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, May 31, 2013

The Cradle of Chivalry - The Languedoc

In the mild Mediterranean climate of southern France, a culture took root that differed sharply from the centralized feudalism of France and England. Here the cities were ruled by committees of burghers (consulates), and vassals took their allegiance to their feudal lords less seriously than in the north. Jews enjoyed positions of prestige and power, and abundant trade brought artistic influences from beyond the Pyrenees and beyond the sea – from Outremer.

It was here, in the part of France that spoke a dialect known as the langue d’oc, that the concept of romantic love is first recorded. Utterly different from lust and carnal desire, but not lacking passion, this was secular, human love between men and women that had the power to inspire men to great deeds.
Here the concept of chivalry was born.

The defining characteristic of chivalry was the civilization of the warrior: the harnessing of manly courage, strength, and violence in the service of the Church, Society, and Love. Critical to the evolution of the cult of chivalry – although not the sole source of it – was the culture and literature of the Languedoc, the land of the troubadours.
Yet the influence of chivalry soon spread far beyond the Languedoc, taking root as far away as Champagne, Poitiers, the Holy Roman Empire, and England. At the same time, chivalry moved out from literature and into the classroom. Texts were written (usually by monks!) for growing boys to read, so that they would know how to behave as men. Chivalry had become the ideal of the European ruling class.
 
Too many modern writers (and film makers) seem to forget (if they ever knew) that the Languedoc was not only warm and sunny but highly civilized as well. The "Middle Ages" is associated in the mind of too many people today with "cold and dark and primitive."  Remembering the source of chivalry might help counter that misperception. So next week I'll talk a little more about where to go to find the cradle of chivalry. Meanwhile, I'll add some photos to this site.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Places for the Imagination

My novels are character-centric with the main focus on character development and interaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of my novels are inspired by people.  My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real historical personalities, whose stories fascinate me -- Leonidas of Sparta, Edward the Black Prince, General Friedrich Olbricht. Other stories were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history – an passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion in the description of mainstream historical events, a short description of a donor or grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….
Yet almost as important as people are places.  I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he took through the Coliseum alone and confined himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.
I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour lasted) looking at the Coliseum and trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? where the Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?
Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage set for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon. That indeed inspired me to my first novel, a tale of an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about travelling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi is pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.
At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon. Now, however, I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth. Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves….
Although I never wrote a novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass airfield, while hearing the gentle peace shattered by the jingle of a telephone, the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Doe wrote in his shaky handwriting a letter I treasure to this day, in which he says I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.”
No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in a piece of fiction to say the novel got it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.
 
 
 
But England is a treasure chest for inspiration, and my biographical novel of Edward Plantagenet (more commonly known as The Black Prince) has also taken shape and flight from visits to Berkhamsted (his childhood home), Restmorel, Kenilworth etc. etc. Edward, however, was not only heir to the crown of England and Prince of Wales, he was the most brilliant English commander in the Hundred Years War and Prince of Aquitaine. Through Edward I therefore came to know the South of France – or was it the other way around?
In any case, there are few places in the world more inspiring to a historical novelist than Carcassonne, Narbonne, Albi, Moissac, Fontfroid, Najac….. And then there was Cyprus.
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be selecting some of my favorite places, places with connections to my individual novels, and introducing them to you. I hope my descriptions will inspire you to visit these unique places – either in my books or in person.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Incarnation of Chivalry

Every now and then, throughout the age of chivalry, men emerged, who adhered so exceptionally to the code of chivalry that they were viewed by their contemporaries viewed as veritable "incarnations of chivalry." Such a man was William Marshal.
 
In the late 12th and early 13th century, he rose from being the younger son of a rebellious English baron to Regent of England for Henry III. At the age of seven, he was condemned to hang by his own father, who had turned him over to his liege lord, King Stephen, as a hostage for his own good behavior -- and then brazenly broke his word.  He had other sons, William's father told the man he betrayed, and the means to make new ones, he added.  Fortunately for William -- and historians --  King Stephen was more civilized than his father and refused to kill the innocent child. But William learned a lesson: the rest of his life he would be unwaveringly loyal to not only his liege but to honor itself.
 
