Tuesday 21 May 2013

What was it really like on the First Crusade?

My scribe thinks he knows what it was like on Crusade - I am not so sure he does - it was a lot tougher than he thinks. Anyway, he wrote this guest blog for Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past - thank you for hosting it Sarah)

One of the challenges of writing about the First Crusade is imagining the details of everyday life at the end of the eleventh century. The period is really the tail end of the Dark Ages, and other than the Bayeux Tapestry there is almost no contemporary visual record of how people dressed or how soldiers fought, how far an army might travel in a day and what they might eat when they stopped. All of this has to be imagined. It is not really for the best part of another century that the picture becomes clearer, and by then customs have changed dramatically, not least because of the civilising impact on Europe of the contact made by the Crusaders with the far more advanced cultures of Byzantium and the Moslem world.

But because the First Crusade was such an extraordinary episode in history, there are many contemporary chronicles that relate the events that happened. These are mostly written by monks or priests who travelled with the leaders of the Crusade, and were charged by them with recording what happened. Of course these chroniclers were also charged with showing their individual lords and masters in a favourable light.

So there is the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymytanorum (“The Deeds of the Franks and other Jerusalemers”), written around 1101 by a companion of Bohemond of Taranto. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Gesta Francorum tends to show Bohemond in rather a good light. The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres was probably started around the same time, but not completed until 1127/28, and because Fulcher travelled with Robert of Normandy, Stephen of Blois, Robert of Flanders, and later Baldwin of Boulogne, his perspective tends to be that of the Northern French. Raymond d’Aguilers’ Chronicle favours Raymond, Count of Toulouse, whose chaplain the author was (although his tone changes a bit after his apparent dismissal from this role towards the end of the Crusade!). And the Gesta Tancredi (“The Deeds of Tancred”) by Ranulph de Caen comes close to being a hagiography of Bohemond’s fiery nephew Tancred. Light is shed on the scene from different directions by Anna Comnena in The Alexiad, her history of her father, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, because she encountered the Crusaders when they passed through Constantinople, and by Moslem historians such as Ibn al-Athir.

One thing that these accounts have in common is that they are not seeking to tell their readers what they already know. So there is little to be gleaned about the humdrum of everyday life from these documents. They relate extraordinary and unusual events, and for these they have provided much of the raw material for my novel The Waste Land. Some of the extreme events that appear in my book may seem exaggerated to modern readers, but they are there in the contemporary chronicles – newborn babies being abandoned on the way across the Anatolian desert in 1097 after the Battle of Dorylaeum, the cannibalism at the siege of Marrat-al-Numan in 1098, accounts of walking over the bodies of the dead after the siege of Antioch, the streets of Jerusalem running knee deep in blood in 1099. The First Crusade was unbelievably harsh. Some historians have estimated that 150,000 souls set out from various parts of Europe in 1096, and that three years later there were just 15,000 left to besiege Jerusalem. It is true that a few went home, like the disgraced Stephen of Blois, in his case only to be sent back to Outremer by his domineering wife Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror to redeem himself and die in 1102 at the second Battle of Ramleh. But based on these numbers, approaching nine out of ten of those who set off died along the way, in battle, of famine, or of plague.

This level of attrition is of course unthinkable in a modern army. But then Pope Urban II had made the Crusaders an offer that they could not refuse at the Council of Clermont, when he guaranteed them a place in heaven whether they made it to Jerusalem or died trying, and gave them carte blanche to behave however they wished on the way. Deus le volt!

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Taking Liberties with Myths and Legends

(I hope my scribe Simon Acland has not taken liberties with my story. I am beginning to have suspicions after he posted this as a guest blog on WiLoveBooks http://wilovebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/taking-liberties-with-myths-and-legends.html)

The history in my First Crusade novel The Waste Land is pretty accurate. I enjoy reading historical novels in part for the insight they provide into real events, and the feel that they give for life at the time. So I have been careful to try to achieve verisimilitude, going back to the original 12th century chronicles written by the Crusaders, their Muslim opponents, and their Byzantine observers for some of my source material. I confess to using my imagination in the way I have drawn the characters: there is no historical evidence that Duke Godfrey de Bouillon liked drink and women; indeed he is often portrayed as a saintly knight, but there might be an element of hagiography in that. Nor is there evidence of his rivalry with his brother Baldwin. And I have put my own spin on the shenanigans around the Holy Lance in Antioch. One of the purposes of the modern story of the St Lazarus dons that ‘wraps’ my First Crusade tale is to point out the reality behind some of the less credible historical facts (the First Crusade was full of truly extraordinary events) and vice versa.

