Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Welcome to my blog, where I discuss current events, Medieval history, the Crusades, movies, and the life of the novelist.

I often get asked what it's like to be a writer. Let's see: there are coffee shops involved; I spend a lot of time doing research; and of course, there's the writing. Simple enough, right? Well, judging by the number of "how-to" books on writing at my local bookstore, there must be a lot more to it than that. In this blog, I'll be relating my own experience as a novelist, as well as my take on world events, both past and present. There will be plenty of advice, but this is not an advice column. It is my experience. So come on in, and take a peek into the mysterious world of the novelist...

For a topical index of past blogs, click here: Blog Index

The Middle East is in chaos. The Egyptian government has collapsed and been replaced by the rule of generals. In Syria, Aleppo is besieged by troops from Damascus. Rival powers fight over Homs and Hama. The ruling family tries desperately to cling to power. This was the Middle East of the 12th century (as captured in my most recent novel Kingdom), when Saladin was rising to power as the chief opponent of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. It sounds familiar, right? After almost a thousand years, we have come full circle.

I have spent a good part of the last three years writing about Saladin and the Crusades, and it has been fascinating to see the events of the past echoed in the present turmoil in the Middle East. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging on the Arab Spring and the crises in Syria and Egypt, as seen through the lens of the Crusades and the 12th century. I’ll compare the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s rule the end of the Fatimid Caliphate. I’ll look at the opposition drive to remove the Al-Assad regime, comparing it to Saladin’s campaigns against the ruling Zengid family in Syria. I’ll give tours of Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus, then and now. And I’ll compare medieval France and Syria to the present states of those nations. First, though, I will start with a look at the warring factions in Syria and their roots in the past.

Who Are / Were the Saracens?

The people of Syria today are a mix of different religions and ethnicities inherited from the past. The people that the Crusaders referred to uniformly as Saracens were actually an elite of fairly recent arrivals of Turkish origin ruling over a mix of Arabs, Romans (aka Byzantines), Persians, Turkomen, Kurds, Jews, and Nubians. Religiously, the majority of the population was Sunni Muslim, but there were also a large number of Jacobite and Syrian Christians, Jews, and other Muslim sects, including the Shiite Hashashin and Alawites (also called Alawis), fringe sects who lived in the Syrian mountain ranges overlooking the coast. A thousand years on, the population of Syria looks much the same (though most of the Jews left due to persecution after the founding of Israel). Arabs dominate, but Kurds and Turcomen are still prominent. 75% of the people are Sunni, approximately 13% Alawite, and 10% Syrian Christian.

Rifts between these groups have given added impetus to the Syrian struggle against the authoritarian rule of the Al-Assad regime. Bashar Al-Assad and many of the key figures in his government and the military are Alawites, while the majority of the people are Sunnis. Sunnis are who we tend to think of when we think of Muslims. Worldwide, they represent well over three fourths of all Muslims. They follow Sharia law. They embrace the five pillars of Islam: kalima – the declaration of faith (“I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger”); salat – the five daily prayers; zakat – alms-giving; sawm – fasting during the month of Ramadan; and hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca. They only eat halal foods. They do not drink alcohol. And, they don’t much like Alawites, who they consider to be pagans.

The Ala-who?

As for the Alawites, they consider themselves to be Shia Twelvers. The first and most fundamental divide in Islam is between Sunni and Shia. After the death of Muhammad, his first successors were not his relatives, but rather his most trusted companions, who were nominated to lead. The Sunnis accept these men as the first caliphs. The Shia do not. They believe that only people related to Muhammad’s house could be a supreme ruler, and so of the first caliphs, they only recognize the fourth, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Most Shia recognize twelve more caliphs (hence the designation Twelvers), all descendants of Ali, ending with Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is still alive but concealed from mankind by Allah. He will someday return as the savior of mankind. Sunni believe the savior has not yet been revealed. Despite these differences, Shia religious practices are very similar to Sunni ones. They share the same articles of faith. Sunni and Shia consider one another to be Muslims, part of one faith.

So if Alawites are simply a type of Shia, why do Sunnis consider them to be pagans? To start to get at an answer, let’s take a look the history of the Alawites. Their faith was first preached by one Muhammad ibn Nusayr, and organized by his follower Al-Kahsibi, who died in Aleppo around 969. In 1032, his grandson and disciple Al-Tabarani moved to Latakia, where most Alawites still live. Al-Tabarani converted the rural population of the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, the coastal mountain range that divides Syria from the Mediterranean. This was a popular refuge for sects deemed heretical. The famed Hashashin, a group of Ismaili Shia, lived in the mountains just to the south.

The particulars of the faith that Muhammad ibn Nusayr preached are a closely guarded secret amongst Alawites. They do not have mosques, meeting only in one another’s homes. Only men with two Alawi parents may be indoctrinated into the faith. And they have adopted the principle of taqiyya – hiding their faith in order to avoid persecution. The result is that Alawites can look much like Sunnis, or Shia, or even Christians, depending on the circumstances. In truth, their religion appears to be an amalgam of Muslim, Christian, pagan, and Zoroastrian elements. They reject Sharia law and Muslim dietary restrictions. They believe that the souls of the wicked pass into unclean animals such as dogs or pigs, while those or the righteous enter more perfect human bodies. They venerate groves of trees. Bread and wine take a prominent place in their ceremonies, and they believe the fourth caliph, Ali, to have been a Jesus-like incarnation of the deity. They also believe in a holy trinity consisting of Muhammad, Ali, and Salman al-Farisis, a freed slave of Muhammad’s. They celebrate the Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and honor many Christian saints. Given all of that, it is pretty clear why Sunnis would consider Alawites to be pagans.

