Friday, February 27, 2015

A Pivotal Confession - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

The Bishop of Albi paced back and forth across his study, his purple robes fluttering about him, the gold threads of the embroidery glittering in the candlelight. He was a formidable figure in full episcopal regalia, his mitre set firmly on his head and his thick fingers laden with massive rings. But for all the jewels and silk, he strode back and forth like an angry elephant, and the calloused guard feared the strength hidden beneath the clerical robes.
The bishop was red in the face and his eyes bulged slightly in his round, flat face. The guard had been sent back to report the loss of one prisoner to the bishop, while the sergeant proceeded with the rest of the detachment to Poitiers. They had lost a whole day looking for the missing prisoner and then decided they could not risk arriving late in Poitiers with the other seven.

The bishop had heard the man out with mounting fury and then demanded to know why in the name of God they had stopped to help the widow with the wine-cart stuck in the snow. “You were already tasting the Bordeaux, weren’t you?”

“No, Your Grace. We couldn’t get past the other wagon, Your Grace.” The guard had been instructed to lie about this point and he had readily seen the sense of it. “We had to stop and get it out of the way first.”

“And you couldn’t leave one moron like yourself to watch the prisoners? How many men did it take to move one bloody wine wagon?”

The guard cleared his throat and flexed his hands nervously but he had no answer, and the bishop’s look of contempt made him run a finger under his collar in embarrassment.

“Why wasn’t the man chained?” the bishop bellowed next.

“We were instructed to bring a wagon for sever prisoners. There was no time to make chains for the eighth,” the guard responded defensively. “I pointed out that there were not enough chains for the last prisoner, but Sir Novice —“ he pointed to Umberto, who was standing as unobtrusively as possible to one side of the fireplace — “said it didn’t matter. He said the prisoner had two broken legs and wasn’t going anywhere.”

The bishop spun about on Umberto. “Is that true?”

Umberto swallowed his own fear and lifted his head. His hood was flung back upon his shoulders and his head proudly emerged from the folds. His skin had a marble pallor and his eyes and cheeks were sunken and shaded grey. “Yes, it is. Father Elion spent all night interrogating this English Templar and writing up his confession just so he could be transported. I assumed that your escort and the fact that the prisoner could not walk was sufficient guarantee that he could not escape.”

“You are as innocent as a newborn lamb,” the bishop observed in a low, insulting voice that made Umberto flush. He knew he had been made to look the fool and he feared for his career.

The bishop’s gaze shifted to Father Elion. The master interrogator looked extremely weary. His boney shoulders were hunched and his head hung low; the lines leading from his hawk-like nose to his mouth stood out like gorges down the side of his face. He eyes were lost in the shadows of their sockets. “The Englishman’s confession is pivotal. He is the first and only English Templar to confess to denying Christ and to idol worship. I have a signed confession here.” Father Elion drew one copy of the confession from his deep sleeves.

“A lot of good that does us now!” the bishop snapped back. “Do you think the King gave such explicit orders about taking care not to kill the prisoners so we could let them slip through our fingers before they can be put on trial?”

“But he can’t have got far. Not with two broken legs. Even if he was rescued by other Templars, they could not take him far in his condition,” Umberto protested. He had to do or say something to mitigate the impact of his error.

“No. Most likely the man never got farther than the woods at the side of the road. You—“ the bishop spun on the guard, “may choose to believe tall tales of phantom Templars still lurking in the woods, capable of miraculous deeds. The Templars I’ve seen couldn’t save their own asses! It is far more likely that the prisoner did no more than roll off the wagon and die in the snow!”

No one contradicted him. After a moment the bishop continued, “As soon as the first thaw comes, you will search the woods on both sides of the road all the way from la Bruyere to Villegranche until you find the corpse. If you fail to find the corpse, then you will search every village and turn every farm and cottage upside down until you find the man. These villagers are all still Albigensian heretics at heart. It would be just like them to harbor a Templar precisely because they have heard the Templars have denied Christ.”

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Templar by the Roadside - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

Lordship of Najac, France
March 1308

Hugh felt the hair stand on the back of his head. "Christ in heaven! Someone was murdered right here! Look! You can see the blood and how they dragged him off the road! Jesus! The corpse is still there!"

Felice first felt the same terror as Hugh did, but then she caught the scent of wine and decided that the red snow was colored with spilt wine not blood. Following Hugh's outstretched finger, she expected to find something equally harmless: a piece of discarded tack or clothing, but she grabbed her pommel in terror when she realised that there was indeed a corpse beside the road.

Felice's mare shied to the left as she felt her rider's nervousness. Hugh was looking frantically over his shoulders and then around at the forest, which loomed ominously in all directions. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God! What if they're still here? Jesus, what are we going to do? Felice, what are you doing? Are you mad?"

