Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Knight of Jerusalem by Helena Schrader

A history resource article by  © 2014

Although most of my reviews focus on books about the ancient world, I couldn't resist accepting a review copy of Knight of Jerusalem, about Balian d'Ibelin, the famous defender of Jerusalem, from author Helena P. Schrader a couple of months ago.  I had enjoyed Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" but like Helena, I, too, had wondered how much was actually true.  Since Helena has a Ph. D. in history from the University of Hamburg and assured me that her biographical novel, the first of a trilogy, used the actual historical record as the framework for her tale, I agreed to read it.

I was not disappointed!  The novel not only closely follows Balian's rise to prominence, meticulously tracing his career trajectory, but Schrader fills his life with vibrant characters, many representing real people struggling with the social requirements of medieval society while facing a cataclysmic upheaval between diverse cultures with opposing religious beliefs.

Like Balian, I was drawn to the tragic predicament of the young leper king, Baldwin IV, a courageous boy who struggles with a body disintegrating moment by moment yet with an awareness of the problems of others  and a determination far beyond his years to serve his people until his last breath.

Schrader admits in the author's notes that there is no mention of Balian serving as a riding instructor to young Baldwin in the period's sources. But this fictional association between Balian and Baldwin she incorporates into the story serves seamlessly to support two historical facts about these men that are known.  Baldwin, though a leper, was renowned for his horsemanship and Balian did manage, despite the strict social hierarchy of the period, to obtain permission to marry Baldwin's stepmother, Queen Maria Zoe Comnena (not Sibylla as depicted in the film) even though Balian was a landless knight due to his birth position as third son of a local baron.  Although the historical record is silent about how Balian accomplished this  amazing social feat, it seems totally plausible that he did so because of a close bond forged between himself and the young king in some shared activity or momentous event.

As a U. S. Foreign Service officer, Schrader has traveled extensively in the Middle East so I felt totally immersed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem by her descriptions of various locales and castle structures.  She has also obviously thoroughly researched the trappings and weapons of armored knights and refers to each piece with precise terminology.  I just wish she had included a graphic of an armored knight with each piece labeled.  Although Schrader thoughtfully included noble family genealogical charts and maps, as well as a clinical discussion of leprosy, there was no glossary so I had to use context to help me define some of the terms.

Of course a novel about Crusader knights would not be complete without a major battle and the Battle of Montgisard that took place in 1177 is the climactic action in this first book of the trilogy.

"On the afternoon of November 25, [1177] King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream." - Helena Schrader, Defending Crusader Kingdoms.

Schrader deftly turns up the dramatic tension as each unit of the Crusader army impatiently reacts to the carefully measured  advance of the highly disciplined Knights Templar, given the lead position by young King Baldwin.  I felt I was riding alongside the Crusaders as they finally explode with pent up fury and charge into the heart of the Saracen camp.

After reading Schrader's tale, I cannot imagine why Ridley Scott chose to veer so far from the historical record in his film.  Balian's actual life was full of intrigue, heart-wrenching personal choices and courage.  I am definitely looking forward to Schrader's next installment, Defender of Jerusalem, due to be released in September 2015. 
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Friday, December 19, 2014

Audible offering free dramatic production "Christmas Eve, 1914"

A history resource article by  © 2014

I've been a member of Audible since the site premiered over a decade ago and continue to enjoy their wide variety of audiobooks now as a subsidiary of  Their recorded dramas have helped me add value to hundreds of hours of commuting and exercise.  

Today I received an email from them announcing the free release of an original, one-hour audio drama that vividly imagines and reenacts the famous, impromptu Christmas Eve truce declared by rank-and-file British and German soldiers in 1914. What a thoughtful Christmas gift to the public (you don't even have to be a member to download it!)

