Monday, August 26, 2013

"Get 'em drunk and then trash the flag!"


This is a post about military strategy.  Mind you, military strategy is not really my thing.  In fact, when I read books with lovingly written, detailed battle scenes in them, I tend to skim those parts, looking for the really necessary bits (who won, who was brave and who was cowardly, who was clever and who was stupid, who's dead) and then, armed with the requisite information but not drowned in the particulars, I get on with the story. 

But I did find one example of a seriously clever bit of medieval mayhem that intrigued me.  It has to do with the lead-up to the famous Battle of Montaperti, in which the outnumbered army of Siena somehow managed to inflict a resounding defeat on the Florentines on September 4, 1260.  And it involves two men who were fighting on the same side.

Battle of Montaperti

Siena, which was of a Ghibelline persuasion, was aided by German mercenary troops sent by King Manfred of Sicily, natural son of the late great Emperor Frederick II and the closest thing to an imperial voice to be found at that time.

Manfred of Sicily

Also assisting were the Ghibellines from Florence, exiled from their city, many of them temporarily resident in Siena, under the formidable leadership of the commander Farinata degli Uberti.

Farinata degli Uberti

These are the two guys we're interested in here.  If you look at the literature and the contemporary and near-contemporary histories, you'll find Farinata described as proud, arrogant, heretical, great-souled, partisan, unbending, courageous.  He certainly was one of the mightiest opponents the Guelfs of Florence ever had to deal with.  When the Guelf party finally achieved its ascendancy, the Uberti were not only banished from the city for decades - explicitly excluded from future amnesties and pardons - but their properties were torn down, and the vast open space that resulted (rare in the crowded Italian cities of that time) was never built on again - today it is the Piazza della Signoria.

Manfred, on the other hand, was described as handsome and blonde, of noble appearance, and courtly in his manners.  In the case of this particular story, "blonde" may be the most important attribute.  He was the son of Frederick and his beloved Bianca Lancia, who Frederick may or may not have married when she was on her deathbed, and he spent most of his life squabbling with close relatives over various titles.  But that's another story, if not several.

(Actually, Farinata was blonde, too.  That's where the name 'Farinata' comes from - it means his hair was the color of ripe wheat.  His birth name was Manente.)

The situation, according to chronicler Giovanni Villani (1280-1348, so he was close to being contemporary), was this:

 All was not mellow between Siena and Florence.  (It seldom was, actually.)  The disgruntled Florentine exiles (who were Ghibellines, remember?) living in Siena, under the leadership of Farinata, decided to send a delegation to Manfred to ask for military support to help them win back Florence.  They sent a contingent of their finest, staunch Ghibellines all (and thus, loyal supporters of Manfred, who was the emperor's son).  But Manfred ignored them.  He made them wait, and wait, and wait.  He had other irons in the fire, and helping the Florentine exiles was not his highest priority, Ghibellines or not.

The ambassadors, who had hoped to come away with 1,500 horsemen to shore up their cause, became impatient and decided to go home.  But as they were leaving, Manfred promised them a paltry 100 horsemen, German mercenaries.  The ambassadors were inclined to refuse such an insulting offer, but, being prudent, they first consulted with Farinata.  I don't know whether Farinata was part of the delegation or whether they had to send a messenger to him, but in any case, they got their answer.

And what did the proud Farinata say?  Did he urge them, as they must have expected, to turn up their noses at such an insulting offer?

No.  He said, according to Villani, "Be not dismayed, neither refuse any aid of his, be it never so small.  Let us have grace of him to send his standard with them, and when it be come to Siena we will set it in such a place that he must needs send us further succour."

The plot thickens.

So, Manfred, probably relieved not to have an argument on his hands, gave them the 100 horsemen (whose salaries the Ghibellines in Siena would, of course, have to pay), and he let them carry his standard, which bore this device:


When the Florentine Ghibs returned to Siena with this meager force,"great scorn," says Villani, "was made thereof by the Sienese, and great dismay came upon the Florentine refugees" who had definitely hoped for something better.

We've now arrived at May, 1260, and Florence is starting to make hostile forays against Siena.  In fact, a large Florentine army wound up camped outside Siena, with its carroccio (a four-wheeled chariot painted red, drawn by a great pair of oxen covered in red cloth, and bearing the great standard of Florence, which was red and white).  Here's a picture of a carroccio, though not Florence's:


By this time the Florentine exiles must have been wondering what Farinata had been thinking.  But thinking he was, and so it came to pass that one day the exiles provided the Germany mercenaries - all 100 of them - with a great feast, including lots and lots of wine.  Let's return to Villani for the particulars:
"Having plied them with wine till they were drunk, in the uproar they incited them to arm themselves and mount on horseback to assail the host of the Florentines, promising them large gifts and double pay; and this was done craftily by the wise, in pursuance of the counsel of Farinata degli Uberti...
The Germans, beside themselves and hot with wine, sallied forth from Siena and vigorously assailed the camp of the Florentines, and because they were unprepared and off their guard, holding as nought the force of the enemy, the Germans, albeit they were but few folk, did great hurt to the host in that assault, and many of the people and of the horsemen made a sorry show in that sudden assault, and fled in terror, supposing that the assailants were more in number."

The Florentines, however, took a second look and realized they had just been attacked by a mere handful of inebriated Germans, so they turned around and fought them after all, despite that ignominious beginning.  Not a single German survived.

The triumphant Florentines, having captured Manfred's banner, proceeded to drag it through the camp on the ground and then carry it back to Florence.  It was not long after this that the Florentine army returned home, at least for the time being.

Was Farinata distraught at this treatment of his Germans and of Manfred's banner?  Not our ├╝ber-Ghibelline.  Everything was going exactly according to plan.

Because - wait for it - no way could Manfred sit still for this insult.  That was his very own banner, after all.  Enraged, he sent 800 German horsemen at his own cost (with a little help from the Sienese) for a period of three months, along with Count Giordano, his marshall, to lead them.  All these men, with horses, equipment, etc., arrived in Siena by the end of July, and there was much rejoicing.

More stuff happened before the Battle of Montaperti actually took place, but this shrewd move on Farinata's part was what made the difference.

So in this case, military strategy had nothing to do with shield walls, well-placed archers, heavy artillery, careful deployment of cavalry and infantry, or any of the other things generals traditionally do.

It was simply, "Get the Germans drunk, send them off to do something suicidal, and make absolutely sure the banner gets trashed."   That much, I can understand.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of Manfred's device, which is licensed to Adelbrecht via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

4 comments:

Julia H. West said...

Oh, I could see this coming once you described it, but I doubt I'd ever have been clever enough to think of it in the first place. Like you, I don't understand military strategy. But I felt rather sorry for those drunken Germans.

Tinney Heath said...

Julia, I knew you'd say that. I do, too - but they weren't exactly endearing themselves to the Sienese at that point, or to the Florentine exiles. They were getting pretty rowdy and pretty demanding. Still... I can never quite wrap my mind around the attitude that says some people are expendable.

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Tinney, this is great! So glad I discovered your blog. Time and again, history has us saying "I swear, I did not make this up..." Poor drunk Germans but such a shrewd forward-thinking move on Farinata's part.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Kathryn, and welcome to the blog! Yes, so often historical truth is much stranger than fiction. I think this incident gives us an interesting insight into Farinata, who is such an enigmatic character in so many ways.