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The "other" Norman Conquest
on October 13, 2009
Beginning in 1033, this is the first part of a trilogy following the fortunes of the remarkable and ambitious Hautville family. A minor Norman baron, the penurious but prolific Tancred de Hautville produced 12 strapping sons (not to mention the odd daughter). Refused service with their overlord Duke Robert of Normandy, who regards them as a threat, the mettlesome Hautville sons contemplate their bleak future. Trained as warriors from an early age, they look south to Italy, where Norman mercenaries are in great demand. William de Hauteville, the oldest, sets off with his brother, Drogo. They know that they must not just make their own way in the world, but also prepare the way for their younger siblings.
Eleventh century Italy is a land of many principalities, full of turmoil and constant warfare. There are many players contending for power: in northern Italy the Western Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany controls several territories, including the Papal States; in central Italy Lombard lords hold independent duchies; in southern Italy the eastern Byzantine Empire and the Saracens hold sway. Soon there will be another player added to the board; the Normans, no longer satisfied with fighting on behalf of others, but hungry for lands and titles of their own.
"Mercenaries" takes a little getting into; the Italian situation is complex and convoluted and repays a bit of background reading. It's useful to have a map of 11th century Italy at hand (I found one at the online Medieval Sourcebooks Maps). Once all the main characters and places are established, the story picks up momentum and rattles along at a spirited pace. The de Hautville brothers are clever, likeable rogues, who soon find work with Norman mercenary captain, Rainulf Drengot and quickly grasp where they can best place themselves to greatest personal advantage. The power struggle between two warring Lombard lords, Guiamar, deposed Duke of Salerno, and his deposer, Pandulf, Prince of Capua, provides a rich opportunity for Drengot and his company of mercenaries, thanks to quick-witted William. There's plenty of action, and clearly more to come in "Warriors" and "Conquest", due out next year.
This is an entertaining workman-like adventure. Its characters are a mix of actual historical figures and fictional ones, and the author provides a helpful note explaining which is which and some historical information. One complaint; there are some errors which should have been picked up during copy-editing, and the most obvious and irritating mistake is repeated throughout the story. The basic fighting unit of the Norman knights was not, as written here, a convoy, but a conroi: a unit of mounted knights, somewhere between twenty and fifty men and horses in size. The knights in a conroi would ride knee-to-knee in strict formation, acting rather like a cavalry version of the shield-wall.