A Savage Continent

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

For centuries Europe remained a savage continent:

By the time he dictated his memoirs in the early 1570s, the French commander Blaise de Monluc had spent a lifetime in battle, and he had the scars to prove it. His face was covered by a leather mask because of a bullet that had taken off his nose and shattered his cheekbones. In Italy, he had defended Siena in the siege of 1554 against the Florentines, and he went on to kill Huguenots by the cartload in the French Wars of Religion (1562-98). He became known as the king’s butcher, traveling everywhere with two hangmen. “One might see all thereabouts which way I had gone,” he wrote, “the Trees upon the High-ways wearing my Livery. One man hanged terrified more than a hundred that were killed.”


[In Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700, Lauro Martines, a professor emeritus of history at UCLA,] describes the average army — consisting of 20,000 to 30,000 men plus an equal number of camp followers (women, cobblers, carpenters) — as an “ambulant city.” Slowed by its baggage and artillery trains, it could cover only a dozen miles a day and had to be constantly on the move to feed itself. These “mammoth search-and-eat engines” laid waste to whole regions of Europe. Though bristling with hardware, however, such armies were fragile, Mr. Martines notes, prone to epidemics. There is a rough correspondence between the main military movements of the age and the spread of plague.

Ragged, disease-ridden and hungry soldiers, unleashed on the civil population, spell catastrophe. But as the author is well aware, the risk with victims’ history is that it easily slips into dry sociology: Most of the dead are faceless and unknown. So he interlards his narrative with eyewitness accounts, such as the eminent mathematician Niccolò Tartaglia’s recollections from the 1512 sack of Brescia, in northern Italy. Tartaglia was only 12 years old when French soldiers attacked him in the city’s cathedral: “In my mother’s presence, I was dealt five very grave wounds, three on the head, in each of which you could see my brain, and two in the face, such that if my beard failed to hide them now, I would seem a monster.” Unable to afford a doctor, his mother “copied the example of dogs, which, when they are wounded, heal themselves by licking the wound clean with their tongues.”

From the French Wars of Religion, Jean de Lery, a Huguenot pastor, reports from the siege of Sancerre, a Protestant stronghold besieged by the Catholics in 1572-73. He includes a recipe for boiled drum skins, which are first soaked for 48 hours and then scraped with a knife and boiled till tender. You test their tenderness by “scratching at the skins with your fingers and seeing if they were glutinous.” Cut into small pieces, the whole affair is then seasoned with herbs and spices. The pastor goes on to record a case of cannibalism in stomach-churning detail. In the same desperate vein, the Spanish ambassador, during the 1590 siege of Paris, suggested that Parisians grind the bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents, mix them with water and pretend it was bread.

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