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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

This past week Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors edited by Debra Brown and M.M. Bennets was released. Anyone interested in historical fiction -- or history generally -- will find this a delightful source of "little known facts" presented in a logical and easily accessible fashion.

As Debra Brown explains in the introduction, the book consists of selected entries from the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog ( http:// englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/ )  on which a historical fiction author posts an essay each day about a historical topic he/she has studied. As Ms. Brown reminds us, "to craft good historical fiction, [authors] have studied the times of which [they] write and the events that came before." In the blog, and now in this anthology, the members of the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog have shared some of the fascinating things they have learned.

What I liked best about this book, however, is that is so easy to use! First, the table of contents provides an overview of the wide range of topics, and a reader can jump right in and read any essay that catches their fancy.  On the other hand, the entries are organized by time-period, enabling a reader to zero in to the articles most likely of interest to them, without wading through the rest. Perhaps best of all, there are a list of books published by contributors, so that a reader who likes one entry or another can quickly cross-check what that author has written without having to go to amazon or the like. There are also short biographies of the contributors.

All in all this is a fun way to learn more about history and discover the kind of historical novelists, who take history seriously. I think most of you will enjoy it!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cathers, Crusades, and Castles

In the 11th century AD a theology spread across Europe that challenged the dogma of the dominant Catholic Church. The roots of the theology stretched back to the dualism of some early Christian scholars, but this heresy had unique features and thrived on the corrupt state of the Church in the 11th century. The so-called Cathar heresy was particularly strong in northern Italy, in Flanders, and across southwestern France in the area where the langue d’oc was spoken and so referred to for convenience as “the Languedoc,” although this is neither a political nor contemporary term.  Because the nobility of the Languedoc tolerated the heresy, Catharism flourished there for nearly two centuries and was often referred to as the “Albigensian” heresy after the city of Albi, which was long a stronghold of the heretics.
The town of Cordes just north of Albi still retains it medieval character today. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
It is hard nowadays to reconstruct Cathar theology, because we have to rely primarily upon the records of the Inquisition. Meticulous as these records tried to be, they nevertheless recorded the beliefs of people of widely differing levels of education, and many statements made before the Inquisition were contradictory.
Nevertheless, the fundamental belief of the Cathars was that the material world was the work of the devil – i.e., that Earth was hell. Souls on Earth were “fallen angels” or the creations of the fallen angels, condemned to be born in mortal bodies again and again. Thus, the Cathars believed in reincarnation, but not as a process of individual purification nor as a journey toward spiritual perfection. Instead, it was seen as a hopeless cycle of damnation. Furthermore, the Cathars rejected the notion that good deeds could in themselves win a soul release from material hell. Only the Cathar sacrament, the consolamentum, administered by a “pure” Cathar, could secure this grace.
The Cathars furthermore denied that Christ had, in fact, become flesh, been crucified, and been resurrected. They preached that Christ remained a spiritual being, who only appeared to have taken human form and appeared to have died. In consequence, Cathars rejected the Catholic mass, because they did not believe in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. They accepted the Gospels, however, and the heart of the consolamentum was the Lord’s Prayer, with particular emphasis on the need to “forgive those who trespass” in order for a soul to receive forgiveness from God.
The Cathar “Good Men” and “Good Women” were believers who had taken the consolamentum and could administer it to others. They were required, if they wished to go to Heaven rather than be reborn on Earth, to abstain completely from sexual intercourse, to eat neither flesh nor fish, eggs nor cheese, and to refrain from all violence.
The appeal of Catharism stemmed from the fact that for the poor and downtrodden in the 11th and 12th centuries, the world was indeed a hellish place. Thus the Cathar explanation of man’s condition seemed more reasonable than orthodox Catholic doctrine. The Church preached, in effect, that a benevolent and all-powerful God allowed for widespread starvation, sickness, natural catastrophes, and unending wars. Cathar critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church was likewise highly popular, because the critique was largely justified – and also justified non-payment of tithes and other church taxes.
Because the Cathars denied the power of Catholic sacraments and priests, refused to pay tithes or other church taxes, and preached against the corruption of the Catholic Church, the Cathars posed a threat to the power of the Catholic Church. The fact that the local secular lords tolerated the heretics in their territories was a provocation to both Rome -- and Paris.
In 1208, after the murder of a papal legate by armed men presumed to be supporters of the heresy, Pope Innocent III called for a “crusade” against the Cathars, or Albigensians. The Pope offered to the knights, noblemen, and mercenaries who took part in this “crusade” the same forgiveness of sins and debts that he offered crusaders against the Saracens in the Holy Land. The following year, in 1209, a crusading army descended on the Languedoc and besieged the city of Béziers, which supposedly harbored a large population of heretics. When the city fell (rapidly due to a miscalculation on the part of the defenders), the invaders massacred the inhabitants of the city. Allegedly some 20,000 people were put to the sword, including those seeking refuge in the cathedral and the Catholic priests with them.
 
