Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 2: Illiterate Knights and Ignorant Barons

Dr. Schrader continues with her series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that barons and knights were largely illiterate. 

A squire reading a monument. From Renee d'Anjou's Livre du Cuers d’Amours Espris



The notion that medieval knights and even barons were illiterate is so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that many novelists, even those who have carefully researched the events described in their novels, insist on making their knightly heroes uneducated.  I recently read a novel that made John d’Ibelin, one of the most respected legal experts of the 13th century, semi-illiterate. It was embarrassing even as a reader!



The reality was very different. Let’s start with basics. Barons were the elite of feudal society. They were the closest advisors of the kings. They were the pool of men from which kings drew their most important officials, from chancellors to sheriffs. They came from the same class as the “princes” of the church. They conducted diplomacy. They passed legislation. They dispensed justice. Is it reasonable to believe that these functions were carried out by illiterates? No.



If medieval noblemen left few letters in their own hand-writing it was because as busy executives. As such, they employed scribes (secretaries) to take dictation and then write up important documents in a clean and neat hand ready for posterity ― just as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, judges and CEOs still do today. But the use of secretaries was even more important in the Middle Ages before we had electronic devices that could easily correct “typos” and when everything was written on expensive parchment or papyrus. The more important a document, the more likely it was to be copied into an elegant hand and richly decorated by a professional ― but that does not mean that those who conceived of, drafted and dictated the document couldn’t read or write!



Knights were, obviously, one level down the social scale, but most knights came from the same social class. They were the younger brothers and sons of noblemen, men who with a single sword thrust, fall from a horse, or a glass of dirty water, could suddenly find themselves in the shoes of an elder brother or father. They had to be ready to assume the full responsibilities of lordship, and that meant reading and writing and understanding finances. Even less privileged knights with only a small fief still needed to be able to manage it, and that meant reading deeds, contracts and accounts etc. Household knights, on the other hand, might be entrusted with a wide range of tasks by their lord, and were also expected to be literate. Only at the very bottom of the knightly class, where men who had been raised to knighthood not by birth but by exceptional service (usually on the battlefield), would illiterate knights have been found.  Yet such illiterate knights would have been rare by the High and Late Middle Ages because by then literacy had spread far down the social scale. 



Furthermore, not only were barons and many knights literate in the sense of being able to read and write, we have numerous examples of secular lords and knights who were poets, novelists, philosophers, and scholars. William Duke of Aquitaine is credited with inventing the tradition of poetry in the vernacular and sparking the troubadour movement. Richard Count of Poitou and later King of England likewise wrote poetry and music. Chretien de Troyes, the man credited with inventing the modern novel, was not a monk or priest but a (comparably humble) member of the knightly class. The same can be said of Walther von der Vogelweide, another wonderful writer of both romantic and politically critical lyric poetry. The great legal scholars of 13th century Outremer came from both the high nobility (Count of Jaffa) and the class of humbler knights such as Philip of Novare, the latter being a significant historian as well. 

Clearly, regardless of class or century, creative geniuses are the exception. Yet lords who lacked creative talent were often great patrons of the arts. One need only think of Jean Duc de Berry and his exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours, or Renee d’Anjou and his delightful Livre du Cuers d’Amours Espris. In the Holy Land, Baldwin d’Ibelin is only one of several crusader lords credited with translating Arab poetry into French. 

Although these are just random examples that came readily to mind, I hope they make the point that neither lords nor knights of the Middle Ages were likely to be illiterate. 

Knights and barons in my novels reflect the high level of literacy expected of this class.


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Friday, February 9, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 1: Autocratic Kings and Oppressed Subjects

Today Dr. Schrader begins a six-part series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages. In this series she will look at 1) Autocratic Kings and Oppressed Subjects,
2) Illiterate, Brutal Barons and Knights, 3) Serfs like Slaves, 4) Clerical Ignorance and Bigotry, 5) Widespread Filth and Disease, and 6) Women held as Chattels.  



One common myth about the Middle Ages is that kings were all-powerful, and their subjects were oppressed, intimidated and utterly without legal protections.  Effectively, people with little information about the Middle Ages project backwards the characteristics of totalitarian states upon medieval feudalism ― mixed together with images of Hollywood kings (usually Henry VIII) shouting “off with her head.”


