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Alfred Duggan


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Bohemond was the nickname that Robert Guiscard gave to his eldest son, Mark, because of his size. (Bohemond was a legendary giant.) Like his namesake, Bohemond grew up to be of huge stature and strength and a famous warrior. He was one of the principal leaders of the First Crusade and that is the centrepiece of this novel.

At Robert's death his dukedom in south Italy went to Bohemond's younger half-brother Roger, and Bohemond held only Bari as Roger's vassal. This of course did nothing to satisfy his ambition. He therefore sought his fortune in "Romania", meaning the eastern Roman empire ruled from Constantinople by the Emperor Alexius.

The opening pages of the book present a very compressed account of a huge amount of campaigning and politics in Bohemond's early years, which requires concentration on the part of the reader to follow. The story really gets going when Bohemond visits Alexius in Constantinople at the request of Pope Urban, who seeks a reconciliation after the great schism that had divided Western and Orthodox Christianity a few decades earlier. In spite of previous hostilities Alexius is willing to consider an alliance with Bohemond in his war with the Turks in the east.

Bohemond's arrival in Constantinople coincides with the influx of the Crusaders, who also hope for an alliance with Alexius. The Emperor does offer them help but has no expectation that they will succeed in capturing Jerusalem. He really wants them off his territory and is sure that they will all be killed by the Turks; he certainly has no intention of fighting alongside them himself.

Bohemond guesses a lot of what is in Alexius's mind, but he decides to throw his lot in with the pilgrims, and he and his Normans march south with the others. After a hazardous passage through the mountains they find themselves in Syria, with only the vaguest notion of the geography of the area and of how to reach Jerusalem.

They eventually reach the great walled city of Antioch and lay siege to it. They have no agreed leader and there is mounting tension between Bohemond and his Normans on the one hand and Count Raymond of Toulouse, with his southern French knights, on the other. But Bohemond has a strong if unruly ally in the person of his nephew Tancred, who is as tall and strong as himself.

The besiegers' food runs out and they begin to starve. It looks as if the pilgrimage will end in disaster, but Bohemond finds a traitor in the city who lets him in. So the pilgrims capture Antioch thanks to Bohemond - just in time, for a large Turkish army is advancing, intending to raise the siege. Things look hopeless for the pilgrims, who are still starving, but Bohemond leads them in a battle which they win, against all the odds.

Raymond at first resists Bohemond's attempt to become the ruler of Antioch, but Bohemond outwits him and, after the fall of Jerusalem, is proclaimed Prince of Antioch by the papal legate. Tancred, meanwhile, becomes Prince of Galilee.

Bohemond comes across not only as a brilliant military strategist but also as a subtle politician who constantly outmanoeuvres his rivals, especially Raymond. Duggan takes us inside his mind, so that we learn his hopes and fears and the motives that drive him. He is of course religious, as everyone was at the time but he is not unduly pious and is certainly far from saintly. He kills without compunction although he is not cruel. Questions of knightly honour are a central preoccupation for him, as they are for Tancred, and they discuss the finer points of these regularly. If he swears an oath he feels obliged to keep it, but there can be let-out clauses. So he does not feel obliged to keep faith with Alexius, who has not kept his side of the bargain. And although a knight is bound to fight to the death to preserve the life of a leader to whom he has sworn allegiance, he is not required to join in a hopeless battle that would inevitably result in his death, since that would amount to suicide, which is forbidden.

We can never really know what it was like to be a knight in the early Middle Ages but Duggan convinces me that this was how it could have been. This was his last novel, published posthumously. In his preface Evelyn Waugh provides an outline of his life and an appreciation of his writing.


% Count Bohemond
%A Alfred Duggan
%I Faber and Faber
%C London
%D 1964
%P 281pp
%K fiction
%O preface by Evelyn Waugh

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