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More of the same
on 16 December 2012
For those of you that may be already familiar with Jack Ludlow and his books on the Hautevilles, you will not be surprised by this one, the second volume of his second trilogy, centred on Mark/Bohemond, the son of "Robert Guiscard" and the founder of the Principality of Antioch. This is essentially another story about the First Crusade, but seen very much through the eyes of Bohemond and his nephew Tancred (who would become the second Prince of Antioch).
Bohemond is very clearly the hero of this volume, even more than in "Son of Blood." Tandred appears as a "secondary" hero. As usual, Jack Ludlow has certainly done his research but takes numerous liberties with the historical sources. In some cases, some elements are omitted, probably to make his heroes look better. For instance, while Richard of Salerno (and not "Robert", as Ludlow keeps on calling him) was half-Lombard through his mother, he was also a nephew of Robert Guiscard through his father William of the Principate, one of Robert Guiscard's younger brother, and therefore a first cousin to Bohemond. He was possibly the same age or slightly younger than Bohemond, rather than only a few years older than Tancred. As for the latter, he was also apparently half-Norman. His mother was a daughter of Robert Guiscard, making him Bohemond's nephew, but his father seems to have been a Lombard markgraf.
Bohemond's portrait and actions are also somewhat idealized at times, with unsavoury elements being either toned down or left out. Among the second set, there are the protracted negotiations between Bohemond and Emperor Alexius, with the latter proposing to make the former into the commander in chief of the whole Crusading army and of all Byzantine forces in Asia Minor. This clearly shows that, tight from the very beginning and while the various contingents were still arriving at Constantinople and being shipped over to Asia, Bohemond was already scheming to advance his own interests. The Byzantine Emperor was, of course, trying to divide the Crusaders, to rally at least some of them to him and to ensure his leadership of the whole venture.
The incidents during the march of Bohemond's force across Northern Greece are somewhat idealized in the book. The Italo-Normans clearly seem to have had problems in supplying themselves. However, we do not know exactly whether this was because they set off before the Byzantines could stockpile enough supplies, whether the Italo-Normans decided to foray the countryside of their "ally" or whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Byzantines to keep them on short rations. In any case, Bohemond and his men decided to help themselves and were subsequently harassed by the Petchenegue horse archers in Byzantine service whose role it was to prevent them from pillaging the countryside. Another incident, where Godfrey's contingent was defeated in battle before the walls of Constantinople when trying to assault the City after having refused to swear the oath than Alexius required and having been deprived of food is also omitted from the book.
Another omission occurs during the siege of Antioch which Bohemond seems to have coveted for himself at quite an early stage. He is, according to certain sources, responsible for the departure of Tatikios (and not Tacitus), the Byzantine general (who was a Turk, not half Arab and Half Greek) and his contingent. While the official version was that the Byzantine was going to search for help and bring back the Emperor, Bohemond is "credited" to have warned him to leave because his life was under threat as anti-Byzantine sentiments (which the Norman warlord was probably stirring up) were growing within the starving besieging army. A third element, which is toned down rather than omitted, is Bohemond's failure during a significant foraging expedition conducted with the Count of Flanders. The two leaders and their force were attacked by a larger force of Turks and seem to have saved their lives together with their knights by abandoning their infantry to their fates. Although this might have been the only thing to do, given the circumstances, it was not exactly something glorious or chivalrous.
Having made these reservations and quibbles, I must admit that I very much enjoyed reading this book and could not let go of it. Some passages, such as the battle of Doryleum, were particularly good. Another strongpoint was to show to what extent the leaders of the Crusade became suspicious of each other and were divided, especially during the siege of Antioch. A further quality was to show that the army never had a single unified command, partly because this command was supposed to be exercised by the Emperor when he took the field and joined them, and partly because of the rivalries among the various leaders. Yet another quality of this book is the characterisation of the main leaders. Alexius, the Byzantine Emperor, is rather good, and so are Godfrey de Bouillon, Raymond de Toulouse, Adhemard bishop of Le Puy, Hugh of Vermandois, the rather vain and stupid brother of the King of France, and Robert Courteheuse, Duke of Normandy.
Another nice touch was the piece describing the antagonism between Tancred and Baldwin, the younger brother of Godfrey de Bouillon, and how they clashed in Cilicia. It does seem, as shown in the book, that Baldwin took advantage of his superior force to expulse Tancred from Tarsus. He also seems to have been just as ambitious and ruthless as shown and Baldwin would in the near future give further examples of his ruthless behaviour and utter lack of scruples when seizing Edessa for himself. However, Tancred was also a bit of a hothead and not exactly a sweet flower, nor an idealist.
A superb read worth four stars, once again, even with all of the author's "liberties" and attempts into making Bohemond and Tancred "sympathetic".
For those wanting to read or learn more, the best books I have come across up to now include the following:
- John France's "Victory in the East", which is a military history of the First Crusade
- Thomas Asbridge's superb book on "The Creation of the Principality of Antioch" (1098-1130)
And, for those who prefer reading historical novels which are also detective stories and learn about the First Crusade but from the Byzantine point of view, Tom Harper's trilogy on the First Crusade
- The Mosaic of Shadows, which takes place in Constantinople as the Crusading armies are camping under the walls
- Knights of the Cross, which tells the rather horrifying story of the siege of Antioch and
- Siege of Heaven, which covers the last part of the Crusade and, in particular, the siege of Jerusalem.
PS: addendum posted on 11 January 2013
When coming up with a few recommendations for further reading, I forgot to mention two other older books. One is Alfred Duggan's historical novel - "Count Bohemond" - which has a somewhat different take and which I also very much enjoyed. The other is Yewdale's biography of Bohemond first published in 1917 and now back in print again (at last). It seems to be the only one available in English, although there is also at least once recent book of him in French.