Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chivarly and Balian d'Ibelin: Honor

The code of chivalry required that knights be honorable or conduct themselves in an honorable manner. The concept is vague and rooted in societal norms that change over time. What was honorable in the 12th century might not be considered so today and vice-versa. Essentially, it boils down to "doing the right thing" -- i.e. the morally correct behavior even if that is at odds with one's self-interest. At a minimum, however, honorable behavior entailed being honest and trustworthy.  

The best evidence that Balian d’Ibelin was viewed by his contemporaries as a man of honor comes from no one less than Saladin.

Having fought his way out of the debacle on the Horns of Hattin, Balian found himself in the comparative safety of Tyre, but his wife and children were in Jerusalem. The Holy City was by this time denuded of defenders, but flooded by refugees. Furthermore, Salah ad-Din had vowed to retake Jerusalem for Islam, and a siege was immanent. In these circumstances, Balian requested a safe-conduct from Saladin to fetch his wife and children out of the endangered city and bring them to the comparative safety of Tyre. The Sultan granted the safe conduct on the condition that the Baron of Ibelin go unarmed and stay only one night; Ibelin took an oath to do exactly this.

On arrival in Jerusalem, however, the tens of thousands of Christians trapped in Jerusalem (reportedly between sixty and a hundred thousand) desperately pleaded with Ibelin to stay and take over command of the defense. The Patriarch explicitly told Balian that it would be more honorable to break his oath to Saladin than to keep it -- a clear indication that "honor" had more to do with doing what was "right" (by the standards of the day) than merely keeping one's word.

But what was the honorable thing for an Christian lord to do in such a situation? Keep his word and abandon tens of thousands of Christians to a hopeless siege that could only end in the slaughter or enslavement of them all? Or break his oath (his word of honor) and try to provide the disorganized refugees with military organization, leadership and expertise?

Ibelin saw his duty in defending the helpless -- despite the fact that this entailed condemning his own wife and family to remaining in the threatened city rather than taking them to safety. Unlike contemporaries like Guy de Lusignan and Reynald de Chatillon, however, Ibelin did not considers oaths to the Saracens  meaningless. Instead, he wrote to Saladin, explained the situation, and effectively requested that Saladin absolve him of his oath.  

The fact that Saladin not only did so, but also sent some of his own body-guard to escort Balian’s wife and children out of Jerusalem suggests that Saladin did not view Balian d’Ibelin’s action as dishonorable or as a betrayal. Furthermore, Saladin latter negotiated with Richard of England through Ibelin, again suggesting faith in his trustworthiness. Indeed, the tone of contemporary Arab chronicles in referring to Balian d'Ibelin (Ibn Barzan) testify to the degree to which Ibelin was held in high regard even by his enemies -- not because he was sympathetic to them but simply because he was "a man of honor."  

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Nobility

While the characteristics of chivalry could vary somewhat depending on source, a consistent component was "nobility." Certainly in the later Middle Ages, it was increasingly difficult for a man of low station to achieve the status of a knight. Yet knighthood was never confined exclusively to those of noble birth, and being of noble birth was always only part of what medieval writers meant when saying a knight ought to be noble. In the 12 – 15th century it was most common for knighthood to be conferred for deeds of valor on the battlefield or service to the king, and in Balian's age, where knighthood was still a comparatively new phenomenon and chivalry only starting to become the dominant ethic, a man could be raised up by any other knight. In short, the virtue of nobility (as opposed to the noble class) was something more ephemeral and ill-defined. It had to do with living by a code of honor. 

Did Balian d’Ibelin do that? 

He certainly was not a Reynald de Chatillon, who broke treaties, or a Guy de Lusignan, who usurped a crown. His word was trusted or he would not have been able to act as an intermediary/emissary between warring factions, such as Raymond de Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan, or as an ambassador for both Conrad de Montferrat and Richard of England. From this we can infer that he commanded the respect of his contemporaries, including such men as Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lionhearted. 

But perhaps the greatest evidence that he was considered “noble” by his contemporaries (and they are the only ones who can truly judge) is the fact that his reputation was so great that it conferred status on his sons and grandsons despite the fact that he was the holder of only a tiny -- indeed almost insignificant -- fief. There were many barons with greater wealth and more exalted titles, yet both Balian's sons served as regents, his grandson was made Count of Jaffa and Ascalon (traditionally the title of the heir to the throne) and historians have described his descendants as "semi-royal."  

These honors were in part a function of family ties to the ruling houses of Jerusalem and Cyprus (through a step-daughter, Isabella, to the throne of Jerusalem and through a niece, Eschiva, to the throne of Cyprus). Yet it is noticeable that neither of these ties was so compelling that they need to have secured influence for generations.  That the Ibelin family held an exceptional and exalted status among the theoretically equal barons of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus  was, I believe, a reflection of the legacy of "nobility" left by the founder of the dynasty: Balian d'Ibelin.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Balian d'Ibelin and the Age of Chivalry

Balian d’Ibelin was a historical figure and my biography is based on the known facts about his life, but he is also the hero of my novels and as such he is intended to be a positive and attractive character. That, however, does not mean transforming him into a modern man with contemporary values and politically correct opinions. On the contrary, my goal is to portray him as realistically as possible and that means making him a positive figure in the context of his age. 