William served Eleanor of Acquitaine and four Plantagenet kings. He knighted the heir to the English throne, and dared defy Richard the Lionheart to his face. He crusaded with the Templars, courted a princess, and eventually married one of the greatest heiress of England. His life was the stuff of legends, yet it is history, and for that reason it is good material for historians and novelists alike. 
 
Below are reviews of two very different books, one non-fiction and one fiction, which take the life of William Marshal as their theme.
 

William Marshal: Flower of Chivalry  by George Duby
Georges Duby uses the 13th century biography of William Marshal, commissioned by his eldest son immediately after his death and written within the lifetime of many of his companions, as a device to present an analysis of chivalry and knighthood in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. 
In this book that opens with the last months of Marshal's life and describes how he prepares for death, Duby, a leading French historian and professor of medieval history, provides the reader with a wealth of information in very compact form. The book is particularly valuable for descriptions of melees, the rough-and-tumble pseudo-battles fought over rough terrain by hundreds of knights, which preceded the tame tournaments of later centuries. Likewise, Duby provides useful insight into life of “bachelor” knights of the period – the large, unruly pack of younger sons, who had no land, no income, and no wives. He shows how they had to live by their wits, their skills and by forming associations with other knights, relatives and sponsors.
However, the figure of Marshal himself is all too often lost in Duby’s commentary. Although his source is a rare authentic record written in the vernacular, which when quoted is vibrant and evocative, Duby quotes it far too seldom.  It is thus Duby’s voice, not Marshal's or his biographer's, that dominates this work.
Duby is teaching his reader about the 12th/13th century, using Marshal’s life as “Exhibit A.” This is Duby’s version of events, his interpretation of 12th century society, and to scholars familiar with the material, his arguments may not always sound convincing. More important to me, however, was simply that William Marshal, the supposed subject, comes too short in this book.
To be sure, enough of William Marshal’s personality is revealed to be tantalizing, but the book left me unsatisfied. I felt particularly cheated by the way Duby rushes over Marshal’s most exceptional achievements (that of retaining the favor of three successive, bitterly hostile and very different kings: Henry II, Richard I and John). Duby may be right that these events are “so well recorded in history” they need no explanation, but the book is sold as a biography of Marshal, and readers have a right expect that his entire life will be described. Duby's book left me feeling I would have enjoyed the original medieval “song” (at least in translation) more – and interested in finding a full-length biography of Marshal.
 
Champion by Christian Balling
This in contrast was a fun read. I enjoyed it, and I liked the characters. As a historian, I appreciated the fact that not only were no known historical facts altered, but the characters acted appropriately for their age and society. This was not a fantasy or costume-romance.
The weakness of the book is that it focuses on only a short, albeit critical, phase in William Marshal's long life. This book describes a mature William Marshal at a pivotal moment in his life, the moment when he earns a barony from not one, but two, kings. Readers picking up a book on William Marshal, however, likely expect more. Many will, like me, be interested in the whole man, his development over time, what made him tick, how he managed to survive and come out ahead in such turbulent times, his relationships with the different kings he served. Because the book does not even attempt to address these issues, it will -- despite its virtues -- disappoint some readers.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Ideal of Chivalry

Chivalry evolved out of the military and literary traditions of antiquity, and emerged at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as a concept that rapidly came to dominate the ethos and identity of the nobility. Chivalry is inextricably tied to knighthood, a phenomenon distinct to Europe in the Middle Ages. There have been cavalrymen in many different ages and societies, but the cult of knighthood, including a special dubbing ceremony and a code of ethics, exists only in the Age of Chivalry.

Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame their baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”
Chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not to already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalric deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.