Written exclusively for Audible by two-time Emmy Award-winning screenwriter and journalist Charles Olivier, Christmas Eve, 1914 features a full cast of accomplished actors including Xander Berkeley, Damon Herriman, Cody Fern, Nate Jones and Cameron Daddo. Christmas Eve, 1914 is available as a free download at
"The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 remains an incredibly poignant and inspiring moment in our collective history, when men even in the midst of battle agreed to stop fighting for a few hours," said Audible EVP and Publisher Beth Anderson. "The performance by this talented ensemble of actors takes listeners right into the trenches, bringing this remarkable story to life for a new generation. We’re happy to make this transporting, beautifully produced recording available free." 
"You wouldn’t think that a story from WWI would be either joyous or tender. And yet, it was here that one of the most remarkable moments in human history occurred," said Olivier. "It’s one of those events that defy a writer’s imagination, and having the opportunity to tell a bit of this story has been a gift." 
Olivier added, "We created audio cinema with our story—this is a movie for your imagination." Olivier and his films have been recognized at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, among others. Christmas Eve, 1914 was produced for Audible Studios by Dawn Prestwich, most recently executive producer of AMC’s The Killing. 
Christmas Eve, 1914 also features a bonus track at the end of the story, the traditional French carol Il est Né performed by Tom Tom Club. 

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Congress enacts landmark legislation to preserve Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields

A history resource article by  © 2014

After visiting a number of America's Civil War battlefields back in 1993 (Andersonville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Shiloh and Stone's River), I decided to financially support the Civil War Preservation Trust and continue to do so to this day.  Today I received an email from them to let me know that Congress has now enacted legislation to improve the national military parks of Gettysburg and Vicksburg and establish preservation initiatives for battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 as well:

Legislation expands successful federal Civil War battlefield grant program to include preservation of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields
(Washington, D.C.) – The Civil War Trust today applauded members of U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for enactment of landmark legislation to preserve America’s endangered battlefields.  The legislation, part of an omnibus lands package included in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 3979), reauthorizes a highly successful federal matching grant program for the preservation of Civil War battlefields.  In addition, the bill expands that existing program to provide grants for the acquisition of land at Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields.
“This is a historic moment for the battlefield preservation movement,” remarked Civil War Trust president James Lighthizer.  “For 15 years, the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program has been an invaluable tool for protecting the hallowed battlegrounds of the Civil War.  Now, for the first time, battlefields associated with America’s other formative conflicts, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, will also benefit from this public-private partnership.”

The legislation, originally introduced in 2013 as the American Battlefields Protection Program Amendments Act (H.R. 1033), reauthorizes the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program, a matching grants program that encourages private sector investment in historic battlefield protection.  Since the program was first funded by Congress in FY 1999, it has been used to preserve more than 23,000 acres of battlefield land in 17 states.  The battlefields protected through the program include some of the most famous in the annals of America, including Antietam, Md., Chancellorsville and Manassas, Va.; Chattanooga and Franklin, Tenn.; Gettysburg, Pa.; Perryville, Ky.; and Vicksburg, Miss.

The bipartisan bill was sponsored by U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Congressmen Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.) in their respective chambers.  In addition, the bill was championed by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).  A complete list of House and Senate cosponsors can be found on the website (Senate and House).

“We owe our Congressional champions in the House and Senate an enormous debt of gratitude for believing in this program and guiding it through an often complicated legislative process,” Lighthizer noted.  “Thanks to their tireless efforts, thousands of acres of genuine American history that might have been lost to development can still be preserved for future generations.”

In addition to reauthorizing the existing Civil War matching grants program, the bill expands the program’s authority to provide grants to protect Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields.  Similar to the Civil War grants, which are awarded for priority battlefield land identified in a 1993 government report on Civil War battlefields (updated in 2011), funding for Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlefields will target sites listed in a 2007 study by the American Battlefield Protection Program.

Among the battlefields that could potentially benefit from the expanded program are:  Bennington, N.Y. and Vt.; Brandywine, Pa.; Cowpens, S.C.; Caulk’s Field, Md.; Guilford Courthouse, N.C.; Princeton, N.J.; River Raisin, Mich.; Saratoga, N.Y.; and Yorktown, Va. 

In his remarks, Lighthizer also noted that this legislation, by encouraging the protection of battlefield land, also honors the courage and sacrifices of all who served in America’s military.  “Preserved battlefields are living monuments – not just to the soldiers who fought in those hallowed fields – but to all Americans who have worn our nation’s uniform.  There are no better places to learn about the human cost of the freedoms we enjoy today.”

The combined Civil War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 matching program is authorized at $10 million a year for seven years, through the end of FY 2021.  The FY 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act (H.R. 83) currently under consideration by the Congress includes $8.9 million for the program. 

In addition to the American Battlefields Protection Program Amendments Act, the lands package in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also included other important battlefield preservation initiatives, including modest expansions of the national military parks at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as well as legislation to explore adding Mill Springs Battlefield in Kentucky to the National Park System.  President Obama is expected to sign NDAA into law later this month.

The Civil War Trust is the principal nonprofit advocate for federal battlefield preservation programs and legislation.  Although primarily focused on the protection of Civil War battlefields, through its Campaign 1776 initiative, the Trust also seeks to save the battlefields connected to the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.  To date, the Trust has preserved more than 40,000 acres of battlefield land in 20 states.

The Civil War Preservation Trust has a four-star rating with Charity Navigator.  I hope you will join me in supporting their important historical preservation activities!

For more information about the Civil War Trust visit them at at

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

For Fans of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

A history resource article by  © 2014

Ever since I saw Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" I have been curious about its hero, Balian, and how much of the politics of the era and climactic battle were true.  Well, I don't have to wonder any longer.  Dr. Helen Schrader has released the first book of a trilogy about the life of Balian d'ibelin entitled "Knight of Jerusalem".  I'm taking it with me on a photoshoot in New York City and hope to get most of it read on the plane so I can write a comprehensive review when I get back.  Here's the official press release:

A landless knight, a leper king and the struggle for Jerusalem

Schrader Cover

The Holy City and the Christian Kingdom are under siege. Salah-ad-Din (Saladin), a charismatic Kurdish leader, has united Shia Egypt with Sunni Syria. Now he has declared jihad against the crusader states. Opposed to him is the compromised king of Jerusalem[Baldwin IV] – a youth slowly dying of leprosy – and one more individual: Balian d’ibelin.
Hollywood made him a blacksmith; Arab chronicles said he was "like a king."

Hollywood made him the lover of a fickle princess; in reality, he married a dowager queen.
Hollywood had him return to his smithy; in fact, he founded a dynasty.

Balian d’ibelin served a leper but defied Richard theLionheart. He fought Saladin to a stand-still yet retained his trust and respect.

Learn more about the historical Balian d’Ibelin in historian and novelist Helena Schrader’s three-part biographical novel, starting with Knight of Jerusalem.

The idea for this novel began after Schrader viewed the 2005 Ridley Scott film The Kingdom of Heaven. She enjoyed the movie but questioned whether any of it was true. Her research revealed that not only was Balian d’lbelin a historical figure but that the real Balian played an even more decisive historical role than the Hollywood film depicted.

Schrader’s biographical novel in three parts tells Balian’s story. In so doing, it describes the fateful historical events surrounding the collapse of Jerusalem nine hundred years ago and the Third Crusade, launched to recapture the lost Holy City.

Knight of Jerusalem, the first part of Schrader’s three-piece novel, focuses on Balian’s rise from obscurity as a landless younger son to a baron of Jerusalem. It documents his close relationship with Jerusalem’s "leper king" as well as his scandalously advantageous marriage to the dowager queen and finally his role in the defeat of the Saladin’s first invasion of the Christian kingdom in 1177.

The second book in the series will describe the fateful events leading to the defeat of the combined Christian forces at Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem, while the third book will focus on the Third Crusade. These books are due to be released in September of 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Knight of Jerusalem contains numerous genealogical charts, maps, and historical notes that help anchor people, places, and events and that further enrich the experience of reading about Balian d’lbelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Schrader comments, "My objective with this series is to tell Balian's story and to describe the fateful historical events surrounding the collapse of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem as well the Third Crusade, which was launched to re-capture the lost Holy City. The historical record is the skeleton of this historical novel, but the flesh and blood – the emotions, dreams and fears – are extrapolated from those known facts."

