Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.08.20 Caferro, Petrarch’s War

19.08.20 Caferro, Petrarch’s War

William Caferro's study of what he dubs "Petrarch's war" is a small book with large ambitions. In it, Caferro looks at the intersection of major historical topics (war, plague, economics, literary culture, Florentine government) while also offering methodological critiques of current approaches to economic history and a plea for detailed analysis of the short term in history as a corrective to over-generalized long term perspectives. This is a lot for a single book of five chapters and an epilogue to handle and some of the topics and issues inevitability get more attention than others. Overall, however, Caferro succeeds in creating a lively, concrete, and believable study of a neglected moment in Florentine history that also helps the reader to "think big" about key issues in the historiography and methodology of later medieval and early Renaissance history.

The topic of the book is the war undertaken by the Florentine State in 1349-1350 against the Ubaldini family who controlled key trade routes between Florence and Bologna. Caferro points out that this war (possibly better understood as a police action) has been overlooked in part because it is overshadowed by the outbreak of the plague in 1348 and in part because small-scale, infra-state warfare has received little attention in English-language scholarship. He argues in his first chapter that Petrarch had an important hand in causing the war: the Ubaldini attacked and killed two of his friends, leading the poet to write impassioned letters calling on Florence to take action against such banditry. Caferro explains Petrarch's influence on the conflict as an aspect of negotiations that were under way to try to bring him to Florence to teach at the university that was being established. He was courted (though his correspondence with Boccaccio) in hopes that his renown would help attract people to Florence and shore up the city's population and prestige in the aftermath of the first wave of the plague.

In the second chapter, Caferro turns to the practicalities of war and the makeup and funding of the army. He argues that the Florentine army was both more professional than it has been previously been considered and more stable, with both infantry- and cavalrymen, including mercenaries, who fought on Florence's behalf over extended periods of time. Thanks to the survival of the financial records of the balia or committee in charge of the war, Caferro reconstructs in considerable detail the costs and personnel requirements for waging war. Local Italian infantrymen, Italian and German mercenary captains, stoneworkers, mule drivers, and spies all find their place, and many occupied roles that straddled work for the war and work for the ordinary running of the city of Florence. Whether this doubling was normal Florentine practice or a result of the shortages of man-power due to the plague is somewhat unclear, but Caferro's overall conclusion that war-workers should be understood as a regular part of the Florentine workforce is well taken.

Turning to the economics of waging war, Caferro finds sufficient evidence in the budgets of the camera del comune, the office charged with managing revenues, to create a detailed outline of the expenditures for the war, allowing him compare costs for various types of workers and materials. The disruptions caused by the plague meant (at least initially) lower revenues from the gabelle and other taxes and fewer personnel to collect them; on the other hand, Florence was able to finance the first part of the war in large part through loans from the Orsanmichele confraternity, enriched by substantial bequests from plague victims. Caferro also emphasizes the importance of fines as a source of financing in the first campaign. Interestingly, the situation had changed by the second campaign of 1350. Gabelle revenue increased, the commune started to repay the loans from the Orsanmichele, and substantial proceeds came from a "committee of exactors" and loans from Florentine citizens. The chapter ends with an examination of the dirittura tax on financial transactions, which, in Caferro's view, was about "recycling money back to the state for the purpose of the betterment of the city" (103). He sees a "Christian civic element" (106) in Florentine finance and governance that extended to the employment of monks as chamberlains for the reassurance that they offered of fair dealing. The war, however, ultimately derailed at least some of these civic plans, leading to the abandonment of a plan to build a church in honor of plague victims, due to a shortage of stonemasons, who were diverted to war work, and to substantial delays in the foundation of the Florentine university.

