On this date 1354, the Provencal mercenary Montreal d’Albarno was beheaded in Rome by order of the tribune Cola di Rienzi.
Known locally as Fra Moriale (English Wikipedia entry | Italian), our man was a former Knight Hospitaller who turned his knack for violence into an entrepreneurial career — for he led one of the very first of those condottiero companies whose profitable ravaging the peninsula would pave the way for generations of unscrupulous mercenaries.
It was really Moriale’s predecessor, a Swabian knight named Werner von Urslingen, who first perceived that Italy’s wars had potential for such lucrative disruption. Reputed to have rode into battle with a breastplate blazoned with his Thielesque motto “The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy”, Urslingen had about 1342 founded a swords-for-hire business known as “The Great Company”.
While not literally the first gang of condottieri, it was the gang that changed the way Italians fought. By 1385 one pact between city-states cursed Werner in its preamble as the man who “first devised this plague of societies.”*
Fielding a massive army of some 3,000 cavalrymen at the outset — its fighting strength was north of 10,000 by Moriale’s day — the Great Company could put more muscle in the field than Italy’s little principalities could readily deal with, and Werner et al were soon realizing dividends hand over mailed fist by alternately hiring themselves out to this or that city, or squeezing them for tributary payoffs by the threat of pillage.
As the inability of the squabbling communes to suppress this racket became manifest, mercenaries fast multiplied into “a multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”** Condottieri would plague, and often dominate, Italy into the 16th century, with some of their more illustrious number ascending ducal palaces and others the scaffold.
By the time we reach events in this post, Werner von Urslingen is several years into comfortable retirement. But like any successful startup, the firm he launched still thrived.
Indeed, the Great Company had a stable, nigh-professional organization to match its bottom-line objectives. “Structurally, [the Great Company] resembled a corporation,” according to William Caferro. It had “a well-articulated hierarchy” which a governing board comprised “of Werner and a council made up of the leaders (corporals) of the various contingents.”
The booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. The company drew to its service lawyers and notaries to deal with legal issues and make contracts (condotte), treasurers and bankers to handle money, priests and prostitutes to cater respectively to spiritual and carnal needs.
In the early 1350s, Moriale delighted all these vendors by banking record profits in central Italy. And in the freebooting business, the balance sheets pleasingly compounding the success: “Because of the enormous booty which the company was taking, many soldiers, having completed their terms of service, without wanting further pay, went off to join Fra Moriale,” the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani wrote in 1354. “Sometimes they had themselves dismissed in order to join him.” Matteo also notes that the businesslike Moriale “guaranteed safety to the purchasers [of his pillage] and treated them correctly in order to facilitate his commercial dealings [and] set up councillors and secretaries through whom he directed everything.” (Via Michael Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy)
A few books about the emergent mercenary business
In August of 1354, this captain of industry rode to Rome to collect on a debt: his brothers’ loan to Cola di Rienzi which had helped the latter re-establish his power in Rome after a spell in exile.
But Rienzi, who was short on cash himself (the exhausted treasury would in a few weeks’ time cost the tribune his life) resolved the debt and did a little opportunistic expropriation of his own by having his wealthy creditor seized and condemned to death. This strangely attracted the opprobrium of treachery among contemporaries, as if its victim were not a man who had founded his devastating career on infidelity. But the definitions of honor and knightly conduct at this juncture were flexible enough to admit the legitimacy of Moriale’s operation: indeed, Caferro even gives us the priceless scene of the buccaneering Hospitaller being dragged to his Roman executioner as he howls, “Don’t you see that I’m a knight? How can you be so despicable?”
After the beheading, a fighter named Konrad von Landau took leadership of the Great Company. The cutthroat business continued profitably shaking down city-states until 1363, when a burgeoning new rival startup, John Hawksood‘s White Company,† thrashed its predecessor into irrelevance at the Battle of Canturino.
* Cited in Caferro’s Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena; the book argues (pdf review) that its titular commune slipped into its spiral towards political irrelevance and eventual absorption due largely to the military and financial ravages imposed by the condottieri. From a historical perspective safely distant from the companies’ day-to-day predations, the condottieri arguably helped to drive the slow consolidation of Italy’s many micro-states into a handful of larger polities.
On this day..
- 1929: John Fabri, condemned - 2020
- 2014: Zhou Youping, serial kinkster - 2019
- 1941: Henri Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves, the first martyr of Free France - 2018
- 1741: John Ury, schoolmaster - 2017
- 1783: William Wynne Ryland, court engraver - 2015
- 1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman - 2014
- 2007: John Joe "Ash" Amador - 2013
- 1890: Otto Leuth - 2012
- 1541: Cristóvão da Gama, Portuguese crusader in Ethiopia - 2011
- 1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader - 2010
- 1906: Zinaida Konoplyannikov, assassin - 2009
- 1966: Sayyid Qutb - 2008