"Historical fiction at its finest….Schrader’s description of the decisive battle of Montgisard is a delight. From strategy (attack at dusk or dawn?) to cavalry tactics (compact formation, stirrup to stirrup, initial shock, use of infantry to protect knights and their destriers during hand-to-hand combat) to battle cries (‘Jerusalem!’ ‘Vive Dieu St. Amour!’ ‘Allahu Akbar!’) to yellow-turbaned Salah-ad-Dinh bursting from his tent, scimitar flashing, the scene is sustained, vivid, tightly-written…Don’t miss this book. She’s nailed it." ~ Amazon review by Michael Schmicker

Author: Helena P. Schrader earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking biography of the mastermind behind the "General's Plot" against Hitler. She has since published three nonfiction history books covering the German Resistance, the Berlin Airlift, and women in aviation in WWII. As a novelist, she has published books set in ancient Sparta, WWII, and the Middle Ages. Find out more about her various publications at or follow her at For more information about the crusades and the crusader kingdoms, visit her blog at
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Monday, November 17, 2014

World War I through Arab Eyes

A history resource article by  © 2014

I received a press release from Al-Jazeera today about a new program they will be broadcasting on the Al-Jazeera English channel that examines World War I battles in the Middle East from the perspective of the Ottoman Turks.  It sounds really interesting and a way to gain a more balanced view of the the conflict as it unfolded in the colonial political environment of the Middle East.  I have to admit what little I know about World War I in that region was the result of watching David Lean's 1962 production of "Lawrence of Arabia", 1981's "Gallipoli", a film starring a very young Mel Gibson and the 1987 Australian production "The Lighthorsemen."

Unfortunately, I could not find the new documentary on the Al-Jazeera America channel schedule on DISH Network on November 18th or up on YouTube but I will keep an eye out for it.  Perhaps it is only available in Europe at this time.

Press Release - On November 18th, 2014, Al Jazeera English will start broadcasting a three-episode documentary series commemorating one hundred years since the outbreak of the Great War.

In this series, Producer Journalist Malek Al Tureiki, provides a political and cultural reading into World War I from an Arab and Islamic perspective, citing the commencement date of the war as November 14th 2014, when Arabs were involved in the “jihad” against the Allied troops upon the call of the Mufti of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. This is in juxtaposition to the date Britain commemorates the war on August 4th, 2014 – the day it entered the war.

The series sheds light on how colonized nations, which had no say in their own fate, ended up being forced into wars which resulted in enormous sacrifices. As a result of this, the number of victims within the Ottoman population, including Arabs, is in fact much higher than that of the Europeans. While the percentage of victims in Germany was 9% and 11% in France, it reached between 14-25 % in Turkey and the Levant.

It was also in the Battle of Gallipoli that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern day Turkey, began to rise as a military commander and political leader. The unknown truth until today, even in Turkey and the Arab World, is that two thirds of the troops involved in the Ottoman victory over Allied troops were from Iraq and the Levant.

World War I through Arab Eyes relies on archival materials presented for the first time, telling the fascinating story of how the war affected the Middle East – reverberations still being felt to the present day.

Broadcast Details on the English News Channel:

The first episode on Al Jazeera English screens on [Friday]? November 18th at 20:00
GMT, following which it will be available online.

Repeats (GMT)

Wednesday: 12:00
Thursday: 01:00
Friday: 06:00
Saturday: 20:00
Sunday: 12:00
Monday: 01:00
Tuesday: 06:00

2nd and 3rd episodes are running on the 25th of November and 2nd of December respectively, at the same times as the 1st broadcast.
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Monday, September 01, 2014

Sheer ruthlessness: a hallmark of American capitalism and "The Men Who Built America" (DVD Review)

A history resource article by  © 2014

I watched an absolutely fascinating series on the History Channel (now available on DVD) entitled "The Men Who Built America".  It traces the careers of some of the most powerful men in American history including Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford.  It is one of the first series I have ever seen that does not white wash the rise to power of these so-called 20th century "titans" of industry.

Probably the thing I found most disturbing in the series was the apparent viewpoint of these men that they were somehow above the subhuman worker populations they employed. They were willing to acquire wealth through any means possible and their net worth, regardless of how it was acquired, represented to them their superior worth as a human being.

Each of these men had personal ambition that knew no bounds and a ruthlessness that drove them to exploit every opportunity in an industrial landscape that had little regulation to prevent insider trading, overt market manipulation and outright intimidation.

