The Devil’s Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy

by Frances Stonor Saunders, Fourth Estate, New York, 2005, $25.95.

One of the paintings reproduced in Frances Stonor Saunders’ masterful The Devil’s Broker is Giotto di Bondone’s The Massacre of the Innocents (1304-06), which shows male children being pulled from their mothers’ arms and killed by the shafts and blows of ruthless men who stand atop a heap of naked bodies and body parts. This rendering of a biblical event is, sadly, an appropriate aid for understanding events that followed its creation. In the 14th century, chivalry and long-standing rules of war fell apart as the forces of King Edward III of England, King Philip VI of France, Pope Urban V and others slaughtered each other on an unprecedented scale, while the Black Death left entire cities barren of life. For some, God may have seemed hard to find in lands ravaged by the Hundred Years’ War.

Yet Saunders, an erudite and sophisticated historian, does not accept the simplistic representation of the 14th century peddled by many of her colleagues. Such relentless grimness, she writes, ignores the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer, “whose exuberant, three-dimensional characters are a lively reproach to the twilight merchants.” Saunders’ literary tapestry brings the century, in all its wonder and horror, to life, not least through her narrative on the exploits of mercenary John Hawkwood.

A warrior who marshaled irregular forces on behalf of Edward III, and who lived well into his 80s—amazing for his time—Hawkwood launched many of his most brilliant campaigns in Italy, where the papacy’s ties to France had irked Hawkwood’s English sponsor. Hawkwood was clearly brilliant at conventional methods of warfare, but Saunders furnishes his wanton atrocities as well as heroism in the pages of this evenhanded account.

The color inserts showing 14th-century paintings and statues are a priceless aid. One of the most gruesome photos shows an excavation in the 1920s revealing a seemingly infinite vista of skeletons of those who fell at the Battle of Visby in 1361, and whose bodies made the soil fertile for years to come.

 

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here