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.

Friday, March 30, 2018

St. Helena, the True Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Today, on Good Friday, I interrupt my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages to a look at the woman who located the site of Christ's grave and tell the story of the church erected on that site: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Helena was a historical figure, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I "the Great." According to most accounts she was born in roughly 248 AD in comparatively humble cicumstances, either in northwestern Anatolia or (less probably) in what is now the South of France.  She married the Roman officer Constaninius Chlorus, allegedly a man of equally humble background. However, Constaninius was an ambitious man and made a successful career. In 305 on the brink of becoming Caesar he ensured his elevation by repudiating Helena to marry Theodora, the daughter of Emperor Maximian.

On his father's death in 306, Helena's son Constantine was acclaimed "Caesar" by the Western legions, and he spent the next 18 years fighting rival emperors Maxentius and Licinius. In 324, he finally became sole emperor in East as well as West. Before his death in 337, he undertook major reforms of both the Roman Army and the imperial administration. He introduced a sound currency that was to last roughly a 1,000 years as the "gold standard" of coinage used around the Mediterranean. Last but not least, he  established a new imperial capital on the Bosporus in what became known as Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Yet long before his final victory over Licinius, Emperor Constantine raised his mother to the rank of Empress and had coins minted with her likeness on them. Furthermore, in 313 he (jointly with Licinius) issued the Edict of Milan that granted religious tolerance to Christianity. At about this time, Helena converted to Christianity and began to actively support the Christian church.

Helena used her status as Empress to finance the construction of a number of churches, notably in Rome and Trier, and is credited by Church chroniclers with great acts of charity for the poor and destitute. In 326, when she was already approaching 80 years of age, she  undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  

We know that at about this time, people living in the Holy Land began to revere a relic which they believed was the cross on which Christ had been crucified.  According to the Church historian Rufinius writing in 403, this object was discovered after Empress Helena ordered excavations in the environs of the Temple to Venus, known to have been erected on the site of Christ's crucifixion by Roman emperors intent on eradicating the worship of Christ. Early accounts say that she and the Bishop Marcarius undertook the excavations, discovering under the porch of the Roman temple ancient quarries or tombs. According to Rufinius (writing less than a century after the alleged events), they found three crosses in one of these. Taking pieces of each, they brought these to a sick woman, who on contact with the third recovered miraculously. Thereafter, that cross was revered as the cross on which Christ had been crucified. It as divided into several pieces, and these were distributed to various churches, only one being retained in Jerusalem.

Empress Helena also located the site of the Nativity and was responsible for the construction of a great church on this site as well. (See: Church of the Nativity)   Roughly one decade later, Empress Helena died and shortly afterwards was canonized as St. Helena.

In later accounts of the finding of the True Cross, Bishop Marcarius was deleted in favor of a traitorous Jew and the sick woman became a dead man brought back to life, but these legends are less important than the fact that a great church financed by and on the order of Emperor Constantine was constructed to mark the cite of the Crucifixion and Resurrection his mother had identified. This became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Modern archaeologists believe that, given the fact that the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection had never been lost from sight due to early eye-witness accounts and the later construction of the Roman temple, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built on, or very near, the site of the historical crucifixion and grave of Christ.

The first church on this site was a monumental Greek basilica 150 meters by 75 meters, covering almost exactly the same area as the Roman temple to Venus. This church encircled Calvary, or the site of the crucifixion, while a rotunda beside it covered the site of Christ's grave, reached by stairs leading underground.  

This church was burned to the ground in 614 when the Persians sacked Jerusalem. After the expulsion of the Persians in 628 under Emperor Herakleios, a more modest church was built on its foundations. This second church gradually fell into disrepair during the years of Muslim rule starting in 638, and in 969 Moslem troops set the church on fire causing the dome to collapse. Although repaired by 984, this church was completely leveled by the Caliph el-Hakim in 1009. A new attempt to construct a church on the site of the crucifixion was not undertaken until 1048, but given the status of the Christian community under Muslim rule and their limited resources this was not a significant monument.

