Count Bohemond

Alfred Duggan

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.