Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Maria Comnena





Maria Comnena, the wife of my central character Balian d’Ibelin, has an almost universally bad press. The Itinerarium characterizes her as “godless” and “fraudulent” and one of the most respected modern historians, Bernard Hamilton, describes her as “ruthless and scheming.” In literature, she is invariably cast as ― at best ― an unpleasant intriguer (e.g. Sharon Kay Penman in “Lionheart”) and ― at worst ― an evil witch (e.g. Hana Norton in “The Serpent’s Crown”) Yet, her marriage of Balian was almost certainly a love match on her part (if nothing else because no one, not even the king, could have forced a Byzantine princess and dowager queen of Jerusalem to marry against her will, nor was it the custom of the kingdom to do so). Furthermore, Balian’s devotion to her was demonstrated dramatically by his efforts to rescue her from Jerusalem even if it meant begging a favor of his worst enemy.  Why would Balian have been so devoted to a bitch (not to say witch)?

So my dilemma as a novelist was to try to first identify and understand why Maria was described in such negative terms by contemporaries and then decide if the characteristics that offended 13th century clerics were truly offensive. And secondly, as with Balian, I had to go beyond what was written about her and try to find evidence of what she did that would give me insight into the kind of woman she really was.

After doing my research, it became clear that Maria’s negative image in contemporary and modern sources can be traced back to a single incident: she pressured her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her first marriage in order to enable a second marriage to Conrad de Montferrat. Because this second marriage was against the interests of the English king, his supporters heap insults on Maria (and incidentally Balian as well). Because Isabella’s divorce from her first husband also paved the way for her marriage to Henry of Champagne, and her daughters by Champagne laid claim to their father’s county several decades later. French chronicles (beholden to the local claimants to Champagne) were frantic in their efforts to defend their patrons ― even if it meant slandering a dead woman on the other side of the world. In short, the primary sources that heap abuse on Maria Comnena are biased against her and anything but credible. Furthermore, aside from this one instance of pressuring her daughter to do what was good for the kingdom, neither medieval nor modern historians bring forth a single other example of her “scheming,” “deviousness” or “treachery.” 

As for saying she was “steeped in Greek filth from the cradle,” this may have resonated well with Latin clerics after the sack of Constantinople by Western mercenaries (aka the 4th Crusade), but it should not be used by modern historians (or novelists) as evidence of anything derogatory about Maria Comnena. On the contrary, what this actually tells us is that Maria Comnena was educated and raised at the most civilized city in the contemporary world: the imperial court in Constantinople. It means, objectively, that she enjoyed the high levels of education traditionally accorded the daughters of the Imperial family. She would have learned to read and write in Greek, Latin and French. Her great uncle was one of the most important patrons of the arts, responsible for a veritable artistic revival throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, and Maria personally is credited with inviting Byzantine artists to the Kingdom of Jerusalem to carry out a renovation of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem ― work whose quality we admire to this day.

Looking beyond the facile descriptions of Maria Comnena written by sources with an interest in discrediting her to her actions, I began to obtain a very different picture. As I note above, she was highly educated, and raised amidst not only splendor and elegance but at the vortex of power politics surrounding the most powerful monarch on earth at the time. Had she been destined for a nunnery, she might have remained apolitical or naïve, but instead she was selected for the diplomatically vital role of marriage to a foreign king at the age of about 13. (We don’t know the date of her birth, so her age is not certain, but her aunt Theodora was sent to the court of Jerusalem to marry Baldwin III when she was this age, so it is reasonable to assume Maria was roughly the same age when she was sent to Jerusalem.) 

Once she was Queen of Jerusalem she distinguished herself as a patron of the arts, but she also accompanied her husband on his trip to Constantinople. Conceivably, she was even behind this trip and may have at least been a factor inducing him to seek closer ties to the Eastern Roman Empire. If so, it was a very wise policy that offered the crusader kingdom the best form of defense against resurgent Islamic aggression. Her political astuteness ― or at least her presumed understanding of politics in Constantinople ― is confirmed by the fact that the Count of Flanders sought her political advice in 1177 when a joint military campaign with Constantinople was undertaken.

