Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


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, June 28, 2013

The Albigesnian Crusade

Because the Cathars denied the power of Catholic sacraments and priests, refused to pay tithes or other church taxes, and preached against the corruption of the Catholic Church, the Cathars posed a threat to the power of the Pope and the Catholic Church. The fact that the local secular lords tolerated the heretics in their territories was a further provocation to Rome – and this provided an excuse for the Kings of France to impose their sovereignty over a region that was effectively independent of the Crown at the start of the 11th century.
 
In 1208, Pope Innocent III called for a “crusade” against the Cathars, or Albigensians. The Pope offered to the knights, noblemen, and mercenaries who took part in this crusade the same forgiveness of sins and cancellation of debts that he offered crusaders against the Saracens in the Holy Land. The following year, in 1209, a crusading army descended on the Languedoc and massacred the inhabitants of the city of Béziers. Allegedly some 20,000 people were put to the sword, including those seeking refuge in the cathedral and the Catholic priests with them.
 
The most intransigent of the local barons, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne, was forced to capitulate. After a long siege of his the fortress-city of Carcassonne, he surrendered his own person to save the lives of the city’s residents and defenders. His lands were given to one of the leaders of the crusade, Simon de Montfort. Raymond-Roger was confined to his own dungeon, where he died three months later. Although the crusaders returned home, Simon de Montfort remained in the Languedoc to try to subdue his unruly vassals, and a long, drawn-out war ensued, characterized by merciless sieges, atrocities, and assassinations.
 
Meanwhile, a brilliant Cistercian scholar, Dominic Guzman, challenged the Cathars on their own ground, debating with the Cathar preachers and, like them, living a life of humility and poverty. He founded a new preaching order, the Dominicans, whose goal was to fight the heresy by reason and example.
 
But converting people one by one was a slow process. Neither the Popes in Rome nor the Kings of France were content to wait for the Dominicans to succeed. A second Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1226. In the course of half a century, a combination of armed force and the judicial intimidation by the newly formed Inquisition slowly eradicated the heresy and broke the opposition of the local nobility.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

First Review of "A Widow's Crusade"

The first review of A Widow's Crusade was published on amazon, so I wanted to share it here:

5.0 out of 5 stars A very well written and enjoyable story about a lonely widow and her love for an ageing crusader, May 21, 2013
By 
K Mitchell - See all my reviews

This review is from: A Widow's Crusade (Tales from the Languedoc) (Kindle Edition)
I've been waiting for the author to put out another story about the Crusades every since I read the English Templar and she doesn't disappoint with this one. She has a wonderful grasp of life in this period so the story really comes to life and the characters are well developed. I did find that the description of Abelard's father's rebellion against Count (then King) Richard got a little convoluted and there was no groundwork for calling the fever he got from over exerting himself in the rain scarlett fever but those are minor issues in an otherwise well written book. The photos of the castles that are included at the end really brings home the enduring legacy of the Templars and the Crusades for those of us who have never been to France or the middle east to see them.

I'm looking forward to reading all the books in the Tales of Chivalry series as they're published. I just wish the author's first two books in the earlier Knights Templar Trilogy were available as ebooks.


 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Cathar Heresy

In the 11th century AD a theology spread across Europe that challenged the dogma of the Catholic Church. The roots of the theology stretched back to the dualism of some early Christian scholars, but this heresy had unique features and thrived on the corrupt state of the Church in the 11th century (Barber, 2000). The so-called Cathar heresy was particularly strong in northern Italy, in Flanders, and across southwestern France in the area where the langue d’oc was spoken.

Because the nobility of the Languedoc tolerated the heresy, it flourished there and was often referred to as the “Albigensian” heresy after the city of Albi, which was long a stronghold of the heretics (Barber, 2000) (Roux-Perino, 2006).It is hard nowadays to reconstruct Cathar theology, because we have to rely primarily upon the records of the Inquisition. Meticulous as these records tried to be, they nevertheless recorded the beliefs of people of widely differing levels of education, and many statements made before the Inquisition were contradictory.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the fundamental belief of the Cathars was that the material world was the work of the devil – i.e., that Earth was hell. Souls on Earth were “fallen angels” or the creations of the fallen angels. These souls were condemned to rebirth in this earthly hell – unless they were purified by a rite administered by a Cathar priest, one of the so-called “Good Men” or “Good Women” (Barber, 2000).

 In short, Cathars believed in reincarnation, but not as a process of individual purification nor as a journey toward spiritual perfection – rather, as a hopeless cycle of damnation. Furthermore, the Cathars rejected the notion that good deeds could in themselves win a soul's release from material hell. Only the Cathar sacrament, the consolamentum, administered by a “pure” Cathar, could secure this grace (Barber, 2000).

The Cathars furthermore denied that Christ had, in fact, become flesh, been crucified, and been resurrected. Rather, they claimed, Christ remained a spiritual being, who only appeared to have taken human form and appeared to have died. Logically, the Cathars rejected the Catholic mass, because they did not believe in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. They accepted the Gospels, however, and the heart of the consolamentum was the Lord’s Prayer, with particular emphasis on the need to “forgive those who trespass against us” in order for a soul to receive forgiveness from God (Barber, 2000).

