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I am writing a fiction short story roughly based off medieval times in Europe. In it I have a group of men who live in a castle and fight for the castle's lord. (They mainly protect the surrounding villages from a group of bandits.) If they existed in modern day times I'd refer to them as soldiers. They are much like traditional knights, only they're a whole group, they've never been knighted and aren't members of nobility. What might they be called? I'm looking for a term, from sometime in the medieval time period (I don't care when), that the surrounding villagers would call them by. Are the terms vavasseur or sergeant appropriate? Is there another better term?

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    To answer this in a realistic mannor, a timeframe and locality within Europe is required (Areas inside Europe envolved differently, thus requiring a general timeframe for a given area). Otherwise this question may be deemed by others as too vague/general or (which is worse) determined as a question asked solely for the purpose of us to do your research for you. – Mark Johnson Aug 11 at 14:18
  • You might consider the origin of the word 'Freelance' – Strawberry Aug 13 at 11:06
  • @Strawberry, do you know what people would usually call the free lancers? I'm not clear if they were actually referred to as free lancers by other people or if the terms mercenary or soldier were more commonly used. Thanks. – user613 Aug 13 at 13:48
  • No - I think the term 'mercenaries' or 'militia' would be the most readily understood by a modern audience, even if these terms are perhaps not really specialized enough; and only really make sense in the context of (and in juxtaposition to) a standing army (which didn't exist much in Europe prior to the likes of Cromwell) – Strawberry Aug 13 at 14:12
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As Carlos Martin has noted, these soldiers are men at arms. They might be armed with swords, bows or crossbows, spears, or other pole-arms (eg pikes or halberds) depending on precise period and geographic origin. Generally they would be responsible for their own arms and armour, but a wealthier lord (or captain for a mercenary rather than feudal levy) might choose to upgrade that in order to field a more impressive and effective force.

Groups numbering in the range 10-20 would be commanded by a sergeant, and might be termed a peloton (the French root of our modern platoon), troupe, or escadre (French root of modern squad) without being too anachronistic. Larger groups, composed of multiple pelotons, would be termed a company and commanded by a captain assisted by a lieutenant. Within a single levy, either mercenary or feudal, there would be some consistency in peloton size, but there need not be complete consistency between companies of different origin, other than the general pattern just described. In companies of several pelotons the most senior sergeant would be the sergeant major.

If the company is of such a size to fight as two separate wings, the captain and lieutenant would command one each. If large enough to deserve three wings, then the captain would command the centre with the lieutenant and sergeant-major each commanding a wing to his left and right. There might or might not be a tactical reserve. A mercenary company might be as large as two or three hundred men in the later part of the period.

This answer about living arrangements for a castle's Constable notes that the castles built in Wales by Edward I generally were designed to support, and be adequately defended by, a garrison of slightly more than 30 men.

The History section of this answer about early modern Spanish officer and enlisted ranks details some of the etymology for the various uses of major (ie Sergeant-Major, (Battalion-)Major, and Major-General) in modern ranks - enlisted, officer, and general - as well as of modern unit organization in the early modern era.

  • Escadre design a group of ships or airplanes. Escadron would work better, I think. – baudsp Aug 12 at 16:27
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    @baudsp: I was working strictly from the etymology, which lists escadre as being older than escadron. For a late Medieval story both would probably be fine in either context. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 12 at 18:26
  • @baudsp An "escadron" at least in modern terms is way larger. Weren't you thinking rather of "escouade" ? – lmsteffan Aug 13 at 9:30
  • @lmsteffan I would have said that an escadron is around 30-50 members, so, as far as I know, it could work for this question, as we are not given any numbers. – baudsp Aug 13 at 12:59
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They are Men at arms, professional soldiers.

The lance fourni of a knight, the unit of soldiers a knight brought to battles or protected the fief, was formed by professional horse-riders, archers and/or spearmen. They were also called men at arms, so the sergeant/marischal in charge of your unit could be a knight or a common man (a yeoman if you heavily borrow from English history).

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    They could also be called mercenaries. Indeed, they usually were mercenaries however they were called in practice. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 11 at 19:58
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    @DenisdeBernardy: That is incorrect. Every knight was required to show up with a retinue of grooms and men-at-arms as part of his feudal fee when called to arms by his lord. Feudal men-at arms outnumbered mercenaries very considerably in every medieval battle I am aware of. Consider Crecy: the French army comprise over 10,000 feudal men-at-arms (termed common infantry in the link but only 2,000 to 6,000 mercenary crossbowmen. At Agincourt the English longbowmen were entirely feudal levy. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 11 at 20:24
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    @PieterGeerkens - Things became way mercenari-er by Italian Wars perdiod, though; and kinda rolled that way by the end of 100 year war, as far as I recall the trend started by Condotierri in Italy – DVK Aug 12 at 2:10
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    @DVK: By the time the "Italian Wars [period" starts we are in the Renaissance, no longer in the Medieval Times inquired about in the OP. By the time the Lombard League is formed in 1167, Italy is awash with de facto independent city states, with no feudal levies available - so of course they hire professional soldiers, and to keep them professional start renting them out to supplement the feudal levies of various Northern European sovereigns. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 12 at 4:38
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You actually have a fair amount of freedom here given the particular flavor you want to give your story. As others have said, the most common would be Men-at-arms or armsmen with a captain or a Master-at-arms (Master-at-arms was generally more in charge of training, but frequently commanded in battle as well) as the leader. If you want an English/Norse flavor, you could call them Huscarls (or Housecarls). The term "retainer" is also very generic but could work.

I would recommend picking a time-period and culture as a model and using that as a starting point. Otherwise, men-at-arms is likely the best bet.

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