In the broad context of early modern Europe, the most transformative sequence of events behind the renaissance was the 30 Years War. While the early wars of religion in Luther’s own time plagued cities and towns with religious discord and violence, it paled in comparison to the pure destructive brutality that awaited society in the middle of the seventeenth century.
Into this particularly destructive locus of time in history enters Lauro Martines, a scholar of renaissance Italy and Europe. Martines’ approach to unpacking the history of early modern Europe is to explore the violence and destruction thematically rather than chronologically. Whereas past narratives have been in depth studies of one or more countries or state actors, Martines cuts a broad swath with his analysis of society from Rome to the Lapland. In his effort to create a compelling narrative of human suffering he is undoubtedly successful, however as a serious work of social history it fails rather spectacularly.
Early on, Martines betrays his own personal interest in the following examples he lists. Martines writes:
“In the study of war, historians should also be positioned where questions of right and wrong move into view”.
The rest of the book then becomes a sort of pulpit for Martines to rage against the actions of historical actors who have upset his sensibilities in one way or another. The author spends a great deal of time criticizing Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus for his campaigns and also upon the inter-ethnic makeup of armies at the time. Weirdly, Martines seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on Adolphus despite the fact that the Lion of the North dies in 1632 and Sweden plays a less important role in the coming peace that would eventually follow.
Returning to the author’s claim that it is important for historians to be judges, it goes without saying that events such as the sacking of Augsburg leave a decidedly bitter taste in the mouth to present day readers; but that it is also important to understand the actions and their intent before placing summary judgment. An action can of course be morally and ethically wrong by society’s estimation, but without trying to understand the actions and goals of the actors and what that means in a larger sense, any study is bound for eventual irrelevance.
I wanted to like Furies. I find the idea of thematic examination in social history an interesting proposition; however it would be best to view this work as an attempt at exploring themes of early Europe rather than the rule to follow.
For students of early to modern Europe, this work presents no real new evidence or changes in the generally established facts. While containing some compelling translations of witnesses and their testimony, the author fails to create a cohesive structure around these quotes.
Instead, I would recommend reading the late CV Wedgewood’s opus on the Thirty Years War, which provides a more nuanced and fluid understanding of the times and the characters despite not having the rhetorical flourish that Martines tries so hard to stock in every page.
Recommended for experience readers of early to modern Europe.
Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines. Bloomsbury Press: 2013. 336 Pages. Purchased copy.