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, June 24, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Looking for Ibelin in Ibelin -- and Ascalon

The coast near Ibelin.

When writing a biographical novel about a man (Balian of Ibelin) who took his name from the place he was born, an author expects to find inspiration in the hero's birthplace. "Ibelin" was, after all, one of three castles built to defend Jerusalem from raids out Egyptian-held Ascalon. It was granted to Balian's father as a fief in the mid-1140s, and Balian was almost certainly born and raised there. He was so strongly associated with Ibelin that even after Ibelin was lost to Saladin, Balian and his heirs were still referred to as "Ibelins" -- generations after they derived their wealth and power from other fiefs and lordships such as Caymont, Beirut, Jaffa and Ascalon. 

So I went to Ibelin in search of Ibelin. Only to find that there is nothing there.

I drove back and forth through the modern Yavne, the historical Ibelin, and could find not a trace of the crusader city or castle. It was obliterated by highways, shopping malls, apartment buildings and parking lots. 

I continued just 18 miles down the coast to the ruins of Ascalon. Eighteen miles in this case did not bring a significant change in topography or climate, no sudden range of mountains, no gorges, lagoons, or desert. Both cities are located on the fertile plain along the Mediterranean coast. The lush vegetation and intensive cultivation of this landscape today echoes medieval descriptions of this coastal region being exceptionally fertile in the crusader era as well. Although Ascalon has a small harbor and Ibelin has none at all, Ascalon was never an important port.

Ascalon was, however, a very important city in the crusader period. It was held by the Egyptians until 1153, when it was finally taken after a long siege. The Egyptian defenders negotiated an honorable withdrawal and were not slaughtered, but they were expelled and replaced by Christian settlers. In 1187, Ascalon surrendered to Saladin after a feisty defense, but this time it was the Christian defenders, who accepted terms and thereby avoided slaughter and slavery. During the Third Crusade, Saladin evacuated and partially destroyed the city as the Frankish armies under Richard the Lionheart approached. Richard took the city and invested a great deal of time, effort and prestige into rebuilding it; reportedly he worked naked to the waist alongside the common soldiers to rebuild the defenses. Saladin's demand that he surrender Ascalon during the negotiations for a truce, almost caused the talks to fail. Eventually it was agreed that neither side would re-build or re-occupy Ascalon.

Many of the ruins that can be visited today date from the crusader period.
Remnants of the walls of Ascelon -- built in part by Richard the Lionheart?
Ascelon is an important venue for events in the first and third volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Oh, Jerusalem!

The "Jerusalem" in the title of Jerusalem Trilogy (Knight of Jerusalem, Defender of Jerusalem, and Envoy of Jerusalem) refers to the kingdom and king of the same name more than the city itself, yet it would have been impossible to write this trilogy of novels without having visited Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not only the capital of the kingdom by that name, it was the call, the magnet, the symbol and the heart of crusades and the crusader kingdoms. 

While men fought and died for the abstract notion of "Jerusalem," and the city was also the ultimate pilgrimage destination of medieval Christians because it was the site of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection Yet, despite all that, it remained a very real, secular and material city as well. Furthermore, it had a long history of habitation.  For the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the period of my books (1170-1192), the city already had a rich history and its face and character were the product of diverse influences. 

Jerusalem was, of course, originally a Jewish city. In the crusader period, the most important monument dating to the Jewish kings was the Tower of David, which formed an integral part of the medieval Citadel.

The Tower of David as it looks today.
Jerusalem had also been a Roman city, most importantly, at the time of Christ. The venue of key episodes in Christ's life were Roman, e.g. the palace of Pontius Pilate. But although some Roman columns and mosaics survived and were integrated into later architecture, very little is recognizable today. The Mount of Olives, however, cannot have changed all that much. Here a picture as it looks today:


The Byzantine city has also largely been effaced what came afterwards, but here is a model that historians have developed based on archaeological research: 

The Arabs were the most recent inhabitants of Jerusalem before the crusader period, and the most spectacular of their monuments was the "Dome of the Rock" erected on the Temple Mount. The Crusaders admired this structure greatly and far from defacing, damaging, destroying or neglecting it, they turned it into a church, the "Temple of God," and raised a cross over the dome in place of the half moon of Islam. Here are a couple of modern photos of the Temple Mount today, with the Dome of the Rock restored to a mosque.

The crusaders, however, also left a remarkable imprint upon Jerusalem. The most famous of the crusader/Frankish monuments is, of course, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: 

But the Church of St. Anne is also a masterpiece of Frankish architecture which has survived so well because it was converted into a mosque in the period after Jerusalem was re-captured by Saladin. It is now a church again:

As the setting for a novel (are important parts of it), however, it was the more secular buildings and institutions that are important -- the markets and suks, the houses, inns, streets and plazas. Here some photos of remnants of the Frankish city:

But what was Jerusalem like when Balian actually lived there? Find at more at: The Heart of the Crusader Kingdom. 

Jerusalem is particularly important as a venue in the first two books of the trilogy:

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Places for the Imagination

My novels are very character-centric with the main focus on character development and interaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of my novels are inspired by people.  My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real people, whose stories fascinate me ― General Friedrich Olbricht, Leonidas of Sparta, Balian d’Ibelin. Other stories, were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history ― a passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion, a short description of a donor or a grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….

Yet almost as important as people, places too inspire the imagination.  I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he led me through the Coliseum alone and confined himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.

