Saturday, May 03, 2008

BOOK: Leonardo Bruni, "History of the Florentine People" (Vol. 2)

Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People. Vol. 2: Books V–VIII. Edited and translated by James Hankins. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 16. Harvard University Press, 2001. 0674010663. xii + 584 pp.

This is the second of three volumes of Bruni's History — see my post about the first volume. This second volume covers the period 1311–1378. Just like in the first volume, much of the story focuses on details of warfare, which I didn't find very interesting; but the parts that deal with politics, and the occasional bits of economics and ‘odd news’, were interesting enough.

Book V

This book mostly deals with warfare, which I unfortunately didn't find very interesting — there's plenty of detail about battles, troop movements, etc., but I never cared much for military history. Much of this fighting was against the noted condottiere Castruccio Castracani, who managed to get the Florentines into a very tight spot on a few occasions (see e.g. 5.107, where he besieges Florence and ravages the surrounding countryside, causing famine and an outbreak of disease).

An interesting political move that appears twice in this book is the idea of handing over the power over the city, for a limited period of time, to an external ruler, hoping that he will defend it using the resources of his other domains. Thus the Florentines invited King Robert of Naples for five years in 1312 (5.18–19), to protect them from the emperor Henry VII. They drew up a detailed agreement defining what the king would be required, allowed and not allowed to do (5.19). Later, in 1326, they invited his son Charles for a period of ten years (5.115, 5.120, 5.122). These things seemed to work well enough for them, but I'm really surprised in a way that they dared to do such a thing — when you invite a foreign ruler to govern your state for a few years, how can you make sure that he will leave at the end of the agreed-upon period?

Another very interesting political idea is that of sortition, which Bruni says was introduced in Florence in 1323 (5.80). This is an alternative to elections. Candidates were nominated by certain political bodies, and from among these candidates the winners were chosen by lot. I have always been a keen enthusiast for assigning political offices at random rather than by elections — that seems to be the surest way to prevent a corrupt class of politicians from forming itself. If I understand correctly, in ancient Athens they used to assign almost all offices by lot, except maybe the generalships. And the Venetian republic used several turns of sortition during its fiendishily complicated process of electing the Doge (see J. J. Norwich's History of Venice, ch. 12, p. 166).

Incidentally, there's an interesting translator's note about sortition in volume 3 (note 6 to book 9, p. 413): “The names of eligible candidates for office were written on slips and placed in leather bags; when the offices became available slips were extracted, in principle randomly, from the bags. [. . .] The system was famously corrupt”.

A funny passage from 5.103, with Castruccio's army on the outskirts of Florence: “Castruccio set up his battle line before the gate, but when no one came out to meet him he turned to devastation, burning all the villas and buildings on that side of the city. He set up a racecourse between what was normally the city jail and Peretola. First the cavalry, then the infantry, then the prostitutes ran it. Silken favors were given to the victors in each of the contests.”

In 5.48, Bruni describes the specifications regarding knights' armour (in 1317): “a cervèllaire, a crested helmet, a cuirass, greaves, and armor on the arms and legs, all of iron. This provision was made because it appeared that light armoring had been a source of harm to many men in the late unhappy battle.”

Book VI

Most of this book is again warfare between Florence and the neighbouring cities, which I didn't find terribly interesting. On the subject of internal affairs, there was an interesting episode in 1342–3, when a certain French nobleman named Walter of Brienne (also a claimant to the crusader title of Duke of Athens) managed to briefly seize control of Florence. Initially they themselves invited him as a leader, to help them overcome a period of civil discord (6.110). Gaining a reputation as a political and military strongman, he started conspiring to obtain “untrammelled lordship over the city” (6.112). This gives Bruni another excuse to air his pro-middle-class enthusiasm: Walter “thought that the nobility would be completely on his side, subject as they were to harsh laws and disocntented with their legal position; any oppressed element in a city will always be ripe for revolution. He thought it would be no trouble to bring over to his side the poor, the workers, and that whole rabble; for he knew they had no interest in honor or liberty./ There remained the middle classes. His whole difficulty lay with them.” (6.112–3). He proceeded to punish harshly the real or imagined crimes of various notable middle-class politicians (6.113), which won him even more support among the rabble (6.114); finally he called a general assembly of the inhabitants and got the crowd to proclaim him the ruler of Florence (6.115–6). However, his rule was brief, he soon became unpopular and was eventually besieged in the citadel of Florence by the rebellious populace (6.125), who finally forced him to abdicate (6.128).