Where I have taken some dreadful liberties, though, is with ancient myth and legend. I have taken some stories from Ovid, the Holy Grail myths, the legends about the Assassin sect, and an imaginary Gnostic Gospel, and put them all in a great melting pot (I use that term deliberately, for reasons that you will understand if you read The Waste Land).

Apart from this being quite fun, I have the excuse that I am following in a long tradition. Ovid’s Metamorphoses are based on much older stories from early Rome, Ancient Greece and Asia Minor. He embroiders them, poeticises them and makes them his own. The first Holy Grail tale, the Roman de Perceval , written by Chretien de Troyes around 1180, takes as its major source King Arthur and earlier Celtic fertility legends. These are the inspiration for the father of the Fisher King, whose kingdom is laid waste until the wound in his loins is healed. Chretien de Troyes died before he finished his masterpiece, whereupon other writers took his story and rewrote or completed it. Robert de Boron, writing around 1200, was the first to mix in Joseph of Arimathea and make the Grail the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and to catch his blood when he died on the Cross. The German Wolfram von Eschenbach was arguably the first person to bring the Templars into the mix in his Parzival. If you are interested in the way these myths and legends have developed, have a look at Sir James Frazer’s great anthropological study The Golden Bough, or Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance.

In modern times, renewed interest in the Grail was sparked in 1982 by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. This faux history set off the idea that the Grail – the ‘San Graal’ – was the bloodline of Jesus – the ‘Sang Real’ – which was continued by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. And of course there have been many variations on the theme, mixing in Assassins, Templars and even extraterrestrials.

But the element of the tradition which I like most is perhaps TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, from which I have borrowed my own title. Part of Eliot’s genius was to mix imagery from Ovid and the Grail to create a timeless masterpiece. He references Frazer and Weston as key influences in the controversial ‘Notes’ to his great poem. In homage, I have used snippets from Eliot’s poem for my chapter titles, and hidden 23 direct quotes from the poem for Eliot enthusiasts to find.

If that all sounds very pretentious, don’t be put off. My The Waste Land is a humble adventure story, or, as I subtitled it “An Entertainment”.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Sources for The Waste Land

(My scribe, Simon Acland, tells me that this is an article Adam P Reviews hosted on his blog http://adam-p-reviews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/guest-post-sources-for-waste-land-by.html , whatever that may mean)

“So are you a historian then?”

That’s the first thing many people ask me when I tell them I have written a novel set in the First Crusade. When I say, “No, a modern linguist actually”, and that my inspiration came from studying the 12th and 13th Century Grail Romances, they normally say “Wow, you must have done a lot of research.”

At that point I feel a bit of a fraud. To me, research implies toiling in libraries among dusty documents, written in ancient languages in indecipherable script. For me it was much easier than that.

Because the First Crusade is such an extraordinary period of history, and occurred at a pivotal point as Europe was making the transition from the Dark Ages to medieval times, there is a wealth of good books about it. The modern Granddaddy is Stephen Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (Cambridge 1951), but has been followed by many other distinguished works. The main historians other than Runciman on whom I relied are Jonathan Riley-Smith, Christopher Tyerman, and Thomas Ashridge. And I was able to find some specialist works, for example about Cluny, the great Benedictine Monastery where my hero Hugh de Verdon starts his journey, about the fabric of the City of Jerusalem, and the intricacies of medieval warfare.

For the novelist it is also fortunate that many of the contemporary chronicles are available in print and in translation. These fascinating texts were mostly written by monks who accompanied the leaders of the Crusades to the Holy Land. They tend to support the image and reputation of the individual leader in whose entourage the authors travelled, for the prominent Crusaders were always at each others’ throats. But texts such as the Gesta Francorum, the Gesta Tancredi, and the Historia Hierosolimitana provide an invaluable direct insight to the way the Crusaders thought.