Aside from the fact that Henry VIII was a “Renaissance” king and not medieval at all, the entire notion of absolutism is a post-feudal concept or, more correctly, anti-feudal. The essence of feudalism was a hierarchical pyramid of mutually beneficial agreements. Simplified: between the king and his barons, barons and their knights, knights and their peasants. Feudal oaths bound both parties and established duties on both sides. In its simplest form, the subordinate pledged loyalty in exchange for a promise of protection from the superior. 



Feudalism evolved because in the early feudal period life was very uncertain and only powerful men had the resources to build castles and hire fighting men to protect ordinary peaceful farmers. Those peaceful farmers, often the descendants of slaves agreed to till the land in exchange for being protected by their feudal lord from bandits, raiders and enemies. Knights too entered a contract with a lord, but rather than tilling the soil, they brought service with horse, sword and lance. The important point was that they did this in exchange for land (a fief) which gave them both income and status. Although at the top of the pyramid the contract is most difficult to grasp because the power relationships between kings and their vassals was not always straight-forward (e.g. Henry Plantagenet and Louis VII of France), in theory it too entailed loyalty on the part of the vassal (baron) in exchange for good-governance by the king. 




 

The operative point is that kings too had obligations to their subjects. They owed them good governance which entailed not just defense but also the administration of justice, i.e. the maintenance of “law and order.” A king who failed to deliver good governance could legitimately be challenged by his barons for breach of contract. Thus from Magna Charta and the Oxford Provisions to the wars against Frederick Hohenstaufen in the Holy Land, barons challenged their king because of real or alleged abuses of royal power or failure to ensure peace and good governance. 



A major criticism that came up again and again in English history, for example, was the failure of a king to consult his barons, i.e. to prefer his “favorites” (who were often men of lower birth) to his “natural” advisors, i.e. the great magnets/barons of the realm. This epitomizes the contractual nature of feudal oaths: while barons pledged to advise the king, he return pledged to consult his barons. This obligation on the part of the king to consult with his barons was the basis of Parliament in England, the High Court in Jerusalem, and the Curia Regis in France. 


In short, medieval kings needed to take into account the advice and interests of their tenants-in-chief (which included the most important ecclesiastical lords because of the vast land-holdings), but they were also expected to ensure “good governance” for the lowliest in the land as well. Because feudalism was based on mutual consent and obligations in both directions, the right of either party to sue for breach of contract was implicit in the system. Thus peasants and serfs, although in the first instance subject to the courts of their direct lord, could appeal to the royal courts.  Louis IX, one of the most outstanding medieval monarchs, went so far as to institute special courts of inquiry to investigate allegations of corruption on the part of his own administrators and officers. 

This leads us to another important feudal concept: the right to judgement by one’s peers.  What this meant was that, although a seigneurial officer presided over a court, the judgement itself was given by a jury composed of people from the defendant’s own class. The idea that a lord could legally order punishment without a trial is erroneous. Of course, the operative word here is “legally.”  Men with power often act illegally, and in an age where wealth and weapons were generally held in the same hands it was particularly easy to abuse power. Yet it is still important to remember medieval justice was jury justice ― still common in the Anglo-Saxon world but replaced across most of Europe with justice handed down by trained judges, who rarely share the social status, background or problems of the defendants.

Feudalism ended slowly as powerful monarchs across Europe gradually consolidated their power at the expense of their barons, and then evolved an ideology, “the divine right of kings,” to justify their usurpation of power. The concept of “the divine right of kings” ended the notion of a contract between ruler and subjects, and replaced it with the idea that the kings derived their power directly from God. While history books still tend to describe this as “progress,” it was in fact regressive. It weakened the checks-and-balances on the abuse of royal power that had been inherent in the feudal system.

The balance between the kings and barons and the contractual nature of feudalism is reflected in all novels set in the Middle Ages. 
 



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Friday, February 2, 2018

On the Crusader Trail in the County of Tripoli



A Guest Post from Michelle Foltz
Michelle recently returned from Lebanon, where she visited several sites from the crusader era. She agreed to share her findings with readers of my blog.



