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    When historians are asked to pick a point in history when Western civilization was transformed and guided down the path to modernity, most of them point to the Renaissance. Indeed, the period revolutionized art, philosophy, religion, sciences, and math, with individuals like Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, and Petrarch bridging the past and modern society.

    The Renaissance also spawned the use of the label “Renaissance Man” to describe a person who is extremely talented in multiple fields, most notably Leonardo da Vinci, who found time to be a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.

    However, while the Renaissance is remembered mostly for art and advances in philosophy and thinking, it’s often overlooked that the era was also a transitional period in the history of warfare. The Middle Ages have long been remembered for armored knights battling on horseback and armies of men trying to breach the walls of formidable castles, but what is generally forgotten is that medieval warfare was constantly adapting to the times as leaders adopted new techniques and technology, and common infantry became increasingly important throughout the period.

    Meanwhile, political and technological progress led to continuous change of tactics and equipment. Cavalry became ascendant, only to be later replaced by infantry as their weapons improved, and by the end of the period, warfare was radically changing, thanks to the rise of gunpowder weapons such as the handgonne and the bombard.

    Artillery and handgonnes had been known since the early 14th century, but only became effective near the end of the 15th century, when they were the final factor in the infantry revolution and began to change warfare forever. By the middle of the 15th century, artillery was knocking down castle walls that had stood for generations. Infantry also proved their worth with powerful longbows and tight formations of polearms upsetting the long dominance of mounted, heavily armored knights, and handheld firearms threatened to make armor obsolete. New types of warriors were developed, and new tactics had to take the emerging era of black powder weapons into account, ushering in a time of great change in military strategy, tactics, and technology.

    The Middle Ages witnessed almost constant warfare in Europe, so mercenaries were a constant on the battlefield, but the 15th century also saw the rise of mercenary usage by the increasingly wealthy aristocracy. One of the finest groups of mercenaries were the Landsknechts from central and northern Europe. The term means “servant of the country”, and they mostly served the Holy Roman Empire, first under Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1508-1519) and then under his successors.

    The Landsknechts (German: Landsknechte) were masters of the battlefield, adept at pike, sword, and dead shots with the crude matchlocks of the day. The only mercenaries rivaling them were the famous Swiss, who they hated and often fought bitterly. The Landsknechts were as famous for their flamboyant costumes as much as their prowess on the battlefield, and they became symbols of rebellion and freedom in early modern Europe, even as they fought in service of Europe’s largest empire.

    The Landsknechts: The History and Legacy of the German Mercenaries Who Fought for the Holy Roman Empire examines the events that led to the rise of the mercenaries, what their lives and battles were like, and their impact.

    ©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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