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, January 12, 2018

"A Second Chance" - An Excerpt from "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

A major theme of "Envoy of Jerusalem" was the fate of Christian captives after Hattin or in subsequent defeats.  These men and women, who were enslaved by the Saracens, for the most part disappeared into a perpetual hell, but some were restored by ransom payments and the terms of treaties and truces.  Even if freed, these men had lost their possessions and families for the most part and they faced a precarious existence in the vulnerable states that clung to the Mediterranean following the Third Crusade. In this episode from "The Last Crusader Kingdom" we follow the fate of one such man.



The ringing of vespers marked the end of the twelve-hour day at last, and the men dropped whatever they were doing and lined up for their pay. Ayyub nodded his thanks to the clerk as he took the two dinars, and stashed them inside a purse tied to a cord inside his kaftan. He then hastened around the corner and up the street to a small square with a public fountain....Feeling somewhat restored [by a bath], although sore all over, he started up the street to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He had a plan, but it all depended on Master Moses.


On his release after the Treaty of Ramla, Master Moses―like thousands of other former slaves―had washed up in Tyre. In a city overrun with released captives, he was nothing special, just another ex-slave―and a crippled one at that. No one cared what he’d been before Hattin, and a man of forty-something with just one hand could not compete with hordes of healthier, younger men like Ayyub himself. He had ended up a beggar, and it was in this capacity that Ayyub and Moses had met again roughly a year earlier.

Since then Ayyub had made a point of sharing some of his earnings whenever he was lucky. That was rare enough, and Master Moses was visibly failing. He was permanently bent, skeletally thin, and often mentally absent as well. Ayyub was terrified the former master might be too far gone to help him now.

At least he was sitting in his usual spot, nestled into one of the niches formed by the receding arches of the main portal. He had a dirty rag spread out before him for people to drop coins into as they entered or departed. His unkempt mane of graying hair hung about his shoulders, but it had thinned so much that his scabby scalp showed through in many places. His wrinkled face was dirty and blank. He sat with his knees bent before him and his stump propped on them for all to see: a silent plea for alms.

“Master Moses!” Ayyub called as he reached the foot of the stairs up to the portal and started up them.

His former master’s head swung slowly and stared at Ayyub as he approached. He did not smile in pleasure; he just stared.

“Master Moses.” Ayyub went down on his heels in front of the beggar. “What would you say to working as a master builder again? To building aqueducts?”

“I’d say you’ve gone mad,” came the bitter answer.

“But could you do it? Could you design and build an aqueduct? Like we were going to do together?”

“Have you been drinking or chewing khat?” the master builder asked, narrowing his eyes and eying Ayyub suspiciously.

“Neither! I can’t afford such luxuries. The Baron of Ibelin is looking for a master builder to build aqueducts and sewage drains on Cyprus.”

“I’ve seen more sewage drains than I ever want to see the rest of my life!” the ex-slave growled. “Go away!”

“This isn’t about cleaning them out,” Ayyub protested frantically, his dreams collapsing around his ears. “It’s about designing them and watching other people build them.”

The beggar snorted skeptically and snarled, “What’s in it for you?”

“Just that you take me on as your apprentice, like before: that you take me with you.”

“Where?”

“To Cyprus! Didn’t I already say that? Ibelin wants a master builder willing to go with him to Cyprus.”

“That’s what you say!” Moses scoffed. “Sounds like a drunkard’s dream to me.”

“I’m not drunk. I’m stone-cold sober, and I heard the exchange myself. What’s the harm in trying?”

“Trying what?”

“Going to find the Baron of Ibelin and presenting yourself.”

Moses ibn Sa’id made a rude noise.

“Come with me!” Ayyub insisted, reaching out to pull Moses to his feet by his forearm.

Moses tried to shake him off, but Ayyub was stronger. “You’re coming with me,” Ayyub insisted.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom: Ayyub/Antonis

The second to the last fictional character from the Last Crusader Kingdom that I'd like to introduce is Ayyub the mason.



Ayyub enters the novel late and has only a cameo role, but he is vitally important nevertheless. Although I take issue with the conventional thesis that Cyprus was re-populated by during Guy de Lusignan’s short reign and without opposition, the fact that many former inhabitants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem found a new start on Cyprus is indisputable. Significantly, the settlers were not all noblemen -- nor all Latin Christians.



The famous passage attributed to Ernoul describing the settlement of Cyprus includes the following revealing passage:



The knights, sergeants and burgesses whom the Muslims had dispossessed…set off and came to [Cyprus]…[The king] gave rich fiefs, both to the Greeks and the knights he had brought with him and to shoemakers, masons and Arabic scribes….”