The end of the 12th century was the dawning of the age of chivalry and Balian was a contemporary and companion of Richard the Lionheart, who was seen by many of his followers and by later eulogists as the epitome of chivalry. Even in Ridley Scott’s film, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” Balian d’Ibelin is portrayed as a young man striving to be “a perfect knight.” 

But what was a perfect knight in the 12th Century?

Scott used the following oath both for Balian's knighting and the mass knighting at Jerusalem: 

“Be without fear in the face of your enemies.

Be brave and upright that God may love thee.

Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.

Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong – that is your oath.”

But was fearlessness, bravery, honesty and protection of the helpless the essence of chivalry?

Medieval primers and romances stressed a variety of virtues, including: Nobility, Honor, Loyalty, Righteousness (a strong sense of right and wrong), Prowess (courage), Love, Courtesy - particularly to ladies, Cleanliness, Diligence, Perseverance, Piety, Sobriety,  Humility, Mercy and Kindness, Generosity, and Compassion for the Unfortunate.

In my next entries, I will explore the extent to which the historical Balian met these high goals – or at least as much as we can judge based on the historical record.

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Balian d'Ibelin and the Third Crusade

Welcome to the Rave Reviews Book Club 2016 Book and Blog Party. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Helena P. Schrader is delighted to participate in this event featuring a wide-range of talented authors from all literary genres.

If you leave a comment on this blog entry, you will qualify for a free ebook copy of "Envoy of Jerusalem."

Hollywood made him a blacksmith; Arab chronicles said he was "like a king."  
He served a leper, but defied Richard the Lionheart.
He fought Saladin to a stand-still, yet retained his respect.
Rather than dally with a princess, he  married a dowager queen -- and founded a dynasty. He was a warrior and a diplomat both:
Balian d'Ibelin

Balian d'Ibelin, the hero of Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven" was a historical figure, whose biography was significantly different from the Hollywood character. I have written a three-part biography of Balian based on the known historical facts and extensive research about his society and contemporaries. As with all my novels, particularly my biographical novels, the focus is on the characters, and I am a firm believer that human nature has not changed fundamentally over the millenniaapply my understanding of human nature gained over the decades to get inside the skin of my historical characters.

The Hollywood Balian was born a bastard, by trade a blacksmith, seducer of a princess, who returns to obscurity in France after the fall of Jerusalem. The historical Balian, in contrast, was the legitimate son of a baron of Jerusalem, born in the Holy Land, the husband of the Dowager Queen and Byzantine princess Maria Comnena, a member of the High Court, and Richard the Lionheart's ambassador to Saladin.

For readers tired of cliches, cartoons and fantasy, my three-part biography of Balian based on the above facts not only brings this important and attractive historical character back to life, it provides refreshing insights into everyday life in the late 12th century crusader states. Rich in complex characters, "Envoy of Jerusalem," provides psychologically sound explanations for the decisions and actions of the men and women who made history in this fateful place and period. It offers humans in place of villains and supermen.

"Envoy of Jerusalem" covers the critical five years between the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the Third Crusade. When the novel opens, Balian has survived the devastating defeat of the Christian army on the Horns of Hattin, and walked away a free man after the surrender of Jerusalem, but he is baron of nothing in a kingdom that no longer exists. Haunted by the tens of thousands of Christians captives now in Saracen slavery, Balian is determined to regain what has been lost. The arrival of a vast crusading army under the soon-to-be-legendary Richard the Lionheart offers hope - but also conflict as natives and crusaders clash and French and English quarrel.

This novel follows the fate not just of kings and barons, but also knights, squires, sailors and tradesmen. It particularly focuses on the horrific impact of a lost war on women - many of whom were condemned to slavery and prostitution in the wake of defeat.

"Envoy of Jerusalem" portrays the clash of cultures between the natives of the Holy Land and the crusaders. It, unlike most novels set in this period, describes the Third Crusade through the eyes of the men and women who called the Holy Land "home," rather than those that came out from the West. Likewise, Richard the Lionheart is shown as a man of many parts, rather than a brute, buffoon or paragon of virtue.

Last but not least, "Envoy of Jerusalem" explores the crisis in faith that the fall of Jerusalem produced among Christians of the period. The characters struggle with understanding the will of God and their individual role and place in the presumed divine plan. 
Hope I've whet your appetite! 

For more information about Balian visit his website at: -- and be sure to check out the next stop for BOOK & BLOG BLOCK PARTY!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sneak Preview 6: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

The fate of the Christian captives enduring slavery is an important theme of "Envoy of Jerusalem." In this scene, we catch a glimpse of what is happening to the daughter of Balian's knight Sir Bartholomew in Aleppo. 

