cities that meant rich spoils for the soldiers. The soldiers would take everything, from obviously valuable items, even by today’s standards – food, valuables – to less expected items. Clothes or raw fabrics and other everyday items that made the day-to-day survival of the soldiers easier were especially valuable.
And after all, getting rich through military service was not always a mere fantasy. History knows the names of those who ascended to the top ranks of society and made good money through military careers. Among such people was Peter Melander who, as a common farmer’s son, acquired a title of nobility through his uncle and during five years in the army, he became a colonel and later he even made it to a lieutenant general. He then secured his social and economic status through an advantageous marriage. This fortunate fate was only interrupted by the last clash of the Thirty Years’ War, the Battle of Zusmarshausen, on 17 May 1648, where Melander was shot two times and later succumbed to his injuries. However, the lineage of this offspring of a family of farmers nowadays includes Beatrix, the Queen of the Netherlands, and Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Or yet another, Georg Derfflinger, who made his way from a simple Austrian province to serve in the Swedish cavalry, where he built up such a career that he became a Brandenburger field marshal. More stories like these, albeit not this extraordinary, but interesting regardless, can be found throughout the perplexing times of the Thirty Years’ War. However, the words uttered in 1623 by Émeric Crucé, a French monk, writer and pioneer of peace and international politics, are significant: “For every two soldiers that became rich in a war, you will find another fifty that gained nothing but wounds and disease.”
However, it is impossible to skip motivations other than the socioeconomic ones. In the stories of actual participants of the Thirty Years’ War, one can read about more than just a lust for clinking coins. The promise of adventures, being free from the bounds of the civilian life and exuberance were strong temptations for a person in the 17th century. The society of the early modern period was bound by many rules and the individual social classes on the proverbial ladder were often impenetrable. The desire to escape a strictly defined existence by taking up the military craft brought many men into the army.
The call of the distant lands and adventures was also heeded, apart from Georg Erdhart himself, for example by James Turner, the famous Scottish professional soldier, who gave up a promising career in church in 1632 to join the army of Gustav II Adolf. In 1639, he returned to Scotland as a captain. No less known English professional mercenary Sydnam Poyntz escaped the shackles of day-to-day hardships of an assistant and an apprentice in a trading business. He went to the Netherlands, where the war raged, and experienced many an adventure on various sides of the conflict between the years of 1625 and 1644. During his whole military career, he managed to send an enormous amount of money to his wife in England.
The army meant an escape from one's past life. It was possible to solve unwanted or unwelcome family or marital bonds by burning the bridges to the past, and joining the army, which meant a new (although sometimes short) life. Many a man even solved his conflict with the law by entering the anonymity of military ranks. Thus, various criminals – debtors, thieves and even murderers – were making their way into the army. It is true that the officers were aware of the damage to the troop and morale that such problematic individuals could cause, but such a criminal was almost impossible to uncover.
All of this made an army a very colorful grouping of people, where everybody had some sort of story of their own. A campaign to the north and an infamous siege of an infamous city is now awaiting Erdhart.
“On January 21st, we headed for the musterplatz to Passau and then through all the lands and cities to Pilsen”
On behalf of our entire group, we would like to thank the Museum in Červený Kláštor and their kind provision of the premises and the utility rooms. And to all of you, who have not yet had the opportunity, we highly recommend to visit this historic sight.
Translation by Vojtěch Březík
Edit by Ivana Nemčoková