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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Last Crusader Kingdom

The Jerusalem Trilogy followed the lives of Balian d'Ibelin and Maria Comnena through two decades of history from 1171 to the end of the Third Crusade in 1192. This was a crucial period, which saw the almost complete destruction of the crusader presence in the Middle East. It covered the dramatic Christian victory over Saladin in 1177, and the more devastating -- and unnecessary -- defeat of the Franks at the Battle of Hattin ten years later. Finally, in the third book of the trilogy, the dramatic defense of Tyre, the last Christian outpost in the Holy Land, and finally the course of the Third Crusade is described.

These events were momentous in their age. The shock of the annihilation of the Christian army at Hattin allegedly killed a pope and set in motion a massive military response: the Third Crusade.  The Third Crusade, in turn, attracted the wealthiest and most powerful of Western monarchs -- Friedrich Barbarossa, Philip Augustus, and Richard the Lionheart. As a result, the period of history covered in the second two volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy was well recorded by contemporaries had has been the focus of historical interest ever since. There are a wealth of primary and secondary sources that I could turn to for inspiration, guidance, plot and characters.

With the end of the crusade, the density and quality of contemporary sources and modern histories drops dramatically. Yet, life went on even after the momentous, eye-catching events ended. Furthermore, as readers will have noted, neither Balian nor Maria were dead.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is a novel set in the period following the Third Crusade. It is populated with familiar characters from that trilogy -- Balian and Maria, Aimery de Lusignan and his wife Eschiva, Queen Isabella and her 3rd husband Henri de Champagne, and more -- but it is not a sequel. It is a stand-alone novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom attempts to explain two historical developments that historians skip over, ignore or admit ignorance about. First, the establishment of a Latin kingdom on the island of Cyprus under the Lusignans. Second, the rise of the Ibelin family to the most powerful, indeed dominant, noble family of Outremer. It is, in short, about historical events of significance, but largely lost to modern understanding because of an absence of sources -- primary or secondary -- that deal with this interlude in detail. In my next two entries, I will describe in greater detail the historical evidence available and the revisionist thesis pursued in this novel.

The Last Crusader Kingdom is also a "bridge" between the Jerusalem Trilogy and my next novels, which will describe the remarkable resistance of the barons of Outremer (led by the Ibelins) against the despotism of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II Hohenstaufen. 

For those of you who missed The Jerusalem Trilogy, here are the links:

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Acre

The Harbor of Acre today
In Balian's time, Acre was the economic heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, it became the de facto capital of the rump state as well. During the last hundred years of Frankish presence in the Levant, Acre became the principal seat of the Templar and Hospitaller Orders, as well as a the home of the largest "communes" of merchants from the various Italian city-states. 

Acre's Waterfront Today
As a major entrepot, Acre was famous for its cosmopolitan character. At any one time, it harbored a large transient population of sailors and caravan crews. Caravans bringing the riches of Asia and Arabia met and mingled with the crews of ships from all points West, including Ireland and Norway. Even the resident population was diverse and polyglot; Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, French and Italian would all have been spoken by people who called Acre home.

Not terribly surprising, given this diverse and often disreputable nature of the population, Acre in the crusader era was notorious as a city of "low morals" and sinful pleasures. Pilgrims and crusaders alike complained about the "excessive" number of bath-houses. More than once, Richard the Lionheart was compelled to chase his men out of the "flesh-pots" of Acre and remind them of their crusader vows and duties. 

The covered markets, suks, of Acre attracted both good and bad clientele.
Getting a feel for Acre was thus an important part of my research -- even if the tame, touristy modern city could hardly convey the character of crusader Acre. The remains of the massive Hospitaller headquarters did, however, hint at the wealth, power and importance of the military orders. Here some pictures from my visit:


Acre features particularly in the second and third books of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
After Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem was probably the most popular pilgrimage destination in the Holy Land. (For more on the history of Bethlehem and the churches build there visit: Church of the Nativity) It had the advantage of being just over six miles distant from Jerusalem, making it comparatively easy for pilgrims to Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem as well. 

In addition to its importance to Christianity, Bethlehem was the city in which the early Kings of Jerusalem were crowned, giving it political importance in the crusader period as well. It was, however, never a center of trade or industry, remaining -- right to the present time -- a city dependent primarily on religious tourism. 

Although Bethlehem is the venue of only one important episode in the Jerusalem Trilogy, Bethlehem is nevertheless an important place for understanding and envisaging life in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, preserved in the Church of the Nativity are mosaics dating back to the reign of Constantine the Great -- an examples of the kind of mosaics that were even more common in crusader times.  Furthermore, the church underwent extensive renovation in the reign of Amalric, including a series of spectacular mosaic murals. Not only are these considered exquisite and valuable examples of crusader art, they reflect the influence of King Amalric's Greek wife, Maria Comnena. Since Maria was also Balian's wife, these mosaics have a direct tie to Balian's life and provide an alluring hint to the artistic tastes in the world in which John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beruit grew up. 

The Ibelins almost certainly maintained a residence in Jerusalem, and so trips to Bethlehem (for Christmas at least) were almost certainly part of the Ibelin routine. While the mosaics are generally considered the most important artistic feature, it was the Frankish cloisters at Bethlehem, pure Western Romanesque in style, that I personally found most beautiful:

Another, arguably more important, aspect of a trip to Bethlehem today is that the strong presence of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Christians in Bethlehem. They are a compelling reminder of how diverse Christianity was in the crusader period as well. Recent scholarship has documented a far greater tolerance for these other Christians than was previously assumed. For more about the treatment of Orthodox Christians in the crusader states please visit: Liberation or Oppression: Native Christians and the Crusaders

Bethlehem features in the first two books of the Jerusalem trilogy and is the scene of an important episode in Volume II.

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