Synopses & Reviews
"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.
"The career of Sir John Hawkwood, 'the most audacious' of mercenaries active in Italy in the mid to late 14th century, provides a framework for this study of the era's religion, politics and warfare. Saunders (The Cultural Cold War) portrays a generation that swept aside tradition for several reasons: plague leveled the social playing field, threats of excommunication were often ignored and warfare moved south from the feudal-based northern Europe to the increasingly wealthy, money-based economy of Italy, where battle-hardened soldiers journeyed after a truce in the Hundred Years' War. Perhaps most fascinating are the mechanics of mercenary armies, such as the one led by Hawkwood, that roamed Italy: the nature of their contracts, their alliances and betrayals and their democratic decision making. Equally lively is Saunders's account of the great Schism of the Church, in which two (and later three) men contested the title of pope: from the vantage point of the hired armies, it is simply a vicious power struggle like all the others. Hawkwood, within this context, built for himself a fearful reputation, lost and won many fortunes and married himself into the illegitimate branch of the powerful Visconti clan. His is a dramatic life, set in a dramatic context. Illus. not seen by PW; maps. Agent, Felicity Rubinstein. (June 1)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A fascinating tale, as rich and complex as a tapestry. . . . Commanding, skillful, and effervescent.” Kirkus Reviews
“Fascinating…lively…dramatic life set in a dramatic context.” Publishers Weekly
“An eye-opening reality check on the myth of chivalry...splendid, lovely writing makes this book memorable.” USA Today
“Saunders shines a bright light on a time and place even more cynical and hypocritical than our own.” Sante Fe New Mexican
“A narrative driven with robust gusto, splendid writing and an eye for the grotesque.” Bill Saunders, The Independent on Sunday
“Few biographies handle the balance between a subjects “life” and his “times” more dextrously than this one...Fascinating.” John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph
“Sophisticated…Avid history readers will appreciate the solid work discernible through Saunders stylishly embroidered narrative.” Booklist
This is the story of an age when everything had a price and mercenary companies were vastly rich corporations. By alternately besieging and protecting the richest pickings in Europe--Florence, Milan, Siena, and Pisa--John Hawkwood became the most wily, reliable, and successful mercenary leader of his time, leading the Italians to conclude that Rthe Devil is an Englishman.
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.