How an Alawite Became President of Syria

Through most of Syrian history, Alawites have been persecuted. They were a poor rural people, keeping to themselves in their mountainous land. How, then, did they rise to power in Syria? The key was the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, which was active in Syria from the 1940s and gained prominence after independence. Founded by a Greek Orthodox and a Sunni, it was secular and progressive. Because of this, it attracted non-Sunni minorities, particularly Alawites. On 8 March 1963, the Ba’ath party engineered a military coup and took control of Syria. Three years later, a group of mostly Alawite military officers within the Ba’ath party removed the current leaders and took over the government. Amongst these men was Hafez al-Assad, who took control of the government on 13 November 1970, with the support of the military. He built a power base that relied largely on family connections and Alawite solidarity. In 2000 he died, and his son Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current president, took control.

The rise of Alawites to the rule of Syria has been compared to an untouchable becoming president of India. A despised sect, they were drawn to secularism, which brought them into the Ba’ath party, and once the Ba’ath party achieved power, their solidarity allowed them to control it. The Al-Assads’ rule has never been popular, and from the beginning, dissent has been suppressed. Now, Bashar al-Assad faces a rebellion driven by a desire for greater freedom and an end to his family’s rule, but given a particularly nasty edge by the pervasive mistrust and dislike of the Alawite sect of which he is a part.  If Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls it may be a step towards greater freedom in Syria, but it won’t be pretty.

I love my Kindle, but one problem that I have with it is that it shrinks the maps in books to such a minuscule size that they are impossible to decipher.  So, for the Kindle readers out there, I am posting the map from EAGLE here.  Click on the small map below for a larger version.

Eagle - Map of Syria and Holy Land

In Cairo, Coptic Christians recently ended a two-week sit-in, held to protest the rising sectarian violence in that country.  Since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, there have been attacks on churches, several of which have been closed, and street fights have erupted between Copts and Muslims.  The approximately eight million Egyptian Christians – out of a population of eighty million – are understandably nervous about their future in majority Muslim Egypt.  All of this raises the question: just who are the Copts and what are they doing in Egypt?

In the West, the story of Christianity with which most people are familiar goes something like this: in its first several hundred years, Christianity consolidated around the Catholic Church in Rome, which did its best to root out any heretical tendencies.  In 1054, the Great Schism split the Church between Catholic and Orthodox branches.  In 1517, Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses launched the Reformation, which further divided the Church between Protestants and Catholics.

If the Copts (and the Syriac Christians) are missing from this familiar story, it’s because describing the history of Christianity as the history of the Catholic Church and it’s schisms is inaccurate.  The Orthodox, Syriac, and Coptic churches did not split off from the Catholic Church.  It is more accurate to speak of a parting of the ways, for these churches are just as old as the church centered in Rome (and in most cases their theology is older).

In the early days of Christianity, all bishops were equal, but over time five bishops, or patriarchs as they were dubbed, acquired authority over the other bishops in their diocese.  The Patriarch of Rome was the first to exercise such authority, followed by the Patriarchs of Antioch and of Alexandria.  The First Council of Nicea in 325 AD officially recognized the special status of these three patriarchs.  In 381 AD, the First Council of Constantinople added that city to the list of those with special authority.  The Bishop of Jerusalem joined the list of patriarchs in 431 AD at the Council of Ephesus.

None of the five patriarchs – or the Pentarchy, as they have come to be called – had any authority over the others, although Rome was considered the first amongst equals.  Other than Jerusalem, all of the patriarchates would go on to found their own Church.  Rome, of course, gave birth to the Catholic Church.  It was largely the pope’s attempt to spread his authority that would lead the other patriarchs to part ways with Rome.  As mentioned above, Constantinople went its own way in 1053, forming the Orthodox Church.  (For more on this, see my blog “Schism and Union.”)

The Coptic and Syriac Churches date their independent existence back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.  Both Antioch and Alexandria rejected the council’s declaration that Christ is in two natures, fully human and fully divine, arguing instead that Christ is of one nature, both human and divine.  This might seem like a question of semantics, but it was serious stuff, enough to cause a rift between the patriarchs, with Rome and Constantinople on one side, and Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria on the other.

The Antioch Patriarchate would become the Syriac Orthodox Church, or the Jacobites as they were frequently called in the Crusader era.  The Syriac Church still exists, although it is now headquartered in Damascus, and the majority of Syriac Christians live in India.  The Syriacs employ the oldest liturgy of any Christian church, using a dialect of Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke.

It was the Patriarchate of Alexandria that would become the Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by the Coptic Pope (who was actually called pope before the pope in Rome).  They were called Copts because the original Christians in Egypt spoke Coptic, a late Egyptian language used from the first century AD through around the seventeenth century, when it finally gave way completely to Arabic.  (Coptic is still the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.)

The transition to Arabic in Egypt was mirrored by the slow transition from Christianity to Islam.  As of 639 AD, when Egypt was absorbed into the Arab-Muslim empire, the vast majority of Egyptians were Coptic Christians.  Many of them welcomed their new Muslim rulers, because they received better treatment from them than from the Byzantines, who had persecuted the Copts as heretics.  Later rulers would be less kind, though, and the Copts slowly converted.  Still, Muslims were not a majority in Egypt until perhaps as late as the 12th century.  This fact helps to explain the Crusaders obsession with Egypt, since during the many invasions led by King Amalric, the kingdom of the Nile was almost half-Christian — much more Christian, in fact, than the Holy Land.  Even after Copts became a minority in the rest of Egypt, they remained influential in Alexandria, which was administrated by Copts long after the Muslim conquest.

