Saunders (The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, 2000) has found a fascinating tale, as rich and complex as a tapestry.
Italy’s internecine political, religious and military conflicts left an opening for mercenaries to intrude during the Hundred Years’ War. Most notable was Englishman John Hawkwood (ca. 1320-94), a soldier who moved to Italy from Essex at a time when many flourishing independent cities competed with one another for trade and power—and who somehow endeared himself to the Italians even as he enriched himself at their considerable expense. Among them, Hawkwood discovered his numerous gifts: he was a merciless warrior, an adamantine negotiator, a creative liar and a master of extortion. He and his forces traveled up and down the boot, laying waste to crops, homes and people, forcing the local powers to pony up or suffer desolation. He aligned himself with all sides, fighting with the pope and against him, with cities and then against them. He had a remarkable run, and when he died, in his 70s (unthinkably old for the time, unimaginably so for his profession), he received an elaborate Florentine funeral and an honored burial, while Richard II, back in England, wanted Hawkwood’s body returned to his native soil. British author Saunders does a remarkable job of keeping straight the myriad strands of this historical cat’s cradle. She pauses for discussions of medieval cultural and religious practices (including a discussion of the foreskin of Jesus, much valued at the time) and for disquisitions on warfare and political marriage. She also follows some of the century’s great literary figures (Chaucer, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch), noting when their arcs intersected; tells the amazing story of Catherine of Sienna; describes the horrors of medieval warfare, and wonders about the “convergence of piety and violence” that characterized the age—and threatens our own.
Commanding, skillful, effervescent.