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The Black Company of 1525

This is a long file, so please use the contents to get to what you want to know. Or feel free to take a gander over the whole thing. This is still being written, too, so be patient. More is coming.

Contents

Introduction

I don't know about you, but the Annals of the Black Company are an inspiring souce of literature. Cook's humor, black as it is, is wonderful to read. And the ideas he puts into his words are incredible. They can be positive, such as Murgen's marriage to Sarie Ky Dam. And they can be harsh. We have a slew of examples of this, from Lady's massacre of the factional priests to Croaker's use of the camp followers at the Battle of Charadaprash. As hurtful and helpful as some of the events in the Annals are, though, they at most represent what really went on in our world. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the old adage goes.

My love of Cook's works led me in search of some of those truths. Specifically to the Black Company that existed in the early sixteenth-century. Who were these people? What did they do? Why did Cook name his mercenary company after this specific unit? (If he even did.) These are questions I wanted answers to.

Here then is what my travails and travels have revealed to me. I hope you don't mind me sharing them with you. Enjoy, brothers.--Ender

Before the Peasants' War

The great Peasants War of 1525 was not the first of it's kind. There in fact had been may other outbreaks. Like the revolt of 1525, most of the previous revolts were agrarian in nature. That is, it was the peasants, not the poor city dwellers, who were frustrated enough to stop caring about farming and started thinking about rebellion. It takes quite a bit of oppression for the lower classes to quit thinking about thier daily tasks. Revoltions are rarely started by the lower classes, in fact. The "American Revolution" was not the poor oppressed community banding together to throw off the tyranical rule of Britain. Rather, it was the middle-upper-class aristocracy who wanted more power to themselves and decided to cast off English ties.

There are, of course, exceptions. Look at the revolutionin France. All the upper-class bought it. That is because the lower classes in the cities and the peasants out in the country were so crushed, they had no choice but to rebel to continue their existence. Another case was the German Peasants' War of 1525-6.

There was a strange element to this latter conflict that needs to be discussed. Religion. Martin Luther, just a few years earlier in 1517, set the stage for the Reformation. I'm sure it was not his intention to create a new church. He merely was disgusted with the way things were going. And his was not a personality to hold things inside. He vehemently tacked on his 95 theses on Wittenberg's chapel. Skipping ahead, we see him encouraging not just the destruction of the peasant bands, but calling for executions and confications of property or abolishment of rights. Luther was, shall we say, an extremist.

Others carried his fire. Local preachers so disgusted with the corruption of Rome spoke out in their towns and cities teaching the ways of Luther. They demanded the ecclesiatic officials give up their wealth and submit to the word of god (sorry, I can't in good conscience capitalize those).

All well and good. But the peasants basically thought, so what. Ah, then the preachers got the idea of harraunging the lay powers as well. Now this was something the agrarians could understand. Some were so loaded down with work for their lords, they couldn't even tend to their own fields. They could fully understand when the evangelists asked, nay demanded, the nobles give up their right and become like the peasants.

The nobles had been in the wars in Italy and didn't want to put up with any of this crap, however. So besides trying to squeeze out more money for theirselves, they brought back the old Roman law to replace the Germanic tradition that had been prevalent through this area. Roman law had the effect of limiting the peasants' personal freedom and self-administartion. Secret societies of peasant brotherhoods sprang up. And with the help of the fiery evangelicals, revolution spread like wildfire.

An Overview of the Peasants' War

The peasants' seem to have spread the revolution throughout Germany. It was nearly synchronous, though all the areas were quite unrelated. That is, the rebellions sprang up in all different places at the same time with no conscious effort on the part of anyone. This isn't as surprising at it seems. The whole conflict had been seting up for years. That all areas blew up at nearly the same time shows not the coordination of the peasants, but the uniformity of conditions they faced.

And so they rebelled. At first the nature of the rebels were agrarian. They were only peasants who wanted better living conditions and a return to the traditional Germanic law that had governed their forefathers. This is eveident in the nature of the complaints they brought forth to the nobles. For example, they wished to hunt on their own lands, they wished fewer workdays for tilling their lords' fields, and they wasnted to be exempt of certain tithes and taxes. (Sounds familiar, eh?) A couple months later, when the preachers became personally involved in the rebellion, the spirit changes. Now the peasants demanded that the true word of god be spread in the churches. It becomes not so much agraian in nature as religious. And Croaker, our esteemed captain has noticed that if you mess with religion you play with fire.

And there was fire. Monasteries and churches were burnt, sacked, and destroyed. The homes of church officials were likewise burnt, sacked, and destroyed. Likewise some of the officials. Those whose instinct for self-preservation was not quite well honed.

