Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Dr. Helena P. Schrader

Dr. Helena P. Schrader

Dr. Helena P. Schrader

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.

Hello, Dr. Schrader. Thank you for talking with me today about your book, Knight of Jerusalem. Please give me a brief description of your book.

“Knight of Jerusalem” is the first book in a three part biographical novel about Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saracen in 1187. Many readers may remember the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” that featured Balian as the protagonist played by Orlando Bloom.

What was your motivation to write this biography?

Well, I have to admit it was that Hollywood film because when I went to the history books to find out just how much of it was true, I discovered that the known facts about the historical Balian d’Ibelin were (in my opinion) much, much more interesting that the Hollywood character and plot. So I got fired up to tell his true story, and the more research I did the more fascinated I became with both this exceptional man, his society and, indeed, many of his contemporaries as well — such fascinating historical characters as the “Leper King” Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the “rogue baron” Reynald de Châtillon, and all the characters the film skipped over like Balian’s real wife, a Byzantine princess, or his elder brother, who gave up his barony rather than serve Guy de Lusignan and Guy’s far more competent elder brother, who would one day be King of both Cyprus and Jerusalem.

Knight of Jerusalem BRAG

Your story is set in the last three decades of the 12 century (1171-1199), what was some of the research involved and how much time did you spend on this?

That’s a difficult question to answer because I first visited Cyprus roughly 20 years ago and that trip sparked an interest in the crusader kingdoms and crusader culture that has stayed with me ever since. As a result of that trip, I wrote a trilogy set in the Kingdom of Cyprus in the early 13th century (unpublished) and a novella set during the 7th Crusade (i.e. mid-13th Century), St. Louis’ Knight. The research I did for those earlier works was very helpful and left me with a solid foundation of basic understanding for the crusader kingdoms, 13th century warfare, social structures etc. that I could build upon. The differences between late 12th and early 13th century aren’t that great and it’s easier to learn by noting differences to a familiar baseline than to start completely from scratch.

Next you have to understand I have PhD in History, and while such PhDs aren’t terribly useful in the job-market, they do teach you how to do focused research, how to sort good sources from bad, how to watch for bias or inconsistencies in source material, and all sorts of other tricks that make it possible to conduct research more efficiently and effectively. I rapidly identified key primary and secondary sources, acquired and read them. I then mined their bibliographies for more sources etc. and within 6 months I had a strong grasp of the key issues, personalities, and controversies. But that would have been utterly impossible without the knowledge I already had, the castles, museums and churches I’d visited, the books I already owned and could rapidly refer to, and the discipline I’d learned in earning a PhD with a biography.

What is an example of Balian playing an important role in the crusades?

Without doubt his most important historical role was in saving the lives/freedom of an estimated 50,000 Christians by negotiating with Saladin at a time when the Sultan’s forces had already brought down a large segment of the walls of Jerusalem. At the time, Balian had already withstood 7 days of almost continuous assault by Saladin’s large and victorious army with no professional soldiers among the defenders in the city except himself. Nor should we forget that Saladin had vowed to slaughter all the Christian inhabitants. Yet Balian talked Saladin into sparing the lives of those he’d vowed to slaughter and enslave at a moment when the city was no longer defensible. That’s quite a piece of diplomacy!

However, technically, this wasn’t during a crusade. It was the destruction of a Christian army under King Guy and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem that prompted the West to launch a new crusade, the Third, led by Richard the Lionheart among others. Balian’s most important role in a crusade proper was serving as Richard the Lionheart’s chief negotiator with Saladin, when Richard realized he could not capture Jerusalem and had to return to his hereditary territories in England and France.

What is Balian’s religious beliefs?

Balian was a very devout Catholic.

Please tell me a little about Amalric I rule in Jerusalem?

Amalric was an energetic and effective king who defended the Kingdom of Jerusalem by trying to break the Islamic encirclement of the kingdom by conquering Egypt. Furthermore, recognizing the advantages of strong allies, he continued the pro-Byzantine policy pursued by his predecessor and elder brother Baldwin III. This included not only marrying a Byzantine princess, but conducting joint military campaigns with the Byzantine Emperor against Egypt.

I do not know much about Maria Comnena but she is someone I would like to learn more about. Could you tell me a little about her?

Gladly! Maria Comnena belonged to the Imperial royal family in Constantinople and as such she would have been very highly educated and well-read in classical as well as contemporary literature and theology. At the age of about 13, she was selected as the diplomatic tool for cementing an alliance between Constantinople and Jerusalem by becoming the bride of the King of Jerusalem. Amalric I was at the time of their marriage a divorced man with two children by his previous marriage. He was also more than twice Maria’s age and already very fat. Maria appears to have played an active role as a patroness of the arts, fostering a Byzantine influence that is particularly evident in the sculpture and architecture of the period. She may also have encouraged her husband to go to Constantinople and effectively vow allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor. However, she gave King Amalric only one child, a daughter, Isabella.

