Book Review: John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth Century Italy


by William Caferro

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. P. xviii, 459. Illus., maps, chron., append., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN:0801883237

The best known among English speakers of the great Italian condotierri, John Hawkwood (1320-1394), known in Italy as "Giovanni Acuto -- Sharp John," has generally been treated well by historians and biographers.  The canny merc rose to the peak of his profession in the tumultuous politics of early Renaissance Italy, while amassing great wealth and influence and preserving his honor.  This portrait, by Prof. Caferro of Vanderbilt University , is rather different, presenting a far more nuanced picture of the man. 

The book opens with a chapter discussing "The Man and the Myth," followed by chapters on Hawkwood's early life and on politics and warfare in early Renaissance Italy.  Upon this foundation, Caferro then describes Hawkwood's life and career, warts and all (illustrated by some wonderful artwork and anecdotes), as he rises from the newly minted captain of a band of English mercenaries to the most distinguished commander in Italy .  Along the way we see Hawkwood in many roles, not only as battlefield commander and strategist, but also as business manager, diplomat, military innovator, land owner, Englishman, mass murderer, husband, popular hero, blackmailer, chivalrous nobleman, and more. In the process we are treated to a look at the complex political and diplomatic history of Italy during the fourteenth century and at the evolution of the art of war. 

A useful read for anyone interested in Renaissance Italy, the evolution of the practice of war, command, and even the interrelationship of art and society.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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