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

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9780060777296: The Devil's Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy

"There were good ways to die,
and there were bad ways to die."

So begins this effervescent history of an Italy about to shake itself free of the medieval age and move confidently into the Renaissance. First, though, there was an ordeal to pass through, one worthy of the imagination of Dante.

Unleashed by a pause in the cataclysmic Hundred Years' War, hordes of soldiers with an appetite for pillage swooped down on the opulent city-states of Italy -- bloated with gold from trade and the birth of the modern banking industry -- and commenced to unburden them of their wealth. The greatest of all the mercenary captains was Sir John Hawkwood, an English expatriate and military genius who formed his own army and cleverly pitted ancient rivals against one another: Florence against Siena, Milan against the papacy -- collecting tribute from them all, holding the Pope for ransom, and setting blood running in the streets.

The Devil's Broker is more than a riveting account of fortunes gained and lost by treachery and the sword: it is a lavish portrait of the fourteenth century, which Barbara Tuchman called "calamitous"; the Black Plague that struck down the mighty and the abject with equal ferocity; the violent schism in the Catholic Church that sent the Pope scurrying to Avignon for safety; the religious mania offset by a gargantuan appetite for spectacle, luxury, and self-indulgence. Among the other titans moving through Frances Stonor Saunders's magnificent narrative are the anorexic and power-hungry St. Catherine of Siena, an ill-tempered and comfort-loving Petrarch, and a curious and amused diplomat-spy named Geoffrey Chaucer, who would draw on Hawkwood's career for his own "Knight's Tale."

The meticulous archiving and record-keeping of medieval Italian notaries means that this history has passed to us through the intimate words of its most vital actors; Frances Stonor Saunders has combed tirelessly through original documents to produce a history seemingly as immediate and relevant as events of yesterday. She is a prodigious talent.

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About the Author:

Frances Stonor Saunders is the former arts editor of The New Statesman. Her first book, The Cultural Cold War, has been translated into ten languages and was awarded the Royal Historical Society's William Gladstone Memorial Prize. She lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

There were good ways to die, and bad ways to die. The Ars Moriendi, a practical handbook on the art of dying, was a flourishing literary form in the Middle Ages. These procedural guides — which included advice on table manners and how to make polite conversation — instructed the reader in how to regulate his behaviour during his final hours. Impatience was frowned upon, as was avarice, in the form of undistributed wealth — both would deny him the possibility of a “tame” death (in bed, surrounded by family, peacefully reconciled). If well prepared, the person doing the dying could be “shriven,” absolved, of his sins. To get “short shrift” was to be deprived of this satisfaction.

The ideal death did not have to be peaceful. A good death, because it satisfied the expectations of the chivalric code, was in combat, in the battle of cold steel. At the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the blind King John of Bohemia charged into the fray with the reins of his bridle tied to those of his loyal outriders. This eccentric ensemble of horses and men was later found dead in a poignant tangle. Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, whose army had cut down this paladin, attended his burial, and his helm-plume of ostrich feathers has ever since graced the arms of the Prince of Wales.

Lying face down in the mud encased in seventy pounds of armour was a disadvantageous position to be in. At Crécy, many of France’s best knights suffocated or drowned after being unseated from their horses and pushed prostrate into the wet field — “many were crushed to death, without a mark on them, because the press was so great.” On top of these jerking piles of armour fell more than ten thousand foot soldiers, spliced and hacked in hand-to-hand combat with axes and swords, or punctured by arrows (an estimated half a million of them) shot in dense volleys from English longbows. Not all died instantly, but the presence of Welsh and Cornishmen armed with long knives who wandered among the injured French guaranteed their eventual despatch: “When they found any in difficulty, whether they were counts, barons, knights or squires, they killed them without mercy.” Stripped by the scavenging survivors, the naked dead were eventually compacted into the soil of Crécy. The same fields, more than five hundred years later, would again be fertilised by the corpses of a generation of young men — forming a palimpsest of death.

It was generally considered that such combatants had died well and honourably. Everybody in England knew the story of Sir James Audley’s death after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356: he had led the final charge, and was found lying on the ground half-dead and covered in blood. He was carried on a shield into the camp of his commander, the Black Prince, who rushed to comfort his friend, giving him water to drink and kissing his bloodstained lips. When Sir John Chandos was killed in Aquitaine in 1370, the death of this great knight inspired many eulogies, despite the clumsy facts: Chandos had dismounted his horse to fight on foot, but slipped on the frozen ground, became knotted up in his long surcoat, and was run through by a French squire. Yet accidental death was nothing to be ashamed of, if it happened while serving a noble cause. In 1360, an English army, ill-provisioned and in retreat after an unsuccessful blockade of Paris, found itself caught in a violent storm. Breastplates and chain mail became lightning rods, and many knights were fried in their saddles.

A really good death was achieved by the knights who took part in the Combat of the Thirty in 1351. Celebrated in verse, painting, and tapestries, this duel between thirty French and English knights was a carefully staged theatre of dismemberment in which the participants, after exchanging courtesies, painstakingly hacked each other to pieces with swords, daggers, and axes. The French chronicler Jean Froissart, who glorified war as the high point of human endeavour, could discern nothing wasteful or senseless about such clashes. In medieval combat men trod in their own guts, and spat out their teeth, but they could die reciting verse from the chansons de geste, or clutching the insignia of the Order of the Garter.

It was possible to stagger from the battlefield — or be retrieved by one’s colleagues — but the intervention of doctors was harder to survive. Surgeons struggled to deal with the wounds caused by new and increasingly destructive weapons. Longbows (five to six feet long, drawn back to the ear, launching ten to twelve arrows a minute to a range of about two hundred yards) produced wounds six inches deep. The steel-tipped arrows were barbed, or “bearded,” to make their extraction difficult. Fired at close range, they pierced straight through chain mail. The normal treatment for an arrow wound was to burn it with a heated iron rod or pour boiling oil into it, both useless procedures. Chain mail generally protected against sword strokes, but the results could still be ugly — a strongly driven cutting stroke, though not splitting the mail, could drive the unbroken links down into the flesh and produce a very complicated wound. Head wounds where the skull was split open or otherwise broken were best not tampered with. The prognosis was particularly bad if one of the two membranes enclosing the brain, the dura mater and the pia mater, was cut. If there was any doubt as to whether the skull was fractured, the recommended diagnostic method was to make the patient block up his ears, nose, and mouth and blow. If air hissed out through the skull, it must be broken. Neck wounds were common. If a man’s breath escaped through his punctured throat, the advice of the famed physician Raimon of Avignon was to “leave him alone, for he is guaranteed to die.”

Observing a western surgeon at work, a Lebanese doctor named Thabit discovered no procedures worth replicating. When a knight was brought to the surgeon with an abscess in his leg, he was asked, “Which wouldst thou prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?” “Living with one leg,” replied the knight. Warming to his task, the surgeon then said, “Bring me a strong knight and a sharp axe.” As Thabit stood by, “the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike his leg with an axe and chop it off at one blow. Accordingly he struck it — while I was looking on — one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow, upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot.”

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