Felice had jumped down from her mare and was approaching the corpse. She could not have said why, but something about it wasn't right. Clutching her skirts in one hand and leading her reluctant mare in the other, she approached the body cautiously. And then with a shock she met its eyes and her heart stopped. The eyes had locked on hers and they looked through her to her very soul. She was more than naked. Her soul was on trial. The Day of Judgement would not be more merciless. The shock of that realization took her breath away and blood flushed her face but the fear was gone. Then Felice shook off her astonishment and rushed forward to fall on her knees beside the man. 

Her eyes ran over the long, greasy hair and beard crawling with flees, saw the cracked lips and the blood oozing from the corner of the mouth. The man's skin was so pale it was almost translucent and the grime outlined thousands of lines carved into his face by pain. The eyes were sunk deep in their sockets. Felice registered the smears of dirt on the neck, the half-hardened, half-wet smear of blood on the left breast of what had once been a white surcoat. Though the red of the cross was all but obscured by filth, straw and dried vomit, Felice did not need to see to know what she had in front of her. Her eye continued down the length of his body past the hose blacked with filth to the swollen, bruised and deformed limbs below the knee. SHe gasped and her stomach heaved as her nose registered the revolting mixture of sweat, urine, shit and rotting flesh that emanated from the Templar. 

"Hugh!" she shouted over her shoulder, appalled that her own cousin was still astride his horse and staring at her as if she had gone mad. "Hurry! Bring one of the blankets! No, bring me both horse blankets and then ride for Najac!"

"Are you crazy? You don't know who the man is! He might be an outlaw or--"

"Don't be stupid! He's a Templar and he's close to death. We have to get him to Najac!"

"A Templar? Jesus God! Have you lost your senses entirely? If we help him, we'll be arrested and excommunicated and probably hanged! Leave him alone! If he's close to death, then the best favor you can do him is let him die in peace!"

Felice did not argue. She stood up abruptly and went to her mare. Hugh sighed with relief and turned his horse away from the embarrassing discovery on the side of the road. The he realized Felice was not mounting but dragging her saddle back off her mare's crouper. 

"Felice! What are you doing now?"

"I'd rather be excommunicated than damned! she retorted as she dropped down beside the Templar. She detached the heavy, felt blanket covered with grey hairs and smelling pleasantly of horse to which the saddlebag itself was attached. She arranged this over the Templar as gently as she could. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Poor Prisoner – An Excerpt from “The English Templar”

The faint hope that they would not dare to treat knights and noblemen in the same manner as commoners was shattered on the afternoon of the 19th. That was the day they took the ageing Sir Etienne de Mende to the torture chambers. They extracted his teeth one by one until he had confessed to everything they wanted to hear.

When the guards came and unlocked the chains at his feet, Percy felt such terror of what was ahead of him that he could hardy control his bowels. Sweat glistened on his face. Someone murmured a blessing. Someone else said a prayer for him.

He could hardly walk. His muscles seemed to have frozen. He tripped over his own feet. He smelt his own stench and was ashamed of himself. He was led along a dark, dank corridor, past a chamber full of torture instruments and into a windowless room lit by a torch. Behind a plain wooden table sat the sheriff. At his right hand sat a monk in the habit of the Dominicans. The Inquisition.

To his surprise, a stool was waiting for him. At a gesture from the sheriff, Percy sank down on it. The relief was less than expected. His muscles were not used to sitting anymore and the stool was low. His legs cramped at once and he had to clamp his teeth together to keep from crying out while he tried to shake the cramp from his legs. During the entire procedure the sheriff and the Dominican stared at him like lizards — without the slightest flicker of emotion. The guards who stood just inside the door made some crack to one another in a relaxed tone. Then it was over. He waited.

“Your name?” The sheriff asked.

Percy pulled himself together. He had had enough time to think about what he would say to this inevitable question. “Sir Percival de Lacy, second cousin of the Earl of Lincoln, subject of His Grace King Edward II of England and Knight Templar of the Commandery at Limassol, Cyprus. I hereby protest vehemently at my unlawful detention at the hands of a foreign monarch and demand immediate audience with a representative of the English Crown.” It sounded decisive and self-confident — if only his sweating, stinking body and shaking knees had not betrayed him.

Even so, there was evident surprise and consternation behind the table. The sheriff raised his eyebrows and turned to the Dominican. The Dominican leaned forwards and whispered loud enough for Percy to hear. King Philip had, of course, immediately informed his fellow monarchs of the outrageous crimes committed by the Templars and his own decision to put an end to the perversions which offended God. He had urged his fellow monarchs to follow his example, arrest the Templars and investigate their crimes. As yet, it was too soon to know the response of the English King, but he was due to marry King Philip’s only daughter Isabella in just a few months. He was sure to follow the lead of his wise and devout father-in-law.

The sheriff addressed [Percy]. “Your request has been noted. I will pass it on to my superiors. For now, your cooperation in this grave matter is requested. I am certain that voluntary cooperation will be noted with favor by both your own king and mine. You are aware of the charges levelled against your Order?”

