Category Archives: history

Prop. 8 Falls

Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic has an interesting and revealing list of the facts the judge found in making his decision. These are facts, not opinions — propositions for which the plaintiffs found evidence and the defendants could find no compelling counter evidence. Go over there and check them out. Don’t worry; I’ll wait. Now, how many of these statements could have been accepted as facts twenty years ago? Ten? Five?

There’s one that made me tear up a little:

5. Same-sex love and intimacy “are well-documented in human history.”

Thank you, John Boswell. Sometimes even a medievalist can have an impact that lasts beyond his death.

Historical Fiction Online

I know that a lot of people who find my blog come to it by doing searches for historical fiction of one kind or another. I think many of you might like to know about the discussion board Historical Fiction Online. Its audience is people who love to read historical fiction, and it is a great place to discover novels from all periods and places, and to enjoy spirited discussion about your favourites with intelligent fellow readers. Many of the contributors are prolific book bloggers so you can use it to find new places to spend time on the net. And there are also many well-known authors who participate in its forums (hey, authors read too and writers of historical fiction are its greatest fans) so you just might find yourself discussing your favourite book with your favourite author!

Eleanor and Raymond, part 2

Okay we’ve read the evidence. What can the historian, and the historical novelist, do with it? Let’s be both prosecution and defence and see what we come up with.

The main problem with the story, I think, is our natural aversion to a tale of incest and the way it conflicts with our sympathy for Eleanor. What might a prosecutor say? Eleanor was quite young at the time of the Second Crusade, about twenty six. In all likelihood, before she met him on a pier in Antioch, she had probably spent little to no time with her uncle, since he had been at court in England prior to his journey to Jerusalem in 1136. And by all accounts, he was quite a hottie, tall and good-looking.

More importantly, attitudes to what we would consider incest were very different in the south of France, where Eleanor came from. The church at the time was trying to push a very strict definition of marriage that excluded even quite distant relative from marrying. But in the south they practiced partible inheritance, meaning a family’s property would be divided between all the heirs (including women) when the parents died. This meant that a family’s holdings would be divided into smaller and smaller pieces — unless relatives married and kept the bits together. And Eleanor herself was the product of a union that would squick most of us out. Her father, William X of Aquitaine, was the child of Wiliam IX. Her mother, Aenor of Chatellerault, was the daughter of William IX’s mistress, Dangereuse.

Many of the later salacious stories abut Eleanor come from the pens of authors in England who had every reason to discredit her in support of their king, Henry II, once the two became estranged. But the two who report the story of Eleanor and Raymond had little reason to shred her reputation. John of Salisbury was English, but much of his career was spent on the continent. William of Tyre, who is most explicit about the accusations, was even further from the world of the English court.

I’ve discussed evidence. There is also some interesting “absence of evidence.” King Louis’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil, wrote a history of the Second Crusade meant to glorify his master. Surely it was intended to cover the whole crusade, but in fact it ends abruptly right before the French reach Antioch. And there is some evidence that passages about Eleanor have been expunged from it, to minimize her role.

What can the defence say to all of this? Simply this: The crusade was a failure. And the chronicles our historians wrote were not meant to be simple collections of facts; they were to be moral explanations that explained why the world was as it was within a Christian framework. Failure was expressed as God’s will and the consequences of sin. The notion that a prideful, arrogant, greedy, or lustful woman could bring down a kingdom was an ancient one and used often in medieval histories to explain reverses of fortune. Certainly there was something wrong between Eleanor and Louis, which came to a head in Antioch. But perhaps Eleanor was merely supporting Raymond politically, wanting to remain with her armies to help him in Antioch, while her husband preferred to go south to Jerusalem. Unused to a political women, perhaps the historians just assumed sex was involved because it fit their moral universe.

It is interesting to me that while most popular historians dismiss the tale of Raymond and Eleanor, the most recent study of the Second Crusade by an academic historian, Jonathan Phillips, gives it much more credence. People who write historical fiction often talk about “getting the facts straight,” and of course this is important. But what I hope I have shown in these posts, is that history isn’t only or even mostly about a set of facts. We have very few facts, much fewer than you would imagine. What we have is evidence. And it is in the interpretation of that evidence that the historian and the novelist create art.

Eleanor and Raymond

In the spring of 1148, Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived with her husband, King Louis of France in the county of Antioch, after a horribly traumatic journey through Asia Minor (what we’d call Turkey) which ended with the loss of most of the crusader army they had brought with them. They were met by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s uncle on her father’s side. He had come to Antioch years before, hinting he’d wed the widowed countess, Alice, and instead, to her great chagrin, married her daughter, and claimed the county in her name.

The story told of Eleanor’s time in Antioch, that she had an illicit relationship with Raymond, is not one that tends to find favour with readers. It seems too gossipy and too, well, icky. Eleanor has entered the pantheon as a brave, strong, independent women at a time when they were rather thin on the ground, and it is just not a story that we want to believe about her.

So what do her contemporaries say? John of Salisbury raises the alarm bell in his Historia Pontificalis:

While they remained in Antioch to console, heal, and revive the survivors from the wreck of the army, the attentions paid by Count Raymond to Eleanor and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the king’s suspicions.

He goes on to say that when the king decided to leave Antioch, the queen wished to stay and use her army to help the count, and Raymond was more than happy to have her remain, if the king would give his consent:

And when the king made haste to tear her away, she mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife since they were related in the fourth and fifth degree.

In other words she raised the idea of divorce from the king, based on their consanguineity.
John tells us more:

There was one knight amongst the king’s secretaries, Thierry de Galeran, a eunuch whom the queen had always hated and mocked, but who was faithful and had the king’s ear like his father before him. He boldly persuaded the king not to suffer her to dally longer at Antioch, both because, “Guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed,” and because it would be a lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks if in addition to the other disasters, it was reported that the king had been deserted by his wife or robbed of her.

Thierry’s words about guilt under kinship’s guise are meant to imply a sinful relationship between Eleanor and her uncle, and John is well aware of the irony of her using her distant relationship with the king to escape her marriage and stay with Raymond. The king did tear her away from Antioch against her will , and the two hated each other ever more. John recounts that they went in separate ships when they finally left the Holy Land, and that Pope Eugenius did a spot of marriage counselling when they arrived in Rome, pushing them to sleep in the same bed. John was in Rome at the time, so would have been in a good place to hear all the gossip first hand.

William of Tyre, speaking abut the same events, is more explicit:

The queen readily assented to Raymond’s design for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed her to be far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.

William, too, writes of Louis’s departure from Antioch and raises the spectre of s sneaky, night-time escape:

By the advice of his chief nobles, King Louis hastened his departure and secretly left Antioch with his people. Thus the splendid aspect of his affairs was completely changed, and the end was quite unlike the beginning. His coming had been attended with pomp and glory; but fortune is fickle, and his departure was ignominious

John and William both wrote their accounts some years after the events they describe, though both were alive during the events they describe. William would have been about eighteen when Louis and Eleanor were in the Holy Land, certainly old enough to hear the tales. There is also some evidence that is exactly contemporary that, at the very least, demonstrates the king and queen were having serious marriage troubles. Abbot Suger of St. Denis was one of those left in France to take care of the kingdom while Louis and Eleanor were off gallivanting in the Holy Land. He wrote the following in a letter to Louis, responding to one that is now lost:

Concerning the queen your wife, we venture to congratulate you, if we may, upon the extent to which you wait to express your anger, if there be anger, until with God’s will you return to your own kingdom and see to these matters and others.

Hmm, something was certainly up. Can we be sure, reading this evidence, that we know what it was? Was Eleanor unfaithful to her husband with her uncle? We still need to place this evidence in context. In my next post, I’ll do just that and give some reasons why she may be guilty as charged — and some why she may be innocent.

Sex Sells?

(Oh dear, the google hits on this blog are about to get really thrilling with that title!)

A staple of contemporary historical fiction is the novel about the famous man or woman, and a staple of those novels is some speculation about said famous person’s love life. Why not? That’s exactly the kind of information the academic historian is in a poor position to discuss, and it allows the author to reveal the personal, emotional side of a character, which is the reason many come to historical fiction.

But how far can you go? How far should you go? One answer to that question is that you can write whatever you like and speculate as much as you want as long as you do it well. But what if, as an author, you really want to stay close to historical fact, or at least plausible legend and contemporary rumour? The fact is, we can’t prove who loved whom in the past about anyone. We can’t even prove who was whose father if we go too deep in time.

There is a good deal of discussion about this question out there on the intertubes. Susan Higginbotham has been fighting the good fight to save Margaret of Anjou’s reputation. Kathryn Warner is fighting the good fight over on her blog to defend Edward II against the most outrageous attacks. And a really interesting discussion over on Historical Fiction Online about who Alison Weir’s recent Captive Queen and who Eleanor of Aquitaine may or may not have slept with is what started my interest in this whole thing. I can’t speak to most of the rumours used by Weir in her book because they cover Eleanor’s later career and I just don’t know enough about the sources. But in a future post (soon!) I want to discuss the original charge against Eleanor, that she had an affair with her uncle while on the Second Crusade. Today, I want to talk in a general way about how an author might deal with what counts as evidence about a medieval person’s romantic dalliances. An author is of course free to do what he or she likes, as long as it works. But what can an author use, and still claim that she or he is following history?

