Book Review: Furies
by Lauro Martines
Bloomsbury Press, 2013
We aren’t two pages into Lauro Martines’ utterly engrossing new book Furies before we encounter this little anecdote:
In the winter of 1630, a group of Italian villagers, subjects of the Duke of Mantua, caught a few disbanded soldiers out in the Mantuan countryside. The expert on the subject tells us that they proceeded to skin the captured men alive, to roast them, and then to eat what they had cooked.
The story contains in miniature much of what readers will find in the rest of the book: vivid storytelling, a good-faith attempt to sift the sources, and the neat up-turning of some settled conventional attitudes toward Renaissance times – or any times, really, since we hardly expect ordinary villagers to attack and eat demobbed soldiers. The events in the anecdote are rife with suppressed desperation.
In many ways, Martines’ study of the near-constant military activity that underpinned all the cultural and artistic glories of the Renaissance hinges on that desperation, and on the things it helped to create. At the center of his book’s many narrative threads are the freelance armies that did the bidding of all the age’s warring city-states and nascent empires. Using one well-chosen example after another, Martines reminds his readers that those armies created their own imperatives:
An army of twenty thousand men, even without camp followers, exceeded the population of most European cities; and when that winding horde of soldiers, with ten or fifteen thousand horses, set out on campaign, it could easily eat up, in a few days, all the food and fodder in the adjacent villages and countryside for many miles around. Such an army could not stay put; it had to move; it had to go on seeking new pastures and more stocks of food.
They also created threats where none were intended: they were often rotting with diseases, which they spread to every village and town along their wandering routes, even the villages and towns that had paid handsomely to be spared the more overt ravages of even temporary military occupation. In short, they did much more than simply and neatly serve the season’s interests of their paymaster princes, as they’re so often characterized as doing in standard Renaissance narratives. They reshaped everything they touched.
Martines is a tirelessly entertaining narrator of all this (April Blood, his account of the 1478 Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici, was riveting but much smaller-scale). He can be a bit pompous at times – “Historians frequently refer to plundering soldiers,” he proclaims, unbelievably continuing: “They seldom highlight the crooked doings of princes” when in fact historians have been highlighting precious little else for the past six centuries. But such lapses are rare; what we mostly get is a dexterously-controlled story that shows readers all the harrowing faces of fifteenth and sixteenth century war, from the sacking and looting of humble towns to the hellishly protracted sieges of great cities, from the intimate and often staggeringly corrupt dealings of bankers and fighting captains to the wholesale appropriation that routinely took place on a much bigger stage:
But before proceeding with marketable plunder, we must cast a glance at loot of a quite different order, far less obvious but far more fateful. I mean the theft of states, of lordships and principalities. This was all-encompassing booty which also, in a sense, cast a veil of validation over the ordinary forms of plunder. For according to a rule in logic and Roman law, if, in the affairs of the world, the greater right over something be granted, then all the more so must the lesser one be allowed, because it is covered by the more inclusive right.
He pauses frequently along the way for entertainingly enthusiastic character-sketches, like his quick appreciation of Niccolo Tartaglia, the brilliant 16th Century mathematician:
There was something fabulous about Niccolo Tartaglia’s brilliance. In all his life, he had only fourteen days of schooling with a tutor who taught him how to read. Yet he was the first Italian to translate Euclid’s Elements into the vernacular.
But the main thrust of his book is deadly serious: that it wasn’t the revival of humanism or the spread of new and more complex political science that made the Renaissance the birthplace of our modern world, far from it: that the entire apparatus of political identity evolved as a response to constant warfare – that, essentially, states came into being in order to pay for their armies, and that this had a darkly consolidating effect far in advance of anything shared language or commerce could do:
The European “sovereign” state came out of a dense scatter of medieval microstates and half-states: mini-kingdoms, lordships (feudal fiefs), tiny principalities, and cities. The larger and more enterprising of these – Venice, say, or Capetian France – absorbed neighboring “statelets” by the force of arms, by means of defensive treaties, or by political claims, heredity, and the rites of marriage. It was a process of seizure and acquisition, leading to the ascent of the modern state in the period from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
And the warning implicit in all this is made explicit more than once:
But the process left a trail, a spoor. For the state can be a monster, above all in war, and it often struck contemporaries this way … In this embodiment, supreme political authority has a history with a multitude of visages. Our own day is not a stranger to the spectacle of monstrous states.
Martines has crafted a highly personal, richly stimulating book by bringing together all these strands of Renaissance studies. Furies is well worth the attention of any serious student of history, whether they end up agreeing with our author or not.