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.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Crusaders Known and Unknown


Followers know that I have started work on a new project, ten tales of chivalry, or stories set in the age of chivalry. Six of these deal with the crusades or crusader kingdoms in one manner or another. Therefore, I thought it might be good to reflect on what exactly the crusades were. Today and over the next several weeks, I will outline the history of the crusades chronologically, starting today with their Genesis.

Before turning to the history, however, just a quick reminder that "A Widow's Crusade," set against the backdrop of the "Children's Crusade," is already available for sale, and "The Disinherited" a novel that describes the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade will be released shortly. I'll keep you informed of progress.


 
Genesis of the Crusades
 
Essentially, the Crusades were a series of campaigns undertaken by Christians in the 11th to 13th centuries to establish (or re-establish) control over the Holy Land (the sites of Christ’s passion), particularly Jerusalem. These campaigns were a response to the expansion of Islam, which had spread in the wake of invading armies that used the sword to impose Islam on previously Christian territory. Most – but not all – crusades were fundamentally defensive campaigns that responded to aggression with aggression.
The successful First Crusade established a string of Christian states in the Holy Land that, although prosperous, were always threatened by the overwhelming military superiority of the surrounding Muslim states. Whenever one or more of these states was invaded or fell to the Saracens (the opposing Muslim forces, which were ethnically Egyptian, Syrian, Kurdish or Turkish; I will use the contemporary term “Saracen” to refer to these diverse but consistently Muslim fighting groups), the call went out to the West for aid – for a new crusade. Thus in the course of two centuries, a total of eight numbered crusades were launched, not counting such tragedies as the Children’s Crusades, the Reconquista (liberation) of the Iberian Peninsula, or the wars against the heathens of northeastern Europe and the heretics of Southern France, which were sometimes also referred to as crusades.
In the course of these crusades, Christian leaders and troops committed many atrocities that are incompatible with Christianity, but not all crusaders were inherently depraved and brutal. Furthermore, the enemy also committed countless well-documented atrocities. These were violent centuries, but they were also a period in which the close contact between the East and the West produced cross-fertilization of culture and art, and a period in which trade and science flourished.
 
The First Muslim Invasion of Christian Territory: 632-750
Between 630 and 750, Islam aggressively expanded across North Africa and into the formerly Christian territories of the Byzantine Empire. They captured the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, and also modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Cyprus and other islands in the Mediterranean were also either conquered or subjected to destructive raids.
The First Muslim Invasion of Western Europe: 710-732
 
The first Muslim invasion of Western Europe started in 710 with the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim armies from North Africa. The Muslim armies conquered the bulk of what is now Spain and Portugal, establishing Muslim states that over the next five centuries developed flourishing cities and a highly sophisticated culture. In 732 a Muslim army crossed the Pyrenees, defeated the Christian forces in what is now Aquitaine, and continued north, approaching the Loire valley. They were stopped and forced to withdraw by Charles Martel, the leader of the Franks, near Poitiers in 732.
 
Further Muslim Conquests: 827-878
Sicily and Crete were conquered by Muslim forces.
First Christian Offensive: 969-975
 
The Byzantine Empire made its first attempt to reconquer lost Christian territory in 969, with the recapture of Antioch. By 975 the Byzantine army had captured much of Palestine, particularly on the coast, but the Christian armies failed to capture Jerusalem. A peace treaty in 1001 ended the Byzantine attempt to re-establish political control over the Holy Land and resulted in a period of intensive persecution for native Christians living under Muslim rule. The situation improved somewhat by the middle of the 11th century.
The Norman Conquest of Sicily: 1061-1091
 
The Norman adventurer Roger de Hauteville recaptured Sicily from the Muslims, who were fighting among themselves, in a series of campaigns between 1061 and 1091. Sicily thereafter fell under the Latin rather than the Byzantine Church, but remained Christian until the present.
The Rise of the Seljuk Turks: 1056-1075
 
Turkish tribes, who had converted to Islam, began to establish an empire in the 11th century, conquering large parts of Persia and Armenia. In 1071 they destroyed a Byzantine army sent to stop their westward expansion and captured Jerusalem along with the rest of Palestine. The Seljuk Empire soon stretched from Aleppo to Egypt. Christians, whether pilgrims to Jerusalem or merchants, were now more likely to be robbed or enslaved than left in peace.
The Call for a Crusade: 1095
 
The Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos saw in the internal conflicts between Turks, Syrian Muslims, and Egyptian Muslims the chance to restore Christian rule to the Holy Land, but lacked the military strength to make an attempt. He appealed to the Pope, highlighting alleged atrocities committed against Christians in the Holy Land and other former Byzantine territories. On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a rousing speech, calling for Christians to free Jerusalem from the Muslims and reopen it to Christian pilgrims. Urban II was both persuasive and charismatic, and he must have struck a chord with his listeners; it is recorded that the audience spontaneously started chanting “Deus le volt” (God wills it). When he finished speaking, many men crowded around him, vying to be among the first to “take the cross” – that is, to wear a cross on their sleeve as a symbol of their vow to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule. The concept of a crusade – a Christian holy war – had been born. (The notion of jihad – Muslim holy war – was, of course, already hundreds of years old by then.)