Rumours that emerge after, say, 1500 are extremely suspect. They usually come from academic circles, not really the best places for buried oral tradition to surface. Stories that are contemporary with a given person’s life are obviously the most deserving of credence. But that doesn’t mean they are true. Historians in the Middle Ages didn’t write because they wanted to get the facts down, and we make a mistake when we treat their works as simple unfiltred repositories of information. The wrote to make an argument and they used standard tropes and moral lessons, one of which was the wayward queen whose lust/greed/jealousy brought down the kingdom. So ideally we will have more than one piece of independent evidence that will confirm what we say.

But, to argue for the other side for a moment, how often do we have more than one piece of evidence about anything that happened in the Middle Ages? Often the chronicler who is the only one to tell us the queen was a bit naughty, is also the only one to tell us exactly what went wrong at the battle of Damascus. Does it make sense to dismiss the rumour, while taking the Damascus account unquestioningly as gospel truth? Not really. We must constantly ask why our sources write down everything they tell us , whose agenda did it serve, how the different stories support each other, and how credible we find their tales. Well, this is why writing history, fictional or non-, is difficult. But also why it is fun!

Next post: Eleanor and her uncle as a case study of how to read our sources.

Viktor Frankl

Anyone who spends time on Facebook knows all about those tests: “What European country are you?” “What decade are you,” “Which deceased female poet are you?” etc. Most of them are pretty unenlightening, not to say badly spelled (though I did admire the wisdom that correctly identified me as “Garden Party Barbie”) but today’s test, “Which psychotherapist are you?” reminded me of a name I hadn’t thought of in years. Evidently, I am Viktor Frankl, and I am a logotherapist.

Logotherapy, the therapeutic method developed by Frankl, teaches that human beings are primarily motivated by, not power or pleasure, but the desire to find meaning in their lives, and that we achieve peace when we find this meaning. We find meaning by doing a deed (work?), experiencing a value (truth, beauty, love; of nature, art, or a person), or, when all that is positive fails, through suffering.

If you have read my “About me” page, you will recognize that these are the views I share. Anyone who writes history is searching for meaning and is actively constructing it out of the chaos of data left by passing humans. Writing stories is a construction of meaning within the fiction/not fiction of the beginning, middle, and end of a tale. I don’t know if I believe that it is our primary impulse, but I believe it should be, that it is the only way to deal with the turmoil caused by all our other primary impulses.

I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in high school, I believe in religion class at he Convent of the Sacred Heart. I was interested in anything to do with the Holocaust at the time, and I remember appreciating it, though not drawing any especially lasting lessons from it. At the time I did not know that my grandfather’s sister died at Theriesienstadt, where Frankl spent so much time or that, like him, my great-grandparents and my grandfather’s sister were transported to Auchwitz, though with worse fate. What I wonder now is how much Frankl’s book might have stuck inside me without me knowing it all these years. It seems that reading an account of the Holocaust is a rite of passage for high schoolers these days (rightly so). I also believe we are made up of all the books we have read, as well as the experiences we have had and the people we know. I wonder if I would have been different if we had read Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank instead of Viktor Frankl at the Sacred Heart all those years ago?

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade

Amy Kelly’s engaging and evocative biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings says about Eleanor’s participation in the Second Crusade, citing Michaud’s History of the Crusades as her source:

With the queen came “many other ladies of quality,” Sybille , Countess of Flanders, whose half brother was King of Jerusalem, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouillon, Faydide of Toulouse, and scores of others whom the chroniclers could not afford the parchment to enumerate.