The Swabian League, the loose confederation of the German states, responded, if not with alacrity, then with enough speed to quell the rebellion. It helped that Luther had, in effect, renouced the peasant cause when he wrote his Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. He nearly screams when he demands that Truchsess of Waldburg, the general in command of the League's armies, destroy the peasants to preserve the natural order.

Truchsess did just that. And he was not gentle about it. Whole towns were leveld and the peasants were not permitted to rebuild. Executions were held so often the executioners, who got paid for the heads they cleaved from the bodies, were bored with their jobs. Peasnats were massacred, tortured, etc. All the nicieties of quelling a revolt. Few of the preachers got off scott-free, either. Their lives were especially not worth anything if they were caught. We read of betrayals and burnings of evangelicals. Some few did escapse out of Germany, to Switzerland or Italy. But these were the lucky few.

The War in Franconia: The Black Company

The rebellion in Franconia, which is the province smack dab in the middle of the German Empire, developed for slightly different reasons than the rest of the conflict. True, the peasants did want to end the oppression of the landowning class, but they did not only want to stop oppression, they wanted to change the social order. We see this best put in the Rothenburg appeal of Florian Geyer, the leader of the Black Company, which is often refered to as the Black Troop. He said, "It is not proposed to abolish all taxes and dues, but rather to make the authorities negotiate with their subjects about the level and fairness of these dues with the active help and advice of educated, god-fearing and loving people."

A little must be said of Herr Geyer. That he was a nobleman, a free knight there is no doubt, for he held title to the castle at Giebelstadt, nead Wurzburg. He seems also to have been quite an idealist, as we can see from the about quote. He also called the peasants his fellow brothers. And definately the most advantageous quality for the peasants was that he was quite skilled militarily. He has been called the peasants greatest military genius. (Though that's not hard when most of the rebels had no military experience whatsoever.)

But we do see that his force was distinguished from most of the other peasant bands. The Black Company wasbetter maintained, organized, and trained. While most of the other bands were basically bandits, the Black Company was actually a military outfit which could give as good as Truchsess' command. Truchsess lost roughly one-quarter of his men-at-arms and free-lances, out of perhaps 2000, to the Black Company. Not bad for 600 peasants and a few of Geyer's own knights.

The Black Company was formed in March of 1525 at Rothenburg out of two disticnt forces: the Rothenburg Landwehr, or home guard of Rothenburg, and a company of free-lances, or regular mercenaries. It quickly became one of "the most efficent fighting forces on the peasant side" particularly noted for the bravery and cohesiveness of its members.

This Company first liberated the area around Rothenburg. They then moves west into Swabia and took part in several actions. Not of which were gentle, but nothing really harsh either. Mostly the sacking of monasteries or Templar homes. (No atrocities as the Captain would say.) But it was in Swabia, Weinsburg, to be exact, that the Company earned a stain on its honor. They took part in the massacre, led by a peasant named Rorsbach, of that town's leaders. Fifty or so knights were lead to field outside the town and executed one by one. Geyer was so disgusted with Rorsbach and his methods he said that had he known the people of the Tauber vally were so crazy he would have slain them rather than join them. Having said the above, he took his company back to Franconia.

He continued to campaign, not doing anything particularly noteworthy until the Battle of Ingolstadt in May of that year. The battle seemed to go well at first for the peasant horde, but the Company suddenly found themselves alone. Their allies had broken and were destroyed by trucsess' forces. Only the Black Company, with Geyer even now keeping calm under pressure, had the presence of mind and the discipline to entrench themselves in the town of the same name. They put up a fierce fight, inflicting as many losses as they took. It was only when they ran out of ammunition that they were defeated. And even then they weren't destroyed. They continued to fight on, asking for no quarter. And fully 200 of the Company escaped.

However, on the run and out of ammunition, they were no match for the Swabian League's better equiped force. They were hunted down, again asking no quarter and fighting until the end, and destroyed at the Battle of Frankenhausen in late May. Geyer himself escaped with a few of his knights, but was betrayed by William von Grumbach, his brother-in-law, and murdered on June 9 in the fields near Rimpar. Thus ended the nobles of the bands of the peasants. And things very quicly turned very bad for the peasants.

The Results of the Peasants' War

You can probably guess the result: a debacle for the lower-classes. In most cases, though there were exception in Thuringia, northwest of Franconia, the peasants became the personal property of the landholding class. They not only lost their traditional rights under German law, but lost all politcal rights whatsoever. The oppressed peasants who had rebelled ended up being even more oppressed. And their conditions would not change until the nineteenth century.

Another consequence of the war was that the German nation remained seperated. Not from the rest of the world, but into the various territories it had known for centuries. This again was a condition that would not change until much later, under Kaisar Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck. Only under those auspicious names would Germany finally be unified de facto, not just in name. And we well know the consequences of that!

So the Peasants War is not something isolated from us. It becomes a very real part of our lives becuause the events in that conflict helped to shape the world we live in.

Sources