Today I’m delighted to welcome Sharan Newman* to A Writer’s Retreat to talk about her book (nonfiction) Defending the City of God: a Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem (Palgrave MacMillan 2014). When I began to read this book I realized just how little I knew about Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem, and her world. Her father was “a minor lord from northern France, Baldwin of Le Bourq,” and her mother, Morfia, an Armenian noblewoman. Melisende was born and grew up in Edessa, not Europe. This is a story about the crusaders who traveled to the Near East and stayed. It’s also about their wives and children, many of whom were not Westerners, but had been born in the East. It is a fascinating journey from the first to the second crusade, filled with entertaining anecdotes that put flesh on history—just what one might hope from a historian who has long experience writing novels.
Sharan has graciously agreed to field some questions for this blog post, so here goes:
Q Speaking of the first crusade, called by Pope Urban, you write: “The majority of [the pilgrims] went in white-hot religious passion, ready to suffer for the Faith. What could have been missing in the lives of the thousands who answered the pope’s call? They could have mended their sinful ways and entered convents and monasteries at home or devoted themselves to caring for the poor and sick rather than undertake such a dangerous and difficult journey. I think that their response may have had less to do with faith and more with doubt. Perhaps what many needed was physical evidence of Christianity. …a desire to reaffirm wavering faith and to earn personal salvation.” Why, then, do you think they stayed on?
A Actually, most of the pilgrims didn’t stay on. One of the myths about the Crusades is that the people who went were younger sons who wanted to carve out land for themselves. Whole families mortgaged their lands to go to Jerusalem. With them went their servants and often peasants living nearby. Although no kings took the first Crusade, many counts and dukes did, including Robert of Normandy. Of the people who stayed on, in some cases it was the lure of new (to them) lands. Others felt a responsibility to maintain their conquests for Western Christianity. There were large numbers of poor people who couldn’t afford to return or had nothing to go home to. These became farmers and craftsmen. Some integrated into the Syrian Christian communities. Reasons for staying were likely more numerous than reasons for making the journey in the first place.
Q This might seem as if I’m repeating the previous question, adding a new angle, but I think in the previous quotes you were speaking about the knights and commoners, and this is more about the nobles who led them. Very early on, you set the scene with this statement: “When the Crusaders first arrived in the Holy Land in 1098, few people living there realized that these Europeans were an invading force.” They were accustomed to the raids of western mercenaries. It took them time to realize “that these warriors had come to stay. …Within a generation these newcomers would become the ‘new Syrians,’ integrated into the social religious, and political life of the Near East, changing it as it changed them.” It struck me as similar to the “invasion” of North and South America. Do you see similarities?
A I see what you mean. There are some similarities but the greatest difference was the attitude of the invaders to the indigenous population. Valerie Flint wrote a wonderful paper on the debate as to whether Native Americans were human, since they couldn’t have “come out of Eden”. One thing the Crusaders were sure of was that they were going to the cradle of Christianity and Judaism. They were also aware that the Arabs and Greeks had a civilization in many ways similar to their own. Even the Aztecs and Incans were not accorded that respect.
Q Melisende’s mother, Morfia, might be treated by some writers as a tragic figure, married to the enemy, her father murdered shortly after she left by the people of her hometown, and then left for long stretches of time without her husband’s support while he was on campaign or a prisoner of his enemies. But you portray her as strong and practical. How did you come to see her in this light?
A I was fascinated by Morfia, who is largely neglected by historians and even contemporary chroniclers. She didn’t have an easy life, but there are hints that she made an admirable ruler. She negotiated for her husband’s release from captivity. She must have had property of her own for she sent Armenian archers to aid in the battles. And, she raised four strong daughters who seem to have loved her and certainly loved each other. Also, as I point out in the book, even though she had only daughters, there was no talk of her husband abandoning her and, when she died, he did not remarry. She would make a great heroine for a novel.
Q Melisende and her 3 sisters all come across as women who are confident, efficient, and accustomed to at least being an integral part of decision making. How much of that do you think came from their mother, Morfia’s, example, and how much from their own life experiences?
A I think their mother’s example was important but there were so many strong, capable women at that time that they may have felt it completely normal.
Q In the first half of the book, you show how the Western Europeans who had come to Jerusalem and then settled in the area became integrated with the local populations. This had become their home. They were an integral part of its makeup and politics by the time Bernard preaches the second crusade. Yet Louis, Eleanor, Conrad and all the rest descend on the area without any clear plan, as if ignoring the vast source of information their kin in the region might have provided. Am I right in seeing it this way? If so, why do you think they chose to do so?
A That’s a great question! I hadn’t looked at it from that point of view. Certainly Bernard was in contact with Melisende and his young uncle, Andrew, was a Templar in Jerusalem who wrote to him often. There has been a lot of work on families that extended across the sea; young relatives were sent out in much the same way nineteenth century British families sent their children to India to work. It is true that Louis VII and Conrad made a number of stupid mistakes because they didn’t listen to advice when they arrived and didn’t understand the situation. Hmmm… something to look into.
Q This book is a treat to read in so many ways. You manage to make sense of an extremely complex cast of characters while sustaining a light tone with droll asides in the text and even in footnotes. Anecdotes bring the characters to life and also provide background that might otherwise have been tedious. All of this makes the book an entertainment while yet instructing. Did you consciously decide on a light and breezy style for this book?
A That’s very kind of you. Actually, it’s just the way I look at the world.
Q What sparked this book? Contemporary events? A desire to correct the record regarding Melisende’s reputation?
A This grew out of my research for The Real History of the Templars. I hadn’t realized how many women were important actors in the Latin States. I wanted to find out more about them. I also became interested in the ethnic and religious diversity among the native population. Up until a few years ago, this still existed. Now ancient Christian and pre-Christian populations have been either wiped out or forced to flee. I began this before the Arab Spring but it was impossible not to be affected by the horrors going on there now. I wrote a blog post about how ISIS is different from the Christian and Muslim fanatics of the twelfth century.
Q Any chance you might use some of this material for a new novel?
A I want to, but I need to go to the area and do very different research. As you know, novels require one to find out what was growing in the area, what the weather was like, the composition of pottery etc. etc. I have a plot but am still working on the minutia.
Q You’ve written both commercial fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer the work of fiction or non-fiction?
A I like flipping back and forth. With novels I miss footnotes; with non-fiction I miss dialogue.
Thank for engaging with me about this remarkable book about Melisende and her world, Sharan.
* Sharan Newman is a medievalist and the author of the award-winning Catherine Levendeur mystery series, set in medieval France [start with Death Comes as Epiphany]. She has also written non-fiction: The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code, and The Real History Behind the Templars. A mystery, The Shanghai Tunnel, set in 1868 Portland Oregon, is as close to modernity as she wishes to go. Her latest nonfiction is The Real History of the End of the World for which she has created a blog. All of her books are available in various languages, most of which she can’t read. She likes the Russian best, where she is known as “Newmanova”. (I now have a new nickname for her!) You can keep up with her on her website and facebook.