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Chasing the shadow of medieval knights

history hunter's report

I’ve got some beautiful medieval treasures to share with you this month, so hold on to your helmets and enjoy the ride.

Count who? Naming characters

As I near the finish line with Book 1 of my next series, I’ve had to double down on the details. For example, what do I name the powerful Count of Auvergne who plays a pivotal role in the first act? Where did he live? Which “commandery” of the Knights Hospitaller was located near his lands? To this point, his name has been “Count XXX.” He deserves better.

Sometimes I know right off the bat what a character’s name will be. Others come to me during research. I like honoring real people in history by using their names, so I often pull them right out of the historical record. There are a few caveats, though. First, does the name start with the same letter as any other major character’s name? If so, forget it. For French or other languages, is the name easily pronounceable by English-speaking readers? (And by narrators for eventual audio books?) Does it flow off the tongue with grace? Does it reflect the character’s personality? If the answers to these questions are yes, I have a winner.

I’m happy to report I finally landed on a name for my count. I got the name from a 600-year-old document I found in the French National Library (online), which lists the names of various Auvergne nobles and religious houses. Drumroll, please…He shall be named Le Comte de Chambonac.

A château and a commandery, please

I find it helpful to look at maps and images of landscapes when I’m creating a novel’s setting. If I haven’t traveled to that area myself, the Internet provides thousands of ideas through photos and satellite images. For my fictitious count, I wanted inspiration from a 15th-century château in the Auvergne region, something that bridged the divide between medieval turreted fortresses and lavish Renaissance-era palaces. I found what I was looking for in the late 15th-century Château Villeneuve-Lembron, which is a prime example of this transitional architecture. It has a moat, it has turrets, it has a village, it’s defensively situated on a hill…what more can I say, it ticks all the boxes.

Photo by LLM

What is a commandery? The question has crossed my mind, too. Well, we can all breathe easier now—because I’ve got answers. The Order of St. John, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller, began in Jerusalem during the 1100s as a hospice for sick pilgrims. After gaining papal protection a century later, it expanded its operations to become both a religious and military organization, defending the crusader states in the Holy Land. As Muslims took over the crusader states, the Knights Hospitaller withdrew first to the Greek island of Rhodes and eventually to Malta.

But the organization’s lifeblood was in Europe. Wealthy donors infused the Hospitallers with land, rights, and revenues; their sons became knights of the Order and traveled to the Holy Land, Rhodes, and Malta to defend Christendom. Each European region or kingdom with ties to the Order was called a ‘tongue’. Each tongue contained properties known as ‘commanderies’ where religious members of the organization lived alongside lay people (donors) and servants, accumulating rents and harvests which were then funneled back into the Order. No, there won’t be a test on this later.

Auvergne was a founding tongue of the Order, and several commanderies were located there. In my hunt for settings, I wanted a commandery not too far away from Albi, a key location in my story, but still in the heart of the rugged Auvergne region. I picked the commandery of Dône (the name means ‘fortified village’ in Latin), which is about halfway between Albi and the medieval stronghold of Clermont-Ferand in Auvergne. Not much exists of the original commandery today, aside from a small chapel.

Dône Chapel. Photo by Alfouine

There are ruins of many such commanderies all over Europe. Some of them contain grain silos and other evidence of the Order’s agricultural activities. Others are succumbing to time and the elements, eroding into piles of rubble. All of them evoke a tantalizing past whose secrets may never fully come to light.


But what did these knights look like?

One thing that drives me nuts while doing research into the 15th century is the lack of good quality images of anyone. Anyone at all. Sure, there are the occasional commissioned portraits of royal, noble, and otherwise wealthy folk. And I love finding illustrated prayer books or other documents that depict people, their homes, and their possessions. But images of ordinary people doing daily activities are rare. That’s one of the reasons I love artist’s sketches, the preliminary charcoal or pencil drawings that show their subjects in more casual poses, their faces showing a variety of expressions.

In previous History Hunter’s Reports, I’ve linked to some amazing ancient manuscripts that preserve beautiful images of places and people of Rhodes in the era of the medieval Knights Hospitaller. Today I’m sharing the glorious 400-page-plus Account of the Siege of Rhodes by Guillaume Caoursin. Rhodes was besieged not once, but twice by the Ottoman Turks. During the first siege (1480), the Knights Hospitaller managed to hold them off and finally deter them. Caoursin’s book is an eyewitness account of the siege, and also a plea to the West to send money and more knights to Rhodes, because the enemy would one day return. He was right: the Turks returned and defeated the Order in 1522.

Illustration from Caoursin’s book

I’m very familiar with a few of the glorious illustrations within Caoursin’s book, because they are reprinted in many books and articles about the Knights Hospitaller. But I was unprepared for the sheer number of illustrations I had never seen before, hidden within this massive document. There are dozens, and it’s a joy to flip through the virtual pages, poring over the details. I hope you enjoy them, too.

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