Saturday, May 24, 2008

BOOK: Pius II, "Commentaries" (Vol. 2)

Pius II: Commentaries. Vol. 2: Books III–IV. Edited by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 29. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674024893. xxvi + 421 pp.

This is the second volume of Pius' autobiography; see my post about Vol. 1 from a few years ago.

Book III

Pius invites various European rulers to a congress in Mantua, hoping to persuade them to organize some kind of latter-day crusade against the Turks, who meanwhile are making good progress in the Balkans — having recently captured e.g. Constantinople, they are now making inroads into Bosnia and Serbia, and it seems clear that Hungary is likely to be next on their menu. Anyway, Pius doesn't get quite the response he may have been hoping for. Many of the princes he'd invited are too busy fighting amongst themselves, or too afraid of possible revolts or conspiracies against their rule to leave their countries for any length of time. So when Pius arrives at Mantua, few of the other supposed attendees are there, and even his own cardinals keep complaining about the hot and humid weather and looking for excuses to leave. It is only after much waiting, prodding and some diplomatic efforts on Pius' part that he collects a decent assembly of princes (or at least their representatives), though even then several of the major ones (e.g. France and England) are missing. Among the attendees is Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan, and Pius includes a short biography of him in this book (3.15–19) — Francesco and his father together form an impressive rags-to-riches story.

He also includes a short overview of Venetian history (3.26–30) before the point where the Venetian delegation belatedly arrives to his congress. You can see that he isn't terribly fond of Venice and its politics. “But in a republican regime nothing is sacred or holy. A republic is a soulless thing and does not fear the fires of hell. The Venetians exiled many of their doges, blinded some, and put others to death; [. . .] they are an uncompromising nation and enforce their laws with stringency.” (3.29.1.) Which is in a way a very nice and clear statement of Pius' own political preferences: I guess he would prefer to deal with a monarchy, where the pope would have better chances of exploiting, for the benefits of the papacy, the monarch's fear of eternal damnation. And he would prefer to deal with a nation of servile sheep than with people who stand up for their own interests. The things he criticizes about the Venetians are in fact, from the present-day point of view, some of their greatest virtues.

On the positive side, he does include a few enthusiastic paragraphs about the city itself, praising its commerce and prosperity, the magnificent shipyards and the splendid buildings, etc. (3.30.2–3).

Pius has a very high opinion of his position as the pope, and is in no doubt that he is above any and all secular rulers. He comments thus on the establishment of Charlemagne's empire: “then the pope of Rome — the true Vicar of Jesus Christ, to whom God the Father gave universal power on heaven and earth — transferred possession of the universal empire from the Greeks to the Germans in the person of Charlemagne” (3.28.1). What amazing and utter arrogance!

Anyway, eventually the congress of Mantua finally begins and Pius includes a few chapters about the progress of the discussions. The attendees agree that the Christian countries must step together for a war against the Turks; that the ones closer to Turkey (especially Hungary) should provide soldiers, while the ones farther away (e.g. Italy) should focus on providing the money (because it would be difficult to transport enough soldiers over such a distance); and that the Turks should be attacked both by land and by sea (with the latter effort being led chiefly by Venice). See e.g. 3.34, 3.47.

The Venetians, however, refuse to make any firm commitments, let alone sacrifices, for this cause, and demand huge sums of money for their participation in the war (3.35). Pius' annoyance is palpable, and he's seething with the sort of contempt which a person with ideals but no money rightfully feels for people who have plenty of money but are unwilling to use it for any good purpose: “The Venetians are never ones to embrace a grand project. They are merchants by and large who care only for profit. The very idea of a glorious deed that can only be achieved at a cost repels them.” (3.35.4.) Interestingly, Pius continues: “They feared that if was were declared against the Turks, their Eastern trade, the very basis of their livelihood, would dry up” — I was surprised by this, as the impression I had from J. J. Norwich's History of Venice (but it's been years since I've read it, so maybe my memory is quite inaccurate) was that it was precisely the presence of the Turks that was causing the Venetian's Eastern trade to dry up. For as long as the weak Byzantine empire existed, the Venetians had many privileges there and were able to do business there with great profit; but the Turks, on the other hand, were quite brutal and didn't care much for trade with Venice. Besides, the presence of the Turks required Venice to plunge into a series of costly (and ultimately unsuccessful) wars in which they had to defend their various Aegean islands from the Turks. In short, the impression I had from Norwich is that the Venetians had a lot to gain from any defeat which the Turks may incur, and they knew it and often pestered other Christian states for help against the Turks (‘we're the bulwark of Christianity, yadda yadda yadda’).

Another problem that Pius had with the Venetians was due to sexual incompatibility. You see, he had a foot fetish that they regrettably didn't share: “even though they saw the ambassadors of kings and of the emperor himself, and mighty princes, too, all prostrate themselves for some time after kissing the pope's feet, they themselves, either out of innate arrogance or with the boorishness of a race of fishermen, would rise at once.” (3.35.8.) He goes on to complain about their arrogance, which struck me as somewhat rich since, as we saw above, Pius was not exactly a meek sheep himself.

Pius is also annoyed with the French, who are more interested in bickering with other Christian countries than in his anti-Turkish war (3.37–40). Chapter 3.40 is entitled “The worthless French legation, concerned only with its own grievances, offers absolutely nothing for the crusade” :))

England was busy with the Wars of the Roses at the time, and Pius describes some of the Church's diplomatic involvement in English affairs (3.41–42).

