Sunday, 9 July 2017

When, Where and How...

There are periods during the time of the Crusades that, in my experience, writers seem to gravitate towards. The time of Saladin is perhaps the most prominent, understandably, I suppose, given the wealth of characters involved – Saladin himself, Richard the Lionheart, Conrad of Montferrat, Philip Augustus, Guy of Lusignan, the list is almost endless, a vast sandbox with which to play – with the fall of Jerusalem as the major event. The later fall of Acre and the end of the Crusader Kingdoms is also popular, as is the First Crusade, the event that established it.

I knew from the outset that I wanted the road less travelled, and it didn't take me long to find the period I was most interested in, a historical nexus where a lot of major events took place, events that almost naturally inspire stories and tales, and yet little used in fiction. I speak of the fall of the County of Edessa, the reason for the disastrous Second Crusade, and the time of the early 1140s. This was the first major defeat faced by Outremer, and in many ways, rendered the later fall of Jerusalem inevitable. The war leader involved, the fearsome Zengi, is every bit Saladin's equal as an exciting character in my humble opinion, and Joscelin II a worthy foil. Edessa itself is a fascinating area, a true melting pot of cultures, and the beginning of a trade route spanning thousands of miles. Sites dating back four thousand years litter the landscape, one that of course is still the focus of major fighting today.

Further afield, there are plenty of other fascinating events taking place. The Anarchy is at its height in England, and the chaotic battles waging across the land certainly provide plenty of scope for an origin story, as nobles great and petty struggle for power and position in an ever-changing landscape. In the Mediterranean, the reign of Roger II reaches its height in Sicily, with the conquest of Norman Africa (yes – Sicily controlled bits of Africa for some time, and that's something that has been of interest to me – sufficient that I intend to find some way of working it into the narrative in what I currently conceive as a six-book saga.) In Jerusalem, Fulk V's rule is coming to an end at the same time – the early 1140s were an extremely exciting period.

It seems logical enough to me that if I'm going to do this, I should take the opportunity to explore as many of my fields of interest as I can; while Runciman attracted me to the Crusades, Norwich attracted me to Norman Sicily, and given the interactions between the two regions, utilizing them both in the narrative I have in mind (and which, I say again, I will not spoil here) shouldn't be a problem. And given the number of exciting events that I can weave into the story (and one thing I will say is that I don't actually intend to cover the Second Crusade itself – focusing more on the events leading up to it) I have no doubt that I have the potential for a gripping narrative.

For the first book, I will be concentrating my research efforts on the Welsh Marches and Edessa; with the first, my main goal is to set the stage for the story to come, so the bulk of my efforts will be focused on Outremer – and given the title of the series, that's really essential, as certainly that's where the bulk of the story will be taking place. Frustratingly, there is too little written about the County of Edessa, but there are plenty of sources in other books to make use of, as well as journal articles and the like; time to resubscribe to JSTOR, I think. Sicily as well, naturally, as I will be wanting to introduce that aspect of the plot, but given that it won't come heavily into play until the second book, that's something I can worry about in more detail later on.

I am helped by one book, that is another of the reasons I am fascinated by this period, probably my favourite primary source – 'An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades'. (I stress the Hatti translation; Penguin have produced one that I find far inferior, a rare miss for them.) Nothing better outlines the flavour of the period, and in the past I have obtained page after page of notes from it. Best of all – the writer deals with the time of Zengi in some detail, the period of the 1140s, and if I am honest, this is the primary reason I have for focusing on this specific period. And the author may or may not make an appearance in the...who am I kidding, Usama ibn Munqidh is certain to turn up sooner or later. He's too interesting a character to ignore.

Naturally, there will be the opportunity for many posts here on various topics as I research them; I'm fortunate enough to have five weeks now where I can focus on this full-time, which is an opportunity too good to pass up, and with a couple of exceptions, I already have all the books I need already, some well-thumbed over the years, others new to me, but I'm extremely eager to dive into them. Angold's Byzantine Empire 1025-1204 has been on my waiting list for a while, as has Cobb's recent Race for Paradise. As soon as the last handful arrive (any day now, I hope) I'll be giving a little more detail, and there is going to be a bibliography attached to this blog shortly – as well as some posts relating to books I have recently acquired, as well as those found most useful in the research. As my very first step, I've been reading a few general histories of the Crusades, and those are intended to be the topic of one of the next few posts, though I've got a little fiction to review first...

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