An Englishman in Italy
John Hawkwood joined the English army sometime after 1340, near the outbreak of
the Hundred Years War between England and France.
He took part in the fighting in France without attracting much notice, but at some time in that period, he was knighted.
Then in 1361, a peace was signed. It turned out to be little more than a truce of several years’ duration, but Hawkwood was among thousands of fighters without immediate employment.
A large group of them, Hawkwood among them, descended on Avignon, on the Rhone River in southern France, where the pope had resided since quitting Rome. The pope was known to have considerable money in store, and the unemployed military people thought it would be easy to get some. By that time, Hawkwood was one of the leaders of a company of soldiers.
After considerable backing and filling, the pope financed a trip into Italy for Hawkwood’s company and others. They were to fight against the Visconti family that ruled Milan. That city periodically pestered papal property in southern France, as well as in Italy. Besides, the pope at the time, Innocent VI, had a personal reason for disliking the Viscontis.
As a cardinal, he had been given documents to take to Milan protesting what the city had been doing. On the way, he was met by Bernabo Visconti, Milan’s ruler, and had been forced to eat the documents, including the lead seal next to the papal signature.
So Hawkwood arrived in Italy supposedly to fight Milan. But he quickly found out it was profitable to do otherwise and began a career as a mercenary in Italy that lasted for upwards of 30 years. It was highly successful — sometimes against a particular city, sometimes for that city against some other city.
The Italian scribes who had to write messages about him had a deuce of a time with Hawkwood’s name. It came out:
Haukebode, Haukewod, Hacoud, Hacwod, Aukud, Acud, Acut, Acuto, Aguto.
The ones who included the “H” were those with some acquaintance with English. But the habit that the Italians inherited from the Romans, of surrounding each consonant with vowels, led them into strange combinations.
The “Aukud” comes closest to the way “hawk” and “wood” sound when spoken, but you’d have a hard time guessing from its looks.
The way Italians managed the word “Deutsch,” meaning German, is interesting. That’s a one-syllable word. The Italians made it into three syllables: “Tedesco.”
The “D” and the “T” come from the same spot in the mouth, but there was no way the “tsch” could stick together in the Italian tongue. So, it switched the “D” and “T,” then put a vowel after the “D” and then put another vowel after the “sc,” ignoring the final “h” – although the plural of the word is “Tedeschi.”
Hawkwood’s name in all its variations appeared many times in Italian messages. Some warned others that he was coming, some said he was available at a price, others asked for advice as to how to get rid of him.
And it wasn’t the only English name the Italians had trouble with. One of Hawkwood’s assistants was Robert Woodhouse. That last name came out as “Wodhawos.”
Geoffrey Chaucer met Hawkwood twice, once when he was squire to one of Edward III’s sons who was marrying an Italian princess, and once when he was on a special mission for John of Gaunt, an uncle of King Richard II. Some say the knight who was one of the travelers in the “Canterbury Tales” is based on Hawkwood. At least that fictional knight didn’t leave so many versions of his last name.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.