“I don’t know who he really was,” the young monk Michael said, staring deeply into the center of the table at the Hog’s Snout.

Our group met at the ale house soon after I visited Michael’s parents.  Clearly the evening with the Black Rider had opened Michael’s memories of his dead brother.

Dame with Landsknecht--Durer

Hubmaier pushed a tankard toward the younger man.  “You were a boy.  He was your hero.”

Michael nodded.  “I had five years when Jakob came home for the first time in the regalia of a Landsknecht, the red, yellow and blue blouse, the fawn hat with ostrich plumes.  He told of close fighting with two-handed swords, knives, katzbalgers.

“Two years later, he returned from Novara with a horse and a crossbow.  But soon, a harquebus replaced the crossbow, the wooden powder charges called apostles–because there were twelve of them–carried in a bandoliera across his chest.

“The next year, no colorful blouse.  He became a Black Rider, and all was black, even the horse.  He showed me the chain mail armor, the black breastplate, and the pistols.  He was a god to me then.”

Michael picked up the tankard but then turned his eyes toward each of us in turn.  “Now, I think that perhaps he was just a mercenary who fought only for money, a savage butcher with no regard for any life, even his own.  ‘Today glory,’ he said.  ‘Tomorrow, death.'”

It was true, I thought.  The Black Riders were elite of Landsknechte.  Though they swore loyalty to the Empire, they were independent and difficult to control.  They fought for religion, they fought for beer.  But if they didn’t get paid, they didn’t fight at all.  “No money, no Landsknecht,” was their motto.

“They lack passion for a cause,” Matthew Zell said.  “That’s why they were beaten at Dornach.  The Switzer confederates fought for their freedom.  They had passion.”

Fabri nodded.  “The Switzers had forced marched all night when they arrived and saw the Landknechte reveling in camp.  They attacked immediately.”

“My father is so proud of being a leather merchant,” Michael said, his blue eyes still drilling into the table.  “He acts as if he did it all himself.  But how did a vinedresser, a peasant, move to the city and become a leather merchant?  How afford the horse and cart, the house in town, the first wares?”

Michael raised his tankard at last and downed half of the ale.  “My brother’s spoils of war.  Whenever he returned home, Jakob came with gold chains, sacks of guilders.”

Then Fabri leaned back in his jurist’s robe.  “The questions are not simple.  Without trained mercenaries, the Emperor would conscript farmers’ sons, who would have to be trained and armed.  Your brother provided all his own equipment.”

Michael nodded.  “The horse cost 44 guilders.  And the armor, 16.”

“So,” Fabri said, “I see nothing wrong with a man choosing to become a soldier for hire.  It’s like any other profession.”

“I’m against warring,” Michael said.  “I agree with Erasmus that no practice violates Jesus’ law of love so grossly as war.”

“Yes, but if we must have war,” I said, “and it seems we must, then let it be fought by professionals.”

“I agree,” Hubmaier said.  “For soon there would be a shortage of farmers’ sons, and they would start conscripting scholars!”

Even Michael managed a weak smile.  Then Fabri said, “the problem is that these troops answer to no one.  If they disobey the Emperor, how shall he discipline them?”

“Revoke their contract,” Zell suggested.

“He can’t,” Hubmaier said.  “He’s too desperate for trained soldiers.  And once they get war fever, it seems some of them can’t stop.  So they pillage and destroy without fear of retribution, each rousing his fellows up to a fevered pitch of lust and carnage.”

“If they commit an outrage in another land,” Fabri said, “whose courts should try them?”  Hubmaier, Fabri, Zell and I expounded at length on this question from moral, legal, and philosophical angles.

Then the tender young monk spoke.  “But what of the man?

“Jakob once said to my father:  When the sword is hot from prolonged combat, the blood will smoke upon the blade.  And I have stood, my sword smoking, and felt nothing.

“What of the man?” Michael asked again, his blue eyes moistening.  “It’s unnatural to create a war machine by deadening a man’s better impulses.  What happens to the man?  To his soul?  To his heart?”

The Knight, Death, and the Devil

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  1. Was there perhaps a Landsknecht complany called “Schwartzwasser” based in Nordkarolinien?

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