The walls of Carcassonne still seem formidable even today. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
The invaders next laid siege to Carcassonne, the principal seat and strongest bastion of the most intransigent of the local barons, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne. After a long siege, Trencavel surrendered his own person to save the lives of the city’s residents and garrison.  The victors confined Raymond-Roger in the dungeon of his citadel at Carcassonne, where he died three months later. Meanwhile his lands and titles were awarded by the Pope to the most audacious of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort (father of the Simon de Montfort that would become so famous in English parliamentary history.)
Thus, although the “crusaders” returned whence they’d come at the end of the year, Simon de Montfort and other knights and noblemen rewarded with lands taken from defeated local lords remained in the Languedoc to enjoy the fruits of their service to the Pope and the King of France. The people of the Languedoc, however, did not submit docilely to these new lords. No sooner had the crusaders gone home, than the Occitan lords and towns rose up in rebellion.
Nor were the lords of the Languedoc without allies. The King of Aragon, Pedro II, offered his protection to them in 1212, in exchange for them paying homage to him as their overlord. Thinking the King of Spain would be more tolerant of their independent lifestyle than the King of France had proved to be –- or simply appalled by the atrocities and success of Simon de Montfort –- the bulk of the lords of the Languedoc submitted. However, King Pedro proved no match for Simon de Montfort on the battlefield; he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Muret in September 1213.
Despite this defeat, the Occitan lords and towns did not submit. Simon de Montfort was forced to fight a total of 43 sieges and battles in just 9 years. This is a clear indication of how little he was accepted in the territories given him by the Pope. During a second siege of Toulouse in 1218, he was killed – allegedly by a stone flung from a mangonel (medieval mechanical stone thrower) manned by women.
His son, Amaury, tried to continue the war, receiving support from Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII), but Amaury lacked his father’s military skills or his luck. In 1220, Guy de Montfort, Amaury’s younger brother, was killed in yet another siege, and by 1224, Amaury de Montfort had had enough. He surrendered the lands and titles for which he, his father, and his brothers had fought so bitterly for 15 years and returned to France. For a moment it looked as if the lords of the Languedoc had won.
But the Cathar heresy had not been eradicated, and this provided an excuse for a new crusade. In 1226, Louis VIII took the cross and again brought an army of northern barons and mercenaries into the Languedoc. Within 3 years, the resistance of the southern lords had been broken, and the counts of Toulouse and Foix signed treaties with the French King, now Louis IX.
This time, the Inquisition came with the invaders and established the University of Toulouse to conduct their “inquiries” into the Cathar heresy. The systematic methods of the Inquisition made it increasingly difficult for Cathars, particularly the so-called Perfects, the priests (and priestesses) of the Cathars, to survive in the towns and villages of the Languedoc. They retreated more and more to the few strongholds still defended by lords sympathetic to the heresy, notably the mountain fortress of Montsegur. In 1232, the Cathar “Bishop,” Guilhabert de Castres, declared Montsegur the “seat and head” of the Cathar Church. The castle was under the protection of the lords of Pereille and Mirepoix, two unrepentant rebels defiant of the King of France.
 
The castle of Montsegur. Photo: H.P. Schrader
 
For the bulk of the population, however, the war was lost and the Inquisition held sway through a reign of terror, while strange lords controlled the bulk of the castles and all the towns.  The sons of the local nobility, who had lost their birthright to the invaders, the so-called faydits, either sought service abroad or prepared for a final confrontation with the invaders at Montsegur.
The last armed uprising against the French was led by Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, the son of the Viscount who had died in his own dungeon at Carcassonne after surrendering to Simon de Montfort in 1209. In 1240, the younger Raymond-Roger Trencavel made an attempt to recapture his birthright by force. He was supported by many young men from disinherited families. It was some of these desperate men who, on May 28, 1242, murdered two inquisitors and some of their servants in Avignonet. It had been the murder of the papal legate, Pierre of Castlenau, in 1208 that provoked the first “Albigensian Crusade” in 1209. The murder of two inquisitors in 1242 was the final straw that that convinced the Louis IX of the need to destroy the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur.
 
