Count Bohemond - Alfred Duggan Essentially, Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond is a novelization of Steven Runciman’s first volume in his A History of the Crusades. (Truth be told, there are parts of Prof. Runciman’s classic that read like a novel.) Bohemond was a scion of one of the more remarkable families of a remarkable people – the Normans. Most people, if only vaguely, are aware that “the Normans” conquered England at some point in time (AD 1066) but fewer are aware that that period in Medieval history also saw Norman conquests in Spain, Italy, Southeast Europe and the Levant. Bohemond was the eldest son of Robert Guiscard (the “Weasel”) of the Hauteville family. Robert wrested Southern Italy from its Lombard and Byzantine masters to become Duke of Apulia and Calabria but Bohemond, though an exemplary knight, was not a politician and found himself largely disinherited by his half-brother, Roger Borsa (the “Purse,” Roger wasn’t much of a knight but he was a canny politician and a skinflint), upon Robert’s death in 1085. The advent of the First Crusade gave Bohemond the chance to carve out a domain of his own and this novel chronicles that effort up to the time when he’s able to make himself Prince of Antioch.

If you’ve read my reviews of Children of the Wolf and Besieger of Cities, you’ll know the reservations I have for Duggan’s writing. They are again evident here so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book either but I did enjoy it. As in Winter Quarters, there’s a greater energy than in those other two novels because Duggan sincerely admires and likes his character. I can’t say that I share that admiration but it makes the book engaging and fast moving.

Duggan’s difficulty as a writer is that he doesn’t trust the reader to understand what’s going on without explicitly laying everything out, all too often in awkward exposition. E.g.:

“We shall all be very sorry to part with Count Bohemond, but if those are his views he is right to leave us. I myself have never heard the Emperor promise Antioch to Count Bohemond as his private fief, though since we left the city I have heard Count Bohemond often refer to that promise. I don’t suggest for a moment that he isn’t telling the truth as he sees it; but recollections of private conversations sometimes differ. As I see it Antioch ought to go to Alexius. You all promised to restore his old frontiers. As it happens I did not, but I promised to do him no harm while I was within his dominions, and I am now within his dominions. There it is. Antioch must be given to the Greeks, even if it means losing that splendid Apulian contingent.” (p. 194)

I can’t recall anything nearly this awkward in, for example, an Aubrey/Maturin novel or even in a Sharpe adventure.

On the other hand, there are still enjoyable moments of Duggan’s sardonic wit and humor. There’s an early scene where Guiscard explains to Bohemond his “philosophy of rule”:

“So we are, and I should like to stay that way. But if the Greeks offer me a fortune on condition I serve their Patriarch I might be open to conviction. Theology is a subject beyond the understanding of a simple knight. God won’t damn a layman for serving the wrong spiritual superior. But Normans can do more than fight. Look here, young Bohemond, you must get this into your head. Normans can govern – we are the best governors in the world. The revenues of Apulia and Calabria are greater than before we came, though then they were ruled by clever Greeks and during the conquest nearly every valley was plundered. Greeks are bright, but they’re all crooked. As for Lombards, they are lazy as well as crooked. Half the villages didn’t pay tribute because no one came around to collect it. Others bribed the collector with a little something for his own purse, much less than the due payment. Now everything runs as smoothly as a water-mill. No use trying to bribe a Norman collector, because he won’t take less than the full tribute even if he keeps it all for himself. A man who has to look after his irrigation-ditches jolly well must repair them once a year. A man who ought to collect toll from every traveler can’t let his friends pass free. In my fiefs only I plunder caravans of merchants; there are no other brigands. The peasants pay us rather a lot, but they don’t pay anything to anyone else. We can govern a country so that it prospers. Now don’t you suppose that whoever is the next Emperor of Romania would like to hire Normans to help him run his Empire? Things will be rather disturbed after a few civil wars.” (pp. 18-19)

And later in the book, Bohemond and his nephew Tancred are considering what to do with two deserters who, unfortunately, are also rather high ranking members of the crusading army (whom Duggan consistently refers to as “pilgrims”). Both men are half-starved and tipsy with drink: “As the wine glowed inside them, they sat, looking judicial.” (p. 189)

And, while I can’t commend this book strongly, I can enthusiastically recommend Runciman’s 3-volume A History of the Crusades. It’s a bit dated, having been written in the ‘50s, but there’s no better source for getting a blow-by-blow account of the Crusades.