- - Wednesday, April 17, 2013

By Lauro Martines
Bloomsbury Press, $28, 336 pages

The Renaissance is renowned as an era of intellectual and artistic excellence, centuries that produced such persons of genius as Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Montaigne. But the years had a dark side that is shunned by most historians: constant, horrific warfare that caused the deaths of countless hundreds of thousands, including hapless civilians in the path of murderous armies.

A cautionary note at the outset: Lauro Martines’ work is not for the squeamish. “Furies” is a book of relentless violence, beginning on Page 1 with the senseless murder of some 500 women, and continuing relentlessly through massacre after massacre. Mr. Martines, a leading scholar on the Renaissance, relied on diaries and memoirs of the combatants and the innocent to tell a story that is as gripping as it is horrifying.

Europe was shaking off feudalism as the period began, with nascent nation-states beginning to emerge. Isolated fiefdoms, their rulers lusting for more land and power, chose warfare as a means of expansion. Religion was also a major factor, with Protestants challenging long-time Catholic hegemony. The horrific conflicts, despite their death tolls, receive only footnote attention in most histories of Europe of the period the Thirty Years War, the Italian Wars (1494-1559), the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) and the wars of the Spanish Crown in the Low Countries (1567-1648).

Many “rulers” had no standing armies as such; instead, they relied heavily upon mercenaries recruited from distant lands by crown-appointed entrepreneurs. Because of the poverty that gripped much of Europe in times of drought, as many as 40 percent of the populace begged for a “living” mercenaries flocked to arms, even though wages were scant (if paid at all) and discipline harsh. Many encampments featured a gallows, a warning to potential deserters. Flogging was rampant; miscreants were branded or had limbs chopped off.

Another source of manpower was impressments one son from every eight households, typically. As Mr. Martines writes, “Too dispersed to resist, peasant communities appear to have cooperated with this cull, thereby keeping control over the question of the men who would be picked for war in distant fields. Well-off farmers took little poor boys into their houses, fed and clothed them, drew on their labor, and then, when the summons came, turned them over to the army as substitutes for their own sons.”

By whatever means, the warlords assembled armies of more than 20,000 to 40,000 men, mobile cities in a sense that were larger than most European towns of the era. Once in motion, these vast swarms menaced towns and countryside alike, with famine and disease in their wake. Crops and cattle were seized, leaving vast swatches of the countryside devoid of food. Such a horde, with 10,000 to 15,000 horses, “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 foot; it had to go on seeking new pastures and more stocks of food.”

When villagers captured an invader, “their choking rage and hunger dictated the ensuing savagery. Skinning, roasting and eating them became a ritual of revenge and nutrition,” Mr. Martines writes.

The ultimate targets were cities that were put to siege. Starvation was a major “weapon,” for few towns had stores of provisions to feed their populations for more than a few weeks. The advent of gunpowder gave attackers the means of battering down defenses. The weaponry included powerful catapults. One terror tactic described elsewhere (not by Mr. Martines) was to seize a prisoner and launch him scores of yards into the target city. (The throwing power of catapults is demonstrated at the annual Pumpkin Chunkin’ festival in Sussex County, Del., each Halloween season. The 2012 winner hurled a 50-pound pumpkin 3,387 feet.) When rations ran out, defenders would eject from the city “useless mouths,” meaning women, children and the infirm, who were likely cut down.

Savagery begat savagery. In August 1706, the French laid siege to Turin. They lost some 1,700 men in the initial assault. Mr. Martines writes, “At the end of that day, hundreds of wounded French soldiers lay wailing and pleading for help in the ditches along the walls. Turin’s defenders proceeded to throw tons of firewood, pitch and oil down into the trenches, on top of the wounded men. They then set fire to that mix of man and matter, and from the walls and ramparts snipers targeted the wounded who tried to squirm away.”

Given the sovereign power exercised by rulers of the era, no political system of checks and balances existed to prevent them from entering into warfare. Nor were there any moral or religious limitations. One noted Jesuit intellectual of 1500s, Giovanni Botero, argued that Christian morality and hard-nosed political realism could not be reconciled.

Time and again, as Mr. Martines relates, “princes sent armies into the field, knowing perfectly well that they, the rulers would quickly run out of what it took to keep them there: cash and credit . The inevitable came next: Their soldiers ended by finding the wherewithal for war in the houses of enemy civilians, by scraping it from the backs of their own peasantry and modest townsfolk, or, in dire circumstances, by taking it from the pockets of their elites.”

Mr. Martines’ overriding message is that the concept of “total war” is not a modern innovation. Giving unbridled authority to any rules, political or otherwise, is a deadly business.

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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