Andrew Carnegie was treated a little more gently than the others mainly because he handed off the day to day operations of Carnegie Steel to a totally ruthless chairman named Henry Frick so Carnegie could ostensibly sail off to Scotland to enjoy the fruits of his labors.
Andrew Carnegie portrait at the National
Portrait Gallery.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Today, we associate Andrew Carnegie with education and the arts because of his philanthropic contributions to Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University and thousands of libraries around the world.  But, in truth, Carnegie was the ultimate decision maker in the operation of his steel empire during a tumultuous period of violence and even death. He was certainly aware of the decisions implemented by his chairman and did nothing to intervene in plant operations until nine workers at his flagship Homestead Steel Works were gunned down by the Pinkertons under Frick's orders in 1892.

The steel workers had been ground down by increasingly longer hours - 12 hours a day six days a week by the time of the massacre - under absolutely hellish conditions, while wages were whittled away by Frick to increase profits.

When I researched the life of Andrew Carnegie further to write this review I read that Carnegie claimed he was a disciple of Herbert Spencer whose economic theory of evolution is best characterized as economic survival of the fittest.  Spencer declared that any provisions made to assist the weak, unskilled, poor and distressed to be an imprudent disservice to evolution and that "severe fate" was the natural process to single out the weak, debauched and disabled.

I noticed, however, that even Spencer was appalled when he visited one of Carnegie's steel works and remarked, "Six months' residence here would justify suicide."

The program pointed out that 1 in 11 steel workers at the time were suffering horrendous injuries or death.  Yet labor unions had only been formed to bargain for wages and working conditions for just the skilled workers, less than 1/4 of the workforce.  Even so, Frick complained about the labor union that represented the skilled workers at the Homestead Steel Works in a letter to Carnegie stating "The mills have never been able to turn out the product they should, owing to being held back by the Amalgamated men."  Although Carnegie had publicly claimed to be in favor of labor unions, privately he agreed with Frick and gave his approval to Frick's efforts to break the union at Homestead.

Carnegie's carefully cultivated public personae as a responsible industrialist and generous philanthropist was often used as a smoke screen to obscure his less noble activities.  For example, Carnegie publicly advocated less government while aggressively lobbying for protective trade tariffs that resulted in millions of dollars a year in extra revenue for his companies.

In this documentary, the producers pointed out that the development of Carnegie's benevolent personae was a direct result of the public relations nightmare generated by the Johnstown flood that killed 2,209 people in 1889.

Henry Frick, sometimes called the worst
CEO in American history.  Image courtesy
of Wikipedia.
Carnegie's chairman, Henry Frick, and a group of speculators, developed  an exclusive club for leading business tycoons of Western Pennsylvania, most connected through business dealings to Carnegie Steel.  The club was located  along the shore of Lake Conemaugh behind the South Fork Dam above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The area had been prone to flooding since its founding by Joseph Johns at the confluence of the Stoney Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers in 1800.  The steep hills of the narrow Conemaugh Valley and the Allegheny Mountains range to the east produced large amounts of runoff from annual rain and snowfall.  This vulnerability was further compounded as the community grew and became the site of Cambria Iron Works who dumped slag from its iron furnaces along the river to create more land for building, but further narrowed the riverbed.

To make matters worse, Frick and his development speculators then lowered the dam,  so the top of the dam could be used as a roadway for Frick and his fellow wealthy clubmembers' carriages. They also built a fish screen in the spillway, the only remaining water control mechanism. A previous owner had already removed and sold for scrap the three cast iron discharge pipes that had been originally used to control the release of water.

A Johnstown house skewered by a tree.
Amazingly, all six people in the house
survived .  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Then the worst downpour ever recorded in the area, 6 - 10 inches of rain in just 24 hours, struck.  Following a night of unrelenting rain, at 3:10 p.m. on May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam collapsed sending a 60 foot wall of water and debris down upon the residents of Johnstown.  The death toll was the largest loss of civilian life in American history until the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.  Wikipedia states the 1900 Galveston hurricane claimed more lives but the program producers must not have agreed.

As is usually the case when the uber rich are involved, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster.  The court ruled the disaster an "act of God" and denied the survivors any legal compensation.  But the club members, including Carnegie, were vilified in the national press.  (The court ruling was considered so irresponsible a number of states adopted Rylands v. Fletcher, a British common-law precedent establishing the liability of a landowner with a reservoir for flood damage if the reservoir is not properly maintained.)

