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 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.”
For Further Investigation
William P. Caferro, Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena
Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto
David Herlihy and Christine Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families
David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West
Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters