“Narrative History at its Most Enthralling”: Interview with Roger Crowley

Leer esto en castellano

Today we’re going to talk about – and talk with – one of my favourite authors.

Let’s start with an excerpt:

View from the Doge’s prison, Venice

..Pisani could hear the cries from the ducal prison. Putting his head to the bars, he called out ‘Long live St Mark!’ The crowd responded with a throaty roar. Upstairs in the senatorial chamber a panicky debate was underway. The crowd put ladders to the windows. They hammered the chamber door with a rhythmic refrain: ‘Vettor Pisani! Vettor Pisani!’

Reads like a novel?

It isn’t.

It’s history – as written by the British historian, Roger Crowley.

The excerpt above is from City of Fortune, Roger Crowley’s book on the rise and decline of Venetian naval power. If you’d like to find out why – the clearly popular – Admiral Pisani (1324-1380) was languishing in the Doge’s prison and what happened next, you know what to do.

(No, I did not mean look it up on Wikipedia!)

“Narrative History at its Most Enthralling”

“Narrative history at its most enthralling” is how, on his website, Roger Crowley describes what he does and it’s not a phrase I’d quarrel with. I can recall dozens of vivid episodes that I could have chosen for the excerpt I started this post with (but the others wouldn’t have gone with my Venice dungeon photo).

Some of you might think that I like Roger Crowley only because he writes about the history of the Mediterranean, and in particular about naval history; well, I’ll refer you to my comments regarding David Abulafia, who bloody bored me to tears on the subject. I enjoy Roger Crowley’s books because of the way he writes, not just what he writes about. If tomorrow he published a book on the ecclesiastical history of early medieval Britain retelling the Venerable Bede, I’d probably buy it.

History – this will come as a shock to some of you who only remember it from school – is not merely a boring list of dates or a collection of anaemic stories about anodyne kings. History teems with heroes, travellers, villains… and ordinary people, some of whom had the gift of the gab. This is exactly what makes history exciting, vivid and personal.

Which is how Roger Crowley tells it.

I recognise that a naval history of the Serenissima Repubblica may not have universal appeal (read it, read it, it’s a ripping yarn!), but unlike Herodotus, Mr Crowley is not a single book wonder. To date he has written four books and is working on a fifth; take your pick from (in order of publishing):

  • Constantinople: The Last Great Siege (2005)
  • Empires of the Sea (2008)
  • City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire (2011)
  • Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (2015)
  • ??? (Coming to a bookshop near you in 2019!)

(You’ll have to read the interview to find out what ??? is about.)

Interview with Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley (Used with permission)

You studied literature at university, not history. What inspired you to start researching historical topics and to write history books?

I’ve always been interested in history – as a child particularly the archaeology of Egypt, and the idea of finding things in the earth, and I thought I was going to be an archaeologist, but it never happened, I got too interested in words. Also when I was young my parents went to live in Malta and I was quickly hooked on the Mediterranean world and its past.

After university I went to live in Istanbul. The antiquity of the city fascinated me. Many years later I started to think about Istanbul and its former incarnation Constantinople, and the moment when the city passed from the Greeks to the Turks – a highly dramatic moment – and thought it would be interesting to explore the fall of Constantinople as a subject. I realised that this was a moment of history that had everything – and no one had written an account of it for fifty years. And I just wanted to write about Istanbul.

One of the reasons that I find Roger Crowley’s books hugely enjoyable is that he always includes first-hand accounts. Those of you who are similarly addicted to the genre know that some of these can make extremely dull reading: being in the right place at the right time doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell your story lucidly, let alone spin a good yarn. But the eye-witnesses Roger Crowley chooses are able to speak for themselves coherently, honestly, vividly.

Have you got a favourite eye-witness? Could you perhaps recommend a first-hand account that makes particularly good reading for the general public?

I particularly love the good-natured Felix Fabri, the German monk who made two trips to the Holy Land and to Egypt in the 1480s. It’s vivid early travel writing at its best. Difficult not to enjoy the account of a man kept awake while travelling up the Nile by the belching of crocodiles.

Translations of his books are hard to come by – only one part’s in English I think (‘The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri’). It can be read on line. There are two books about his journeys which incorporate his writing and are very readable. ‘Jerusalem Journey’ and ‘Once to Sinai’ by H F M Prescott – second hand only.

Also, very readable, a first-hand account of the siege of Malta in 1565: ‘The Siege of Malta 1565’ by Francisco Balbi.

A few years ago you gave an interview in which you said that you generally find yourself having to learn new languages while doing research for your books. How many languages have you learned this way and which ones?

