Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Free Company, a history of terrible freedom - the Catalan Grand Company

In 1305 the Catalan Company, a free association of Western European adventurers and their families, who were hired to fight the Turks on behalf of the Byzantine Empire, found themselves in a terrible employment dispute. The Byzantines had decided that these mercenaries were more trouble than they were worth, and launched a surprise attack, massacring most of them, including the commander. At this critical moment, the advantages and defects of a completely free and voluntary society exposed themselves. Every soldier had a voice in the decision making and nobody could be compelled to accept a decision with which they disagreed. In the absence of an accepted top commander, leaders of smaller groups insisted on their own solutions. Sounds a bit like this site, huh?

The Company now met in a raucous general assembly to decide whether they would attempt to escape by sea to the West, disperse the Company into smaller pirate bands, or try to fight their way from the Byzantine siege and wage war against the treacherous Greeks.

A medieval Free Company was a prototype corporation. Historiography has not progressed sufficiently for us to know whether the modern US Supreme Court would grant them free speech rights. Probably not, given the amount of time they had spent under Papal anathema (there are an unsurprising number of parallels between the medieval Papacy and the Supreme Court). While modern corporations are typically "general purpose" entities, free companies were formed for the pursuit of commercial warfare. They were composed of members who were allotted shares, which entitled them to both participate in the Company’s governance and receive a division of the revenue, which the Company proposed to generate through mercenary service and the spoils of war.

The Free Companies were extremely efficient at monetizing every aspect of human existence and then selling it back to its terrified owner. Failure to buy back your own life resulted in its swift loss, or even worse, in slow and excruciating torture of yourself and your loved ones, torture so severe that even the medieval connoisseurs of torture recoiled in revulsion. Since their numbers were infinitesimally small in comparison with the population they held hostage, they resorted to calculated acts of terror to induce the civilians to part with their wealth for fear of losing their lives. A mystique of ruthless invincibility and inhuman power and brutality was carefully cultivated in order to reduce the capacity of the numerically superior enemies to resist.

The commander of a Free Company received a third of all spoils, and exerted a commensurate share of authority, based on his battlefield performance and business acumen, but, much like a modern CEO, he was not an autocrat. An officers’ council advised his actions and debated strategy with him, and once that strategy was agreed upon, the officers as were the ones who put it into execution. Achieving some sort of consensus was critical, since the sort of men who made up a Free Company were notoriously resistant to coercion. The officers were usually captains of smaller subgroups within the Company, which had joined in order to accomplish a task for which a larger formation was required. If enough companies came together they created a Great or Grand Company capable of terrorizing an entire province and keeping at bay any defense force. These constituent companies remained able at almost all times to break away if they no longer felt the amalgamation to be in their interest, or if they disagreed with the orders of the top commander. 

The charter of the Catalan Grand Company in addition provided that a consensus vote of the officers’ council would be sufficient to veto any major decision of the general, but not sufficient to set the policy on its own. With the murder of the unfortunate Caesar Roger de Flor (whom the perfidious Greeks had crowned in order to lull his suspicions as they plotted his death), the Grand Company was without a supreme commander, which power vacuum naturally enhanced the status of the remaining senior officers.

Common members of the Company also had the right to participate in the decision making process, each in his own proportion reflecting his value to the company and the esteem in which he was held. Their main influence came not through voting – general assembly votes were rare and typically took place as referenda on major issues which had already been debated by the captains and officers. Whatever their status, every member naturally considered the problems facing their company, and had their own ideas about the solutions. If their companions did not agree with them, every member of the Company remained free to leave, and this was the most usual and the most potent way for the companions to express their preferences. Regardless of his personal power, wealth and the strength of his bodyguard, no captain or general could afford to take an unpopular decision which would be followed by the detachment of the majority of his fighting men. The necessity to keep the men motivated and fighting was the ultimate check on authoritarianism and self dealing, which were otherwise the natural tendencies of these extreme individualists.

The need to remain popular with their men also dictated that the officers, whose rank depended on the number of men willing to serve under them, acted to protect their troops from the judgment of the overall commander, which protection included shielding them from any punishment which the commander might feel they deserved. the concept of crime had little meaning to a collective formed for the explicit purpose of perpetrating extensive acts of violence, but if the violence was misdirected against the employer's own population, as often occurred, the overall commander would feel the pressure from the client to rein in his men, and there would then ensue a standoff between the general who found it necessary to enforce some sort of punishment, and the captain whose duty was to his men. 

During the Catalan Company’s earlier campaigns against the Turks, at the height of Roger de Flor’s success as general, a small company led by the Aragonese nobleman Ferdinand Eiximenis detached itself because Ferdinand did not approve of the sentence Roger passed on one of Ferdinand’s men for some crime against Greek civilians. It was typical that one’s one interest and those of one’s immediate companions and battlefield comrades outweighed those of justice or morality. Ferdinand took his company into the service of the Frankish Duke of Athens, but continued to follow the fortunes of the Company with avid interest. Now that Roger de Flor was dead, Ferdinand returned with his company to aid their comrades in their moment of need, bringing much needed ships and supplies and adding his voice to the raging debate.

