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 clichés 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.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader States: Cuisine

Since Ancient Greece, food has been more than just a means of fueling the human body; it has been recognized as a pleasure. All cultures surround at least some meals with ritual and custom, particularly meals shared with strangers or guests. Most regions have distinct cooking traditions, and everywhere cooks are valued. Medieval Europe was no exception, and most readers will have heard of extravagant medieval feasts featuring game such as beavers and swans or spectacles such as pies full of live birds. 

We can assume that people in the crusader states were no exception to this general rule. Furthermore, residents in the crusader states benefited from being in one of the most fertile regions of the world ― no, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was not located in the North African desert used to film The Kingdom of Heaven, but rather occupied the biblical “land of milk and honey.” 

Furthermore, like cosmopolitan cities today, the crusader states sat at a cross-roads of civilizations, which ensured a variety of culinary traditions lived side-by-side ― and very likely influenced one another. On the one hand the inhabitants of "Outremer" inherited the cooking habits of earlier Mediterranean civilizations including invaders from the Arabian peninsula and the Near Eastern steppes, while on the other hand they also enjoyed the customs brought out to the Holy Land by Latin settlers from Northern and Western Europe. That said, I’m going to admit that we don’t have a lot of evidence for exactly what this mix of cuisines actually looked like ― much less how it tasted!

We do, however, have considerable information about what ingredients were available to the residents of Outremer, and this provides a basis for speculating and imagining at least some features of crusader cuisine. Before speculating on the content of crusader cooking, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the crusader states are credited by some historians (namely Adrian Boas) with an important culinary innovation: fast food.

The large number of pilgrims flooding the Holy City produced a plethora of cheap inns and hostels, places where pilgrims could bed down for the night. However, cheap places to sleep, then as now, did not offer meals, and so pilgrims had to eat elsewhere. A general shortage of firewood meant that not only was bread baked centrally at large ovens (usually co-located with flour mills), but also that “cook shops” producing large quantities of food over a single oven was more practical than everyone cooking for themselves.  The result was the medieval equivalent of modern “food courts” ― streets or markets on which a variety of shops offered pre-prepared food. The results were probably not all that different from today; the area in Jerusalem on which these cook-shops concentrated was known as the market (or street) of Bad Cooking ― the Malquisinat.

And now to the ingredients:

The staple of the medieval diet was bread derived from grain, and this was true in the Holy Land as well as in the West. Milling was a prerogative of the feudal elite, and bakeries were generally co-located with mills. In rural areas this was usually near the manor, and in urban areas the bakeries were well distributed around the city for convenience, something well recorded archeologically. The primary grains popular in the Holy Land in the crusader period were wheat and barley, but millet and rice are also recorded, whereby rice was not converted into bread but instead eaten by the native population that retained Arab/Turkish eating habits that included the consumption of rice.

Animal products were the second pillar of the medieval diet, highly valued, and correspondingly exploited fully from the meat to innards. Of the large domesticated animals, sheep and goats were the most common type of livestock in the Holy Land, and the Hospitallers recommended lamb and kid for patients in their hospitals. Jerusalem, however, also had a cattle market and a pig market. The latter is particularly noteworthy given the fact that both Jews and Muslims view pigs as unclean. However, a large (Orthodox) Christian population continued to live in the Holy Land throughout the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem, so pigs would have been bred and did not need to be imported. There is also evidence of camels in the crusader states, and camel meat is considered a delicacy in much of the Middle East. However, it is questionable that the Franks adopted the habit of eating camel meat. The camels of Outremer were more probably used primarily as beasts of burden not as food.

Of the smaller animals, poultry and fish certainly belonged to the crusader diet. Chicken coups and indeed whole villages specialized in poultry production have been identified by archaeologists. Fish, on the other hand, was vitally important becaus meat was prohibited on “fasting days” such as throughout Advent, Lent and on Fridays. In the second century of the crusader states, the population of Outremer was clustered along the coastline, and fish from the Mediterranean would have been plentiful and fresh. This would have represented a great enrichment of crusade cuisine unknown in most of continental Europe, where it was impossible (using medieval means of preservation) to get fish from the catch to the table in a form resembling “fresh” except in port towns.  The Mediterranean yields some of the most delicious fish, including squid and octopus, and shellfish and crab remains have been found in crusader archaeological digs.

