Hanna Samek Norton begins her epic and engrossing novel of historical fiction, The Serpent’s Crown; A Novel of Medieval Cyprus, with this quotation: “It sometimes happens that exploits, however, known and splendidly achieved, come, by length of time, to be less known to fame, or even forgotten among posterity.” (Itinerarum Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi) How fortunate for readers, then, that the author brings to life a captivating chapter of history that occurred in Cyprus and Jerusalem in the early thirteenth century.
While many may be familiar with the main players of the royal Lusignan and Ibelin families, dynastic houses that feuded and intermarried during medieval times, Samek Norton proves that the characters waiting in the wings often play covert but essential parts in history. Had they not been there, events may have played out very differently. Much is owed to these minor characters who were discounted or overlooked, characters who utilized that obscurity to accomplish what their more famous peers didn’t or couldn’t because their lives were too public.
The Serpent’s Crown is a ringing endorsement of the idea that the personal is political. This is not a novel of battles and treaties, although they are referenced often with explanatory details. Instead, this novel is a stunning examination of how history is forged through the relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and every configuration of blended families. Spouses were lost to illnesses, pirates, poisons, accidents, and every other possible cause of death. Kings and queens had to have consorts, however, so marriages kept occurring with elaborate step-relations resulting.
Families were fertile ground for stirrings of love and loyalty, but also betrayals and extortions. The Lusignans and the Ibelins conspired to gain political power, but these families were often openly hostile towards each other. Juliana often contemplates family matters and specifically “what makes a marriage.” She is married to Guerin de Lasalle, a nephew of King Aimary de Lusinan, King of Jerusalem and Cyprus. Lasalle has a far less grand title, Lord of Parthenay. He had been betrothed to another as a child, a fact that unsettles Juliana and causes her to worry that her marriage is not valid, that in the eyes of the church, she is an adulterer. While she wants for nothing, she is often exasperated by her husband’s absolute loyalty to his uncle, his readiness to do whatever is necessary to assure the stability of the King’s realms. Juliana, a former nun used to a quiet life of piety and religious devotion, springs to action when her father-in-law kidnaps her infant daughter, Eleanor, and takes her to France. Nothing will deter her from recovering the child, but her quest is a long one, comprising several years and many events.
Samek Norton’s prose is vibrant and evocative. Her detailed descriptions of the ornate, often layered gowns worn by queens and their ladies make one long for a Project Runway of medieval fashions. The sumptuous descriptions of food and the fleshing out of time, of locales, of palaces, of Mediterranean sunlight, provide an exquisite backdrop for the action of the novel.
The book is thick with details, testimony to the author’s in-depth research, and keeping the many royal relations straight can be a challenge at times. The Cast of Characters listed at the outset of the novel is a great help. Even servants of households are noted because, again, this is a book that shines a light in dusty corners in piecing together events that affected outcomes noted in history books. In this regard, there are no insignificant characters. Samek-Norton proves that the broad events of history rest on the shoulders of ordinary men and women. She gives them their long overdue recognition.