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23.02.01 Sposato, Forged in the Shadow of Mars

23.02.01 Sposato, Forged in the Shadow of Mars

In recent years, a contingent of historians following the work of Richard Kaeuper have focused on literary texts as excellent sources for evaluating and interpretating medieval history. This is not a new idea, but this interest in investigating medieval culture through an interdisciplinary lens has produced several intriguing volumes, specifically on aspects of violence in individual medieval communities. Peter Sposato’s monograph Forged in the Shadow of Mars is one such volume. At times, Sposato relies too much on modern stereotypes of medieval violence, reading literary sources as uniformly celebratory rather than critical of such violence, but his overall analysis of the sources provides a valuable insight into the complex world of Florentine politics and family dynamics.

Separated into four chapters and an epilogue, the book examines primary archival evidence and chronicle sources in dialogue with imaginative literary sources, specifically medieval Italian Arthurian romances. Sposato contends that the absence of archival and chronicle evidence necessitates using literary sources as a window into the chivalric mentality of the Florentine elite who participated in consistent acts of violence; however, he reads these sources literally and overlooks the potential for authorial criticism of this kind of violence and the knights who used it to model their behavior.

In this book, Sposato argues that violence was an inherent condition in medieval Florence, as a city built under the sign of Mars, the Roman god of war. He uses a “chivalric lens” to “make better sense of the penchant for violence, brash lawlessness, and deeply entrenched resistance to the growing public authority of the communal government demonstrated by many individuals and lineages” (3). Sposato constructs his own definition of chivalric ideology held by certain elite members of Florentine society as “strongly encouraging and valorizing violence” (2) among these segments of the community and proceeds from the premise that these elite knew they were violent, embraced that violence, praised that violence, and used it to their own ends. He separates the current scholarship on medieval chivalry into two camps, that of Kaeuper, who has argued that episodes of literary violence echo gritty, brutal, real-world chivalric practice; and that of Maurice Keen, who elevates chivalry and knights as moral exemplars, and Franco Cardini, who contends that chivalry was supposed to curtail unnecessary brutality and those who participate in excessive acts of violence are anti-chivalric. The primary aim of Forged in the Shadow of Mars is to counter Cardini’s assertions, arguing instead that, in the context of medieval Italy, chivalry and violence were synonymous; rather than being condemned as unchivalrous, Sposato asserts, knightly violence is valorized as honorable. However, there is a middle ground between Kaeuper and Keen/Cardini, one that recognizes the reality of violence but rejects the idea that everyone supported it or valorized it. Sposato spends little time on the middle ground, though he does acknowledge it exists.

This work argues that chivalric ideology encouraged and valorized violence among the Florentine elite and proceeds from a universal idea of chivalry as the dominant ethos of the lay elite in late medieval Europe. In the introduction, Sposato sets up his argument, defining the Florentine chivalric elite, explaining the social complexities of this cultural community, outlining his sources and methods as well as his approaches to understanding Florentine chivalry. The historical context is exceptionally important for Anglophone audiences. At times, however, the introduction is too introductory, defining terms like “ideology” that do not usually need explanation in a scholarly monograph. Sposato also makes some interesting distinctions between the violence of the “chivalric” elite and the “civil” elite, placing the chivalric elite outside the social class of knighthood. There are places where Sposato forces the terminology to fit his argument, which seems arbitrary, and others where the applications of both “chivalry” and “violence” are overly generalized. But the specific details about community interactions within Florentine society are fascinating and Sposato presents them well.

In the first chapter, Sposato provides some interesting case studies of murder and revenge, beginning with Giovanni Villani’s account of Niccola dei Cerchi’s murder at the hands of his nephew Simone Donati in 1301. As a popolani--those of lower or middling status--chronicler, Villani condemns this murder; however, Sposato argues that romance figures like Tristan explain Simone’s mindset, and justifies his actions in the name of honor. Considering texts like La Tavola Ritonda, Sposato claims that Tristan likely mirrors “attitudes and behaviors of young Florentine knights and men-at-arms” (37). He also holds Prodesagio, the hero of the fourteenth-century Florentine proseromance Legenda e storia di messere Prodesagio, up as a model that condones or celebrates chivalric violence. Sposato speculates on the motives and mentality of both the historical actors and the literary ones, interpreting the romances to fit his conclusions. This chapter focuses on “honor violence,” defined here as vendettas, feuds, and “other private enmities” (22). Sposato argues that because members of the Florentine chivalric elite regarded honor as central to their identities, violence in defense of that honor was celebrated and was almost required by their conception of chivalry. But he also contends that violence was not the exclusive purview of the chivalric elite and that Florentines at every social level considered violence a viable option in a variety of contexts.

The next chapter considers the attitudes of the chivalric elite towards the popolani and examines the way that sources distinguished between chivalric warriors and ordinary citizens who were portrayed contemptuously as base of character and lacking in martial skill and prowess. The popolani were often wealthy merchants who “enjoyed the dignity of knighthood but did not cultivate the profession of arms or live the chivalric lifestyle” (24). In this context, the chivalric elite saw the popolani as rivals for status and desired to enact upon this class unfettered brutal violence. Sposato argues that the popolani accounts condemning the violence were social propaganda critical of the chivalric elite because the popolani were often the targets of that violence. However, he also asserts that the chivalric ideology valorized that violence and regarded it as a mark of honor, rather than as reprehensible. He constructs a mental framework for these chivalric actors, acknowledging that early twelfth-century sources are scarce and basing some of his conclusions on later works written by proponents of civic ideology. Sposato uses literary texts like Boccaccio’s Filocolo to fashion chivalric attitudes towards the popolani as rude peasants.

However, the unmitigated violence of the chivalric elite met with resistance among those who wished to reform it. Chapter 3 focuses on the reform effort of Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-1294) in his Tesoretto (Little Treasure). Latini, who tutored Dante Alighieri, urged the chivalric elite towards civic responsibility that was less destructive and more productive, ideally so they could take up the mantle of government and military leadership.

Of course, military leadership and experience involved a certain amount of martial violence, which features in chapter 4. As the chivalric elite participated more and more in commercial and political endeavors, the interest in warfare diminished. Using a “prosopographical methodology” (26), this chapter traces the military careers of individuals from eighteen chivalric lineages beginning with the battle of Montaperti (1260) through the Florentine war with Pisa (1360-1364). Sposato concludes that while the chivalric elite engaged more often in economic pursuits during this period, their connection to war as part of that chivalric identity was foundational.

To wrap up this discussion, the final epilogue centers around the chivalric life of Buonaccorso di Nero Pitti (ca. 1354-1432) a wealthy banker who also participated in honor violence as well as having an extensive military career. The account of his life reveals developments within the culture of chivalry; this “new model” of chivalric practitioner occupied both realms and bridged the divide between chivalric and civic society. However, violence of various kinds frames these social distinctions--whether it was celebrated or condemned.

Overall, Forged in the Shadow of Mars offers a compelling discussion of violence in medieval Florence as well as the social stratification that may or may not have celebrated and valorized such violence. At times, Sposato takes too many examples at face value without clarifying the potential for satire or criticism that is so common among so many medieval literary sources. However, his analysis of primary sources--chronicle as well as literary--provides an invaluable investigation into the complexity of medieval Florentine society in all its forms.