Swiss and German Infantry el5001525

The origins of the slashed clothing so popular among Swiss and German (Landsknecht) mercenaries at the beginning of the 16th century are obscure. The usual folktale is that Swiss soldiers slashed tight-fitting clothing captured during their victories over the Burgundians in 1476, so that they could wear it with less strain. This is clearly implausible. Clothing had been looted for generations; most 15th century hose and many doublets were tight-fitting, hut went unslashed. There is no evidence that Swiss and Germans were physically any bigger than those they killed and looted (and in fact, they often killed and looted each other). Far from all being the massively-built 'mountaineers' of romantic legend which some modern historians love to perpetuate, many 'Swiss' troops of the day were craftsmen, townsfolk and valley villagers. The many surviving illustrations clearly show properly constructed 'purpose-made' slashed garments; there is no sign that they are civilian clothes cut about by the wearer.

(A, B & C) These show the development of the panoply of ostrich plumes attached to caps and turbans by the Swiss -particularly officers and banner-bearers - across the turn of the 15th/16th centuries. Although worn by some Landsknechts they do seem to have been characteristically Swiss adornments.

We should remember, however, that there was no clear national or geographic separation between the communities of what are now northern Switzerland and southern Germany, resulting in a certain flexibility of loyalties and fashions, and most troops of the Swiss Confederation thought of themselves as 'Germans'. The Imperial troops parading in the woodcut series Maximilian's Triumph (cl515) include three named Swiss - Peter von Winterthur. Fleck and Hein Oterle. Indeed, mercenaries of many nationalities served in these bands; the 'Triumph' also names

'Richard Vantos. Englishman' and 'Juan Talsat. Spaniard' as 'meritorious soldiers'. (D) A striking feature of late 15th/ early 16th century costume was the development of the 'codpiece' (nicknamed pont-levis or 'drawbridge' in French), from a simple, practical flap in the groin of the hose to a heavily padded and later slashed and beribboned advertisement for the wearer's claimed masculinity. It inspired many a bawdy tale. One reads of a gentleman who kept his purse, handkerchief, and even oranges in his codpiece; and of Hans von Schweinichen, who sewed 50 gold pieces into his, but sadly had them stolen while in Cologne ... (E, F & G) During the first decade of the 16th century hose were divided into two parts: 'upper stocks', i.e. breeches, and stockings. These were often sewn together again as one garment -see G; or they could be fastened with points and worn with one or both stockings turned down - see F. (H) Points - woven or leather ribbons tipped with a metal tag -were laced through two matching pairs of holes and tied with a single bow, in the same manner that hose were fastened to the doublet. The bows might be left on display or carefully tucked out of sight.

(I) Reconstruction of a typical Swiss costume of c 1520. The low-necked jacket had to be securely fastened across the chest - in this case by hooks-and-eyes and points - to take the strain of the heavy padded sleeves and tight waist. Experience with physical reconstructions shows that if the jacket is unfastened the weight of the sleeves tends to drag it back off the shoulders - a feature clearly seen in contemporary illustrations. (J) Back view of another example, this one high-necked. The doublet and high-waisted hose were often worn unfastened from one another, the points hanging free and the shirt blousing out between them. The voluminous slashing and padding would have given some protection against cutting blows in battle.

(K) Composite drawing of various details taken from prints and drawings of soldiers on campaign. It was fashionable to wear one leg, or part of it, naked - which was of course cooler in the hot Swiss and Italian summers. Mercenaries seem often to have been ragged, stripped of plumes, bare-legged and wearing broken shoes or sandals - but always ready to cover themselves in finery come payday and a parade. (L & M) Leather 'overalls' were more popular among Landsknechts than Swiss, but were worn by both. They seem to have been made from fairly flexible leather, though occasionally very thick, and would have made a light and pretty effective protection. (N) The chain armour 'splints' worn in the late 15th century seem to have been still in use in the early 16th. in this case worn with breastplate and fauld.

Landsknecht Leather Clothing

(Left) This grim Swiss captain wears fashionable slashed clothes, but the feathers are gone. He wears a simple skullcap helmet, and is wrapped in his cloak against a chill summer rain. He is on his way down to Italy and must cross the high pass; pray God for good weather and a quick campaign ... (Photo Anne Embleton)

Swiss Infantry MedievalLandsknecht Harness

Landsknecht banner-bearer and his woman, c 1515. (Photo John Howe)

(Opposite) Plate 11: Reislaufer and Landsknecht, C1515-1525

Landsknecht banner-bearer and his woman, c 1515. (Photo John Howe)

Early 16th Century Armour

Although the soldier's more gaudily noticeable dress may draw our eye away from armour, at least partial harness was still in widespread use by footsoldiers and horsemen alike. The extent to which the increased use of firearms negated its value should not be over-emphasised. Although the greater weight and expense of bullet-proof armour probably limited its use mostly to cavalry, and although matchlock balls could certainly punch through most 'ammunition' breastplates, the major threat to the footsoldier would still come from blade weapons for several generations to come. We may suppose that at least half the infantry of this period carried pikes and other blade weapons, and fought most often against men similarly armed; these massed clashes of great human 'hedgehogs' tipped with steel demanded at least upper body armour.