So what defined chivalry? First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. He was also supposed to be upon a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” The troubadours, meanwhile, had introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become more noble through love." Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.
The chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide by Chr├ętien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment!  The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues, albeit only within the band of society that was “noble.” By definition, the heroes of chivalry are knights, and their ladies are just that: ladies. Stories about peasants, priests, and merchants are simply not part of the genre, any more than lusting after a serving “wench” qualifies as “love” in the chivalric tradition. But within the chivalric class, a lady was  supposed to be loved and respected for her beauty and her graces regardless of her status, and a knight was supposed to be loved for his chivalric virtues, not his lands or titles.
In more practical terms, one of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.

Geoffrey de Charney, the French hero from the Hundred Years’ War, also wrote a handbook on chivalry that is particularly valuable because he was a man with a powerful reputation as a chivalrous knight. (He was killed at the Battle of Poitiers defending the French battle standard, the oriflamme.) Charney puts the emphasis on love as a spur to great deeds and stresses that a knight must love “loyally” (with exclusive devotion to his own true love), but includes good manners, generosity, humility, fortitude, and courage among the qualities of chivalry as well. As a reflection of his career, Charney places greater value on fighting – stressing its hardships, deprivations, and risks – over frivolous tournaments.
On the other hand, the biographer of William Marshal, writing in the early 13th century, sees in tournaments a means of giving men a chance to demonstrate their “worth” – i.e., their courage, audacity, and skill at arms. For Marshal these are the skills, combined with unwavering loyalty to his liege, that enable him to rise from landless knight to regent of England. While Marshal (or at least his biographer) put the emphasis on courage, the themes of courtesy and discretion with respect to ladies, and generosity, are also present.

It is lamentable that nowadays the discussion of "chivalry" is so often confined to whether a man should open a door for a woman and similar nonsense! Chivalry wasn't about a set of anachronistic manners, it was a fundamental code of conduct that put the strong in the service of the weak -- a concept that ennobled both.

For more about chivalry, I recommend especially the following sources:

Barber, Richard W. 1970, 1974, 1995. The Knight and Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1970, 1974, 1995.
Duby, George. 1985. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. New York: Random House, 1985.

Hopkins, Andrea. 1990. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. London: Quarto Publishing, 1990.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Age of Chivalry

Chivalry was a phenomenon of the High Middle Ages. The influence of chivalry was greatest in the period from 1100 to 1450 AD, and this is the period in which my novels are set. During this period, Europe was Catholic; there was no alternative to the Church of Rome, and the Pope was an extremely powerful political figure. Furthermore, monasticism flourished and several important new monastic orders were founded, notably the Cistercians, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and – most important for students of chivalry – the Hospitallers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights.

The dominant political system in the period was feudalism. Government was organized hierarchically, based on a complex system of obligations in exchange for rights and privileges. Because land ownership varied from region to region and across time, it is impossible to describe it here in detail, but the notion behind feudalism was that the king controlled all the territory in his kingdom and simply “lent” or “leased” it to tenants-in-chief (i.e., his barons), in exchange for their services in administration, justice, and particularly war. He could also grant land to the Church in exchange for the prayers and spiritual services of the Church.
The barons and bishops did the same, granting rights to the land they held from the king to their vassals, again in exchange for military service and so on, down to the peasant class, or serfs. The peasants, who might or might not be free, were responsible for tilling the soil for their overlord in exchange for retaining a portion of the produce for their own use. It is important to keep in mind that even serfs could accumulate considerable wealth, which they sometimes used to buy their freedom – or just to build larger, more comfortable homes. Archaeological evidence suggests that many “peasant homes” were as large and as luxurious as the homes of knights and squires. (Wood, 1985, 1990) (Emery, 2007) (Platt, 1978)

