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Swashbuckling, sword fights, and sea adventures

history hunter's report

My first series was about forgotten women artists of early modern Europe. My next series is a bit different. It takes place on and around Rhodes and Cyprus during the medieval rule of the Knights Hospitaller, and there is a fair amount of swashbuckling. Full disclosure: there are some serious sword fights and plenty of high-seas adventure. Naturally, pirates are involved.

Fights in tights

To do justice to this world I’ve created, I needed to write great action scenes and fight scenes. I had done a little of that in The Miramonde Series, and those scenes took me forever to get right. There’s something about translating the choreography of movement to the page that is quite difficult for me. I was very grateful to writer friends for help with early drafts. I also turned to historical novelist David Blixt, whose handbook Fighting Words: A Glossary of Swords and Combat has proven very helpful in this endeavor. Blixt pointed me to medieval fight master Fiore dei Liberi, whose early 15th century illustrated guide to fighting is available for your viewing pleasure at the Biblioth√©que Nationale of France. (All of the images in this post are directly from the pages of Dei Liberi’s tome.)

It’s a leap of faith to believe medieval men donned two-toned tights and ribboned tunics when they took up arms against one another, but Fiore dei Liberi has left us pictorial evidence that can’t be ignored. The headgear these fighting men wore was truly sensational.

High seas adventure

My research on ships and seafaring has ranged from image-heavy volumes by DK Publishing to obscure academic papers about maritime trade in the Mediterranean. I got temporarily obsessed with the Newport medieval ship recently unearthed in Wales, which was built in Basque country in the mid-15th century and was apparently involved in the wine trade between Portugal, Spain, and Bristol. In a previous History Hunter’s Report, I discussed medieval seaman and soldier Michael of Rhodes, who wrote a lengthy handbook about sailing, mathematics, astronomy, and other subjects.

Of the dozens of academic papers I’ve read during my research, there are some illuminating standouts. One of them discusses the archaeological find of wrecked Renaissance-era ships in the sea between Rhodes and Turkey. At that time, piracy was so commonplace that even merchant ships were outfitted with crossbows and iron or bronze swivel guns. Another paper, by noted Hospitaller scholar Anthony Lutrell, delves into the complex world of piracy around Rhodes and Cyprus during the rule of the Knights Hospitaller (spoiler: Catalans were the most successful pirates).

The third paper, by scholar Terrance Dugan, shows the discrepancy between an assumption that no one sailed the Mediterranean during winter back then and the reality (based on historical records such as insurance policies) that people actually did. Dugan includes many examples of scholars asserting that shipping was closed during the winter in the medieval Mediterranean. This became accepted as historical fact. And yet the record shows that it is absolutely untrue. How many other ‘facts’ of history are actually fiction?

History: fact or fiction?

One of the things I try to illuminate with my historical fiction is the difference between accepted history and the truth. With my Miramonde Series, I wanted to bring to light the women artists who worked alongside their male counterparts in early modern Europe. Their existence was nearly erased from the historical record for centuries. My own art history survey course in college made no mention of these women. Like so many people in history, they were relegated to the shadows.

Looking through this lens at the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John, I was blown away by what I found. These men were romanticized as warring, chivalrous brother-knights, sworn to the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. During their control of Rhodes (from the early 1300s to the early 1500s), their mission was to protect Christendom from Muslim forces in the east. I knew very little about the knights going into this project. My series is about ordinary people who worked and lived in the sphere of these men, not the knights themselves. But the more I delved into history, the more fascinated I became by the discrepancy between this romanticized version of the organization and the truth.

After they were driven out of the Holy Land and settled on Rhodes, the knights focused on naval warfare. With the help of mercenaries, they raided and ransacked ships and towns, capturing people (both Muslims and Christians) who became slaves for the Order’s sugar plantations and construction projects or were sold to the highest bidders at the slave markets on Rhodes and other islands in the Mediterranean. I found examples in the historical record of knights owning property, keeping mistresses, having affairs with men, and fathering children. At the time of my series (the mid-to-late 1400s), wealthy families dominated the Order, sending second- and third-born sons on tours with the Order as a way to show their status and pave the way to heaven for the family.

As one of my characters says, of the three vows these warring brothers swore upon admittance to the Order, the only one with teeth was obedience. They could be flogged, banished, or put to death if they did not put their lives on the line when ordered to do so. One of the most poignant discoveries I’ve made was a letter written by a young knight who, after experiencing the horrors of battle, begged his parents in France not to send his little brother to Rhodes as well. They did send the boy, and he was killed.

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