Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Humility

The ideal knight was not a braggart. Medieval society as a whole, after all, was dominated by a religion in which the Savior himself was a humble man who preached that "the meek shall inherit the earth." The Church condemned both pride and displays of wealth and consumption. Indeed, pride was one of the seven deadly sins. That medieval knights often did not live up to this ideal goes without saying: chivalry was always the ideal, not reality. There would not have been so much preaching against excessive consumption and  extravagant dress and pageantry if knights and noblemen had not commonly been guilty of engaging in all of it.

Balian’s humility can best be judged by the fact that despite being viewed by Arab chroniclers as “like a king” after Hattin, Christian accounts singularly fail to describe a man who was "lording it" over his fellows. Indeed, even the chronicles that detest him, such as the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, attack him for other failings. They call him cruel, fickle and faithless -- all because he did not do Richard of England's bidding, but pursued his own policies.  Yet they notably fail to allege that the man who was "like a king" (and step-father of the legitimate queen of Jerusalem) was excessively proud or haughty.

Obviously, the absence of allegations of pride does not prove humility either. Yet when one considers the fact that Ibelin was seen as virtually the only nobleman in the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem with stature and authority, it is remarkable that he never himself laid claim to a position of per-eminence. Conrad of Montferrat, for example, who put up a spirited and successful defense of Tyre, almost at once laid claim to a lordship he had not inherited, and later laid claim to the crown itself. He has also gone down in history as grasping, intriguing, selfish and excessively ambitious, as a man willing to cut almost any deal with Saladin for the sake of becoming King of Jerusalem. 

Balian d'Ibelin in contrast acted consistently in cooperation with his fellow surviving barons, usually through the High Court, or at a minimum with prominent nobles such as Reginald de Sidon, the Tiberias brothers, and Pagan of Haifa. Given the fact that his eldest son later fought an entire war to defend the institution of the High Court of Jerusalem (i.e. the barons sitting collectively), it is fair to presume that Balian raised his son to respect this body and collective leadership instead of asserting one's individual rights. In the medieval context, that is a remarkable mark of humility.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Piety

Chivalry was from its inception closely allied to Christianity. It emerged in the 12th century, in a period of the crusades and monasticism, and it lost its hold on people with the Reformation. Some historians go so far as to postulate that chivalry was intentionally developed/encouraged by the Church as a means to "tame" or "direct" the violence of fighting men. While that seems far fetched for such a secular ideal (that tolerated a great deal of illicit love!), throughout the Age of Chivalry the Catholic Church reigned unchallenged in the spiritual realm, and chivalry paid respect to her. Thus by the 13th century a vigil in a church or the dedication of a sword at the altar had become a common (though not essential) part of the knighting ceremony. 

It can hardly surprise, therefore, that piety was a knightly ideal. The "perfect" knight, was a devout Christian who gave alms to the Church. Indeed, the most fundamental duty of a knight was to protect "the helpless" and "the Church." Because churchmen were not supposed to bear arms or draw blood, priests and monks, like women, children and invalids were considered the "helpless" people that knights vowed to protect.

Balian's piety is documented. In early 1187, when he was part of a delegation sent by King Guy to Count Raymond of Tripoli to try to reconcile the two. The other military members of that delegation were lured into a lop-sided battle which resulted in a massacre of the Christian knights.  Balian, however, missed this debacle at the Springs of Cresson. The reason: he had stopped to hear mass and was late for the rendezvous.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Courtesy and Cleanliness

These are two of my favorite knightly virtues because people so often ignore them. 

Courtesy, however, was essential in a culture that placed a high value on mutual love and earning the favor of a lady (as opposed to just abducting or buying her). Furthermore, courtesy in the High Middle Ages was also expected of young people when addressing their elders and of people of lower rank when addressing their superiors. Indeed, courtesy as an ideal was supposed to regulate communications between all people of "worth" in the Age of Chivalry, and a mastery of courtesy was demanded of children and admired in adults.

As for cleanliness, many people nowadays still imagine that people in the Middle Ages did not place a value on cleanliness and even abhorred it. The fact that people did not bathe frequently in the 18th century is extrapolated backwards, and I’ve read far too many books set in the crusades that portray the Muslims as clean and the Christians as filthy and stinking. Not true.

Bathing was much more difficult when water did not come running hot and cold out of a tap, but that if anything made it more valued.  It was an important ritual of knighthood itself, and is frequently portrayed in medieval manuscripts. The rich had private baths, and the poor went to bath houses.  In the hotter climate of southern Europe, from Spain to Greece, where the Romans had built large bath houses, the tradition continued particularly strong, and in the crusader kingdoms baths were built in the Turkish tradition  – by Christians. 

In fact, many pilgrims who came to the crusader kingdoms, were initially shocked by the extent to which the local population “indulged” in the pleasures of these bathhouses. The objection, however, was not to the concept of cleanliness but rather to the associated pleasures of massages and scented oils and the ambiance.  

As a renowned diplomat, capable of intermediating between Tripoli and Lusignan and negotiating on multiple occasions with Saladin, Balian would have had to have at the least a diplomatic manner and a courteous tongue. Admittedly, diplomacy isn't all about nice words, but it has been defined as "the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip."  I think we can assume, therefore, that Balian had mastered the virtue of courtesy to a high degree.  As for cleanliness, since Balian was one of the “local” lords, born in the Holy Land, we can assume he was a frequent visitor to bath houses. He, more than most knights in the west at this time, would have fulfilled the knightly virtue of “cleanliness.”

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Preserverance and Diligence

It is unlikely that the words "preserverance" or "diligence" spring readily to mind when one thinks of chivalry -- which is why I find them so insightful additions to the list of knightly virtues. Of course, if one looks at the romances of the Age of Chivalry, these virtues are represented in abudance. The heroes of chivalry were on a quest for greater glory, honor or love and they usually encounter many difficulties along the way. Without perserverance and diligence, success would be impossible. 

Real life in the High Middle Ages also required a great deal of preserverance and diligence. Knights were not born: they were made by years and years of service and training as pages and squires. Few men were knighted before they had endured many falls in the tiltyard, endless banquets requiring an understanding of protocol and manners, and hours of classroom instruction learning reading, writing, accounting and more.

Balian d'Ibelin must have had more than his fair share of both of these virtues. As younger son he probably had to work harder to make his way in the world as a young man. Which may explain why he was so tenacious as an older man. What is certain is that having lost his entire inheritance in 1187, he diligently rebuilt his fortunes -- step by step and marriage by marriage -- until the once obscure and insignificant family had become the most powerful in the Latin east. The House of Ibelin was so predominant and so influential, in fact, that Ibelins more than once challenged ruling monarchs, including the Holy Roman Emperor. They served as regents and constables, and their daughters married kings.

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