Do a google search for a few of those names. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’ll find that scores of other writers, both in published non-fiction and fiction, as well as web-based sources have taken those words as gospel truth and have published that list of names almost word for word — Allison Weir, Norman Cantor, Antonia Fraser, etc.
Problem. Not one name on that list actually accompanied Eleanor to the Holy Land — and as it happens, Michaud mentions none of them. Let’s take a look at them one by one:

  • Sybille of Anjou, countess of Flanders: She did eventually make it to the Holy Land, travelling with her husband on his third pilgrimage there, at which point she refused to return home and spent the rest of her days as a nun in the convent of Bethany. But during the Second Crusade she stayed in Flanders to run the county, leaving her husband to go to Jerusalem alone.
  • Mamille of Roucy: Died around 1122.  The Second Crusade began in 1147
  • Florine of Bourgogne: There is a Florine of Bourgogne who was married to Prince Sweyn of Denmark and apparently they both went on the First Crusade where both of them died in 1097.  One source suggests she remarried and died in the Holy Land in 1102.
  • Faydide of Toulouse:  She, at first, seemed the most promising because her husband, Alfonso Jordan of Toulouse did go on the Second Crusade.  But it seems Faydide died long enough before the crusade that Alfonso was able to marry and then separate from Ermengard of Narbonne before he left for the east.
  • Torqueri of Bouillon:  Not only can I find no evidence of anyone of this name, “Torqueri” does not even seem to be a woman’s name.  Or a man’s name.

So, frankly, shame on all these authors for simply accepting Kelly’s words as fact, especially the ones who claim to be writing non-fiction. But the lie has been repeated so many times, it has become a commonplace. Faced with that, what does the historical novelist do? Work the myth into the story — or change it?

Santiago Matamoros

Santiago — Saint James — can be found in several different guises. There’s James at the Transfiguration; my favourite, James as a medieval pilgrim; and this version I found in Barcelona on what was probably a church belonging to the military Order of Santiago, Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer.

James as a bloodthirsty slayer of Muslims, very medieval and crusade-y, no? Well, no, or at least, not as much as you might expect. While the ideas behind this image come from the time when Christians and Musims fought for contro of the peninsula, most of the actual images showing James on a horse, trampling a beleaguered Moor actually date from a time after 1492, the date when the Muslims lost control of Granada, their final stronghold in the peninsula. This one is dated 1580.

I guess it is easier to imagine yourself as a valiant slayer of infidels once they have already been soundly vanquished.

Sephardic Jews leave Genetic Legacy in Spain

A recent article describes genetic studies of Spanish men that show a high percentage of them bear traces of Sephardic Jewish and North African ancestry:

Sephardic Jews leave genetic legacy in Spain

From the 15th century on, Spain’s Jews were mostly expelled or forced to convert, but today some 20 percent of Spanish men tested have Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and 11 percent can be traced to North Africa, a study has found.

“These values are surprisingly high,” the researchers wrote in their report, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

They checked the Y chromosome, a stretch of DNA carried only by men and passed down with little change from father to son. Mutations in this gene can be used to trace ancestry, and some have been clearly linked to Sephardic Jewish and northern African populations.

“The genetic composition of the current population is the legacy of our diverse cultural and religious past,” one of the report’s authors, Francesc Calafell, from the evolutionary biology faculty at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said on Friday.

I thought it was fascinating, and useful data for medieval historians who are trying to weigh the evidence of numbers of Jews who were converted to Christianity and remained in Spain, and those who left. The high numbers of those with Jewish ancestry are especially significant given the usually low estimates of the population of Jews in medieval Spain. Another report suggested that the number of those with Jewish descent were relatively fewer in Catalunya, indicating perhaps the “success” of the pogroms against them in the fourteenth century.

I am of Sephardic descent through my great grandmother. Her last name was Bondy which means “Bon dia” in Catalan (“Good day” or “Yom tov” in Hebrew). My understanding is that all the Bondys in Bohemia were descended from one Sephardic Jew who moved to Prague in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. By chance, I am going to be spending a month at the university where they did this study in January — maybe I’ll have a chance to talk to the researchers!

I’m back

Old MontrealJust got back last night after ten days at the cottage in the Eastern Townships with a side trip involving a night in Montreal and a weekend in Quebec City. Much good food was eaten and conviviality shared, but what struck me was the potential for good historical fiction about this whole area.

There is an old and noble tradition of historical writing about French Canada during the ancien regime and the British colonies to the south, including the war of Independence — I’m thinking of authors like Thomas Costain, Thomas Raddall, and Kenneth Roberts. But when I say old, I mean old. Surely we are due for some reinterpretations. I thought of my friend with Renaissance and Early modern interests as I strolled the streets of old Quebec, still intact within its original walls, and couldn’t help feeling that this town in its restored beauty might provide as strong a sense of how the French lived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as any in France.

The photo at left is from Old Montreal, and it shows the “sailor’s church,” Notre Dame de Bon Secours (immortalized by Leonard Cohen as “Our Lady of the Harbour”) with the silvered dome of the Marche de Bonsecours in the background.