1356 & All That
Until I read Bernard Cornwell’s novel 1356, I had never thought of using the word cliché as a verb before, but the experience of reading that book certainly suggests it. Set against the backdrop of the military campaigns during the Hundred Years War, culminating in the English victory at Poitiers that year, the novel tells the story of Sir Thomas of Hookton, a fictional English bowman who fights as a mercenary for his liege the Earl of Southampton in English occupied France. Hookton is given a mission by his noble lord: find a quasi-mythical relic, the la malise, the sword that Peter used to cut off the servant’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the wicked Cardinal Bessières and his henchman, the sadistic Fr. Marchant, can acquire it and use its power to make Bessières the new Pope.
The main plot is based upon the legends that have been spun throughout the ages about the so-called “treasure of the Cathars”: the Cathars were a heretical movement in the 12-14th centuries in Western France, and in the novel la malise had been in their possession. Hookton’s father had been one of the “seven dark Lords” charged with keeping the Cathar treasure hidden. Hookton and his wife, Genevieve, are both excommunicate: Hookton because he rescued and married Genevieve, who was to be burned at the stake for heresy. It is not clear from the novel what heresy she condemned for, though it seems to suggest it was Catharism. (Genevieve denies that she is a heretic in the book.)
As the forgoing summary indicates, the Good Guys are the outcasts–the heretics, the bastards (Hookton is illegitimate, and calls himself le batard–illegitimacy sounds so much more refined in French), those who question authority, etc.–while the Bad Guys are almost all people in positions of power and authority–Cardinals, priests (with one exception), noblemen, etc. Hookton, for example, daringly tells a theologian at Montpelier that infants who die without baptism don’t go to hell (the theologian is a stuffy academic, who takes the opposite line, naturally), and, implausibly unique for a mercenary, forbids his “Hellequin” (hell fighters, the name he gives his band of merry men) from raping women. Conversely, Father Marchant is a sadist who tortures people with a hawk that pecks their eyes out; Cardinal Bessières thinks nothing of ordering the murder of otherwise innocent people, so long as it gains him the power he seeks. Besides this simplistic typology (orthodox=evil, heretics=good), the novel also indulges in some nationalist stereotyping as well: there are three Scottish characters in the novel, two of them are little more than bloodthirsty killers, while the third is decent but ineffectual (he gets his head cut off in battle for trying to help his friend, Hookton). Of the two major French characters who are not swine, Sir Roland de Verrec, a French knight so in love with chivalry that he vows to keep his chastity until he marries (on the orders of the Virgin Mary, who he saw in a vision as a child), is probably the most interesting, though he is portrayed as naive. The other is Father Levonne, the priest in the French town which Hookton has captured, and whose church walls are decorated with the plunder that Hookton has taken from raiding his fellow Frenchmen, which apparently troubles Father Levonne not a bit. Neither does he care much for orthodoxy; he ministers to the excommunicated Thomas and his wife, and during one of the many and frequent dialogues between two characters which have precious little to do with the story, Fr. Levonne informs Roland de Verrec that there are really two churches: one greedy and corrupt, lusting after power, and another that is kind, and good. This Gnostic sermon must have been intended for particularly dull readers, since the action of the story makes quite clear that, in Cornwall’s mind, the “bad church” is made up of those who blather about orthodoxy and torture people, while the “good church” is comprised of those who aren’t so uptight about what they believe, and who love kittens and fluffy bunnies.
It is a shame that the book’s characters are so relentlessly and belligerently monotone, because when Cornwell is not lecturing his readers on theology, he is quite a good storyteller. Despite a fairly complex plot, the goals, motivations, and stakes for pretty much every character involved are clear and easy to follow. (If you think is not an achievement, try writing a novel yourself.) And Cornwall is at his best when describing the military buildup to Poitiers and several other battles in the novel. You get both a clear and historically accurate depiction of medieval warfare but also what feels like a pretty psychologically realistic depiction of what felt like to be a soldier in those battles. I first encountered Cornwell as the author of the “Sharpe” novels, about the leader of a corps of riflemen, on the History Channel’s presentation of the BBC’s production of some of those novels. They were really fun adventure stories, fit for someone with a love of history and a sort of boyish love of things martial, and there is some of this in 1356. This is apparently how Cornwell has made his career, writing historical entertainments about Anglo-Saxon England, King Arthur, the Napoleonic Wars, and other historical epochs. And if you like a good yarn, and lots of graphic violence, this book is for you. If you are looking for interesting, well rounded characters, I would look somewhere else.