Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Devil’s Broker by Frances Stonor Saunders

Frances Stonor Saunders has written a book that reads as smoothly and excitingly as fiction, but informs as skillfully as the best histories. This is a rare and difficult feat. It helps that her subject is John Hawkwood, an adventurous, villain, mercenary knight, in violent 14th Century Italy. Still, she deserves credit: She wouldn’t have been the first historian to take a dramatic topic and wring all the moisture out of it, producing desiccated rags of paper.

Saunders presents an Italy riven by religious power, political corruption, superstition, mercenary violence, plague, famine and war. Brutal stuff. Between pages 10 and 20 is a frail, easily forgotten wave in the direction of the notion that this century wasn’t entirely savage. Repeatedly using Barbara Tuchman’s famous phrase “the calamitous century,” juxtaposed with cheery images of Chaucer and joyful peasants, Saunders takes an opportunity to distance herself from the more famous scholar of the 14th Century against whom she will undoubtedly be compared.

But after this obligatory nod to balanced presentation, our historian dives back into her subject. Enter John Hawkwood, a minor noble’s son from Essex, recruited for adventure and profit in France, who rises to the leadership of the immense and famous White Company. While this mercenary provides the compass point around which the story revolves, he is merely a point in a wider circle of the environment described. Hawkwood’s progress from France to Italy, then up and down that peninsula, allows Saunders a context in which to depict historical development.

The primary theme that gets re-echoed throughout the book is that Hawkwood was a cold, greedy mobster; but he was no different from those of higher rank. Hawkwood’s services, largely composed of protection and pillage, were hired by two popes, one king, a couple of republics and countless respectable wealthy landowners. There are no heroes in this story. Our cast ranges from the morally questionable to the pathologically destructive.

Even those individuals depicted who do not have military or political power, are contaminated. Saint Catherine of Siena is anything but a saint. “Catherine’s joy at being splashed in the blood of a decapitated man—an experience she sought to prolong by not washing—suggests that she was now suffering from a full-blown neurosis” (Stonor, p. 197). Petrarch, though talented, is criticized as “an ornament of the Visconti court” which was known for its rapaciousness (Stonor, p. 136). The only player to escape the tainted brush is Chaucer, who is truly Saunders' touchstone in the book. He represents an incorruptible optimism that will not be beaten by the catastrophes which surround him.

Within such a story, it is difficult for an author to avoid the sensational. Stonor occasionally indulges in melodrama: “Thickset men who relished a noisy brawl in a tavern, a tussle over a whore, stole through the frozen nightscape with the lightness of ghosts” (Stonor, p. 21). But most of the time, the author is able to remain on point and continually informative. Given the subject, one should be surprised that she does not indulge more often.

The Devil’s Broker is a gift to historical writing. It is a template for scholars concerning how to compose engagingly and informatively. The readers who choose to embark upon this gallop through 14th Century Italy will find themselves richly rewarded. The only regret will be the brevity of the journey as the read is a fast one.

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Devil’s Broker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.

For review of another book on this time period, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-distant-mirror-calamitous-14th.html