New Books Network

William Caferro

Petrarch's War

Florence and the Black Death in Context

Cambridge University Press 2018

New Books in European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Italian StudiesNew Books in Military HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network July 3, 2019 Al Zambone

In 1349 the City-Republic of Florence had just endured a horrific epidemic of bubonic plague, that contagion that became known as the Black Death....

In 1349 the City-Republic of Florence had just endured a horrific epidemic of bubonic plague, that contagion that became known as the Black Death. Nevertheless, despite the effects upon both their population and treasury, they marshaled their resources to fight the Ubaldini clan who dominated the mountain passes through the Appenines to the north of the city.

This event my guest Bill Caferro refers to as “Petrarch’s War,” since the Florentine humanist Petrarch–normally regarded as a promoter of peace in Italy–had urged Florence to attack the Ubaldini after they had waylaid and killed a friend of his. Caferro examines this little war to find out its institutional and economic effects–to see what it says about wages of soldiers, and to answer such curious questions as why Florence sent a cook on an embassy to the court of Hungary.

Bill’s arguments in his new book Petrarch’s War: Florence and the Black Death in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2018) aren’t just about Florence. Ultimately, he is suggesting that context matters a great deal to historical thinking, and that pleas to ignore the short term in favor of the long term ignore the fact that understanding the short term is always at the heart of the historian’s task. Long-term wage studies, he argues, have cut corners both in terms of evidence and through epistemological jumps. “The current long-term methodological construct,” Caferro writes, “is as stubborn as it is pernicious.” Ultimately, Caferro believes, “a proper understanding of context lies at the core of the historians’ task.”


Al Zambone is a historian and the host of the podcast Historically Thinking. You can subscribe to Historically Thinking on Apple Podcasts.