Citadel of Count Raymond of Saint Gilles (copyright M.Foltz)

Tripoli



The Citadel of Count Raymond of Saint Gilles (Qalʿat Sanjīl )  deserves top billing of the Crusader sites in the city of Tripoli if only for its powerful, physical presence. Historically it was the site of important military and administrative functions for every conqueror and defender of the area—from the southern French Crusaders in the early 12th C to the Ottomans in the 20th. The Citadel’s function as a defensive structure was destroyed during the Mamluk conquest in the late 13th century and the ruins left unoccupied for the next 20 years before it was rehabilitated and expanded. Despite this history, the façade of the Citadel has the external appearance and majestic proportions to kindle the desire of any pilgrim on the ‘Crusader Trail’ to claim it as wholly crusader. 

Today it is difficult to identify the exact demarcations of the original structure as old stones have been recycled in successive rebuildings. Medieval ashlar of the earliest construction could have been refashioned and used for the top level of the parapets centuries  after it was originally quarried, laid, and torn down. One notices rocks of different sizes and shapes to those on either side or in adjacent courses or as arches filled-in or half obliterated.  This is most noticeable at the corners and interfaces of walls, typifying the various styles and changing functions over the centuries. However, experts of medieval architecture write that the foundations show distinctive features of southern French or Provençal heritage, the home of San Gilles and his followers, the original, Crusader builders. 

Tripoli - Northern Gate to the Citadel
(copyright M.Foltz)

Most of the extant interior walls and terraces were built during Ottoman times for military and administrative functions. The prison, barracks, store rooms, and stables are well identified in the posted explanations. The most identifiable internal crusader structure is the rectangular outline of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Mont-Pilgrim that the San Gilles rulers built over a pre-existing Shia’a saint’s mausoleum.  This Muslim holy place was said to remind Count Raymond of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the liberation of which had been the primary focus of the First Crusade. A partially intact engaged column and pier that formed one of the arches that supported the missing barrel vault of the Romanesque church is the only distinctive Christian remains in the interior.

Crusader Column in the Chapel of the Citadel, Tripoli
(copyright M.Foltz)


Two museums are housed within the Citadel. One concerns the history of the Citadel itself. The other, in the long, gracefully vaulted Ottoman barracks, contains historical objects and information concerning a number of archeological sites in northern Lebanon. The official ticket seller/guardian must be specifically asked to open this latter museum and seemed to have little tolerance for an extended visit. Both are well worth a thorough perusal.

Inside the Citadel in Tripoli (Copyright M. Foltz)

The Citadel sits in the center of modern Tripoli overlooking the present day souks and the city west to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1102 and until the early 20th C the Citadel lay well beyond the city’s boundaries, whose center was the port, Al-Mina, on the  peninsula. Before capture by the crusaders, the 11th C city was famous as a center for culture and learning and was ruled by the Shia’a Banu Ammar family who held close ties with the Fatimids in Egypt.   

Count Raymond built the Citadel three kms from the coastal city walls, on a ridge near a bridge on the  Abu Ali River and called it Mount Pilgrim, Mons Peregrinus. From this position he began besieging the city while controlling access to the town from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Despite this advantageous position, it took the combined Crusader armies, seven years, and the help of Provençal and Genoese fleets before the city was  secured  and the County of Tripoli established as the fourth Crusader state.* The counts ruled from the city, leaving the Citadel as an outer defensive bastion.  In the mid 12th C. it was given to the Hospitaller knights who used it, along with the great fortress of Krac des Chevaliers and a surrounding network of smaller forts, to solidify their growing political, economic, and defensive role in the County.
 
Krak des Chevaliers (copyright HSchrader)


Standing on the Citadel’s ramparts and looking west to the sea individual domes, minarets, and khans are identifiable from the mass of structures below. A bit of imagination can convert the area between the souks and the port of Al-Mina into the extensive orange and olive groves that once dominated this open space before it was filled-in during 20th century expansion. 

