Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700, by Lauro Martines

By James Barasch on March 31, 2013

As one of the few species who consistently fight each other for reasons other than sustenance and reproduction, human beings have left a legacy of war and conflict that we have experienced as recently as the ‘barbaric’ atrocities committed in Kosovo and Syria. Renaissance historian Lauro Martines strips away the ‘romanticism’ from early modern warfare in his eloquent though graphic book “Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700.” Though this period of Renaissance and the early Enlightenment was a time of great intellectual achievement and material progress, Martines emphasizes that it hosted a series of wars, brutal and deadly for both soldiers and civilians. Whether motivated by religion, dynastic greed, or great geopolitical realignments, the princes of Europe unleashed military forces that often spiraled out of their control, as their negligence to properly pay and feed the soldiers they had pressed into service spelled disaster for millions of noncombatants who were at the mercy of armed, starving and angry men.

In no other period of European history prior to the World Wars of the 20th century was fighting so pervasive and conflict so total as during this early modern period (1450-1700),  Martines argues. During the Renaissance, new styles of warfare and abilities to conscript many thousands of soldiers had been imposed on a feudal administrative and logistical system that was just barely emerging from the medieval period, where war, though often continuous, was fought on a small scale, with relatively low civilian casualties. Martines radically reinterprets the historical records from 1450 to 1700, and demonstrates through his analysis that this increased ability to mobilize larger armies was not matched by an equally increased ability to effectively manage, feed and pay such armies. Thus, European rulers’ abilities to conscript armies often exceeded their capacities to efficiently manage them.

The squalid, sordid conditions in camp made armies breeding grounds for rapidly contagious diseases, and indeed Martines argues that many of the plagues that ravaged Europe during this period originated in the army. Therefore, the vast majority of soldiers who fought in the Italian Wars (1494-1559), the Dutch Revolts (1568-1648), and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) died not of wounds from the battlefield, but of rampant disease and starvation. Lack of organization also rendered armies, mainly composed of independently contracting bands organized by demanding mercenary colonels, more difficult to control, and a second major theme of Furies exposes how the real losers of the many large-scale conflicts were not the great princes who began them, but the peasant villagers and townsmen who were often caught between large, starving, disease-ridden armies eager to recoup their unpaid wages at a princely interest.

Martines concludes that, given the horrid conditions and experiences of both civilian and soldier, it is unsurprising that many intellectuals at the time, especially Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) possessed a low opinion of human nature and thought that the brutal, rapine way of early modern warfare was indeed the state of nature for humanity. Many of us, safe, healthy and well-fed in the modern era, ascribe to the romanticized view of early-modern warfare offered by the many aristocratic chroniclers of the time, and are therefore shocked today to see such bloody and cruel ‘antiquated’ violence reappear again in less fortunate areas of the world. Martines’ book is therefore not only history, but also a brilliantly written and analyzed reminder of the fragile nature of the civilized rules that so many of us take for granted.

Rating: 4/5

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