An amusing metaphor from 6.7: “The poets say that opportunity has hair in the front and is bald from behind: when it approaches you, you can seize it, but if you let it pass, it offers you no purchase afterwards.” Here Bruni is quoting the speech of a certain Pino della Tosa. The translator's note says that the quote is from “ps. Cato, Distichs (apud Phaedrus, fab. 5, 8)”.

An example of chemical warfare from 6.83: “There grew in that place a herb with an exceedingly bitter juice. [. . .] the droops collected the herb, carried it to the river bank, crushed it and threw it in the water. The juice was carried downstream to the enemy camp, where it infected the water with a foul and horrible taste so that it could be used by neither man nor horse.” I wonder what kind of herb it was. I'm somewhat surprised that this approach worked — I would naively expect that huge quantities of a herb would be necessary, and anyway the foul water would soon flow past the enemy's camp and they would then have fresh water again.

This sentence is perhaps a nice summary of Bruni's interest in history: “In the year following the peace, I find nothing of record that the city did.” (6.90) Thus, as there was no fighting in 1339, he only devotes one paragraph to it, whereas years in which wars were going on get pages and pages of detailed descriptions of campaigns, battles, and sieges.

He seems to have a belief in portents and auguries. In 1339 “there were numerous foul auguries portending future disasters. The tower of the Palazzo Vecchio was struck by lightning, as also were the walls of the city and the gate on the road to Bologna” (6.90). And the next year there was a comet (6.91), followed, appropriately enough, by an epidemic of pestilence soon afterwards :) Maybe his interest in portents is due to the fact that he found such things in ancient historians, and felt that he had to follow their example? I remember that e.g. Suetonius rarely fails to mentions comets and the like before the birth and death of his emperors.

He mentions a census taken in 1339; “the number of citizens living inside the city was 90,000” (6.90). I'm not sure if he means all inhabitants, or just those with some particular political status of citizens. But the purpose of the census was to plan for the approaching famine (due to a poor harvest), so I imagine that they counted all people. Anyway, next year the pestilence killed 16,000 of them (6.91). And then in 1348 a plague epidemic killed 70,000 more (7.37). Either some of these numbers are wrong or the city was almost empty after the plague.

He mentions a classic case of a bank run in 6.105. This was in 1341, and due to political reasons numerous French customers of Florentine bankers “wanted their money back at the same time. They were thus forced to deafault, with an incredible monetary loss to the city.” He mentions another bank run in 1345 (7.25).

Book VII

The initial part of this book is again more interesting and describes various constitutional reforms that the Florentines experimented with after they got rid of Walter the tyrant. Formerly the nobility had been quite barred from many political positions, on the assumption that they are powerful enough anyway (due to their wealth, family alliances, and client/patron connections) and certainly don't need any extra influence that political positions would undoubtedly confer upon them. Well, now they decided to remove these prohibitions, partly because of a sense of fairness and partly because the nobility had also helped in the process of removing Walter from power (7.3). However, soon afterwards they saw that the power of the nobility is growing too big and a minor civil war later the nobles were removed from politics once again (7.14). However, not all the aristocrats were actually rich and powerful, and some of the poorer ones voluntarily gave up their titles and joined the plebs so that they could continue to participate in politics (7.14).

I must say I was rather intrigued by these ideas about the explicit removal of the aristocrats from politics. I can't help wondering how something equivalent could be made to work nowadays to reduce the power of the plutocracy. Even if we disregard the question of who exactly should belong to the proscribed class (which isn't as clearly defined as the medieval nobility; but we could always introduce a threshold on income and/or wealth), there remains the question of how to effectively prevent the rich from exercising political power. It wouldn't be enough (though it would certainly help) to just forbid them from voting and from running for political office. After all, there aren't many plutocrats in your typical parliament nowadays either — most politicians aren't multimillionares, don't own or run big companies, etc.; actually most of them are the sort of upper-middle-class people that Bruni always champions in his History as the class who should have the main (or even exclusive) role in politics. The political power of the plutocrats nowadays is much more indirect; they are able to manipulate the opinion, both of the public and of the politicians, through propaganda, think tanks, a horde of lackey intellectuals, etc., and they can furthermore influence the politicians through donations, campaign contributions, and probably through other indirect means all the way up to and including plain corruption. Anyway, the problem is that I can't think of any simple and effective rule that would really prevent all these things, short of directly forbidding all agitation for the political ideas that benefit the plutocratic class. And in fact I'm surprised that the simple prohibition of the aristocrats from holding political offices was sufficient in the 14th century. OK, one imagines that in an era before mass media, the aristocrats weren't in as good a position to influence the opinions of the masses as the present-day plutocrats are, who own newspapers and TV stations that can easily manipulate with millions of people. But even in the 14th century, surely it must have been possible to influence the opinions of the politicians, either through bribery or some milder form of corruption.

