Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The House of Ibelin - Obscure Origins

The origins of the House of Ibelin remain obscure to this day, but one thing is certain: the first "Ibelin" was an adventurer, who made his fortune in the Holy Land. He was one of those men described by Fulk de Chartres, who soon "forgot" his origins and identified wholly with his new land and life in Outremer.

From the beginning of the 14th century, the Ibelins claimed their descent from the Counts of Chartres, but most historians dismiss this claim as concocted. Peter Edbury, one of the most important modern historians of the crusader states, writing in 1991 claims  "onomastic evidence points to a presumably less exalted Italian background, perhaps in Pisa or Sardinia.” (Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1191 -1374, p. 39) Six years later, however, Edbury had revised his thesis slightly, now suggesting Tuscan or Ligurian origins (Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, p. 4). Sir Steven Runciman, in contrast, claimed that the house of Ibelin “was founded by the younger brother of a certain Guelin, who was deputy viscount of Chartres, that is to say, the Count of Blois’ representative in Chartres; and such officers in those days did not enjoy hereditary rank but were often drawn from lawyers’ families.” Runciman's preference for this version may have been influenced by the hindsight: so many of the 13th-century Ibelins were renowned lawyers.

Whatever his place of origin and whatever he called himself before coming to the Holy Land, the first man to identify himself as an “Ibelin” was a certain Barisan. Not only are his origins unknown, so are his dates of birth and death. All that we know about him for certain is that in 1115 he was appointed “Constable” of Jaffa. He was not raised to the nobility, however, until 1140, when the new castle of Ibelin, built as a bastion against attacks from Muslim-held Ascalon, was built. At some point (and this is a hotly debated issue among scholars of the topic) he married the heiress to the already extant barony of Ramla and Mirabel, Helvis. She, however, may not have been an heiress at the time of her wedding, as she had a brother, who clearly also had a right to inherit Ramla. Only after her brother's death, did Helvis have clear title to the barony, which she then passed to her husband and sons respectively.

Barisan is known to have had three sons, Hugh, Baldwin, and Barisan the Younger, more commonly known as Balian. Hugh succeeded to his father’s titles at the time of Barisan-the-Elder’s death (ca. 1150) and was active in military campaigns throughout the 1160s.  He was also the first man to style himself “of Ibelin.”  However, since Barisan-the-elder would have had to be a mature man (at least 30 years old) before he was entrusted with the constableship of one of the most important ports in the kingdom (Jaffa is not a good harbor but is the port closest to Jerusalem), we can assume that he was born no later than 1085. If he did not marry until 1140, he would have been a fifty-five-year-old bridegroom. While this is not exceptional in itself, it is rare for a first marriage, making it far more likely that Hugh was the son of an earlier, unrecorded marriage to a woman of more obscure origins than Helvis of Ramla. The next sons, Baldwin and Balian, however, are almost certainly the children of Helvis, and Baldwin always used his mother’s more prestigious title of “Ramla” rather than Ibelin. Balian, in contrast, initially used “Ibelin” as a family name because he was not lord of Ibelin (his brothers were) until he married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem.  But that is another story which will be told later.

Barisan-the-Elder died in or about 1150.  He probably died peacefully in his bed, as a more spectacular death would have been more likely to attract comment. He would have been about 65 years old when he died, which was a ripe old age in the early 12th century, particularly for a man who spent most of his life-fighting in a notoriously brutal environment. He would have been justified in being well-pleased with his rise from landless, younger son of a quasi-bourgeois family to baron in the Holy Land, but at his death, he could hardly envisage the power, prestige, and fame that his descendants would achieve over the next three centuries.

The story of the Ibelins continues next week.
Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three yet to come.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

The House of Ibelin

During the 7th crusade led by St. Louis, the head of the Ibelin family attracted the amazement of the French Seneschal Jean de Joinville who wrote:

[Ibelin’s] galley came to shore painted all over above and below the water with armorial bearings, or a cross paté gules. He had full three hundred oarsmen in the galley, and each man had a shield bearing his arms, and with each shield was a pennon with his arms sewn in gold. (Joinville’s “Life of St. Louis,” Chapter 4: Landing in Egypt.)

A splashier display of wealth was hardly imaginable in the midst of battle. So just who were the "Ibelins" and where did he come from?

The House of Ibelin was by the time of the 7th crusade one of the most powerful noble families in the crusader states.  Sons of the House of Ibelin had held many noble titles over time: Lords of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel, Caymont, Beirut, Arsur, and Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the last traditionally a royal domain and title of the heirs to the throne.  The daughters of Ibelin married into the royal families of Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, and Armenia. Ibelins served as regents of Jerusalem and Cyprus on multiple occasions, and they led revolts against what they viewed as over-reaching royal authority, most notably taking on the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II in 1229-1233.  They were respected as scholars. One translated Arab poetry into French, another (John of Jaffa) wrote a legal treatise that is not only a goldmine of information about the laws of the crusader kingdoms but is admired for the elegance of its style and the sophistication of its analysis.  The Ibelins also built magnificent palaces, whose mosaic courtyards, fountains, gardens and polychrome marble excited admiration. 