The picture would not be complete without the Muslim point of view, especially because the Arab world was far more civilised, tolerant and advanced than Christendom at the end of the 11th Century. Ibn al-Athir is the most distinguished near contemporary Arab historian, and there are several useful summaries of his and others’ work such as Francesco Gabrieli’s 1957 Arab Historians of the Crusades. Then Usama ibn-Munqidh wrote a delightful diary about his life, starting early in the 12th Century, published as An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. Although it postdates the First Crusade itself, and so does not provide any information about the events themselves, it shows the Arab life at the time and the barbarism of their Christian attackers.

A third perspective is provided by the Alexiad, the biography of her father written by Anna Comnenos, the daughter of the contemporary Byzantine Emperor Alexios I. She also shows the Crusaders in fairly uncivilised light, although she clearly fancied Bohemond of Taranto!

So the lucky novelist is spoiled for choice. Partly because of this, and unusually for a novel, I did include a bibliography of the works I found most useful at the end of my book. A word of warning, though. It is not just an academic bibliography. You may be surprised to find references to adventure classics such as John Buchan’s Greenmantle and Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. This is because there are a couple of episodes in The Waste Land that pay homage to these books. And you may be surprised to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail included on the list. Well, see if you can spot the knight who says “Ni” in The Waste Land! Or watch my video at http://www.meettheauthor.co.uk/bookbites/1915.html, and then you will understand!

Tuesday 26 March 2013


(My Scribe, 
Simon Acland, tells me this is a copy of a guest blog kindly hosted by Now is Gone at http://katysozaeva.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/guest-post-simon-acland-author-of-waste.html He says it is something to do with my story.)

Almost 750 years separate TS Eliot’s The Waste Land from the first Grail Romance, Chrétien de Troyes’ Roman de Perceval. Maybe readers would not have made any connection between the modern poem and the medieval Grail poems had it not been for Eliot’s mischievous notes at the end of his poem. To quote: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance.” From the sound of it, without Jessie Weston’s book there might have been no modern Waste Land at all; one can imagine Eliot reading From Ritual to Romance when it came out in 1919, three years before his poem, and that sparking off the chain of creative thought that resulted in one of the 20th century’s greatest poems.

Most people think of the Grail as intimately connected with Jesus and Christianity. It is the chalice that was used at the Last Supper, or the vessel used to catch Christ’s blood when he was taken down from the Cross. We think of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, selecting the wooden carpenter’s cup in that cave high above Petra, and using it to save his dying father Sean Connery. Or maybe we think of it as in The Da Vinci Code: a symbol of the bloodline of Jesus – the San Graal of medieval French somehow being a corruption of the modern French sang real meaning royal blood. That was the idea that Dan Brown borrowed from Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s 1982 pseudo-history The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

But actually, in that first Grail tale, Chrétien de Troyes does not make any specific connection with Jesus or Christianity. In the Roman de Perceval, the knight of the title finds himself in a mysterious castle. He witnesses a strange procession, the centrepiece of which is a magical golden grail (in medieval French a graal is a somewhat obscure word meaning a large serving dish, on which you might place a roast swan or large salmon). Later on in Chrétien’s poem it transpires that the grail is used to feed and keep alive a wounded king, and it is at one point described as ‘tante sainte chose’ (‘such a holy thing’), but it is not linked specifically with Jesus Christ in any way. The land of this king (who happens to be Perceval’s uncle) is barren, laid waste, and Perceval misses the opportunity to lift the spell by asking questions of his host about the grail. It is suggested that the king, poor fellow, has been wounded through the loins, and that his resulting infertility has turned his kingdom into a waste land. So the original grail appears to be a life-giving cornucopia linked with Celtic legend more than a Christian object. But it is never fully explained. Thus a great mystery is set up – what is the grail, why is the king wounded, why is his land barren, and what will happen when the quest is fulfilled and the spell is lifted?