There remained in the Company about two thousand fighting men. In addition, the Company had to concern itself with many thousands of women and children, related in some ways to living and dead soldiers and living off the Company’s revenues. Though in times of stress they could prove difficult liabilities, they performed vital functions for the collective. The women performed all the roles that were necessary to maintain life, cooking, cleaning, obtaining supplies, and raising children. Children were providing a continuous source of reinforcements to the Company, and it is usual to read references to the exploits of veterans undertaken with their young sons, who thus learned the trade and considered if they were suited for the life of a solider. Also present were people who were not members of the Company but had direct relationships with it –craftsmen, merchants, pimps, prostitutes, etc. 

The one thing all of those present considered beneath them was productive labor, such as farming, tending herd or otherwise producing the necessities of life for the entire population. All of their necessities were acquired through a mixture of purchase, extortion and capture that left the preexisting local population brutalized and destitute. Naturally this created a great deal of hatred in the local population, who could not tell the difference between the depredations committed by the barbarians fighting against them and the barbarians fighting to protect them. This resentment had found its expression once the Byzantine government authorized the people to exterminate the Catalans in their midst. Thousands perished in the most painful ways imaginable, torn apart by screaming mobs.
Source: Emerson Kent

Those who survived were now besieged on the Gallipoli peninsula. Here is a map, which also has the boundaries and the routes of the Catalan Company’s campaigns, though both need to be considered with a grain of salt, being in reality much less clear cut than pictured. Their route of escape was still open, and the entire Aegean was open before them for piracy. It was policed half heartedly by the Genoese and the Venetians, but there were many opportunities for profitable assault. This was the alternative favored by the nobleman Berenguer de Entenza, who was the highest ranking nobleman present, a former Mega Dux, and commanded the largest personal company. With his ships, he intended to begin raiding the coasts nearest to the peninsula. The majority of the Company favored engaging the enemy and breaking the siege. 

Though greatly outnumbered, the Catalans had no respect for the fighting qualities of the Byzantines, and like almost all fighters throughout the ages, believed that numbers were secondary to skill and the will to win. 

This disagreement showed both the strength and weakness of an entirely voluntary association, a free company where everybody is entitled to go their own way. Although the majority of the commanders and the men believed that it was imperative that they attack their besieging host as soon as possible, before famine set in among the besieged, and while everybody agreed that to divide their already small forces and risk their few precious remaining ships would be madness, Berenguer de Entenza and his retinue took their ships and departed for a series of raids against Byzantine coastal towns. Attempts to dissuade him proved fruitless and there was no other means to make him stay, even though his departure made their already weak position that much more untenable. The unilateral departure, although permitted, was accompanied with much arrogant language about the relative status of himself, a grandee of the Kingdom of Aragon, and the rest of the Company, who were little more than common brigands unfit to hold such a great lord's stirrup. This of course created a large well of resentment in those who remained, which would come back to haunt Berenguer. 

The division still could have been healed if Berenguer’s raid had been successful and he returned to the Company with additional ships and a plentitude of supplies. But unfortunately, Berenguer’s small fleet was attacked by a Genoese squadron. The Genoese were determined to rid their client state of Byzantium of this horde of locusts, and more importantly, to secure their trade routes from pirate raids such as Berenguer’s, which the Catalans would inevitably continue to launch if they remained in the region. Berenguer de Entenza, whose military ability never did match his lofty opinion of himself, was taken prisoner. Because of his high status, his captivity was a comfortable one, he was taken to Genoa and entertained as a guest. Eventually the King of Aragon, who owed Berenguer a duty of protection under the feudal code, was able to secure his release and he was able to head back to the Company. But this was only years later, and in the meantime, there would be many developments in the fortunes of the Companions. 

When Berenguer’s forces had departed, the Company, in order to buy itself some time until his hopefully swift return, had dispatched ambassadors to Emperor Andronicus to protest the violations of their contract and the murder of their companions. They offered to submit to a trial by combat to prove their innocence in the eyes of God. The Greeks politely declined, and, although they had been allowed to leave the palace with a guarantee of safe conduct, the embassy was literally butchered on the way back. On top of this news came word of Berenguer’s capture. The remaining members of the Company realized that they could expect no further help, and that their position would continue to deteriorate with every day. Already they only had several hundred horses able to take part in a battle. Hunger had taken its toll on all of them. 

Their setbacks, the betrayals and the crimes perpetuated against them, had created in them a burning venomous anger that left them only one option – a desperate assault on the main Byzantine Army, to fight to the death knowing that no mercy would be shown and no prisoners taken by either side. At this point the men were all of one mind, they all burned with the same intense desire for revenge, and the fear of what lay in store for them if they failed to somehow prevail only served as greater motivation. One can only imagine the mood of the women and children, many already bereaved, as they saw their gaunt and ill equipped men marching or riding skeletal horses outside the fortifications, to take up their battle formation, a few small groups of men dwarfed by the gigantic host which was encamped before them. The Byzantines, delighted that their enemy had decided to meet them in the open field, hurried to prepare their forces.

First Published at Daily Kos, on MAR 03, 2010 

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