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Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders

The 14th century was not, in general, a happy time. The Black Death—one of Asia’s first exports—swept across the World (the “Old World” at any rate), famine stalked the land and, in particular, war was brutal, total and almost continuous everywhere from China to the westernmost shore of Europe.

Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders
Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, Justin Marozzi (HarperCollins Publishers, October 2005; Da Capo Press, March 2007); Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman, Frances Stonor Saunders (Faber and Faber, July 2005)

Looking at the century with 21st century sensibilities, it is easy to lay much of the blame for the warmongering on two now largely forgotten men: Tamerlane, who wreaked havoc through South and Central Asia, the Near East and Eastern Europe, and John Hawkwood, a larger-than-life mercenary who rampaged through Italy.

Timur, or Tamerlane (“Timur the Lame” as he is generally known in the West), was the greatest conqueror of the age, and perhaps of any age. Overshadowed by Genghis Khan, perhaps, Timur’s own conquests certainly of the same order as those of the Mongol, ranging from the borders of China to India, Russia and all the way to Asia Minor. Genghis’s grandson may have taken China, but Timur knocked off the Ottoman Empire just as it was on verge of extinguishing Byzantium, giving the latter a further half-century of grace, and perhaps saving Europe in the process. Rising from nowhere, he was never seriously defeated and was on his way to China when he died.

Except for a rarely-performed play by Marlowe, Tamerlane seems to have largely dropped from the western consciousness, a fault put right by Justin Marozzi’s book Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. After several recent books on Genghis Khan and the rediscovery of Central Asia after seven decades of Soviet domination, if was perhaps natural that a book on Tamerlane would be forthcoming: one can probably expect one soon on Babur, his descendant, who completed the conquest of northern India that Timur started.

Although Marozzi tries hard to buff up Timur’s legacy, noting the flowering of Timurid architecture, Timur’s own apparent erudition and his support of free trade, Timur was an awful man. Cities that resisted and even some that didn’t were put to the sword, some wiped off the map. He killed 90,000 in Baghdad and 70,000 in Isfahan. He used Islam and jihad to justify outright conquest and massacre - mostly against other moslems. It is hard to resist a comparison with Saddam Hussein, except that Timur was far more competent.

Rather like Timur, John Hawkwood, now largely remembered only in the breach when faced with Paolo Uccello’s marvelous fresco in Florence’s Duomo. Frances Stonor Saunders’s new biography is an excellent introduction to late 14th century Italy, seen from the brutal perspective of war, politics and treachery. The flavour of the book is evident from the very first line: “There were good ways to die, and bad ways to die”. The Middle Ages even had “how to” guides on dying.

English sojourners were mucking up Italy long before modern tourists, football hooligans and purchasers of Tuscan villas. Soldiers left unemployed at the cessation of hostilities in various phases of the Hundred Years War found that raiding and holding towns to ransom was a rewarding career and that Italy had the richest pickings: the city states—too busy making money to field their own armies—fought each other and the Pope and, there being more than one of them for much of this time, the Popes fought each other. Mercenary bands could be paid for fighting, paid for not fighting, and could pick up tips and valuables left lying about.

Hawkwood, the second son of minor English nobility, soon rose to top. He fought for and against just about everyone, sometimes all at the same time, the length and breadth of the peninsula. He married into the Visconti family, the rulers of Milan, and ended up being feted as a hero by Florence, but seems to have died largely destitute. Served him right, really.

Neither book, thank goodness, can resist the temptation to swashbuckle. There is something fascinating about larger-than-life military heroes. Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World is as a much a travelogue as a history, and Marozzi puts Tamerlane in bizarre context by relating how his memory is preserved in his homeland, what is now the political, economic and ecological disaster area that is Uzbekistan, where Tamerlane is a restored hero.

Frances Stonor Saunders has a keen eye for irony, the illuminating historical anecdote and colourful personality, whether bloodthirsty cleric or delusional saint-to-be.

One is left pondering how much of history is luck: Florence was saved—to “invent” the Renaissance—not so much by military might or cleverness, but the death of archrival Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan, while the Renaissance and Europe as a whole might have saved first by Tamerlane’s defeat of Ottoman Sultan Beyazid, and then by Tamerlane’s own death.

One is also left to ponder, when comparing Hawkwood and Tamerlane, how much the West’s current military and cultural dominance is of relatively recent vintage.

But the last word goes to the apocryphal Nasruddin Hodja, who when asked by Tamerlane: “What is my true worth?”, replied “About 20 gold pieces” Tamerlane protests “”Why, just the belt I am wearing is worth 20 gold pieces.”

Hodja nods in agreement: “I included that when I gave you my estimate”.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.