Louis Green (1929–2008)

louis-green-03Louis Green was one of the founders of Australia’s recent but already substantial reputation in late medieval and Renaissance Italian studies (Kent 2009, 55). Green was a polyglot—an attribute arising from what Bill Kent called ‘the complicated circumstances of his birth and early upbringing’—who was possessed of wide range of serious intellectual interests, some of which were unusual in Australia at the time when Green was professionally active (Kent 2009, 55, 59). He was born in Paris of an English mother and an Italian father (his first language was French). He lived for several years in Estonia with his mother before making his way to Brisbane, with her, via Vladivostok and Hong Kong, shortly after the outbreak of World War 2. He took his BA (Hons 1) at the University of Queensland in 1951 then worked for several years as a research officer and cryptographer for the Department of Defence in Australia, and in England, before re-entering academic life at the University of Adelaide, where he completed his MA. He spent two years in England and Italy and learned Italian; he also spoke German. At the invitation of A.G.L. Shaw, Green joined the staff at Monash as a senior lecturer in 1967. He had previously taught for six years at the University of Tasmania. Green’s task at Monash was to teach a foundation subject in Medieval/Renaissance/Reformation history in the new department of history. From 1971 he co-taught the subject ‘Renaissance Florence’ with Bill Kent.

Kent believes that Green’s preference for writing (a few) books rather than (many) articles cost him advancement (Kent 2009, 60). Green nonetheless wrote a number of influential essays in addition to his three major books, articles which complement the somewhat narrow chronological and geographical focus of his two major studies of Lucca by an interest in a broader-based intellectual history. Perhaps most notably, he was invited to write the chapters on ‘Florence’ in the New Cambridge Medieval History Volume 5 (edited by David Abulafia, Cambridge UP, 1999, 479–96, 905–7) and ‘Florence and the Republican Tradition’ in the New Cambridge Medieval History Volume 6 (edited by Michael Jones, Cambridge UP, 2000, 469–87, 991–4), which together cover Florentine history in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. ‘The commission constituted an accolade that cemented his stature as a leading authority on Italian political and intellectual history and one that no Renaissance historian, nor anyone else remotely in the field, can mention without envy’ (Kent and Meek 2009, 760−1).

He was appointed Reader in 1993 and elected to the AHA in 1994, the year of his retirement. An annual lecture in the field of intellectual and social history was endowed in his memory at Monash University by Professor Wallace Kirsop.

Research interests:

Green was a scholar of early Renaissance Italy. Self-taught in a field where the tradition of studying with an acknowledged ‘master’ was well-established, he carried out pioneering work at the highest international level, an achievement all the more remarkable, in the eyes of his northern hemisphere colleagues and critics at least, in that it was carried out in Australia (see for example, Kelley 1974, 334). His scholarly work had two powerful themes: tracking and explaining of fundamental changes from late medieval to the early Renaissance culture, and the political, social transformations that were occurring at the same time. According to Meek and Kent, he had great significance as a pioneer Australian specialist on medieval and Renaissance Italy.

Meek and Kent (2009, 762) provided a summary of Green’s academic achievements, which included ‘changing the view of Italian specialists on the significance of medieval chronicles and early Renaissance historical writing, setting the history of fourteenth-century Lucca on a firm footing with the production of two excellent archive-based studies of difficult periods and writing two chapters on Florence, destined to become standard works, in the New Cambridge Medieval History’.


F.W. Kent, ‘Louis Green (1929−2008)’ Australian Academy of the Humanities Proceedings 34, ed. Elizabeth Webby (2009), 55−61. Online at http://www.humanities.org.au/Portals/0/documents/Fellows/Obituaries/LouisGreen.pdf; F. William Kent and Christine Meek, ‘Obituary: Louis Ferdinand Green (1929–2008)’, Renaissance Studies Vol. 23 No. 5 (2009) 758−62, DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-4658.2009.00616.x

Major publications:

As author:

Chronicle into History: An essay on the interpretation of history in Florentine fourteenth-century chronicles (1972; 2008); Castruccio Castracani: the Origins and Career of a FourteenthCentury Italian Despotism (1986); Lucca under Many Masters: a FourteenthCentury Italian Commune in Crisis (1328–1342), (1995).

As editor

Documents in Renaissance & Reformation history ([North Melbourne]: Cassell Australia, [1969]) xi, 226 pp (with David Webster).