As I have said earlier, the account of the settling of Cyprus is highly romanticized and severely abbreviated. That it should include such explicit mention of such humble professions as shoemakers and masons ― not to mention Arabic scribes, who were hardly needed on Cyprus ― is extremely significant. Ernoul (or whoever wrote this account) clearly wanted to highlight the fact that the dispossessed of all classes and all communities emigrated to Cyprus. It is particularly significant that he underlines the fact that Greeks and the Arabic-speakers also took advantage of the new opportunities on Cyprus.



My character Ayyub is, like Lakis, a double representative. On the one hand, he is a man of common birth, a tradesman not a knight or nobleman, yet no less impoverished by Saladin's victories. Obviously, not all of the dispossessed of the lower classes had been slaves. Some were simply driven from their homes by the advancing armies of Saladin. Yet, tens of thousands of working-class Christian men had gone into Saracen slavery. With Ayyub, I wanted to connect back to Envoy of Jerusalem and remind readers of the fate of the Christians who had fallen into Saracen hands in the course of the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 



On the other hand, Ayyub is a representative of the non-Latin communities in the crusader states. Far too many novels set in this period completely ignore the bulk of the population: the Orthodox Christians of the Holy Land. Making Ayyub a Melkite Christian was a means of reminding the reader of the large Melkite populations in the crusader states. 


By making Ayyub an Arabic speaker, I not only link directly to the text above (that stresses the emigration of Arabic-speakers to Cyprus), but remind readers that the many native Christians had adopted Arabic names and spoke Arabic. It was this use of Arab names and language that has long confused historians into believing that a larger portion of the population of the crusader states had converted to Islam. Yet to this day there are tens of thousands of Christians living in Syria and Lebanon, whose names sound Arabic to us and who’s language is Arabic, yet whose religion is Christian.



But Ayyub is also Antonis because the Arab-speaking, Orthodox immigrants to Cyprus evidently did not retain their Arabic names or language for long. Sharing the same religious rites as the native Greek population to a greater extent than the Latin elites, they integrated more rapidly, married local girls and soon adopted Greek.



Last but not least, by making Ayyub/Antonis a mason, I could emphasize the extent to which Cyprus needed to be rebuilt. The roughly three-hundred years of Frankish rule on Cyprus were a period of extensive and expensive building.  Cathedrals, castles, monasteries and palaces were built across the island. Although earthquakes and the Turks have managed to destroy most of what was built in this period, the fragments remaining are monuments to the quality, ingenuity and artistic capabilities of the engineers, masons, sculptors and glass-makers of the last crusader kingdom.



 














Ruins of the Frankish Cloister of Bellapais near Kyrenia, Cyprus 



Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Templars and the Holy Grail



The “Holy Grail” makes its first appearance in literature in the 12th century in a work by Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval. Here, Perceval was a knight of the legendary King Arthur’s Round Table on a quest to find the "Holy Grail." The story was subsequently told and re-told, embellished and altered by various writers, including both Wolfram von Eschenbach and Sir Thomas Malory. In later versions of the Grail quest, Sir Galahad replaced Sir Perceval as the principal hero, but the theme remained popular and was increasingly depicted in works of art as well literature.


People in the Middle Ages understood that, like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table themselves, the Holy Grail was a symbol, a spiritual gift. It was not until the 19th century that people -- increasingly lacking spirituality and thinking of themselves as more “rational” and “scientific” -- crudely turned the Holy Grail into a mere thing. Just people in the 19th and 20th centuries insisted on trying to identify the “real King Arthur,” modern scholars and enthusiasts have tied themselves in knots trying to explain just what the Holy Grail was ― even inventing the idea that it was the blood of Christ in the form of genetic descendants of Christ and Mary Magdalen. 


Another 20th/21st Century invention is that the Templars were in search of the Holy Grail when they excavated under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Indeed, it has even been argued that the Templars went all the way to Ethiopia in the 12th century in search of the Holy Grail (now transformed into the Ark of the Covenant). Most recently, the History Chanel’s “Knightfall” builds on the notion that there was a connection between the Templars and the Holy Grail. 

This connection is as spurious and ridiculous as the idea that there was a Holy Grail in the first place. There can be no evidence of a connection between the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, because people in the Middle Ages, least of all the practical and hard-headed Knights Templar, weren’t gullible enough to actually think that the Holy Grail was a thing. Since the Templars (at least in theory) disdained secular literature and courtly love, the venue in which the legends and tales of the Holy Grail played out, would have been particularly disdained by the Templars. They probably would not have deigned to admit they knew of the tales at all.  

Copyright Fireforge Games
Literature, whether disguised as pseudo scholarship or, more honestly, fiction, that depicts a relationship between the Knights Templar and an object called the “Holy Grail” belong in the realm of fantasy and should be recognized and treated as such. 

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves. Her Jerusalem Trilogy has won 15 literary accolades including Best Biography 2017 (Book Excellence Awards) and Best Christian Historical Fiction 2017 (Readers' Favorites).



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A Templar disaster set the stage for: