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Counting the Dead: Traditions of Enumeration and the Italian Wars*

  • John Gagné (a1)


Methods for counting war deaths developed alongside structural changes in the ways that states enumerated mortality (for both fighters and citizens) between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. This paper argues that an alternative way to interpret observers’ comments on the magnitude and novelty of war damages during the Italian Wars (1494–1559) is to trace the history of enumerating mortality from the fourteenth century, using the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death as departure points. Military heralds counted dead soldiers in Northern Europe and civic record keepers registered public mortality in Italy. Numbers carried cultural value. In war, disputants and observers used numbers rhetorically to argue political cases and to emphasize the scale of victories and defeats. By 1500, the proliferation of specific mortality numbers in public discourse — amplified by printed war reporting — forced observers to reckon with their meaning. The article concludes by illustrating how numbers entered memorial culture: monuments from the Italian Wars featured numbers as an index of the perceived magnitude of war in the sixteenth century.



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I owe thanks to audiences who responded to early versions of this research at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting in Chicago, 2008, as well as in seminars at Harvard University, at the University of New Hampshire, and in Peter Wilson’s research cluster at the University of Sydney with my colleagues in Classics and Ancient History, Bob Cowan, Paul Roche, and Anne Rogerson. Alex Bamji, Ann Blair, Ken Gouwens, and Katharine Park all offered helpful advice on drafts, and Frances Muecke advised my translation of the Ravenna inscription. I also appreciate the recommendations of the two anonymous RQ readers, whose suggestions improved this article immeasurably. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated. I dedicate this work to the memory of Jo-Ann Dooley.



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