Book IV

This book was somewhat less interesting than the previous one, because a lot of it deals with the usual regional-level warfare that the history of Renaissance Italy is so full of. The papal state, of course, was inevitably one of the players in this warfare, so Pius couldn't afford to ignore it. We get no further news about the war against the Turks that has been agreed upon at the end of book III — either it will be forgotten altogether or we'll get to hear about it in some later book. Anyway, the French are assiduously interfering in Italian affairs once again, and the very same Italian statelets who had solemnly agreed, at Pius' congress just a short while ago, to help and support each other, are back at each other's throats.

A more interesting part of this book deals with Pius' creation of new cardinals (4.9–11). The usual number of cardinals at that time was just 24 (translator's note 23, p. 390). All sorts of rulers importune the pope with names of their favourite candidates; he also discusses the matter with the existing cardinals, who do not favour the creation of new cardinals, presumably because the influence of the old ones would decrease a bit with this. But apparently Pius needed, or at least wanted, to obtain their consent, so there is a fair amount of haggling before they finally agree on the number and names of the new candidates. I was surprised by the fact that the old cardinals insisted that, if he is going to name any new cardinals at all, he must also include among them his nephew (who was barely legal at the time :) namely 21 and had just recently been made the archbishop of Siena); Pius protests that this nephew is too young for a cardinal, but eventually yields to their pressure anyway. This was in 1460; much later, this nephew himself became a pope (Pius III), and ruled for a grand total of 26 days.

There's an interesting rant about the contemporary mercenaries, listing familiar complaints: “The modern Italian soldier is a faithless thing: he treats war like a business and prolongs each campaign to keep his profits flowing. Bloodshed in battle is rare;” etc. (4.13.1). Once again Pius seems honestly surprised that people selfishly look to their own interests, rather than to his own :)

There's also a pleasantly salacious episode of incest, corruption and bureaucracy, involving a certain French nobleman named Jean of Armagnac, who wished to obtain a papal dispensation that would allow him to marry his sister and thus legalize their incestuous relationship: “His parents had died while he was still a youth, leaving him with a single sister with whom he went too far in his demonstrations of affection until, at last, passion overcame him and he seduced her.” (4.19.2.) His other excuse was that he was too poor to provide him with a dowry which would enable her to marry a man of their rank, and surely you aren't suggesting that he should marry her off to a mere commoner? :) (4.19.1, 4.21.2.) Anyway, in the efforts to obtain his dispensation, the poor count gets into the clutches of corrupt bishops and papal scribes who fleece him in a manner not unlike that of the modern-day Nigerian scammers. His complaints eventually reach the pope, whom he approaches in an honest belief that a dispensation has actually already been granted to him by the previous pope, and that the problem is just that corrupt officials refuse to send it to him (4.19.11). The pope, alas, is not amused, sends the said officials to prison and issues a stern rebuke to the count, ordering him to never see his sister again, to fast on Fridays for a year, and to join the up-coming war against the Turks (4.21.6).

There's an interesting description of a musket in 4.25.5. I guess that personal firearms were just beginning to establish themselves at that time, and Pius was not assuming that his readers are familiar with them. It's a good and clear description, and he even gives the composition of gunpowder.

There's a very amusing anecdote in 4.32.4–8. A middle-aged woman requested an audience with the pope, complained that a certain priest is trying to seduce her, and requested Pius to tell him to stop. “The pope was astonished by this tale. But then he recalled a story by Boccaccio, in which a woman falls in love with a young man and, unable to find any other way to tell him of her passion, asks her confessor to chastise him for annoying her”; eventually the man “realizes what she is after, and finding the way to her house, satisfies her passion. The unsuspecting confessor, in trying to prevent sin, had only encouraged it” (4.32.6). In light of all this, Pius refuses to cooperate: “ ‘My lady, you are very cunning, and far bolder than the woman in Boccaccio's tale. She made her confessor a pimp, but you want the pope to serve your passion. [. . .]’ ” (4.32.7.)

Miscellaneous

I was surprised by this passage in 3.27.5: “In the year 870 he [= the Venetian doge Orso Participazio] sent the emperor at Constantinople a present of twelve bells, said to be the first ever seen in Greece.” Can it be that there hadn't been any bells in Greece until then? I find this quite incredible. This web page for example says that bells were known e.g. in ancient China and are mentioned in the bible; how could the Greeks have ignored them?

He says in 3.27.7 that around the year 1000, “the people of Hadria met the Venetians in battle at Loreo and were utterly destroyed; and so the remnants of that famous city which gave its name to the Adriatic Sea fell into ruin.” I have only recently noticed that the Adriatic sea is named after this town, so I'm always curious to hear more about it, but the thing that surprised me here is that according to the wikipedia, Adria still exists and has approx. 20000 inhabitants nowadays. Perhaps it was rebuilt after Pius' time?

Another thing that surprised me is this passage about how the Bretons originated in Britain and were driven from there by the Angles: “The Bretons sailed to the continent and settled between the Gascons and the Normans.” (3.36.4.) What surprises me is that the Angles invaded Britain in the 5th century, and the Normans settled in Normandy only in the late 9th or 10th. So unless the Bretons endured Anglo-Saxon occupation for 400-500 years before finally deciding to leave, they cannot have settled between the Gascons and the Normans, because there weren't any Normans there yet.

At some point, Francesco Sforza “sent the pope three marvellously fat bulls which had been raised on a regime of turnips, warm water baths, daily grooming, and beds of clean straw. [. . .] The meat tasted wonderful; everyone swore they had never tasted anything better.” Sounds like a medieval version of Kobe beef (= beer & daily massages). :)

From 3.47.3, where Pius discusses why some countries won't help in his war against the Turks: “Scotland [holds out no hope], lying as it does in the farthest reaches of the ocean. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are also too remote to send soldiers and they have no money to contribute, for they live on fish alone.”

“Italian custom is such that bastards often succeed to power” (4.8.3.) Alas, it's the same everywhere! :)) But I don't know whether the pun is present in the original Latin as well; quite possibly it only works in English. Anyway, the direct reference is to Federico of Urbino, who really was a bastard.

