12 February, 2008

Count Bohemond, by Alfred Duggan. Book review

First published 1964. Edition reviewed: Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2002, ISBN 0-304-36273-5.

Count Bohemond is set in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East (roughly the areas of modern Turkey and Syria), and tells the story of the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. All the main characters are historical.

Bohemond is the eldest son of the Norman lord of Apulia in Italy. The family are military adventurers, proud of their descent from a Norman knight who came south with little more than his weapons and a horse and carved out a lordship for himself. From an early age Bohemond looks eastward to the lands of the Byzantine Empire with a covetous eye. When he is set aside in his father’s will in favour of his younger half-brothers, Bohemond’s desire to go east and seek his fortune increases, and the First Crusade offers him his chance. But despite his military ability, he is a comparatively minor knight among many great lords. Can Bohemond lead the quarrelling factions of the Crusade safely through many miles of hostile territory to the Holy Land – and if the enterprise succeeds, how can he ensure he obtains a share of the spoils?

This novel is an excellent introduction to the First Crusade. I knew only a little about it, and Count Bohemond gives a clear and vivid picture of the events and people involved. Not being an expert on the period, I can’t speak for its historical accuracy, except to say that the incidents I looked up have all turned out to be real, which is always a good sign.

Since all the main characters are Frankish or Norman military aristocrats, you might expect them all to be much the same. Far from it. All the main players are deftly drawn as distinct individuals. Godfrey of Bouillon, fair-minded, competent and honourable. Robert of Normandy, brave but as thick as a brick (those familiar with English history will remember that he was done out of his inheritance by his younger brother Henry I; meet him here, and you can understand why). The nice but weak Stephen of Blois, who would have made a good accountant but sadly the profession hadn’t yet been invented. Bohemond’s hot-headed and quixotic nephew Tancred. And Bohemond himself, as wily as the Crusade’s self-interested ally Emperor Alexius, cleverly negotiating his way through a political maze that is every bit as challenging as the military obstacles.

Count Bohemond is written with a light touch and a keen sense of the absurd. It is strong on military tactics and strategy, from the running battles fought with hostile tribes to the great siege of Antioch. The battle scenes are vivid, short and seen from the commander’s perspective; don’t expect pages of blow-by-blow descriptions spattered with blood and guts. A map would have been very useful for following the crusade’s progress through the mountains and deserts of Anatolia and Syria. Unfortunately there isn’t one in the paperback, so it’s well worth having an atlas to hand.

Bohemond is perhaps a little excessively rational and level-headed. He never seems to lose his temper or do something silly on impulse, and the reader always knows what he is thinking but rarely what he is feeling. There are also hardly any women characters (reasonably enough, given the story is essentially a military one), though Bohemond’s stepmother Sigelgaita has a memorable cameo role in the early chapters. Readers looking for a story about human passions and relationships will be better served elsewhere.

Crisp, compact and very readable retelling of the extraordinary enterprise that was the First Crusade.

Has anyone else read it?

24 comments:

tenthmedieval said...

I think Stephen of Blois was not so much weak as highly-strung. He certainly fought hard enougha nd doggedly enough on his return to the Holy Land, however badly it ended for him. If I ever wrote a book like this I'd have Stephen as likely to throw a strop and then spend ages trying to justify himself by sticking to it, rather than just infiorm of purpose.

What does Duggan make of Raymond of Aguilers and his troop of visionary clerics?

Carla said...

Hello, Tenthmedieval, and welcome! You may well be right about Stephen of Blois. In the novel he does a valuable job of organising and distributing food for the crusade - which must have been quite a job and contributes significantly to the success of the enterprise - but he isn't able to enforce the rationing when the greater lords start throwing their weight around. Hence the suggestion of a certain amount of weakness in his character, although perhaps weak isn't quite the right word for it. It was a cruel irony that, having come so far and endured so much, he should reach the end of his personal tether literally days before it would all have paid off. Poor man. I don't think he was especially stroppy at all in the novel, but then character and motivation are usually wide open to a novelist's interpretation (which is what makes HF such fun).

I don't think Duggan makes anything very much of Raymond and the visionary clerics. Certainly they didn't make a lasting impression on me, so either I missed them somehow or they only got a bit part. He mentions a Peter the Hermit (I think?) as a visionary preacher who was a thoroughgoing nuisance to the leadership. The novel focuses quite closely on Bohemond and his manoeuvring with the other leaders, so there must be a lot of the crusade that hardly gets a mention.

Rick said...

Does a teenage Byzantine princess have a walk on role? Anna Comnena wrote a history including a vivid account of the Franks, and I believe especially Bohemond. Perhaps the author of a manly man's historical adventure in the 1960s did not want to go there at all, but we can imagine the combined fascination and revulsion that 6 feet of testosterone might have for a refined Byzantine girl.

