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.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Baldwin d’Ibelin



The Quest for the Holy Grail, Tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones

When setting out to write a biography of Balian d’Ibelin, one of the first things I learned was that he was the third son of the first Baron of Ibelin, and as such started out in life as an insignificant and obscure landless knight. It was, historically, his elder brother Baldwin, who was important ― at least throughout Balian’s youth and early manhood. Furthermore, it was his brother who gave Balian his chance to enter history.

Big Brother Baldwin inherited their father’s modest barony of Ibelin in or about 1170 along with their mother’s significantly more substantial inheritance, the baronies of Ramla and Mirabel. Together, these three baronies owed 70 knights to the feudal army, or more than, for example, the powerful Lord of Oultrejourdain, which owed 60.  Furthermore, unlike Oultrejourdain, all three of these baronies were located on the fertile coastal plain east and south of Jaffa, and must have yielded very substantial revenues and enabled a splendid lifestyle for the period. Although technically Baldwin was a “rear vassal” who held his fiefs from the Counts of Jaffa and Ascalon rather than directly from the king, the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon became King Amalric I in 1162, making Baldwin de facto a crown vassal. Thus when Balian came into manhood he stood very much in the shadow of his elder brother Baldwin. In writing my biographical novel of Balian, therefore, Baldwin had to be an important character. 

But what was Balian’s relationship to his elder brother like?

We know that later chronicles and modern historians, writing after Balian had become the founder of a powerful dynasty that played a key role in the history of crusader states for three hundred years, often lump Baldwin and Balian together. Indeed, there is a tendency to refer to Baldwin and Balian as “the Ibelin brothers,” although this term is anachronistic since Ramla and Mirabel were more important baronies and Baldwin in his own lifetime would have been identified and addressed by these more senior titles. Ibelin, on the other hand, was not only a comparatively insignificant title, but one that Baldwin surrendered (whether willingly or not is an open question) to his younger brother in or about November 1177. He would not have been identified by or with it after that date. This careless lumping of Baldwin and Balian together by the name that was to become important only after both of them were dead, ie. as “Ibelins,” tends to create an impression of closeness and harmony that may be entirely fictional.

To be sure, in the 12th century family ties were imprisoning. Everything revolved around family. Families stuck together through thick and thin. They paid each other's ransoms, they stood as hostages for one another, they were witnesses for one another, they were each other’s clients and lords. Perhaps most important: they fought together. 

Does that mean that all family members got along with one another all the time?  Highly unlikely. On the contrary, the tensions within medieval families could be brutal and bitter. (Witness the Plantagenets: Henry II had to fight wars with his sons, and his sons fought each other in a series of shifting alliances.)  In most families (where there was less at stake or personalities (and egos) less excessive), families usually worked together and presented a common front to the outside world, yet that still did not mean they had no rivalries and tensions among themselves. 

As a novelist, therefore, I had to look beyond the undifferentiated treatment of Balian and Baldwin as two peas in a pod or two interchangeable parts of a pair and look at them as individuals. Furthermore, I had to draw on my understanding of human nature in creating a plausible relationship. Sibling rivalry is one of the most consistent and frequent patterns of behavior across cultures and ages.  It is therefore quite plausible that  Baldwin and Balian were not always the best friends, much less always of one opinion.

For example, William of Tyre claims that Baldwin of Ramla (Ibelin) plotted with Tripoli and Antioch to depose Baldwin IV, and all sources agree that Baldwin refused to take the oath of fealty to Guy de Lusignan. Indeed, in a shocking and unprecedented incident, Baldwin renounced his entire inheritance and went into voluntary exile, rather than take an oath of fealty to Guy de Lusignan. That is the action of a man of great pride, passion and inflexible principles. 

Balian, on the other hand is most famous for his role as a mediator ― between Tripoli and Lusignan, between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. He is also known as a man of compassion and humility, who did not lay claim to particular influence, much less a crown, even when he was step-father to the queen or when the Arab chronicles describe him as “like a king.” Unlike his elder brother, Balian’s loyalty to Baldwin IV and V is never questioned, and indeed he served Guy de Lusignan as long as Queen Sibylla lived. 

In their personal lives also, the brothers appear to have been very different. Baldwin married very young, and then set his wife of almost two decades and the mother of his daughters aside―apparently for no better reason than he hoped to marry the Princess Sibylla. When that failed (for whatever reason), Baldwin married again twice. He had one son, but he abandoned the boy to Balian’s care when he renounced his titles. In short, his pride and principles with respect to Guy de Lusignan were more important to Baldwin than his wife and son.

Balian, in contrast, is depicted even by his detractors as a man very attached to his wife. Strikingly, Balian was not too proud to beg a favor of his worst enemy, the Sultan of Damascus, for the sake of rescuing his wife and children.  Certainly, the idea of riding hundreds of miles through enemy held territory to remove his wife and children from Jerusalem is almost crazy, and suggests ties of affection unusual in this age.  Tripoli, although described as an affectionate husband, had only a few days earlier urged the army not to relieve the siege of Tiberius, although his wife was caught in the fortress and requested relief.

In short, I think it is safe to suggest that historically Baldwin and Balian, no matter how closely they cooperated with one another, were men of very different temperaments and character. As a novelist, furthermore, emphasizing those differences and creating a degree of tension between them was an excellent plot device. In addition, the contrast to Baldwin enabled me to highlight important aspects of Balian’s character. The Baldwin of my novel is therefore not only proud and unbending, he is impulsive, hot tempered, flamboyant and arrogant as well – as I believe many older sons in this age of merciless primogeniture often were.





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1 comment:

  1. Arrogance went hand in hand with the "rights and privileges" of the first born. Nothing ever changes.

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