In fact, contrary to popular opinion, medieval society was highly fluid, and fortunes could be made – and lost – in just a few generations. Judicious marriages, the use of heiresses to reward loyal but landless followers, and the fortunes of war enabled men of “lesser birth” to rise very high in medieval society. The sons of peasants could, in the right circumstances, be knighted, and landless knights could become barons. (Keen, 1990) (Wilkinson, 1969) (Gies, 1974) Examples of the latter are William Marshal, Thomas Holland, and Bertrand du Guesclin.
Nevertheless, at the heart of feudalism was the notion that in an ordered society, each man and woman had a God-ordained role to play based on his or her “estate.” The king and his nobles were responsible for protecting the realm against outside threats, ensuring the security of law-abiding citizens against criminals, and dispensing justice. The Church was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people, providing services from baptism and marriage to absolution, burial, and prayers for the dead. The “Third Estate,” composed of peasants and merchants, ensured the material well-being of all. From the medieval perspective, each estate made an essential contribution to good governance; the notion that the “Third Estate” was supporting “useless” and “exploitive” noble and clerical classes is a modern idea introduced most dramatically in the French Revolution. (Keen, 1990)

The historical record makes it abundantly clear that the Middle Ages was a period in which violence, cruelty, injustice, and oppression were rampant. Terms such as “feudalism,” “the Crusades,” and “the Inquisition” have become synonymous with oppression, injustice, torture, cruelty, and mindless aggression. Indeed, it is commonplace, nowadays, to refer to anything particularly inhumane or primitive as “medieval.” This is a gross oversimplification of medieval society.
Although medieval society did not fulfill modern ideals of good governance, and instances of brutality and repression existed in abundance, many aspects of medieval society were more “progressive” and “enlightened” than popular wisdom suggests. Women, for example, enjoyed considerably more freedom and financial independence in the medieval/feudal age than after the industrial revolution. (Ward, 1992) (Mertes, 1988) (Gies, 1987) Also, by the High and Later Middle Ages, the level of education among the nobility, clergy, and merchant class was significant. Nobles spoke, read, and wrote at least their own language and Latin, and sometimes they knew a second modern language or Greek as well. Women of the nobility and the merchant class were generally literate; they conducted correspondence and acted as their husbands’ deputies, or as the heads of their own households as widows or heiresses. (Mertes, 1988) (Ward, 1992) Furthermore, the clergy and many noblemen were more familiar with the works of antiquity than was the case after the Reformation. Last but not least, to name another example that might surprise readers new to the topic, bathing was more common in the Middle Ages than in the Renaissance, and – in the residences of the higher nobility – hot and cold running water was not unknown!

The Middle Ages was a period of intellectual and artistic flourishing. Trade was booming and was for the first time extended to China and the Americas. (The Norwegians maintained regular ties to Vinland until the plague decimated the Norwegian population in the mid-14th century.) Some of the most magnificent works of architecture known to man were built during the Middle Ages. Most readers will be familiar with medieval sacred architecture, from the awe-inspiring cathedrals such as York and St. Chapel to the breathtaking beauty of monasteries such as Senanque, Moissac, and Bellapais. Less familiar, however, may be the secular architecture of the period, which increasingly offered (to those able to afford it) comfortable and gracious accommodations with heating, plumbing, and light. The Palace of the Popes in Aquitaine, the residence of the Counts of Poitiers, and the home of the Earls of Northumberland at Warkworth Castle were magnificent residences. Even the lesser nobility and the upwardly mobile merchant and peasant class increasingly built and lived in houses that were substantial, well-lit, and warm. (Wood, 1985, 1990) (Emery, 2007)
This, then, is the world in which my “Tales of Chivalry” are set. For more information visit www.tales-of-chivalry.com.

Bibliography

Emery, Anthony. 2007. Discovering Medieval Houses. Prince's Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 2007.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. 1987. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Gies, Joseph & Frances. 1974. Life in a Medieval Castle. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Keen, Maurice. 1990. English Society in the Later Middle Ages: 1348-1500. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Mertes, Kate. 1988. The English Noble Household, 1250–1600: Good Governance and Politic Rule. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Platt, Colin. 1978. Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to A.D. 1600. London: Routledge, 1978.

Ward, Jennifer C. 1992. English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages. London: Longman Group Inc., 1992.

Wilkinson, B. 1969. The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216-1485. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1969.

Wood, Margaret. 1965, 1983, 1990. The English Mediaeval House. London: Bracken Books, 1965, 1983, 1990.