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Island of Gold

how rich layers of history in Rhodes inspired my new series

Island of Gold is the first novel in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, a series of stand-alone books about ordinary people living in the shadow of the Knights Hospitaller in fifteenth-century Greece. I’ve been fascinated by Rhodes ever since I visited the island with my family ten years ago. Rhodes is blessed with an abundance of beauty, both on its rugged coastline and within its forested, hilly interior. The island’s people are warm and welcoming. Remnants of ancient cultures are visible everywhere…bits of stone temples, chunks of Greek statuary, votives burning in sunken grottoes where pagans once worshipped the old gods.

During our visit, all of this was enough to captivate my imagination for years to come. But when I learned Rhodes was the seat of power for the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John in the medieval and early Renaissance eras, I was truly gobsmacked. The evidence of the knights’ influence was all around us…massive stone ramparts, lovely medieval homes, a reconstructed palace. And inside the palace, forgotten slabs of stone carved with knights’ coats-of-arms, leaning haphazardly against the walls. I knelt before them, studying the names. Who were these men? Who did they leave behind in France, in Italy, in Spain? How did they die? Who did they love? Where did they live? How did the local people fare under their rule? What was daily life like for women then? The questions flooding my mind that day continued to tug at me as the years wore on.

Island of Gold, which launches Wednesday, Sept. 8, is the result of intense research into those questions. It’s the story of Cédric and Sophie, a French falconer and a spirited merchant’s daughter, who seek their fortunes in Rhodes during the fifteenth century. When the couple arrive in Rhodes Harbor in 1454, the knights’ reign of power in the Eastern Mediterranean has reached its peak—and the threat of attack from the Ottoman Turks has never been greater.

Join me on a journey behind the scenes, on the deep dive I took into history to unearth the story of the knights and the even more shadowy lives of the ordinary people living alongside them.

The Knights Hospitaller

Like many people, I’ve heard of the Knights Templar. They’ve been documented and romanticized in books and films for many years. But the Knights Hospitaller are different. They trace their origins to humble “hospices” —providing food, shelter, and rudimentary medical care—for pilgrims in Jerusalem during the eleventh century. As conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land became more intense, the Knights Hospitaller added combat to their duties. After initial successes in the Middle East, the knights were gradually pushed out by Muslim forces over a period of centuries. By the early 1300s, they had set up shop in Cyprus. Within a few years, they transferred their headquarters to Rhodes. Their rule of the Island of Gold would last two centuries, and they would rely heavily on donations from Western Europe, a fleet of warships, and mercenary troops to survive.

This painted illustration, one of many in a fifteenth-century book written by a servant of the knights, offers a precious glimpse of life in Rhodes Town during the era. Unfortunately, much of the Order’s documentation about the knights’ time on Rhodes was lost when they moved to Malta in 1522 after being pushed out by the Ottoman Turks. However, thanks to the work of several scholars who specialize in the Knights Hospitaller, I found plenty of information about the Order and its activities during the mid-fifteenth century.

Surviving life in the shadow of the knights

My series focuses on ordinary people who were forced to live under the rule of the Order, and I unearthed resources about a thriving merchant class in Rhodes and a steady stream of pilgrims stopping there en route to Jerusalem. I also dug up evidence of a bustling medieval maritime economy. Rhodes Town, the island’s largest community, was a major trade destination beginning in ancient times for merchants from Europe, Asia, and Africa. I discovered traces of Western-trained artists and artisans who settled there and created commissioned work for merchants and knights. A group of elite Greeks known as “the first men” helped the knights establish their base in Rhodes Town, offering essential translation services and connections within the local economy.

As is often the case, it was harder to find information about women. I found much more detail about women in Cyprus and Crete than in Rhodes. For example, I found fourteenth-century wills that showed women owned property and businesses, bought and sold goods, traveled, owned slaves or were themselves former slaves. I felt victorious when I found evidence of a woman who left buildings and a vineyard to her daughter in fifteenth-century Rhodes Town. I found evidence of enslaved women who were freed by their masters in Rhodes Town, too.

Slavery was a huge part of the economy in the medieval Mediterranean. The knights engaged in piracy, as did the Venetians, the Genoese, the Turks, and the Egyptians. Naval warfare was constant, and taking captives was part of the routine once a ship was boarded at sea. The knights used Muslim slaves for their sugar plantations and their endless fortifications of the defensive walls in Rhodes Town. Any citizen who could afford it owned slaves, and household slaves were typically Greek Christians. Slaves were often freed after a period of years, and the formerly enslaved sometimes received goods and money from their owners. Occasionally owners would even put up a dowry for a former slave.

Grand Master Jacques de Milly, one of the real historical figures in Island of Gold, ruled the Order from 1454 to 1461. The organization was made up of knights from various kingdoms in Western Europe, divided into “langues” or “tongues”. De Milly was from the “tongue” of Auvergne in what is now France.

When Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Turks in 1453, all of Christendom was horrified. That city, a bastion of Christianity for hundreds of years, was much better fortified than Rhodes Town, yet its walls had crumbled in the face of the Sultan’s attacks. Jacques de Milly arrived in Rhodes in 1454 with the sobering knowledge that Mehmed’s gaze was now fixed upon Rhodes Town. It must have been hair-raising for him to stare out at the distant shores of Turkey—visible from Rhodes—wondering when the Ottoman attack would come.

Cédric and Sophie, a falconer and a merchant’s daughter

When I learned the Knights Hospitaller were renowned for their collection of falcons, it became clear to me that my Island of Gold hero would be a falconer working for the Order. I delved deep into the history of falconry and the trade in falcons throughout Europe. This led me to Bruges, a key falcon trading spot, and to Norway, where gyrfalcons and peregrines were trapped. I also discovered a beautiful fifteenth-century book by a French falconer, which is digitized for your viewing pleasure here. In its pages are many references to a legendary Greek falconer named Agapitos Kassianos (often referred to by scholars and historians as Ayme Cassian) who worked for the knights in Rhodes. I wonder if he is the falconer depicted on the bottom right corner of this illustration from the book:

Sophie, the heroine of Island of Gold, is the favorite daughter of a wealthy French fabric merchant, and her knowledge of the trade in fine fabrics becomes unexpectedly useful when she arrives in Rhodes. French women of the day paid taxes, owned businesses, bought and sold goods, and belonged to trade guilds. To establish Sophie in her new world, I discovered records of fabric sales and prices in the Eastern Mediterranean. I learned gold thread, silks, and other fine fabrics were sold in the marketplaces of Rhodes and Cyprus. One such fabric, called camlet, was made in Cyprus and coveted by the wealthiest nobles of Western Europe. It was often made of a combination of silk and wool, and dyed in hues ranging from pistachio to violet.

I had no idea when we visited Rhodes a decade ago that it would inspire a historical adventure/romance series called the Sea and Stone Chronicles. It had cast a spell upon me, though, and as the years advanced I never stopped thinking about the layers of history there. Exploring the past through my research, I found traces of real men and women who lived and loved and died in the shadow of the knights. Island of Gold is a combination of history and my imagination, and my hope is that it brings to life the voices and people of a vanished world.

Preorder Island of Gold here

Follow along with the Coffee Pot Book Club blog tour for Island of Gold beginning September 13. You’ll discover more secrets of my research, plus interviews, excerpts, and reviews of the book.

 

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