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John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in…

John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy

by William Caferro

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313541,813 (4.08)1
John Hawkwood was fourteenth-century Italy's most notorious and successful soldier. A man known for cleverness and daring, he was the most feared mercenary in Renaissance Italy. Born in England, Hawkood began his career in France during the Hundred Years' War and crossed into Italy with the famed White Company in 1361. From that time until his death in 1394, Hawkwood fought throughout the peninsula as a captain of armies in times of war and as a commander of marauding bands during times of peace. He achieved international fame, and his acquaintances included such prominent people as Geoffrey Chaucer, Catherine of Siena, Jean Froissart, and Francis Petrarch. City-states constantly tried to outbid each other for his services, for which he received money, land, and in the case of Florence, citizenship--a most unusual honor for an Englishman. When Hawkwood died, the Florentines buried him with great ceremony in their cathedral, an honor denied their greatest poet, Dante. His final resting place, however, is disputed. Historian William Caferro's ambitious account of Hawkwood is both a biography and a study of warfare and statecraft. Caferro has mined more than twenty archives in England and Italy, creating an authoritative portrait of Hawkwood as an extraordinary military leader, if not always an admirable human being. Caferro's Hawkwood possessed a talent for dissimulation and craft both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, and, ironically, managed to gain a reputation for "honesty" while beating his Italian hosts at their own game of duplicity and manipulation. In addition to a thorough account of Hawkwood's life and career, Caferro's study offers a fundamental reassessment of the Italian military situation and of the mercenary system. Hawkwood's career is treated not in isolation but firmly within the context of Italian society, against the backdrop of unfolding crises: famine, plague, popular unrest, and religious schism. Indeed, Hawkwood's life and career offer a unique vantage point from which we can study the economic, social, and political impacts of war.… (more)



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Professor Caferro has written both a biography of a particularly prominent mercenary and a summary of mercenary activity throughout northern Italy in the last half of the 14th century. Hawkwood, an Englishman of middling status, rises to become the most sought after mercenary captain in Italy. Caferro explains how this happened, how mercenary companies and brigades worked, and how the mercenaries sometimes extorted large sums of money from the wrangling Italian city states.

At times, the book can seem like a tedious slug through one interchangeable conflict after another. But I read much of this book while vacationing in Tuscany and the knowledge of the local geography and customs made this account of almost perpetual warfare come alive. And while it’s true that sometimes the mercenaries were little better than mob enforcers paid off not to cause trouble, it’s also true that the Italian city states constantly plotted against one another and used mercenaries, often foreigners, to harass and fight each other.

The writing is lively for an academic study, although there are occasional lapses, such as referring to the wrong map or stating that Hawkwood was moving in one direction while the relevant map insists he was moving in the opposite direction. In addition, I wish the press had chosen a better or different font, as it would make the book more attractive.

In spite of these flaws, the book is well done and I recommend it to anyone seeking to learn about the struggles of 14th century Italy. ( )
  barlow304 | Oct 6, 2018 |
this is a book that lost half a star due to its terrible typeface! The font is a version of Garamond but printed at 1/3 the recommended ink thickness. I literally couldn't focus on it ...perhaps it's the growing cataracts, but still! A new printing will increase sales if they improve the readability.
The text, was informed, and the book is a great improvement over the Francis Sanders book I finished several weeks ago. There is great deal of information on Hawkwood's investment portfolio, family dynamics, the conditions of working as a mercenary, and several related subjects. Hawkwood's diplomatic skills and efforts get good coverage, as well as fourteenth century finance, and there's even a discrete avoidance of discussing the Great Schism. Maybe the E-book is more legible, but if you can hack the typeface this is the one-volume source on "Johnny the Sharp!" we will return to in the future. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jun 19, 2016 |
I read this book on the basis of my admiration for Caferro's study of medieval Siena, however, as much as I respect the work that Cafarro has put into this biography of the great English soldier, it does seem a bit contradictory in theme. On one hand, Caferro wants to debunk the romance about Hawkwood's life and to treat him like any other mercenary captain of this period in Italy. On the other, Caferro seems to conclude that Hawkwood really did transcend his time and place, and was a personality that would have been at home in high renaissance. I also get the impression that Caferro is a bit more comfortable writing about topics other than Hawkwood himself. For example, I would have liked to have learned rather sooner than halfway through the book that Hawkwood had an English price on his head for crimes committed in France; crimes that ultimately required a royal pardon to lift.

With all this in mind I suspect that the casual reader interested in Hawkwood the man might prefer to read Frances Stoner Saunder's more popular account, and leave Caferro to those with a strong background in medieval and/or military history. ( )
1 vote Shrike58 | May 11, 2012 |
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