She was roughly 21 years old when Amalric died. Her dower portion was the very rich barony of Nablus, and so she became a very wealthy widow at a young age. The laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not allow for adult widows (those older than 15) to be forced into remarriage, so the fact that Maria chose a landless younger son, Balian d’Ibelin, as her second husband means that she did indeed choose him. I.e. it was a love match — at least on her part.

With Balian she had four children, and she lived to see her eldest daughter Queen of Jerusalem, and sons by Balian Constable of Jerusalem and Regent Cyprus respectively.

What is one of the historical facts of the period starting with Baldwin IV’s leprosy? And what sort of man was he? How did he treat his subjects?

Baldwin IV was diagnosed with leprosy at a very early age, but it initially manifested itself merely as a lack of feeling in his lower right arm. At the time of his father’s death, Baldwin IV was only 13 and probably looked completely normal. At 15 he was deemed mature and at 16 he led a dramatic, lightning campaign against an invading Saracen army led by Saladin that resulted in a dramatic Christian victory. Unfortunately, this campaign, which inevitably entailed sleeping in the open and not tending to minor cuts properly, probably induced the deterioration in his initially turbuculoid leprosy to lepromatous leprosy. Two years later, he was twice unhorsed in combat and thereafter led his armies from a litter. He died just before turning 24.

Throughout Baldwin’s reign, Saladin was increasing his power by defeating one after another of his Muslim rivals until he controlled a vast empire from Syria to Egypt. Baldwin, despite his leprosy, retained the loyalty of his vassals and under his leadership they repeatedly defeated invading forces led by Saladin. Twice Saladin retreated before Baldwin IV at the head of his feudal army without even risking battle. However, Baldwin’s domestic policies were far less effective. Early in his reign he came under the influence of his unscrupulous and grasping maternal relatives, his mother Agnes de Courtenay and his uncle the Count of Edessa. Under their bad influence he was persuaded to allow his eldest sister and heir to a Western adventurer, Guy de Lusignan. Although he later realized his mistake and tried to have the marriage annulled, it was too late. His domestic legacy was bitter internal divisions and an incompetent successor, who would lose the entire kingdom within less than a year of coming to the throne.

Nevertheless, I like to think of Baldwin IV as an immensely courageous young man, who must have had intangible charisma to retain the respect and loyalty of his barons and subjects despite his debilitating and increasingly disfiguring disease.

How did you discover indieBRAG?

Through fellow indieBRAG honoree Charlene Newcombe, author of “Men of the Cross.”

Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?

My study — which, in every house I move into, has to be made operational rapidly! (As a diplomat I move every 2 to 3 years usually into housing I have never seen and was assigned to by the Embassy Housing Committee.) My study consists of a desk with very good, natural lighting and floor to ceiling book-cases for my reference books — and internet connection, of course. My retirement home on a Greek island was built to ensure my study on the second floor had views both to the next (Byzantine) village, and across the Straits of Maleas to the snow-capped mountains of Taygetos behind (and so vital to) Sparta.

Who designed your book cover?

A wonderful artist I discovered on elance, Mikhail Greuli.

What are you working on next?

As I said earlier, this is just the first book in a three-part biography. I have completed the second book in the series, “Defender of Jerusalem,” that covers the dramatic ten years prior to the crushing defeat of the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187. The book ends with the subsequent desperate defense of Jerusalem against Saladin’s victorious army in September/October of the same year. “Defender of Jerusalem” has been to beta readers, revised as a result of their in-put, and gone to the editor for a second time. It is still on track for release in September this year. So, as the process of revising Book II winds down, I am preparing to work on Book III, the final book in the biography, which will be titled “Envoy of Jerusalem.” This book will cover the Third Crusade and the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus, during the period 1187 – 1199.

Do you stick with just genre?

My first publications were non-fiction books on women pilots in WWII, the Berlin Airlift and the German Resistance to Hitler — and, of course, writing diplomatic dispatches is the bread-and-butter of my “day job.” In terms of fiction, I’m very much a historian and so historical fiction is my genre; I have no patience for time-slip or mystery, much less romance or fantasy.

I’ve written several novels set in WWII, and in Ancient Sparta. However, whereas my earlier fiction works had fictional heroes, who interacted with historical figures, I’m increasingly drawn to serious historical biography.

Historical biography is considerably more rigorous than general historical fiction as you must remain true to the historical record from start to finish — not just at the intersection with historical personages and events. Essentially, the historical record is the skeleton of your work, and while the flesh and blood — the emotions, dreams, and fears — are extrapolated from the known facts, it’s not acceptable to add extra fingers or toes, or remove limbs or organs altogether. Historical biography is not just about entertainment; historical biography is a medium that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.

Thank you, Dr. Schrader! It was a pleasure talking with you. Please visit with me again.

A message from BRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Dr. Helena Schrader who is the author of, Knight of Jerusalem, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Knight of Jerusalem, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.