Game, according to Hazard*, was available in the first century of crusader rule in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He lists gazelles, boars, roedeer, hares, partridge and quail.  However, after the territorial losses following the defeat at Hattin, population density would not have allowed for large tracts of fertile land in which game could thrive, so game probably disappeared from the tables of the elite in the states on the mainland. Cyprus, on the other hand, was not densely populated, and allegedly still had some exotic wildlife (including lions) that must have tempted medieval hunters.

Animal products such as eggs, milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese were, on the other, consumed in the Holy Land in the crusader period, the latter being more important than the former. While milk and butter is hard to preserve fresh, cheese is a product with a comparatively long shelf-life. Furthermore, cheese can be produced from cattle, sheep, goat and camel milk. A comparatively wide variety of cheese would, therefore, most probably have been available. Yogurt, being a product used heavily in the Middle Eastern diet, would likewise probably have been known to crusaders, though probably less readily embraced.

Vegetable varieties in contrast would have seemed limited by modern standards. Legumes were the primary vegetables of the Middle Ages, and in the crusader states the most important vegetables were beans including broad beans, various lentils, cabbage, onions, peas and chickpeas. However, fresh cucumbers and melons were both native to the Levant and probably formed part of the crusader diet.

Fruits were also a key component of crusader cuisine. The residents of Outremer had ready access to fruits such as oranges and lemons that were considered outrageous luxuries in the West, yet grew in abundance in the Levant. Along with typical and familiar fruits from the West such as apples, pears, plums and cherries, Outremer cultivated orchards of pomegranates (particularly around Ibelin and Jaffa). Figs, dates, carobs and bananas were also native to the region and continued in cultivation during the crusader period. But arguably most important of all were grapes, which ― of course ― were eaten fresh and dried (raisins and currants) and pressed/fermented as wine.

Other important trees that yielded important dietary supplements were almonds, pistachios and, most important of all, olives. Olive oil is and was fundamental to Middle Eastern cuisine. It is the primary source of cooking oil, used both as a means of cooking and a supplement for consistency and taste.

The most famous olive trees in the Holy Land: the Mount of Olives outside of Jerusalem
And then there are the “additives” that make such a difference to the taste of food: honey, sugar, herbs and spices ― all ingredients found readily in the crusader states. Indeed, refined sugar was one of the main exports of the crusader states, which had many sugar cane plantations in the Jordan Valley, along the coast and later on Cyprus. Honey is also listed as one of the major products of Cyprus during the crusader period. A variety of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano grow in abundance, as well as mustard seed and garlic. More significant is that many of the spices coveted by the West and only available at very high prices in Europe passed through the ports of Outremer. The coastal cities and Jerusalem had spice markets in which these exotic, high-value products were available in quantities and at prices unimaginable in the West. Thus crusader cuisine would have been enriched by the use of cinnamon, cumin, cardamon, cloves, ginger, lavender, licorice, nutmeg, sesame, saffron, and pepper among others.

Given the materials the cooks of Outremer had to work with and the inspiration they could draw from their Greek, Arab and Turkish neighbors, I think we can assume that ― despite the presence of some mediocre fast-food joints in the Market of Bad Cooking ― the chefs and housewives throughout the crusader states could produce some truly wonderful cuisine.

* Hazard, Harry W. ed, A History of the Crusades IV: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States.

See also: Andrian J. Boas, Domestic Settings: Sources on Domestic Architecture and Day-to-Day Activities in the Crusader States, Brill, 2010.

