Civilians fight back!

‘Total’ war is a modern term but not a modern invention and historians have begun to analyse its nature and causes in the early modern era. For example, the striking level of violence inflicted by soldiers on civilians in Germany during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) can be related to the structures of military supply and accommodation in place at the time.[1] Soldiers were not simply provoked and driven to irrational cruelty and civilians were not merely passive victims of violence; both sides were involved in a struggle over resources, including money, which was marked by the threat or use of force. The ransoming and kidnapping of civilians by soldiers was a customary part of this ‘negotiation’ (as it has been termed) and some ‘quarter’, or protection for civilians, might be given during a sack in return for money. On the other side of the negotiation, civilians who faced successive waves of attackers in the course of intense and localised military campaigns might try to mitigate the troops’ demands with reference to the assaults and robberies already endured, or they could fight back.[2]

This model of military threat, exploitation and ‘negotiation’ is relevant to the civilian experience of the Italian Wars. In the first place, the mercenary commanders, or condottiere, were awarded a right to plunder and ransoms according to the terms of their contract.[3] The other ranks also sought wealth on the campaign in Italy. One study shows that the hired Swiss who were so vital for the wars included artisans, the better-born (including the poet and artist Niklaus Manuel), shoemakers and butcher’s sons, as well as young men (some barely into their teens) struggling with debt, poverty, or other difficulties at home. As one of them, Peter Falk of Freibourg, wrote home while on the march towards Milan and Pavia in 1512: ‘Never have our comrades seen such splendid and wealthy encampments as these that we have had up until now in town and country. Everything that a man could desire has been found in sufficiency. The soldiers are full of money and marvelous things that belonged to the French and have been harvested everywhere … We are so happy and in such good heart for which we thank the Lord God for eternity.’[4]

The French king and the emperor, who paid dearly for these Swiss mercenaries, were obviously drawn to Italy by its wealth, which could be extracted as plunder, taxation, and annual tributes. According to one recent historian, though, it would be wrong to assume that Italy alone financed the campaigns of the French: ‘At best the Italian possessions assured an equilibrium between income and expenditure.’ The failure of sufficient funds to arrive from France naturally increased the demands made on civilians in Italy.[5] In addition, it seems as if the prices of goods on the road could rise and consequently depreciate the real value of pay.[6] All of these difficulties of feeding and accommodating the large armies passing through Italy fuelled ‘negotiations’ between soldiers and civilians, stoked rising tensions and encouraged local resistance to soldiers in Italian cities.

The sense of tension was palpable in 1494 when the commander Galeazzo Sanseverino reported to the duke of Milan a conversation with French archers and gentlemen outside the king’s lodging in Florence about the fact that the Florentines were still in arms and the French ‘avid for plunder’ (‘cupidi de preda’). He wrote that the danger that a ‘very great scandal with much loss of blood’ would occur as a result of this tense situation led him to advise the king to keep the troops in the city in good order.[7] As he wrote a few days later the situation was not helped by the great want of victuals in the city as the French lived at the expense of the country, did not pay the price of the things taken, despite orders for them to do so (as in Lombardy), and were also stealing.[8]

As Dr Christine Shaw has rightly pointed out, these tensions could erupt into civilian violence against troops. In 1500 the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole I d’Este, instructed his ambassador at the French court to congratulate King Louis XII on his acquisition of Milan, to confirm his support for him, and to advise the king to furnish his troops, which were coming through Ferrarese territory, with abundant supplies and comfortable billets given that some soldiers had ‘used a thousand cruelties, meanness, and rapine, and sacked Bondena [to the north-east of Ferrara], and killed many men, and some good and honourable citizens, for which injuries they were deservedly cut to pieces by our subjects.’[9]

The presence of large imperial armies throughout the Venetian mainland empire after 1508 placed huge burdens on the civilian populations in town and countryside. In December 1509 the Paduan nobleman and soldier Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini described how troops of all nations crowded into Verona for their winter quarters enjoying reasonable food and putting the whole of the Veronese to plunder (’in preda’). The Germans were unpaid and sacked the piazza in Verona three times a day. They were so hungry that they were only interested in goods they could eat.[10] Imperial troops, who left Vicenza by an accord with the Venetians the previous month, had clearly behaved little better while in occupation for they found that while they were exercising at arms on the piazza their recent payment of cloth was covered with excrement, urine, and hot water, and thrown into the street out of the windows of their (now locked) lodgings by the Vicentines.[11]

During the same period peasants in the Venetian countryside took up arms against imperial troops with impressive and deadly effect.[12] Buzzacarini, who fought with the imperial and Spanish armies during the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-17), left a vivid and illuminating account of these encounters (now published). He described the ‘terrible’ sight of peasants coming from the mountains in great numbers with arrows, crossbows, and handguns and crying ‘[St] Mark! [St] Mark!’ as a signal of their support for Venice. These peasants followed the imperial camp with net bags hanging from their belts and were for the most part unshod. When imperial forces burned Vigodarzere in August 1509 and killed or captured those few inhabitants who had not fled for Padua to the south they found that the peasants had fortified it with barrels and tubs filled with earth, behind which they waited with handguns and crossbows. Around the same time six thousand peasants commanded by Gianconte Brandolini, a condottiero in the service of Venice, took Seravalle from the Spanish and Germans and inflicted a massacre on both defending troops and inhabitants who had killed some of their fellow peasants.