The Ibelins exemplified the Latin East in many ways. They were rich, luxury-loving, patrons of the arts, yet they were also fighitng men who could hold their own against Saracens, Mamlukes or their fellow knights. They were highly-educated and multi-lingual, whose diplomatic skills won the admiration of Saladin and whose legal reasoning confounded the "Wonder of the World," Emperor Frederick II. They also exemplified the crusader states in another way: the origins of the family are completely obscure, and the first Ibelin was almost certainly an adventurer, a man of knightly-rank but without land or title in whatever country he originated. Their story is a microcosm of the crusader states. 

Join me in the weeks to come as I look at individual Ibelins and their role in history.

 Members of the House of Ibelin are the subject of four published novels and three novels yet to come.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review: Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem

In this seminal work of immense importance to understanding the crusader states Ellenblum challenges the assumptions of prominent 20th century scholars concerning the composition and character of crusader settlement and society. Ellenblum, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, bases his startling conclusions on meticulous (indeed tedious) study of legal documents recording the demarcation and/or sale and settlement of disputes over landed property combined with an intensive archaeological survey of the region north of Jerusalem.

Sadly hidden behind a prosaic title (that probably discourages many readers) is one of the most important books on crusader society available today. The insights provided here about settlement patterns, the degree of integration with the local Christian inhabitants and segregation from the Muslim population, the sophistication of the agricultural techniques employed, and the levels of conversion to Islam are all invaluable insights that no one interested in the crusades or the Holy Land in the Middle Ages can afford to ignore.

Ellenblum’s research enabled the “reconstruction” of entire villages ― property by property ― identifying in the process the origins and vocations of many of the inhabitants. His survey turned up roughly 200 Frankish settlements, most of which had never been heard of before either because the settlements themselves had since been abandoned, ruined and overgrown, or because their Frankish origins were hidden behind modern Arabic names and more recent construction.

One of Ellenblum’s chief theses is that: “The Franks…were very successful settlers and were not only fighters and builders of fortifications.  The migrants who settled in the Kingdom of Jerusalem established a network of well-developed settlements…includ[ing] the construction of developed castra [towns], of ‘rural burgi,’ and monasteries, of castles that served as centers for seigniorial estates, of smaller castles, manor houses, farm houses, unfortified villages, parochial systems etc.”

Even more important, Ellenblum proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the claim of earlier historians such as Prawer and Smail “that the Franks were completely unaware of what went on in their fields (save when it came to collecting their share of the crops), and had no contact with the local inhabitants, is not based on written or archeological sources and is certainly not accurate.” (Emphasis added.)

Although the level of detail and the cataloguing of findings can make at times somewhat turgid text and slow reading, it is the level of detail that leaves no doubt that Ellenblum’s findings are based on incontrovertible facts. This book makes all previous conclusions about Frankish society obsolete, and any depiction of Frankish Palestine that does not take Ellenblum’s conclusions into account can be dismissed as inaccurate.

Ellenblum's findings are reflected in my novels set in Outremer.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Rebels Against Tyranny: Civil War in the Crusader States

Few historical novels have been written about the crusades of the 13th century -- much less life in the crusader states at this period. Yet the baronial revolt against Emperoror Frederick II is one of the most exciting and  “modern” episodes in the medieval history of the Holy Land. 
The landscape is about to close! 
Coming later this year:

The Sixth Crusade, if mentioned at all in literature today, is usually condensed to the bloodless return of Jerusalem to Christian control. The inherent flaws in Frederick II’s treaty ― the short duration of the truce, the prohibitions on Christian fortifications, the legal impediments to the treaty ― are ignored or glossed over. Likewise, Frederick II is commonly likely to be portrayed as a monarch ahead of his time, even as a “genius,” or a man of “exceptional tolerance," without acknowledging ― or while outright disparaging ― those who considered him a tyrant.   

From the 15th to the early 20th century, popular adulation of absolutism and central authority transformed Frederick into the embodiment of “good government;” the fact that he ran roughshod over the law and arbitrarily exercised his authority was largely ignored or justified. Contempt for feudalism (a dogma of the Enlightenment) and hatred of the papacy (a dogma of the Reformation) combined to discredit Frederick’s opponents in the eyes of historians. Particularly German scholars of the 19th and early 20th century sought to create a glorious “German Emperor” to incarnate all the Germanic virtues then in vogue. Frederick II has long since been lost behind the legends created about him.

While Frederick's struggle with the papacy is legendary, his defeat at the hands of his own barons in the crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus is familiar only to historians of the 13thcentury Latin East. Yet the history of the baronial revolt against Federick II Hohenstaufen offers all the ingredients of first-rate historical fiction. On the one side there is the legendary and colorful Emperor ― the man who called himself “the Wonder of the World” ― and on the other side a cast of rebels, who are also scholars and intellectuals, poets and patrons of the arts.  

