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.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: King Baldwin IV

No biography of Balian d’Ibelin can ignore the man who was king for the eleven critical years 1174 – 1185, Baldwin IV. Baldwin has gone down in history as the “Leper King” simply because he suffered from this illness throughout his reign, although this moniker detracts from his significant accomplishments as king. Our image of him today is further distorted by Ridley Scott’s film “The Kingdom of Heaven” in which Baldwin IV is a leading character. So as with Balian himself, I found myself confronted with a popular image of a major character that did not necessarily conform to historical reality ― or suit my purposes as a novelist.

Baldwin IV’s modern biographer, Bernard Hamilton, for example, provides considerable evidence that challenges conventional depictions of Baldwin IV as either peace-loving (ala Ridley Scott) or helpless (ala Jeffrey Lee). Hamilton also makes the critical point that Baldwin IV’s leprosy was not initially debilitating. Baldwin, he points out, retained the use of his left hand/arm and both legs and did not suffer from noticeable disfigurement at the time he ascended the throne. At that time, he had no visible ulcers and was able to move normally. Indeed, the contemporary chronicler and Baldwin’s tutor, the later Archbishop of Tyre, claims that Baldwin was “a good-looking child … and more skilled than men who were older than himself in controlling horses and riding them at a gallop.” 

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself. Unfortunately, this occurred at a time when the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had seized control in both Cairo and Damascus. Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. Unfortunately, internal differences between Frankish leaders delayed the campaign, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and the bulk of the crusader and local barons and knights of Jerusalem undertook a campaign in the north. Salah-ad-Din, who had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion, recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless, and invaded. As he approached Ascalon, a city that had been in Egyptian hands until 1153, he prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knights, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now the King of Jerusalem was in Ascalon and Jerusalem was practically defenseless. Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for heart of the kingdom: Jerusalem. Furthermore, he had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal. (This is such a dramatic historical event that I simply had to include it in my novel, and the best way to do was to have Balian in Ascalon at the time.)

Furthermore, Saladin had miscalculated. King Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. While Jeffrey Lee in his recent biography of Reynald de Châtillon tries to give all the credit for this victory to subject, his case is based on the false assumption that Baldwin IV was already an invalid in a litter. In fact, there is every indication that at Montgisard Baldwin IV led his own troops on horseback, still fit enough to ride and fight.

But the consequences of this victory for Baldwin personally were devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, modern medical experts believe that Baldwin IV suffered initially from polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which is comparatively mild and not necessarily debilitating. However, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), Baldwin’s leprosy deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. While puberty itself can induce such deterioration, so can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that Baldwin's leprosy took a turn for the worse.

When in 1179, Salah-ad-Din invaded a second time, Baldwin was unhorsed in the engagement, a clear indication of his deteriorating condition, and when Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride at all and had to command his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem flat-out refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere again. Baldwin dismissed him as regent, and dragged his disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army to relieve a siege of the castle of Kerak. The mere approach of the Leper King, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw, but by now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year later -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected rather than dismissed as “the leper king.”

As a novelist, the character Baldwin IV presents several challenges ― and opportunities. First and foremost, I was determined to depict the progress of his disease realistically rather than showing him as a worthless blob in a liter from the start, as so many other modern writers. In short, my Baldwin is a youth who is ill but not debilitated when he comes to the throne, but who over the succeeding decade must come to terms with his declining strength, mobility and life-expectancy.

Other issues I had to address were Baldwin’s relationship to his mother and step-mother. Because he was separated from his mother at a very young age he could hardly have formed very close ties to her as a child.  Instead, he was raised at court, primarily by nurses and tutors. Although it is usually assumed they would have had nothing to do with his step-mother Maria Comnena, it is just as possible that she took an interest in him. Indeed, in the inevitably small circle surrounding a ruling king and his heir, she might have been more like an older sister than a step-mother since she was only about seven years older than Baldwin. After becoming king, however, Baldwin welcomed his mother at his court and she rapidly gained inordinate influence over him. This suggests that although Baldwin had not known his mother well, he felt a gap or a need that Maria Comnena (either because of her age or temperament) had not be able to fill.

His relationship to his sisters appear to have been very different. First, Sibylla was only a year older than Baldwin, and although raised in a convent, she would have been present at major holidays and feasts as long as their father was alive. Given Baldwin’s later behavior to Sibylla (allowing her to marry a man totally unsuitable for example), it seems likely that they were close as children. Isabella, on the other hand, was only two years old at her father’s death and thereafter left court so that Baldwin is unlikely to have had strong bonds with her. This is borne out by the cold-hearted manner in which he ordered her taken from her mother at the age of eight and turned over to the “tender” care of a notoriously brutal man, Reynald de Châtillon.

As a novelist, these various actions suggest a youth who loved his mother and sister, but gradually came to see that they were only interested in their personal gain and so acting against the interests of his kingdom. In my novels, Baldwin suffers not only from the increasing ravages of leprosy, but also from a slow disillusionment with his mother and sister.

And then there is the issue of his relationship to Balian himself. Two historical facts suggest a close relationship. First, Baldwin explicitly consented to Balian’s scandalously advantageous marriage to the dowager queen (Baldwin’s step-mother Maria Comnena), and eight years later, when practically on his death-bed, King Baldwin selected Balian to carry his nephew in a crown-wearing ceremony; it would have been more appropriate for his nephew’s guardian (Edessa) or regent (Tripoli) to carry the young king, so this was very clearly a mark of favor quite exceptional for such an insignificant baron.
Based on these admittedly thin shreds of evidence but driven by the compelling duty of a novelist to produce a good story, I created a close and early friendship between Balian and the future king, based on Balian taking over the role of riding-master. (In addition to knowing that Baldwin rode exceptionally well, there are some indications he was taught to ride by the brother of one of his Syrian Christian doctors.) 

Based on the fact that after coming of age, Baldwin turned to his mother and she not only hated Balian’s wife Maria but also arranged for Maria’s daughter by King Amalric to been taken away from her, I postulated a break between Balian and King Baldwin― which is healed only shortly before the king’s death.  

Baldwin IV is an important character in the first two books of my Jerusalem Trilogy. 

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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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