Today, the eight million Copts that remain in Egypt are thus the remnant of what was once a vast majority.  These are the people who are currently being persecuted, their churches vandalized and desecrated, their place in Egypt questioned.  They are understandably upset by such questions.  For far from being outsiders, the Copts are part of a religion and culture that harkens back to pre-Muslim Egypt.  They are, in a sense, more Egyptian than the Muslim Egyptians who persecute them.  And, given that their liturgy is considerably older than that of the Catholic Church, one might also argue that they are in some ways more Christian than Catholics themselves.  Egyptian but not Muslim; Christian but not Catholic; the inheritors of a religion and culture with a history that dates back nearly 2000 years… these are the Copts.

I read much more history than historical fiction, so I thought I would share my favorite history books.  I have endeavored to pick books that are serious works of history introducing new ways of understanding old questions, and which are at the same time entertaining reads.  As the list makes clear, my preference in history tends towards works that explore the mentalities of the past, the unique ways that our ancestors understood their world.  Let me know your favorites.  I’m always looking for another great book to read!

1)    The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton – What is so funny about a massacre of cats?  That question provides the starting point for a series of fascinating essays that explore the mindset of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

2)    Postwar by Tony Judt – Postwar explores European history after World War II with both stunning breadth and surprising depth.  A mind-bogglingly well-researched work that provides surprising facts, keen insights, and powerful arguments on nearly every page.  It is truly an incredible achievement.

3)    Peasants into Frenchmen by Eugen Weber – As late as 1870, French was still a second language for over half of the people of France, most of whom were peasants whose daily lives were defined by superstition, misery, and fear of dangers such as wolves, fires, and hunger.  Weber’s book is an intriguing exploration of the creation of the modern French people, which makes clear just how new France really is.

4)    The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg – Both of these books are based on the trial records of the Inquisition, and they provide a fascinating glimpse into peasant life of the sixteenth century.  The Return of Martin Guerre tells the incredible true story of Arnaud du Tilh, a crafty peasant who, after being mistaken for the absent Martin Guerre, takes over the missing man’s house, inheritance, and wife.  The Cheese and the Worms delves into the extraordinary cosmology of Dominico Scondella, known as Menocchio, a miller from the Veneto who believed that the universe was like cheese, and the angels like worms in that cheese.

5)    ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist – ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ introduces us to men like Captain Paul Voulet and Captain Rom – the real-life equivalents of Joseph Conrad’s Captain Kurtz.  Lindqvist’s dark portrayal of the European colonial project in Africa is every bit as brilliant a read as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but even more shocking because it is all true.

6)    Life of an Unknown by Alain Corbin – Corbin, who is perhaps my favorite historian, is known for his explorations of the texture of the past – the way it sounded and smelled.  Here, he sets himself a novel task.  He picks a person – Louis-François Pinagot – at random from a town register, and then sets out to recreate the life of this unknown clog-maker.

7)    The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson – Class is not simply a relationship to the means of production, it is a relationship between different groups of people, and thus it is a cultural fact as much as it is an economic one.  Starting with this thesis – which was quite revolutionary in its day – Thompson proceeds to brilliantly reconstruct the “secret history” of the English working class.

8)    The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence – A work of “imaginative” history, Spence’s book about rural China in the 17th century walks a fine line between history and fiction.  In the titular essay, he blends fiction and history to craft a powerful, haunting portrait of the last days of Woman Wang.

9)    Mad Travelers by Ian Hacking – One day in the 1890s, Albert failed to arrive to work.  Seized by an irresistible urge to travel, he set out on a journey that would take him from Bordeaux all the way to Russia.  He was a fugueur – a mad traveler.  Through an engaging exploration of disorders such as “mad travelling” and hysteria, Hacking provides keen insight into how psychologists classify – and thereby create, in a sense – mental illnesses.

10) Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick – An often surprising look at the English colonization of America, Mayflower reads with the pace and verve of the best historical fiction.

A list of ten is not nearly long enough to include all the history books that I have enjoyed.  I would be remiss if I did not single out the work of Sir Steven Runciman, whose The Fall of Constantinople inspired me to write my first novel, and of Eric Hobsbawm, who has written with clarity and insight about a dizzying array of topics.  For an overview of modern European history, I do not think you can do better than his four part series: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes.

Two of my favorite history books failed to make this list because while they are well written, they are also a bit dense, more concerned with making academic arguments than appealing to a mass audience.  The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias is a groundbreaking sociological history of European manners across the ages.  (In the Middle Ages, it was perfectly acceptable to wipe your hands “clean” on a dog during dinner, but it was considered uncouth to spit across the table.)  The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz offers a compelling argument for why Europe – a region that was arguably far behind China in the fifteenth century – went on to become the dominant power in the world.  Pomeranz argues that, ironically, it was the West’s very backwardness that led to its eventual preeminence.

One of the most distinctive features of Islam is salat, the prayer ritual, which all Muslims are expected to perform five times each day.  Movies and news broadcasts have made us familiar with muezzins chanting the call to prayer from minarets and with Muslim worshipers kneeling and prostrating themselves as they pray.  But most of us do not know much about Islamic prayer beyond that.  Nor, for that matter, do we know an awful lot about the origins and practice of early Christian prayer.  As a result, Islamic prayer seems more exotic and strange to us than it really is.

Let’s take a closer look at salat.  Starting at age ten, faithful Muslims are expected to pray five times a day: at dawn (fajr), noon (dhuhr), in the afternoon (asr), at sunset (maghrib), and at nightfall (isha’a).  They are called to pray by the muezzin, who chants the adhan, which translates from Arabic as:

God is great.  God is great.  God is great.  God is great.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
Make haste towards worship.  Make haste towards worship.
Rise up for salvation.  Rise up for salvation.
Prayer is better than sleep.  Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great.  God is great.
There is no God but Allah.

