The Fifteenth Century: Pikes and Guns
When the Swiss start out to war, they swear a solemn oath that every man who sees one of his comrades desert, or act the coward in battle, will cut him down on the spot, for they believe that the courage and persistency of warriors is greater when they, out of fear of death, do not fear death. They begin a battle after they have formed their phalanx according to the old methods of war, and steadfast and fearless, they are almost indifferent to life and death. They threw away the shield which they had formerly been accustomed to use, like all other nations. They learned through experience that the shield could not in any way withstand the power of the phalanx and the lance.
Balcus, quoted in John Vincent, Switzerland at the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century ( Baltimore, 1904; reprint New York, 1974), p. 16-17. Balcus was the ambassador of Milan to the Swiss Confederation from 1500 to 1504.
The fall of Constantinople is a convenient date to use as the end of the medieval era and its fixation on the superiority of cavalry, but the military key feature of the early modern period, the dominance of the infantry on the battlefield, was largely in place by 1453. By that date the Swiss infantry, using pikes as its major weapon, had already established its reputation as the preeminent army of the fifteenth century, and gunpowder weapons were on the verge of becoming the determining factor in war.
In the high mountain valleys of central Switzerland, where animal herding was more important than agriculture, feudalism and serfdom had never gained a foothold. The organization of society had changed little that of from the ancient German tribes. All free men of the clan fought together under the command of its head. Frequent clashes with neighboring clans and regions kept the men in fighting trim, as did mercenary service from 1100 on. Income as mercenaries along with the tolls on. goods and persons crossing the Alpine passes enabled the Swiss to obtain a fair amount of iron. Much of it went into their weapon of choice, the halberd, a heavy ax with a long stout handle that eventually reached eight feet in length. It