Another view of Carcassonne. Photo: H.P. Schrader

In 1243, the siege of Montsegur began. By March of the next year, the garrison had suffered a number of casualties, and an outpost had already fallen to the besiegers. The defenders sought and obtained a truce. On March 16, the forces of the King of France took control of Montsegur. Two hundred and twenty men and women, some “Perfects” and some defenders who only after surrender decided to take the consolamentum, refused to abjure the heresy and were burned at the stake.

TODAY ONLY: The Disinherited, soon to be released, is set against backdrop of the Albigensian crusades. For a free review copy (pdf-file only), post a comment today including your email address.
 
Interested in the history behind good historical fiction? You’ll enjoy the following anthology of essays by authors of historical fiction: Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors.
 
 
 

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Silk Road" by Colin Falconer - A Review

“Silk Road” by Colin Falconer is well named because the silk road itself is the most complex, vivid and well-drawn character of the book.  Falconer clearly did his research about the route itself – its changing geography and climates, and the diverse and fascinating people, who lived along it during the 13th century.  His descriptions of the route itself are vivid, informative and evocative, as are his meticulous and convincing portrayals of Mongolian culture, life-style and politics in this period.  
Indeed, Falconer does an outstanding job of giving the reader insight into the Mongolian mentality and ethos without romanticizing it.  He is brutally honest about the repulsive excesses – of both drink and violence – without being self-satisfied or smug.  All in all, I felt he provided a balanced and nuanced picture of this, for us, alien society.  Likewise, his description of how the women’s feet were crushed and bound in China is one of the most brutally honest descriptions I have ever read. 
 Unfortunately, Falconer does not match his very impressive knowledge of the Mongols and the topography of Asia with equal knowledge and understanding of the Christian world in the 13th century.  He depicts France and Provence of the 13th century as if he were describing Norsemen half a millennia earlier – huddling around smoking fires and wearing furs! Really? St. Louis? The man who commissioned St. Chapelle? The popes that built the palaces in Poitiers and Avignon? Another jarring example of his ignorance of French society is Falconer’s allegation that French women could not inherit property. Try telling that to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Falconer appears not to have read Joinville’s account of the St. Louis’ crusade, or he would know King Louis could not command his Queen to so much as pay his ransom! He could ask it, not command it.  Finally, allow me a third example: Falconer repeatedly claims that Westerners did not bathe frequently and some were “afraid” to do so.  Absurd! Bathing is described in medieval books, depicted in medieval manuscripts and evidenced by archeology.  While the wealthy had their own baths, the poor went to bath-houses and in the Holy Roman Empire tips were called “bath money” not “drinking money.”  It was only after the Reformation – and the spread of a strict morality that  saw bath houses as hotbeds of sin -- that hygiene deteriorated dramatically in European cities.  Given the fact that much of the dynamic of “Silk Road” rests on comparisons between “the West” and the cultures of the East, this profound ignorance of Western culture in the period of the novel (13th century) destroys the power and impact of Falconer’s alleged comparisons.  
Similarly, I found Falconer’s Mongol characters vivid and convincing. I liked his heroine Khetelun and her father very much.  They came to life for me in all their complexity and contradictions.  Kubilai and Miao-yen are likewise complex and compelling characters.  But Falconer fails miserably in making William a believable character.  William remains a caricature of heartless bigotry. Furthermore, he is so monotone as to be uninteresting. I kept hoping for some nuance, some change, some insight, but he remained flat, predictable and boring.  Josseran eventually takes on some contours, but most of the book he is simply a vehicle for criticizing “Western” civilization – not as it was but as Falconer in his ignorance imagines it was.  He is obsessed with his sexuality and so in place of real dialectic with different cultures and religions, with have shadow-boxing.
The structure of “Silk Road” had the potential to offer provocative challenges to our understanding of Christianity, but it fell flat because the “Christianity” of this book is an empty façade, only superficially related to the religion itself.  Certainly there were bigots and hypocrites, who called themselves Christians and even preached Christianity, but if this book were to seriously examine the merits of the various cultures and theologies, it would have to portray not the counterfeit but the genuine “coin” of all the religions. It would have to discuss the religion itself – not create a straw man of sheer bigotry. 
At times I had the impression that Falconer genuinely hated Christianity, but in the end I decided he simply shied away for serious, theological debate.  It was easier to describe the superficial differences of simplistic characters than explore the depths of complex theologies.
In short, it’s not a bad book if you want to learn more about the Mongols in the second generation after Genghis Khan, but beware of the misinformation about Medieval Europe and don’t expect a genuine discussion of the theological differences between the great religions of the period.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Crusader Kingdoms of “Outremer”