Before praying, Muslims perform a ritual ablution, washing the hands, mouth, nose, arms, face, ears, forehead, hair and feet three times each, in that order.  They then locate qibla, the direction of Mecca, which is the direction in which they must pray.  Prayer itself is performed in units called rak’ah, which include a series of motions and accompanying words, to be spoken in Arabic.  Each individual begins the rak’ah standing.  After pronouncing that “God is great,” the worshiper pronounces the opening of the Koran, which translates as:

In the name of the single God, most Gracious, most Merciful,
Praise be to the one God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of worlds,
Most Gracious, most Merciful,
Master of the day of judgment,
You alone we worship and You alone we ask for aid,
Show us the straight way,
The way of those upon whom you have bestowed your grace, those who do not feel your wrath and who do not go astray.

The worshiper next moves to the bowing position, with palms on his or her knees, and says in Arabic, “Glory to the Lord, the most Magnificent, the most Praiseworthy.”  Then, standing again: “Allah listen to him who praises him.”  At this point, the worshiper prostrates his or herself, with hands and knees on the ground and bare forehead touching the earth.  The worshiper sits back on his or her heals and says, “Oh Allah forgive me; have mercy upon me.”  Another prostration.  Then, sitting again: “Greeting to you, O Prophet, and the mercy and blessings of Allah.  Peace be unto us, and unto the righteous servants of Allah.  And I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah.  And I bear witness that Mohammed is His servant and messenger.”  Then, the worshiper stands.  That is a rak’ah, the basic unit of Islamic prayer.  Depending on the time of day, prayer consists of from two to four rak’ah.  After the final rak’ah, before standing, the worshiper looks right and says, “Peace be upon you.”  He or she looks left and repeats the phrase.  Prayer is then over.

Much about this might seem strange, even superstitious: having to pray five times a day; the muezzin’s ululating call; the ritual washing; facing Mecca; the requirement to pray in Arabic; and the bowing and prostration during prayer.  However, when we compare the way Muslims and Christians prayed in the Middle Ages (and today), we see that there is no aspect of Muslim prayer that does not have its corollary in Christian practice.

Five prayers a day may seem like a lot, but according to the canonical hours, which had been established by the fourth century and which were codified by Saint Benedict in his famous Rule, monks and regular canons were expected to pray at least seven times a day: matins or nocturnes, which took place between midnight and dawn and which were sometimes divided into two or three separate prayer sessions; lauds and prime, both in the early morning hours; terce, sext, and none, around 9am, noon, and 3pm, respectively; vespers at sunset; and compline just before bed.  Rather than a muezzin, Christians used bells to call the faithful to pray.  In these prayers, the chanting and reading – combined with standing, sitting, or kneeling at the appropriate times – was similar to, if slightly more complex than, the Islamic rak’ah.  And while the burden of prayer was lighter for the laity, every faithful Christian was supposed to say morning and evening prayers.  Each morning and evening, the faithful repeated the Confession of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, while making the sign of the cross.  Like Muslims, Christians too were expected to face a particular direction: east.  And at mass, priests, monks, and laypeople alike came together to take part in a ceremony whose opening was and is not so different from that of Muslim prayer:

I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man.
For Thou, O God, art my strength, why hast Thou forsaken me?  And why do I go
about in sadness, while the enemy harasses me.
Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: for they have led me and brought me to Thy holy hll and They dwelling place.
And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.
I shall yet praise Thee upon the harp, O God, my God.  Why are thou sad, my soul, and why art thou downcast?
Trust in God, for I shall yet praise Him, my Savior, and my God.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.
I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.

Even the ritual ablution before Islamic prayer has its echoes in Christianity.  Priests washed their hands just before and after communion.  (They still do after the offertory.)  In monasteries, Saint Benedict’s Rule held that each Saturday, the cook for the previous week was to wash the entire community’s feet before worship.  And, of course, immersion or anointing with water was and is a fundamental part of the ceremony of baptism.

Thus, medieval Christians – and many Christians still today – prayed in ways very similar to Muslims.  The five daily prayers of faithful Muslims had their mirror in the canonical hours.  The muezzin and bells served and still serve the same purpose.  Muslims prayed in Arabic and faced Mecca; Christians prayed in Latin and faced east.  Both involved ritual washing in their rituals.  And the prayer rituals of both involved liturgies combined with particular motions: just as Muslims stood, bowed, and prostrated themselves, Christians stood, sat, kneeled, and occasionally also prostrated themselves.  It is odd, then, that Islamic prayer has come to seem so strange to people in the West, since it is basically a mirror image of medieval Christian practices, most of which are still with us today.  To a medieval Christian, accustomed to praying in a specific direction in a language he did not understand, Islamic prayer would have not seemed so odd.  Our hypothetical Christian might have thought it wrong that Muslims faced Mecca instead of facing east, but he certainly would have understood the necessity of facing a particular direction.  He might have initially though the muezzin’s chant odd, but in a Europe where time was regulated by bells, its necessity would not have been lost upon him.

So the next time you see footage of Muslim’s praying, do not think of it as a sign of radicalism or some exotic ritual.  Instead, look past the differences and remember: Islamic prayer and Christian prayer are mirrors of one another.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomThe Matrix ReloadedBridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.  What do these movies have in common besides silly titles?  They are all sequels, and they are all frustratingly, disappointingly, infuriatingly worse than the original.  And the list of failed sequels could go on and on and on.  No matter how good the original, sequels have a tendency to flounder.  There are of course exceptions (The Godfather: Part II; The Empire Strikes Back), but they are disappointingly few and far between.  And the same goes for novels, particularly when the sequel is the second book in a trilogy.  All too often these books leave anguished readers like myself demanding ‘why?’  Why!