Daily life, including cooking and food, is depicted as accurately as possible in my novels set in Outremer:

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader Kingdoms: Domestic Architecture

The way we build our homes both reflects and shapes our lives. Thus the lay-out of homes reveals a great deal about the society in which they were built. Was collective living or privacy preferred? Was light or security more important? Was luxury or convenience given precedence?
As a novelist, it is impossible to evoke a bygone age or to depict a period effectively without knowing how the homes of characters were built and how they functioned.

The Bishop of Oldenburg, traveling to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1212, was stunned by the luxury of the residences of the elite. According to Sir Steven Runciman in his "Families of Outremer," Oldenburg was particularly impressed by the Ibelin palace in Beirut: 
Its windows opened some on the sea, some on to delicious gardens. Its walls were paneled with plaques of poly-chrome marble; the vaulted ceiling [of the salon] was painted to resemble the sky with its stars; in the center of the [salon] was a fountain, and round it mosaics depicting the waves of the sea edged with sands so lifelike that [the bishop] feared to tread on them lest he should leave a foot mark.
Unfortunately, nothing of this palace remains today

The same is true of the Lusignan palace in Nicosia, but Volume 4 of A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, Hazard, Harry W ed. provides the following summary:
The royal palace, adjoining the church of St. Dominic, seemed to travelers the finest in the world. Its great throne room, its balconies, its golden ornaments, its tapestries, pictures, organs, and clocks, its baths, gardens and menageries suggest the most sumptuous of medieval residences. (p. 175)
While both the above passages refer to palaces (baronial and royal respectively), the following is a more general commentary on Frankish domestic architecture in the crusader states. Writing after the re-conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, Ibn-Khallikan wrote:
"the infidel had rebuilt [Jerusalem] with columns and plaques of marble...with fair fountains where the water never ceased to flow--one saw dwellings as agreeable as gardens and brilliant with the whiteness of marble; the columns with their foliage seemed like trees." (quoted in Hazard, p. 138.)
Yet only scattered fragments of this sophisticated urban secular architecture from the crusader period have survived into the present. Even these remains have largely been obscured by the changing styles and functions of that altered the appearance of crusader structures almost beyond recognition in subsequent centuries. 

However, descriptions such as those cited above as well as systematic analysis of the archeological evidence enables us to imagine a great deal. As a novelist writing about the crusader kingdoms, I am compelled to utilize all existing sources, both written and archaeological — and then add a hefty dose of imagination. What follows is a short survey of the key elements that would have defined an urban dwelling in the crusader kingdoms.

Due to a general scarcity of wood, the basic building material in the Middle East in the crusader period was stone and/or brick. The latter, and often the former, was plastered over and whitewashed, both inside and out, or faced with marble in the case of important and representational buildings. The floors of poorer dwellings were either beaten earth or cut out of the bedrock, while upper floors were plaster. In wealthier homes the floors were usually flagstone on the ground floor, marble or mosaic. Courtyards were usually paved with cobbles.

The basic building block of houses in the Holy Land were vaults. Barrel vaults were the easiest and most fundamental building block and could be stacked on top of one another at perpendicular angles for several stories. A good example of this is the Hospitaller Castle of Kolossi. Below are three images of vaulted chambers: one an upstairs chamber from the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi, one a cellar from the Byzantine/Crusader castle of St. Hilarion, and the third showing a wine or oil press in the ground-floor chamber, something very common in the crusader kingdoms.

Groin vaults and rib-vaults, however, was also common, particularly in larger structures such as palaces, monasteries, customs houses, and the like. Here is an image of beautiful vaulting from Bellapais Monastery on Cyprus.

Most houses in the crusader states appear to have had at least one, and in urban areas -- particularly in the 13th century -- as many as three upper floors. The upper floors were often reached by means of an external stairway over a arch (see photo below), or by means of internal wooden stairs or even ladders through trap doors. In larger, rural structures, stairs could also be built into the thickness of the walls. The house below, located on Kythera, is much younger (17th century Venetian), but it has many of the features of crusader urban architecture.