Emperor Frederick II was opposed by a coalition of barons, who left an impressive legacy of intellectual accomplishments. They were the authors of histories, poetry, and works of philosophy, although they are most famous today for their outstanding contributions to medieval jurisprudence.  The renowned crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith goes so far as to claim: “Perhaps the greatest monument to the western settlers in Palestine, finer even than the cathedrals and castles still dominating the landscape, is the law-book of John of Jaffa, which…is one of the great works of thirteenth-century thought.” (Riley-Smith, Johnathan. The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277. Macmillan Press, 1973, p. 230.)

Furthermore, the issues at stake remain relevant today: how much central power is necessary for the good of a state? Does “raison d’etat” justify dishonor and treachery? When does a citizen have the right to defend himself against tyranny?  At what point is forgiveness and reconciliation the wisest action ― regardless of the crimes committed? When is trust constructive ― and when is it dangerously naïve?

Watch for the release of Rebels Against Tyranny this fall! 

Meanwhile, enjoy my novels set in the Holy Land in the 12th Century.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cover Reveal: Rebels against Tyrrany

This week, the first book in my new series went to the publisher. 
It seemed like a good opportunity to “reveal” the cover to future readers and discuss the process of cover design.

Covers can kill – novels, I mean. Nothing, studies have shown, is more influential in enticing a potential reader to pick up a book while browsing in a bookstore than an “attractive” cover – and nothing is more likely to put a potential reader off than a “bad” cover.  A good cover will attract readers that would never buy the book based on subject, title or author, and a bad cover will make the very people who would love a particular book scorn it.  Covers matter!

But -- aside from "attractive" being highly subjective -- being “attractive” isn’t enough. 

Beautiful -- but would it sell books?

A cover that is “attractive” (even in the advertising sense of the word) may get a browsing reader to read the cover blurb, but if the picture has nothing to do with the content, they are likely to put the book down again. There is no point having a vampire or a half-naked woman on the cover of your book if the book isn’t about vampires or beautiful women in sexual situations.

When I first started publishing novels, I let the publisher design the cover, thinking they were the professionals and they would understand the market much better than I.

Big mistake.

When it comes to historical fiction, it is vitally important to immediately evoke the time period of a novel because you discredit yourself instantly if you get it wrong. Publishers, however, are not historians. They don’t know the difference between 11th and 16th-century armor, or between a Spitfire and a Piper Cub.
Crusaders in plate armor? I don't think so!

So I now “design” my own covers, by which I mean I select the overall thematic components, and then hire a professional graphic designer to do the fine work essential to make the image look as good as anything a major publishing house can produce.

Most "advice" I have read about selecting cover says: "look what everyone else in your genre is doing and copy them." Well, if I write what everyone else is writing and don't have anything new to add, then that the way my covers should indeed be designed. As a reader, if I see another cover with actors in period costumes with their heads cut off, I will feel nauseous and certainly NOT buy the book precisely because the cover looks like the last 13 million books that have been published.

As someone who values creativity in writing, I also value creative covers. I do not want my covers to look like every other historical fiction book that has been dumped on the market over the last 10 years. So, no headless actors in period costumes. No empty helmets. No cartoon characters leaning on their swords. (Why any self-respecting knight would blunt his sword tip by driving it into the ground and then leaning on it is beyond my low brain capacity.)

I wanted images that would look realistic yet could be composed to reflect the content. For the Jerusalem Trilogy, I also wanted the reader to get progressively closer to the main character. On the cover of the first book, Knight of Jerusalem, Balian is shown from the back quart and his face is mostly hidden by his helmet, while Jerusalem dominates the picture. In the second book, Defender of Jerusalem, he is charging at the reader, but still obscured by his helmet while Jerusalem is more distant, receding. In the third book, Envoy of Jerusalem, the reader finally sees Balian head on and Jerusalem is lost. Instead, Balian separates the antagonists Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, while the Christian captives being driven into slavery form the background.

With the Last Crusader Kingdom, I sought to juxtapose Frankish secular power (represented by a castle) with Greek ecclesiastical power (represented by a Greek Orthodox church), and between them the symbol of change ― a fresh wind blowing ― in the form of a sailing ship bearing the crosses of Ibelin.

Now, however, I wanted a sharp change in style to signal that this is a new series, not just a continuation of the previous books (even if there is some overlap in characters!).

I wanted to connect with the period in which the book is set, the 13th century, by using images that remind the reader of the wonderfully evocative, colorful and often whimsical manuscript illustrations of the Middle Ages.  


Indeed, I initially looked for real manuscript illustrations that might reflect the contents of the book. I experimented with using one of these, but the effect was something entirely too violent. (I also subsequently changed the title.)

So I ended up asking my amazing graphic designer to develop an “illumination” that was completely original. This had to show knights jousting (an important element of the plot) and it had to show an Ibelin taking on an Imperial knight (symbolical of their overall stance rather than an event), but it also had to hint at the love-story that is also an important aspect of this book.  All without being too cluttered! The result:

The back cover, on the other hand, is devoted entirely to the relationship between the two main characters. Here's the back cover image without the text.

Next week I will open the cover to tell you more about the content of the novel. You can help me chose the back cover blurb, however, by taking part in a survey at: https://www.facebook.com/HelenaPSchrader/

 Meanwhile, enjoy my published novels:

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!