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I have been reading Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence. Although the book is well documented, it has an astonishing passage for which the author provides no source. The context is a war between Florence and Milan. At that time, Milan was ruled by the Duke Filippo Maria Visconti; he is the person mentioned in the first sentence of what follows.

The following year, as plague raged through Tuscany, his forces defeated the Florentines at Zagonara, in Romagna. There were only three casualties, all Florentine soldiers who fell from their horses and drowned on the battlefield in their heavy plate armour (it had rained heavily in Zagonara the night before). This lack of bloodshed shows that warfare in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, contrary to popular misconceptions, could be reasonably civilized. Most battles resembled chess matches in which opposing commanders sought to outmanoeuvre each other, the loser being the one who conceded that his position was technically vulnerable. These engagements were fought by mercenaries who setted the terms of warfare, rather like sportsmen deciding the rules of a game.

Is this description accurate? If it is, where can I learn more about this way of waging wars?

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    I remember reading how the Italian states were taken aback by the bloodiness of Francis I's campaign, because they had been accustomed to the ritual warfare of the mercenaries – Rohit Oct 30 at 6:24
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    Given that infantry weapons like the Halberd were designed in part for pulling mounted soldiers down from their horses, I wonder what the description "fell from their horses and drowned" really means. I find it a little unlikely (and it seems somewhat ridiculous) that all three just lost their balance and fell off. – JimmyJames Oct 30 at 14:36
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    There's a sort of collective misconception about battles borne from movies and computer games, that soldiers are infinitely hostile to their enemies and armies will always fight to the complete destruction of one side. An army is essentially a giant confidence game. Each soldier must believe they are better off from risking their life in battle then they are from deserting. Once enough soldiers see there is no longer any chance of victory (and hence survival) and they're not of the 'die in service' disposition, the army essentially evaporates. – Ingolifs Oct 31 at 2:57
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    JimmyJames Given 4000 cavalry, rough and muddy terrain, and the general chaos of battle, is it really so surprising that 3 fell off their horses and drowned? I think it's likely that many also fell off their horses and drowned in other battles as well, but they just don't stand out given all the other casualties. Not saying you're wrong, just that the idea that they drowned is plausible. – Ryan_L Nov 1 at 0:18
  • 3 fell and drowned. There were probably many who fell and survived. – Kapten-N Nov 4 at 15:42
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The claim comes from Machiavelli, and, for example, this site criticizes it. In this case, Machiavelli was arguing in favor of training militias instead of using mercenary forces. A similar case is Battle of Anghiari, where it is claimed that only one man died. This Wikipedia article offers some explanations:

  1. The casualties were indeed light, as condottieri (mercenary knights, captains of mercenary companies) were paid as long as the war lasted, so they were not keen to fight to the death (or destruction of their company) or to decisively defeat the enemy. Also they considered opposing mercenaries as comrades and did not aim to kill a lot of them. Also, a captured knight could be ransomed, so capturing was more profitable than killing them. See Wikipedia article on Condottieri for their military style. Also this forum has some interesting discussion on the warfare of that period.
  2. Machiavelli and other historians counted only mounted knights as casualties, foot soldiers were not counted. It was common for medieval historians. For example, at Battle of Crécy French knights (or men-at-arms for that matter) casualties were counted in the battlefield and reported in many chronicles (with discrepancies of course), while there are only rough estimates for common foot soldiers.

As for why was there more attention to knights / men-at-arms / condottieri casualties then to infantry, there may be several factors:

  1. Class distinctions. Those who owned a properly trained horse and full armor were likely rich and noble-born, and foot soldiers were little more than armed peasants. For example, Livonian Order chronicle recounts losses in Battle on the Ice as “Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured”, explicitly counting only full members of the order.
  2. Cavalry was considered decisive power on the battlefield throughout the Middle Ages, its numbers and losses were the most important information on the battle, especially considering how long it took to train both man and horse.
  3. Each knight was a leader of his personal troop called Lances fournies of infantry, archers, mounted squires, etc, bound to him with feudal obligations. Mounted member of this troop were supposed to follow the knight to battle and protect him; if the knight ended up dead it was likely most of them were cut down too. Also, the survivors held no direct obligations to the lord who called up the knight to battle, he would have to deal with deceased knight’s heirs now. See Wikipedia article on medieval recruiting. As for Condottieri, they were leaders of mercenary companies, it was they who brokered the deals with employers and distributed the payment to the soldiers, with their death the whole deal was off. I didn’t find what usually happened in this case, but logically soldiers could choose a new leader who then might change the allegiance, or just disband and join other companies.
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    Machiavelli, as secretary of the Florentine Republic, was a political official accustomed to distorting the truth, especially the military, according to the use his superiors wanted to make of it. For completeness, you can read a lot about the Battle of Zagonara in this paper by Professor Leardo Mascanzoni (in Italian) rm.univr.it/biblioteca/scaffale/Download/Autori_M/… – Viralk Oct 29 at 18:26
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    @Neith do you have some source with more info on that second point about Machiavelli and other historians counting only mounted knights as casualties? I'm interested in reading more into that. – FateNuller Oct 30 at 13:46
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    @FateNuller Added some more info to the answer. – Neith Oct 30 at 16:05
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    re "Each knight was a leader of his personal troop of infantry, archers, etc, bound to him with feudal obligations. If the knight ended up dead it was likely most of his soldiers were cut down too." While the first half is true and I'm glad to see another contributor point it out strongly, organizationally it is unlikely that medieval battles were fought this way. Knights and senior (ie mounted) men at arms likely fought as part of cavalry units while their lead sergeants commanded the retinue as part of infantry units. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 30 at 16:17
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    @PieterGeerkens Rightly noted. I’ve clarified the answer, only mounted squires rode with the knight. – Neith Oct 30 at 17:03

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