- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005


By Frances Stonor Saunders

HarperCollins, $25.95, 416 pages, illus.


Things could be a lot better in the 21st century, but when you look back at the 14th, we should count our blessings. In this graphically illustrated book which catalogues the horrors of living in the Middle Ages, English knight Sir John Hawkwood emerges as an antihero in keeping with his era. He was the kind of knight who stabbed a nun over whom two of his men were about to fight a duel exclaiming, “Half for each, ” thus saving himself the potential loss of two valuable soldiers.

Frances Stonor Saunders doesn’t shrink from shocking details. She writes with authority, dispassion and, thankfully, dark humor, of a savage world of which she observes, “There were good ways to die and bad ways to die.” She goes on to explain that dying in bed in those days was considered “tame” compared to dying in battle, despite the fact that many knights encased and encumbered by armor met an undignified end squashed in the mud when their horses fell on them. Ms. Saunders plucks from the pages of a bloody past a relatively ignored figure who may have been the first of the great mercenaries, although Hawkwood, said to be the inspiration for Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” certainly contradicts traditional concepts of chivalry.

Geoffrey Chaucer, a young English squire ransomed from the French for a paltry 16 English pounds, assorted corrupt popes and a querulous Catherine of Siena (later canonized) are among the figures who populate these pages between outbursts of medieval mayhem. Chaucer reportedly used Hawkwood as source material for his writings, contending that the man’s knighthood was no more than a cover for a “seasoned, cold blooded professional soldier” motivated by ambition and money.

Unfortunately, the meticulous cataloging of events tends to depersonalize Hawkwood whom Ms. Saunders neither fictionalizes nor romanticizes. He is a buccaneer, prowling medieval Italy, holding cities to ransom and battening on the vulnerability of citizens already plagued by a ruthless papacy in pursuit of revenue. Yet Hawkwood the man never really materializes. The author acknowledges that although it is possible to reconstruct his exploits, the repetitive “parchment trail” offers only a partial glimpse into Hawkwood’s life. “He appears as an enigma, through a glass darkly,” writes Ms. Saunders.

Hawkwood was evidently a man who matched his times, marching over the Alps with his band of military mercenaries in 1361 to make his name and his fortune by holding cities to ransom. Trolling Italy with his companies of mercenaries, Hawkwood recognized that power there lay with the merchants and bankers and made the most of it. For example, in Tuscany he promised no problems if local authority were “well disposed” to his requests. The alternative, he wrote “with disarming frankness” was that the territory would be “put to the sack by our soldiers.”

Ms. Saunders uses Hawkwood more as a vehicle to explore the depths of a dark and violent age than as a central character, and it was an inspired literary strategy to illuminate and dramatize an at times turgid text with a series of magnificent color illustrations. These not only capture the imagination of the reader but tell the story more vividly than the author’s careful chronicling. Ms. Saunders’ capacity for sardonic humor glints in a caption for a painting portraying the pudding-faced denizens of the 14th century papal court that she calls “the most efficient system ever devised for the continent-wide extraction of money.”

There is more mockery in her note on an equestrian portrait of Hawkwood which “was considered indecent because it showed too much of the horse’s sexual organs.” And there is a mischievous aside on the domestic habits of the Middle Ages, illustrated by a painting of a bonneted but otherwise naked couple climbing into bed together.

According to the caption, the bed was the biggest item of furniture in medieval households and couples slept naked, except for bonnets “commonly used to protect them from drafts.” In another postscript on the sexual mores of the times, Ms. Saunders reports that on Florentine streets, prostitutes wore high heeled shoes, gloves and a bell on their heads and that the going rate was less than a lira, which in those days would buy a barrel of local wine. The illustrations also recreate the darkness imposed on rural and urban life by the depredations of military and religious scavengers. There is a memorable contrast in color and atmosphere between a portrayal of a peaceful and pastoral Italian countryside and the bleakness of a region ruined by war.

And there is a reminder of the reality of combat in an effigy of an unknown knight in the last minutes of an agonizing death, and an engraving of Hawkwood’s stern military profile is paired with a painting depicting his cadaverous and haunting death mask. It is such illustrations which imbue Ms. Saunders’ story with life when the reader gets bogged down in the saga of violence and torture that was made all the more miserable by the devastating plague called the Black Death which played out against an incongruous backdrop of self indulgence among those who held power and money. Ms. Saunders has held up a darkly fascinating mirror to that grim past.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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