Beatrice prayed God for forgiveness as she brought the filthy linens to the laundry for the umpteenth time. Some part of her Christian soul knew that she ought to feel pity for the 14-year-old struggling to bring her baby into the world, but Fatima had been too heartless and selfish a mistress for Beatrice to feel anything but satisfaction. Imad ad-Din’s others wives were all older women, women he had married in his youth, women who had born him several children each and were in their own way not only weary but wise. Not one of them had been kind to Beatrice, but they had not be cruel either. They recognized that she was a slave because of misfortune beyond her control. For them it was simply the will of Allah that she had to accept no less than they did.

Fatima, on the other hand, came to the household after the death of Imad ad-Din’s second wife. At 13 she was still very young, but she had rapidly recognized that her 60-something husband was smitten with her. He had lavished gifts on her, seemed unable to deny her any wish, and neglected his other wives in his eagerness to savor her charms. The knowledge that she was the master’s favorite rapidly went to her head. She relished showing the other wives that she could get whatever she wanted, while they were rebuked for their “greed” and “covetousness,” if they asked for the smallest thing. She ate in front of them the ice and figs they had been denied, and she laughed and stuck out her tongue when the First Wife tried to rebuke her.

To the slaves she had been even worse, of course. No one ever pleased her, and she threw temper tantrums that included not only throwing things at whoever offended her but also scratching their skin with her excessively long nails or spitting on them. She had taken particular pleasure in mocking Beatrice, calling her “my lady slut” and “my lady whore,” asking how many men it had been the night of her capture. Was it three or four or maybe even a dozen or a score? What had it been like having so many different men inside you, one after the other? Had she been able to climax for them all? Her questions had been so shocking that the First Wife had intervened, chiding Fatima for immodesty and sending Beatrice away to spare her further indignity. But Fatima had pursued the game again when the others were out of hearing.

Beatrice straightened and put her hands to the small of her aching back. “Christ forgive me,” she muttered, “but I hope she dies and her little Muslim brat with her!” With a sigh, she reached for the clean linens, stacked neatly on shelves outside the laundry. She had stacked them there herself after taking them down from the line this morning and folding them exactly as instructed. (When she first came, she had often been slapped or kicked for doing things the Frankish way.) As she took the clean sheets, she was reminded of the effort that went into making them so — something she had not appreciated in her former life. Clean linens had simply been her right as a lady, and laundresses were an almost unseen part of the household. They were generally widows and other poor women, who were allowed to sleep in a dormitory and eat at the bottom of the table in exchange for keeping clean the underclothes, bedclothes and tablecloths of their lord, his family and retainers.  

But just this morning she had stood for hours over a cauldron full of boiling water, stirring the clothes as the steam drenched her in sweat and scalded her hands. The lye soap stank and stung, and the smell of it up close almost chocked her. The skin of her hands was permanently red and rough from the exposure to the damp heat and lye steam. She avoided looking at them now because they made her sad. Once, she had loved her long fingered-hands adorned with rings….

She entered the long, dingy corridor between the laundry courtyard and the haram, and was startled when the delivery door suddenly crashed open and people poured inside. They were chattering Arabic much too fast for her to understand it (although she now understood most orders and many ordinary conversations). An elderly woman was removing her veils, now that she was inside, and handing them off to the woman behind her, as she questioned the eunuch leading her toward the haram. She was dressed in very rich robes decorated with strands of gold, Beatrice noted with wistful envy. Most notable, her tone of voice was commanding; she was obviously a First Wife in some important man’s household, Beatrice concluded. 

The next instant, she was distracted by the realization that the woman trailing her, who had now removed her veils as well, was blond! More than that, she looked familiar. “Jesus God and all his Saints! Constance!” She called out in utter amazement.

The woman spun about startled, and then let out a cry of recognition so piercing it stopped her mistress and the eunuch in their tracks. They turned back angrily and saw the two Christian slaves fall into each other arms. A moment later they chattering in French, oblivious — and utterly indifferent — to the disapproval of the others. 

“Beatrice! Beatrice!” the new-comer gasped, clinging to her. “I never thought I would see you again! Oh, sister! What of your children?”

Beatrice clung to her younger sister as tears streamed down her face. “Don’t ask. Let us be thankful for this moment instead.”

Constance was suddenly crying too. Her heartrending wails came from the depths of her heart as she folded her head upon her sister’s breast and sobbed like a little child. She did not see the look of astonishment on her mistress’ face, much less hear the sharp question from the eunuch demanding an explanation.

“She is my sister,” Beatrice told him, meeting his glare firmly. “You may flog me till I die, if you like, or kick me ‘till my guts spill out my mouth, but you will not stop me from holding my own sister!”

“Leave them!” Constance’s mistress snapped. “We have more important things to do!” She swept on to see to her sister-in-law, leaving the Christian slaves alone in the hall.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life." 

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