Buzzacarini also records the process of ‘negotiation’ with the peasants. He and his brother were asked by the emperor to persuade the peasants at Bovolenta to change sides; they were threatened with hanging by the peasants when they tried to do so. The process of negotiation continued as the brothers told the emperor of their failure and then returned to threaten the peasants with the sacking of their homes, taking their beasts, shaming their wives and daughters, and those not killed taken prisoner ‘bound up like dogs’ (‘e menadi ligati come canni’). When the peasants remained obstinate the stakes were raised once again and two falconets (light cannon) were brought in to give cover while the army crossed the river and the proceeded to steal beasts up to the value of 250,000 scudi before setting camp from which troops emerged to grab ‘a world of beasts’ (‘un mondo de bestiame’) every day. As Buzzacarini noted, from this devastation arose the obstinacy of the peasants, who had lost both goods and honour.[13]




Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520. Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII

Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940

Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Francia, busta 2


Amaseo, Leonardo, Gregorio Amaseo, and Giovanni Antonio Azio. Diarii Udinesi dall’anno 1508 al 1541. Ed. Antonio Ceruti. Venice: Fratelli Visentini, 1884

Dumont, Jean. Corps universel diplomatique du droit des gens; contenant un recueil des traitez d’alliance, de paix, de toutes les conventions, et autre contrats, qui ont été faits en Europe depuis le regne de l’empereur Charlemagne jusques à present. 8 vols. The Hague: P. Husson and Charles Levier, 1726-31

Guyon, Fery de. Mémoires. Ed. A.L.-P. Robaulx de Soumoy. Brussels: Société de l’Histoire de Belgique, 1858

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Arte della Guerra, scritti politici minori, ed. Jean-Jacques Marchand, Denis Fachard, and Giorgio Masi. Rome: Salerno, 2001

The Art of War, ed. and trans. Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003


Asch, Ronald G. “‘Wo der soldat hinkömbt, da ist alles sein’: Military Violence and Atrocities in the Thirty Years War Re-examined”. German History 18.3 (2000): 291-309

Esch, Arnold. I mercenari svizzeri in Italia: L’esperienza delle guerre milanesi (1510-1515) tratta da fonti bernesi. Verbania: Alberti, 1999

Hamon, Philippe. ‘L’Italie finance-t-elle les guerres d’Italie?’. In Jean Balsamo (ed), Passer les Monts: Français en Italie – l’Italie en France (1494-1525). Xe colloque de la Société française d’étude du Seizième Siècle, 25-37. Paris and Florence: Honoré Champion Editeur and Edizioni Cadmo, 1998

Outram, Quentin. ‘The Demographic Impact of Early Modern Warfare’ Social Science History 26.2 (2002): 245-72

Shaw, Christine. ‘Popular Resistance to Military Occupation during the Italian Wars.’ In Samuel Kline Cohn Jr and Fabrizio Ricciardelli (eds.), The Culture of Violence in Renaissance Italy: proceedings of the International Conference; Georgetown University at Villa Le Balze, 3-4 May, 2010, 257-72. Florence: Le Lettere, 2012

Tallett, Frank. War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715. London: Routledge, 1992

Ulbricht, Otto. ‘The Experience of Violence During the Thirty Years War: A Look at the Victims.’ In Joseph Canning, Hartmut Lehmann, and Jay Winter (eds), Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern and Modern Times, 97-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004

[1] Outram, ‘Demographic Impact’; Asch, “‘Wo der soldat”’. On the impact of war on civilians see Tallett, War, 148-67.

[2] Ulbricht, ‘Experience’, 103, 110 (quotation), 124-5.

[3] For example, see the condotta drawn up for Francesco Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, by Florence in June 1505 in Dumont, Corps, 4.1: 64.

[4] ‘Mai prima i confederati avevano visto accampamenti sì splendidi e ricchi come quelli, che abbiamo avuto finora in città e campagna. Tutto ciò che l’uomo desidera, lo si trova a sufficienza. Per tale motivo i soldati sono pieni di soldi e di cose meravigliose, appartenute ai francesi e raccolte dappertutto … Siamo così felici e stiamo così bene per cui il Signore Iddio sia ringraziato per l’eternità.’ Translated into modern Italian and quoted in Esch, Mercenari, 5. On the mercenaries’ range of social backgrounds, ages and motives for joining up see ibid., 20-28, 85-6.

[5] ‘Au mieux les possessions italiennes ont dû assurer l’équilibre entre recettes et dépenses.’ Hamon, ‘Italie’, 32 (quotation), 35.

[6] Esch, Mercenari, 76, quoting a letter of 1512 written by a Bernese soldier at the siege of Locarno.

[7] Galeazzo Sanseverino to duke of Milan, Florence, 21 November 1494, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940.

[8] Galeazzo Sanseverino to duke of Milan, Florence, 27 November 1494, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940.

[9] ‘Et benche quelli fanti usasseno mille crudelita, deshonesta, e rapine, e sachegiasseno il Bondeno, e amazasseno molti homini, e alcuni boni e honorabili Citadini, per la quale Iniuria seriano <meritamente> stati tuti tagliati in pezi da li subditi nostri.’ Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Francia, busta 2, fasc. 32, letter dated 2 March 1500. The word in angle brackets is in the margin of the manuscript. In general, see Shaw, ‘Popular Resistance’.

[10] Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII, 244-5.

[11] Ibid., 239.

[12] In 1509 the peasants (‘vilani’) of the Mestre and Trevisano provoked murderous and cruel reprisals against even babies in their cradles because they had off the balls of some German soldiers: Amaseo, Amaseo, and Azio, Diarii, 120. On peasants slaughtering French troops on retreat from the siege of Naples in 1528 see Guyon, Mémoires, 44. In his Art of War (1521) Machiavelli has his interlocutor Fabrizio Colonna recommend that troops should be selected primarily from hardy countrypeople used to working the land: Machiavelli, Art, 22, 26 (1.141, 196).

[13] Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII, 215, 218-19, 224, 229-30, 231-3, 270-71.