Well, now I know why.  Sequels are hard.  The thrill of discovery is gone.  First books or first movies are about establishing characters and exploring the world in which they live.  This sense of discovery helps to drive the story and keep readers interested.  The second time around, the thrill is gone.  This means that plot becomes more important, but this too is problematic, since in a trilogy, the major plot conflicts will not be resolved until the third entry.  So, if the first book is about establishing characters and the third one is about resolving conflicts, what exactly does the second book do?  One answer – one that is particularly popular in Hollywood – is to offer more of the same: take whatever was good about the first film or book and offer a lot more of it.  Unfortunately, Hollywood types seem to have a hard time figuring out precisely what was good about the first film.  But even when they get that right, the problem remains that simply offering more of the same leaves the audience feeling like, well, they’ve already seen all of this before.

So what to do?  How to make the sequel fresh and as compelling at the first entry in the trilogy, and to make it more than just a journey from point A to point B in preparation for the finale?  This is a question that I have been wrestling with as I work on Kingdom, the sequel to Eagle.  When I started writing Kingdom, I was confident.  The book was going to be a breeze.  I had already done all the hard work of establishing characters and building storylines.  Now it was time to have fun!  But to my dismay, the sequel turned out to be harder to write than the first book.  I was writing about very exciting events, but somehow, the tension was missing.  Sieges and battles to the death were coming across as oddly dull.  Seriously, how many times can a man overcome overwhelming odds to save his life before he develops a James-Bondian insouciance?  “Time for you to split,” John smirked as he cut his enemy in two at the waist…

Thankfully, I found the key (or a key, at any rate) to unlocking the sequel before any lines that bad made it into Kingdom.  The problem I was having did not lie in the action or the plot, but rather with the characters.  When I first started writing Kingdom, the lead characters – John and Yusuf – were behaving more or less the same as they had at the end of Eagle.  They had ceased to be dynamic individuals and become something like chess pieces, to be moved about the board at the behest of the plot.  And the book suffered for it, because even more so than parts one and three in a trilogy, the second act is all about character arcs.  Take, for instance, one of the greatest sequels of all time: The Empire Strikes Back.  Not much happens in the movie in terms of plot, but the characters are challenged and taken to new places.  Han and Leia’s relationship deepens.  Luke spends most of the movie fighting against himself – struggling to control his emotions in order to become a Jedi.  Darth Vader transitions from a menacing force of pure evil to a real character, who just happens to be Luke’s father.  Each protagonist must face self-doubt and defeat.  Star Wars created a universe and gave us characters; Empire puts them through the ringer.

And that is precisely what sequels should do.  Once I realized how dramatically the events of book one would have changed John and Yusuf, then the second book took off.  Eagle is all about the relationship that these two men forge.  Kingdom is about what happens when that relationship is put to the test.  In effect, this is what all second parts of trilogies should be about.  There are plenty of ways to do this:

  • Break up relationships that are strong; perhaps even have friends forced to work on opposite sides of a conflict.
  • Force former enemies to work together.
  • If two characters are in love, introduce a third party.
  • Have previously victorious characters suffer defeat, and vice versa.
  • Put established characters in new settings.
  • Change characters’ status in terms of power and rank.  Have the mighty fall or the low rise.

None of this is rocket science.  Successful sequels have been using these devices for as long as people have told stories.  Still, sometimes it’s good to stop and remember what a sequel should be all about.  (Preferably, one should do this before starting to write the sequel.  Oops.)  It’s not about producing a bigger and better version of the original.  Nor, ideally, should it be just about watching the same old characters go through a new set of adventures.  Sequels are about how characters change.  And how will the characters of Eagle change?  All will be revealed next March, when Kingdom is published.  Until then, feel free to guess!

Next week: Who decides what goes on a book jacket? (hint: it’s not the author)

Siege Map - Eastern Med

Siege Map - Constantinople

The images coming out of Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami are awful in both the modern and original senses of the word; they inspire both horror and a biblical, fire and brimstone sort of awe.  It is amazing how quickly disaster struck, rocking Tokyo, buckling roads, carrying cars away in surges of seawater, and wiping entire towns off the map.  With no warning, thousands died and thousands more lost everything.

Such disasters are thankfully rare in places like Japan or England or the United States.  But sudden death and destruction were a regular part of life in medieval Europe.  It was a blessed year when a village was not struck by plague, famine, or war.  Between 1350 and 1700, plague was a regular visitor to Europe.  Large cities that were open to trade suffered repeatedly.  For instance, Augburg in Germany was hit by the plague ten separate times between 1626 and 1650.  In smaller, more isolated towns, it was not uncommon for the plague to strike once every ten years or so, and each outbreak killed children, left behind dozens of widows and widowers, destroyed entire families, and sometimes erased whole neighborhoods.  Even where the plague struck less frequently, fear of it was pervasive.  And when they were not worrying about plague, medieval men and women were concerned with famine.  Sudden dips in temperature or rain at the wrong time meant crop failures, hunger, and starvation.  And there was little help when times were bad; lords took more than they gave, and local priests were often little better off than their congregations.  Child mortality at the time generally hovered around 25%, but when food was scarce, the rate skyrocketed, reaching up to 50%.  (By contrast, the worst rate in the world today is 20.9%, in Chad.)

Endemic violence, brigandage, and war added to the pervasive sense of insecurity.  In many places, law was only weakly enforced and brigands dominated the countryside.  Passing armies were even worse.  At the first sight of approaching troops, villagers frequently destroyed bridges, barricaded themselves in their homes, or took refuge in nearby forests.  Those who fled had their homes pillaged, but at least they were spared assault, rape, or murder, those favorite pastimes of medieval armies.  This, then, was the world of the Middle Ages.  Sudden death – whether due to starvation, plague, or war – was a regular occurrence.  Fresh disasters followed one upon the other.