Only after the re-establishment of Christian rule in Jerusalem with the First Crusade was it possible to again construct a church worthy of the most sacred site in Christendom.  This was undertaken by the kings of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and was consecrated on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem on July 15, 1149.  This new church covered both Calvary and the Holy Grave. It is essentially this church which we can still see today in Jerusalem. Although it has inevitably undergone periods of decay and reconstruction, it retains the fundamental design and many remnants of the original crusader cathedral. 

The Holy Sepulcher was a central monument throughout the crusader period and is therefore integral to descriptions of life in the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 1: Women and Political Power

Building on last weeks' entry, which confronted the common myth that women were "mere chattels" of their husbands in the Middle Ages, I plan to look more closely at the opportunities for women in the medieval world in a new four-part mini-series. 
I open today with a look at women's access to political power.

Non-historians are inclined to assume that progress is linear.  Since women did not obtain the right to vote in major democracies until the early 20th century, the assumption is that before the 20th century women had no rights. Yet, as the noted French historian Régine Pernoud argues eloquently in her book Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1989) women enjoyed much greater power in the Middle Ages than in the centuries that followed. Pernoud attributes this retrogressive development to the Renaissance and the attendant fascination with all things “antique.” The focus on Rome ultimately led to the re-introduction of many elements of Roman law, a legal tradition that was extremely misogynous.

The higher status of women in the Middle Ages as compared to antiquity and the renaissance and early modern periods stems from the two principles that formed the basis of medieval society: 1) Christianity and 2) Feudalism. Christianity, as I discussed in length in my essay on “Women as Chattels,” accorded women unprecedented status because it eliminated polygamy and divorce, while elevating women from sexual objects to spiritual beings. Feudalism raised the status of women because power derived through hereditary titles to land.  

Simplified: in feudalism bloodlines were more important than gender. What this means is that although the hierarchy gave precedence to the first born son over his brothers, and to sons before the daughters, it nevertheless gave the daughters precedence over cousins and illegitimate children of either sex, much less individuals without any blood relationship to the hereditary lord. Bonds of marriage, furthermore, were considered “blood-ties,” meaning that wives were given very powerful rights over property, which in turn gave them control over the vassals, tenants, servants and serfs that went with the land. In practice, the feudal focus on blood-ties and land meant that in the absence of a male, whether temporarily or permanently, females exercised the same authority as the absent male. In other words, in a hierarchical society such as feudalism, class trumped gender. Thus, while women were to a degree subject to men of their own class, they nevertheless had a higher standing and more power than men of any lower class. 

At the pinnacle of feudal society, queens were anointed and crowned because they were expected to exercise authority over the entire kingdom, and so the blessings of the Divine were deemed essential. This was not a nominal nor ceremonial power. When a king died leaving a minor child as his heir, it was normal for the child’s mother to act as regent.  In France the custom goes back at least to 1060, when, at the death of Henry I, his wife Anna became regent for their son Philip I.  In England, an example of this is when Isabella of France served as regent for Edward III after his father’s death but before he attained his majority.  Even when a king was not dead, circumstances might hand power to his wife. In England, Marguerite of Anjou ruled during the frequent periods of mental illness exhibited by Henry VI.  When Louis IX of France went on crusade to the Holy Land in 1249, he left his mother as his regent ― a function she had fulfilled during his minority as well.  Indeed, when Louis IX was taken captive by the Saracens, he negotiated a ransom with the caveat that, since he was a prisoner, his queen was reigning and only she could confirm the terms of the agreement. 

Admittedly, in the 14th Century, in order to preclude an English king claiming the throne of France, French jurists invented the so-called “Salic Law” that excluded women from the succession in France. This law stands in contraction to the laws that had been in place since the middle of the sixth century, when the edict of Neustria (ca. 580) ruled that daughters could succeed to the main manor (hereditary domain) if there was no son and sisters could succeed if there were no brother.  Notably, the same edict ruled that all other property (acquired by purchase or marriage) must be divided equally between all heirs regardless of gender. (Pernoud, p. 163).  Furthermore, the prohibition against women succeeding to the crown did not apply to other kingdoms from England and Castile to Jerusalem. 

Even more significant, across most of Europe women could be barons in the sense that they could both give and receive feudal oaths. The importance of this cannot be over stated: feudal oaths were the very basis of feudal society, they were the mortar that held society together, the social contract that made feudalism function. The recognition of a woman as a vassal and a lord ― not in her capacity as a man’s wife or daughter but in her own right ― entailed recognizing her as a fully independent legal entity. This was unthinkable under Roman or Athenian law, and, sadly, was not the case in the France from the 16th  to the 20th century!