Anyway, since then, Carnegie had worked very hard to restore his reputation.

So back to the Homestead Strike of 1892 - just before the confrontation, the union had requested a wage increase in their collective bargaining agreement that was due to expire on June 30, 1892.  Frick countered with a 22% wage decrease and proposed the elimination of a number of positions and that the steel works would become non-union after the expiration of the current contract.  Pointing out that the union only represented the skilled workers at the plant, Carnegie exclaimed the union was "an elitist discriminatory organization that was not worthy of the Republic!"

Frick eventually relented a little and offered a slightly better wage agreement. But the union refused the offer so Frick shuttered the mill the night before the contract expired and built a barricade around the mill to keep workers from returning.  The workers took possession of the mill anyway, determined to prevent operation by strikebreakers imported by Frick.  So Frick called in the Pinkertons to route the workers from the mill using any means necessary.

I had no idea that the Pinkertons at this point in history actually had more firepower than the entire United States military.  When the program explained this and I reacted with incredulity my husband pointed out "Where do you think we got companies like Blackwater?!!"

The Homestead riot / drawn by W.P. Snyder after a
photograph by Dabbs, Pittsburg. Image courtesy of

When I further researched this statement, I found it to be absolutely true.  Apparently the Pinkertons by the 1890s had more agents than there were soldiers in the U.S. Army and were often hired by late 19th and early 20th century businessmen to infiltrate unions, block strikers, keep unionists out of factories and even recruit "goon" squads to intimidate workers.  It sounds more like the mob than a reputable security agency!

Anyway, 300 Pinkerton agents armed with Winchester rifles fired on the striking workers at Carnegie's Homestead Steel Works, killing  nine of the men and wounding 23 others.  Seven Pinkerton agents were also killed.

As the program recounted these turbulent events I was totally riveted.  The production was punctuated by short reenactments by professional actors playing the different industrialists in crucial scenes of their careers.  These cut scenes were just enough to draw you into their world and make the program seem more of a drama rather than a documentary.

I would highly recommend this series as a way to understand not only the history of the individuals portrayed but the evolution of industry in the United States and how it impacts our lives today.  I would especially encourage any American history teachers out there to incorporate this series into their curiculum to provide their students with an unvarnished look at the foundations of American capitalism.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death (DVD)

A history resource article by  © 2014

The producers of the excellent history DVD "She-Wolves: England's Early Queens", Athena Learning in association with RLJ Entertainment, have released another fascinating look at life in the Middle Ages entitled "Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death".  Once again, Cambridge professor Helen Castor guides us through a wealth of information based on first person accounts from such sources as the Paston letters, a collection of over 1,000 documents kept as a family archive by three generations of the Paston family of Norwich.

In the first episode, I was surprised to learn that if a woman died in childbirth before the infant had emerged, the child was removed from the mother before burial because, although the mother had been baptized, the child had not and with the taint of Original Sin could not be buried in sanctified ground.  I had never heard this before and Dr. Castor was quick to point out that this requirement was often ignored whenever possible.
For this reason, the church actually granted midwives the authority to baptize a child in the birthing chamber.  If the midwife thought there was a real possibility the child would imminently die, they could perform the rite as soon as the head emerged in a last ditch effort to save the child's soul.  If the mother died first, midwives were supposed to cut open the woman and extract the baby so it could be baptized, even if it would not ultimately survive.

Childbirth in the Middle Ages often involved the use of
a birthing stool.

Medieval paintings and books, like the 12th century Trotula texts, based in part on the research of the ancient Greco-Roman physician, Galen, as well as newer Arabic medicine, illustrated the practice.

