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The Devil's Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth- Century Italy

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  236 Ratings  ·  40 Reviews
A vibrant history of Italy in the cataclysmic fourteenth century as seen through the life of a brilliant military strategist and bandit lord

At the dawn of the Renaissance, hordes of mercenaries swooped down on the opulent city-states of Italy and commenced to drain them dry. The greatest of all the bandits was Sir John Hawkwood, an English expatriate and military genius w
Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published 2004)
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All books about medieval European individuals are bold - unless they are about St.Augustine, who alone felt the need to share his memories of his thoughts and feelings at length with posterity, for everyone else the best that can be achieved is a life and time flavoured with conjecture.

Hawkwood was an Englishman from Essex who led the White Company, a band of mercenaries, that operated in northern Italy during the fourteenth century. I found the book a disappointing read since I wanted more deta
Aug 10, 2007 Joshua rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history lovers
So you thought the 21st century was bad? Try living in Italy in the 14th century. Of course you had plague, famine, poverty, and bloodshed, but don't forget the social injustice, backwards medicine, poor hygiene, living in filth, and religious mania. Although this book paints quite the picture of life in Europe of the Middle Ages, the most incredible thing isn't how bad it really was, but that we managed to actually survive as a species through it all. But that's not really what the book is supp ...more
Aug 26, 2011 Nigel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
One thing is for sure: war is about money. Always has been and always will be. John Hawkwood was merely an excellent and unashamed practitioner of war as a revenue-generating activity. 1360, a treaty is signed and the Hundred Years War pauses, but people keep fighting, mostly English soldiers who stay in France to kill and burn and pillage because it beats going home and doing an honest day's work or dying of the plague. The soldiers coalesce into large companies who style themselves mercenaries ...more
Jun 25, 2014 Bart rated it really liked it
Highly accessible history of late Medieval Italy. This is a superb read, one that is evocative of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.

Like Tuchman, Saunders frames her book around the life and times of an individual - in this case, English mercenary John Hawkwood, who found himself in rather constant employ due to the various feuds and wars among the city-states of Italy.

Through Hawkwood, we get a good look at several of the major players in the region during this time - Catherine of Siena, the V
The Tabby
Feb 11, 2014 The Tabby rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutey fascinating account, not only about the life of the man, but also his times. I liked the writing style as well as the myriad details of life in the fourteenth century. Did not want to put it down. It stripped the glamour from the popular tales of chivalry and painted a stark portrait of the impracticalities of riding into battle encased in heavy metal armour. No mere recitation of dry facts and dates. "Lying face down in the mud encased in seventy pounds of armour was a disadvantageous ...more
Nov 25, 2012 Kotinka rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fantastic book, completely engrossing. Using Hawkwood as her vehicle, the author invites you into the merciless world of 14th C. Italian politics, dealing the intrigues, personalities and scandals of the day with vivid storytelling. The book could easily have descended into a repetitive confusion (Hawkwood's life, as with his client states, was one of endless battling, extortion, ransoming, changes of allegiance, then more battling, more ransoming). Thankfully though, with her eye for the inte ...more
Oct 31, 2014 Anna rated it really liked it
Shelves: medieval, renaissance
Wow; it's pretty grim living in the 15th Century, perhaps particularly in pre-unification Italy when every city-state is forming and then breaking alliances with every other city-state, and hiring mercenaries to do their slaughtering for them. That is, until the said mercenaries turn the tables on their employers and are hired by the enemy who is able to pay them a bit more than you do.. Meanwhile, each time, it is the civilian population who suffers the most as the way each little war begins is ...more
Jun 12, 2014 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thorough and very engaging bio of condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, the subject of Uccello's monumental Duomo painting and, if Terry Jones is right, the model for Chaucer's Knight. I read it to learn more about someone in whom I became interested while reading A Distant Mirror and, indeed, identical in form and contiguous in subject matter, the entire book is sort of an appendix to Tuchman's monumental popular history. Saunders isn't coy about acknowledging the debt.
My interest in the 14th centur
Long before Italian organised crime had organised; a bunch of 14th Century Essex boys were pillaging, extorting, kidnapping, raping, murdering and betraying their way through the Italian City States with a vengeance. The most successful or them was "Sir" John Hawkwood, son of an Essex Yeoman whose meteoric rise as a Mercenary in the labyrinthine world of Italian politics led him to wealth, castles, royal in-laws, a state funeral in Florence and a big assed fresco in the Duomo that ca ...more
The Master
May 13, 2012 The Master rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting approach to the life of the legendary condottiero John Hawkwood, presenting him as a figure flitting in and out of the larger story of 14th Century Italy, with its myriad intrigues, wars and general miseries.

