Review of Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700

Having recently finished Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700, I cannot be more pleased by all the details of Renaissance warfare provided by Lauro Martines.  Martines augments our understanding our the everyday realities of war for the common soldier and civilian as well as the logistical and financial problems posed by the great armies and numerous conflicts of this time.  On one hand, this history is a poor choice for those who wish to learn the political motivations behind these wars and about the actual battles.  But, no other work likely covers as well the dark side of warfare during this era.


A friend of mine tells me that the officer class was created as a means to restrain the soldiers after victory.  Rulers and generals began to fear the atrocities soldiers may commit against the civilian populace of cities taken by siege or the massacre of defeated soldiers.  Martines’s description of the outrages committed against civilians both by foraging parties of troops and soldiers who had taken a city by storm corroborate my friend’s assertion.  The order to sack a city almost seemed like blanket permission to pillage, muder, torture, and rape.  Of course, not every soldier would be inclined to do the last three; but, by the rules of war, the property of the losing side was forfeit.  Also, the soldiers, likely maddened by starvation, might be driven to the extremes of ferocity for a bite to eat.


Martines expends perhaps most of the book explaining the logistical difficulties of war.  Soldiers commonly went unpaid and unfed.  These and other hardships lead to mass desertions.  It was a common thing for countries to default because of the expenses of war: Spain did so five time over the course of a century, and France was about equally guilty.  (Interestingly, this gives me hope for my own country should America ever default.)  The best country in terms of paying its soldiers was the Netherlands, which fact no doubt helped in its struggle for independence from the Hapsburg monarchy.

Musketeers on the March

Yet, the most striking thing about this history, outside of the cases of singular barbarity and savagery, is how mean a position the Renaissance soldier held.  The understanding of the soldier as a hero who risked his life for his country was lost during this period.  Romantic literature like The Three Musketeers presents too rosy of a picture by far–even if that makes for a great novel!  Obviously, war did offer the possibility of fame for the nobility, but most people avoided soldiering like the plague.  (The Scots and the Swiss seem to be the sole exceptions.)  Many of my readers are familiar with the practice of impressment.  The idle poor and vagrants were particular targets of captains recruiting for their units, and condemned men might have their sentence commuted to military service.  Yes, military service was equated to a death sentence.  Some families even adopted children so that their natural born sons could escape the draft!

Highland Soldier

Can it be any wonder that the common soldiers of this time were especially vicious when not only were the worst criminals included in the ranks but even the outcasts of society?  Both of whom civilians society expected war to cleanse from its ranks?  How easily might these factors destroy the least shred of empathy in a human heart?

So, though this examination of the dark side of history is not my favorite kind of work, I appreciated how well Martines covered these details.  The effect was to create a much more complete picture of the period.  This work is a must read for those who wish to understand the grim side of early modern Europe.  The Renaissance was not all art and belles-lettres!

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