Our ancestors dealt with these many traumas in two main ways.  First, they turned to religion, which offered at least one source of stability in a very uncertain world.  The Church also provided the comforting rituals that helped people to deal with repeated loss.  The result was a sense of faith that seems to have been more powerful than is common today, and which helps to explain the readiness of thousands of men to leave their homes and families for the First Crusade.

The second way that people dealt with uncertainty was through a very different approach to family and individuality.  Because individual lives were so fragile and uncertain, emphasis was not put on individual success and achievement, as it is today, but rather on the success and longevity of the family over time.  Individuality was downplayed.  The most compelling example of this medieval mentality comes from Arthur Imhof’s study of the Vältes family in Germany.  The Vältes farm in the north-German town of Leimbach was managed by someone name Johannes Hoos for six hundred consecutive years.  The individuals changed, but the role and the name remained the same, even if fathers sometimes had to name several sons Johannes, just to ensure that one lived on to inherit the farm.  Just as each Johannes Hoos took only temporary ownership of the farm before passing it on to the next generation, he only took temporary possession of his name before it too was passed on.  These individuals did not have to decide who to be or what to do; instead they adopted a role that was stable across generations.  Likewise, in navigating their social world, they married, raised their family, made friends, and ran their farm all with an eye not towards personal gratification, but rather towards the long-term prosperity and stability of the role they embodied.

The Middle Ages were a very different time, when decisions that we see as fundamental to self-becoming – what occupation to practice; what politics to support; what religion to practice – were usually not open to choice at all.  Or, if choice was possible, as in the case of who to marry, it was a limited choice that privileged family security and stability over individual happiness.  This medieval mindset – highly religious and family oriented – was the result of living in a world wherein disaster could strike at any time, wherein sudden death was an expected part of life.

When the United States brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, George W. Bush hoped that a newly democratic Iraq might serve as a model for other Middle Eastern states. Of course, this did not stop the United States from continuing its strategic alliance with decidedly non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The United States – and the rest of the world – is dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so the spread of democracy took a back seat to stability and security in the region. The ongoing sectarian conflicts in Iraq did not help matters. And when in January 2006, Hamas won a decisive majority in free elections within Palestine, many began to wonder: is supporting democracy in the Middle East really a good idea?

In the last three months, this question has taken on tremendous importance. Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought thousands into the streets to demand democratic government. Against all odds, they drove out authoritarian leaders who had ruled for decades. Now, the revolutionary fervor has spread to Libya, where a civil war seems to be underway as Gaddafi desperately tries to hold on to power. Large protest movements are under way in Yemen and Bahrain. In Iran, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, where they have been met by police and tear gas. In the West, the reactions to this wave of protest have been mixed. We rejoice at revolution and the brave attempts of these people to gain democracy and civil liberties. At the same time, many worry that democracy will only lead to anti-western extremism. Some have even voiced fears that Islam is by nature extremist and exclusionary, and that regimes that embrace it will always be intolerant.

History tells us that this is not so. My novel Eagle begins in 1148, during the Second Crusade – a time when the Muslim world was much more tolerant than the Christian West. Indeed, the concept of “holy war,” in its classic sense, was brought to the Middle East by the Crusaders. It is true that in the 11th century, the invading Seljuk Turks had plundered and pillaged Christians in the Middle East, but they had done the same to the local Arabs and Jews. Their conquests were driven by the desire for land and money, not by religious fervor. Even under the Seljuk princes, pilgrims from the West were allowed to enter Jerusalem to pray, and thousands of Eastern Christians lived in the Holy City. The Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt employed Christian soldiers in their armies. Jews served as scribes at court and physicians to Muslim rulers. Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike shared a common culture. Muslim leaders built mosques and madrasas, but they allowed people of different faiths a degree of autonomy.

The Crusaders were different. The First Crusade (1096-1099) was called for by Pope Urban II, and it was from the start a religious movement that transcended political divisions. Some of those who took up the cross were no doubt motivated by greed or wanderlust, but many more were motivated by faith. Even before the armies left, religious fervor inspired thousands of peasants and petty nobles to set out for the Holy Land on the doomed People’s Crusade. Thousands more knights and soldiers joined the armies of the crusading princes. The original goal of the First Crusade was to free pilgrims and Eastern Christians from persecution by the Turks. Shortly after joining forces at Constantinople, the four leading princes – Raymond IV of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Hugh of Vermandois – added a second goal: the conquest of Jerusalem. It took the Crusader armies two years and several battles before they finally reached Jerusalem on June 6, 1099. After a siege that lasted over a month, they managed to enter the city, using siege towers built with wood taken from the ships of a contingent of Genoese sailors. Once inside the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered Muslims and Jews indiscriminately, including several hundred prisoners who had been promised protection in return for their surrender. When the Muslims first took Jerusalem in 638, they had respected the Christian churches. The Crusaders showed no such restraint. They placed a cross atop the Dome of the Rock and christened it the Temple of Solomon. The Al-Aqsa mosque became a royal stable. Jews and Muslims were forbidden to settle in Jerusalem.

The concept of jihad (which can mean both an internal struggle to live a righteous life and an external struggle against the enemies of Islam) had existed before the Crusades, but it was the Crusaders who introduced the Muslim world to a new, more aggressive type of Holy War. The Crusaders were able to conquer the Holy Land because religious fervor motivated their troops and allowed their leaders to overcome significant political differences. The Muslims, by contrast, were divided into half a dozen emirates, none of which could stand alone against the Christian invaders. Time and again, local rulers were happy to make peace with the Franks, or even to ally with them against other Muslims. It was the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din, the Emir of Damascus and Aleppo, who seized on the idea of holy war against the Franks as a justification for expanding his rule over other Muslims and as means of encouraging other rulers to join him in the fight against the Crusaders. Saladin also stressed the religious imperative to drive out the Franks. Together, they helped to transform the concept of jihad into what we think of today as holy war. Yet even under Saladin, medieval Islam was remarkably tolerant for the time, particularly in regard to Jews.