As noted above, women were lords in the absence of males capable of representing their particular barony/fiefdom, but the essential point is that they were recognized as being capable of holding a title and the lands that went with it. Eleanor of Aquitaine held the Duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, and her vassals (powerful and militant barons for the most part) paid homage to her ― not to either of her royal husbands. The same is true of countless other women in the Middle Ages from Countesses of Flanders and Burgundy in France to Joan, Countess of Kent, in England. There were many, many others. In depth studies of specific lordships in France such as Troyes in the Champagne, for example, show that women held 58 of a total of 160 fiefs held directly (as opposed to being property of a higher lord, administrated by an appointee). (Pernoud, p. 180.) This suggests that women inherited at a rate of slightly better than one out of three. 

Not only did women hold the titles, they controlled the lands and commanded the men and women that went with them. One of my favorite stories in that of the “Keeper of the King’s Forrest” and Constable of Lincoln in 1217 ― a certain Nicholaa, who Austin Hernon has brought wonderfully to life in his well-researched novel The Women Who Saved England.  She defended the castle of Lincoln against forces attempting to put the King of France on England’s throne during the minority of Henry III. She withstood multiple assaults, commanding the men of the garrison in person. But there are literally countless cases of women holding and defending castles against siege and storm.

Last but not least, no description of political power in the Middle Ages would be complete without noting that the emergence of nuns and convents in the 5th century AD opened completely new opportunities for women. Convents were centers of learning, music, and illumination (something I’ll discuss in more length in my essay on women and education).  The Order of the Hospital also offered women careers in social work and medical care ― not to mention an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. Critical to understanding these institutions is to note that they were self-governing, so that women were not subject to any men inside the community, and ― often completely overlooked ― in many double foundations (monastery and convent side-by-side) the Abbess ruled over the men as well as the women. What this means is that monks entering the monastery took their vows to the abbess ― not the abbot. Finally, although such power is indirect, many abbesses enjoyed great influence outside the walls of the convent. As women of recognized learning and wisdom, some of the greater abbesses such as Agnes of Poitiers, Mathilda of Fontevrault, or Hildegard von Bingen, corresponded with popes, emperors and kings. 

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.

Maria Comnena, Byzantine Princess and Queen of Jerusalem, was certainly a woman with political power. She is the female protagonist of my Jerusalem Trilogy and also plays a significant role in “The Last Crusader Kingdom.

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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.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 6: Wives as Chattels

I conclude my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that women, particularly wives, were mere "chattels" in the Middle Ages.  It is a topic I have taken on before and revisit here.

"Tree of Affinity" Manuscript Illustration from Fitzwilliam Museum MS262
It is still common today to find people (even novelists writing about the Middle Ages!) claim that "women were mere chattels in the Middle Ages." The persistence of this notion is incomprehensible to me as it was very patently NOT true. Indeed, as the noted French historian Regine Pernoud makes exquisitely clear in her comprehensive book on the subject, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1969) women in the Middle Ages enjoyed substantially more status and legal rights than women in the so-called Renaissance and Early Modern periods -- indeed until the 20th century.

It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st-century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (400 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”

Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.

These women -- sold at auction by ISIS -- are "chattels." This was unimaginable in the Christian Middle Ages!

I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
Nothing increased the status of women in any period and anywhere in the world so much as the spread of Christianity. In fact, it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe and around the world to this day.

I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.

Divorce in pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard-won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelmingly by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply fail to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 

Thus the Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual object to life-time partner. 

Yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not unremittingly misogynous.

Let's start with the fact that the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 

Christ holds his arm around his mother's shoulders in this lovely mosaic from Santa Maria de Trastevere, Rome
On a more mundane level, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer, and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.

Over the next weeks, I will examine the status and opportunities for women in medieval society in more detail.  Meanwhile, the women in my novels are medieval women in all their complexity, power, and independence without ever stepping outside the roles and societal norms of the period.

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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 5: Filthy Pigs

I continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that people in the Middle Ages rarely bathed, knew nothing about hygiene and generally lived like filthy pigs. 

