I have an ambiguous relationship to the Game of Thrones TV series: I don’t like it but I can’t stop watching it. That said, I always thought it was a bit too much like a soap opera for the “distinguished” fantasy fan, too many overly dramatic twists, turns and betrayals that felt a bit unrealistic.
Turns out I knew nothing. After reading Francis Stonor Saunders Hawkwood, subtitled Diabolical Englishman, I realized that in a lot of ways Game of Thrones just mirrors historical eras where political stability was a rare good. Hawkwood was an English mercenary who was active in 14th-century Italy, which was characterized by city-states fighting against each other while trying to keep the pope from taking full control of the country.
Mercenary is actually a glorified term for what was most of the time a well organized band of criminals who razed the lands, took citizens hostage for either money or services and just in general behaved like a horde of locusts that left only pain and misery in their wake.
Still, most rich cities in Italy at the time (as well as the pope), while officially condemning the mercenary units (early on mostly made up from foreigners), still hired them to attack other cities and never learned from how often that bit them back. One day a mercenary company worked for you, the next day it attacked you and took you hostage, if another city paid a better price.
Loyalties were always shifting, individual mercenaries broke of and build new companies that often fought against old comrades and betrayals were just normal business. Hawkwood was one of the few foreign mercenaries who survived to old age and was even honored by one of the most famous of the Italian city-states, despite never having shown any commitment to higher ideals other than his own gain. Still, unlike many of his peers, Hawkwood was good at playing the political angle to support his militaristic endeavors and almost always found a way to turn around a loss or at least get away mostly unharmed.
Saunders’ book is extremely good at portraying the ever-shifting landscape of fortune for most major players at the time, and unlike fiction there’s no certainty about who lives and dies. There are no real good guys either, just people trying to survive, carve out a place for themselves at the expense of others. Not a nice time, but like with Game of Thrones, very intriguing. Also made me realize how little I actually now about Europe’s history.