Chrétien de Troyes was probably the most popular writer of his day (I will not insult him by calling him the Dan Brown of the 1100’s). A great storyteller, he would have explained the mystery, but he died around 1180 before he could complete the romance. Eliot deliberately shrouded the meaning of his poem, leaving the reader to interpret it; Chrétien did the same by the accident of his death before the completion of Roman de Perceval.

Of course, my book The Waste Land does not belong in the same illustrious company. It is sub-titled An Entertainment. The meat of it is an adventure story about a monk turned knight who travels East on the First Crusade, discovering the ‘truth’ about the Holy Grail and losing his ideals along the way. But I had great fun using some of the same imagery as Chrétien and Eliot did. There are some physical waste lands in my book – the Turkish desert where the Crusaders suffer appallingly from thirst, the surroundings of Antioch razed during months of siege, the bare wilderness around Alamut. And for my hero Hugh de Verdon the whole Crusade is a spiritual waste land. For that reason, and as an homage to Eliot, I borrowed his title, used snippets from his poem for my chapter headings, and hid twenty-three direct quotes in my text for Eliot fans to find. Most people spot ‘April was the cruellest month’ but some of the others are harder. Look out for a couple of father figures who are wounded in rather uncomfortable places too!

Wednesday 20 March 2013


(This is a copy of a guest post by my scribe on A Book Geek http://abookgeek-llm.blogspot.co.uk/ He says it's something to do with my story.)

The opening conceit of my novel The Waste Land is that a group of desperate Oxford dons discover an ancient manuscript in their library. They resolve to rescue the finances of their bankrupt college by turning this manuscript into a best-selling thriller (think The Da Vinci Code). The manuscript contains the autobiographical story of Hugh de Verdon, a monk turned knight who goes on the First Crusade (1096-99) and “discovers the truth about the Holy Grail”. What is more, the manuscript appears to be the Urtext, the original source material, for the very first medieval Grail romance written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1180.

I studied French and German at Oxford in the 1970s. Back then, Oxford was more than a little old-fashioned, and I found myself studying 12th and 13th Century Grail Romances as my special subject (that is Modern Languages at Oxford for you). However, I found them fascinating and became a fully signed-up Holy Grail geek. Later I read with amusement the books which adapted the medieval legends – The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, which caused a storm in 1982 by suggesting that the Holy Grail – the San Graal in medieval French – was actually a cipher for the royal blood line of Jesus Christ – the Sang Real in modern French. This was the central idea which was then taken into The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Not for nothing is Dan Brown’s villain called Sir Leigh Teabing.

My novel The Waste Land jokes that it all started with Hugh de Verdon’s story, but, in fact, it of course started with that fellow Chrétien de Troyes. Little is known about him, even though he was the Dan Brown of his day. He wrote several very popular chansons de geste, long poems with Arthurian themes about chivalry and damsels in distress, which in places were funny, and for medieval times, even erotic. Chrétien’s last work is called the Roman de Perceval.

In the Roman de Perceval, the knight of the title finds himself in a mysterious castle, and witnesses a strange procession, the centerpiece of which is a magical golden grail (in medieval French graal is a somewhat obscure word meaning a large serving dish, on which you might place a boar’s head or large salmon). Later on in the poem it transpires that the grail is used to feed and keep alive a wounded king, and it is at one point described as ‘tante sainte chose’ (‘such a holy thing’), but it is not linked specifically with Jesus Christ in any way. The land of this king (who happens to be Perceval’s uncle) is barren, laid waste, and Perceval missed the opportunity to lift the spell by asking questions of his host about the grail. The grail appears to be a cornucopia linked with Celtic legend more than a Christian object but it is never fully explained. So a great mystery is set up – what is the grail, why is the king wounded, what happens when the quest is fulfilled and the spell is lifted?

But Chrétien died before he could finish the story, leaving these questions unanswered. Imagine if Dan Brown had died before finishing The Da Vinci Code.

