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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chivarly and Balian d'Ibelin: Honor


The code of chivalry required that knights be honorable or conduct themselves in an honorable manner. The concept is vague and rooted in societal norms that change over time. What was honorable in the 12th century might not be considered so today and vice-versa. Essentially, it boils down to "doing the right thing" -- i.e. the morally correct behavior even if that is at odds with one's self-interest. At a minimum, however, honorable behavior entailed being honest and trustworthy.  

The best evidence that Balian d’Ibelin was viewed by his contemporaries as a man of honor comes from no one less than Saladin.

Having fought his way out of the debacle on the Horns of Hattin, Balian found himself in the comparative safety of Tyre, but his wife and children were in Jerusalem. The Holy City was by this time denuded of defenders, but flooded by refugees. Furthermore, Salah ad-Din had vowed to retake Jerusalem for Islam, and a siege was immanent. In these circumstances, Balian requested a safe-conduct from Saladin to fetch his wife and children out of the endangered city and bring them to the comparative safety of Tyre. The Sultan granted the safe conduct on the condition that the Baron of Ibelin go unarmed and stay only one night; Ibelin took an oath to do exactly this.

On arrival in Jerusalem, however, the tens of thousands of Christians trapped in Jerusalem (reportedly between sixty and a hundred thousand) desperately pleaded with Ibelin to stay and take over command of the defense. The Patriarch explicitly told Balian that it would be more honorable to break his oath to Saladin than to keep it -- a clear indication that "honor" had more to do with doing what was "right" (by the standards of the day) than merely keeping one's word.

But what was the honorable thing for an Christian lord to do in such a situation? Keep his word and abandon tens of thousands of Christians to a hopeless siege that could only end in the slaughter or enslavement of them all? Or break his oath (his word of honor) and try to provide the disorganized refugees with military organization, leadership and expertise?

Ibelin saw his duty in defending the helpless -- despite the fact that this entailed condemning his own wife and family to remaining in the threatened city rather than taking them to safety. Unlike contemporaries like Guy de Lusignan and Reynald de Chatillon, however, Ibelin did not considers oaths to the Saracens  meaningless. Instead, he wrote to Saladin, explained the situation, and effectively requested that Saladin absolve him of his oath.  

The fact that Saladin not only did so, but also sent some of his own body-guard to escort Balian’s wife and children out of Jerusalem suggests that Saladin did not view Balian d’Ibelin’s action as dishonorable or as a betrayal. Furthermore, Saladin latter negotiated with Richard of England through Ibelin, again suggesting faith in his trustworthiness. Indeed, the tone of contemporary Arab chronicles in referring to Balian d'Ibelin (Ibn Barzan) testify to the degree to which Ibelin was held in high regard even by his enemies -- not because he was sympathetic to them but simply because he was "a man of honor."  




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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Nobility


While the characteristics of chivalry could vary somewhat depending on source, a consistent component was "nobility." Certainly in the later Middle Ages, it was increasingly difficult for a man of low station to achieve the status of a knight. Yet knighthood was never confined exclusively to those of noble birth, and being of noble birth was always only part of what medieval writers meant when saying a knight ought to be noble. In the 12 – 15th century it was most common for knighthood to be conferred for deeds of valor on the battlefield or service to the king, and in Balian's age, where knighthood was still a comparatively new phenomenon and chivalry only starting to become the dominant ethic, a man could be raised up by any other knight. In short, the virtue of nobility (as opposed to the noble class) was something more ephemeral and ill-defined. It had to do with living by a code of honor. 


Did Balian d’Ibelin do that? 

He certainly was not a Reynald de Chatillon, who broke treaties, or a Guy de Lusignan, who usurped a crown. His word was trusted or he would not have been able to act as an intermediary/emissary between warring factions, such as Raymond de Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan, or as an ambassador for both Conrad de Montferrat and Richard of England. From this we can infer that he commanded the respect of his contemporaries, including such men as Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lionhearted. 

But perhaps the greatest evidence that he was considered “noble” by his contemporaries (and they are the only ones who can truly judge) is the fact that his reputation was so great that it conferred status on his sons and grandsons despite the fact that he was the holder of only a tiny -- indeed almost insignificant -- fief. There were many barons with greater wealth and more exalted titles, yet both Balian's sons served as regents, his grandson was made Count of Jaffa and Ascalon (traditionally the title of the heir to the throne) and historians have described his descendants as "semi-royal."  

These honors were in part a function of family ties to the ruling houses of Jerusalem and Cyprus (through a step-daughter, Isabella, to the throne of Jerusalem and through a niece, Eschiva, to the throne of Cyprus). Yet it is noticeable that neither of these ties was so compelling that they need to have secured influence for generations.  That the Ibelin family held an exceptional and exalted status among the theoretically equal barons of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus  was, I believe, a reflection of the legacy of "nobility" left by the founder of the dynasty: Balian d'Ibelin.