To a ‘western eye’, one of the most distinctive buildings is the square plan Romanesque minaret of the Grand Mosque that would not be out of place at the summit of a Lombard hill town.  It was once the bell tower for the medieval Church of St. Mary.  History is filled with conquerors destroying  or desecrating the religious shrines of their enemies. History is also filled with conquerors re-purposing or incorporating the religious structures of their enemies into a different context—religious or other—involving a major refashioning to alter the existing orientation. The minaret of Tripoli’s Grand Mosque is at the extreme end of accepting the whole cloth of a religious structure without alteration. Nothing hides its Frankish origins; only a simple crescent filial converts its religion, but not its function.
Tripoli Grand Mosque with Minaret like an Italian Church Bell Tower (copyright M.Foltz)

The site of Tripoli’s souks were once the center of the commercial  and residential city that grew up around the Citadel after the Mamluk conquest. Before that, it was the small crusader village of Mount Pilgrim. The present day souks are primarily Mamluk in layout with Ottoman layers and very few Crusader remains. The Ezzedine Hammam was once a medieval church, and it was still possible to decipher the Christian iconography of lamb and scallop shell at its entrance. The columns gracing the khan of the tailors, Khan al-Khayyatin, have all the appearance and orientation to have once graced a Byzantine chapel. Perhaps the covered Souk al-Haraj, with its evocative columns, had a function in the 12th C medieval village and before that a Roman temple? Little is specifically known or readily available to answer.



The main avenues of the souks give off numbers of narrow alleys and side streets that twist, intersect with each other,  and turn, acting as defensive elements as they ascend and traverse the slope to the Citadel. Many dead end, some into small courtyards planted with fruit trees and flowers. The alleys are cool and narrow; the small, high windows with their latticed window projections, mashrabyias, allow those inside a ready view to the outside, while protecting the interior privacy. For a first trip into the souks, a good guide can lay the ground work of the past that can be fleshed out on subsequent independent visits.



Al-Mina, the present port, was the center from which the Counts of Tripoli administered their lands and the Italian commercial city-states ran their warehouses and trading emporiums. The Mamluks thoroughly destroyed this area and did not rebuild or settle in it for fear of the fleets of the Frankish rulers of Cyprus, however, it continued to be an important port connecting Europe with both Aleppo and Damascus. No Mamluk religious buildings, such as those around the Citadel and the souks, are found in Al-Mina. Even the great Ottoman era walls have been torn down or built over. Though nothing standing is Crusader, the Romanesque architecture of the 18th C Saint George’s Orthodox Cathedral shows robust Byzantine and medieval influence, while a cave below the church dates as a religious structure from long before even the 12th C.

Smar Jbeil Fortress and Town


Smar Jbeil with the Author Michelle Foltz (Copyright M. Foltz)
Unmentioned in guidebooks and little known to those outside the area as a Crusader site, information about Smar Jbeil is available on the Internet with various levels of accuracy. Until the Syrian army left their position in the fortress, it was not readily accessible, but since 2005 the community and the Lebanese Director General of Antiquities have worked to restore and rebuild the site.


The village and the fortress of Smar Jbeil share a history dating from at least the 3rd millennium BCE. The Phoenicians probably gave the area its name, meaning guardian or watchman over Jbeil, the important Phoenician coastal city (aka Byblos).  In the 6th BCE the area came under control of the Persians, falling to the armies of Alexander in the 4th.  The Romans and later the Byzantines held sway after Pompey’s conquests in the mid first century BCE.  Though defensive in position and structure it is thought that the Romans used it as a governmental, administrative residence.  In the 7th C CE, Mar Jean Maron, the first Maronite Patriarch, lived in the fort, turning like many of his followers to the safety of the mountains from persecutions by the Orthodox in the coastal urban areas.



The strategically lofty position of the hill top, 500 meters ASL, makes it reasonable that it was used in one form or another for defense, most likely for observation and communication purposes by all the peoples who at one time or another ruled the area. The repeated statement highlighted on the Internet, reports that a defender on the ramparts would be able to scan the Mediterranean coast from Jbeil (some sources say Jounieh) to Tripoli, some 45 kilometers in length. I could not positively identify either city on a clear morning. Still the view is gloriously impressive and knowing that most military and commercial sea travel would have rarely deviated from coastal routes, the strategic value of the fort is incontestable.



Like  the crusader fortress of Qa’alat Saladin in nearby Syria and Kerak in Jordan, Smar Jbeil is built into, on, and within  a great mass of bedrock, giving it an inherent strength and sense of solid defensibility.  Though extremely modest in area compared to the better known medieval citadels in the Levant, it has a serene majesty of purpose for which size is of little standing. The impressive vistas to the Qadisha Valley and Bacharré to the east and northeast are as commanding as the ten km. view down to the sea.