Because I don’t write about English history, and because original sources are essential, I’ve found it a necessary chore to read a variety of languages. To be honest I’m not a great linguist and I’ve had to spend time learning to read – rather than speak – a number of languages. This becomes even tougher when the sources are written in old forms of the language. So I have read in French, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish (very tough to read but I can speak it a bit), some Spanish, a little Modern Greek, and Latin (which I learned at school). With some of these the reading is pretty slow – I have a lot of large dictionaries – and I’ve reached an age when retention of new vocabulary is not terribly impressive. After a while all the Romance languages blur together into one large soup. My one regret is that I don’t know any German which would be extremely useful but I’m not sure I’m up to taking this on at the moment.

How long does it take you to research and write a book? What is your method of working and do you visit all the locations that you are writing about?

The books take three to four years each – quite slow work – including language learning time.

When I wrote my first book I wrote a chapter by chapter outline and it made the book easier to write. Since then I’ve tended not to plan at the outset but to read widely round the subject, to study bibliographies carefully to try to find out what’s worth reading and above all to try to hunt down really good first-hand accounts.

I produce hundreds of pages of handwritten notes from this research before I really get down to the real writing (which I tend to do straight to laptop unless I’m having trouble framing my thoughts.) I work chapter by chapter. I’ll gather all the source material for the chapter, immerse myself in it, try to produce a near perfect draft then move on to the next.

A sense of place is important so I do try to visit key locations involved but never all. With something like the Portuguese empire I’d spend my whole life touring the world and I’ve learned to get an advance sense of places it’s essential to go to and those not. Sometimes I’ve trekked off to somewhere for the sake of one descriptive adjective…

Could you share an interesting episode of history that you came across while researching but which you had to leave out the final book?

Voices from the past always fascinate me. The traces of the Greek diaspora – pottery, buildings, artefacts and place names – can be found everywhere they went, and although the people themselves may seem very distant to us, we can still catch their voices on the tombstones and monuments that they left behind. Visiting the city of Constanta in what is now Rumania, I read the translation of a tombstone, the epitaph of a woman, written as if she herself were speaking directly to us from nearly two thousand years ago. It tells the story of her life and says in part:

“Perinthos, my husband, put up this memorial. And if you want to know, passer-by, who and whose I am, listen: when I was 13 a young man loved me. Then I married him and bore three children. Finally I had a fourth child, though I should not have had anymore, because the child died first and a short time after I did too. I left the light of the sun when I was thirty. I, Cecilia Artemisia, lie here. My husband, Perinthos, lives and mourns me with a faint voice. A greeting to you whoever you may be, you who pass by our graves!”

Things like this bring the humanity of past people very close to us.

On our recent trip to Portugal I introduced my family to Roger Crowley by retelling episodes from Conquerors; one of the episodes that captured their attention was the battle of the Portuguese fleet under the command of Lourenço de Almeida against the forces of the Sultan of Egypt in the port of Chaul. Almeida, who could have easily sank the Egyptian fleet by gunfire from the distance, chose instead to close in with the enemy in order to conform with the fidalgos’ code of honour. It was a fatal decision for himself and his men, and Young Friend of the Elephants, with the righteousness of eleven-year-olds, duly concluded that Lourenço was an ‘idiot’. It’s not a conclusion that I’m entirely in agreement with…

What’s your opinion of the fidalgos’ code of honour and of Lourenço – do you view him as more of a hero or a fool?

Lourenço, seen from our perspective, looks like a fool. We can’t help asking ourselves ‘why on earth didn’t he just cleanly blast the enemy out of the water from a distance’, but this is to see the past through modern eyes.

The aristocratic warrior class of Portugal was bound by a medieval code of personal valour. (To put this into perspective there was a famous incident about fifty years earlier, during an attack on a Moroccan castle, when the arguments among the Portuguese as to who should have the honour of climbing a scaling ladder first went on so long that they were all killed!)

Lourenço also had a question mark against his reputation and courage after refusing to attack  a port earlier – he personally was keen to do this but was outvoted. So he needed to prove himself. Also capturing ships provided booty and material rewards, which would be lost if the ships were just sunk. This was a powerful incentive for his men. So he’s probably more a victim of the times than anything. Albuquerque met strong resistance trying to haul the fidalgos into a new age of warfare where regimental group strategy might replace uncoordinated personal valour.

Are you working on any books at the moment and if yes, what is the topic and when can we expect to read it?

At the moment I’m working on a book about the end of the crusades in the Holy Land, specifically the fall of Acre in 1291, the last stand of the crusaders. It won’t be out until 2019 unfortunately, owing to my present speed of working.

My thanks to Roger Crowley for taking the time to answer my questions!

You might also like:
⇒ More about City of Fortune: a book review & a Steller photo story.
⇒ The Gruesome News from FamagustaThe Lusiads Or How Portugal Won an EmpireThe Wanderings of Felix Fabri


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