The author writes with flair, deploying colourful metaphors to paint images of a horrible time in history.

The book reminded me of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. Saunders herself makes reference to it (and several other books, I think), to make sure the comparison escapes no
Jan 10, 2010 David rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I feel that this book was far too focused on presenting the image of the Mercenary Captain John Hawkwood as one of the big players in Italian Politics in the third quarter of the 14th C, while the Italians themselves are presented as mere pawns of the mercenaries (though the author seems to want to gloss over most of them except Hawkwood). It tends to gloss over many other aspects of the political landscape and takes pains to emphasize tenuous political connections between parties (Catherine of ...more
Jun 03, 2009 Lynne-marie rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: European history buffs
You think 13th century Italy: famine, the plague, nothing much going on, right? Wrong!! Try the birth of the mercenary. Havoc and pillage!This book is the story of John Hawkwood, an Englishman, who went to Europe to devestate, rape, and ravage . . . for pay. And, when one set of employers couldn't afford him any longer, their enemies hired him. This is also a fascinating look at the inability of the Italian city-states to pull together against a greater evil (in this case the mercenaries) becaus ...more
Gerald Sinstadt
Mar 19, 2010 Gerald Sinstadt rated it liked it
Shelves: history
There is no doubt that John Hawkwood - later Sir John - was a significant figure in 14th Century France and, especially, Italy. His role was as the leader of an unlawful band of mercenaries, in variable numbers but often in thousands, who sold themselves to the highest bidder in a volatile country of warring Communes. Changes of side were frequent and cynical. The package came complete with all services: not just battles and sieges but pillage, rape and destruction. The sums paid were huge and m ...more
Jan 08, 2013 Jane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When you tell people you've just read a history of Italy in the 14th century and it was fascinating, you can see from their face they find this difficult to believe. But Stonor has the all too rare ability and the research to make this period come alive vividly, as well as the skill to use Hawkwood as the narrative thread to hold it all together and not have the book just become a collection of information. Fascinating story of a period I hadn't known so much about, and illuminates a number of p ...more
Aug 12, 2015 Victor rated it it was amazing
Shelves: italy, history
This is serious history. After reading I had a great desire to see the fresco of John Hawkwood in the duomo in Florence (Firenze). To read this book does require some context regarding European history in the late middle ages. It also provides a background to the Italy of today--a nation somewhat united of regions that six centuries ago were fighting bloody battles against each other.
Aug 08, 2012 Penny rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Whilst I cant say I am warming to Mr Hawkswood, who was an Essex man gone to the devil, I think Historian Frances Stonor Saunders has written a remarkable book - one of those books where you learn not one but five ( or more!) new facts per page -and I read a lot of history books these days! For those who have visited Florence Cathedral there is a fresco painting by no less an artist that Paulo Uccello of this "Diabolical Englishman" - Ioannes Acutus - recognised in Florence for having laid waste ...more
May 14, 2014 Grouchung rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I love it, I love condottieri and the Italian Renaissance and the mindset of mercenaries, who lived in an age where religion was a given. Saunders gives a very readable narrative thread in this, weaving facts about Hawkwood with the history and feel of the time so it never feels stagnant.

