At Day of Knights 2016, the Swordsman Guild of Kansas City encamped under the guise of a Free Company in France named La Campaignie de la Hache, or the Company of the Axe if your French is rusty. We proudly bore livery of a white hewing axe on a black field to display our allegiance. The less fanciful of the group would call themselves Hatchetmen, and proud. The peasants along the Seine would only whisper of us in fear, as abatteurs.
So what, exactly is a Free Company? At it’s simplest they were medieval mercenary bands that worked for themselves instead of for a lord or for the crown (hence “free”.) Whether or not you were excited to see these guys depended entirely on which side of their current contract you were on. And when they weren’t under contract… well, they had to make money somehow. That generally involved taking yours. Basically, they weren’t the good guys.
But being bad can be fun, and if nothing else it’s roguishly attractive. It’s the same allure that draws us culturally to pirates, biker gangs, highwaymen, and the crew of Serenity… it’s thrillin’ to play the villin’. Just think of the wealth of examples in fiction and television where basically-bad characters, the real dregs of society, are portrayed as as misunderstood anti-heros. Characters like Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean, Malcom Reynolds of Firefly, Alfred Noye’s Highwayman, or Walter White of Breaking Bad are not the kind of folk you would want to bring home and introduce to the folks. As protagonists of their story they are cast in a favorable and sympathetic light. They’re characters you root and care for. This is done in a number of ways, usually by making the hero “good at heart” or the villains so much worse that the protagonist is relatable by comparison.
But really, if we met these kinds of characters in real life, who would want anything to do with them? They’re criminals. Not, I swiped a candy bar as a kid or I cheated on my taxes kind of criminal: they make their living terrorizing, murdering, and pilfering otherwise decent folks. Even when the actual violence of the narrative is aimed at the story’s villain, the innocent victims of their lifestyles are implied off-screen. While Pirates of the Caribbean might be a fun movie, the actual pirates of the Caribbean were horrible people that lived short brutal lives and were a scourge to the navy, the merchant sailors, and peaceful civilians of the area. Modern piracy in the Caribbean is so bad that in 2013 the US State Department got involved to try and sort out the problem. So we can all agree that there’s a major difference between the romanticism of the anti-hero, and the actual criminals that they’re caricatures of.
But this literary divide is one we accept, and falls well in line with general story-based escapism. I’m not knocking the genre, I enjoy it myself. It’s also why I was so comfortable with the fact that our portrayal as routier leaned considerably to the “fun” side of the culture, so to speak. We played up the carefree raucousness, the small unit rag-tag comrade, and laissez faire attitude. We acknowledged the brutal reality of the people we portrayed without dwelling on it to the point of being morose. But being light on the horror of history isn’t a good excuse to be ignorant of it. Routiers, Free Companies, and other mercenaries were dangerous, unpredictable, and completely inconsistent with peaceful/genteel society. They were a product of constant warfare and turmoil and thrived off that violence and chaos.
As such, Free Companies (or Routier in French) were most prominent on the continent, especially in the wake of the multiple clashes between England and France. As Trevor Clemons joked in his backstory for the group: “The only thing better for a routier than a country without a king, is a country with two…” referencing the multiple claims over French land in the late 14th early 15th century. There were notable free companies out of Italy, as well as other areas all over Europe. While similar free companies existed in England, they had their own unique (and often romanticized as well) problems with lawlessness on the Scottish border in the form of Border Reavers. A discussion of them is a bit outside the scope of this article, but both the Border Reavers and the Routiers of the continent were denounced by the establishment (the church, the crown, civil society, etc.) for their recklessness, ruthlessness, and barbarism.
These free companies were generally fairly small in size, as they benefited from being mobile and lower maintenance. Typically these bands were Captained by noble men, knights, and other gentry. The tradition of the day was that the aristocracy were the leaders, and the rest were their subjects. But that wasn’t a rule, even though societal norms were convenient Free Companies existed outside of the normal order of things. Though noble-types were usually the ones with the social clout, money (or leftover material culture), and leadership skills to organize these groups: many of them organized these groups in the wake of being deposed or defeated, thus technically stripped of their lands and titles and demoted to “common” status anyway. Though noble by tradition, many of these aristocrats were no longer technically noble by right, and so the company itself wasn’t quite so beholden to the standard feudal hierarchy. As such social mobility was somewhat more flexible than could be found in normal society. Some rascal commoners even found themselves in command of routier bands themselves, though it should be noted that they were the exception to the rule (and, I suspect though I couldn’t find anything to confirm or deny, that even then it was commoners leading commoners.)
Well organized and well trained, many routier and free companies resembled the more flamboyant and memorable Landsknechte (who were a bit later period) wherein groups of commoners managed to make their living off combat. This allowed them to focus on their training and discipline without being distracted by frivolous things like work. Because of this focus free companies and other mercenary groups developed combat prowess that rivaled their contemporary standing military peers. Some Free Companies were notable for their organization establishing hierarchy, record keeping, and even uniforms for themselves. Though generally smaller organizations, there were Free Companies that were so large they could rival standing armies. Sir John Hawkwood’s White Company out of Italy was one band that, at its height, boasted both a cavalry and an infantry that numbered in the thousands.
Sure the White Company is famous for their size and organization, but most routier were not. In the same way that Blackbeard was a paragon of pirate myth, the average pirate ship wasn’t a massive frigate like Queen Anne’s Revenge. The Hatchetmen are by no means that large, of course, with a dozen or so people including retainers and support in our camp. I still have a lot more reading to do on exactly how a lance was comprised, but I can safely say that our encampment represented a solid medieval lance, as a military unit. I suspect that the major inconsistencies I’ve found in regards to what configuration of soldiers made up a lance has a lot to do with a lack of consistency in what each culture, country, region, and time period actually considered a lance. However, general consensus seems to be that a lance is centered around a knight, his squire, a variable number of men at arms, a mob of infantry men and/or archers; plus a retinue of unarmed servants, assistants, ostlers, camp followers, etc.
Playing up the outlaws was great fun, so much so that we managed to recruit a few honorary Hatchetmen over the course of the weekend as our levity and authenticity in camp attracted neighboring reenactors. I strongly suspect that La Compagnie de la Hatch will make appearances at future events, and would be sorely disappointed if it didn’t. For those in the know, if you’re at a party and you hear a group shouting “routier!” know that you’re in for a good time. However, if you’re on the battlefield and you hear that from the other side… be afraid. Be very afraid.
Until next time… ROUTIER!
Further reading: books and articles I used in coming up with this post include…
Sir John Hawkwood: Chivalry and the Art of War by Stephen Cooper
The Hundred Years War, Volume 2: Trial by Fire (The Middle Ages Series) by Jonathan Sumption