Medieval underdogs that beat the odds
This entry was posted on August 15, 2018.
Readers of Medieval Warfare magazine might have noticed a common theme running through a few of our recent issues. We have focused on individuals who were able to use their military skills to achieve fame and fortune. These men - Rodrigo Diaz, John Hawkwood and Sverrir Sigurðarson - were also what you would call underdogs.
Medieval society was not known for its upward mobility. The vast majority of people worked on farms, had meagre wealth, and could never even dream of holding political power. The royalty and nobility were keen on keeping a system intact that kept them rich and strong, and when peasants tried to the challenge this status quo, the results were often devastating for them.
There were few options for advancement. If you were intelligent, a career in the church was a possibility. Those that could live in cities might be able to get rich practicing a trade, but the odds were also high of failing and becoming a pauper.
If we look at the rise of the three men covered in these recent issues, then one might suppose that a military life was the best path for promotion. However, these men achieved wealth and power by more than just their skill with the blade.
Rodrigo Diaz may be better known as the legendary El Cid, the great Christian warrior fighting against the Moors, but in reality he was a mercenary, willing to fight for Christian or Muslims. When he saw an opportunity to become a ruler of a state, he took it, and was merciless in doing so.
John Hawkwood was also a sword-for-hire. Even though he was an Englishman fighting in Italy, Hawkwood exploited a situation where rich cities were willing to pay for mercenaries, or at least for protection. He could win battles, but he was even better at plundering and attacking the weak, and was not above committing atrocities on behalf of his employers.
Sverrir was the man who started with the least, and gained the most. He was a priest, living in a remote corner of the North Atlantic, but then found out that he was the son of a Norwegian king. It is a rather dubious story, but he choose to believe it, and Sverrir decided to claim as his birthright the Kingdom of Norway. He did it by using an army of criminals, by terrorizing the corners of the country that were not protected, and by overthrowing a monarch that was actually well liked by the people.
All three of these men had supreme ambition, and were willing to achieve their goals by any means necessary. They were never the ideals of chivalry that some people believe medieval knights should have been. They did have skill, and were shrewd leaders. But they were also cruel and despicable when they wanted to be.
Perhaps they had to be. As underdogs they all knew that wealth or power would not be given to them. They all had to fight to get it.