A favorite Hollywood convention is to portray people in the Middle Ages as filthy. Mice run across dinner tables while dogs fight over bones at their feet. Noblemen wipe their mouths on their sleeves (or hair!), and toss the bones from their plates over their shoulders. The poor are consistently depicted in filthy (and usually ragged) clothing and mud encrusted boots. Yet the evidence we have from the Middle Ages belies this image. 

First, we should remember that although the "Middle Ages" started with the "fall" of Rome that refers to the political and military might of Rome not Roman civilization. The  customs and habits of people across what had been the Roman Empire from Yorkshire to Palestine were not suddenly extinguished or forgotten simply because the political and military structures that had made it possible to rule an Empire from Rome were gone. Rome fell, Roman thought, customs and knowledge remained in the hearts and minds of people all across the former Empire. That culture included bathing....
Image courtesy of Crystalinks.com

Across the Middle East and Muslim controlled territory in Cyprus, Sicily and Spain as well as in the Eastern Roman Empire bathing and bath-houses remained a feature of daily life just as it had been in Roman times. In the West, the situation was less clear cut because this is where the “barbarians” had the greatest impact. Nevertheless, we know from the rule of St. Caesarius, writing in the very start of the 6th century, that nuns and monks were expected to bathe regularly for hygienic purposes. Other texts recommend washing face and hands daily, as well as washing and brushing hair frequently, and keeping teeth "picked, cleansed, and brushed [sic!]" (Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 84.)

Furthermore, bathing and washing are referred to in romances and depicted in manuscript illustrations throughout the Middle Ages. Washing hands before meals was part of the ritual at every manor and castle as well as in monasteries and convents. Washing clothes was so important that washer women ― always identified as older, respectable women very different from prostitutes ― accompanied armies. Women washing and hanging out clothes to dry are also a motif in medieval manuscript illustrations.

By the 13th century, possibly as a result of renewed contact with the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire and with the Muslim world during the crusades, bathing became very popular and prominent. Not only did public bath houses become numerous, but wealthier citizens invested in elaborate baths which by the 15th century including hot-and-cold running water fed from roof-top tanks. Even before that, the Franks in the Holy Land built aqueducts, bath-houses and sophisticated sewage systems. 

Obviously, “popular” and “frequent” bathing in the medieval context was fundamentally different than in the 21st century. It took much more effort to heat water over fire and coals, and (except for the very wealthy) it meant pumping or hauling water from a well and lugging it to a tub or going to a bathhouse. The later cost money. Not necessarily a lot of money, but it was not entirely free, and it was certainly less convenient that stepping into a shower at home today. So, yes, hygiene would not have been at the same standards as today, but that is still a far cry from kings wiping their sleeves on their velvet robes or having mice running across their banquet tables.


As for manners, descriptions and depictions of court rituals from coronations and weddings to religious processions and funerals make clear just how sophisticated and elaborate medieval manners and protocol were. Meals particularly were governed by elaborate rituals, starting with washing hands before meals and drying them on the towels provided by the server, and followed by clear protocols for pouring wine, for carving meat, and for assisting one’s table partner.

Likewise, there were rules of hospitality that included greeting a guest “courteously” and providing him/her with a bath and even a change of clothes, as well as a bed for the night, food and drink. Careful care of a guest’s horse as well as the guest himself was also expected, along with niceties such as holding the off-stirrup when helping a guest mount or dismount. 

While manners evolved without going away, in the early Renaissance, increasing urbanization led to increasing water contamination, which in turn led doctors to associate communicable disease with water. Water was seen increasingly as “unhealthy” just at a time when the Reformation frowned at the notion of men and women sharing public baths. Bath-houses fell into disrepute and increasingly disappeared from the scene ― without being replaced for several hundred years by private baths.  Thus, while the castles of the late 15th century had hot and cold running water, the palaces of the 18th century had no baths at all. Likewise, while people in the Middle Ages viewed bathing as both hygienic and pleasurable, by the 18th century bathing had been replaced by satchels filled with fat and blood to attract and collect flees and perfume to cover body odors. Development is not linear and progress not inevitable. 

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.

The personal habits and manners of the Middle Ages is reflected as accurately as possible in my novels set in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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