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.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Characters in The Last Crusader Kingdom: St. Neophytos

The role of the Greek Orthodox Church in the popular opposition to Frankish rule on Cyprus is an important feature of The Last Crusader Kingdom. As explained earlier, this hypothesis was based on the fact that the only named rebel was a priest and that the Greek aristocracy had largely withdrawn to Constantinople. Yet the idea was also influenced by the fact that the only contemporary Cypriot chronicle for this period was written by a hermit monk named Neophytos. 



In contrast to the Latin and French chronicles (that in a sentence or two claim that the people of Cyprus welcomed Guy de Lusignan―after driving out the Templars―and every one lived happily ever after), Neophytos’ account suggests an extended period of oppression, resistance, violence and struggle. To be sure, Neophytos’ descriptions of all the twelfth century rulers of Cyprus are negative and his commentary on contemporary events is characterized by a pervasive sense of gloom and impending doom. 

Yet the fact remains: he was living on Cyprus during the period described in the novel. As such he is the only eye-witness of events that we can still “hear from” today―and he describes the increasing lawlessness and deterioration of governance that is a major theme of my novel. 

Furthermore, he was known to have traveled to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in his youth, giving him at least a little insight into what the Kingdom of Jerusalem was like. Most important, he received many visitors to his hermitage in the period of the novel. The temptation to have Balian meet him face to face was too great to resist!



The historical Neophytos was born to a peasant family in the Cypriot mountains in 1134. He, like his parents, was illiterate. At the age of 18 he caused a major scandal by running away to a monastery to avoid an arranged marriage. Because he was illiterate, he was initially assigned to tend the monastery vineyard, but after five years he had learned to read and write sufficiently to be made assistant sacristan. He performed these duties for two years, but then he expressed his desire to become a hermit. His superiors did not think he was ripe enough at the age of 25 for such a life, so instead sent him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He spent six months there visiting the sacred sites and other monasteries, but returned to Cyprus still determined to live as a hermit. 


In 1160, Neophytos found a cave in the Trodos Mountains just north of Paphos and began turning this into his hermitage by hand. When the Bishop of Paphos heard about it, he insisted that Neophytos accept consecration as a priest and also take on a disciple. Over time that one discipline turned into many, and an entire monastery grew at the foot of the cliff containing Neophytos’ cave/hermitage. A church was built and dedicated to the Holy Cross. 


Although Neophytos had initially sought solitude, he was (he says) “forced” to interact not only with the monks of his monastery but with the many visitors who sought his advice. He read voraciously and was also an extremely prolific writer, producing numerous biographies of saints, interpreting scripture, composing hymns, codifying the rules of his monastery, and writing a (lost!) history of Cyprus. He also maintained a rigorous correspondence with people as far away as Constantinople. Last but not least, he commissioned the magnificent wall paints of his hermitage, which had grown into a nave, church and cell, which can still be admired to this day. He is believed to have died in 1214.



Both his writings and his letters demonstrate that far from being disinterested in the affairs of the world, Neophytos was actively concerned and, indeed, engaged in with current events―from his cell in the side of a mountain. In short, although he did not want to live with others in a community, he did care about what was happening beyond his cave. More: he recorded ― and at times tried to influence ― the course of events by the advice he offered his visitors and those with whom he corresponded. 


There is considerable evidence that the educated and aristocratic elites disparaged Neophytos’ somewhat simple and direct style of writing, but this may have been the very reason he was so well loved by the common people of Cyprus: they could understand what he was talking/writing about better than the religious tracts of the traditional, erudite elite writing from distant Constantinople. It was above all the common people of Cyprus who saw in Neophytos a man of exceptional spiritual wisdom.



In the period covered by my novel, Neophytos was already a famous “holy man,” although he would not be sanctified until after his death. Furthermore, by the time the Lusignans came to Cyprus, Neophytos’ monastery had been in existence roughly 10 years. It is not, therefore, so far-fetched that a monk (such as my fictional Father Andronicus) would turn to Neophytos for advice and assistance. As a man with great influence, it likewise makes sense for Neophytos to play a mediating role between Orthodox rebels and Frankish invaders. 


It was only after I had decided to include Neophytos in the novel that I saw the wonderful, additional opportunity to have Humphrey de Toron find sanctuary in Neophytos’ reclusive monastery.  While it is recorded that Toron went to Cyprus with Guy, nothing is heard from him after that. Neither he nor his descendants appear in history as lords and vassals of the Lusignans. Furthermore, because he never recognized the annulment of his marriage to Isabella, Humphrey had challenged Isabella’s marriage to both Montferrat and Champagne. Yet he was conspicuously silent about her marriage to Aimery de Lusignan. This has led historians to assume he was dead by 1197, the year of this last marriage of Isabella. Another explanation, however, is that he had by then made peace with his fate and consciously chose to retire from the world. I liked that image and so included it in my novel.

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