Pius visits the baths at Petriolo (4.16.3): “The pope stayed here for twenty days, having warm waters poured through a pipe over the top of his head; the doctors said that this would be good for his health because his brain was too moist.” :))

On a fortress that was conquered by bribery: “What they say is true: no fortress is impregnable if a donkey laden with gold can climb inside.” (2.25.9.)

Among the bits of advice that Pius gives to the citizens of Siena: “Keep an account of your exports and imports; a state that buys more than it sells is in poor shape indeed.” (4.34.2.) Heh, try telling that to the Americans :)

Conclusion

This was certainly a very pleasant read and I'm looking forward to the remaining volumes of Pius' autobiography.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

BOOK: DellaNeva (ed.), "Ciceronian Controversies"

Ciceronian Controversies. Edited by JoAnn DellaNeva, translated by Brian Duvick. Translated by G. W. Bowersock. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 26. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025202. xxxix + 295 pp.

Apparently, this was a debate that attracted great interest among 16th-century humanists: when you are trying to develop your (Latin) writing style, should you imitate just the best writer(s), or should you be more eclectic and allow yourself to be influenced by other good writers as well, trying to take what is useful from each of them in turn? In practice, the ‘best writer’ always turned out to be Cicero, who was widely agreed to be by far the best Latin author for such purposes — hence the word Ciceronian in the title.

This book contains eleven pieces on this subject, mostly from the 16th century, ranging from short letters just a couple of pages long, to formal treatises of 15 or 20 pages. Even those that were originally written as letters were clearly intended to be seen by more people than just the initial recipient, and many were published and reprinted several times during the 16th century, so that later authors were able to read them and refer to them in their own contributions to the debate. The editor also wrote a fairly long introduction, in which she points out, among other things, a number of other authors who participated in this controvery but are not included in this volume. The pieces included here are all by Italian authors, but the debate was also very lively outside Italy, and many authors from Germany, France, the Low Countries, and elsewhere joined in on the fun; one of the best-known contributions was a book titled Ciceronianus by Erasmus of Rotterdam (p. viii).

I didn't find this to be an uninteresting book, but all the time while reading it I couldn't help feeling how very remote this whole 16th-century controversy seems from the things which appear important to me as a person who likes to read books nowadays. The very purpose of writing seems to have changed. To us nowadays (or to me at any rate) rhetoric seems a rather marginal and obscure subject; most of us (myself included) don't have any familiarity with rhetoric as a formal discipline, and rare is the occasion where the use of rhetorical technicalities, flourishes and embellishments would seem to be called for, either in speech or in writing. I doubt that either the politicians or the diplomats nowadays have much use for rhetoric of the sort that Cicero and the humanists studied and practiced; the lawyers perhaps still do, though surely not as much as back then.

In fact I personally tend to think of rhetoric as a somewhat morally dubious practice — isn't its whole purpose to enable the author to make an impression on the reader with the style rather than the substance of his writing? If used as just an ornament, it would be superfluous but tolerable; but all too often, I'm afraid, it was (or still is) used as just a better class of lie, as something to dress up the lies of a lawyer or a politician so that his audience will swallow them more easily. It's the tool of the demagogue, the door-to-door salesman, and the manipulative TV host. What use will an honest novelist or writer of nonfiction nowadays have for the rhetorical practices such as e.g. those mentioned in this book — such as maintaining a notebook with useful phrases, speech openings, etc. that you have picked up from earlier authors during your studies (5.14, p. 105); or counting the number and length of syllables in your text to verify its rhythm (8.13, p. 161)? I was especially surprised by this last thing — I would expect that sort of things from a poet, but not in prose. Not that I object to it, but surely most readers, myself included, wouldn't even notice; and if the rhythm became too noticeable in a piece of prose (as opposed to poetry), it would seem funny.

Anyway, by contrast with all this, it's made evident again and again in this volume how important rhetoric was to the authors included in this volume. They were of course well aware of the whole ‘style vs. substance’ thing that I mentioned above; it's just that many of them consciously chose style rather than substance (see the interesting discussion in the editor's preface, p. xxiii). Indeed the main reason why they are so obsessed by Cicero as a model of style is the fact that he was the most celebrated Roman orator. Either they aren't particularly interested in other types of writing, e.g. novels or works of history, or they think that even for these other things it is still a good idea to learn your style from Cicero's speeches, court pleadings and the like. But I suspect that for the most part they really weren't that interested in these other types of writing.

Of course I don't blame them for that; many times in the ITRL books and elsewhere I've read how valuable a skill it was at that time to be able to compose perfect Latin speeches — diplomats, ambassadors, papal secreteries, chancellors of state, they all seemed to find this immensely important at the time. Frankly, as a materialist and a bit of a cynic, I wonder how true this really was; surely, what matters most on the diplomatic stage is to have a strong army and a solid economy to support it; if you have that, rhetorical flourishes are superfluous, and if you don't have it, then no amount of rhetorical skill will prevent your more powerful neighbours from trampling you. But anyway, there seems to be no doubt that rhetoric was really important to the authors included in this book, and that for them good writing inevitably meant writing founded on the principles of rhetorics such as you might learn by studying Cicero and similar authors.