"In Antiquity, midwives (called, in Greek, maiai, and in Latin, obstetrices or more generically medicae) were the normative caretakers of both the gynecological and obstetrical needs of Greek and Roman women.  Medical writers from at least the third century BCE to the sixth century CE composed texts specifically for midwives’ use, and there is ample evidence (such as inscriptions and artwork) that midwifery was professionalized in larger urban communities.  Ancient writings on gynecology and obstetrics conceived of the ideal midwife as not simply literate and competent in medical theory, but as responsible for all disorders of the reproductive organs as well as routine assistance in childbirth.  In the scope of her practice, at least, she was fully the equivalent of modern obstetrician/gynecologists and not simply a birth attendant." - Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, An Encyclopedia

But between the 6th and 13th centuries the literate midwife of antiquity disappeared and the task of aiding women in childbirth was relegated to neighbors and kinswomen, most without any training except experience.  This changed somewhat when the church, concerned about the need for emergency baptism of a newborn, initiated a formal licensing process, first in France, then spreading throughout northern Europe and England.

When I looked up the Trotula texts, I found that, although the original texts were produced in Latin, by the 13th century, editions in Anglo-Norman and Old French were circulating.  By the 14th and 15th centuries, there were translations in Middle English, German, Irish and Italian as well.  If the popularity of these texts was not all attributable to purient male interest, this would indicate women must have been among the literate practitioners using the manuals since male physicians were not generally allowed in medieval birthing chambers until late in the 15th century.

Dr. Castor also mentioned that, in addition to the church-licensed midwives,  objects made of black jet, amber or coral that were thought to have mystical properties were used in the birthing chamber, including parchment birthing girdles (belts) embellished with prayers.

In episode two, Dr. Castor moved to the next significant life event, marriage.  Dr. Castor pointed out that medieval marriages before the 13th century amounted to little more than a declaration between a man and a woman that could occur anywhere, often in taverns or even out in the countryside.  Witnesses were not required, although if one of the participants might want to contest the validity of the marriage at a later date, witnesses would make such a task easier.
Weddings in the Middle Ages were often a raucous affair held in the local
tavern.  A Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566-1569.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Parents of prospective brides and grooms would often negotiate the exchange of property if a marriage should take place and would arrange for couples to formally meet with the intention that a marriage was deemed suitable between them but parents could not force a marriage.

Parents of prospective couples would negotiate the property that was to be
contributed to the bride and groom to help them establish their
new household.
Royal marriages were usually arranged by diplomats so I was surprised to learn that the famous poet, Geoffry Chaucer, actually arranged the marriage between King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.  The negotiations took five years which was probably a good thing since Richard II was only ten years old when he ascended the throne.

The informal nature of marriages became a real problem in 1066 when William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror, was recognized as the son and heir of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, even though his mother, Robert's mistress, was a daughter of a tanner.  When William's first cousin once removed, Edward the Confessor, died childless, William became a claimant to the throne of England.  Of course, William invaded England and became King after defeating King Harold II at the battle of Hastings.

William the Conqueror was able to overcome his illegitimate
birth to become the King of England because his father,
the Duke of Normandy formally recognized him as his son.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Although legates from Pope Alexander II ceremonially crowned William during the Easter court of 1070, giving the church's "seal of approval" to William's reign, the church recognized the danger in having such important matters as succession reliant upon such a casual relationship.  By the 12th century, the church produced and distributed missales that prescribed correct marriage rituals including the practice of calling the banns, a proclamation about an impending marriage so anyone could raise issues of canonical or civil legal impediments to the marriage.  The banns had to be announced on three successive holy days with at least one weekday in between.  The binding of women's hands during the marriage ceremony was also prohibited and the ceremony itself had to be one of reverence  - obviously not a bawdy affair in a tavern!

As consumation of a marriage was grounds for disputing its legitimacy, the church implemented the "putting to bed" ceremony whereby a priest would proceed with the couple to the site of the marriage bed and sanctify the bed before the couple was left to "perform their duty".

15th century woodcut depicting a bishop blessing the marriage
bed of a newly married couple.
 Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
At this point, the church's position of sex being a necessary evil for procreation transformed into a viewpoint where sex was considered a compulsory requirement of marriage.  The church declared that neither partner in a marriage could withhold sex if it was requested.  Hmmm...I wonder how they enforced that!

Where the church once viewed sex as a necessary evil, in the
12th century the church proclaimed sex as compulsory for
married couples.  Sculpture by Properzia de Rossi, female
Renaissance artist.

