Book Report: John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy by William Caferro (2006)

I got this book through an intra-library loan because I thought I could squeeze an article out of John Hawkwood based on a sidebar I saw in Renaissance magazine. If you are like I was, unaware of who Sir John Hawkwood was, I’ll explain a bit. Sir John Hawkwood was a mercenary operating in 14th century Italy. A veteran of the Hundred Years War, Hawkwood came to Italy, played all sides against the middle, and became one of the most profitable and well-known mercenary leaders of his day. He spent the last years of his career with Florence, and the city eventually immortalized him with a frescoe over his tomb.

That being said, the book is a very detailed timeline of Hawkwood’s life and adventures, from his arrival in Italy to his participation in numerous “Free Companies” (unemployed bands of mercenaries pillaging the land) to his various employments with Pisa, Milan, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples, and Florence (employed bands of mercenaries pillaging the land). Over the course of the latter three decades, Hawkwood became a known and feared figure amongst the city-states of the early Renaissance. For example, Hawkwood made a trip through Tuscany with a free company wherein he systematically visited the environs of each city state in the region and demanded payment to move on. Most of these payments came as lump sums, but often they had additional payments so you could put the sparing of your crops on credit. By the end of the year, Hawkwood had earned more on his trip than most city-states made annually, and to this day, you can still go into an Olive Garden and order the special Hawkwood Tour of Italy, wherein the restaurant will feed your entire party, will give you 10,000 florins, will put you on the payroll for the rest of the year, will gas your car, and will give you the directions to the nearest Pasta House and hope you go there.

John Hawkwood was so well known and feared that the things we pass around on the Internet as Chuck Norris lists originated as John Hawkwood lists in Renaissance Italy. For example, a Florentine banker carried the following items to the Holy Roman Empire:

  • John Hawkwood invented the color Burnt Sienna. Poor Sienna.
  • All the towers in Pisa were straight until John Hawkwood glared at one as a warning.
  • The Italian penninsula was shaped like a pair of boots until the arrival of John Hawkwood.

Hawkwood became a fixture in English fiction (and some in Italy, too) in the centuries after his death, and this book tries to get to the bottom of the myths built by the fabulists by using actual historical sources. Unfortunately, that means the book lacks a certain amount of narrative or insight into Hawkwood himself, as all we get are really lists of dates, movements, and rosters. Still, it’s enough to stand in awe at a man who traveled to Italy and grew wealthy through shrewd contracts, ruthlessness, and the occasional battle.

This book, from 2006, must have been a vanguard, as I see a couple more books are coming out this year about Hawkwood. Ultimately, I guess it stands as a testament to the impact of the man and his uniqueness in his time that he fascinates people centuries later.

Books mentioned in this review: