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Very good despite not being always historically accurate
on July 29, 2012
This is a gripping read, even better than the previous series (Conquest) which was far from poor. The strong points start as of page one of the prologue where the reader is treated straight away with a rather nasty fight opposing "rebel" Lombards to a handful of highly trained, fierce and fearless Norman knights who break their shieldwall. The contrast drawn between Bonito and the young giant Norman warrior and cold killer that is about to take him on is wonderfully drawn. So are the orher battles scenes across the whole book and, because this is the story of the last 12 years of Robert Guiscard, and the next decade that sees Bohemond his bastard "son of blood" become Prince of Tarento, there are quite a few of them.
This leads me to the book's second strength. This is the way Jack Ludlow has chosen and managed to depict the personalities and the relationship between his three main characters. I mean Robert de Hauteville, nicknamed Robert Guiscard, because of his cunning, the triple Duke (of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, who also became Prince of Salerno), his younger brother and lieutenant Roger of Hauteville, the Great Count from whom the Koings of Sicily were to descend, and their respective son and nephew, Bohemond, who was to be one of the main leaders of the First Crusade and become the first Prince of Antioch. The relationships show a mixture of pride, respect, mutual wariness because each is aware of how dangerous the other one could be to the others and to their interests, masking deeper feelings which are never entirely allowed to come to the fore. Although we will of course never know for sure, Jack Ludlw has indeed managed to show them as I imagine them, making them feel real. So this worked very well for me. Many of the other characters are also very well drawn and fit with was is known of them in the sources: Desiderius, the holy and humble abbot of Montecassino, who never wanted to become pope (but finally did, if only for a couple of years), Sichegaite the Lombard princess, wife of Robert Guiscard and sister of the last Lombard prince of Salerno (Gisulf) or the young and hotheaded Tancred (the future second Prince of Antioch and also one of the "heroes" of the First Crusade). Some of the other characters are, at times, a bit of a caricature, such as Hildebrandt, better known as pope Gregory VII, who always seem to be in a rage and somewhat frothing at the mouth, or are only glimpsed vey shortly, such as Alexis Comnene, the Byzantine Emperor, but the main characters, and most of the secondary ones are very good or even excellent.
The historical accuracy of the novel is a more tricky question. Here, I found that Jack Ludlow was sometimes up to some of his old tricks, but generally less so than in his previous boook on the Conquest. He has certainly down his reasearch and read the sources. The Norman pride that shows throughout the book is straight from Geoffroy Malaterra, for instance. He has also often chosen to take the sources quite litterally, so that when Robert GUiscard decides to attack Illyria, this is presented as an attempt to conquer the whole of the Byzantine Empire, or what was left of it by this time (still quite a large chunk, nevertheless). This is also the view held currently by most historians of the South Italian Normans or of Byzantium in the late 11th and early 12th century, even if, realistically (and Robert Guiscard was a realist, if nothing else), the Guiscard's war objectives may perhaps have been more limited.
My main problem with this book - but it is a rather secondary one - is that Ludlow had muddled up and played around with some of the chronology. This is particularly the case for the years 1073 to 1078. The only explanation I can find was that he wished to make Bohemond part of the story from the onset of the book, which in reality starts just after the fall of Palermo in 1072 at a time when Bohemond was only about 12. So, all of the events described in the book really happened, although the sequence may sometimes not have been respected. Anyway, most readers will probably not realize it unless they know alredy quite a bit about the Hautevilles already, lor will not care about it. As for those who do care, and for whom historical accuracy in a piece of historical fiction, I can only reassure them: it does not really spoil the story, which is very good, although it might annoy some of you, sometimes. Anyway, for those who have spare time and are curious enough to check what the author has done, the best reference in English is certainly Graham Loud's "the Age of Robert Guiscard - Southern Italy and the Norman Conquest", just as it was for the previous trilogy which dealt with the first 40 or so years (about 1030 to 1072).
For those really interested in the historical record of what happened, below is a list of some of choices that the novellist has made. These include both some of the "liberties" he has taken with history, both interpretations and a few (vey few, to be honest) mistakes, and some of the very accurate points that are included in the book.
The "liberties" include the following:
- the first naval battle between the Venetians and the Normans outside Dyrrachium seems to have happened after the Normans has begun the land siege. In other words, the Ventians did not arrive in the port before the Normans, but after them, and their cut the Noramns' communications and supply loine with Italy, bottling them up in the port and forcing them to fight a series of naval battles
- the Venetians does not seem to have made any use of "Greek Fire" and probably did even master the technology. This is one of the author's inventions, for obvious dramatic effects, but I must admit that it works well.
- The Normans, nor any other Western knights, did not have "destriers" until the middle of the 12th century, so the use of them in the book is in fact an anachronism. Their warhorses at the time were no heavier than those of the Byzantines, for instance. To learn more about this, see Ann Hyland's excellent book on "the Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades".
- The use of the couched lance techniques, and the supposedly huge advantage it gave to knights using this kind of shock cavalry tactics has been much discussed and disputed among historians. It is possible that Bohemond was one of the first to have used it on a large scale, although it remained only one of the seven or eight ways to use a lance on horseback until the mitddle og the 12th century at least. Also, if Bohemond did indeed use it, his "innovation" is much more likely to have taken place against the Turks and especially at the battle of the Lake of Antioch, than as indicated in the book. If I remember correctly, a discussion on this is included in John Frances excellent military history of the First Crusade ("Victory in the East")
- another "liberty" is the use of a Norman mercenary captain in the service of the BYzantines and taking part in the battle of Dyrrachium for the Latins including the Nomrans and Venetians or Dyrrakhion, for the Greek speakers (but certainly not Durrazzo, which is the Italian name of the actual port of Dûrres in modern day Albania. This captain is in fact modelled on Roussel de Bailleuil, a Nomran mercenary captain who had served with Roger in Sicily, was one of the Eperor's generals during the fateful campaign leading to the defeat of Mantzikert, and then rebelled and carved himself out a principality. However, he did not take part in the battle of Dyrrachium. He is last mentioned in 1078, when Alexis Comnene, who had captured him four years before, freed him to take command of a regiment of Norman mercenaries and fight alongside him against the rebellion of Nicephore and John Bryennios. He was in all likelihood dead by 1081, possibly poisoned as one source has it
- a couple of mistakes also: when he fell sick in 1085 during the second expedition against Byzantium, Bohemond was taken to Salerno, not to Bari. It was indeed Salerno and not Bari which had the reputation of having some of the best doctors in Western Europe. The other mistake is that at the end of the 11th century, it was the Petchenegues (or Patzinaks) and the Cumans, both Turkish confederations, who were attacking the Byzantine Empire from the North and raiding across the Danube and into Thrace, not the Magyars (who were in the process of settling in Hungary), nor the Kievan Rus (who were allies of Byzantium).
Alongside these "liberties", there are also a great many historical points which are very well made in the book. - -- One is the picture given of Byzantine diplomacy, and its use of gold to buy allies or create rebellions for ennemy. This was used to great effect against the Normans, forcing Guiscard to rush back to Italy and leave his son and most of his army in Illyria and Northern Greece.
- Another is the depiction of the battle of Dyrrachion: the sources, both Byzantine (Anna Komnena) and Norman (William of Apulia and Godefroy Malaterra) are rather vague about what exactly happened during the battle, and they tend to concentrate on the Varangians. However conjectural, Ludlow account of the battle is good. It's both plausible. Its makes sense and it does show that the battle was hard fought and no walkover for the Normans. However, there were no Saracens at the battle and no contingent was sent by Roger to take part in an expedition which he did not approve of anyway and which drew away from Sicily hundreds of yoiung knights which he would have badly needed to finich conquering th island
- A third is the depiction of the siege of Salerno by Robert Guiscard, which took place over the winter of 1076 and the early months of 1077. Gisulf did indeed have huge stores of food and did behave rather shamefully towards the population of own city. Although he is depicted in the book as a rather shady character, and did indeed encourage piracy, we know nothing of his real physical apparence.
- A fouth excellent point, and I will stop there, although there are many more, is Ludlow's treatment of the 10 years or so (almost 11) which followed the death of Robert Guiscard. Roger became the strongman of the family as shown in the book. He kept having to intervene as the peacemaker between Roger Borsa, the successor of Guiscard as Duke, and Bohemond, who was the real warrior but did not have the backing of the Lombards (who made up the overwhelming majority of hte population of Salerno and even the majority in Apulia, especially in the Northern part). Each time he had to act as the peacemaker, he extracted advantages from Borsa, as also very well shown in the book. Also, the siege of Amalfi and the departure of Bohemond and Tancred for the Crusade after stripping Borsa of a good part of his knights who just left him to carve out land and gain riches with their swords on the CRusades is perfectly historical. Borsa had to raise the siege as a result and Amalfi would continue to defy the triple Dukes and Princes of Salerno (both Borsa and his son) until 1139, when Roger II (son of the Great Count) conquered qand sacked the city, putting an end to its independence and to its commercial power.
Anyway, Jack Ludlow has come up here with a superb book which is well worth four stars, although not quite five in my mind, and which is better than the previous episode.