Another thing that stems from this whole fixation with rhetoric is the idea of imitation. Neither of the two sides in this controversy was in any real doubt about the fact that you have to imitate earlier authors, the only question was how much to imitate (can you lift entire phrases from classical authors? entire sentences?) and whether to imitate just Cicero (or Virgil if you're writing verse), or other authors as well. I wonder if authors nowadays still get advice like this? My impression is that nowadays, originality is much more important than imitating the example of earlier authors. Indeed I often feel that we worship originality too much nowadays, so that authors try to be radically different from previous ones at all costs, even if it leads to works that are largely unreadable and incomprehensible (see e.g. the vast majority of 20th-century literature :]). But at the same time I think the 16th-century authors in this book went too far in the other direction, i.e. recommending imitation but hardly ever encouraging the fledgling writer to try developing his own original voice. They do mention originality, but recommend it only after you've spent several years in the apprentice work of imitating Cicero and company. Incidentally, the editor's preface says (p. x) that “the prized literary virtue of ‘originality’ ” formed in the Romantic period.

Given all this, both sides of the controversy seemed so remote from my interests that the disagreements between them appeared to me far smaller than the similarities, although I guess it didn't seem that way at all to the actual participants in the controversy :) Some of the authors in this book defend the Cicero-only side of the debate, others defend eclecticism, and a few at the end attempt to conclude the debate with some kind of synthesis. I personally felt that the arguments of each side had some merit, and I was sort of saddened to see that they went to the trouble of working up a whole controversy out of this, when they could have simply found a happy middle ground which presented itself naturally enough.

The Ciceronians would say that Cicero is by far the best Latin orator and stylist, so why imitate somebody who's merely second best when you can learn from the best source? The eclecticists say that, even if Cicero is the best writer, there are still many valuable things to be found in the other authors, which it would be a pity to spurn just because these authors as a whole are inferior to Cicero; and besides, some of these authors may suit your own innate style and temperament better than Cicero (3.26, p. 39); and besides it may be just plain too difficult for a beginner to imitate Cicero, so it may be better for him to start with slightly less good authors until he gains experience. The Ciceronians then answer that this would just ruin his not-yet-formed taste (4.23, p. 71), and that following multiple authors rather than just Cicero will either make your own style a mixed-up mess of disparate influences (4.15, p. 61), or you won't be able to tell what is good in other authors and what isn't, so you'll end up following their errors and not just their good sides. The eclecticists answer that the Ciceronians do the same, except that they end up following Cicero's errors rather than somebody else's; and they further say that an imitator who is too faithful ends up being laughable, like a monkey that is aping a man (1.1, p. 3). The Ciceronians answer that no, we aren't trying to be like a monkey aping a man, but like a son that resembles his father (2.2, p. 9); etc., etc.

Fortunately, since these are all very cultivated people busily attending to the principles of rhetoric, we are spared the full-scale shit-slinging flamefest that would no doubt have ensued if this debate were going on nowadays on the usenet or in the blogosphere :) Those authors who try to find a middle ground tend to converge towards the idea that a student should follow chiefly Cicero in his first years, but after he has formed his taste and gained some experience, he can also study other authors.

Incidentally, I'm curious to what extent this whole emphasis on imitating ancient authors (or, in some few cases, modern ones too — this is recommended by one or two authors in this volume) is a consequence of the fact that these humanists were all trying to write in a foreign and dead language, namely in Latin, rather than in their native one. It is, after all, notoriously difficult to write well in a foreign language, and cases when an author manages to turn out really great literature in a foreign language are few and far between. The fact that Latin was also a dead language surely made matters only worse. I wonder if the humanists also talked so much about imitation when developing their Italian writing style, or were they content to do the sensible thing there and rely on their native ear for the language? And is the reason why these debates on imitation seem so irrelevant to me nowadays simply because nobody seriously tries to write in dead languages anymore? The idea that you should study and imitate just Cicero's works for a few years before you can even consider looking at other authors seems so completely outlandish nowadays — can you imagine such advice being given to somebody who is trying to write in English now? Whom would you recommend in the same way that Cicero was recommended in the case of Latin? The very idea that a new writer should form his style on the basis of just one particular earlier author, no matter how famous and respected, seems utterly preposterous nowadays.

There are a couple of amusing anecdotes in a letter by Gianfrancesco Pico (a nephew of the better-known philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola), poking fun at instances of excessive reverence for old works of art and literature just because they are old. He mentions certain letters of Cicero that were widely praised, but when a modern writer tried to pass them off as his own, with minimal changes, critics founds a number of faults with them (3.20–21, p. 33).

Another funny anecdote from a treatise of Celio Calcagnini: he mentions (8.6, p. 153) “those depraved gluttons who spat on the most exquisite dishes at the feast of Dionysius of Syracuse so they could gorge themselves without rival and keep the other feasters from the same dishes out of disgust.” But really, this problem is easily remedied — if somebody has already spit into a dish that you fancy, you have to just spit into it yourself as well, and you will have spoiled his fun just as much as he has spoiled yours.

A very interesting endnote about the etymology of ‘plagiarism’ (p. 266, n. 58): “Literally, the word [plagium] was used to refer to kidnapping and only by extension (and rarely) to literary theft. The more common rendering of this idea both in antiquity and the Renaissance was furtum.” Clearly offended writers have a lamentable tendency to employ this kind of ridiculously hyperbolic terminology — first they compare plagiarism to kidnapping, and later they compared an unauthorized republication of a work to capturing a ship, i.e. piracy. I think it's rather offensive to the real victims of kidnapping and piracy, which are rather more grim and serious crimes than plagiarism and unauthorized reprinting of a book.

To conclude, I don't doubt that this is a very good book for someone interested in this controversy. I was particularly impressed by the large amount of effort that the editor clearly spent on this book; there's a long preface, a note on the text, and a long bibliography, with lots of information about the progress of the controversy in the 16th century, and about other people and writings involved in it. There are also lots of footnotes pointing out the sources of various metaphors and other rhetorical elements that appear in the writings. Anyway, all of this is undoubtedly very interesting for the right sort of reader; but for me, reading this book reminded me once again of what Arthur Quiller-Couch once wrote: “Of all dust, the ashes of dead controversies afford the driest.”