In Chapter 4 Caferro examines the wage data available for workers employed in the Ubaldini war in the light of claims in the larger scholarship about the effect of the plague on wages. Although he finds that wages increased for infantrymen, the cavalry experienced no similar increase, leading him to consider alternative constructions of infantry and cavalry in terms of social position and therefore, arguably, expectations about compensation and service. Caferro suggests that the cavalry, though mercenaries whom he calls "the most relentlessly misunderstood figure[s] of medieval history" (144), should be understood as clearly associated with aristocratic identity and patterns of warfare. He distinguishes them sharply from the infantry whose associations were more with the workers and guild structures of the popolo which, in Caferro's view, led them to negotiate more aggressively to avoid paying the dirittura tax and to seek other economic benefits.

Chapter 5 looks at the realities of how people worked (especially in terms of length of contracts), in what currency they were paid, and how their roles might vary with their current employment contract or their status as famigliari of the commune. Throughout, Caferro's goal is to point out how mutable work was, how variously paid, and how distant from the bureaucratic rationality identified by earlier scholars as characteristic of this period. He is particularly concerned to understand work and wages in their cultural context and to avoid generalizing and "normalizing" fourteenth-century work in ways that try to make it fit twenty-first-century patterns and expectations.

In summary, Caferro uses the war as a source for information on the wages and work of the wide range of personnel needed to wage even a smallish war. He analyzes wage data to discuss the status of various types of war work, the effect of the Black Death on wages, and the importance of historical context in understanding the meaning of wages. His central chapters reveal the complexity of Florentine funding for war, the involvement of many people in many different offices, and, above all, some clear differences in which wages rose and which did not between 1348 and 1349.

In addition to its explicit contribution to the problem of wages during the plague, the book speaks to the practice of economic history more generally. Caferro calls for highly contextualized study of issues around prices and wages, requiring specialized knowledge of the period, the politics, the institutions, and the values of the culture. Only such a study can prompt questions that reveal underlying assumptions and that protect historians from importing (for example) modern ideas about "work" and "family." Above all, Caferro expresses concern that studies of wages often choose data that seem convenient or that fit easily into models, sometimes without due regard for the specificities and differences of the medieval context.

Caferro is, however, also driven by a desire to respond to the critiques of short term, archive-based history (especially microhistory) by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). While acknowledging their emphasis on historical significance and the importance of the quantitative, he argues for the short term, for context, and especially for the kinds of specific understanding that only come with knowing a period and its sources very well. He considers his project with its short time period and restricted geographical focus as a provocative critique in the face of those who want history to deal primarily with the longue durée, a kind of temporal microhistory aimed at showing the dangers of generalizing across too long a period of time.

This might have been a stronger book if Caferro had focused more narrowly on wages and on the historiography dealing with the effect of the plague on wages. He has many useful things to say about quantitative method and problems of generalizing wage contracts for three months to a modern standard of year-round employment. This seems like an ample framework for the most importance evidence and arguments in this book, which are important and illuminating.

On the other hand, it is possible to imagine this book as more fully, if not a microhistory, then a history in the round of the war against the Ubaldini. That would have required an even larger context in which the discussion of wages and work took its place beside the territory and formation of the Florentine state; attitudes toward violence and violent resistance; and especially the plague in Florence. As a reader especially interested in the the plague and its effects on society, this reviewer is left asking some of the biggest of plague-related questions. Given the relative lack of interest in the plague shown by the chroniclers and the ability of a city like Florence to prosecute a war and consider founding a university in the very years of the most intense mortality, how should we understand the immediate (as opposed to the longer term) impact of the Black Death? Can we really imagine that mortality rates as high as have usually been posited left so little mark? Should we be exploring the remarkable resilience and adaptability of late medieval communities? A few words from the author on how he thinks about these issues would have been much appreciated.

These issues aside, this is an informative and compelling book that brings new information and ways of thinking about economic history to bear on a seemingly small event that nonetheless touches on a number of highly significant aspects of fourteenth-century history. It will be of great interest to teachers of quantitative reasoning in history, in addition to specialists on the plague, warfare, and Florentine government.