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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Balian d'Ibelin and the Age of Chivalry





Balian d’Ibelin was a historical figure and my biography is based on the known facts about his life, but he is also the hero of my novels and as such he is intended to be a positive and attractive character. That, however, does not mean transforming him into a modern man with contemporary values and politically correct opinions. On the contrary, my goal is to portray him as realistically as possible and that means making him a positive figure in the context of his age. 

The end of the 12th century was the dawning of the age of chivalry and Balian was a contemporary and companion of Richard the Lionheart, who was seen by many of his followers and by later eulogists as the epitome of chivalry. Even in Ridley Scott’s film, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” Balian d’Ibelin is portrayed as a young man striving to be “a perfect knight.” 



But what was a perfect knight in the 12th Century?



Scott used the following oath both for Balian's knighting and the mass knighting at Jerusalem: 



“Be without fear in the face of your enemies.

Be brave and upright that God may love thee.

Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.

Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong – that is your oath.”




But was fearlessness, bravery, honesty and protection of the helpless the essence of chivalry?



Medieval primers and romances stressed a variety of virtues, including: Nobility, Honor, Loyalty, Righteousness (a strong sense of right and wrong), Prowess (courage), Love, Courtesy - particularly to ladies, Cleanliness, Diligence, Perseverance, Piety, Sobriety,  Humility, Mercy and Kindness, Generosity, and Compassion for the Unfortunate.



In my next entries, I will explore the extent to which the historical Balian met these high goals – or at least as much as we can judge based on the historical record.





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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade




Welcome to the Rave Reviews Book Club 2016 Book and Blog Party. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Helena P. Schrader is delighted to participate in this event featuring a wide-range of talented authors from all literary genres.

If you leave a comment on this blog entry, you will qualify for a free ebook copy of "Envoy of Jerusalem."


Hollywood made him a blacksmith; Arab chronicles said he was "like a king."  
He served a leper, but defied Richard the Lionheart.
He fought Saladin to a stand-still, yet retained his respect.
Rather than dally with a princess, he  married a dowager queen -- and founded a dynasty. He was a warrior and a diplomat both:
Balian d'Ibelin

Balian d'Ibelin, the hero of Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven" was a historical figure, whose biography was significantly different from the Hollywood character. I have written a three-part biography of Balian based on the known historical facts and extensive research about his society and contemporaries. As with all my novels, particularly my biographical novels, the focus is on the characters, and I am a firm believer that human nature has not changed fundamentally over the millenniaapply my understanding of human nature gained over the decades to get inside the skin of my historical characters.

The Hollywood Balian was born a bastard, by trade a blacksmith, seducer of a princess, who returns to obscurity in France after the fall of Jerusalem. The historical Balian, in contrast, was the legitimate son of a baron of Jerusalem, born in the Holy Land, the husband of the Dowager Queen and Byzantine princess Maria Comnena, a member of the High Court, and Richard the Lionheart's ambassador to Saladin.

For readers tired of cliches, cartoons and fantasy, my three-part biography of Balian based on the above facts not only brings this important and attractive historical character back to life, it provides refreshing insights into everyday life in the late 12th century crusader states. Rich in complex characters, "Envoy of Jerusalem," provides psychologically sound explanations for the decisions and actions of the men and women who made history in this fateful place and period. It offers humans in place of villains and supermen.

"Envoy of Jerusalem" covers the critical five years between the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the Third Crusade. When the novel opens, Balian has survived the devastating defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin, and walked away a free man after the surrender of Jerusalem, but he is baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists. Haunted by the tens of thousands of Christians captives now in Saracen slavery, Balian is determined to regain what has been lost. The arrival of a vast crusading army under the soon-to-be-legendary Richard the Lionheart offers hope - but also conflict as natives and crusaders clash and French and English quarrel.

This novel follows the fate not just of kings and barons, but also knights, squires, sailors and tradesmen. It particularly focuses on the horrific impact of a lost war on women - many of whom were condemned to slavery and prostitution in the wake of defeat.

"Envoy of Jerusalem" portrays the clash of cultures between the natives of the Holy Land and the crusaders. It, unlike most novels set in this period, describes the Third Crusade through the eyes of the men and women who called the Holy Land "home," rather than those that came out from the West. Likewise, Richard the Lionheart is shown as a man of many parts, rather than a brute, buffoon or paragon of virtue.

Last but not least, "Envoy of Jerusalem" explores the crisis in faith that the fall of Jerusalem produced among Christians of the period. The characters struggle with understanding the will of God and their individual role and place in the presumed divine plan. 
Hope I've whet your appetite! 

For more information about Balian visit his website at: http://defenderofjerusalem.com -- and be sure to check out the next stop for BOOK & BLOG BLOCK PARTY!