Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, 1212 - A Excerpt from "A Widow's Crusade"

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, Christmas Eve, 1212

       Lord Hughes, his wife and his father, accompanied by an escort left for Acre shortly after dawn broke on a clear, crisp Christmas Eve. The remaining household worked hard to finish decorating the hall with greens and to get the giant Yule log, imported all the way from the forests of Byzantium, in to the hearth. At dinner Abelard, Blanche, and Father Claude were alone at the high table. Blanche noted that Abelard was dressed again in his elegant burgundy wool gown and elaborate Saracen belt, but he remained reticent, joining in the conversation only sparingly.
       Father Claude expressed his envy for the journey they would make. “If I did not have to hold Mass for the remaining household,” he insisted, “I would come with you. It would not surprise me if you saw angels. You must promise to report all you see and hear!”
       “Gladly,” Blanche assured the enthusiastic young priest. Father Claude had come out to Palestine as a pilgrim, only to discover he never wanted to leave, and he had looked for employment instead.
       “You must dress warmly, my lady,” Abelard warned her. “It is far colder in the upper pastures than here.”
       Blanche looked over to him, but he looked down at his dinner and would not meet her eye.
      After dinner, Claire helped Blanche change and prepare for her night in the pastures. For the last time, Claire tried to talk Blanche out of it. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
       “Yes, I am,” Blanche answered definitively as she pulled her heaviest wool shift on over her head. As her head emerged, she looked straight at Claire and saw the worried look in the older woman’s eyes. “Claire, I want the truth―no nonsense about lions and hyenas and the untrustworthiness of Jews. Why don’t you think I should spend the night up in the pastures?”
        Claire sighed and fussed with the wool stockings she was preparing to help Blanche into. “If you’d been there … He was so angry―so suddenly angry. It frightened me.”
      Blanche knew what her maid was referring to. The day Abelard had been found delirious with fever, Claire had come to Blanche with a guilty conscience. She didn’t quite know how, but she sensed that his illness had something to do with the confronta­tion they had had, so she had confessed to Blanche what had passed between them.
       Blanche had assured her repentant friend that she was not to blame for Abelard’s illness, but one thing was clear to her: Abelard had said he was not the man he’d been before, not the youth she’d loved, and then had gone out to do a slave’s work in the pouring rain. Blanche’s intuition said that he was ashamed of what he’d become and considered himself inferior to her, as he had never been when her father scorned him. She had mentally reviewed all that he had said and done since her arrival, and concluded that his actions might have been motivated as much by shame as by scorn. But she had no intention of admitting her suspicions to Claire, just in case she was wrong.
         “He comes from a family of hot-tempered men, Claire. Don’t you remember how his father once struck Abbot Beranger in some dispute over lands? His brother is said to have broken his own son’s arm in an argument. It is hardly fair to expect Abelard to be without his family’s temper.”
        “But when you were young and gave him so many reasons to be angry with you, he never lost control,” Claire pointed out. “Here he threw something―I think it was a stool―after me! It crashed against the door just after I left.” Her face was pale, and her fingers fussed nervously with the wool stockings.
        Blanche considered her for a moment, unsettled in spite of herself by such profound concern. Claire had always championed Abelard in the past, and her change of attitude made Blanche question herself. Was she trying to find excuses for Abelard only because she wanted to believe he did not hate her? Yet he had requested “Ahi, Amours”! To say he loved her even if they were separated? Or to say his love of God took precedence still? But he had not taken a monk’s vows, and since their return from the pilgrimage, he had not once been overtly rude. On the contrary, he had shown her a dozen little courtesies when he thought no one would notice.
         “What are you afraid he’ll do to me, Claire?”
         “I don’t know,” Claire admitted in a whine of despair. “I don’t know. But he was so angry! He said to tell you he was dead. And then he went out and tried to kill himself, didn’t he?”
         Blanche had not thought of it that way. Had he tried to kill himself? If they had not found him, might he not have died? “And you think he now plans to kill us both?” she queried incredulously. This might be the kind of thing that happened in ballads, but she could not quite picture it happening in real life. Claire looked a little sheepish. “No, nothing so dramatic, but what if he strikes you or―or …”
         “Rapes me?”
      “It has happened before!” Claire pointed out defensively, before Blanche could dismiss this as an old woman’s fantasy. “Maybe he wants revenge for being rejected. Or maybe, when he said he wasn’t the man he was before, he meant he wasn’t as honorable as he had been as a young man.” Claire looked up at Blanche with a pleading expression. She knew that Blanche was cleverer than she, and she was afraid that Blanche would not listen to her because she could not argue well. But her fear was genuine all the same.
         Blanche was too mistrustful of her own feelings when it came to Abelard to dismiss Claire’s fears out of hand. Instead she mentally reviewed the past two weeks, searching for some indication that would give credence to Claire’s suspicions. But no matter how hard she tried, she found none. “Claire, do you honestly think Lord Hughes would entrust me to someone he did not trust entirely?”
        “No,” Claire admitted, aware that it was impossible to explain something one did not understand. “But what did he mean, then, about being different?”
         Blanche took her time answering. Sitting down and offering her legs to Claire for the stockings, she reviewed all she had observed since her return from the pilgrimage trip. In this past week she had watched Abelard very closely. She had observed the diligence with which he served Lord Hughes and Lady Emilie. “Claire, remember when we were young? Abelard was a bachelor knight with no duties to anyone. He had not yet taken service with a lord and had been his own master, free to ride from tournament to tournament in search of fame and fortune. It made him seem more exotic than the others, who were all attached to one household or another. And it was part of what made him exciting. But you and I know that knight-errancy is fine for litera­ture but is quite correctly viewed with disapproval by society. It was as much his free-lancing as his status as a younger son that made my father mistrust him. And my father felt more kindly toward him the moment the Count of Poitou took him into his service.”
         “That’s true,” Claire agreed, though she could not see what Blanche was getting at. Now that the stockings were tightly bound with garters, both women stood, and Claire brought Blanche’s gown.
        “But don’t you see, Claire? He’s not like that now. Now he’s a sober and responsible official. He spends more time reading accounts than tilting, and his hands are stained with ink rather than chain-mail oil.”
        “But that’s nothing to be angry about!” Claire pointed out.
      “I know,” Blanche answered simply. What had made Abelard more glamorous and romantic to the maiden of sixteen had no appeal for the widow. On the contrary, Blanche had had enough trouble with dishonest and incompetent stewards in her lifetime to know how valuable a good seneschal was. Hughes and Emilie sang Abelard’s praises, and everywhere Blanche looked she saw evidence of the meticu­lous care Abelard took of whatever was entrusted to his keep­ing. “But he may not know I know.”
       Claire stopped in the midst of lifting a heavy, quilted surcoat. What Blanche said made sense, but it could not ease her fears. She had heard in Abelard’s anger something more violent and more primeval than a mere concern that he was no longer the carefree hero of their youth. Because she could not explain her fears, however, she could only sigh in resignation and finish helping Blanche prepare for her night out alone with Abelard.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Knight of Jerusalem: A Review by Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham published the following review of Knight of Jerusalem on Goodreads and amazon.com:

Knight of Jerusalem is an historical biography set in the Holy Land in the fateful decades before the Battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187). It is the latest work of historical fiction from Helena Schrader, who has published novels such as St. Louis’ Knight, The Disinherited and The English Templar and who maintains the wonderful blog Defending the Crusader Kingdoms 

The plot revolves around Balian d’Ibelin, third son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who rose in the mid-twelfth century to become Constable of Jaffa and later a baron in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It traces the rise of the younger d’Ibelin from an obscure and landless knight in 1171 to one of the heroes of the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 to landed and fabulously wealthy baron in his own right and member of the royal family by marriage by 1178. In the course of this meteoric rise, it chronicles Balian’s martial exploits, his diplomatic successes, his romantic entanglement with the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his evolving friendship the leper king, Baldwin IV.

This could easily have been a novel as bad in its own way as Ridley Scott’s stylish but ultimately fatuous film The Kingdom of Heaven. Faced with the inevitable trade-offs between historical accuracy and dramatic license, Scott’s film almost invariably opted for the latter, twisting and wrenching characters and events to fit a story that in the end was faithful neither to the historical facts nor the deeper historical truths regarding the world inhabited by those like Balian d’Ibelin in twelfth century Outremer. 

Happily for those of us who like our historical fiction to be faithful to history while still telling a cracking tale, Helena Schrader has struck an altogether different balance. To be sure, she does take some dramatic license. Her version of the story of Balian’s rise, for example, hinges largely on his close relationship with King Baldwin, despite the fact that there is no direct historical evidence that such a relationship ever existed. When she does so, however, it is for all the right reasons: because there are gaps in the historical record that she can flesh out without interfering with recorded history; because there are hints in the historical record that she can build upon; or because doing so enhances dramatic punch without unduly distorting the historical truth. In the end, Helena herself puts it best in her Historical Note: “Given these gaps and contradictions, this novel has opted for a lucid story line that is not inconsistent with key known facts and in no way violates the historical record, but condenses or simplifies some events to make the story more coherent and dramatically effective.” That she is an historian as well as a novelist probably has much to do with the fact that ultimately she strikes a much more appealing balance between history and drama than either Scott’s film or many other fictionalizations of historical events or characters circulating in the popular culture.

Lest I have left you with the wrong impression, though, I want to be clear: Knight of Jerusalem is not simply an academic work of history dressed up as fiction – it is a well-plotted, tightly written tale that vividly depicts the life and times of an intrinsically interesting historical figure. The characterization is well done, particularly in the case of the protagonist, but also notably in connection with some of the minor characters. The prose is smooth, the dialogue believable, the attention to historical detail (especially around matters equine) flawless, and both the martial and marital dimensions of the story are convincingly developed (which is not always the case in historical fiction). Finally, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable on the subject of the Third Crusade and the decades leading up to it, but the breadth and depth of Helena’s grasp of this era leaves me in awe. As far as I can tell, the story is marred by not a single mistake related to the complex and interwoven genealogies that are both an important element of this story and of life among the nobility Outremer.

Any downsides? Not really. The only misstep, and it is so minor a misstep that I hesitate even to mention it, is the use of the diminutive Barry to refer to Baldwin d’Ibelin. I understand why Helena has done this – to differentiate that Baldwin from King Baldwin. Still, I think restricting herself to the use of the name Barisan (which she also uses in connection with Baldwin d’Ibelin) would have been a better move.

At the end of the day, though, this is a truly minor quibble. Knight of Jerusalem is an entertaining and well-written tale that kept me engaged even in the midst of a busy university semester when I had plenty of non-fiction reading to do to stay ahead of my students. If you’re in the market for a thoroughly enjoyable work of historical fiction, I enthusiastically recommend this wonderful book.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Setting the Stage: Architecture and Furnishings in Historical Fiction

While few readers of historical fiction want pages of tedious and meticulous description, the setting of a novel is nevertheless critical to its ability to evoke an age and essential to its authenticity. Like anachronistic costumes or inappropriate language, an unrealistic setting can kill an otherwise brilliant book. 

The problem is two-fold. First, authors of historical fiction need to do comprehensive research on the architecture, furnishings and domestic art of the period of their works in order to accurately depict the domestic and public settings of the action of their novels. Second, the prejudices and misconceptions of readers about many time-period's need to be over-come and gently corrected. 

Let me give you an example. A contemporary visitor described a mansion in which the windows opened on either the sea or "delicious gardens." It had walls panelled with plaques of polychrome marble. It had vaulted ceilings painted to resemble the night sky. It had a great salon with a central fountain surrounded by mosaics depicting the waves of the sea.

Where and in what century do you think this palace was built?

A) 4th Century Byzantium
B) 13th Century Jerusalem
C) 15th Century Italy
D) 17th Century Britain

The correct answer is B -- and an early 13th century at that! The description dates from 1212, and the palace itself would therefore have been built several years earlier, veritably on the start of the 13th century. The palace, incidentally, was not even a royal one, but the residence of the Lord of Beirut, John d'Ibelin.

Yet I have read many a book (not to mention seen many films) set in this time period where the lords and kings are depicted huddling around fires in dark, gloomy and smokey castles of rough-hewn stone surrounded by fowl and dogs scratching in the straw on the floor. Now some of that may be attributable to location (i.e. the more "civilized" East described above compared to the cold outer edges of Europe such as Scotland and Scandinavia), but far too many of these books portraying the nobility of the 13th century living practically in caves are set in the heart of Europe -- France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain.

Correcting the misconceptions created by generations of earlier writers is a great challenge.  As an academic, it is tempting to site sources. Or, with ebooks, its tempting to include photographs of contemporary art (to the extent these exist.) But ultimately, I think it all comes down to credibility. If an author does a good enough job of describing the world of the novel in other aspects -- dress, weapons, technology, social attitudes and customs -- the reader will, maybe reluctantly at first, begin to believe the descriptions of the setting as well. I hope....

Friday, December 5, 2014

Balian's Wife: The Controversial (and much maligned) Maria Comnena

Historically, Balian d'Ibelin married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, who English chroniclers called "scheming" and modern historians and novelists alike have vilified. I think unjustly. 

