- John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy
Although writers since Leonardo Bruni and Machiavelli have talked of Hawkwood and his role in Florentine and Italian history, this is the first thorough biography based, as Caferro makes clear, on an exhaustive search of local ar-chives — I count seventeen different archives and libraries. The result is a substantial shift in the Hawkwood myth. He was not particularly tied to Florence, nor was he particularly likely to live up to his agreements. Hawkwood was, Caferro argues, typical of the adventurers who sold their services to, or extorted money from, beleaguered Italian governments in the second half of the fourteenth century. The key to Hawkwood's career was his Englishness. Though the evidence is not always clear, Caferro believes that from early on, probably from 1372, Hawkwood often altered his plans to fit English interests or served publicly as a royal representative. Caferro finds this to be a consistent pattern in Hawkwood's shifts. His Englishness is also reflected in his lack of a consistent base of operations. Initially he possessed fortresses in Lombardy that he later left for strategic holdings in the Romagna. Finally, he held a key fortress in southern Tuscany that controlled the main road to Rome and threatened Florentine, Sienese, and Aretine communications. Yet at the end of his life, he sold these holdings as he made plans to return to England. His Florentine state funeral aside, he was still English.
Caferro's achievements in this book are considerable. The first is simply his feat of making sense of diplomatic letters, often deliberately vague and misleading. He is able to follow Hawkwood with an accuracy that allows him to make sense of the Englishman's changing interests. The second is that Caferro's careful and thorough narrative of Hawkwood's life makes clear the extent to which mercenary companies were not simply tools to be taken up by one power or another. Rather, as his narrative unfolds, it is clear that the companies themselves represent independent corporations with their own structure, interests, and needs — the chapter on "Italy and the Profession of Arms" is especially valuable. The discussion of Hawkwood at the end of his life, his Florentine phase, also makes clear the independent role the companies could play. He often was little more than a highly paid garrison commander. The Florentines wanted him primarily so that the Milanese could not use him. Even earlier, after his victory at Montechiari (1373), he failed to follow up his advantage and perhaps crush the Visconti primarily, Caferro suggests, because Pope Gregory XI was late with his payments. Throughout the fourteenth century, the numerous companies in Italy moved in and out of alliances with the great powers in much the same way the smaller communes did. Caferro's discussions of the structures of the companies, the English lance, the German and Italian captains, and the tactical lessons learned in France make clear the sophistication of the military companies in Italy. Although Italians from Petrarch to Machiavelli complained about the abilities of foreign troops, Caferro [End Page 1180] suggests that the mix of fighting styles made Italy a laboratory for military experiments. Further, Italians tended to hire foreign troops simply because they were foreign and not tied to various factions. "You don't pull one rope, but call the one and the other ghibelline," one Englishman observed of the Florentines (163).
A couple of small changes could have improved this book. Caferro's decision to follow Hawkwood with a close chronological narrative pays dividends, but at a price. One of the frustrations of the book is that discussing negotiations from Hawkwood's perspective often makes it difficult to understand the wider currents in Italian diplomacy. The Milanese, Florentines, and the papacy were the major players, but not in Caferro's story. He could have easily outlined Milanese interests more carefully. They are allied or not allied with Florence or the papacy in a...