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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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing Biographical Fiction: Maria Comnena

Maria Comnena, the wife of my central character Balian d’Ibelin, has an almost universally bad press. The Itinerarium characterizes her as “godless” and “fraudulent” and one of the most respected modern historians, Bernard Hamilton, describes her as “ruthless and scheming.” In literature, she is invariably cast as ― at best ― an unpleasant intriguer (e.g. Sharon Kay Penman in “Lionheart”) and ― at worst ― an evil witch (e.g. Hana Norton in “The Serpent’s Crown”) Yet, her marriage of Balian was almost certainly a love match on her part (if nothing else because no one, not even the king, could have forced a Byzantine princess and dowager queen of Jerusalem to marry against her will, nor was it the custom of the kingdom to do so). Furthermore, Balian’s devotion to her was demonstrated dramatically by his efforts to rescue her from Jerusalem even if it meant begging a favor of his worst enemy.  Why would Balian have been so devoted to a bitch (not to say witch)?

So my dilemma as a novelist was to try to first identify and understand why Maria was described in such negative terms by contemporaries and then decide if the characteristics that offended 13th century clerics were truly offensive. And secondly, as with Balian, I had to go beyond what was written about her and try to find evidence of what she did that would give me insight into the kind of woman she really was.

After doing my research, it became clear that Maria’s negative image in contemporary and modern sources can be traced back to a single incident: she pressured her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her first marriage in order to enable a second marriage to Conrad de Montferrat. Because this second marriage was against the interests of the English king, his supporters heap insults on Maria (and incidentally Balian as well). Because Isabella’s divorce from her first husband also paved the way for her marriage to Henry of Champagne, and her daughters by Champagne laid claim to their father’s county several decades later. French chronicles (beholden to the local claimants to Champagne) were frantic in their efforts to defend their patrons ― even if it meant slandering a dead woman on the other side of the world. In short, the primary sources that heap abuse on Maria Comnena are biased against her and anything but credible. Furthermore, aside from this one instance of pressuring her daughter to do what was good for the kingdom, neither medieval nor modern historians bring forth a single other example of her “scheming,” “deviousness” or “treachery.” 

As for saying she was “steeped in Greek filth from the cradle,” this may have resonated well with Latin clerics after the sack of Constantinople by Western mercenaries (aka the 4th Crusade), but it should not be used by modern historians (or novelists) as evidence of anything derogatory about Maria Comnena. On the contrary, what this actually tells us is that Maria Comnena was educated and raised at the most civilized city in the contemporary world: the imperial court in Constantinople. It means, objectively, that she enjoyed the high levels of education traditionally accorded the daughters of the Imperial family. She would have learned to read and write in Greek, Latin and French. Her great uncle was one of the most important patrons of the arts, responsible for a veritable artistic revival throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, and Maria personally is credited with inviting Byzantine artists to the Kingdom of Jerusalem to carry out a renovation of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem ― work whose quality we admire to this day.

Looking beyond the facile descriptions of Maria Comnena written by sources with an interest in discrediting her to her actions, I began to obtain a very different picture. As I note above, she was highly educated, and raised amidst not only splendor and elegance but at the vortex of power politics surrounding the most powerful monarch on earth at the time. Had she been destined for a nunnery, she might have remained apolitical or na├»ve, but instead she was selected for the diplomatically vital role of marriage to a foreign king at the age of about 13. (We don’t know the date of her birth, so her age is not certain, but her aunt Theodora was sent to the court of Jerusalem to marry Baldwin III when she was this age, so it is reasonable to assume Maria was roughly the same age when she was sent to Jerusalem.) 

Once she was Queen of Jerusalem she distinguished herself as a patron of the arts, but she also accompanied her husband on his trip to Constantinople. Conceivably, she was even behind this trip and may have at least been a factor inducing him to seek closer ties to the Eastern Roman Empire. If so, it was a very wise policy that offered the crusader kingdom the best form of defense against resurgent Islamic aggression. Her political astuteness ― or at least her presumed understanding of politics in Constantinople ― is confirmed by the fact that the Count of Flanders sought her political advice in 1177 when a joint military campaign with Constantinople was undertaken.

Maria Comnena’s second marriage is nothing less than a refutation of all allegations of being “power hungry.” A woman concerned with power and influence does not marry the landless younger son of a minor baron. Balian was so far beneath Maria in rank that the marriage would have been an insult and humiliation, and no one ― certainly not her teenage step-son, nor his unpopular mother ― could have forced Maria Comnena into it against her will. The precedent had been set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem (at the latest by Constance of Antioch, who defied a far more powerful monarch than the Leper King), that widows, even reigning widows whose choice of husband was far more political than for dowagers, married men of their own choosing. Maria Comnena, however, was doubly secure against any attempts to marry her against her wishes because she had the protection of Constantinople. Had a mere King of Jerusalem attempted to humiliate a daughter of the Imperial family with an unworthy marriage, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire would have been compelled to defend his honor. The increasingly debilitated Baldwin IV would not afford and had no desire to provoke the wrath of Constantinople. Maria Comnena married Balian d’Ibelin because she wanted to. Period. 

As Balian’s wife, she stepped down from center stage and (unlike the “ruthless” and “scheming” woman of legend), engaged in no recorded act of political interference. Indeed, she does not appear in the historical record again until Saladin sends his bodyguard to Jerusalem to remove her from danger before he began his assault. We do, however, hear of her dower barony of Nablus being attacked by a Saracen army in 1184. Since the army of Jerusalem was at this time gathered to relieve the Castle of Kerak, Balian could not have commanded the defense. All Christians in the city found refuge in the citadel and there were no casualties, something found worthy of positive commentary. The name the commander is not recorded, but the defense was most likely commanded by Maria Comnena herself. It was her city and women in the Holy Land of this period usually commanded the garrisons in their husband’s absence.

Maria’s next appearance in history is when she tells her daughter Isabella that unless she divorces Humphrey of Toron she can have “neither honor nor her father’s inheritance” ― i.e. the crown of Jerusalem. Here Maria is acting very much as a daughter of her house but also in the interests of her adopted country to secure the crown for a military competent king who enjoys the backing of the High Court of Jerusalem.

After this one act, although Maria’s daughter was Queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom.  Again this is very odd behavior for an allegedly unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.   

In short, not a single fact supports the allegations against her. 

Once I’d established the facts to my satisfaction, my objective as a novelist was to erase the slander obscuring our understanding of the historical Maria Comnena and to portray her as a woman who did her duty to her own family with her first marriage and followed her heart with her second. My Maria is thus highly educated, sophisticated and politically astute (as a daughter of the Byzantine court), but not in the least power-hungry, scheming or faithless. This is a woman who marries for love at 23 and thereafter devotes herself to the welfare of her family. This includes ensuring that her eldest child inherits the crown to which she is entitled (by extricating herself from an illegal and disadvantageous marriage), but does not entail trying to exercise undue influence over her daughter once she is queen. The Maria Comnena of my novels is competent, practical and financially savvy, but she has no need to be greedy, grasping or vindictive because she is supremely secure in herself and her love.

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