The first crusade, described last week, was an armed pilgrimage in response to a plea from the Byzantine Emperor to free former Christian territories from Muslim rule.  The first crusade indeed re-established Christian rule over the Holy Land, but the Western knights and noblemen who fought their way to Jerusalem felt they had been betrayed by the Greeks by the time they finally got there.  Therefore, instead of returning the territory they had captured from the Saracens to Byzantine control, the crusaders established a series of independent states with Christian rulers from Antioch to Palestine: the Principality of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and – most important – the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the course of the Third Crusade, the last - and most enduring - crusader kingdom was established on the Island of Cyprus.

The crusaders who founded and ruled these states were a tiny elite from Western Europe, dependent on the local population composed predominantly of Orthodox Christians, with smaller populations of Jews, Muslims, and new settlers from all across the West. In short, the inhabitants were not a homogenous population, but rather a motley collection of peoples who spoke a variety of languages (Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Amharic, French, Italian, Spanish, German,  English etc. etc.) and lacked common traditions. Thus, although Latin churches were built and the various Latin religious orders soon established a presence, neither the Orthodox Churches nor the synagogues nor mosques were destroyed; the inhabitants of the crusader kingdoms were free to follow their religious conscience.
Furthermore, the states were at the crossroads of trade between East and West, and the ports of Christian Palestine were the key points for transshipping the riches brought by caravan from China, Persia, Egypt, and Arabia to the entire Western world. This made them prosperous and cosmopolitan. Christian Palestine, known in the West as “Outremer” (beyond the sea), rapidly became a melting pot for culture and a breeding ground for art and science.
Pilgrims and later crusaders often felt alienated by this openness to other cultures, particularly the tolerance of Muslims and Jews.  Yet it was this very openness -- and an appreciation of the complexities of the world around them -- that enabled the crusader kingdoms to endure almost 200 years in Palestine and another two hundred years on Cyprus.
 
This was a remarkable achievement that demonstrated diplomatic as well as military competence. If the crusader kingdoms had simply been bastions of bigotry, as sometimes portrayed in modern literature, they would not have survived. Instead, they thrived by adapting to their environment, building upon their own strengths and exploiting the weakness of their enemies. They erected magnificent castles that enabled the small Latin elite to effectively control their territories, while consciously cultivating support from the Italian city-states, whose superior ships ensured them virtual control of the Mediterranean. The inhabitants of the crusader kingdoms were not ignorant brutes, but savvy, educated and highly civilized men and women, who earned the respect of their enemies.
 
These fascinating kingdoms, with their cultural diversity, are the setting for seven of my ten Tales of Chivalry. Two of the Templar Tales are set in Outremer, the Lion of Karpas trilogy is set on crusader kingdom of Cyprus, and, of course, the story of Balian d'Ibelin is also the story of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the end of the 12th Century.
 
 

Friday, September 6, 2013

The First Crusade: 1096-1099

Last week I described the origins of the crusades. As I described, after centuries of Muslim expansion, in which Muslims conquered the Holy Land, Cyprus and much of Asia Minor, the Byzantine Emperor hoped to reverse the tide by appealing for aid from the West.  The Pope was receptive and called for knights and men-at-arms to embark upon an armed pilgrimage to free the holy places of Christianity from Muslim rule.

