Historical Findings with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Helena P. Schrader

Helena Schrader BRAG

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader has a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published numerous works of historical fiction and non-fiction. Visit her website  for a complete description and reviews of her publications, or follow her blog for updates on current works in progress, recent reviews and excerpts. For more on the crusader kingdoms and Balian d’Ibelin visit: Defender of Jerusalem or follow her blog on the Crusader Kingdoms at: Defending Crusader Kingdoms     

Helena is a U.S. diplomat currently serving in Africa.

From what I hear, Helena, whose novel “St. Louis’ Knight” won the Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction 2014 in the Medieval Category, is currently working on a three-part biography of Balian d’Ibelin. Many of you may remember Balian as the hero of the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven,” but the historical Balian was quite different from the film Balian….

Helena, what are some of the research material you discovered on personages and events for your biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin?

I can’t stress enough how important it was that I already had a sound grounding in medieval history from, literally, decades of earlier research before I started work on “Knight of Jerusalem.” I have a library that includes books on everything from chivalry to medieval cooking, from clothing, architecture, and art to warfare and criminal justice. All these sources were important because writing a book like this is not about reading a handful of books on a specific period. If you are going to write a really good piece of historical fiction you need to know about every aspect of society and what happened both before and after your particular period.

Almost equally important was travel to areas that once belonged to the crusader kingdoms, Cyprus and Jerusalem in particular. Actually visiting the cities, seeing the landscapes, exploring the castle ruins and sitting in the stillness of the churches was very, very critical to understanding the differences between “Outremer” — the crusaders states established in the Near East — and the more familiar medieval world of France and England.

For those interested in specific recommendations:

The key primary sources for this period are:

    • William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, is a history of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem from the First Crusade to William’s death in 1183/4. William was Archbishop of Tyre and Chancellor to King Baldwin IV. Although a native of “Outremer,” born in Jerusalem, he studied theology and law for almost two decades in the universities Paris, Orleans and Bologna. He served as an ambassador to Constantinople and the West in 1168 and 1169 respectively, and in 1170 he was appointed tutor to King Amalric’s only son and heir, Baldwin. It was William, who diagnosed Baldwin’s leprosy. At Amalric’s death, he was appointed Chancellor to the still minor Baldwin IV by the regent Raymond of Tripoli, a position he held probably until his death in 1183 or 1184. All these elements of his biography made him a first-hand witness to the events in the Kingdom of Jerusalem up until his death. He was also a very cautious and sober scholar, who made meticulous efforts to be impartial and “stick to the facts.”
    • The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre which covers the period 1184 — 1197 and which I have in translation by Peter W. Edbury, was even more valuable to me. It is based on a now lost account written by a certain “Ernoul,” who is widely believed to have been Balian d’Ibelin’s squire.
  • Then there are the Arab sources, which I have only read in translation in Francesco Gabrieli’s Arab Historians of the Crusades.


The best secondary sources I feel were:

  • Bernard Hamilton’s The Leper King and His Heirs
  • Malcolm Barber’s The Crusader States
  • Andrew Ehrenkreutz’ Saladin
  • Andrian Boas’ Crusader Archaeology
  • Peter Edbury’s John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (that is actually about Balian’s son but provides a good background chapter on his family, i.e. Balian.)
  • Timothy Miller and John Nesbitt’s Walking Corpses on attitudes toward and the treatment of lepers in the Middle Ages.

Knight of Jerusalem BRAG

How did people live in the walls of Jerusalem?

Life within crusader Jerusalem would have been exceptionally pleasant for the period. When the first crusaders took the city by storm in 1099 they carried out a massacre of the garrison and population that — while not as apocalyptic as often portrayed — left the city largely depopulated. The policy of not allowing any Muslims or Jews to live in the Holy City further reduced the population. The early kings of Jerusalem were compelled to invite settlers not just from the West but from Syria as well. Still the population never fully recovered and is estimated to have been no more than ca. 20,000 people in the second half of the 12th century. In consequence, Jerusalem was not densely populated and there were gardens and open spaces inside the walled city.