“I have heard what my brothers reported after their interrogations,” Percy answered cautiously.

“Do you agree that the denial of Christ is a vile and heinous crime?”
Percy crossed himself. “With all my heart.”

“And the worship of some idol in place of our dear Saviour must offend every Christian.”

“It is repulsive!” Percy spoke with conviction.

“Yet both these crimes have been confessed to by your brothers.” The sheriff leaned forwards over the table. “How do you explain that?”

“A man will confess to anything to stop pain,” Percy retorted and at once wondered if he had blundered. Hadn’t he just admitted that he too would admit to anything to stop pain? Wouldn’t they recognize how weak he was? Wouldn’t they exploit it?

“But a man who makes a false confession is condemned to the tortures of hell — and hell has no end. The tortures that we poor, imperfect instruments of His will can impose are finite. They can always end in death, and that is — for the truly innocent — a release into paradise. To confess to end earthly torture only to land in the perpetual and eternal torture of hell is the act of a madman.”

“Pain creates madmen,” Percy answered. He had not prepared for these questions. He was not ready for an intellectual discussion about the nature of earthly and divine torture. He had no clue what he should say to defend himself.

“You do not give credence to the confession of your brothers?” The sheriff asked raising his eyebrows.

“How can I? I do not know what they confessed.”

“Ah.” The sheriff lifted the corner of his mouth. For some reason he was genuinely pleased to have a worthy opponent. “Let me read them to you… Your brother and priest, Father Roger of Saint Pierre du Temple confessed the following:

When I took my vows before the chapter, I was led into a small room beside the chapter chamber. There I was told to remove my clothes. This I did without hesitation, thinking that I would now receive the mantle of the Templars. But when I stood naked before the commander, he lifted his habit and ordered me to kiss his navel. I did so. He then turned to back on me and ordered me to kiss his ass. I did so. Then he gave me the kiss of peace.

The sheriff set the parchment aside and looked expectantly at Percy.

Percy stared back and thought of Father Roger’s hands. At the thought of someone tearing off even one of his fingernails, his muscles tensed. Seven of Father Roger’s fingernails had been removed brutally. His hands were swollen like sausages and hot to touch. Blood and pus still oozed from them. And Father Roger was the son of serfs; the pride of his family, the one son who had been allowed to go to school and whose freedom had been bought by the Temple so he could enter the priesthood. Percy knew that now. Sergeant Gautier had told him about Father Roger after they had brought him back from his interrogation.

“Well?” the sheriff prompted. “What do you have to say to that?”
“That Father Roger is a poor, miserable man, whom I pity with all my heart. May Christ have mercy upon him! He did not mean to lie but he was not strong enough to insist upon the truth.” Percy crossed himself. He did not think he was strong enough to withstand torture either.

The sheriff shifted uncomfortably. That too true. Then he suppressed his discomfort. Christ might be merciful; King Philip never. And it was to King Philip he owed his position and his wealth. “Brother Thomas, also of Stain Pierre, confessed to the followed,” he persisted mercilessly. “At my initiation I was forced to deny Christ three times —“

“As did Simon Peter on the day of the Crucifixion.” Percy interrupted without knowing what he did. The stench of Brother Thomas’ charred feet was in his nostrils. He felt nausea rising in his empty belly.

The sheriff looked over at him with a mixture of anger and admiration. He was not used to prisoners interrupting him — unless it was with screams and pleas for mercy. But the remark was correct. And that gave him an exciting idea. “You mean this was routine? Templars re-enact the denial of Christ which Saint Peter made on the day of His Crucifixion?”

“No!” Percy quickly saw the error he had made. “I never denied Christ. I was never asked to deny Christ,” he replied firmly.

“Simon Peter never spat upon Our Lord in his agony,” the Dominican entered the interrogation for the first time. He had a relatively high, frail voice.

“Not that I know of,” Percy retorted. “I wasn’t there.”

“You impudent bastard!” The Dominican sprang to his feet, furious. He thought Percy was mocking him.

The sheriff patted his arm and gestured for him to reseat himself. “But your brother Thomas of Saint Pierre confessed to it” the sheriff remarked calmly. “After denying Christ three times, he was forced to spit upon the crucifix which was held out to him.”

“Read me his confession,” Percy demanded, trying to concentrate all his attention and intelligence on some way out of this spider’s web of lies and torture.

“’I was forced to deny Christ three times and then spit upon his image.’”

Percy noted the difference between this confession and the last. The first confession had been wordy, as if Father Roger had spoken. This confession read like the indictment. They had not torn more than a yes or no answer from Brother Thomas. Or, rather, they had forced him to say yes after countless nos.  He crossed himself. “Christ have mercy. God have mercy. The Holy Spirt have mercy. My brother knew not what he did.”

