Iain Soden’s, Ranulf de Blondeville:
The First English Hero, examines one of the central figures
at the Angevin court at the turn of the thirteenth century. A consummate
knight, crusader (he participated in the so-called Fifth Crusade),
diplomat, and nobleman, Ranulf (1170–1232)
participated in some of the most important events of his time.
Many of these events directly impacted his life: he lost significant
lands and revenues following the crushing loss of Normandy to the
French (1204), he was involved in the events surrounding the signing
of the Magna Carta, he loyally served
King John during the conflict with the barons, and he played an
important role during the dark days of Henry III’s early
reign. Ranulf served no less than four
kings and rubbed shoulders in the highest echelons of Angevin society
with such important personalities as William Marshal and Hubert
de Burgh. His titles on both sides of the Channel underline his
importance: he was at one time or another Duke of Brittany (de
jure); Earl of Chester, Richmond, Lincoln, and Leicester; Viscount
of Bayeux, Avranches, Vau-de-Vire, and St Sauveur-le-Vicomte; as well as Baron of St Sever. Despite
such power and influence, Ranulf remains
an unfamiliar figure to most modern readers, especially when compared
to his more recognizable contemporary, the Earl Marshal.
The major strength of this work is Soden’s success
in pulling Ranulf de Blondeville from
the shadow of history and illuminating his life through engaging
prose and splendid color photos. While this undertaking was undoubtedly
facilitated by the simple fact that his subject led an exciting life
in a time of powerful personalities and significant change, the author
should be commended for presenting a richly detailed and accessible
narrative of Ranulf’s life. In addition, Soden’s archaeological
background adds an interesting insight to the narrative, particularly
in his discussion of castles. Missing, however, is the penetrating
historical analysis found in similar works, such as David Crouch’s
superb study of William Marshal . Indeed, the lack of analysis
and contextualization causes the reader to learn a great deal more
about the events of Ranulf’s life
than the complex socio-political world in which he operated. Soden is also conspicuously less critical of Ranulf than the other historical individuals that appear
in his study, as evidenced by his rather dramatic subtitle, “The
First English Hero”. The result is an almost romantic image
of the man, fashioned through misguided and often unsubstantiated
analysis of the motives of the historical figures appearing therein.
Particularly concerning in the discussion of motivations and mentalité is
the absence of any treatment of chivalry, the predominant ideology
influencing the knightly class of which Ranulf was a paragon. Less troublesome but still problematic
is the deluge of historical figures and place-names which saturate
the narrative, many of which are of only the most minor importance.
As a consequence, even the specialist reader will be forced to deal
with a measure of confusion.
Despite these limitations, Soden’s Ranulf de Blondeville is
an engaging read that appeals to both a popular and scholarly audience.
While both groups can take something away from this study, both will
also have their respective gripes, whether stylistic or methodological.
Dr. Soden should be commended for his research
and engaging narrative, but those seeking deeper historical analysis
will be left wanting.
 David Crouch, William Marshal: Knighthood,
War and Chivalry, 1147-1219 (Longman, 2003)