Friday, August 9, 2013

Writing as Praying

Since the second grade, I have been inspired (not to say compelled) to write novels. I have never been able to explain why, nor how I ‘select’ the topics of my novels. The ideas for novels occur to me spontaneously, initially as very vague and ephemeral ideas, which I then refine and redefine at a rational level. But the irrational and inexplicable manner in which the initial spark of inspiration occurs has always suggested to me that my novels were genuinely “inspired” not conceived.

My personal beliefs are that all acts of creation -- from giving birth, cooking and sewing to great works of art and architecture – are an imitation of the divine. Creation is for me a positive force; destruction a negative one – although I’ve had some very intriguing discussions about whether there can be “creative destruction!” On the whole, people who are creative are, I believe, doing God’s work.

Writing fiction is a means by which I confront and try to understand emotions, behavior and concepts that I have not personally experienced. When writing, I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes (my characters’), and in so doing I try to see things from a different perspective. The reason for doing this is to try to understand the human condition and my fellow humans better.

With time, I came to realize that the process of creative writing is my way of communicating with God. Creative writing is not about asking God for something. It is not about me articulating my thoughts and feelings to Him.  Rather, it is about receiving ideas, guidance and understanding. When I sit down to write, I open both my mind and my subconscious to inspiration. As I write, I am almost always surprised and excited by the unexpected reactions of my characters. They then become my teachers, giving me new insight into human nature. Again and again, I have felt a wonderful sense of awe at the end of writing a scene, a chapter or a book, when suddenly I start to understand things that I had not rationally grasped when I started writing.

Because I am an imperfect human being, I do not always understand what I “hear,” nor do I always have the skill to describe and convey to readers the insights I have gained during the process of writing. Nor do I claim that my insights are relevant to everyone. We all have an individual relationship with God, and we must all communicate with Him in our own way.  Nevertheless, I firmly believe that like a good meal or a beautiful building, a divinely inspired work of fiction is something that can comfort, sustain and inspire more than just the creator. For that reason, I share the products of my “prayers” – my books – with others.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Tenth Tale of Chivalry and "Everything is Light"

When I announced my "Tales of Chivalry" project just over three months ago, I was planning on releasing three series of three books each set in the Age of Chivalry.  All of the novels in the Tales of Chivalry project had been written over the previous decades but never sent to publishers because I thought the market too small. The ability to self-publish ebooks convinced me that  it was now possible to publish books for niche markets, and encouraged me to undertake the publication of the nine tales. But this week I decided to add a tenth tale.
 
The exciting aspect of this tenth tale for me personally is that it is a completely new novel and so entails writing not just re-writing and editing. I haven't worked on a new book since the completion of the Leonidas Trilogy, and frankly it has taken me that long to recoup my energy and inspiration. Now, however, I am ready to start on this new book and completely energized and excited about it -- as I am at the start of any new novel.
 
The Tenth Tale will be based on the life of a historical figure, Balian d'Ibelin, who I'll introduce later with a full blog entry. For now, suffice it to say that Balian lived at the end of the 12th century (so very much in the Age of Chivalry) in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. (I'll probably use "A Tale of the Kingdom of Jerusalem" as the subtitle.) Watch this blog for more information about Balian, the crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land, the crusades and my novel, possibly surveys of title options etc.  For now, however, I'd like to conclude my entries on the Albigensian crusade with a recommendation and review:

Everything is Light by Robert Shea

This is a surprisingly well written story, with an excellent portrayal of King Louis IX of France. Although the book starts with the fall of the last Cathar fortress, Montsegur, in 1244, it provides a historically sound, comprehensible and non-romaticized introduction to the key issues involved in the Albigensian crusade (e.g. an independent Southern nobility with its own culture and language, a corrupt clergy that turned the common people against the Catholic church, a new interpretation of Christianity that was preached by devoted followers.) It avoids the use of magic and mystery, far too common when dealing with the Cathars, and instead presents complex, believable characters deserving of sympathy but flawed and inconsistent -- as we all are. This is without doubt the best book I have read on this fascinating episode in history.