Starting with life at the top, the religious and secular authorities both maintained palaces in Jerusalem. The patriarch’s palace was located beside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and unfortunately nothing is now left of it. The royal family initially occupied the powerful citadel, whose oldest tower allegedly dated back to the reign of the biblical King David. However, they began construction of a “modern” palace early in the 12th century. Although this too has been lost to us, contemporary accounts mention that the royal palace had extensive gardens. Since it was largely built by King Fulk of Anjou, it was probably inspired palaces he was familiar with in France in this period — think of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s magnificent residence in Poitiers, for example, but it would have had “Eastern” elements of design and landscaping as well, however.

The gardens, for example, would have included palms, citrus fruits, pomegranates and other distinctive Mediterranean vegetation, such as oleander and hibiscus plants. More important, these palaces were not fortress intended for defense (as castles in Western Europe), but rather had purely residential and representational functions. There was no need for narrow, “arrow-slit” windows or massive walls. On the contrary, the crusader states had major glass-making centers, notably at Beirut and Tyre, and glazed windows were quite common, certainly among the upper classes. So the royal and patriarchal palaces would not have been dark, dingy and smoky, like the castles depicted in Hollywood. Instead, they would have been well-lit and designed with cross-ventilation for cooling in the summers. The tradition of mosaics and glazed tiles on both walls and floors, furthermore, had been inherited from their Roman, Byzantine and Arab predecessors (most of the houses in Jerusalem were taken over in-tact after the Christians seized control), as was the use of slender columns, often dating from the Roman period. A description of John d’Ibein’s palace in Beirut dating from 1212, for example, mentions mosaic floors so lifelike the observer was afraid of leaving his foot-print in the “sand” and polychrome marble walls as well as fountains and splendid views (large windows!) of the sea and the gardens. While John’s residence was built half a century later, it was also the home of a mere nobleman rather than a king. I think we can assume the royal palace of the Jerusalem and also the Patriarch’s palace were both very luxurious indeed.

Besides these two main palaces, Jerusalem housed the headquarters of the Knights Templar on the Temple Mount and the headquarters of the Knight’s Hospitaller, a huge establishment that took up a large city block and enclosed four churches, wards for over two thousand patients, a hospice for pilgrims, administrative buildings, barracks, kitchens etc. These complexes were large, multi-story stone buildings, again with tiled roofs, glazed windows, courtyards, and sanitation. The accommodation for the Master and senior officers of these powerful orders would hardly have been less luxurious than for the king and patriarch.

There were also lesser palaces for nobles and wealthy merchants. The foundations of these houses in some cases dated back to the Roman period, and many were Byzantine or Fatimid since the capture of Jerusalem had not entailed whole scale destruction of the architectural substance. Arab sources stress that even when they re-took Jerusalem in 1187 (after a siege that in which stone throwers had been deployed), they still found many beautiful residences with “superb columns of marble and slabs of marble and mosaics in large quantities.” (Ibn al-Athir)

Life in any medieval Christian city was, of course, characterized by the pervasive presence of the Church and nowhere — except possibly in Rome — was the Church more important than in Jerusalem. There was not just the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Calvary Chapel, but dozens of churches catering to different Christian communities, Syrian, Armenian, Greek and Maronite, as well as the Latins. There were also the two great mosques on the Temple Mount which had been converted into churches, as well as the austere but lovey Church of St. Anne and many more.

As for the bulk of the population, while accommodation would have ranged from the comfortable to the squalid as in any city in the world, nevertheless, this being an ancient, eastern city, it was well supplied with public cisterns, reservoirs, and baths. Indeed, most of the buildings in Jerusalem at this time had rain-fed cisterns to supplement the municipal water supply.

There was also network of open and covered markets. The covered markets are particularly intriguing and parts are still standing today. They were like tunnels, running nearly the entire width of the city, with vaulted ceilings and flanked by shop after shop. The paved walkways between the shops had steps to accommodate the slope and were not suitable for horses.

Due to the annual pilgrim traffic, Jerusalem was also a city with many hostels and taverns, while the shops would have sold all the exotic things pilgrims sought from relics and religious objects to silk, scents and Turkish carpets. But they would have sold all the necessities for everyday living such as shoes, candles, and soap as well. The city naturally had markets for grain, pigs, poultry, fish, herbs and spices. It had quarters for the jewelers, gold and silver smiths, for textile goods, leather goods, glass, and weapons. My favorite is the “street of bad cooking,” which was apparently a medieval precursor of “food courts” for “fast food.”

