Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, by Dan Jones

Today I'm looking at another book from Dan Jones about the Knights Templar, one of the crusading orders of knights established in the years after the first Crusade. Although the Templars were not the only international crusading order they are far more well known than the Knights Hospitaller or the Teutonic Knights, and far beyond the smaller orders such as the Livonian Sword Brethren or the Order of Santiago. Jones speculates a little on the enduring popularity of the Templars as an order, but the majority of the book focuses on the history of the Knights Templar from their founding in 1119 to their spectacular downfall starting in 1307 and concluded by 1312.

In hindsight the most surprising thing about the First Crusade is that it succeeded at all considering how poorly organized the entire venture, and most later crusades were. The main advantage of the crusaders was the fact that Jerusalem and much of the Levant existed at the time in a border region between the Fatimid, Shia caliph's capital in Cairo and the Sunni Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The division between Egypt and Mesopotamia allowed the crusader kingdoms to survive despite their weaknesses and it was largely when both flanks acted in concert that the crusader kingdoms were in most danger.

An inherent problem of the crusader kingdoms was a lack of resources, specifically money and manpower, the two most necessary resources for prosecuting a war. The original mission of the Knights Templar was to provide protection for Christian pilgrims visiting sites such as the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This original mission quickly grew to the Knights Templar, as well as the Knights Hospitaller, being an elite military force. However the Templars and Hospitallers had significant advantages over the secular rulers of the crusader kingdoms. In their founding charter the papacy granted numerous rights to the holy order which gave them significant benefits. The Templars were made responsible only to the pope, immune from almost all taxation, and granted lucrative rights regarding religious ceremonies and rituals. Coupled with this were the numerous donations of land and resources made by pious Christians in Europe, the Templars became incredibly rich as an organization.

Because the Templars had access to such tremendous resources, they were able to arm and equip a dedicated fighting force of knights and sergeants. Soon the Templars were assigned the garrison of numerous strategic castles in the Levant and Templar contingents made a significant portion of any crusade army. For much of the book Jones focuses on the military history of the Templars and their battles in Egypt and the Levant. There are brief mentions to the more business-aligned aspects of the Templars, such as their involvement in the trade hub of Acre and their fleet of galleys used for both military and commercial uses. I actually would have liked to see more about that because Jones briefly makes the argument that the Templars in many ways were a medieval version of a corporation and NGO rolled into one. I would have appreciated more time on the more economic aspects of the Templar order, but I can see where for the most part their income came from being a major landowner which isn't terribly interesting.

The ultimate irony is that while their wealth enabled the Templars to field major armies against Muslim powers, it also made them a target among Christians at home, especially Philip IV of France. This became especially prominent after the collapse of the crusader kingdoms and the Latins had to fall back to the isle of Cyprus. While the military orders and eastern Latins tried to raise support for renewed Crusading efforts, the European leaders were largely more concerned with local affairs and dynastic struggles. This lack of enthusiasm for continued crusades left the Templars and other military orders at loose ends. While the Teutonic Knights had their own campaigns in the Baltic, the Templars and Hospitallers were faced with the prospect of being merged into a single military order.

Ultimately it was Philip IV of France who ended the Templars, which was fueled by his need for money to perpetuate his military campaigns at home. Jones illustrates that Philip had attacked other targets including churchmen and French Jews to not only cement his power but increase his personal wealth. Jones shows that Philip was initially alone in his persecution of the Templars, and several fellow monarchs were confused at his persecution of the Templar order. Even Edward II only began his persecution of the Templars when it was beneficial for his own personal ends. Most rulers were fairly lax in the persecution and suppression of the Templar order in their own lands when ordered to do so at behest of the pope, so the most significant persecution appears to have occurred solely in France, famously ending with Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templar Order, and numerous other officials being burned as heretics. Jones argues that a significant part of the allure of the Templars is their dramatic end, compared to the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights who still exist today albeit in a far smaller and limited form.

This does raise the question of why the Hospitallers, an equally wealthy and powerful organization, wasn't the target of suppression and most of the Templar resources were merged into the Hospitallers. What I've heard about the Teutonic Order is that they were able to play the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope off each other, ensuring their continued existence, but it leaves me wondering why the Hospitallers were able to survive. Maybe there's another source that will answer these questions but I think it's something Jones could have answered.

Overall I think this book is really interesting because of the history that it covers. Jones is a very dedicated medieval historian so you can really tell he's enjoying his subject matter and it really shows in the book There are some areas where I'd like to have seen more development and historical detail, but otherwise I think this book was pretty good.

- Kalpar

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