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

BOOK: Leonardo Bruni, "History of the Florentine People" (Vol. 3)

Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People. Vol. 3: Books V–VIII. Memoirs. Edited and translated by James Hankins with D. J. W. Bradley. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 27. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674016823. xxv + 477 pp.

[Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.]

The preface contains a very interesting discussion about Bruni's use of his sources. “Bruni became the first historian in Western tradition to compose a history based extensively on sources in government archives.” (P. xviii.) His political position as the chancellor of Florence gave him wide access to the city archives. Another major source for his work were various late-medieval chronicles, especially that of Villani. “[M]any students of Western historiography [. . .] have written off Bruni's History as a mere reworking, in sub-Ciceronian Latin, of Villani's far more detailed, vivid and entertaining vernacular chronicle.” (P. xix.) So maybe that would be an interesting thing to read, but it seems that only parts of it have been translated into English.

Book IX

The first part of the book tells about the great civil discord that arose in Florence in 1378. It started among the more notable part of the citizenry, with one side abusing certain laws to prevent the other side from obtaining political office (9.1–3), but soon the lower classes got involved too: they “began to hold nocturnal meetings and to discuss how they might lay claim to offices for themselves; and in the end they agreed to seek a guild of their own in the city and a place on the priorate” (9.4). Apparently membership in a guild was necessary to participate in politics, and was beyond the reach of the poor. These demands of the poor seem entirely reasonable to me, but Bruni is of course consistent with his well-known pro-middle-class bias and shows no sympathy for them. Neither did the city authorities at the time, with the result that the “mob” rose in armed revolt and seized power for itself (9.4–5). Unsurprisingly, the rich found themselves targets of violence and plunder in the process, and Bruni just can't stop sympathizing with them and condemning those no-good plebeians: “This state of affairs can stand as an eternal example and warning for the city's leading citizens that they should not allow civil unrest and armed force to come down to the whims of the mob” (9.6). Sadly, the lower classes were pushed out of politics again a few years later, in 1381; “the two new [guilds] that had recently been added, comprised of the humbler sort of workers, were abolished” an an uprising of their members “was easily suppressed” (9.45).

In 9.23 Bruni mentions the leader of a group of German soldiers as “Guilielmus Filibachius”, which the English translation gives as “Guglielmo Filibach”. I wonder if he wasn't really a German himself, Wilhelm rather than Guglielmo?

A plague epidemic struck again 1383 (9.57). Everyone who could afford it tried to escape from the city, and the authorities started to fear that it would fall into the hand of the plebeians again, since only they would be left. “So a law was passed forbidding Florentine citizens from leaving their homes” but, unsurprisingly, it didn't really have much of an effect. But in principle, I like the idea, not because I'd be worried at the prospect of a city falling into the hands of the poor, but because by forcing the rich to share in the natural disaster that affects the rest of the population, you increase the chances that they will be willing to do more for the prevention and management of such disasters, and that would of course benefit everyone in the long run. For example, it is well-known that a few years ago, when the hurricane flooded New Orleans, the poor were stuck in the city while the middle and upper classes ran away in time. Perhaps they would have done more to make sure that the levees are maintained well if they had known that they would be prohibited from leaving the city in the event of such a disaster.

On the subject of foreign affairs, this book didn't interest me very much. There's a lot of bickering involving various Hungarian potentates, among others King Louis and a relative of his, one Charles, and also the Frenchman Louis of Anjou; both of the latter two claimed the kingdom of Naples from Queen Johanna. Towards the end of this book, a new villain arises, Duke Giangaleazzo of Milan, who goes to considerable length to pick a quarrel with Florence and a war between Florence and Milan finally breaks out at the end of the book.

An interesting note by the translator (note 3, p. 413): “It was illegal in Florence, as in other late medieval city-states, to discuss in private changes to the constitution; this was considered tantamount to sedition.”

Book X

This book is entirely about the war with Milan, which took place in the years 1390–1. As usually, the details of campaigns, sieges etc. didn't interest me very much. The Florentines try to engage all sorts of mercenaries — the Englishman John Hawkwood is the commander of their forces (10.6), but they also hire Germans (10.12) and Frenchmen (10.31). The mercenaries (unsurprisingly) don't always turn out to be entirely reliable, and may e.g. simply decide one fine day to return home since they aren't getting paid as much as they think they should be getting.

There are a couple of nice speeches in 10.21–27, with the ambassadors from Bologna, unable to bear the costs of the war any longer, asking their Florentine allies to let them conclude a separate peace with Milan. Florence didn't reply very kindly, and apparently Bologna not only stayed in the war but pursued it more vigorously thereafter (10.28).

Books XI and XII

Nothing terribly interesting here either, I'm afraid. A bewildering amount of fighting is still going on, as usually, with much of it still involving Giangaleazzo, the Duke of Milan. Towards the end of the book he starts feeling that he's about to die and, since his children are still very young and it would be several years before they can really lead a country on their own, Giangaleazzo tries to hastily secure a peace so that his heirs would find themselves in stable enough conditions and could somehow manage to weather the rest of their minority. However, he died before a peace treaty could actually be concluded, and the resulting situation was a great reversal of fortune for the Milanese (12.45–7).

One of the problems of using mercenaries in war is that during periods of peace, they aren't getting paid and might therefore turn into robbers. This has already been mentioned in book VIII. Here in 11.1 Bruni describes how the Florentines and the Milanese, when signing a peace treaty, explicitly made provisions that the mercenaries should be discharged in small groups, so that they wouldn't form robber bands. Unsurprisingly, this did not altogether prevent the occurrence of mercenaries-turned-robbers (11.7, 11.17).