The response to the Pope’s appeal was overwhelming. It is believed that over 100,000 people, an enormous number given the population of Western Europe at this time, took part in this first crusade. First, an estimated 20,000 common people without particular organization or planning followed a self-proclaimed prophet, Peter the Hermit, thinking he would lead them to a kind of paradise on earth in Jerusalem. After plundering their way through the Balkans, they were completely destroyed by a Turkish army just beyond the Bosporus. The real crusading army, consisting of roughly 35,000 fighting men, set out on the official First Crusade several months later. This force was led by some of the most powerful noblemen of Western Europe at the time, including the Dukes of Flanders and Normandy and Count Raymond IV of Toulouse.
While some of the leaders, notably the Count of Toulouse and Godfrey de Bouillon, were men with land and riches at home, whose motives for embarking on such a dangerous and difficult expedition were largely pious, the same cannot be said of all crusaders. Bohemond, the Prince of Otranto, and Baldwin of Boulogne, for example, proved their interests were largely venal by setting themselves up as princelings in conquered territory even before reaching Jerusalem. As for their followers, as Richard Barber writes in The Knight and Chivalry: “The Papacy saw the crusades as a way of harnessing the concept of knighthood to spiritual ends; the knights saw them as a solution to earthly ills, with the promise of absolution and heavenly reward as well …. Furthermore, by removing the discontented knights from their homes in the West, the popes believed that they would bring peace to Europe as well as helping their fellow Christians in Palestine and Byzantium.”[i] In short, many men went on crusade for practical more than religious reasons: to avoid debts, taxes, and feudal duties, for adventure, for spoils, in hope of a better future in the Holy Land ….
 
The First Crusade reached Constantinople in April 1097. Here the leaders dutifully swore fealty to the Byzantine Emperor, in whose name they continued as soldiers of an Emperor seeking to re-take territory that had belonged to his predecessors. The crusaders then crossed into Muslim-held territory for the first time (modern Turkey) and confronted Seljuk forces on July 1. The crusaders routed the Seljuk army in a intelligently and courageously fought engagement involving combined tactics.  They then continued east until they came to Antioch.
Here, after an eight-month siege, Antioch fell to the crusaders – who promptly found themselves under siege by a much larger Muslim army. The crusaders appealed desperately for aid from the Byzantine Emperor, their ‘overlord,’ who had sent them on this mission and promised them support. In fact, the Byzantine Emperor had moved his troops in behind the crusaders, “mopping up” what remained of the Seljuk forces and re-establishing Byzantine control over Asia Minor. But, unfortunately for Christianity, one of the crusaders, Stephan of Blois, had deserted the crusader cause and on his way home told the Byzantine Emperor that the crusaders were defeated, Antioch already lost. The Emperor therefore decided to consolidate what he had and returned to Constantinople, leaving the crusaders on their own.
 
Trapped in Antioch, on the brink of starvation, the crusaders discovered a relic, which one of the priests identified as the lance that pierced Christ’s side before the Crucifixion. This “miracle” inspired the crusaders to undertake what turned out to be a decisive sortie that drove the besiegers off. But the survivors no longer trusted the Byzantine Emporer. His failure to come to their aid ended, in their eyes, the feudal oath they had taken, because he had not upheld his end of the bargain. Instead, two of the leaders (Bohemond of Otranto and Baldwin of Boulogne) established two independent kingdoms, at Edessa and Antioch. The hard-core of the crusaders, however, pressed on for Jerusalem itself. A year later, the weary, much decimated, ill-equipped, and half-starved crusading army reached Jerusalem.
 
This army had suffered extreme privation during its march, notably thirst so intense that according to the chaplain of the Count of Toulouse, at one pool “those who were strong pushed and shoved their way in a deathly fashion through the pool, which was already choked with dead animals and men struggling for their lives …. Those who were weaker sprawled on the ground beside the pool with gaping mouths, their parched tongues making them speechless, while they stretched out their hands to beg water from the more fortunate ones.”[ii]
 
The army was no longer large enough to encircle the city of Jerusalem, so no proper siege was possible. Furthermore, the leaders believed that a Muslim relief army from Egypt was on its way, which made a rapid victory all the more important. The crusaders therefore attempted to take the city by storm almost at once, but without sufficient ladders the assault was repulsed. An imperfect siege began, during which the Christians secured materials to build siege engines. On the night of July 13, 1099, a new assault was launched, but it was not until the afternoon of July 15 that a breakthrough was achieved.
 
The crusaders reportedly poured into Jerusalem. At this moment of their greatest triumph, the crusaders committed the atrocity that has besmirched the very words “crusades” and “crusaders” ever since. Knowing the Christians had been expelled before the siege, the crusaders killed every living human found within the holy city until, allegedly, their horses waded up to their fetlocks in running blood.


[i] Barber, Richard W., The Knight and Chivalry, p. 254.
 
[ii] Hopkins, Andrea, Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry, p. 85.