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The Company of Death at Legnano 1176, as depicted by nineteenth century Italian artist Amos Cassioli.

The Company of Death is the name used in the historical literature of English language for two related chosen tactical corps, two selected bands of warriors, entrusted to guarantee the cohesiveness and efficiency in battle of both the Milanese and Lombard League's militias through their bound by oath[1] to the defence of the Milanese Carroccio,[2] the wagon on which the standard [3] of the Lombard allies stood.

They fought in the Battle of Legnano (29 May 1176) against the imperial army of Frederick I Barbarossa Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in his 5th Italian Campaign, and were determinant in his decisive defeat.

The two corps who formed the Company of Death were the Company of the Carroccio, an infantry unit of 300 men, and the real and effective Company of Death, a cavalry unit of 900 men, commanded according to tradition by Alberto da Giussano.[4]

The Chronicles

Saputo dell' arrivo dell'imperatore, i Milanesi ordinarono di preparare le armi per poter resistere. E viene fatta una società di novecento uomini eletti che combattevano su grandi cavalli i quali giurano che nessuno sarebbe fuggito dal campo di battaglia per paura della morte e non avrebbero permesso che nessuno tradisse il comune di Milano; e inoltre giurarono che sarebbero scesi in campo a combattere contro l'imperatore ogni giorno. A quel punto la comunità scelse le armi e il vessillo e ad ognuno venne dato un anello in mano; e vennero reclutati come cavalieri al soldo del comune così che, se qualcuno fosse fuggito, sarebbe stato ucciso. Capo di questa società era Alberto da Giussano che aveva il vessillo del comune. Poi venne fatta un'altra società di fanti scelti per la custodia del carroccio, i quali tutti giurarono di preferire morire che fuggire dal campo di battaglia. E vengono fatte trecento navi a forma di triangolo e sotto ad ognuna c'erano sei cavalli coperti, così da non essere visti, che trascinavano le navi. In ogni nave vi erano dieci uomini che muovevano falci per tagliare l'erba dei prati come i marinai muovono i remi: era una costruzione terribile contro i nemici (Galvano Fiamma, Chronica Galvanica cap. 291 f. 81v).

Informed of the Emperor's coming, the Milanese (authorities) commanded to prepare the weapons to resist him. And a company ("societas") is made of nine hundred chosen men, fighting on great horses, who swear that no one would have fled from the battlefield for fear of death and they would not allow anyone to betray the Municipality of Milan, and also they swore that they would have taken every day to the battlefield to fight against the Emperor. At that point, the Municipality chose the weapons and the banner, and a ring was given in hand to each one of these men and they were recruited as knights in the pay of the City, so that if anyone had fled he would rightly have been killed. Head of this company was Alberto da Giussano, who carried the banner of the City. Then came another company made of chosen soldiers on foot, for the custody of the Carroccio, and all of them swore they would rather die than flee from the battlefield. And three hundred battle wagons ("vessels") are manufactured and for each one there were six horses covered (by armour), dragging the vehicle. In every wagon there were ten men moving sickles to cut grass meadows, to cut hostiles as sailors move the oars: it was a terrible equipment against the enemies. (Galvano Fiamma, Chronica Galvanica cap. 291 f. 81v).

The mention of the "battle wagons" is very probably an anachronism, they were employed, without any success, years before the Battle of Legnano of 1176 took place, by a Mastro Guitelmo a milanese Guild-master and magistrate in a previous battle fought in the lands between Rho and Legnano in 1160 AD.[5] It is possible that the chronicler was mixing facts as their effective use at Legnano isn't mentioned elsewhere, it may also be a rhetorical device intended by him to recreate the appearance of the traditional trinitarian model of a "Holy Venture".

The Company of the Carroccio

Monument to Alberto da Giussano in Legnano, Milan province

The Company of the Carroccio, was an infantry unit of 300 men, all of them young volunteers (forming a societas) and Milanese, sworn by oath to die in defence of the Milanese Carroccio. They fought as phalanx in a Sheltron formation around their "Sacred wagon", armed with a large shield and a lanzalonga.[6]

The Knights of Death

The Company of Death, also known in some sources till the late 19th century as the Knights of Death, is the name of a temporary military association of medieval knights (a temporary societas), not historically well documented, which according to tradition was organized and equipped by a leader known as Alberto da Giussano. It had a great importance during the Battle of Legnano (29 May 1176) where it defended the Carroccio of the Lombard League against the imperial army of Frederick I Barbarossa.

The company was assembled in haste, depriving the Lombard infantry of the valuable support of enough heavy cavalry, "horse" were recruited by Alberto da Giussano around Brescia, and in other eastern areas of Lombardy that had contributed less in infantry and trails to the League. The knights would not be understood in the medieval and romantic sense, but as mere "mounted on horseback" or also "light cavalry".[7] They were very probably particularly cruel and fierce "professional, or semi-professional, fighters", apt at wreaking havoc in the enemy ranks.

According to Milanese chronicler Galvano Fiamma it was composed of 900 men at arms but other sources and modern scholars reduce that number to 300 or, more probably, 500.

According to tradition they wore a sort of dark suit (black and gray, cut vertically) connected at the sides, to cover the armour, with probably the symbol of the skull on the traditional small pointed wooden shields.

After the battle there is no further information about the company's continued existence.

See also


  1. "Determined to fight to the last gasp, sworn to die then lose it (the Carroccio) and accept defeat".
  2. A "Sacred car(t)", symbol and sign of municipal freedom and of right who was used as rallying point and centre of command in battle.
  3. The altar, the standard and the Holy Bell (known as Martinella).
  4. Galvano Fiamma.
  5. Giovanni Codagnello (Iohannes Codagnelli aka Iohannes Caputagni), Annales Piacentini aka Annales Placentini (till 1235 AD) ed. O. Holder-Hegger in Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH), SS rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum, XXXIII, Hannoverae et Lipsiae, 1901. [1].
  6. "Long lance", a short pike or long spike of around 3-4.5 metres.
  7. A Lombard light cavalryman of the period would have been equipped with a helm, a light armour, a small wooden shield, a couple of javelins, a sword and a knife.


  • Chronicon Vincentii Canonici Pragensis in Monumenta historica Boemiae by Fr. Gelasius Dobner (1764)[need quotation to verify]
  • I. R. Dieterich, "Die Taktik in den Lombardenkriegen der Staufer", Marburg, 1892
  • Paolo Grillo, "Legnano 1176. Una battaglia per la libertà", Laterza, 2010 - ISBN 978-88-420-9243-8 [2]
  • Alberto Peruffo, Alberto da Giussano tra realtà e mito [3]
  • Federico A. Rossi Di Marignano: "Federico Barbarossa e Beatrice di Borgogna. Re e regina d'Italia", Mondadori, 2009, ISBN 978-88-04-58676-0

External links

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