In this book, Bruni also describes a few other notable mid-14th-century events that are neither politics nor warfare, e.g. a terrible plague epidemic in 1348 (6.37): “more than 70,000 people inside the city died of the disease [. . .] The countryside was entirely emptied out and practically deserted.”

Later this book turns to warfare again and the rest of it I didn't find terribly interesting. The Florentines make war on some of the adjacent cities again, and there's also some fighting in other parts of Italy; even the King of Hungary joins in on the fun. Another notable enemy of the Florentines in this book is one Pier Saccone Tarlati, lord of Arezzo; given how prominent he is here in Bruni's history, I was suprised to see that the Wikipedia hardly mentions him, and he doesn't have an article of his own yet, not even in the Italian Wikipedia. See 7.81–90 for an interesting description of the siege of Scarperia, a small town allied to Florence.

One of those rare passages where Bruni mentions the economy rather than just wars and politics appears here in 7.23. The state, finding itself unable to repay the debts it owed to citizens who had lent it money, yet not wanting to default on these loans, found “a middle course [. . .] The names of those to whom payment was owed were written down [. . .] and an annual return of five per cent from the public fisc was established.” Later this approach was used more and more widely: “Whenever the state needed funds, the citizens paid a contribution and received annual pensions in repayment thereof.” The funds collected in this way were called ‘Monte’, i.e. mountains. “The citizens can buy and exchange Monte credits among themselves [. . .] their price increases or decreases in relation to time, investor confidence and yield.” (6.23) All of this sounds very similar to modern-day bonds. One thing I'm not sure about is what exactly the 5% per year return meant — was it just the interest, with the principal itself still being repaid at some later date? Or would the principal never be repaid, but you'd be receiving your 5% p.a. indefinitely? Or did the 5% p.a. also cover a part of the principal, so that eventually all the debt would be repaid? Or, worst of all (for the lender/bondholder), would you simply receive 5% of the principal for e.g. 20 years, so that you would be effectively giving an interest-free loan to the state? (Well, even that's still better than if they simply defaulted on it... :))

Another rare bit non-war-or-politics material: “a wolf entered the Porta Collina at midday and ran freely through the city. [. . .] it was pursued with hunting cries until at last it went out another gate and was killed on the Via Pisana” (7.26). This was in 1345; Bruni seems to regard it as one of the auguries that foretold the next year's famine.


More warfare here, much of it with Pisa. There are a few interesting mentions of mercenaries, mostly Bretons and Englishmen but also French and Germans.

Bruni says in 8.53 that Florentine merchants did a lot of business in England, and as a result a number of English mercenaries offered their services to Florence first, and only joined its enemies in Pisa when it turned out that the Florentines weren't interested in hiring them.

The celebrated Englishman John Hawkwood is mentioned several times in this book.

Bruni mentions Breton mercenaries in 8.98 as “that most ferocious of peoples”. I remember that Biondo Flavio also mentioned them in his Italy Illuminated. Apparently they really had quite a reputation.

The translator doesn't hesitate to use the word booty in its traditional meaning. Thus the English are “seizing booty everywhere” in 8.59 :) There is also plenty of booty in Vol. 3 (11.62, 11.66, 12.33, and Memoirs ¶9); but perhaps my favourite instance is from 12.40: “The enemy captured the camp along with incalculable booty.” :)

An interesting episode from 1353 highlights the risks of employing mercenaries (8.3). “As there happened to be at this time a respite from the wars”, the mercenaries were out of their jobs and decided to turn to pillage and robbery instead. They were practically a whole army, i.e. a force to be reckoned with.

Incidentally, the translator says (note 80, p. 564) that mercenaries “usually fought on a yearly contract that paid them from the beginning of the campaigning season in May until the following winter, when they would return to farming.” But what sort of farming can you do during the winter? No wonder they took up brigandage instead :)

There's a nice oration in 8.99–106, in which the Florentine ambassadors are asking the pope to stop hostilities against them. They didn't manage to persuade him, though.

[To be continued with Vol. 3.]

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