This tolerance was not exceptional. Under Islamic law, non-Muslims were given a degree of communal autonomy and allowed to practice their religion. Their personal safety and property were guaranteed in return for paying tribute and acknowledging Muslim rule. This tolerance helped to produce some of the most diverse, cosmopolitan cultures in history in places like Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, and Salonika. There were, to be sure, Islamic states that enforced a stricter form of Islam, and there were times when Muslims persecuted Christians. But these were exceptions rather than the rule. This was in sharp contrast to the medieval West, where non-Christians had less protection under law, and periodic pogroms and inquisitions were turned against Jews, Muslims, and “heretical” Christians alike.

Of course, this is not to say that we should long for a return to states based on the model of medieval Islamic regimes. These societies were undemocratic and extremely patriarchal. And some of their issues remain with us. For centuries, Sharia actually afforded women more protection than western law – for instance, married women were allowed to own property in their own right – but this is no longer true. And while Islamic law offers non-Muslim minorities protection and autonomy, it also excludes them from politics and too often fails to provide the protection it promises. This is why states such as Turkey have rejected the government imposition of Sharia as undemocratic.

However, the failure of regimes like that of Saladin to live up to modern standards should not obscure the fact that, compared with the West at the time, the medieval Islam world was tolerant and culturally progressive. Far from tolerance and Islam being antithetical, tolerance of other faiths is in fact a fundamental part of Islam. This does not mean that Islamic regimes will always be tolerant, any more than Christian regimes have always been so. Extremism is dangerous, whether Christian or Muslim. But extremism is not inherent to Islam. It is a response to specific economic and political issues. It is misguided to picture all devout Muslims as fundamentalist jihadists, just as it is wrong to picture all Christians as bloodthirsty Crusaders (whether on horseback or in tanks). Such essentialist arguments ignore very real issues such as the status of Israel and Palestine, and western support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Dismissing Islam as fundamentally intolerant and anti-democratic is thus problematic on a number of levels: it ignores historical reality; it compromises western ideals; and it angers the people who have fought bravely for their freedom. Worst of all, such a dismissal has repeatedly been used as an excuse for ignoring real grievances and for supporting regimes that repress and impoverish their people. This in turn perpetuates the conditions that produce the extremism which critics of Islam point to as the justification for supporting authoritarian regimes in the first place.

The current wave of revolutions in the Middle East present an opportunity to break this cycle, but only if the West is willing to engage the governments that emerge from revolution on the very real political issues that concern them, starting with the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Richard the Lionheart and Saladin could reach a compromise that allowed Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike to live in the Holy Land and worship in Jerusalem, then surely we can do the same.

John, one of the two main characters of Eagle, is an Englishman.  To be more precise, he is a Yorkshireman from the West Riding town of Tatewic (now known as Todwick).  He was born in 1132, sixty-six years after Battle of Hastings and the crowning of William as king of England, yet the Conquest cast its long shadow over his life.  John is a fictional character, but his personal and family history reflect the all too real experience of northern England after the Norman Conquest.

The typical story of the Conquest focus on two figures: Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, as he is known in France).  It is a familiar tale to anyone with even a passing interest in English history.  The Anglo-Saxon Harold was crowned king of England on January 6, 1066, but his reign would be short.  In September of 1066, he headed north to fend off an invasion led by King Harold Hardrada of Norway.  The invading fleet, some 300 ships strong, sailed into the Humber in early September and disembarked unopposed.  The Scandinavian army conquered York, but was then routed by King Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25.  Harold had little time to celebrate, for William, Duke of Normandy, had invaded southern England.  Harold hurried south and met William’s army near Hastings on October 14, 1066.  William’s victory was total.  Harold was killed, and William was crowned king of England on Christmas day, 1066.

This is the textbook story of the Conquest.  It is true, but it underplays or simply ignores two important facts: the lack of unity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that William conquered and the length of time it took to consolidate Norman rule.  England was not a unified nation-state in 1066.  In particular, the North was a region apart, with a unique dialect incomprehensible to men from the south, patterns of landholding that more closely reflected Welsh or Scottish practice than the manorial system of southern England, and strong separatist tendencies.  The North encompassed the present counties of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland in the east, along with Lancashire and the southern parts of Cumberland and Westmoreland in the west.  It was geographically isolated form the rest of England, cut off from the South by the Humber in the east, the swamps along the lower Ouse River, the Pennine Mountains, and the peat bogs along the Mersey River in the west.  The few roads north were very bad.  The resulting isolation is reflected in the Domesday Book – the great Norman land survey of 1086 – which stops at the Tees River, south of Northumbria.

This is the region that the fictional John, the hero of Eagle, is from.  The North did not share the South’s manorial system, in which bonded peasants worked on manors.  Instead, land was organized into shires and sokes, where groups of free peasants held land in return for relatively light communal labor and renders of grain and livestock.  Taxes were low compared with the rest of England – the result of the political compromise through which the kings of Wessex persuaded the North to submit to southern rule.  Politically, the North was fiercely independent, even separatist.  Northumbria had been its own kingdom until being conquered by the Danes in the ninth century, after which the Danes divided it, ruling Yorkshire and Northumbria as separate kingdoms.  It was not until 954 that the king of Wessex integrated the North into Anglo-Saxon England, and even after that date, governance of the North was left to local men and the king’s authority was weak.  The men of York welcomed the invading Danish under Cnut, who ruled as king of England until 1035.  The Anglo-Saxon kings returned to power in 1042, and in 1065, the North revolted, driving out Tostig, the West Saxon earl who had been imposed upon them by King Edward.  Edward was forced to negotiate with the rebellious north, allowing them to install an earl of their own choosing and to abolish the additional taxes imposed by Tostig.  In 1066, William may have been crowned king of all England, but his power was tenuous at best in the North, as events would prove.  The men of Northumbria and Yorkshire distrusted men from the South and were jealous of their autonomy and privileges.