Such was Chrétien de Troyes’ popularity that several writers soon attempted to complete his story. The first of these to make a connection between the Grail and the vessel used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper and to catch Jesus’ blood when he was taken down from the Cross was Robert de Boron. This version contains many of the familiar elements of the legend - Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, King Arthur, the questing knights – but it too was followed by other medieval versions which adapted the story to the individual interests of the writers. One version, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, introduced a loose connection with the Templars. Then, with the passing of the Middle Ages and of the interest in questing knights, the Grail fades from view. It isn’t really until the rekindling of interest in things gothic in the 19th Century that the Grail reappears as a cultural theme in Wagner’s opera Parsifal and the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites.

Sir James Frazer’s massive twelve-volume study of anthropology and folklore, The Golden Bough, published from 1890 to 1915, rekindled 20th century interest in ancient myth and legend. In 1919 Jessie Weston focussed in on the Grail myth in her influential work From Ritual to Romance, and tied its origins firmly back to Celtic fertility legends. Three years later TS Eliot seized on the imagery of the Grail for his poem The Waste Land. Eliot acknowledges his debt to both these writers in the controversial notes to his great poem. In my turn, in homage, I have seized on Eliot’s title for my book, used snippets of his poem for my chapter headings, and buried 23 direct quotations in my text for eagle-eyed Eliot enthusiasts.

There was a trickle of Holy Grail books through the mid-20th Century, and some films, not least Monty Python and the Holy Grail (to which I have also paid a sort of homage by dressing up in Monty Pythones-que Crusader costume to do video interviews about my book). You can watch the video here: http://www.meettheauthor.co.uk/bookbites/1915.html

But it wasn’t really until the 1982 success of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail spawned a flood of imitation pseudo-histories and a torrent of similar fiction that the floodgates really opened. Given the size of the genre, I am not sure that I should have added to it, but I hope that you enjoy reading my lesser Waste Land if you have a chance to do so. For all its proud pedigree, it is a simple adventure story about a knight who falls in love and loses his beliefs, and firmly, as its sub-title suggests, intended as an Entertainment.

Saturday 16 March 2013

I've been out crusading

I must own to my shame that I have not posted anything here for a while. I've been out crusading (the Naked Rambler is free).

And my scribe/secretary Simon Acland has been absent, working on another manuscript. He calls it Elite - The Secret to Exceptional Leadership and Performance. He tells me it is not about me, although from the title I believe that it is. Whatever the truth may be, I have had Acland severely lashed because either he lies, or he works in another's service against my will.

And what can this Secret to Exceptional Leadership and Performance be, save the  Grail?

In spite of my scribe's idleness and deceit, my story The Waste Land has now reached a far off country of which I had not heard before. They call it the United States of America and they tell me there are many there who know their letters. In a city there called New York, Beaufort Books has made my manuscript widely available to all who can read. I believe Beaufort Books take their name from Beaufort Castle in Outremer, or Qala'at al-Shaqif as it is known in the Arab tongue. But perchance they stem from that Beaufort Castle near my master Godfrey's stonghold at Bouillon; perchance not because in my day that was a poor place indeed, just a compound with four weak walls and no towers to speak of.

In any case, I salute the brave Beaufort Books of New York in the United States of America for their courage in risking the wrath of the Templars and promulgating my story.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

The Naked Rambler - A Gross Injustice

I've just heard that in the cold northern land of Hibernia, in the town gaol of Perth, a man is incarcerated just because he will not wear clothes. What strange injustice is this?

I knew the torment of solitary confinement in that cell at Alamut. But at least for much of that time I was mad, raving for Blanche and revenge, and scarcely aware of my prison walls. Prisoner Stephen Gough does not have that solace; he is as sane as I am now.

Holy hermits who cast off their clothes in penance were revered and honoured in my time, not imprisoned. This man Gough is not a hermit, but something they call in modern parlance a Rambler. He believes that God made him the way he is and that so he should not be ashamed of his body. So he casts off his clothes, like Adam innocent in Eden. I may not agree with his religious beliefs, but I would not have him locked away for his nakedness.

Free the Naked Rambler! Leave him be to lead his life the way he wishes. We all have bodies and we all know what they look like. Why be ashamed? Be tolerant and smile at the eccentricities of others instead of trying to force them to conform. It is the pomposity of judges, the convention of sheriffs, and the narrow minds of bigots that we should abhor. Free the Naked Rambler! He is one of us.