Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753
Roger fitzOdo, a cheeky, pragmatic young man adrift in chaotic eleventh century Italy. Fleeing marauders who killed his parents, he begs to join a company of Norman knights. Roussel de Balliol, their commander, takes him in knowing that the boy’s skills with horses and metalwork will be useful. From that moment on, Roger honors and serves Messer Roussel as his lord and hero. Roger, who learned Greek from his mother, becomes the company’s official translator when it goes to Asia. This completes his acceptance as a trusted member of Roussel’s household. He also explains local politics and mores to the Frankish knights, whose feudal outlook is very different from the bureaucratic and commerce-centered Roman mentality. During the years the company fights in Asia, Roger matures and learns the arts of war. Although more slightly built than the full-blooded Normans and not of noble birth, he finally is deemed a knight. He then wears chain mail and rides into battle at his commander’s side. Roger also negotiates with Turks and Roman factions when Roussel is absent or too dispirited to do so. As narrator of the novel, Roger seldom second-guesses his lord’s decisions, but he is a sharp observer of human nature and all levels of politics, and he comments on the foibles of those around him. Roger becomes a monk after Messer Roussel is assassinated and his troop breaks up.
Messer Roussel de Balliol
Messer Roussel de Balliol, the leader of a group of Norman knights who seek fame and fortune in Italy’s local wars. When the Roman emperor offers to hire them as mercenaries, Roussel eagerly agrees. Over the next decade, Roussel leads his company to many victories in the eastern empire. The greatest is at Zompi, where his 530 men prevail over 3,000 led by the recently proclaimed Caesar, John Ducas. By this time, Roussel is pitted against factions in the empire’s internal struggles as often as against the Turks. Tall, red-headed, and perpetually sunburned, Roussel is instantly recognizable in Mediterranean lands. Amid the chaos of the Roman empire in the late eleventh century, he often becomes the sole authority on its fringes. He is a fair overlord when he takes over towns, asking only food and supplies for his men, rather than imposing ruinous taxes. Roussel’s leadership and bravery inspire other warriors to join him. His eventual goal is to found a Frankish state in the east. After his capture by Turks and subsequent trial by ordeal on a trumped-up charge of treason, he gives up this ambition and loyally supports Alexius Comnenus, the domestic of Asia and Europe, until poisoned by a eunuch who serves another commander.
Lady Matilda de Balliol
Lady Matilda de Balliol, Messer Roussel’s wife, a tall, rawboned woman. The daughter of a Lombard noble, she married the Norman knight after her father’s town fell to his band. It was a marriage of convenience on both sides, but Matilda and Roussel come to love and respect each other. Matilda travels with Roussel’s band. She rides a warhorse and takes part in Roussel’s councils, along with his other advisers. Her advice usually is practical and often is prescient about opposing leaders’ hidden intentions. Despite the book’s title, Lady Matilda is never held for ransom. She does ransom Roussel and his men when they are captured by Turks, using ineptly applied makeup and light chatter to disorient their captors during the bargaining. Matilda is as much concerned with honor as her husband is; she feels responsible for all members of the company, both knights and their dependents. She bears and rears three children during the troop’s campaigns. Matilda shares Roussel’s dream of providing for the children’s futures by establishing their own Norman realm in Asia, but when this becomes impossible, she does not despair. Instead, she takes shelter in a convent during Roussel’s descent from power. There, she assesses the political situation while seemingly involved in the ladylike pastimes of embroidery and gossip.
Alexius Comnenus, a cousin of Emperor Michael and the domestic, or commander, of the empire’s armies of Asia and Europe. Alexius survives the maze of Byzantine politics through his tactical skills and balanced judgment. When Roussel is tried for rebellion, he arranges matters so that the Norman is not blinded and is held in a relatively decent prison until he can be released. Alexius later becomes emperor and leads a long struggle against the Turks.
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