Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hero or Caterpillar?--Value Judgments in History

For a historical novelist, reconciling sources can be one of the most time consuming processes of writing a novel. So often, one chronicler will say that there were 500 men in a battle while another chronicler claims that there were 10,000. Which chronicler is more trustworthy? Which story is more plausible? Can both stories be true?

Besides contradictory facts, another thing that must be reconciled is contradictory value statements. Every medieval chronicler was quick to weigh down his narrative with moral judgments on the characters and actions therein. These judgments must be assessed as assiduously as the basic facts of the narrative.

The character of Bohemond, one of the most important characters in my trilogy The Chronicles of Tancred, is a case in point.

Ralph of Caen, a Norman who came East after the First Crusade and served Bohemond in Antioch, described Bohemond thus:
There was in those days a hero of great stature.... This was Bohemond, the son of that distinguished soldier Robert surnamed Guiscard, who was a vigorous emulator of his father's daring.
This passage compares Bohemond to his father in a very complimentary manner. Bohemond is a hero and Robert Guiscard is distinguished. The words used show how favorably this historian thought of his subjects.

Anna Comnena, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios, also wrote about Bohemond:
Bohemond resembled his father in all respects, in daring, strength, aristocratic and indomitable spirit. In short, Bohemond was the exact replica and living image of his father.... Bohemond was in fact like the acrid smoke which preceded the fire, the preliminary skirmish which comes before the great assault. Father and son you might liken to caterpillars and locusts, for what was left by Robert, his son fed on and devoured. 
Anna's account gives the same comparison as the one provided by Ralph of Caen, but the tone is very different. Bohemond is similar to his father, and this similarity is not necessarily a good thing. The similes Anna used to describe the two men (acrid smoke, caterpillars and locusts), make the reader dislike their daring and feel disgust at their indomitable spirit.

Both of these historians described Bohemond as a man similar to his father, but they each provided a different lens with which to view the men. They placed a value judgment on the given fact.

For the historical novelist, this kind of contradiction presents a whole new range of questions. Which value judgment should we accept? Is it possible to remain impartial, or must we take a side? Will we throw in our lot with the Byzantines, or raise our flag with the Normans? Was Bohemond a hero, or a caterpillar in disguise?

Bohemond's Mausoleum
in Canosa Di Puglia

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