There's an interesting description of the splendid games that were organized in Florence in 1392 to celebrate the birth of the French king's first son (11.5). The event featured “an equestrian battle with arms and equipment, representing a real battle in the form of a contest.” Bruni is clearly very proud that his city set up such an event and his enthusiasm is infectious: “Particolored vestments gleaming with purple and gold covered their armor. The only thing that distinguished the contest from true battle was that they fought with blunt swords” (11.5).

An amusing if undiplomatic statement, said by the condottiere Giovanni da Barbiano to a Florentine ambassador in 1395: “ ‘How arrogant you are, you Florentines! Nowadays nobody in all of Italy can fart without you sticking your noses in. [. . .]’ ” (11.28.) I suspect there was a grain of truth in that. But then this is often the case for great powers.

Bruni describes a touching religious phenomenon which occurred in the year 1399: “The entire population everywhere put on white clothing and, after performing certain pious rites, long columns of people dressed in white made their way, with incredibly fervid devotion, to neighboring cities, praying with suppliant cries for peace and mercy. [. . .] A pilgrimage would last around ten days, and the food was generally bread and water. [. . .] Access to foreign towns was free [. . ..] There was a tacit truce between enemies. This movement lasted nearly two months, during which city populations would set out for foreign cities and other populations would come into theirs. There were marvelous expressions of hospitality everywhere and kind welcome.” (12.1.) He also mentions this movement in his Memoirs, ¶23. Of course, it is not hard to guess how the whole thing ended: “So long as religion occupied peoples' minds, no one gave a thought to the perils of war, but one the fervor of the Bianchi movement had passed, those minds returned one more to their earlier concerns.” (12.3.) And so war continued.

Memoirs

This is not a part of The History of the Florentine People, but a separate work. As the title suggests, it covers the period that Bruni experienced personally, and it is also focused a bit more towards things in which he was directly involved, e.g. during his career as the pope's secretary, and later as a politician in Florence, where he held various important positions in bodies such as the priorate and the ‘Ten of War’. The memoir begins in the late 14th century (so there is a bit of overlap with the History) and ends in the year 1440 or so.

Although Bruni says several times (¶107, 114) that he isn't going to go into too much detail because this is a memoir and not a history, he still provides quite a bit of detail about warfare and the like — the same things that had already failed to interest me while reading his History. But the proportion of other, more interesting things is greater here than it was in the History. In the History, you of course can't help noticing what a turbulent era it was, with wars going on practically all the time; but from the way they were presented there, it was easy to feel somehow detached from them and forget that in the end each war makes a mess out of the lives of a huge number of individual people. Here in the Memoirs we see a few glimpses of how Bruni was affected by the various commotions that he had lived through. For example, during one of the wars in the late 14th century, Bruni and his father were captured and imprisoned by the Florentine exiles: “Because I was a child I was not kept with the other prisoners but was kept secure more appropriately in one of the bedrooms. In that bedroom there was a picture of Francesco Petrarch, the daily spectacle of which kindled in me a passionate enthusiasm for his literary pursuits.” (¶16.) He also found himself in personal danger during certain commotions in Rome, at the time when he was employed by the pope (¶34).

He mentions an interesting change in Italian warfare that occurred during his lifetime: “the Italians had completely recovered the use of arms” (¶22), i.e. enough good Italian mercenaries were available that they didn't have to hire foreigners as they had been used to do in the past. But to me it seems more problematic that you are hiring mercenaries, not that the mercenaries in question are foreigners. That they are foreigners is a problem only if they aren't really ordinary mercenaries but are actually the soldiers of some strong foreign ruler that may use this as an excuse to start interfering in your affairs (and this certainly was a problem in renaissance Italy).

As a welcome change from war, politics and diplomacy, the memoir also contains a few paragraphs about Bruni's studies, especially his enthusiasm to learn Greek (from Manuel Chrysoloras, a refugee from Byzantium and one of the first Greeks who started teaching Greek in Italy; ¶24–6). He also mentions a plague epidemic which struck Florence in the year 1400 (¶27).

Another interesting thing that Bruni mentions were the efforts to reconciliate Western and Eastern christianity — a big delegation came from Greece, including even the Byzantine emperor, and after several months of negotiations with the pope the two sides finally came to terms and agreed on a union of the two churches (¶105). However, I guess that not much came of these efforts in the long term, as the catholics and the orthodox are still quite firmly separate rather than united.

Conclusion

Although I found a reasonable number of interesting passages and factoids in these three volumes (as my posts above show), yet I cannot deny that I found the work as a whole quite a boring read. This is the sort of low-level history that I'm just not interested in — there's too much detail, too many things that don't really have any long-term importance, and it's written in such a way that it's too difficult to follow the big picture as you read (assuming there even is a big picture in the mess that is Italian renaissance history).

Now, before you dash off that comment telling me that I'm stupid for not recognizing the immense and obvious importance of Bruni's History — please, spare yourself the trouble of doing that, as I already know all this quite well. I know that I'm not really the target audience for this book, I know that I'm missing the point, I know that the fact that I found the book boring is as unsurprising as it is irrelevant, and I don't for a moment entertain any illusions that my impressions of this book (and that is all that these blog posts really are) should have any weight whatsoever. And I certainly don't hold the fact that I was bored by this book against Bruni, or anyone else involved in producing it. In fact, as far as I understand the translator's prefaces, Bruni was in fact at the forefront of the historiography of his time, and his ability to use and synthesize a large and diverse amount of written sources is a step forward in comparison with the work of earlier historians, chroniclers and the like. There's nothing wrong with Bruni's History, I'm just not the right reader for it.

