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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John Robinson - A Review

Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John J. Robinson provides a chronological history of the Templars that is based for the most part on historical fact rather than fantasy, mystery, hysteria or conspiracy theories. Compared to most of the books out there which want to see Templars behind every bush and transform devout Christians into Jews, Atheists, secret Muslims, aliens from other planets, warlocks and whatnot, it’s not bad. 
It is what the Germans would call “popular history,” which is a polite way of saying it’s been “dumbed down” a bit to make it an easy read.  In this sense, it as a book that can serve as an introduction to the Templars for people only superficially interested the topic but nevertheless interested in facts rather than fantasy. It also has lists of the Templar Masters, Popes, Kings of Jerusalem, France and England, and the Holy Roman Emperors at the back of the book that is a very handy reference even for a serious scholar
However, the very gossipy style that makes it such an easy read also makes it judgmental and superficial. Rather than exploring possible motives or balancing conflicting theories, it chooses one version and then blithely presents this as “the truth.” 
Here's an example, the following quote from the book describes the aftermath of Conrad de Montferrat’s assassination (p. 191). “Henry of Champagne hurried back to Tyre when he got the news [of Conrad de Montferrat’s assassination]. To the local citizens, the handsome young count appeared to provide the ideal solution to the problem of finding a new husband for Isabella, a man who would then be eligible to reign as king of Jerusalem. Princess Isabella, a beautiful young woman twenty one years of age, had not had much success at marriage. She had been married first to the handsome but homosexual Humphrey of Toron, and then the stern, middle-aged Conrad de Montferrat, by whom she had an infant daughter. Perhaps a third marriage, with this dashing, wealthy, popular man, would be the answer. She agreed to the marriage.”

Now, first of all “the local citizens” did not select the husband and future king of Jerusalem -- the High Court of Jerusalem did that. Second, we have no idea what Henri de Champagne looked like, nor Isabella for that matter. She was not yet 21, either, nor had her daughter by Montferrat been born yet. I’ve never heard Conrad described as “stern” -- he had quite a reputation as a charmer and a seducer in the Byzantine court! Most important, however, as the daughter of a Byzantine Princess, Isabella wasn’t thinking of her own happiness; she was a queen concerned about the future of her kingdom. She agreed to the marriage because Henri of Champagne offered significant political advantages: he was the nephew of both the King of England and the King of France and so stood a chance of uniting the (then bitterly divided) crusaders behind him. All in all, the passage is light, gossipy, and fun, but it neither gives credit to the historical figures for rational action nor does it give the reader much insight into what is going on here.

More egregious, however, is the following passage (p. 154) describing the fall of Jerusalem. Having failed to mention that Ibelin defended Jerusalem with virtually no fighting men and 50 women and children to every man so well that the Sultan had to abandon his assaults after five days, Robinson writes: “By September 29 Saladin’s sappers had effected a breach in the wall. The Christians tried to fill and defend as best they could, although by now both sides knew that it was just a matter of time. The Greek Orthodox Christians in the city got word out to Saladin that they would open the gates to him, in exchange for his mercy.  They had come to bitterly resent the arrogant Roman clergy who had forced them to attend church services alien to their traditions, conducted in a language they did not understand. They would welcome a return to the religious tolerance they had enjoyed under Muslim rule.”

This utter nonsense. The Greek Orthodox had NOT enjoyed “religious tolerance” under the Muslims. They had been taxed, disenfranchised and persecuted to the point where they had appealed to Constantinople for aid -- aid that came in the form of the First Crusade. Furthermore, they were NOT forced to attend Latin church services. They retained their priests and their language and their rites -- only the Bishops had been replaced by Latin Bishops (which offended the displaced bishops but affected the vast majority of Orthodox Christians not at all). Last but not least, people facing slavery and slaughter can be forgiven for searching for any way out of their situation; it implies absolutely nothing about overall attitudes of Orthodox residents toward the Crusader States.There is plenty of evidence that suggests the Greek Orthodox were very loyal to the Christian kingdom.

The description is facile, superficial and just bad history. This is nothing but a thoughtless regurgitation of something someone else said (but without attribution). Robinson has not adequately analyzed it nor provided supporting evidence.  If you want a really good history of the Templars I recommend Malcolm Barber’s The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.

1 comment:

  1. Ah! Nothing like another fantasy novel, even if it's lite fantasy! LOL

    Thanks for that review, Professor.


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