Was Bohemond his actual name? I believe it literally means "behemoth," possibly as a nickname. Maybe he was one of those guys so big that he didn't need to work himself into a proper medieval rage to hack & hew effectively. Mostly I remember him having a reputation as no one to mess with.

Carla said...

Rick - her father Alexius is an important secondary character, and Anna gets a mention when she asks to meet Bohemond, but if she does appear it's only very fleetingly.

Quite right, Bohemond is a nickname. His real name was Mark. In the novel he's given the name Bohemond at the age of about two, when his father decides he resembles the character of Giant Bohemond in a folktale a minstrel is performing. I don't think Bohemond loses his temper once in the novel. You get the impression that he'd whack his opponent's head off with one stroke and then look for another target without wasting energy on frenzied hacking and hewing. Certainly not one to mess with!

Constance said...

Now this sounds interesting enough to tempt me out of my normal time period readings. 'Military' and 'Byzantine' clinched it for me. :)

Gabriele C. said...

I've read several of Duggan's novels, among the Count Bohemond. Some of his books have been reissued recently. The distanced narrative may not be to everyone's taste, but I liked it well enough.

Alianore said...

I'd like to give this a try. It's a period of history I don't know much about, but would like to!

Was Stephen of Blois related to the Stephen of Blois who became king of England? And I seem to remember that Eleanor of Aquitaine's uncle Raymond of Poitiers had a son called Bohemond of Antioch. Was the Bohemond of the novel an ancestor, do you know?

Carla said...

Constance - it's well worth reading. The majority of the military stuff is Frankish, because the story follows the crusaders, but the Byzantine army appears once or twice, including a memorable scene with the Varangian Guard.

Gabriele - I like his style. I've heard it called 'dry', and I can see where that comes from, but I'd say 'crisp' or 'uncluttered' are closer.

Alianore - I think it's probably a good starting point for the First Crusade. As I said, I'm not an expert so can't speak for the accuracy, but the people and events I looked up were all real, so that's a hopeful sign. The usual caveats about it being fiction apply, but the author does seem to have taken the historical part of the description seriously as well.

The Stephen of Blois in the novel is the father of the one who became King Stephen of England. If you've read Sharon Penman's When Christ and his Saints Slept, the opening scene in that is poor Stephen of Blois arriving home from the Holy Land having set off literally the day before Antioch fell, and getting the most almighty tongue-lashing from his wife Adela (William the Conqueror's daughter, and a chip off the old block). After which he probably wished he'd stayed and taken his chances with the Saracens.

Raymond of Poitiers married Constance of Antioch, who was the granddaughter and heiress of the Count Bohemond in the novel (only daughter of his son). Her son was Bohemond III of Antioch and I think they got up to about Bohemond VII before losing Antioch and then dying out.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

This isn't one I've read Carla, but I'll probaby get around to it. I've got one of his out of the library at the moment - The Cunning of the Dove, about Edward the Confessor, but it's waiting to be read under a pile of research tomes. I read Knight with Armour for the HNS Review. I quite enjoyed it, but have to say it did plod at times - but that was a different book not this one, and I'd certainly be willing to give CB a go.

Scott Oden said...

I might have to go hunt this one up. I'm on a Crusades kick right now, though much of what interests me is the Second and Third Crusades. I'm going to hit Amazon up soon with an order for a few translated sources and what-not . . . might have to add a bit of fiction to the mix ;)

Though I do miss my Antiquity, the 12th century is not without its charm . . .

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I haven't read Knight with Armour so I couldn't say how it compares. His style doesn't appeal to everyone - see Gabriele's comment - but I'd say it's worth trying two or three before deciding.

Scott - Why the Second and Third in particular? Because of the connections with Saladin, or some other reason? I associate the Third with Richard the Lion-Heart etc, but don't know much about the Second (except that the Saracens won hands down).

Rick said...

Let me say a nice word for the Fourth Crusade, since no one else will. Hey, it took a nonviolent approach to Muslims!

Scott Oden said...

I like the Second and Third both for the Saladin connection and the politics of the Latin States. I have quite a few translated sources from the Muslim perspective (the most interesting being the memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh), but very little -- beyond what's to be found on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook -- from the Crusader perspective. The more I read about the Third, though, the more I'm starting to think Richard I was an ass.

On a small tangent: what do you think of the current spate of Templar novels? It seems every bit of medieval fiction produced in the last few years has been Templar-this or Templar-that. Me, I've never found them *that* interesting, to the point where every Crusader-era novel should feature a Templar or three.