In 1067, the North revolted again, cutting off the head of William’s appointed earl, Copsig.  Undaunted, William installed a new earl and raised taxes.  Again, the North revolted, and this time William’s appointed earl joined the rebellion.  William rode north with an army, and the rebellious northerners disappeared into the woods.  William built a castle in York and in December of 1068, appointed a Norman, Robert de Comines, as earl of Northumbria.  Robert went north, killing and plundering along the way, but when he arrived at Durham, he and his men were surprised and slaughtered by the townspeople.  The northerners raised an army and marched on York.  They were besieging the castle when William arrived and routed them.  The rebel army was defeated again shortly after Easter, but they regrouped, biding their time until King Swein of Denmark arrived with a fleet of 240 ships in the fall of 1069.  The northerners joined Swein and marched on York, where they massacred the Norman garrison.  Again, however, their success was short-lived.  William marched north, forcing the Danes to retreat to their ships and make peace.  He then turned his wrath upon Yorkshire, determined to assure that the North would never again rebel against him.  The devastation he inflicted is what has become known as the Harrowing (or Harrying) of the North.

William’s army marched up and down Yorkshire, hunting down rebels in the hills and killing any peasants they found.  Those who escaped the sword fared no better.  William’s soldiers burned villages and the grain from the previous harvest.  They destroyed plows and slaughtered livestock.  They left the people of Yorkshire with nothing.  As the monk Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142) wrote of the Harrowing: “The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies.  He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land…  To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty.  He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes.  More than 100,000 people perished of hunger.”  While this figure may be exaggerated, there is no overestimating the suffering that William caused.  To survive, peasants sold themselves into slavery or joined bands of outlaws, plundering the few villages that had escaped William’s troops.  Bodies littered the roads, and wolves came down from the hills to feast upon the dead.  Sixteen years later, when the Domesday Book was written, the countryside of Yorkshire was still studded with empty villages.  Those peasants who had survived did so at a cost.  Formerly free peasants, they were now villeins, tied to the land they worked.  They owed more labor and higher rents to their lords.  At the same time, most of the native nobility was killed and replaced by Norman lords.  Those who survived became subtenants, an underclass looked down upon by their Norman conquerors.  In 1080, the nobles of Northumbria suffered the same fate.  After a brief rebellion, Northumbria was ravaged by William’s brother Odo.

In the wake of such horrific suffering, reconciliation between the Normans and the people of the North would be a long time coming.  The Harrowing and subsequent social dislocation of peasants and thanes alike left a bitter legacy.  It had achieved its purpose – eliminating any potential for rebellion – but it left the North a lawless land, roamed by outlaws and wolves, prey to invasions from Scotland, and only loosely controlled by the Norman kings.  It was not until the reign of Henry I that Norman rule of the North began to be consolidated.  In 1100, he married Maud of Scotland.  This marriage has been seen as a sign of rapprochement between the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, because Maud was the sister of Edgar the Atheling, the last male member of the royal house of Wessex.  However, Maud was also the daughter of the King of Scotland, and it was this relationship that was more important to Henry.  His marriage to Maud inaugurated a long period of peace with Scotland, giving Henry a chance to consolidate his rule in the North.  Between 1100 and 1135, he installed Normans loyal to him as barons throughout Yorkshire and Northumbria.  These men occupied castles and forts, and gradually brought law and order to the North.

Although the nobles that Henry installed were sometimes given vacant lands, they also replaced local nobles – both the Normans installed by William and the few Saxons who had held onto their lands.  Sometimes lands were seized.  Other times, inheritance was diverted so that lands passed to Henry’s men.  A few Saxons took advantage of this situation, sometimes betraying neighbors in order to ingratiate themselves to Henry and the new Norman elite.  This process accelerated during the anarchy that reigned during the rule of Henry’s successor, King Stephen.  For most of Stephen’s reign (1135-1154), England was riven by civil war between his adherents and those of another claimant to the throne, Henry’s daughter and heir, Empress Matilda.  Royal authority over Yorkshire faded.  In 1138, King Stephen appointed William le Gros as Earl of Yorkshire and effectively ceded all control of the shire to him.  William was more interested in expanding his own lands than protecting law and order.  He set about adding to his holdings through strategic marriages, diverted inheritances, and outright war with competing nobles.  Lesser nobles followed his lead.  William’s authority was particularly weak in the West Riding, where alliances, treachery, and warfare between nobles large and small were common during The Anarchy.  Subtenants, such as John’s brother in Eagle, took advantage of the chaos to expand their holdings, often at the expense of their neighbors.

This is the situation that provides the background to John’s story in Eagle.  The North was slower than many other parts of England to adjust to Norman rule.  Memories of the Harrowing persisted.  The peasants of the North were still resentful of their lowered status, increased taxes, and foreign, French-speaking lords.  The Saxon nobles that remained were reduced to subtenants, many of them eager to find a way regain what they had lost.  The Anarchy gave some of them an opportunity to do so.  This background of conquest and anarchy would define the course of John’s early life and eventually drive him to join the Second Crusade to the Holy Land…

If you want to learn more about the Harrowing of the North and the impact of Norman rule on the North, I recommend William Kapelle’s The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135 (1979) and Paul Dalton’s Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship: Yorkshire, 1066-1154 (1994).  For a more general look at the impact of the Norman Conquest, see David Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (1964) and Robert Bartlett’s England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (2000).

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Siege

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