The sheriff felt first a touch of satisfaction at Percy’s calm but then reminded himself that he would sing a different tune if they were applying the glowing iron to his genitals. He shook his head slowly and leafed through the documents before him. “I think you will agree, sir, that idol worship is not something that can be taken lightly, much less forgiven. Nor is it something an ordinary Christian would think up.”

“Not even the Muslims are idol-worshipers!” Percy retorted.
“Yet I have sworn confession by a brother of yours who describes in detail how the chapter met at midnight, stripped off their habits and trampled on the cross. Then they crept naked, in single file, into a chamber opened by a secret key kept by the commander. In the chamber he idol was kept and each brother bowed before the idol ‘like an Egyptian slave’ I quote,” the sheriff stressed. “’Then after we had bowed three times we kissed the feet of the idol.’ The idol according to this report was shaped like a big head with hands and feet but no body and with cat’s ears. After kissing the feet, each brother retreated backwards so the next brother could enter.”

Percy looked at the sheriff, the Dominican, and then turned and looked at the guards on either side of the door. “You can’s seriously believe that?” Percy asked at last.

“Believe it? It is the testimony of a Templar — freely given I might add, without resort to torture.”

“You think that French noblemen, men who heard mass six times a day, men who fought in Christ’s name, who when captured could gain life by denying Christ, but instead died by the hundred for Christ, secretly worshipped a head with cat’s ears? Have you lost your senses?” Percy felt his protest was much too weak, but he could not find words for his sense of sheer disbelief. The notion of such infantile idolatry was not only too absurd, it was not worthy of the Inquisition or an officer of the crown.

“Let me repeat!” the sheriff said sharply to disguise his own growing embarrassment. “This is a sworn confession — from Saint Pierre, I might add.”

“By whom, in God’s name?”

“Brother Gaston.”

“Gaston?” Percy could not place the name at first. Then it dawned on him. Gaston was the boy. The over-eager boy who had helped him out of his armor. “Gaston is a child!” he said out loud.

“He is twelve and so has reached the age of maturity,” the Dominican retorted with surprising intensity.

Percy was frowning. He did not remember seeing Gaston since the day after the arrest. Gaston had been removed for interrogation — but he had never returned. A shock went through him. “Is Gaston dead? Did you torture him so long that he couldn’t take it? Did you kill him?” Percy, get hold of yourself, he warned himself. You are losing control. Calm down. Shut up. Get hold of yourself. He sat clutching the edge of his stool, shaking and sweating, waiting for a reaction.

“I told you the confession was not made under torture,” the sheriff replied calmly, his eyes narrower. “What makes you think he might be dead?”

“Because he did not return. You took him to an interrogation and he has not returned since.”

“That is true. He was … cooperative. It was not … necessary” the sheriff glanced at his colleague “to returne him to the jail. You need not worry about Gaston.”

A chill went down Percy’s spine. Why did he feel so certain that they had done something vile to Gaston? Surely he should hate the boy for making up such ridiculous stories about heads with cat’s ears and feet! But he could not find hatred for the boy. He closed his eyes and pictured Gaston helping him remove his spurs — the last time he had worn spurs.

“Did you have illicit relations with Gaston?” The tight, jealous question came from the Dominican.

Percy opened his eyes and stared at the man. In that moment he knew this other monk had raped Gasont. Gaston had not been tortured into his confession. His limbs had been left whole. But he had been degraded and humiliated until there was not left of the idealistic youth, proud of his membership in a famous order. Percy did not answer. He stared at the Dominican until the other monk lowered his eyes.

The sheriff had been watching. He knew what his colleague had done. He had not witnessed it, of course, because he found it revolting, but he knew. And he knew that it brought excellent results like this lengthy confession. Furthermore, the boy could be produced as a witness. Cleaned up and properly worked over in advance, his testimony would melt the heart of the pope himself. Oh, Gaston was worth his weight in gold. Gaston was worth more than all the others put together — precisely because there wasn’t a mark on him. Gaston could never, never claim that he had been forced to confess. Gaston could never tell the circumstances of his confession — not without condemning himself to be hanged. That was the beauty of it. And still the sheriff found it distasteful.

He looked at Percy and he was sorry. He liked the young man. He had intelligence, dignity and humanity. It would be a pit to break him, but break him he must. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Black Friday, October 13, 1307 - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

The crash that came from the courtyard made Percy fling off his blankets and grab his aketon. He could hear shouting, the imperative yelling of men giving orders, the thudding of numerous hooves on frozen ground, the pounding of boots on wooden stairs, the clunk of doors being flung open. He pulled his aketon over his head and tightened the laces at the throat.

Men were bursting into the dormitory. By the light of the two candles, Percy could see that they wore round “kettle” helmets over mail coifs and that they held naked swords in their hands.

Percy dragged his hauberk and surcoat together over his head even as the armed men were roughly kicking the serving brothers awake and herding the startled, bewildered men together.

Sergeant Gautier was on his feet and limping forwards in his underwear, calling out, “What is this? Who are you? What do you want?”

