Monday, 15 August 2011

Review: Sir John Hawkwood (Chivalry and the Art of War), by Stephen Cooper

A slight departure for me, as 14th century stuff is relatively modern compared to the Punic Wars and so forth.

Sir John Hawkwood was an Englishman, born a commoner but later knighted, who participated in The Hundred Years’ War with the Black Prince and Edward III before moving to Italy to work as a mercenary.

He began his Italian adventures first as an officer of a military company and then rose to become a leader. Unlike England or France, 14th century Italy lacked a cohesive monarchy and was divided into numerous warring city-states (such as Pisa and Florence) which were also divided according to Guelf and Ghibelline (pro-Pope and pro-Holy Roman Emperor, respectively) tendencies. The Italians were fantastic merchants, very wealthy but lacked standing armies, making the prosperous but war-torn country mercenary heaven.

Hawkwood fought for numerous differing employers over a long career, fighting numerous battles (which he usually won), getting captured once (for a brief time) and participating in the occasional massacre. His military talents were universally respected, though there was and is discord regarding his moral standing.

Mr. Cooper has split the book into a chronological account of Hawkwood’s life, with the latter half of the book concerned with a general discussion of his character and a closer look at certain events (battles, and a contentious slaughter). The book is replete with Italian terminology, and (as someone pretty much ignorant of the era) I welcomed the small glossary at the start and the explanations within the text.

I think some of the second half of the book (such as the battles) would have fitted in better with the general account of Hawkwood’s life. It was slightly odd to read a concise summary of a battle only to have it explained in detail later in the book.

There are one or two maps, but I think a few more (and larger) ones would have been useful. The author describes well the Apennines (like the Pennines do England, they run down the spine of Italy but are significantly higher) and other important features, but maps are quite helpful.

As is common with this sort of book there are a decent number of black and white photographs (and some illustrations) in the middle, including some excellent examples of architecture (notably the Chamber of Notaries at Avignon and the Hawkwood Tower).

One of the things that irritates me is when people try and crowbar modern morality into history. Mr. Cooper’s discussion of this topic was enlightening, as it describes both Hawkwood’s actions and what the normal behaviour for the age was. He also considers what the facts of the matter may be, and the reception Hawkwood has received from contemporaries and historians.

The events of the book take place around a century before Machiavelli’s The Prince was written, and it’s interesting to see that the political and military situation was actually quite similar back in the 14th century.

Overall, I quite liked the book but I think a few technical changes could have made it better. The political situation in Italy (vital to understanding the bulk of the book) is well-described and Hawkwood undoubtedly led an interesting and successful life.



  1. Oh dear, Mr Thaddeus, Mrs Llama is going to be upset. Once again your blog has caused me to buy another book.

    Hawkwood is one of my favourite anti-heroes (you may recall we had a conversation about him on this site back in April), a sort of true life Flashman but without the cowardice.

    Another seventeen quid to Amazon and another telling off in the pipeline. Thanks.

  2. Mr. Llama, you may also wish to consider William Caferro's more sizeable book. It's generally well-rated although it does have Americanisms and the odd factual inaccuracy (apparently it refers to rolling hills in Essex, which seem to be fictional).

    Mr. Cooper's book suggests that Hawkwood was not really an anti-hero. Morally ambiguous characters like Julius Caesar and Cao Cao can be quite intriguing (and more complex than someone like Alexander or Trajan whose entire life was basically spent being brilliant).

    I apologise for the thrashing you shall shortly receive from Her Llamaness.

  3. Nooooo! Buying Caferro's book would mean another twenty-four quid to Amazon and another telling off. Get thee behind me, Thaddeus.

  4. Mwahahaha!

    You could buy TA Dodge's military history/biography of Hannibal. It would also help you to realise your folly in considering him inferior to Caesar :P

    More seriously, I try not to buy more than a couple of books at once, as I dislike a huge to-read pile. [That said, my to-read pile is now at an all-time high as it includes the latter three volumes of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a Complete Works of Shakespeare].