- John Hawkwood, An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy
He rides ahead, encased in a full suit of armor and holding a baton of command. This is how most people visualize John Hawkwood, as depicted by Paolo Uccello in Florence's cathedral. The Florentines had good reasons to like "a commander in his day considered most prudent and most versed in military matters"—as reads the Latin eulogy on his monument, taken straight from an inscription dedicated to the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus—since Hawkwood had saved them during the 1390–92 war against Milan. In William Caferro's superb biography, Hawkwood's prudence and military abilities go hand in hand, and, like the English captain, he skillfully uses his wherewithal to maneuver on the historical battlefield, taking few prisoners in the process. The book is strewn with the corpses of Hawkwood's earlier biographers.
As befits the topic, the book is a narrative of Hawkwood's life from the womb to the tomb—and beyond—founded on an impressive array of archival and primary sources. Caferro sifts the facts from the legends of the Englishman's early life, the lack of records forcing the author to speculate about his subject's military apprenticeship in the Hundred Years' War. Since his tactics at Castagnaro (1387) mirrored those used at the battle of Poitiers, Hawkwood may indeed have fought under the Black Prince. For sure, what he learnt in France served him well in Italy, the mercenary veterans of the Hundred Years' War doing much to change the face of fourteenth-century Italian warfare. Their military legacy, including the introduction of the "lance" as a tactical/administrative unit, would last into the sixteenth century.
As befitted his trade and the vagaries of Italian politics, Hawkwood could be alternately greedy and generous, straightforward and devious, brutal and humane. Caferro pulls no punches in his description of Hawkwood's career, including his involvement in the massacre of Cesena. Likewise, he points out how Hawkwood's much vaunted loyalty to Florence was really a marriage of [End Page 1224] convenience, the wily Englishman being as prepared as anyone else to change sides when it suited him. But the Florentines cherished Hawkwood mainly because of his skill in avoiding unnecessary risks, and indeed, more than any victory in the field, rightly considered the orderly retreat from northern Italy to Tuscany in 1391 to be his greatest success.
There is not much to criticize in this sterling piece of work, most of the few mistakes being very minor points (for instance: Konrad von Landau is buried in the parish church of Avane, near Pisa, not in a cathedral). However, the section on Hawkwood's finances leaves open a number of questions. While he undoubtedly received substantial sums from his employers, it is also true that as a military entrepreneur his expenses must have been considerable—a problem that Caferro, presumably for lack of documentary evidence, does not address satisfactorily. Also, parts on Hawkwood's "identity" look like an afterthought, possibly included at the behest of some overly academic-minded reviewer of the original manuscript.
But all this in no way detracts from the book's value, the relevance of Caferro's work being not confined to the field of military history. Hawkwood's life and career can teach us a lot, once we realize, as recent history has shown all too well, that might alone does not necessarily lead to victory.