“You are all arrested in the name of His Grace King Philip IV of France!”

While some of the serving brother broke into a jumble of confused exclamations of disbelief, Brother Gautier protested in a raised, somewhat hysterical voice, “Why? On what charge?”

The thought that these simple brothers could have done anything to offend the crown of France was so absurd that Percy instantly dismissed the claim as either a mistake or a ruse. Philip of France could hardly know that St. Pierre du Temple existed. The Temple was, in any case, not subordinate to any king and owed Philip neither taxes nor obedience. Percy knew, however, that he no longer had time for his mail leggings and reached instead for his sword.

There came a shout, the sound of someone running and then he was tackled from behind and flung onto to pallet, pinned down by the weight of his assailant on his back. Even as he rammed his elbows backwards agains this attacker, he saw a foot kick out and send his sword skittering across the flagstone floor out of reach. Another man had joined the first on his back, pressing his knee into Percy’s spine. Another had hold of the back of his neck in a powerful grip and forced his face down into the blankets, nearly suffocating him. Someone was wrenching his arms behind his back and tying his wrists together. Percy knew when he was defeated since that too was something a good soldier learned to recognize and he stopped struggly instantly. The pressure on his spine and head eased at once. The men backed off, pulling him to his feet.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the men holding him were indeed wearing the livery of the King of France. It was ridiculous! What could they possibly hope to gain by a breach with the pope? Did Philip of France want to start a feud with Clement V to match the one he had had with Boniface VIII? Weak as Clement was said to be, even he would not tolerate such a flagrant affront to his authority.

The King’s men were already herding the bewildered serving brothers and the priest down the stairs to the courtyard. One old man kept asking is brothers what was happening while Gaston kept looking anxiously over his shoulder to see what had happened to Percy. Serfs by birth, they had been born to docility and as monks they had vowed obedience. Such me, Percy told himself, could not be expected to distinguish between lawful and unlawful authority.

Brother Gautier alone was protesting to the captain in charge. He insisted that he and his brothers were innocent of all wrongdoing. Not one day in their lived had they ever been anything but loyal subjects of the king, he assured the king’s representative in a shaky, strained voice. Terror was written on the aged sergeant’s face and Percy felt sorry for him. Evidently, he was so frightened he had forgotten that the Temple was subordinate to the pope alone.

“It’s not for me to judge your guilt or innocence,” the royal officer told Brother Gautier matter-of-factly. “I have my orders. Take it up with the sheriff.” He was relieved that his mission had gone so well. The orders to attack a house of the Knights Templar and arrest all those within had made him break out in a cold sweat just six hours ago. He had been raised on legends of Templars defending their castles against tens of thousands of Saracens, their small bands matching great armies, their rescue of King Louis II from destruction, their heroic defense of Acre. The captain knew that they were not allowed to withdraw unless the enemy had more than a three-to-one superiority, and he could not know how many men they had in Saint Pierre — which was why he’d mustered his entire company of nearly fifty men. In the event, it was almost ludicrous how easy it had been, he thought shaking his head.

“You can be sure that we will take this up with the sheriff — and the pope! Someone — you, your sheriff or King Philip himself — has overstepped his authority.”

Percy’s voice drew the captain’s attention and he looked up startled at the man held by two of his subordinates.  He took in the chain mail hauberk, the muscular shoulders and thighs and drew the right conclusion. This man was a knight. “Are you the commander, sir?”

“No, I am the commander. This is just a poor traveler. Here for a single night. Whatever crimes we have been unjustly accused of, they cannot apply to him.” Brother Gautier spoke before Percy could get a word out.

The captain looked from Brother Gautier to Percy somewhat uncertainly.

“I am an Englishman, Sir Percy de Lacy of the commandery at Limassol on Cyprus, en route from Poitiers to Limassol,’ Percy confirmed. “And you have no business arresting any Templar since we are subordinate to one but our own officers and the pope himself.”

The arrogance of Percy’s tone angered the captain and he took refuge in the certainties of life: “I have my orders and they were to arrest everyone inside this house. I don’t give a damn if you are a bloody Englishman or the pope himself!”

They turned into the narrow alley leading to the city jail [of Albi]. Percy felt a shock go through his body as he saw that two wagons similar to the one behind him already waited there. Had they made raids on more than one commandery? In a single night? Of course in the same  night, he told himself, otherwise there would be no element of surprise. If was standard police tactics, but the increased pounding of his heard could not be calmed.

They stopped and at once someone came and untied his feet. The pain in his ankles as he moved them again was not insignificant but he was too proud to let it show. He leaned forward at once and vaulted to the ground. He had underestimated the impact of a night tied to the back of a horse. His feet were numb and he lost his footing at once. He staggered and, without his hands free to balance him, fell to the ground — to the general gratification and laughter of the guard. He flushed in embarrassment and anger, but also managed to get his knees under him and right himself. Meanwhile, the other prisoners from Saint Pierre were being pushed off the back of the wagon and into the jail.

