Thursday, 4 August 2011

Women & the Crusades: guest post by Nan Hawthorne

Today's guest post is by Nan Hawthorne, whose new novel Beloved Pilgrim explores the Crusade of 1101 from the perspective of a woman who went off to fight.

During my own research of Hildegard von Bingen, I uncovered this short description of female crusaders from the Disibodenberg Chronicles, written by the monks of the abbey of Disibodenberg where Hildegard lived from the age of eight as a child anchorite:

Not only men and boys, but many women also took part in this journey. Indeed females went forth on this venture dressed as men and marched in armour . . .

--From the Disibodenberg Chronicles, as cited by Fiona Maddocks in her book, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age.

Although the fiction might be romantic and compelling, we can't neglect certain historical realities. Muslims and Jews regarded these "Holy Wars" as genocide. Indeed, in Rhineland German cities and towns such as Mainz and Bacharach, many Jewish people met their deaths in the tumult of the crusading fervour.

The Crusade of 1101 and Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

The initial research I did to write, Beloved Pilgrim, had everything to do with my choice of the dates and events portrayed. Though many of us are familiar with battles and figures from the Crusades, the Crusade of 1101, though obscure by comparison, proved to be tailor-made for a novel. The actual event took place over only a few months and in itself was classic plotting, with a dramatic beginning, several setbacks, conflict not only between the crusaders and Turks but also between the Christian leaders who made such a mess of things, and the devastating conclusion. Reading more about the crusade, usually considered an extension of the First Crusade, I found that the context was ideal for character development and thematic requirements I already had in mind.

The chroniclers of this crusade did not experience it themselves, but scholar Steven Runciman was able to put together what is as close to a definitive history as possible. His work, A History of the Crusades: Volumes 1-3, was my and the rest of the world’s primary source, along with the able help of Jack Graham, a medieval warfare enthusiast who helped me choreograph battle scenes and fixed some apparent inconsistencies in Runciman’s account. That Graham had lived in Turkey was also very helpful.

Some may question whether a woman like Elisabeth could have fought as a knight. I was not able to find evidence of women who fought thus in the Crusades, but knowing about Joan of Arc, Boudica and Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, so I feel justified in portraying her as such. Her lesbianism is pure speculation.

One of the mysteries that came out of the Crusade of 1101 was what happened to Ida, Margravine of Austria, who disappeared and was never found again. The only theory extant, that she was captured and became the mother of a great Saracen leader, is easily dismissed as the man was already born when she arrived in Byzantium. This mystery provided me the opportunity as an author to suggest what may have happened to her and make it part of the story and my protagonist’s journey.

I firmly believe that as an author of historical fiction I have a responsibility to make the setting, characters and events as authentic as possible, but I also believe that nothing can substitute for good storytelling. Fiction and history texts are not the same. It is the function and beauty of historical fiction to bring the reader into a historical context in such a way that he or she can experience it as close to first hand as possible. I therefore feel free to insert myself, my ability to speculate and extrapolate, making, as far as I see it something even more authentic than a straight retelling of historical record. The latter cannot even come close to telling the true story, if only because the historian focuses on primarily the people and places at the core of the events. A historical novelist can move the focus off these and onto the rest of the world and suggest how people at the time may have seen, reacted to and drawn their own conclusions.

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