The Cathar “Good Men” and “Good Women” were believers who had taken the consolamentum and could administer it to others. They were required, if they wished to go to Heaven rather than be reborn on Earth, to abstain completely from sexual intercourse, to eat neither flesh nor fish, eggs nor cheese, and to refrain from all violence (Barber, 2000).

Most Cathars, however, were not so devout – nor so intellectual. The records of the Inquisition suggest that most Cathars had only vague beliefs, many contradictory, and certainly few people were willing to give up the pleasures of the flesh before the very last possible moment. Believers generally sought to take the consolamentum just before death, when it was no longer a hardship to abstain from sex, flesh, or violence.

The appeal of Catharism stemmed from the fact that to the poor and downtrodden of the 11th and 12th centuries the world was indeed a hellish place. Thus the Cathar explanation of man’s condition seemed more reasonable than traditional Catholic doctrine. The Church preached, in effect, that a benevolent and all-powerful God allowed for widespread starvation, sickness, natural catastrophes, and unending wars. The Cathar critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church was likewise highly popular, because the critique was largely justified – and also justified non-payment of tithes and other church taxes.

As the Church, the Inquisition, and Crusaders increasingly hounded the Languedoc to exterminate the heresy, adherence to the Cathar faith became an act of patriotic defiance as much as a matter of religious belief. Certainly among the nobility, resistance to the northern Crusaders and reluctance to support the Inquisition had less to do with theological sympathy for the dogma of the Cathars than with the desire to retain feudal independence from France and preserve a lifestyle and a culture that was unique and traditional.
 
The three novels of my "Tales from the Languedoc" series all deal with the Cathar heresy, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Occitan Resistance to a greater or lesser extent.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Finding the Languedoc

Finding the Languedoc of the troubadours is not really difficult, but it is easy to be misled by modern labels. The Languedoc of the Middle Ages was much broader than the modern French Department, Languedoc-Roussillon. The cradle of chivalry was essentially the territories held by the largely autonomous lords in the South of France. The borders of such lands changed with the tides of war and marriages, but essentially was composed of the Duchy of Aquitaine, the Counties of Toulouse, Provence and Foix, and the Visounties of Montpellier, Beziers, Carcassonne and Albi.

A visit to this region shatters misconceptions about the Middle Ages being dark, cold, colorless, primitive and brutal. This is a sun-soaked corner of the earth, enriched by sufficient rain to be perpetually fertile. The scents of the Languedoc are lavender and rosemary, and the colors are the yellow of sunflowers, the green of plane and cypress trees, the blue-turquoise of the Mediterranean and the off-white of limestone -- all things that were no less abundant in the age of chivalry than now.

Because that limestone was used to build both the churches and the castles of the age, the buildings of the region are not grey or even red, but off-white and correspondingly cheerful. The medieval monuments, furthermore, demonstrate just how developed the artistic traditions of the region already were  a thousand years ago. The quality of the sculpture and painting, not to mention the symmetry, harmony and lightness of the architecture testify to the very high culture that reigned. One should never forget that here the Romans had built great cities with fountains fed by magnificent aqueducts and connected by broad, straight roads; they built coliseums, temples, bridges, barracks and luxury villas. The transition from Roman grandeur to Christian splendor was seamless. Ideology, religion, forms of government and the symbols changed, but the fundamental ability to live well remained.

To find the cradle of chivalry, therefore, one needs only go Southeastern France -- to Provence and what is now called "Languedoc-Roussillon" and look for the remnants of the Age of Chivalry. Leave the Cote d' Azure to the hoards of "wannabe" tourists gawking at the nouveau riche, and head inland instead to the great Romanesque Abbey of Senanque - set like a jewel among the fields of blooming lavender.  It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and harmonious places on earth. Visit the stunningly elaborate palace of the Popes in Avignon -- and you will never again think life in the Middle Ages was drab, primitive and without luxury. Go to St. Gilles, the seat of the Counts of Toulouse, and to the symmetrical and efficient medieval harbor of Aigues Mortes, from which St. Louis sailed with 2,000 knights to re-capture Jerusalem for Christianity.

My secret tip, however, is Moustiers-Ste.-Marie. Here in a gorge in the Haute Provence a monastery was founded in the 5th century. At the mouth of the gorge, nestled in front of the sheer cliffs behind, is a small village with a crooked church (it bends in the middle), and over the gorge stretches a heavy, iron chain with a star hanging from it. According to legend, the star has hung from this chain in the 13th century by a knight called Blacas.  Blacas, so the legend says, had gone on crusade to the Holy Land and been taken captive by the Saracen.  When he was eventually freed, he came to Moustiers-Ste-Marie and hung the star on the chain -- a remarkable feat of engineering for the time! -- as a symbol of his gratitude.

But no one knows anymore which crusade it was or how long "Blacas" spent in captivity. No one knows why he chose a star rather than a cross or some other symbol. Did it represent the "Star of Bethlehem"? Had he been taken captive in Bethlehem or been held prisoner there? Had he rotted in a dark dungeon with only a single window from which he had seen, night after night, a star that came to represent freedom or salvation to him? And why hang his star at Moustiers-Ste-Marie? Had he made a vow to the Virgin Mary here? Did he come from the region? No one knows anymore, any more than we know who paid his ransom, and who was praying for him to come home.

Moustiers-Ste-Marie is just one of many places in the Languedoc that contains the seeds of a novel waiting to be written.