As Percy was pushed past the porter of the jail, he turned and addressed the old man. “I demand to see the sheriff and a representative of the Bishop of Albi,” Percy protested.

“Oh, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the sheriff,” came the answer in a sneering voice. And then something particularly curious happened. The called him “an ass-fucking heretic!” and spat after him.

Percy had not recovered from the shock of such an uncalled –for and perverse insult when he found himself at the entrance to the public jail. Before him, spread upon the stale straw, with chains around their feet or chained directly to moldy walls were over one hundred Templars. It took his breath away. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of "Knight of Jerusalem" by Mary Harrsch

May Harrsch published the below review on both Goodreads and amazon: 

Although most of my reviews focus on books about the ancient world, I couldn't resist Knight of Jerusalem, about Balian d'Ibelin, the famous defender of Jerusalem, by author Helena P. Schrader. I had enjoyed Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" but like Helena, I, too, had wondered how much was actually true. Since Helena has a Ph. D. in history from the University of Hamburg and assured me that her biographical novel, the first of a trilogy, used the actual historical record as the framework for her tale, I agreed to read it.

I was not disappointed! The novel not only closely follows Balian's rise to prominence, meticulously tracing his career trajectory, but Schrader fills his life with vibrant characters, many representing real people struggling with the social requirements of medieval society while facing a cataclysmic upheaval between diverse cultures with opposing religious beliefs.

Like Balian, I was drawn to the tragic predicament of the young leper king, Baldwin IV, a courageous boy who struggles with a body disintegrating moment by moment yet with an awareness of the problems of others and a determination far beyond his years to serve his people until his last breath.

Schrader admits in the author's notes that there is no mention of Balian serving as a riding instructor to young Baldwin in the period's sources. But this fictional association between Balian and Baldwin she incorporates into the story serves seamlessly to support two historical facts about these men that are known. Baldwin, though a leper, was renowned for his horsemanship and Balian did manage, despite the strict social hierarchy of the period, to obtain permission to marry Baldwin's stepmother, Queen Maria Zoe Comnena (not Sibylla as depicted in the film) even though Balian was a landless knight due to his birth position as third son of a local baron. Although the historical record is silent about how Balian accomplished this amazing social feat, it seems totally plausible that he did so because of a close bond forged between himself and the young king in some shared activity or momentous event.

As a U. S. Foreign Service officer, Schrader has traveled extensively in the Middle East so I felt totally immersed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem by her descriptions of various locales and castle structures. She has also obviously thoroughly researched the trappings and weapons of armored knights and refers to each piece with precise terminology. I just wish she had included a graphic of an armored knight with each piece labeled. Although Schrader thoughtfully included noble family genealogical charts and maps, as well as a clinical discussion of leprosy, there was no glossary so I had to use context to help me define some of the terms.

Of course a novel about Crusader knights would not be complete without a major battle and the Battle of Montgisard that took place in 1177 is the climactic action in this first book of the trilogy.

"On the afternoon of November 25, [1177] King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne). The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream." - Helena Schrader, Defending Crusader Kingdoms.

Schrader deftly turns up the dramatic tension as each unit of the Crusader army impatiently reacts to the carefully measured advance of the highly disciplined Knights Templar, given the lead position by young King Baldwin. I felt I was riding alongside the Crusaders as they finally explode with pent up fury and charge into the heart of the Saracen camp.

After reading Schrader's tale, I cannot imagine why Ridley Scott chose to veer so far from the historical record in his film. Balian's actual life was full of intrigue, heart-wrenching personal choices and courage. I am definitely looking forward to Schrader's next installment, Defender of Jerusalem, due to be released in September 2015. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, 1212 - A Excerpt from "A Widow's Crusade"