P.S. The ITRL is like a goddamned hydra. Just as I finally manage to read one three-volume history of an Italian town, they promptly being publishing another one: Pietro Bembo's History of Venice (Vol. 1, Vol. 2 — with Vol. 3 to follow before long, I guess). Who knows, maybe I'll enjoy it better than I did Bruni? Hope dies last :)

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

OMG medicinski fenomen!

Saj sem že večkrat slišal, da so bili Habsburžani zaradi večstoletne tradicije porok med bližnjimi sorodniki malo čudni, ampak tole je pa res že od sile: ženska je rodila 50 let po svoji smrti!

nedelo-franc-jozef

Ah, diskretni šarm nekrofilije...

[Vir: Nedelo, 4. maja 2008, priloga Odprta kuhinja, str. 9.]

P.S. Mimogrede, podoben podatek, torej da je bil Franc Jožef sin Marije Terezije, sem slišal pred nekaj tedni tudi na radiu — mislim, da na Valu 202. Najbrž je težava v tem, da poznajo naši polpismeni novinarji od cele habsburške dinastije le dva vladarja, namreč Franca Jožefa in Marijo Terezijo. Ker si očitno zlasti za slednjo ne predstavljajo pretirano natančno, kdaj je živela (18. stoletje je že tako daleč nazaj!), je pač naraven sklep ta, da mora biti ona njegova mama. Zmedo v glavi jim še poveča dejstvo, da je Marija Terezija dejansko imela sina s podobnim imenom, namreč Jožefa II.

P.P.S. Če sem prav štel po Wikipediji, je bil Franc Jožef v resnici njen prapravnuk.

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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.

Book VIII

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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Monday, April 28, 2008

Burn, baby, burn!

From an eBay auction currently in progress:

COMPLETE POETICAL WORKS OF ROBERT W SERVICE (SINGED)

[. . .]

HELLO THIS BOOK IS IN VERY GOOD CONDITION FOR ITS AGE I FOUND IT AT A ESTATE SALE ITS DATED 1921 AND ITS SINGED AND HAS THE ORIGANOIL BOOK COVER ON IT THANKS FOR LOOKING SHIPPING IN THE US IS 10.00 DOLLARS OUT OF THE US IS 14.00 DOLLARS AND UP DEPENDS WERE YOUR AT THANKS

Mmm, nicely basted with oregano oil, then singed :)

P.S. How on earth did a person as illiterate as this get into the business of selling books on eBay?

book-singed

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

BOOK: G. R. Elford, "Devil's Guard" (cont.)

George Robert Elford: Devil's Guard. London: New English Library, 1973. (First ed.: New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.) SBN 450013367. 349 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

More of Wagemueller's political ideas

He also has a very annoying tendency to refer to the Viet Minh as ‘terrorists’ — he uses this term pretty much interchangeably with ‘guerrillas’. Apparently then this regrettable inflation of the use of the word ‘terrorist’ is not just a characteristic of the present Bush regime but goes back much farther in time. Anyway, I think it's silly to regard the Viet Minh as terrorists — they were a perfectly decent guerrilla force, leading a perfectly ordinary guerrilla war. Terrorism consists of acts of violence against innocent people, carried out with the purpose of intimidating the population of a certain area (or a part of that population). If, on the other hand, you are simply killing foreign soldiers and colonial administrators that are occupying your country, this isn't terrorism but a perfectly ordinary struggle for national liberation. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with terrorism, of course — it depends on its goals; in most instances it's entirely reasonable — but I'm annoyed at this silly blurring of the distinction between the words ‘terrorists’ and ‘guerrillas’.

He doesn't hide his admiration for the way that totalitarian systems can impose an illusion of order. After praising WW2-era Japanese maps of the Indochinese peninsula, he rants on: “There was good order in Japan — as there used to be in Germany. The French housekeeping was nothing but a giant whorehouse from maps to machine guns. Nothing ever functioned properly. Not even the water closets.” (P. 107.)

The communist press

Wagemueller often whines about the fact that the communists have much better PR than their enemies. See e.g. pp. 91, 250. His French commanding officer, colonel Houssong, approves of Wagemueller's methods but says (p. 179–80): “Your methods might pass occasionally and locally, but they would never survive for a week on any large scale. I know that your Heinrich Himmler would have settled the Viet Minh problem a long time ago with Zyclon-B (poison gas used by the Nazis in the extermination camps) and the crematorium but France is supposed to be a democracy. The terrorists are firmly entrenched in the world's opinion as resolute heroes who are fighting a modern military power with bows and spears, striving only for independence and human rights. No one has ever protested against any Viet Minh outrage, although I could show them a list of thirty thousand civilians slaughtered by the Communists in cold blood. All the same when we execute a terrorist with the blood of a hundred people on his hands, the execution is headlined even in America, let alone Europe and its Communist press, as another French war crime. Whenever we touch a filthy killer, there are demonstrations and protests. They would even call us Nazis, Wagemueller.”

It's a pity that Wagemueller and Houssong don't draw the obvious conclusions from these observations. The communists get better PR because they are in fact fighting for a good cause. It's the French that are the morally bankrupt side in this war. Despite what Wagemueller says on p. 78, it was not the Viet Minh who started this — no Vietnamese communist had ever attempted to colonize France. No, it was the French who started it, more than a hundred years earlier, when they began interfering in Indochinese matters.

And the other conclusion that they should have drawn is that if you want to seize another nation's land you should take care to exterminate (or assimilate, but that's more difficult) its previous inhabitants. Since this is obviously a horrible thing to do, it's far better to not seize other nations' lands in the first place. But whatever you do, don't just proclaim that they're a colony of yours, set up a handful of bureaucrats and officers and then whine when the local population starts shooting at them. It's tiresome, annoying and the imperialist tends to lose in the long term anyway.