Journal articles and book chapter:

‘Historical Interpretation in Fourteenth-Century Florentine Chronicles’, Journal of the History of Ideas 28. 2 (April−June, 1967), 161−78; ‘Lucca under Castruccio Castracani: The Social and Economic Foundations of a Fourteenth-Century Italian Tyranny’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 1 (1985), 137−59; ‘Machiavelli’s Vita di Castruccio and its Lucchese Model’, Italian Studies XLII (1987), 37–55; ‘Galvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificence’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 53 (1990) 98−113; ‘The Image of Tyranny in Early Fourteenth-Century Historical Writing’, Renaissance Studies 7 (1993), 335–51; ‘Beatrice’s Father, Nobility and the Nobility in Dante’s Florence’, in V. Moleta (ed.), Gloriosa donna della mente: a commentary on the “Vita Nuova” (Florence, 1994), 97–117.

Chronicle into History: An Essay on the Interpretation of History in Florentine Fourteeenth–Century Chronicles (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), vi, 178 pp. Reprinted in a paperback edition in 2008.

Chronicle into History was the first major publication by an Australian scholar in the field (Kent 2009, 58). The book is based on research originally done for Green’s MA thesis at the University of Adelaide (1960) and built on an earlier article (1967) in which he discussed the Florentine chronicle from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth centuries.

In order to chart the movement of medieval historical consciousness towards a more secular, humanistic Renaissance perspective, Green discusses the work of five Florentine chroniclers—all amateur writers of the merchant class ‘who tend to reflect the accepted ideas of their time rather than criticise them’ (Hyde 1974, 95). At issue was the shift from an assumption that God’s designs manifested themselves in the normal workings of history to a view in which human vices and virtues appear as agents for historical change. As Kelley (1974, 335) describes it, the ‘shift from attempts to provide a providential rationale to a reliance upon an analysis of human society and traditions’. Through a close analysis of his chosen texts, four fourteenth-century chronicles and a fifteenth-century storia, Green charts the gradual separation of the supernatural from the natural, an important precondition to the development of humanism (Molho 1975, 957). This was not an argument for Renaissance secularisation:

The evidence that these chronicles provide shows not that there was any rejection of belief in spiritual forces, but that the sense of connection between the natural and the supernatural was weakened. … The change this represented issued … not from the growth of a more secular mentality but from the adoption of the more congenial of two possible ways out of the difficulty of applying traditional preconceptions to conditions that evolved in directions that these did not anticipate’ (pp. 148−9).

According to Green, the decisive shift occurred at mid-fourteenth century, when one Matteo Villani dissociated God from the calamities, natural and political, that he was forced to record (p. 51 passim). The texts ‘are still chronicles because they issue from a sense of the world that had had a continuous existence, from the beginnings of the civilisation of which they were a late expression, to their own day; … they still see time shadowily sketched against the ultimate truths of eternity. But they stand as well on the threshold of history, in the modern understanding of the term, by their progressive disengagement of action from the web of total world significance and its resultant isolation in the self-contained field of its own operation’ (p. 154).

Reviewers advanced some criticism of Green’s selection of texts and of the general conclusions he drew from his reading of them. Nonetheless the book was acknowledged as a ‘very substantial, in some ways ground-breaking, contribution’, showing ‘a close familiarity with his texts, a better grasp of historical context and a superior (if narrower) knowledge of recent scholarship’ (Kelley 1974, 334). ‘What he shows is very interesting, and in view of the rarity of scholarly discussion of these texts, very welcome’ (Whitfield, 1974 191). ‘Green’s narrative is subtle, often elegant, and it succeeds in throwing some illuminating insights on rather familiar texts’ (Molho 1975, 957). For Bill Kent (2009, 57), ‘This quite slim book had an immediate impact, and continues to do so’, as is evidenced by the paperback reprint in 2008. It ‘made his international colleagues think for the first time about how and why the writing of their own history by late medieval Tuscan chroniclers … paved the way for the early Renaissance historians who, for their part, and not of course without twists and turns, ushered in [a] proto-modern historiography…’ (Kent 2009, 58).


Journal of European Studies 3.2 (June 1973), 193 (O. M. T. Logan); The Historian36.1 (November 1973), 97 (Marvin B.Becker); Medium Aevum XLII.2 (1974), 43 (J.H. Whitfield); New Blackfriars 55.645 (February 1974), 95 (Kenneth Hyde); The English Historical Review 89.351 (April 1974), 421 (Daniel Waley); Speculum 4.2 (April 1974), 334−6 (Donald R. Kelley); Renaissance Quarterly 27.1 (Spring, 1974), 70−71 (Lauro Martines); Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 36.1 (1974), 205−7 (Anne Denis; in French); The American Historical Review 80.4 (October 1975), 957 (Anthony Molho); Italica 53.1 (Spring 1976), 101−4 (Christopher Kleinhenz; in Italian)

Castruccio Castracani: the Origins and Career of a FourteenthCentury Italian Despotism (Oxford [Oxfordshire] : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1986), x, 289 pp.