Last but not least, the streets must have been a veritable “tower of Babel” with the native population speaking Arabic, Greek, Armenian and French, while pilgrims came from the far corners of the earth speaking Norse, English, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, German and more.

I hope that answers your question, at least a little!

St. Louis' Knight

What are the myths today that persist about Balian?

I think it’s fair to say that if hadn’t been for Ridley Scott’s film “The Kingdom of Heaven” no one but a few scholars and historians would ever have heard of Balian d’Ibelin. So what we have is the Hollywood Balian and historical Balian.

Hollywood made Balian the illegitimate son of a certain “Godfrey,” who was the younger son of a French nobleman who had gone off to the Holy Land and become a baron, the Baron of Ibelin. The Hollywood Balian was left behind in France and is a blacksmith at the opening of the film. The historical Balian’s father, Barisan, was indeed like Godfrey in the film in that his origins are obscure and he made his fortune in the Holy Land, becoming the first Baron of Ibelin. However, in contrast to the film Balian, the historical Balian was a legitimate son born in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he had two elder brothers.

Secondly, in the film, Balian is shown having an affair with Princess Sibylla of Jerusalem, who is portrayed as unhappily married to a man of her mother’s choosing, Guy de Lusignan. Historically, it was Balian’s elder brother who allegedly had a affair with Princess Sibylla before her marriage to Guy de Lusignan, but the historical Balian certainly did not. Instead, the historical Balian made a spectacularly advantageous marriage to the Byzantine Princess and Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena.

I would like to note further that far from being forced into the marriage with Guy de Lusignan against her will, Sibylla not only chose Guy, she was fiercely loyal to him. She refused to divorce him even when under fierce pressure from her brother, King Baldwin IV. Later, although she was only crowned on the condition that she divorce Guy and choose a different consort, she went back on her word after she was crowned and anointed. Rather than setting Guy aside as she had promised, she had him crowned as her consort.

Thirdly, whereas the Hollywood Balian refused to take part in the Battle of Hattin and remained behind in Jerusalem. The historical Balian brought to the feudal army the third largest contingent of troops after the King and the Count of Tripoli. He was furthermore one of the most prominent commanders at the Battle, commanding the rear guard during the advance. Most important, he was one of the few Christian lords to fight his way out of the encirclement. He may have led one of the very last charges that came very close to reaching — and threatening — Saladin himself. Nor was this his first battle. The historical Balian is recorded playing a significant role in the Christian victory over Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177. By 1187, he was an experienced and respected battle commander.

Last but not least, Balian did not abandon the Holy Land after surrendering Jerusalem and return to France to become a blacksmith again as the Hollywood Balian does. On the contrary, the historical Balian played a key role in the Third Crusade and served as Richard the Lionheart’s chief negotiator with Saladin, when the English King recognized he had to sue for truce. He remained an influential and important power in the crusader states after Richard of England had gone home, and he founded a dynasty that was considered the most powerful non-royal family in the crusader states for the next three hundred years. Both his sons at different times were regents, John in Jerusalem and Philip in Cyprus.

Please tell me how Balian withstood seven days of continuous assault by Saladin’s large army during the siege of Jerusalem. That is quite extraordinary.

Indeed, and the most extraordinary thing is that he held the city with allegedly no fighting men other than himself. The King, remember, had called up the entire feudal army to meet Saladin’s invasion and that army was utterly destroyed at Hattin. The cities across the kingdom were as a result denuded of their garrisons, and what was left behind were the elderly and infirm, women and children. Jerusalem itself was flooded with refugees — somewhere between 60 and 100 thousand. It was out of this material that Balian had to forge his defensive force. It is recorded that there was only one other knight in the entire city of Jerusalem on his arrival, and that he knighted over 80 youth “of good birth” to (somewhat artificially) increase his fighting strength. Nevertheless, the bulk of the fighting must have been conducted by men past their prime supported by youths and women.