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, Christmas Eve, 1212

       Lord Hughes, his wife and his father, accompanied by an escort left for Acre shortly after dawn broke on a clear, crisp Christmas Eve. The remaining household worked hard to finish decorating the hall with greens and to get the giant Yule log, imported all the way from the forests of Byzantium, in to the hearth. At dinner Abelard, Blanche, and Father Claude were alone at the high table. Blanche noted that Abelard was dressed again in his elegant burgundy wool gown and elaborate Saracen belt, but he remained reticent, joining in the conversation only sparingly.
       Father Claude expressed his envy for the journey they would make. “If I did not have to hold Mass for the remaining household,” he insisted, “I would come with you. It would not surprise me if you saw angels. You must promise to report all you see and hear!”
       “Gladly,” Blanche assured the enthusiastic young priest. Father Claude had come out to Palestine as a pilgrim, only to discover he never wanted to leave, and he had looked for employment instead.
       “You must dress warmly, my lady,” Abelard warned her. “It is far colder in the upper pastures than here.”
       Blanche looked over to him, but he looked down at his dinner and would not meet her eye.
      After dinner, Claire helped Blanche change and prepare for her night in the pastures. For the last time, Claire tried to talk Blanche out of it. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
       “Yes, I am,” Blanche answered definitively as she pulled her heaviest wool shift on over her head. As her head emerged, she looked straight at Claire and saw the worried look in the older woman’s eyes. “Claire, I want the truth―no nonsense about lions and hyenas and the untrustworthiness of Jews. Why don’t you think I should spend the night up in the pastures?”
        Claire sighed and fussed with the wool stockings she was preparing to help Blanche into. “If you’d been there … He was so angry―so suddenly angry. It frightened me.”
      Blanche knew what her maid was referring to. The day Abelard had been found delirious with fever, Claire had come to Blanche with a guilty conscience. She didn’t quite know how, but she sensed that his illness had something to do with the confronta­tion they had had, so she had confessed to Blanche what had passed between them.
       Blanche had assured her repentant friend that she was not to blame for Abelard’s illness, but one thing was clear to her: Abelard had said he was not the man he’d been before, not the youth she’d loved, and then had gone out to do a slave’s work in the pouring rain. Blanche’s intuition said that he was ashamed of what he’d become and considered himself inferior to her, as he had never been when her father scorned him. She had mentally reviewed all that he had said and done since her arrival, and concluded that his actions might have been motivated as much by shame as by scorn. But she had no intention of admitting her suspicions to Claire, just in case she was wrong.
         “He comes from a family of hot-tempered men, Claire. Don’t you remember how his father once struck Abbot Beranger in some dispute over lands? His brother is said to have broken his own son’s arm in an argument. It is hardly fair to expect Abelard to be without his family’s temper.”
        “But when you were young and gave him so many reasons to be angry with you, he never lost control,” Claire pointed out. “Here he threw something―I think it was a stool―after me! It crashed against the door just after I left.” Her face was pale, and her fingers fussed nervously with the wool stockings.
        Blanche considered her for a moment, unsettled in spite of herself by such profound concern. Claire had always championed Abelard in the past, and her change of attitude made Blanche question herself. Was she trying to find excuses for Abelard only because she wanted to believe he did not hate her? Yet he had requested “Ahi, Amours”! To say he loved her even if they were separated? Or to say his love of God took precedence still? But he had not taken a monk’s vows, and since their return from the pilgrimage, he had not once been overtly rude. On the contrary, he had shown her a dozen little courtesies when he thought no one would notice.
         “What are you afraid he’ll do to me, Claire?”
         “I don’t know,” Claire admitted in a whine of despair. “I don’t know. But he was so angry! He said to tell you he was dead. And then he went out and tried to kill himself, didn’t he?”
         Blanche had not thought of it that way. Had he tried to kill himself? If they had not found him, might he not have died? “And you think he now plans to kill us both?” she queried incredulously. This might be the kind of thing that happened in ballads, but she could not quite picture it happening in real life. Claire looked a little sheepish. “No, nothing so dramatic, but what if he strikes you or―or …”
         “Rapes me?”
      “It has happened before!” Claire pointed out defensively, before Blanche could dismiss this as an old woman’s fantasy. “Maybe he wants revenge for being rejected. Or maybe, when he said he wasn’t the man he was before, he meant he wasn’t as honorable as he had been as a young man.” Claire looked up at Blanche with a pleading expression. She knew that Blanche was cleverer than she, and she was afraid that Blanche would not listen to her because she could not argue well. But her fear was genuine all the same.
         Blanche was too mistrustful of her own feelings when it came to Abelard to dismiss Claire’s fears out of hand. Instead she mentally reviewed the past two weeks, searching for some indication that would give credence to Claire’s suspicions. But no matter how hard she tried, she found none. “Claire, do you honestly think Lord Hughes would entrust me to someone he did not trust entirely?”
        “No,” Claire admitted, aware that it was impossible to explain something one did not understand. “But what did he mean, then, about being different?”
         Blanche took her time answering. Sitting down and offering her legs to Claire for the stockings, she reviewed all she had observed since her return from the pilgrimage trip. In this past week she had watched Abelard very closely. She had observed the diligence with which he served Lord Hughes and Lady Emilie. “Claire, remember when we were young? Abelard was a bachelor knight with no duties to anyone. He had not yet taken service with a lord and had been his own master, free to ride from tournament to tournament in search of fame and fortune. It made him seem more exotic than the others, who were all attached to one household or another. And it was part of what made him exciting. But you and I know that knight-errancy is fine for litera­ture but is quite correctly viewed with disapproval by society. It was as much his free-lancing as his status as a younger son that made my father mistrust him. And my father felt more kindly toward him the moment the Count of Poitou took him into his service.”
         “That’s true,” Claire agreed, though she could not see what Blanche was getting at. Now that the stockings were tightly bound with garters, both women stood, and Claire brought Blanche’s gown.
        “But don’t you see, Claire? He’s not like that now. Now he’s a sober and responsible official. He spends more time reading accounts than tilting, and his hands are stained with ink rather than chain-mail oil.”
        “But that’s nothing to be angry about!” Claire pointed out.
      “I know,” Blanche answered simply. What had made Abelard more glamorous and romantic to the maiden of sixteen had no appeal for the widow. On the contrary, Blanche had had enough trouble with dishonest and incompetent stewards in her lifetime to know how valuable a good seneschal was. Hughes and Emilie sang Abelard’s praises, and everywhere Blanche looked she saw evidence of the meticu­lous care Abelard took of whatever was entrusted to his keep­ing. “But he may not know I know.”
       Claire stopped in the midst of lifting a heavy, quilted surcoat. What Blanche said made sense, but it could not ease her fears. She had heard in Abelard’s anger something more violent and more primeval than a mere concern that he was no longer the carefree hero of their youth. Because she could not explain her fears, however, she could only sigh in resignation and finish helping Blanche prepare for her night out alone with Abelard.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Knight of Jerusalem: A Review by Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham published the following review of Knight of Jerusalem on Goodreads and