I very rarely read non-fiction, but this is truly a good book to get into if you like the subject. It never becomes too dry, which I feel is hard to do sometimes with such fact-heavy historical non-fiction.
Lauren Albert
Jul 02, 2013 Lauren Albert rated it liked it
Shelves: history-european
This book couldn't decide what it wanted to be (or I couldn't decide what it was trying to be). Is it a biography of mercenary Sir John Hawkwood? A history of the use of mercenaries by the Italian City-States? A political history of Italy before unification? Now, any one of these could have been the main topic and yet included the others. But instead the book seemed to veer around. If it is a biography of Hawkwood, why so much about St. Catherine of Siena? If it is a history of mercenaries durin ...more
Feb 12, 2010 Joan rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Continuing my reading of the beginning of the renaissance, this book reports the changing allegiances of a so called crusader, really one of thousands mercenaries who had no war or living to pursue. His name was John Hawkwood. The time of his rampages in Italy coincide with the huge power of Milan, Joanna 1 of Naples, and great beginning art in Florence. The papacy started the policy of hired "guns", but was very week due to a split between Rome and Avignon, Italian and French control of the chu ...more
David R.
Aug 23, 2010 David R. rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-history
A fascinating look at the little known side of early Renaissance Italy. The 14th Century was a bad one for the Italians with wars between the city-states, a corrupt papacy, and mercenary armies overshadowing all. The book centers on an especially prominant, successful and duplicitous mercenary general -- one John Hawksworth of Essex, England -- who at one time was on the payroll of every major faction and turned coat as fast as the money could be counted out. Saunders makes one misstep: painting ...more
Feb 10, 2015 Pennicillina rated it really liked it
Una lettura piacevole e affascinante. Un ritratto dell'Italia dei mercenari con tutto ciò che ruotava attorno alle libere compagnie: si incontrano una Santa Caterina rockstar, un malefico cardinale Albornoz e vari pendagli da forca (compreso il protagonista).
Altamente consigliato.
Apr 01, 2012 Stefan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As the title implies, this book is a biography of John Hawkwood, an englishman who following the Treaty of Brétigny, becomes a freebooter and sells the services of himself and his company of mercenaries to whatever Italian city-state offers more. It isn't only about Hawkwood the man, though, but so much more; Saunders also gives a portrait of the times he lived in. It is a brief and not very penetrating portrait, but a lot more balanced than than the popular image of the 'Dark Ages'. For as she ...more
Jul 17, 2015 Daniel rated it really liked it
This book is why I read history. A book ostensibly about the greatest Condittiere (mercenary) of the late middle ages and Englishman John Hawkwood in reality its an engaging book about the city states and papal wars of that time period. If you think life is bad reading this book makes you realize how good and peaceful the world has become. The casual depravity and slaughter mentioned in this book is stunning the horror and betrayals, politics and vendettas amazing. A read that will give you pers ...more
Jan 09, 2010 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Just a quick note on this one; I may add more later. This was a good follow-up to Barbara Tuchman's book "A Distant Mirror." Saunders' book covers roughly the same period of time, focusing solely on Italy. In comparison, Tuchman's book examines events in France and England during this period. When read together, I got a richer sense of what was happening within Europe overall during the 14th century.
Brent Venton
Sep 14, 2012 Brent Venton rated it liked it
An ok account of 14th century English mercenary captain and his campaigns in Italy. More interesting by merit of the subject matter than the presentation, which is wracked with filler. For all the amazing preservation of pay stubs and letters, the source material is fairly standard and the analysis does little to give us a true understanding of the man or reasons for his success.
Aidan Nancarrow
Nov 02, 2014 Aidan Nancarrow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
An engaging and well-researched biography of an unscrupulous but successful mercenary captain in one of Europe's most violent periods, it transcends mere military history to give the reader a broader and more interesting picture of a fractured society midway between complete disintegration and dramatic cultural rebirth.
Aug 09, 2008 Bobsie67 rated it really liked it
Fascinating account of an English mercernary who fought for the Pope and then for wealthy merchants when the Pope could no longer ante up. Some interesting insights into Medieval Italy and the Papacy as well as the nascent stages of what would become the English empire.
Great book - it's not just a biography over a single man (a British soldier causing havoc in 14th century Italy) but over the bloody history of Italy before the beginning of the Renaissance.

(I highly recommend that you don't eat while reading this book...)
Mark Singer
The story of Sir John Hawkwood, 14th century English knight and mercenary, who as the head of the White Company, became a force to be reckoned with in Italy. The politics of the time can be confusing but Hawkwood always seems to come out on top.
Aug 28, 2011 Caro rated it liked it
Begins briskly enough, but halfway through she gets bogged down in the minutiae of fourteenth century Florentine politics, which puts the Byzantines to shame. Nice to get a glimpse of Geoffrey Chaucer along the way.
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