(Truthful confession: there's a pair of villainous Templars in Lion of Cairo)

Scott Oden said...

Isn't the Fourth Crusade about the Doge of Venice and the Sack of Constantinople? Yeah, I like the Fourth, too!

Carla said...

Rick/Scott - Was the Fourth Crusade the one that decided it would be much easier and more profitable to pillage Constantinople than to liberate Jerusalem? Bohemond in this novel has a predatory eye on the Byzantine Empire, so it wasn't a new idea. Where does the Doge of Venice come into it?

Scott - "the more I'm starting to think Richard I was an ass." You may well have a point :-) He tends to get lionised (ahem!) at the expense of Bad King John in the 1066-And-All-That view of history; but nearly bankrupting your kingdom for a foreign war and then a king's ransom doesn't strike me as necessarily all that bright. John may or may not have been a Bad King, but Richard did leave him rather a mess to clear up.

Could the current fad for Templars be not unrelated to the success of The Da Vinci Code? I'm probably the only person on the planet who hasn't read it, so I don't know if it features Templars, but they were certainly a big part of the religious conspiracy theory in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. There's at least one sinister Templar in Ivanhoe, which has been filmed and TV-dramatised, so I also guess that a good many people have heard of the Templars even if they don't know much else about the Middle Ages, which would make them a good marketing hook (don't they call that 'high concept' or something?). Me personally, I can take or leave them.

Gabriele C. said...

Jack Whyte's new trilogy has the Templars as well. And it starts with their foundation, for a change.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I've heard of the new Jack Whyte series but not read any yet. What are they like?

Gabriele C. said...

I just ordered the first.

Book 2 will be out in paperback in April, so if I like the first one, I'm going to buy book 2 as well. It jumps ahead in time and has our dear Richard who, according to the description, comes across as asshole in Whyte's book. :)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

There has been a very interesting debate on Richard I and his motives on the Mediev-L e-list recently. I've saved them to read later as I don't have time to more than skim at the moment, but the concensus was that an ass he certainly wasn't and that he was playing a deep game of international politics that if it had come off, would have secured the family empire. John - well the more I research him, the more I want to wash my hands! I used to buy into the deal that he'd been hard done by and if the situation had been different he'd have been a reasonable king and less of a bad guy - but I think that although the former is possible, his personal nature would be a distinct handicap!

Rick said...

The Fourth Crusade was indeed the Venetian sack of Constantinople. From my reading it was more an imbroglio than a Villainous Plot. Shortest form, the crusade got mixed up in Byzantine succession politics, which were both very byzantine, and very different from the Western feudal outlook that even the Venetians largely shared.

Templars play into the contemporary fascination with conspiracy theories. Their connection with Masonry is longstanding - the Mason youth organization is (at least was) called DeMolay, for the last Grandmaster, Jacques de Molay, burned in Paris in 1314.

No one would believe a tie-in between the Hospitallers and the JFK assassination, but you could probably work one in with the Templars, and it would sell like hotcakes.

stevent said...

Carla, I hadn't heard of this one. Will definitely add it to my list. I don't generally focus on the Crusades for my medieval research, though I still find it interesting. The History Channel put out a good documentary on the Crusades a couple of years back called "Crescent & the Cross," which I subsequently bought and added to my library of DVDs. Thanks for the review and suggestion.

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe Richard Lionheart suffers from the same ups and downs as his colleague Richard III who changed from mwuahaha evil hunchback to poor misunderstood Richie, and the blame is laid upon those nasty Woodvilles. After having been the hero for quite some time, Lionheart gets the bad guy card these days, and that impiles John has to get a better role than before.

The truth, as always lies in between.

Btw, Arminius is another example. He's been the German freedom fighter for so long that some historians (and writers) now see him as nothing but greedy and powerhungry, using Rome as scapegoat to further his aims.

I'll have to rectify both images. *grin*

Rick said...

There's been some swing back toward Richard I. At least, John Gillingham, who seems to be a prominent if somewhat controversial mediavalist, makes the pro-Richard argument. I think he notes among other things that the Lionheart legend was already growing up in his own time, certainly soon thereafter. In judging him as a king of England, surely contemporary English sentiment has some weight in our evaluation.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Let me know what you think of Whyte's series.

Rick - Oooh, yes, the Templars time-travelled to the grassy knoll. I can see the film script already :-)

Steven - this is well worth a read, and if you like it, you might like to look for others of Alfred Duggan's novels. He wrote several, in a wide range of time periods.

Elizabeth/Gabriele/Rick - It seems Richard I is as controversial as his namesake! Isn't it strange how opinion so often polarises and swings from one extreme to the other? We'll probably never really know - character and motivation are always so open to interpretation (which is where HF comes in!).