The armour of the wealthy continued the medieval tradition of decoration and display. Many great princes and their courtiers and guards wore richly decorated armours. Engraving (the cutting of fine lines into the surface) and etching (the cutting of designs into the metal with acid) reached a high point in the 16th century. When the lines were filled with blacking, and the polished plates gilded or silvered, a magnificent effect was produced. Armour embossed with high-relief decoration also appeared at the end of the 15th century, reaching dizzy heights of fantasy in the 'parade' armours of the 16th.

Neatly tailored slashings to ease the movement of shoulder and elbow appear in Italian costume, and then in Swiss and German, during the latter part of the 15th century; among civilians and mercenaries towards 1500; and bursting into a great flourish in 1500-1520. It is interesting that the 1513 Lucerne Chronicle shows many Swiss soldiers but few slashed garments, while the works of Swiss artists Urs Graf and Niklaus Manuel (who both served as soldiers in the Italian wars) show a lot. Maximilian's Triumph - a series of woodcuts of c 1515 depicting a great triumphal military parade - shows much slashing. By 1520-1530 the style had spread to the courts of Europe, although with many national and regional differences.

Although all of the wide variety of styles were shared by Swiss and Germans, there seem to have been certain details, or combinations of details, which each side associated mostly with the other. Individually it may have been difficult to tell friend from foe, but en masse a collective 'look' made them recognisable. Here is a glimpse of how Swiss artists caricatured themselves, the Reislaufer, their allies the French; and their enemies, the Landsknechts.

(A) Caricature of a typical Landsknecht by the Swiss soldier/artist Urs Graf.

(B, C & I)) A wonderful view of foe, friend and employer seen through the experienced eye of Urs Graf:

(B) A Landsknecht. This representation is perhaps equivalent to a modern cartoon 'American' identified by a Stetson and cowboy boots -instantly recognisable, but hardly a realistic interpretation of the average US citizen.

(C) A Swiss Reislaufer.

(D) A French recruiting officer. He is a more conservatively dressed figure; the heavily slashed 'German' style was less popular in France. Interestingly he displays on his arm a fleurde-lys badge, perhaps in yellow, which is also depicted on a Swiss in another of Graf's drawings -see (E). We do not know how widely this and other identifying badges were worn, apart from the frequently depicted white Swiss cross and the St Andrew's saltire of the Empire.

(F) Rear view of a Landsknecht showing the construction of the hat and how it was worn slung on the back. His sword is the typical short, double-edged German infantry 'Kalzhalger' or 'Cat-Mangier'. His hobnailed spare shoes are tied to his halberd, a detail drawn by Urs Graf.

(G) A typical Swiss on campaign, his purse around his neck and his gaudy clothes beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Both Urs Graf and Niklaus Manuel frequently show soldiers reduced to rags and tatters. Sandals might replace worn-out shoes during the Italian wars. The long hand-and-a-half sword is more Swiss than Landsknecht, but there is really nothing about this figure that could not equally have been worn by a German. The constant fighting, looting, and consequent interchange of clothing and weapons must have made them indistinguishable at times.

(H) This cap, with its brim slit to make two pointed 'ears', is shown by Urs Graf and may have been a transitory Swiss fashion.

(I) This wonderful print by Urs Graf compares a German Landsknecht (left) with a Swiss Reislaufer (right), exaggerating the former's flat cap, moustache, and S-shaped sword quillons.

(J) For comparison we show here the costume worn by a typical German peasant at the end of the 15th century - old fashioned, and showing none of the exaggerations of his oppressors' dress styles. Wagoners and followers accompanying the mercenary armies frequently wore clothing like this.

15th Matchlocks 16th Century Infantry

Shown here are three styles of shoes worn by the early 16th century Landsknechts and Swiss. Your reconstructed historical shoes should be robust, stand up to long marches, not let in water, and be comfortable. If not, there is something wrong with your experiment. (Photos: top and bottom, John Howe; centre, Gerry Embleton)

(Left) Practical and comfortable broad-toed ankle boots which fasten with a long strap, very like the peasant boots of the period.

(Right) Wide-toed 'Kuhmaule' -'cow's mouth' shoes. Experiments show these to be comfortable as long as they fit well around heel and instep.

Broken Mouth CowLandsknecht Shoes

(Left) The shoes most often depicted in drawings and prints are shallow, wide-toed, and cut so that the front of the shoe barely covers the toes. In spite of being tied on to the foot they are comfortable enough for a sedate walk; but to run over broken ground and to fight in them is almost impossible. Perhaps the more extravagant styles were kept for parades and 'walking out'? These shoes were made to be worn and tested by David MeCabe of 'Time Farer' - a master craftsman with a rare eye for the shape and 'feel' of historical shoes.

Reislaufer Photos Sexy

(Left) This shows how the doublet can now be left securely fastened to the hose by points and slipped off the shoulders -something of a relief when one becomes overheated by (he voluminous slashings and paddings of the doublet.

(Below left & below) Steel skullcaps or small sallets were often worn, as was body armour. For most this was usually limited to a breastplate or breast-and-back; but sometimes - like this officer in an elegant long-tailed sallet - they wore beautifully (luted and decorated German field armour. This example is perhaps a little old-fashioned for 1515, but for all but the very rich armour that still functioned and fitted was too valuable to be discarded for mere fashion. (Photos John Howe)

16th Century German Armour
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Responses

  • tito
    Where to by landsknect shoes?
    6 years ago
  • julia
    How armour in 1500 was maked and polished?
    6 years ago

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