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 NĂ© 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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