Knight of Jerusalem is an historical biography set in the Holy Land in the fateful decades before the Battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187). It is the latest work of historical fiction from Helena Schrader, who has published novels such as St. Louis’ Knight, The Disinherited and The English Templar and who maintains the wonderful blog Defending the Crusader Kingdoms 

The plot revolves around Balian d’Ibelin, third son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who rose in the mid-twelfth century to become Constable of Jaffa and later a baron in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It traces the rise of the younger d’Ibelin from an obscure and landless knight in 1171 to one of the heroes of the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 to landed and fabulously wealthy baron in his own right and member of the royal family by marriage by 1178. In the course of this meteoric rise, it chronicles Balian’s martial exploits, his diplomatic successes, his romantic entanglement with the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his evolving friendship the leper king, Baldwin IV.

This could easily have been a novel as bad in its own way as Ridley Scott’s stylish but ultimately fatuous film The Kingdom of Heaven. Faced with the inevitable trade-offs between historical accuracy and dramatic license, Scott’s film almost invariably opted for the latter, twisting and wrenching characters and events to fit a story that in the end was faithful neither to the historical facts nor the deeper historical truths regarding the world inhabited by those like Balian d’Ibelin in twelfth century Outremer. 

Happily for those of us who like our historical fiction to be faithful to history while still telling a cracking tale, Helena Schrader has struck an altogether different balance. To be sure, she does take some dramatic license. Her version of the story of Balian’s rise, for example, hinges largely on his close relationship with King Baldwin, despite the fact that there is no direct historical evidence that such a relationship ever existed. When she does so, however, it is for all the right reasons: because there are gaps in the historical record that she can flesh out without interfering with recorded history; because there are hints in the historical record that she can build upon; or because doing so enhances dramatic punch without unduly distorting the historical truth. In the end, Helena herself puts it best in her Historical Note: “Given these gaps and contradictions, this novel has opted for a lucid story line that is not inconsistent with key known facts and in no way violates the historical record, but condenses or simplifies some events to make the story more coherent and dramatically effective.” That she is an historian as well as a novelist probably has much to do with the fact that ultimately she strikes a much more appealing balance between history and drama than either Scott’s film or many other fictionalizations of historical events or characters circulating in the popular culture.

Lest I have left you with the wrong impression, though, I want to be clear: Knight of Jerusalem is not simply an academic work of history dressed up as fiction – it is a well-plotted, tightly written tale that vividly depicts the life and times of an intrinsically interesting historical figure. The characterization is well done, particularly in the case of the protagonist, but also notably in connection with some of the minor characters. The prose is smooth, the dialogue believable, the attention to historical detail (especially around matters equine) flawless, and both the martial and marital dimensions of the story are convincingly developed (which is not always the case in historical fiction). Finally, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable on the subject of the Third Crusade and the decades leading up to it, but the breadth and depth of Helena’s grasp of this era leaves me in awe. As far as I can tell, the story is marred by not a single mistake related to the complex and interwoven genealogies that are both an important element of this story and of life among the nobility Outremer.

Any downsides? Not really. The only misstep, and it is so minor a misstep that I hesitate even to mention it, is the use of the diminutive Barry to refer to Baldwin d’Ibelin. I understand why Helena has done this – to differentiate that Baldwin from King Baldwin. Still, I think restricting herself to the use of the name Barisan (which she also uses in connection with Baldwin d’Ibelin) would have been a better move.

At the end of the day, though, this is a truly minor quibble. Knight of Jerusalem is an entertaining and well-written tale that kept me engaged even in the midst of a busy university semester when I had plenty of non-fiction reading to do to stay ahead of my students. If you’re in the market for a thoroughly enjoyable work of historical fiction, I enthusiastically recommend this wonderful book.