In the early 1970s Green turned to the research that would preoccupy him for the next two decades: writing in two volumes the political history of Lucca from the late‑thirteenth into the mid‑fourteenth centuries. The work involved him in years of painstaking archival searches, requiring considerable linguistic and palaeographical skills, skills quite different from those deployed in his work on Florentine chronicles on the basis of published editions. ‘It was necessary to become an “archive rat”, grubbing away at unpublished manuscript material, including the financial, judicial and notarial records that historians were only beginning to explore around 1970’ (Kent and Meek 2009: 259). Green was the first to undertake serious study of much of this material, including what political material was available, supplemented by sources on finance, fortifications, notarial cartularies, and ecclesiastical records preserved in the Archivio Arcivescovile. The resulting volumes made an original contribution not only to the history of the small city-state of Lucca but to the whole field of late medieval Italian studies (Kent 2009, 59).

In this book, Green undertook a detailed study of Castruccio Castracani, one of a group of tyrants who made their appearance in several of the city-states of northern and central Italy in the early fourteenth century. Castruccio became Captain of Lucca in 1316. His career has inspired writers at various periods, including Machiavelli, who used his biographical essay to demonstrate the moral lesson that overwhelming ambition may bring down even a brilliantly talented conqueror. Green agreed that ‘The story of Castruccio Castracani is a classical historical tragedy in its natural state’; but he was ‘interested in the forces that shape change, the factors that determine how and when it will occur’, finding that in this regard Castruccio’s twelve-year spell of power had something to teach (p. 5).

According to Gundersheimer (1989, 171), Green’s goal was ‘nothing less than a complete reassessment of Castruccio’s life, his military campaigns, political decisions and attainments, relations with important contemporaries’; Law (1989, 1016) found that much of the book’s strength lay in its treatment of these elements. Drawing on familiar and less familiar archival sources, Green managed to explain, with much new supporting detail, the precise character of Castruccio’s ability as a general. ‘For the first time, readers can take the full measure of the Luccan tyrant’s tactical sophistication and psychological astuteness. Castracani was bold and ruthless, qualities recognized in early histories. In Green’s convincing account he was also extraordinarily smart’ (Gundersheimer 1989, 171).

Above all, Green wished to explore the nature of Castruccio’s relationship to Lucca, the capital of the territorial state that he built and lost with astonishing speed and ‘to discover what a career such as Castruccio’s may reveal about the rapidly shifting political and diplomatic landscape of late-medieval Italy’ (Gundersheimer 1989, 171). In this he was judged to have succeeded admirably, despite the sometimes fragmentary nature of his evidence. Gundersheimer again (1989, 172): ‘This is, in short, as close to a definitive book on its subject as we are ever going to get. It has the added, and important, virtue of coming to us in good, clear prose, entirely free of jargon of any kind and nowhere tricked out with the latest Parisian fashions. Therefore it will last.’ It immediately became the standard work on the subject and is unlikely to be surpassed (Kent and Meek 2009, 759).


Historische Zeitschrift 247.2 (October 1988), 409−10 (Josef Riedmann; in German); Speculum 64.1 (January 1989), 171−2 (Werner Gundersheimer); The English Historical Review 104.413 (October 1989), 1016−17 (John E. Law).

Lucca under Many Masters: A FourteenthCentury Italian Commune in Crisis (1328–1342), (1995) [Firenze] : L.S. Olschki, [1995] vii, 361 pp.

Designed as a sequel to Castruccio Castracani, this book dealt with the upheavals experienced by this small Italian city-state after the death of Castruccio. Taken together these two ‘outstanding monographs’ confirmed the author’s reputation as the leading authority on earlier Trecento Lucca (Black 2000, 1279).

In slightly under fifteen years (from 1328 to 1342), Lucca was under no fewer than five different outside rulers and then became an object of barter and eventual sale between Mastino della Scala of Verona and the Tuscan communes of Pisa and Florence, rivals of each other and of Lucca, before eventually falling to Pisan forces after a year-long siege (Kent and Meek 2009, 760). In the first part of his book, Green analysed the interplay of military, diplomatic, political, and economic forces behind the many changes of regime in these years, tackling the question of why Lucca did not succumb to its most powerful neighbour Florence, as seemed likely (Meek 1998, 214). In the second part Green concentrates on the effects of these many short regimes on Lucca itself, giving a detailed account of the city’s government and administration as well as an analysis of its economy and society. Meek (1998, 215) sums up the importance of the book: ‘A book of 364 pages devoted to fourteen years in the history of a Tuscan commune of secondary importance might seem to be carrying the concept of a local study to extremes, but Green’s command of the sources and his eye for the deeper implications of his material ensures that Lucca under Many Masters carries a significance beyond that suggested by its title.’


Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 (Spring, 1998), 214−15 (Christine Meek); The English Historical Review 115.464 (November 2000), 1278−9 (R.D. Black).


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