Also on the subject of communist PR, Wagemueller complains that the communists had a habit of rearranging the corpses of their dead so as to make it seem that the French had murdered innocent civillians, which of course made for great propaganda photos (pp. 249, 265). And, eventually, it was communist PR that led to the international pressure that caused the French to disband Wagemueller's unit (pp. 347–8; “ ‘SS marauders in the French Foreign Legion massacre innocent civilians,’ the Communist press screamed. [. . .] And what the regiments of Ho Chi Minh could not achieve in five years the international Communist fifth column accomplished in five weeks. We were ordered to return to Hanoi.”)

Miscellaneous

There are also a couple of rants about the conditions in postwar Germany, pp. 16, 331–2.

Chapter 12 is interesting — Wagemueller and his men organize a ‘panel discussion’ with a captured communist agitator (whom they subsequently release), to argue for and against the merits of communism in front of a group of simple Vietnamese villagers. But I must admit that I wasn't particularly impressed with either side in this debate. The communist agitator mostly contents himself with trotting out lots of tired over-the-top communist propaganda and repeatedly pointing out that his opponents are colonialist imperialist murderers. Wagemueller's side mostly content themselves with pointing out that their opponents are communist murderers and that communism has already degenerated into tyranny in the Soviet Union and in China.

But, surely, it's all so simple — there's no very good reason why communism should necessarly descend into tyranny. In my impression it has historically usually done that because of the presence of external and/or internal enemies. If it wasn't for that, no tyranny would really be necessary. You just have to point out to the peasant what proportion of his income is seized by the rich landowner, and point out to the worker what proportion of his income is seized by the capitalist and the factory bosses; once they realize this, the vast majority of the people will support land reform and a nationalization of the economy, and that's pretty much it. No tyranny required. At the very worst you might have to kill the rich classes, but that's just a handful of people (especially in a country with huge inequalities in wealth, such as Vietnam no doubt was at the time), and nobody is going to miss them. Once that is over with, there's no very good reason why everyone wouldn't be able to get along just fine, and everything would continue pretty much the same as before the revolution, except that it isn't necessary to feed a class of parasitic capitalist exploiters any longer, so that a lot more stuff is left for everyone else.

Chapter 14 is also very interesting — Wagemueller is interviewed by a group of French journalists and takes the opportunity to advocate the use of his Nazi methods (“We met guerrillas in Russia. When they gave us too much trouble within a specific area, we carted off the entire male population to Germany. Two days later there was no terrorist movement in the district.” (p. 277)) and indulge in yet more anti-communist rantings and general geopolitical bloviation (pp. 278–81).

Here's an example of a particularly rich anti-communist rant from p. 78: “Genocide is a Communist specialty. Even Hitler's extermination camps were modeled after Stalin's death camps in Siberia.”

He brags on p. 109, commenting on a successful move against the Viet Minh: “encirclement had always been a German specialty.” Yup, it worked marvellously at Stalingrad... :)))

Bibliographic history

Incidentally, this book is somewhat hard to get at an affordable price. I found this somewhat surprising; after the first hardcover edition (NY: Delacorte, 1971), there were a number of trade paperback printings (Dell in the US, and New English Library in the UK), the last of which were published as late as 1988. So one would expect that there should be plenty of copies of this book; and yet apparently there is such a shortage of copies and such a high demand that secondhand copies on eBay are actually attracting bids in the $50–$100 range, and you can see copies for sale for as much as £100 on ABEbooks.com, Amazon and similar sites; I suppose someone eventually buys those as well. I'm surprised that it doesn't get reprinted in larger quantities if there's so much interest in it. There was a new printing in 2002 by Hailer Publishing, but as far as I can tell, this is also out of print and secondhand copies on ABE aren't really much cheaper than those of the earlier paperback copies from the 1970s and 80s. I managed to buy my copy on eBay for just $14 — it was buried in a lot of 17 military paperbacks and I guess that the seller didn't know that it's potentially worth much more, nor did any of the people interested in this book notice it mentioned in the auction description.

Conclusion

What to say at the end? This wasn't a particularly edifying read. I suppose that military fiction is a well-established genre, but this is the first book of that sort that I've read, so I can't say how it compares to other books in that genre. I've found it interesting as a novelty, but I don't think I'll be wanting to read more in this genre. It was sort of interesting to read about various military techniques, tactics, and tricks; I don't care much about warfare, and until now I've always read about it from a large-scale perspective, rather than on the level of a smaller unit such as the one described in this book. But sooner or later it would probably get boring to read more about people wading through the jungle and committing atrocities upon each other.

Another aspect in which this book is interesting is as a plausible speculation about how a diehard anti-communist zealot and ex-Nazi such as Wagemueller might have seen the first Vietnam war. But, again, Wagemueller is such an unlikeable character that one doesn't particularly care to read more about him. Elford later wrote two sequels to this book (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.

All in all, buying and reading this book was a positive experience for me, but if I had paid $50 or $100 for it, rather than $14, I would consider it a disappointment.

ToRead:

  • See also this blog post about the book — a longish appreciation of the book by someone who, alas, thoroughly shares Wagemueller's ideology and approves of his methods. I do find it amusing, though, to see a Portuguese so keen on Nazism and white supremacy — I don't doubt that your typical WW2-era German Nazi would regard the Portuguese as seriously racially inferior to himself :))

  • Elfort wrote two sequels to The Devil's Guard, (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.

  • F. Spencer Chapman: The Jungle is Neutral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949). Memoirs of a British officer that had fought with Malay guerrillas against the Japanese during the WW2. Mentioned here on pp. 83–4.

  • Jean Lartéguy: Yellow Fever. A 1965 novel that also takes place in Vietnam but at a later point in the war (1954). See this page. But where I first heard of this book was in George Adams' delightful Great Hong Kong Sex novel (1993).

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