Beyond that we really don’t know how he did it. I think it is safe to say that Balian must have had an exceptional organizational talent and also been a charismatic and inspirational leader. He would have had to organize civilians into improvised units, and then assign these units discrete tasks — whether it was defending a sector of the wall, putting out fires, or ensuring that the men and women actually fighting were supplied with water, food and ammunition. Most astonishing, his improvised units not only repulsed assaults, they also sortied out several times, destroying some of Saladin’s siege engines, and at least once chancing the Saracens all the way back to the palisades of their camp.

I would like to underline the fact that Balian must have relied heavily upon women in his defense of Jerusalem. This was on one hand inevitable just because they must have made up the majority of the population after so many men had been lost at Hattin. But we also know from sieges only few decades later in the Languedoc (notably the siege of Toulouse in which Simon de Montfort was killed) that women could be very active in manning the walls. Unlike Victorian women, medieval women were not known for being delicate and prone to swooning. They were partners in crafts and trades, often had their own businesses, and when it came to this siege they understood perfectly what was at stake. They were fighting for their freedom.

What were women’s role during this period?

I’m glad you asked this! One of the most interesting ways in which the crusader states set themselves apart from contemporary societies was the prominent role played by women.  In the surrounding Muslim world, of course, women had neither names nor faces, much less a voice, in public. Western Europe, in contrast, saw several very powerful female rulers, notably the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the 12th century. Still the crusader kingdoms stand out because the high status of women in the Holy Land was more comprehensive and institutionalized than in either the Eastern Empire or Western Europe. This high status probably evolved out of the repeated failure of the ruling dynasties to produce male heirs and the high mortality rate among adult males period.  A look at the succession in the Kingdom of Jerusalem illustrates this well. When Baldwin II died in 1131, he was succeeded by his daughter, Melisende, who ruled jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou. When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende remained Queen of Jerusalem, and ruled jointly with her eldest son, Baldwin III.

At Baldwin III’s death in 1163, his heir was his brother Amalric I, but Amalric’s heir was the ill-fated Baldwin IV, the Leper King, who had no children, making his sisters (and through them, their children and/or husbands) his heirs. As fate would have it, in the century between the death of Baldwin II and the ascension of Friedrich II as consort of a Queen of Jerusalem in 1225, the crown of Jerusalem passed through the female line no less than ten times!

The situation in the other crusader states and baronies thereof was similar, if not quite so dramatic. Due to the almost continuous fighting and the many exotic diseases for which the Westerners had no immunity, mortality rates among knights and barons in the crusader kingdoms were exceptionally high. While many men died without any heir, even more died without a male heir. The small size of the Latin elite combined with the natural desire of families to retain their lands led to the early recognition of female inheritance. By 1131, laws guaranteed the right of daughters to inherit, and primogeniture of eldest daughter in the absence of a son was recognized. As a result, the title to baronies repeatedly passed through heiress rather than heirs. This fact alone would have raised the importance of women, but it is significant that these queens (princesses, countesses and ladies) were not passive vessels. Not only did women act as regents and receive homage from vassals, they enjoyed a freedom of movement and opinion that scandalized the Muslim – and sometimes the Christian – world.  While the sexual antics of the some royal women may indeed have deserved censure, the higher status of women generally meant that widows in the crusader kingdoms exercised far more control over their property and their lives. The higher status of women also impacted their daily lives. Upper class women were literate as they could not otherwise conduct their affairs, and they owned books. Some accounts stress that they rode astride for greater safety in an always precarious environment, something that gave them greater mobility. They did not have to go veiled in public, although women almost certainly covered their faces from the ravaging effects of the Palestinian summer sun when out of doors.  But perhaps most important, they were entitled to their opinions, free to voice them and often heeded by their male contemporaries. William of Tyre records multiple instances when Queen Melisende’s opinion or that of her sisters was sought out. Likewise, the Count of Flanders sought the advice of Dowager Queen Maria in a dispute with Baldwin IV and the High Court. The Lady of Tiberius and of Oultrejourdain are examples of non-royal women with documented influence. Compared to their faceless and voiceless sisters in the Muslim world, the fact that women in the crusader states were viewed as intelligent human beings with opinions worth hearing was undoubtedly the greatest privilege of all.


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