Most buildings in the Middle East were crowned, then as now, by flat roofs (that might be decoratively crenelated) that often provided additional living or work space in the form of a roof-top terrace that could be shaded from the sun by canvas awnings, or a vine arbor. 

Whether used as a terrace or not, rooftops almost always collected rain water in a cistern.  Indeed, even the poorest and smallest of urban dwellings had cisterns, often several. All had settlement tanks to help purify the water.  Water could be pumped from these tanks to the kitchens or latrines. 

Many urban dwellings would have been built around one or a series of courtyards. These in turn contained cisterns or sometimes wells, kitchen and formal gardens, or working space, depending on the wealth of the occupant. The courtyard below in Jerusalem has many medieval elements and does not look so very different from what it could have looked like in the 12th century.

The courtyard in the next photo is from the Hospitaller headquarters in Acre. It is an example of a more spectacular, 13th century courtyard and only relevant for public buildings, but it is indicative of style, taste and crusader capabilities.

Poorer residents, who could no afford a house large enough to surround one or more courtyards often shared a communal courtyard. Around a courtyard, several dwellings were clustered, all with access to the common courtyard.  

Despite the prevalence of courtyards, Frankish houses were not inward-looking. Unlike their Arab contemporaries, the houses of the rich had beautiful balconies and logias that looked out over the streets from the upper stories. The roof of the logia in urban areas might be supported either by an arcade or by pillars. Some of these pillars were reclaimed Roman pillars, employed in a new function, but the Franks were skilled at producing pillars themselves and the capitals of these were famous -- even among their enemies -- for the lifelike quality of their decoration. In rural settings the logia could be even more dramatic as in the example below from St. Hilarion on Cyprus.

The working class on the other hand had workshops and store fronts that opened onto the street at ground level.

Doors throughout the Frankish territories from the mid-12th century until the end of Frankish rule were usually made by a wide, slightly pointed arch. This arch, borrowed from the Arabs before the beginning of true Gothic architecture in the West, was the dominant, indeed iconic, shape of crusader architecture. Poorer dwellings or secondary doors, however, could be square.

Windows could be either arched or square, with the Romanesque forms of “double-” or “triple-light” windows as common in the Holy Land as in the countries of the crusaders’ origin. Below is a lovely example of a medieval portal in Jerusalem, and left and right are two examples of windows from St. Hilarion and Krak de Chevaliers respectively.

Because there were major glass producing centers in the crusader states (notably Tyre and Beirut), window glazing was more common in the crusader states than in the West, a fact supported by both archaeological finds and descriptions. Right is an example of crusader glass manufacture. While the context is different, this glass demonstrates the very high quality of the industry generally.

Archaeological evidence suggests the Franks used both plate glass and round glass set in plaster (the latter being presumably much cheaper and more common) for their windows. Below is an example of the round glass technique used here in the Templar Church in Famagusta, Cyprus.

As the description at the start of this essay indicated, interior décor could include poly-chrome marble, but mosaics and glazed tiles may also have been used. Certainly, a wide variety of crusader glazed pottery has been found, using cream colors, yellows, greens and blues. The pottery gives us some indication of what colors and motifs could have been used on floor and wall tiles, although the evidence is lacking. To the right is an example of crusader pottery.

However, we also know that the Turks and Saracens were very fond of brilliant blues and turquoise tiles in later centuries, and these may also have been available to the crusaders. At least I like to imagine it so! Below is an example of modern tile work just to hint at the possibilities.
As for mosaics, the description at the start of the article is perhaps the best indication of quality and the fact that life-like motifs were possible in the crusader era. However, we should not forget that mosaics floors were very common in the Roman and Byzantine periods, and the many crusader residences in fact dated from earlier periods and retained these older tiles. Below is a picture of tiles that date back the 4th century AD and were allegedly commission by St. Helena. Particularly under the influence of the Byzantine brides of Baldwin III and Amalric I, Byzantine styles and artists were welcomed and employed in the crusader kingdoms. They would easily have produced tiles similar to this example from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Last but not least, as the contemporary written descriptions stress, no description of urban architecture in the crusader states (at least for the “upper crust”) would be complete without reference to gardens. Frankish elites oriented their houses so that their (glazed) windows looked out at either views (such as the ocean) or gardens. The Holy Land offered a variety of beautiful vegetation from trees such a palms and olives, lemons and pomegranates, to flowers such as hibiscus and oleander. Frankish gardens would have been beautiful indeed.  So to conclude, here is a picture of a garden in the crusader church of St. Anne in Jerusalem today.