Water Troughs carved out of Bedrock at Smar Jbail. (Copyright M. Foltz)

Smar Jbeil is recorded as part of the crusader fief of Saint Montagne of the lords of Batroun who were vassals to the Counts of Tripoli.  Some sources state that "the Franj" (crusaders) demolished the old castle to build a new one, calling it Chateau Fort, Strong Castle. The moat, excavated through solid rock, the enclosing wall of the fort punctuated with defensive towers, the separate, central smoothly bossed donjon, and the postern exits are all architectural elements, that along with the style and quality of the stone work, attest to crusader influence.  Smar Jbeil’s strategic position along with evidence of previous fortifications and the Frankish pattern of building defensive networks of outlying fortifications give credence to the importance this site holds for crusader history.



The remains of interior structures: olive oil and/or wine presses, Roman tombs, tombs with Greek inscriptions, several hundred wells carved into the surrounding rocks, tunnels, and some indistinct bas reliefs on the northern side of the bed rock testify that the fort provided administrative and economic functions that were probably well coordinated with those in the town. Walking along the moat and around and through the defensive walls, however, there is no question this was first and foremost a significant defensive structure.



The churches of Smar Jbeil have a place in history equal to the fortress. The earliest Christian church to Mary in Lebanon (Al Sayde, Our Lady of Gifts, or Our Lady of Rescues) built in the 6th C, sits less than a hundred meters down the slope from the fortress.  It stands, a poetically ruinous but spiritually compelling single nave with semicircular apse. Its south wall has been broached by the growing trunk of a thousand year old Lebanese oak whose branches arch to form a roof and whose brown leaves and acorns breeze across the floor in a moving carpet. The gently dappled en plein air ambiance enhances the tranquillity of this historical gem. The church was desecrated during the recent Syrian military occupation but has been rehabilitated by the townspeople and is being evaluated for expert restoration.  It remains in service today as a venue for baptisms and weddings. 

Our Lady of Gifts Chapel in Smar Jbail
Immediately beside the Church to Our Lady of Gifts is the main Maronite Church of  Saints Bassil and Nouhra. By history an earlier church existed on the ruins of a much older Roman temple during Roman and Byzantine time. Cut rounds of recycled columns are among the ashlar courses making up the eastern wall. Major renovation by the crusaders in the 12th C was followed by various additions needed to counter wear and nature. By tradition Saint Nouhra came to Batroun from Egypt in the 4th C. When commanded to give up preaching his religion, he refused, was tortured and blinded, but miraculously continued to see, and was buried in one of the wells of the fortress. The water from this well became known for curing blindness and other diseases of sight. Nouhra is Syriac for light.



The church is a square divided by four piers that support the resulting nine vaults with three alters at the east end to Bassil, Nouhra, and Mary. The walls and piers are plastered white with narrow tracings in the groins and other edges in blue and brown. Plaster molds on the piers of  pairs of doves drinking from a chalice and other Christian motifs are in keeping with the uncluttered, open, clean space. The south wall, from the Byzantine era of construction, incorporates two columns that are associated with stylites—hermits or anchorites who sought God’s presence by standing for years on pillars. The western entrance and porch with 3 bays of unplastered vaulting is crusader in origin. An unusual carving graces the south portal from the porch that looks to be an unconventional dragon-fish, its symbolism unknown. The entrance on the north side of the church was redone in late Ottoman times. Draped above this entrance is a chain carved from a single block of stone, similar to the one found at the Hammam al-Jadid at the entrance to the souks in Tripoli. 



The rehabilitation of the fortress and the chapel to Our Lady in Smar Jbeil is a striking example of what a community can accomplish when it works together to care for and honor its heritage. This is in sharp contrast to the attitude in Tripoli where a perverse pride of ignorance of the town’s history seems the norm. People boasted of never having visited the Citadel. Perhaps there is too much history to sort out, or the history doesn’t fit with present nationalistic ideals.


* The other three: County of Edessa, Principality of Antioch, and Kingdom of Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Trilogy is set in the crusader period.

 

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