Castor also described the medieval marriage ceremony in which both the groom and bride were covered with a veil.  After the ceremony the priest would kiss the groom who was then allowed to kiss the bride.
Again the Paston letters provided insight into the actual practice of marriage in an upper class family. Margaret Paston, a member of the first generation of the nouveau riche family, had a daughter named Marjorie who fell in love with the son of one of their estate bailiffs (overseers).  Of course this marriage was considered totally inappropriate to Margaret who banished Marjorie's love interest from the estate.  But Marjorie claimed the couple were married having privately pledged their love to each other.  Margaret appealed to the bishop of Norwich.  I was surprised to learn that the bishop actually sided with the couple despite Margaret's wealthy influence.

Fresco depicting a bedroom scene circa 1320 CE
So if marriage was so easy to declare, how easy was it to dissolve?  Not very, apparently.  Dr. Castor gives a number of examples from the historical record, not the least included the attempts of the exasperated King Henry VIII in his quest for a male heir.  Although Henry VIII tried to prove his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur's widow, was invalid because he was too closely related, the list of reasons the church would consider also included a finding that one of the two partners in a marriage was already married (due to an informal declaration), was insane or that the husband was impotent.  Husbands who were charged with impotency had to submit to the ministrations of a court appointed panel of prostitutes.

After 17 years of marriage, Henry VIII asked for an 
annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, claiming
the marriage was invalid because he had married his brother's
widow.  In medieval law, a marriage extended the familial 
relationship to all family members of both marriage partners.  
Therefore Catherine would have been viewed as Henry's 
sister.  Catherine claimed her first marriage was never 
consumated so such a relationship had never existed.
Multimedia sculptures by artist George S. Stuart.
Photographed at the Museum of Ventura County by 
 © 2006.  

Surprisingly, adultery was not grounds for annullment.  Dr. Castor explains the case of Edward IV's physician who was a blatant (and public) philanderer.  Although the wife called witness after witness, many soldiers and physicians on campaign with the adulterer, the church granted only a decree granting the wife the right to live apart from him and, I assume, obtain financial support from him for her separate household.  They were still considered married and could not officially marry anyone else.

The last episode of the series dealt with what constituted a "good death" in the medieval world.  Much of this segment discusses the ramifications of the official introduction of the concept of purgatory in the 12th century. Although prayers to assist the dead in their journey to the afterlife have been performed since ancient times, the recognition of a more formalized practice that includes provisions in wills for the cost of ongoing prayer performance was a doctrinal innovation at that time.

A medieval vision of assisting souls in purgatory with indulgences 

I was aware of the sale of indulgences, a document granting a petitioner a defined period of forgiveness of sin, as a means for the Church to obtain wealth in the late Middle Ages.  But I was unaware that the introduction of the concept of purgatory led to the wealthy leaving huge bequests to establish and/or maintain chantries where clerics would officially perform the prescribed prayers to aid the deceased wealthy in the newly defined transitory location.

I was also surprised to learn that King Henry VII, known as a tight-fisted miser, left huge sums in his will to the college of priests at Westminster Abbey to say masses "forever" for his soul.  This massive transfer of wealth eventually triggered King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries to recapture much of his kingdom's treasure.

At least one beneficial development followed, however.  Hospitals were built as part of this effort to ensure that one's soul would speed through purgatory.  Medieval hospitals not only cared for the sick but fed the poor as well and gave the common people an opportunity to demonstrate their piety.  One loaf of bread given to the poor was equivalent to helping one soul in purgatory.

At Henry VII's funeral a nobleman dressed in
the king's armor rode into Westminster Abbey
and right up to the high altar.  There he dismounted
and removed the armor then dedicated it to god.  
This armor is that of the king's son, Henry VIII.
Photographed at the Tower of London by 
 © 2006

As in the episode on marriage, Dr. Castor described medieval funerary rites.  The most dramatic funeral service again involved King Henry VII.  Dr. Castor said a nobleman dressed in Henry VII's finest armor rode into Westminster Abbey right up to the high altar.  There he removed the armor and offered it to god.  Henry VII may have ruled through fear and blackmail but he definitely knew how to make a classy exit!

The DVD is lavishly illustrated with beautiful closeups of stained glass, paintings, tapestry and sculpture and is definitely a valued addition to my collection of history DVDs.  It is scheduled for general release on August 26, 2014.

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