Note: All photos except the glass and pottery were taken by the author. 

Recommended reading: Andrian Boas' Domestic Settings: Sources on Domestic Architecture and Day-to-Day Activities in the Crusader States, Brill, 2010.

Life in the crusader kingdoms is described in my three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin:

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Saladin

I'd like to close this series on Writing Biographical Fiction with a look at one of the  most challenging characters I had to deal with: the heroic and famous Sultan Salah ad-Din, known in the west as Saladin.

When writing about Saladin in a novel one is always confronted by the fact that he has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.” It is the image that dominates the mind of most readers coming to a book about the crusades.

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz catalogues in his meticulously documented and detailed biography of Saladin published in 1972, Saladin frequently used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  Ehrenkreutz also notes that Saladin spent much more time and money fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians; Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones.

A depiction of Saladin based on Ehrenkreutz would be too extreme -- and certainly too much to swallow for readers raised on the Kingdom-of-Heaven Saladin. That isn't what I wanted. However, it was important to me that I didn’t simply serve up the legend without any acknowledgement of historical reality.  Thus, in developing the Saladin of my novels, I sought to balance the two views of Saladin and focus on portraying him not as “good” or “bad” but rather as a highly effective political leader. I wanted a “worthy adversary,” for Balian and the crusader states, but not one who was a caricature of either virtue or villainy. I sought to create a man who was ambitious and ruthless in attaining and maintaining power, but also capable of generosity and magnanimity -- when it did not run contrary to his interests. Likewise, I sought to explain Saladin’s behavior by analyzing possible motives.

A particularly good example of this is the famous instance in which Saladin gave Balian d’Ibelin a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this a magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture since Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with a pinch of self-interest.

Equally important to me in my portrayal of Saladin was his unbending hostility to Christianity and his commitment to jihad. This has nothing to do with whether Saladin was “good” or “bad” (I’m not trying to make him a medieval ISIS leader), but it is essential to understanding what options were available to the Christian leaders. It is, as Israeli governments can testify, impossible to make peace with people who do not recognize your right to exist. Too many histories and novels are written on the premise that the crusader states could have co-existed with their Muslim neighbors indefinitely. This is simply not logical. Jihadist Islam requires good Muslims to spread the religion ― including by the sword ― and recognizes the right of select other religions to live under Islamic rule only under humiliating and burdensome conditions.

Last but not least, the Saladin of my novels is a man of his age and culture, and I have drawn on Arab chronicles and Islamic writings to depict his probable attitudes toward, above all, women. Muslims in this period found the presence of women in public life (such as queens, castellans etc.) not only incomprehensible but disgusting. The very fact that women had names and faces known outside of the family circle was viewed as immoral and dishonorable. The fact that women had a voice in political affairs, could control wealth, influence politics, and even command men was even more offensive. The differing attitudes toward women was one of the most crucial differences between Christendom and Islam in the 12th century. As a novelist with strong female characters, it would be nothing short of negligent not to highlight this fact.

Likewise, the dependence of 12th century Syria and Egypt on slaves is fact that I had no wish to gloss over or ignore. Particularly in the third book of the series, the contemporary attitudes toward slavery is an important issue and plot-line. Although I use the historical figure Imad ad-Din most directly to address this theme, quoting directly from his own works, Saladin too is consciously used as a representative of the world from which he came. In this sense, Saladin in my novels is both a character and a symbol ― but then so is Balian.

Saladin plays a significant role in the second two books of the Jerusalem trilogy.

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