When the Pisans lost a battle because of an eagle

Sometimes a battle isn’t decided because one side had a better plan or was just militarily stronger. Once in while, in the thick of the fighting, there is some little quirk that leads to victory or defeat. This may have been the case at the Battle of Càscina, fought on July 28, 1364.

The Battle of Càscina is also famous because Michelangelo did drawings about the event in 1504. 

This battle, fought just outside of Pisa, would be the culmination of a war that city was waging against Florence. Both sides had hired mercenaries to supplement their own forces, with the Pisans hiring John Hawkwood and his fellow English soldiers.

Giovanni di Paolo Morelli, a Florentine merchant, wrote about the battle in his personal memoirs. While Giovanni composed the story decades after it happened, he perhaps was able to learn about the battle from relatives who took part in it. He explains how his city’s captain, Galeotto Malaterra, had ridden up to the gates of Pisa to taunt his enemies into battle, but got no response. He then moved his forces six miles away from the city. Morelli writes:

The weather was terribly hot that day; around the ninth hour, our soldiers, believing that they were safe, all put down their arms and removed the saddles from their horses and took their ease and refreshment in the Arno River, bathing and splashing about. The Pisan got word of this, and their captain, with all his soldiers on foot and on horseback, and the whole population of Pisa, even women armed with ropes, emerged from the city to assault our men on the battlefield; they were certain that they would win, and take everyone prisoner.

If the Pisans were hoping to catch the Florentines by surprise, their plan failed because of the clouds of dust they raised up as they marched from their city. The Florentine captain saw this and ordered his men to prepare for battle. Morelli continues:

Our men weren’t totally armed yet, and because it was toward evening, they had the sun in their eyes and the Pisans at their backs; but, as God willed it, there was a group of Genoese crossbow archers at the barricades, some of the best in the world. You could see hundreds of arrows flying through the air.

Morelli writes about how the heat and dust was insufferable - at least for the enemy Pisans - and then mentions what he believed was the key moment of the battle:

The skirmish lasted about three hours, and was bitter and cruel. While the fighting was going on, an eagle, one of the ones that the Pisans kept as symbols or mascots, flew out over the battlefield; when it was above our men, its wings seemed to give out. It fell, and was captured by our men. The Florentines were overjoyed at this omen, and the Pisans were appalled. In the end, the Pisans were routed and defeated by the Florentines, and more than fifteen hundred were killed or taken prisoner.

The pro-Florentine bias of Morelli is most evident in how he gleefully recounts the humiliation of the Pisan prisoners:

The Pisans who had been captured were bound with their own ropes and loaded onto fifty of their own carts; and in the first cart their eagle was hung, but not so that it would die, because its feet could reach the cart, and it was struggling violently. Their captain went in front, a prisoner, disgraced and humiliated. His name was Rinieiri del Busso, he remained a prisoner for a long time in the Stiche. At the gate at San Frediano, through which the captain entered, there was a little live lion cub, and all the Pisan prisoners were forced to kiss its arse. And he was taken all around Florence, so that everyone, great and small, could see.

There are other accounts of the Battle of Càscina, and they offer different details about how the Florentines won that day. But it is interesting to consider Morelli’s version, where the capture of a mascot was the turning point of the battle, the moment that is remembered decades later. How important could have this event have been? Did it really allow the Florentines to rally and dishearten the Pisans, so much so that what happened afterwards was a foregone conclusion? This is the type of account that makes history, especially medieval military history, such a fascinating thing to write about.

You can read more of Giovanni di Paolo Morelli’s memoirs in Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Vittore Branca, and published in 2015 by the University of Toronto Press. Click here to learn more about the book.

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