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  • The Myth of Unbloody Zagonora February 26, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    One of the least bloody periods in the history of warfare came in early fifteenth-century Italy. The Italian city states had become a good deal less violent than a century before, and warfare was farmed out to mercenary captains, who proved themselves both greedy and all too often endearingly effete. These mercenary captains were in it for the money, and, in the words of one recent historian of conflict: ‘Getting killed made nonsense of their profession’; Games of Thrones this most certainly was not. There was also the fact that this was one of the few times in military history where defensive power managed to keep well ahead of offensive power: enclosed in heavy plate armour, men on horseback were relatively easy to unhorse and yet practically impossible to kill. The revolution of Agincourt, 1415, had not spread further south, and the rather vulgar English convention of piercing visors with daggers had not  become general practice: why gourge out a knight’s eyes, when you can get a ransom? The result was a series of battles where very few were actually killed. Machiavelli famously describes the battle of Zagonara, for example, in 1424 when according to the Florentine polymath only one warleader in Florentine pay, Lodovico degli Obizi and two of his followers died on the field, and these drowned in the mud after  being unseated. Nor was this a small conflict. In fact, some 20,000 men had taken to the field to fight for Florence and the League or Milan. How are these numbers possible given that more people die at a modern rock festival with comparable numbers?

    Well, of course, they are not possible, though numerous books describe Machiavelli’s unbloody Zagonara as simple fact. The bottom line is that Machiavelli, was a man who distorted truth with great facility for which ever cause he was presently serving or, failing that, for himself: Strauss was spot on with ‘a teacher of evil’. Never, in short, trust Machiavelli unless there is some supporting evidence and, if you are relying on his evidence, hope that Machiavelli is not pushing a cause: Machiavelli was, incidentally, making the case, with low casualties, for manly citizen militias. Just to give an idea of the levels of his easy mendacity he claims elsewhere that, in the second battle of Anghiari, only one man died when he was trod upon by a horse: whereas we have other evidence that some 900 were killed at all too bloody Anghiari. And so it was with Zagonora. We learn from another author that ‘de quibus facta fuit miserima strages’ (of the Florentines was made a miserable slaughter) and in one contemporary letter we read that Lodovico degli Obizi and Orso da Monteritondo ‘and many others’ were killed. It is true that early fifteenth-century battles in Italy were significantly less bloody than Crecy and Agincourt and that the early fifteenth century was less bloody, period, than most other epochs. But men did die in battle and presumably not just because of mud applied liberally around the nose and mouth. Machiavelli was here, I imagine, spinning cobblers on the basis of that habit of ancient and modern commentators to concentrate on the deaths of officers rather than the rank and file.

    Other weird war stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com