Maria Comnena’s second marriage is nothing less than a refutation of all allegations of being “power hungry.” A woman concerned with power and influence does not marry the landless younger son of a minor baron. Balian was so far beneath Maria in rank that the marriage would have been an insult and humiliation, and no one ― certainly not her teenage step-son, nor his unpopular mother ― could have forced Maria Comnena into it against her will. The precedent had been set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem (at the latest by Constance of Antioch, who defied a far more powerful monarch than the Leper King), that widows, even reigning widows whose choice of husband was far more political than for dowagers, married men of their own choosing. Maria Comnena, however, was doubly secure against any attempts to marry her against her wishes because she had the protection of Constantinople. Had a mere King of Jerusalem attempted to humiliate a daughter of the Imperial family with an unworthy marriage, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire would have been compelled to defend his honor. The increasingly debilitated Baldwin IV would not afford and had no desire to provoke the wrath of Constantinople. Maria Comnena married Balian d’Ibelin because she wanted to. Period. 

As Balian’s wife, she stepped down from center stage and (unlike the “ruthless” and “scheming” woman of legend), engaged in no recorded act of political interference. Indeed, she does not appear in the historical record again until Saladin sends his bodyguard to Jerusalem to remove her from danger before he began his assault. We do, however, hear of her dower barony of Nablus being attacked by a Saracen army in 1184. Since the army of Jerusalem was at this time gathered to relieve the Castle of Kerak, Balian could not have commanded the defense. All Christians in the city found refuge in the citadel and there were no casualties, something found worthy of positive commentary. The name the commander is not recorded, but the defense was most likely commanded by Maria Comnena herself. It was her city and women in the Holy Land of this period usually commanded the garrisons in their husband’s absence.

Maria’s next appearance in history is when she tells her daughter Isabella that unless she divorces Humphrey of Toron she can have “neither honor nor her father’s inheritance” ― i.e. the crown of Jerusalem. Here Maria is acting very much as a daughter of her house but also in the interests of her adopted country to secure the crown for a military competent king who enjoys the backing of the High Court of Jerusalem.

After this one act, although Maria’s daughter was Queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom.  Again this is very odd behavior for an allegedly unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.   

In short, not a single fact supports the allegations against her. 

Once I’d established the facts to my satisfaction, my objective as a novelist was to erase the slander obscuring our understanding of the historical Maria Comnena and to portray her as a woman who did her duty to her own family with her first marriage and followed her heart with her second. My Maria is thus highly educated, sophisticated and politically astute (as a daughter of the Byzantine court), but not in the least power-hungry, scheming or faithless. This is a woman who marries for love at 23 and thereafter devotes herself to the welfare of her family. This includes ensuring that her eldest child inherits the crown to which she is entitled (by extricating herself from an illegal and disadvantageous marriage), but does not entail trying to exercise undue influence over her daughter once she is queen. The Maria Comnena of my novels is competent, practical and financially savvy, but she has no need to be greedy, grasping or vindictive because she is supremely secure in herself and her love.







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3 comments:

  1. Bravo! Well done, Professor!

    Ah, the power of jealousy, eh?

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  2. "A woman concerned with power and influence does not marry the landless younger son of a minor baron."

    LOL. The heiresses Adélaïde de Vermandois, Mathilde de Boulogne, Margaret de Quincy, Isabel de Clare, Constance de Bretagne, Béatrice de Provence, Jeanne de Toulouse, Margaret II de Flandre, Béatrice de Bourbon, Jeanne II de Bourgogne, Tiphaine Raguenel, and Antoinette de Turenne all married younger sons and/or minor nobles. You need to do better research.

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  3. Not lack of research. I can think of many more heiresses who MARRIED younger sons -- for this article more obvious comparisons would be Sibylla of Jerusalem and Constance of Antioch. What I said was that their motives were not gaining "power and influence. YOU should READ more carefully before insulting others.

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