I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour took) trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? where the Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?

Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon. I wrote a tale about an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about traveling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi are pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.

At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon, but now I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth, and Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves…. 

Although I never wrote that novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass field, and imagined the gentle peace shattered by the telephone, the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Doe wrote to me in a hand-written letter I treasure to this day. He said I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.” 

No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in the book saying you got the it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.

In coming weeks, I will be selecting some of venues relevant to the Jerusalem Trilogy and my current work-in-progress, The Last Crusader Kingdom. I hope my descriptions will inspire you to visit these unique places – either in my books or in person.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader States: Hygiene

For the concluding essay in my series on life and lifestyle in the crusader states I wanted to look at one of those topics that are vital but sometimes viewed as taboo: hygiene.

One of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages is that people did not bathe regularly and went around dirty and stinking. This is demonstratively not true. The Medievalists.net have published a good and lengthy post on the topic (Bathing in the Middle Ages), which provides a great deal of documentation and detail (such as Paris having 32 public baths in the 13th century and King Edward III installing taps for hot and cold running water in his palace at Westminster.) This entry is not intended to recount or compete with that or other sources, but rather focus on the unique traditions of "Outremer" or the Crusader States.

All the Crusader States established in the course of and subsequent to the First and Third Crusades were in locations that had been under Greek influence since Alexander the Great at the latest. They had also been part of the Ancient and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before coming under Arab and Turkish influence during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This means that for the native population the predominant traditions with respect to personal hygiene came not from the Germanic tribes, Vikings or Celts, but from Greece, Rome, Egypt and Arabia.

Whereas bathing in Western Europe is usually depicted in small, wooden tubs with curtains over them...

..the baths of any Roman town were generally gracious, spacious and elegant, often open to the skies in a series of atriums surrounded by colonnades.  They were public spaces in which men conducted business and politics. The baths of Turkey and Arabia, while darker and more inward-looking, nevertheless were gracious with domed roofs and elegantly furnished with marble floors, glazed tiles, benches and fountains. They were less important for business and politics but all the more important culturally because of the emphasis Islam places on personal cleanliness. Both the Greco-Roman and Arab/Turkish traditions shared the principle of having both hot rooms for steaming/sweating (like a sauna) and cold rooms for washing off. Both also integrated massages with fragrantly scented oils into the bathing experience.

When the crusaders arrived in Outremer they found a large number of functioning bath houses, particularly of the later (Turkish/Arab) type, already in place. Far from scorning, abandoning, dismantling or altering their function, the Frankish settlers adopted them readily -- rather like ducks to water, one might say.  Indeed, they started building their own, and archaeologists have identified a number of Frankish baths. These include baths in the Hospitaller and Templar headquarters in Jerusalem, at or near the monastery on Mt. Zion, at Atlit, a bathhouse on the Street of Jehoshephat near the convent of St. Anne, and another in the Patriarch's quarter. (For more details I recommend Adrian J. Boas' excellent works Jerusalem in the time of the Crusades and Crusader Archaeology.) 

The Frankish settlers in Outremer adopted some of the bathing customs as well. Thus, while men and women bathed jointly in Western Europe, they probably bathed separately (either in separate spaces or at different times) in Outremer, although this is not 100% certain. The crusaders certainly adopted the custom of massages with scented oils stored in lovely glass vessels produced locally.

It wasn't only the bath houses that the Frankish settlers of Outremer inherited from their predecessors. They also inherited Roman aqueducts and sewage systems. The Greeks and Romans (both Ancient and Byzantine) were famous for building very sophisticated and extensive networks for bringing fresh water to the public fountains of their cities, often from many miles away. The Franks followed this example and built a number of their own. Thus while cities dating from the Roman period or earlier had Roman aqueducts that the crusaders merely needed to maintain, the construction of new castles, new towns or water-intensive industry such as sugar plantations, brought forth new aqueducts that clearly date from the crusader period.

In crusader times, the city of Caesarea was served by no less than three Roman aqueducts.All photo copyrights: www.romanaqueducts.info
Likewise, the ancient cities were served by extensive (and again very solid and sophisticated) sewage systems. These consisted both of stone faced drains and stone or pottery pipes. The Byzantines, for example, used pottery pipes to bring sewage down the outside of their residences from upper stories to underground sewage systems. Frankish castles had extensive latrines with sewers that emptied well below the level at which people lived. While roof top cisterns and tanks provided the means to flush out these latrines with water (as we know castles in England did a hundred and fifty years later), the archaeological evidence is insufficient to verify the practice in the Holy Land. Archaeological evidence of highly sophisticated drainage systems to divert underground streams, however, have been uncovered, and the level of engineering skills available to the Frankish settlers of Outremer should not, therefore, be under-estimated.

To conclude, there may be a direct link between the hygienic conditions in Outremer and the hot-and-cold running water of Edward III and the Black Prince. The bulk of the crusaders, including Richard the Lionheart and Edward I of England, returned home, and by the time they went home they had probably become fond of the higher standards of hygiene enjoyed by the Frankish settlers -- the very standards that had induced the crusaders to ridicule the native "poulains" initially. (See Clash of Cultures)  The large number of crusaders returning particularly to France, Germany and England may, in fact, explain the fact that Western Europe saw a flourishing of "bath house culture" in the 12th - 14th centuries. 

Throughout my "Jerusalem" trilogy I endeavor to depict the lifestyle of the characters as realistically as possible.

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