In Bernard Hamilton’s essay “Women in the Crusader States: Queens of Jerusalem 1000 - 1190” published in Medieval Women (ed. Derek Baker, Basel Blackwell, Oxford, 1978), Hamilton argues that it was Agnes de Courtney’s “misfortune” to have “bad relations to the press.”  He notes that “all contemporary sources are hostile to her”, but argues that that “her influence was not as baneful as the Ibelins and the Archbishop of Tyre would like posterity to presume.” He then goes on to describe Agnes’ rival, Maria Comnena, as “a ruthless and scheming woman.” Now Bernard Hamilton is a noted historian, but my father taught me to judge a person by his/her deeds — not by what others said about them.

So let us look at the record, not the reputation, of the wives of Amalric I of Jerusalem: Agnes de Courtney and Maria Comnena.

Medieval King and Queen

Agnes de Courtney was, according to Malcolm Barber, betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin, but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, but she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  Whatever her motives at the time of her marriage, when Baldwin III died childless, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside. Why, we do not know. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce.  However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press.”

A King receiving the advice of his Vassals

Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died, married yet a third time. Until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him, and even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court. Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtney had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joceyln of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claim, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Hamilton next applauds Agnes “cleverness” in marrying both heirs to the throne, her daughter Sibylla and her step-daughter Isabella (Maria Comnena’s daughter), to “men of her choosing.” We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. The latter was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch, and then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to Hamilton, was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well: he allegedly stabbed the unarmed and unarmoured Earl of Salisbury in the back, while the latter was escorting Queen Eleanor of England across her French territories. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. This is not a matter of “hostile sources” just the historical record that tells us the dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper – than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.

A medieval depiction of the disastrous Battle of Hattin

In contrast, there is only one known instance of Maria Comnena actively intervening in the affairs of the Kingdom. This was when she pressured (or “browbeat” according to Hamilton) her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her marriage with Humphrey de Toron and accepting Conrad de Montferrat as her husband. Hamilton portrays this as an act of unbridled, sinister power-seeking on the part of Maria.  Why Agnes’ five appointments should be “clever” (despite the disastrous consequences) but Maria’s effort to rescue the kingdom from the appalling and patently destructive leadership of King Guy should be seen as “power-hunger” on the part of Maria is baffling. It is certainly not an objective assessment of the behavior of the two women.

True, Isabella appears to have become fond of Humphrey de Toron, but she was the heir to the throne and princesses do not marry for the sake of their own pleasure but rather for the sake of the kingdom. To an objective observer, forcing an eight year old girl to marry a total stranger is considerably more manipulative and inhumane then for the a mother of a 17 year old princess to put pressure on her daughter to put the interests of the kingdom ahead of her personal preferences. 

To make matters worse, Hamilton reports – with apparent approval! – that Agnes prevented the child Isabella from visiting her mother, effectively imprisoning her in her castle at Kerak from the age of 8 to the age of 11, a period in which, incidentally, Kerak was twice besieged by Saladin. In short, Agnes was hardly keeping Isabella “safe” – she may even have been courting her capture and death to ensure there was no rival to her own daughter for the throne.  But as that is speculation, I will leave motives aside and focus on the fact that she keep a little girl imprisoned in an exposed castle, denying her the right to even visit her mother.

Medieval Mothers were not less fond of their children than mothers today!

In short, Hamilton suggests it is legitimate – indeed clever -- to separate an eight year old from her mother and step-father and expose her to danger, but it is devious and self-serving when the mother of a seventeen year old persuades her to set aside the husband forced on her as a child. That’s a warped view of affairs in my opinion.

The English chroniclers and Hamilton attribute to Maria evil motives and accuse her of “scheming” and deviousness without bringing forth a single example to support these allegations – aside from the above instance of pressuring her daughter into an unwanted divorce. In her one recorded act of “interference” she induced her daughter to marry not some adventurer, who would lose the kingdom, but the only man the barons of Jerusalem were willing to rally around after the disaster of Hattin. Her choice for her daughter was a proven military commander, who had just rescued Tyre from falling to Saladin. So even if her “interference” was as selfish and self-seeking as Hamilton implies, it was considerably wiser than Agnes’ choice of Guy de Lusignan.

Medieval Depiction of Isabella's Marriage to Humphrey de Toron -- but as she was only 11 at the time, it's more likely a picture of her marriage to Henry of Champagne, sponsored as the depicted, by King Richard I

After this one act, although her daughter was queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205 and Maria herself did not die until 1217, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom again – very odd behavior for Hamilton’s unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.  In short, not a single fact supports his allegations against her.

Even taking into account how historians love revisionism, an objective observer ought to recognize that the contemporary sources favorable to Maria may indeed have had justification and just as much reason to condemn Agnes de Courtney. It’s time modern historians stopped slandering Maria Comnena just for the sake of re-writing history.