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:

Monday, August 11, 2014

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 by Jonathan Sperber.

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851, was designed as a textbook for early undergraduate and (optimistically) advanced high school students. As such, it does not contain intensely complex theory regarding the events. It is a basic depiction of the occurrences and major players of the period.  Some will find this approach refreshingly straightforward; a delineation of what happened without the haze of a historian’s pet theories and self-congratulatory mental gymnastics. Others will find the work unchallenging.

This is not to say that the portrayal is all action and no thought, like so many books on military battles. Sperber spends the first half of his book discussing the pre-revolutionary environment and the causes leading to the struggles of 1848. Those already familiar with living and working conditions in Early- to Mid-19th Century Europe, who are reading primarily to inform themselves about the revolutionary years, will find this section tedious with no new information; they can skip directly to Chapter Three, “The Outbreak of Revolution.” These following chapters illustrate the rise of mass movements with particular attention to the varieties and structures of rebellious organizations.

Just about every reader of this review has grown-up within a representative form of democracy. Even those inured to the vicissitudes of history can find themselves discouraged by a story of flowering republics crushed under the military boot of autocratic kings. It was a dramatic burst of freedom and equally quick reversal. But Sperber does an excellent job of coddling the reader by discussing at length the groundwork laid by this continent-wide revolt. Post-1848 monarchs, while not required to draft a constitution, were seen as backward and faced importunate nagging from below if they did not. Press censorship was no longer a given strategy of conservative regimes. The process of organizing an opposition had been inculcated. Most importantly, people became acquainted with and accustomed to democratic notions. If seen as the first steps in a learning process that culminated, through persistent dedication, in our current period of widespread republican government, the bitter pill of this period will be swallowed in a spirit of more philosophical and sanguine remove.

I cannot say that The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 will be the most exhilarating read you’ve ever had (unless the period and events alone excite you), but it will be appropriately informative and clear.

Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2003.

For review of a book on prior causes & events resulting in the European Revolutions, see:

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Rothschilds, Banking and Amorality. Reflections Inspired by Niall Ferguson’s "The House of Rothschild".

Reading Ferguson’s book, depicting the seemingly callous actions of the Rothschild banking establishment, has caused me to dally upon questions of morality. There are a couple of ways to approach moral questions. One is from the observer’s own narrow, personal traditions or perspective: The Rothschilds were (“evil,” “wrong,” “immoral,” whatever one’s favorite designation) because they violated the dictates of the observer’s moral code.  Another is from the perspective of the person performing the action in question: An immoral person knows the difference between helpful or harmful acts and chooses the harmful one. An amoral person simply has no moral compass in a situation and performs the actions that serve his or her ends. The first approach is designed to confirm one’s own moral stance. The second approach can lead to insight concerning the actions of another. So it is the second approach I will be employing. I realize that the question of whether the Rothschild business practices were immoral or amoral is a tiny bit of philosophical hair-splitting. The distinction is only useful as a way of understanding that banking house.
To the House of Rothschild, whatever made money for the company was acceptable. Whether they were providing a loan to the British government that helped abolish slavery in the empire (Ferguson, p. 230), or providing a loan requested by the Russian Empire to suppress Polish independence (Ferguson, p.246), the sole purpose was to make money. That the actions were helpful or harmful to humane ends (or “good” or “evil” for the more Judeo-Christian reader) did not enter into the equation. By this definition, Rothschild business practices were amoral.

But using this definition, almost all banks and large corporations are amoral. There’s no reason to single-out the House of Rothschild specifically, unless one has a personal motivation to vilify their bank. The Boeing Corporation doesn’t care if it sells jets to fly passengers or jets to bomb villages; it’s the selling that counts. Banks will loan money to newly liberated countries and to armies which kill the civilians of those countries. The only question is can the borrower repay the loan. The purpose of a capitalist endeavor is to make money. The companies who add moral considerations to their actions are so few as to be enigmatic, and most of them fail in the international capitalist marketplace.

Most of us, who are not involved in these business decisions, profit from them.  If you have a 401K, or any retirement plan invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, the success or failure of your retirement plan is based upon the actions of these amoral agents. It is unlikely that one would be willing to invest in a company where the primary motivation was not the desire to make money. Of course, there are so-called “socially responsible” investments. They comprise a tiny piece of the international market and are largely focused on ineffectual, relatively innocuous moral concerns, like recycling and “Green Building.” In that way, I suppose most modern companies and most modern people are as amoral as the House of Rothschild.

Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild. Volume One. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.

For a book review of Ferguson's The House of Rothschild, see: