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Friday, October 30, 2015

Clash of Cultures: Crusaders vs the Crusader States

Acre, the commercial heart of the crusader states, where the clash of culture often occurred.
Last week I described some of the urban architecture in the crusader states that inspired admiration — but also envy — on the part of visitors from the West. Throughout the existence of the crusader states, pilgrims from the West flocked to the Holy Land, some in search of salvation, some simply “sight-seeing,” and some as “armed pilgrims” to offer their sword (or bow or ax) in the defense of the Christian territories. Many of these pilgrims wrote accounts of their travels, and many chroniclers in the West, whether they had personally been there or not, included impressions of the Holy Land obtained second (or third, or fourth) hand from these travelers in their works. From the mid-12th century on, a hefty strain of critique and censure of the settlers in “Outremer” runs through many of these works. Each defeat, each unsuccessful crusade, was routinely attributed to the sins of those involved: that is the crusaders and the residents of the Holy Land.

Medieval Depiction of a Godfrey de Bouillon, the first pious and devout Ruler of Jerusalem,
often contrasted to the later "degenerate" kings.
By the Third Crusade Westerners clearly viewed the residents of Outremer with suspicion. No previous set-back was comparable to the loss of the entire kingdom, including, obviously, the most sacred site of all, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Although men flocked to take the cross and the largest armies led by the most prominent rulers of the age set out on the Third Crusade, their objective was to rescue the Holy Land — not the kingdom or people who had occupied the Holy Land since the First Crusade. On the contrary, most of the crusaders appear to have blamed the residents of Outremer collectively (rather than just Guy de Lusignan personally) for losing the Holy Land. These people were at the latest by this time given the derisive name of poulain, which derives from the French for foal and imputed mixed blood. They were viewed as the sinners to blame for the catastrophe, which the (by inference) virtuous men from the West now needed to rectify.
These were the beliefs held before setting out on crusade, but they were reinforced by confrontation with life in Outremer.

The first problem was the widespread use of stone building materials, something that was still pretty much a luxury in the West. The extensive use of stone, therefore, made the cities of Outremer appear exotic to the pilgrim arriving by sea before he or she even set foot on land.  Admittedly, those coming by land would have already adjusted to the use of stone and brick. Still, the physical differences in the architecture and the heat of the summer sun (most pilgrims came in the spring and departed in the fall), undoubtedly created a sense of being in a very different world, and most people are suspicious of things that seem very different from home.

White Limestone and Palms -- so different from Northern Europe
The second problem, of course, was that the majority of the natives (Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims) dressed in “oriental” styles. Although the Latin elites still followed Western fashion for the most part, the climate alone dictated some adaptation of Western clothing. In temperatures approaching 40 degrees Centigrade (100 degrees Fahrenheit), it was unthinkable to wear the heavy furs and wools, or the layers of clothing common in the West. While Latin women never adopted “the veil” in the Arab tradition of black robes completely concealing a woman’s figure including arms and face, Latin women would certainly have protected their faces from the ravages of the Palestinian sun with sheer silks, probably short enough to be thrown back over their head when indoors.  More shocking to the new-comers, however, the very same fashions if worn in gauze and silk rather than wool and linen would have resulted in gowns that clung and revealed more of the female figure. Meanwhile, while neither knights nor sergeants went around in turbans and kaftans (as some modern writers would have you believe), again the fabrics used for shirts, tunics, hose, and surcoats would have been considerably lighter and sheerer than fabrics common in the West. Easy access to some of the more powerful dyes (saffron for yellow, the sea snails (porphyra) for purple, etc.) may have made these clothes brighter and more vivid as well. The result was undoubtedly a somewhat mind-boggling mixture of styles and colors that seemed extravagant and exotic to the newcomer.

Hollywood's Interpretation of Mixed Styles and Opulence in the Crusader States
Sibylla of Jerusalem as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"
The third problem was the discovery that the majority of the population in Outremer, including the Orthodox Christian natives, spoke Arabic. Regardless of religion, this was the lingua-franca of Outremer, used by merchants across the region alongside Greek. The poulains born in Outremer, living side-by-side with Arabic speaking neighbors in the cities, trading with Arabic-speaking shopkeepers, or even lords dealing with Arab-speaking tenants and servants all had to acquire a degree of competency in Arabic just to conduct daily business.  To more recent arrivals this command of the “infidel's” language smacked of treason. The fact that many Latin Christians, who had come out as crusaders, later married Arabic- or Greek-speaking women reinforced the impression of ambiguous loyalty on the part of the poulains. At a minimum, it created suspicion simply because the newcomers could not hope to understand Arabic based on an understanding of Latin, the lingua-franca of the West.

Church Art was particularly influenced by Byzantine traditions and mosaics, for example, were more common.
This suspicion about the loyalty of the residents of the crusader states had been reinforced over the decades leading up to the Third Crusade by a series of truces the Kings of Jerusalem had made with their Muslim counterparts. While the residents in the crusader states recognized the sheer tactical utility of periodic truces and pauses in the fighting, newly arrived crusaders were often appalled to think they had come so far to fight the Saracens, only to be told:  “Oh, well, thanks for coming, but at the moment we have a truce and aren’t fighting the Saracens, we're trading with them instead.” Such armed pilgrims returned home embittered and told stories about how the poulains had “sold out” to the Saracens.

Another source of friction between Western visitors and permanent residents of the crusader states was the apparent “wealth” of the natives. As early as 1125, Fulcher of Chartres, one of the chroniclers of the First Crusade, had written that in the crusader states “he who was poor [at home in the West] attains riches here. He who had no more than a few deniers finds himself here in possession of a fortune. He who owned not so much as one village finds himself, by God’s grace, the lord of a city.” (Cited in Bartlett, Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom, p. 189.) Fulcher was trying to recruit settlers and was doubtless exaggerating, but his claims seemed to match what visitors encountered.

Because the Latin Christians in the crusader states were integrated into the upper and middle levels of society while the very bottom rungs were filled by native Christians or Muslims, travelers to the crusader states from the West were more likely to encounter and interact with men and women from a higher strata of society.  Furthermore, because items that were outrageously expensive in the West were produced in the crusader states (silk, glass, sugar, citrus fruits, pomegranates) these “luxury” items were accessible to people much farther down the social scale than in the West. Visitors were undoubtedly aghast to find common laborers and soldiers enjoying lemons and sugar, or wearing, if not pure silk, some of the mixed textiles that combined silk with cotton or linen.

This glass and enamel cup is believed to originate from the crusader states.
And then there was the issue of bathing. Not that bathing was not an integral part of Western culture in this period; it was. But in the West bathing was considerably more difficult and less convenient, at least during the winter months when a bath could only be enjoyed if the water was first heated up. Furthermore, for the upper classes, bathing was a private affair — a tub carried up to a bedchamber, filled with buckets of water hauled there by servants, and attended upon by a wife, daughter or squire. In the crusader states the public bath-houses of the Greeks and Romans had been taken over, rebuilt and supplemented by those of the Arabs and Turks. Bathing was not only easier and cheaper in a climate where cooler was better most of the time, but bathing was also a public affair with professional bath attendants rather than retainers and family in attendance. The public baths in the tradition of the Greeks, Romans, and Turks included massages with fragrant oils rubbed into the skin. All of this smelled, particularly clerics, like “dins of iniquity” reminiscent of Jezebel, Salome and the Queen of Sheba.

A 19th Century -- equally erroneous - depiction of a Turkish bath that reflects the same misconception about the mixing of sex with cleanliness.
Last but not least, the culture of West Europeans clashed with the culture of the crusader states because the crusader states were heavily urbanized and cosmopolitan at a time when most Western kingdoms were still predominantly agricultural and parochial. The poulains had little choice but to be tolerant of different customs, clothes, foods and even religions because they were surrounded by these things. To survive they traded with Cairo and Damascus, Aleppo and Constantinople. Jews were allowed to live throughout the kingdom except in Jerusalem itself. Muslims likewise lived -- and were allowed to follow their religion -- across the kingdom, again with the exception of Jerusalem itself. Muslims even had the right to the haj in some cities such as Nablus. Although taxed more heavily, neither Muslims nor Jews were subject to persecution, and some enjoyed wealth and administrative power. This was quite simply because poulains, who never made up more than 20% of the population, could not afford bigotry in any regard. Yet that very tolerance struck many newcomers as near-heresy. It was a short step from being scandalized at poulain tolerance and jealous of the poulain wealth to seeing in the poulains the sinners to blame for all the disasters that had befallen the Holy Land — reinforcing all the prejudices which with the crusaders had sailed from the West.

My novels set in the crusader kingdoms show Outremer through the eyes of the poulains rather than the crusaders:

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!



Friday, October 23, 2015

A Home in the Holy Land

The Bishop of Oldenburg, travelling to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1212, was stunned by the luxury of the residences of the elite. According to Sir Steven Runciman in his "Families of Outremer," Oldenburg was particularly impressed by the Ibelin palace in Beirut: 

Its windows opened some on the sea, some on to delicious gardens. Its walls were panelled with plaques of polychrome marble; the vaulted ceiling [of the salon] was painted to resemble the sky with its stars; in the centre of the [salon] was a fountain, and round it mosaics depicting the waves of the sea edged with sands so lifelike that [the bishop] feared to tread on them lest he should leave a footmark.
Unfortunately, nothing of this palace remains today and, indeed, only scattered fragments of urban secular architecture from the crusader period have survived into the present. Even these remains have largely been obscured by the changing styles and functions that have altered the appearance of crusader structures almost beyond recognition in subsequent centuries. However, descriptions such as the one cited above as well as systematic analysis of the archeological evidence enables us to imagine a great deal. As a novelist writing about the crusader kingdoms, I am compelled to utilize all existing sources, both written and archaeological — and then add a hefty dose of imagination. What follows is a short survey of the key elements that would have defined an urban dwelling in the crusader kingdoms.

Due to a general scarcity of wood, the basic building material of the Middle East in the period was stone and/or brick. The latter, and often the former, was ususally plastered over and whitewashed. Most buildings were rectangular, two to three stories high, and crowned by flat roofs that might be decoratively crenellated and/or often provided additional living space in the form of a roof-top terrace that could be shaded from the sun bycanvas awnings. Whether used in this way or not, rooftops almost always collected rain water in a cistern. This house located on Kythera is much younger (17th century Venetian), but it has many of the features of crusader urban architecture.

Most dwellings would have been built around one or a series of courtyards. These in turn would have contained fountains, wells, kitchen and formal gardens, or working space, depending on the wealth of the occupant.  The courtyard below in Jerusalem has many medieval elements and does not look so very different from what it could have looked like in the 12th century.

The courtyard below from the Hospitaller headquarters in Acre is an example of a more spectacular, 13th century courtyard and only relevant for public buildings, but it is indicative of style, taste and crusader capabilities.

The surrounding enclosed spaces would have been either vaulted, with a wide, slightly pointed arch being the dominant, indeed iconic shape of crusader architecture, or topped by a flat roof supported by beams. A combination of these forms, with vaulted chambers on the ground floor and rooms with flat roofs above was common, but in more expensive structures double vaulted chambers at right angles to the chambers below could be stacked upon one another. A good example of this is the Hospitaller Castle of Kolossi. Below are three images of a vaulted chambers, one an upstairs chamber from the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi, one a cellar from the Byzantine/Crusader castle of St. Hilarion, and the third showing a wine or oil press in the chamber, something very common in the crusader kingdoms.

Doors and windows could be either arched or square, with the Romanesque forms of “double-” or “triple-light” windows presumably as common in the Holy Land as in the countries of the crusaders’ origin. Below is a lovely example of a medieval portal in Jerusalem, and two examples of windows form St. Hilarion and Krak de Chevaliers respectively.

Because there were major glass producing centers in the crusader states (notably Tyre and Beirut), window glazing was more common in the crusader states than in the West, a fact supported by both archaeological finds and descriptions. Below is an example of crusader glass manufacture, while the context is different, again this glass demonstrates the very high quality of the industry generally.

Archaeological evidence suggests windows in the crusader kingdoms used both plate glass and round glass set in plaster (the latter being presumably much cheaper and more common). To the left is an example of the round glass technique used here in the Templar Church in Famagusta, Cyprus.

As the description at the start of this essay indicated, interior décor could include polychrome marble, but mosaics and glazed tiles were also common. A wide variety of crusader glazed pottery has been found, using cream colors, yellows, greens and blues. The pottery gives us some indication of what colors and motifs may have been used on floor and wall tiles. Here is one example of crusader pottery:

However, we also know that the Turks and Saracens were very fond of brilliant blues and turquoise tiles in later centuries, and these may also have been available to the crusaders. At least I like to imagine it so! To the left is an example of modern tile work just to hint at the possibilities.

As for mosaics, the description at the start of the article is perhaps the best indication of quality and the fact that life-like motifs were possible in the crusader era.  However, we should not forget that mosaics floors were very common in the Roman and Byzantine periods, and the many crusader residences in fact dated from earlier periods and retained these older tiles. Below is a picture of tiles that date back the 4th century AD and were allegedly commission by St. Helena. Particularly under the influence of the Byzantine brides of Baldwin III and Amalric I, Byzantine styles and artists were welcomed and employed in the crusader kingdoms. They would easily have produced tiles similar to this example from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Last but not least, no description of urban architecture in the crusader states (at least for the “upper crust”) would be complete without reference to gardens. As the opening description stressed, crusader elites oriented their houses so that their (glazed) windows looked out at either views (such as the ocean) or gardens. The Holy Land offered a variety of beautiful vegetation from trees such a palms and olives, lemons and pomegranates, to flowers such as hibiscus and oleander. Crusader gardens would have been beautiful indeed.  So to conclude, here is a picture of the garden in the crusader church of St. Anne in Jerusalem today.

Note: All photos except the glass and pottery were taken by the author.

Life in the crusader kingdoms is described in my three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin:

Buy Knight of Jerusalem                                                     Buy  Defender of Jerusalem

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Richard I by John Gillingham: A Review

John Gillingham describes his book on King Richard I, one in a series of biographies of English Monarchs by Yale University Press, as a political biography. In his preface to the book he stresses that he is not attempting to analyze Richard Plantagenet the man, but rather the political legacy of King Richard I, and he explicitly excludes from his discussion Richard’s “inner life.” He does not look at him as a son, husband or brother, but only in the context of his effectiveness as a ruler — first as a deputy for his mother and/or father and later in his own right as Duke of Aquitaine and King of England. Essentially, Gillingham sets out to determine whether Richard was a “good” or a “bad” king.

The focus is justified by the fact that King Richard has been both lionized and vilified by historians over the centuries. As Gillingham catalogues, medieval historians saw in him a hero on the scale of King Arthur, Roland and Charlemagne. Later Plantagenet kings were judged in comparison with him — the highest praise being to come near to equaling him. Yet during the Reformation and the later Tudor era Richard started to fall into disrepute as a result of Protestant condemnation of the crusades. By the 19th century it was commonplace to dismiss his achievements as paltry because they did not promote Victorian values such as empire building, trade and sound fiscal policy. In the 20th century RIchard was condemned for spending too little time in England and “oppressing the masses” with his taxes for “worthless” ventures such as the Third Crusade — and his ransom, of course.

Gillingham points out that, long before the historical debate, Richard inspired extreme opinions in his lifetime. Adulated and adored by some of his subjects and supporters, he was demonized by his political enemies, particularly Philip II of France. He is credited with abusing noblewomen and maidens, with hounding his father to his grave, murdering his political opponents, and with betraying the cause of Christ while in the Holy Land. The ironic result, Gillingham suggests, is that the most objective contemporary commentary on Richard probably come from Muslim sources. Unfortunately for us, these only describe his actions during the less than two years in which he was active in the Holy Land.

Given the treacherous nature of his sources, Gillingham does an admirable job of depicting Richard Plantagenet based on what he actually did rather than on what people said about him. In doing so, he convincingly builds the case that Richard was a remarkably effective monarch — judged by the standards and values of his day. In doing so, he highlights the absurdity of expecting a mercantilist monarch in a feudal kingdom, much less a mild and tolerant ruler in a brutal and violent age.

What emerges is a complex but on the whole admirable and competent leader, a statesman as well as a general. As Gillingham documents, Richard was not just a dashing knight and outstanding commander, nor merely a brilliant tactician, strategist and logistician. He was a sound financial manager, who alone among the leaders of the Third Crusade was consistently in a financial position to recruit and provision troops. He managed to raise a truly enormous ransom without, in fact, beggaring his subjects. He was, to be sure, creative in his methods of raising funds — from selling offices to selling conquests (Cyprus). Rather than wrinkling our noses at these allegedly distasteful practices, however, we should consider that the alternative would indeed have been to tax the innocent poor rather than milk the grasping rich. He was also an astonishingly effective diplomat, not only in his complicated negotiations with Saladin, but in turning his erstwhile German enemies into allies, and in his tedious but eventually effective efforts to pry the Counts of Flanders and Toulouse out of the French camp and into his own.

Last but not least, despite his reluctance to discuss the private side of Richard, Gillingham does offer insight into Richard’s personality. We get glimpses of a man who was very well educated, loved music and was more than superficially pious. We learn that he had a fine and subtle sense of humor and often spoke half in jest, and was man adept at using a light-hearted tone to deliver serious messages. While he clearly inherited the infamous Plantagenet temper, it did not dominate him, and he was rarely irrational even when angry. Most important, Gillingham’s Richard is a man of many parts far removed from the buffoon-like Richard found in so many films and novels that reduce him to a brutal idiot or a jovial but empty-headed figurehead.

This biography is well-worth reading and is a must for anyone interested in the period. 

Richard plays a key role in the third book of my Balian d'Ibelin biography as Balian -- after some initial disagreements and conflicts -- was eventually chosen by the Lionheart to negotiate the truce with Saladin that ended the Third Crusade.

Read the first two books in the series:

Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin

Book I

A landless knight,

                A leper King

                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin

Book II

A divided kingdom,
                         A united enemy,
                                                  And the struggle for Jerusalem.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem

Medieval Depiction of the Founders of the Knights Templar -- Sharing a Horse

This Oct. 13th marks the 708th anniversary of the mass arrest of Knights Templar in France. It was the beginning of the end of this great medieval institution. In honor of that tragic event, I offer a concise history of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. What follows is pure history. Anyone interested in conspiracies, heresy, magic, fantasy, and aliens can save their time and skip the following essay.

After the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem following the First Crusade, pilgrims flooded to the newly freed Holy Land, but the situation was far from stable and the secular authorities were unable to guarantee the safety of pilgrims who ventured out upon the dangerous roads from Jerusalem to other pilgrimage sites such as Jericho and Nazareth. In 1115 Hugues de Payens, a Burgundian knight, and Sir Godfrey de St. Adhemar, a Flemish knight, decided to join forces and form a band of sworn brothers dedicated to protecting pilgrims. They soon recruited seven other knights, all men like themselves – stranded in the Holy Land without wealth or land, and allegedly so poor that Payens and St. Adhemar had only one horse between them. In 1118 the King of Jerusalem gave them the stables of what was believed to have been the palace (or temple) of King Solomon for their quarters, and from this they took their name, “The Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem” – a name was soon shortened to the Knights Templar. At the same time, or shortly afterwards, these nine knights took monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience before the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Templar HQ with the Dome of Al Aqsa Mosque (the Templar Church) as it looks Today
The Knights Templar rapidly attracted new recruits -– and powerful patrons -- highlighting the extent to which the concept of knights dedicated to the service of God touched a chord in men at this time. But the concept of fighting monks was revolutionary. Even the crusades had not sanctioned the bearing of arms by men dedicated to the Church; the crusades had only allowed secular men to serve the interests of the Church. What the Knights Templar proposed was to allow men of God to also be fighting men.

Recognizing the need for guidance and official sanction, Payens approached the Pope, and not only was his new kind of monastic order recognized, it was enthusiastically praised. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his age (credited with founding 70 new Cistercian monasteries), agreed to write the Templars’ Rule. Not surprisingly, he fashioned the Templar Rule on that of the Cistercians; more unusual, however, was that he also wrote a treatise in praise of the Knights Templar, the De Laude Novae Militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood), in which he contrasted the virtuous Templars with the vain, greedy, and (senselessly) violent secular knights of the age.

A "Frivolous" Secular Knight Dancing and Consorting with Women as no Templar Would Have Done
According to De Laude Novae Militiae, the Knights Templar were disciplined, humble, and sober. Thus, “impudent words, senseless occupations, immoderate language, whispering, or even suppressed giggling are unknown. They have a horror of chess and dice; they hate hunting; they don’t even enjoy the flight of the falcon. They despise mimes, jugglers, storytellers, dirty songs, performances of buffoons – all these they regard as vanities and inane follies.” The documented initiation ceremonies – in contrast to the fabricated accusations of King Philip IV’s paid informers tasked with discrediting the Order two centuries later – were simple and sober professions of Catholic orthodoxy and vows to obey the officers of the Order, to remain chaste, to own no property, and to protect the Holy Land and Christians.” (See Andrea Hopkins, Knights, Collins & Brown Lt., London, 1990, p. 90.)

The Templars were an instant success (by medieval standards), and their resources increased exponentially over the next decades. They soon controlled properties in virtually every kingdom of Christendom, from Sicily to Ireland, but particularly in France, England, and Portugal. The Order also rapidly developed a sophisticated hierarchy and structure. The bulk of the Order’s members were lay brothers: men who worked the fields of Templar landholdings and served as skilled laborers, from blacksmiths to stone masons, in the fortresses of Outremer. Furthermore, although only men already knighted, i.e., men from the landed class, could become Knights Templar, men of lesser birth could be men-at-arms, just as in any other army of the age. In contrast to the usual pattern, however, these men were not foot soldiers or archers but mounted fighting men, armed with sword and lance and called “sergeants.” While the knights were allowed four horses and two squires, the sergeants appear to have been allowed two horses and one squire. (These squires, incidentally, were not members of the Order, and not bound by monastic vows nor compelled to fight.) Last but not least, as enthusiasm for the Holy Land waned in the West, the Templars came to rely more and more on auxiliary troops raised in the Holy Land itself: men of Armenian, Greek, Arab, or mixed descent, called “Turcopoles.” The Templars also had their own priests and clerks.

Collieure, Languedoc -- One of the Templars many "Commanderies" in the West
But manpower is only half the equation. Fighting men, particularly monks who had renounced all wealth and owned nothing, had to be clothed, equipped, mounted, armed, and fed at the expense of the Order. The great castles in the Holy Land – absolutely crucial to the defense of the Christian kingdoms – had to be built, maintained, and provisioned. The cost of equipping even one knight was substantial, the cost of keeping a castle enormous; the costs of maintaining thousands of knights in the field and dozens of castles in defensible condition were astronomical. It would not have been possible without the huge estates donated to the Templars in the West.

The Templars’ extensive properties in Western Europe provided the Order with recruits, remounts, and above all, financial resources. They also created a network through which the Templars could influence secular leaders. Furthermore, the extensive network of Templar “commanderies,” combined with the Templars’ reputation for incorruptibility and prowess at arms, enabled the Templars to move money (then still exclusively in the form of gold and silver) across great distances. Furthermore, the Templar network made it possible for someone to deposit money at one commandery and withdraw it from another with a kind of “letter of credit” – a service unknown before the Templars. Because of their own wealth and the funds deposited with them, the Templars were soon in a position to provide substantial loans, and are on record as having lent money to the Kings of both England and France. Because of their reputation as being scrupulously honest yet financially astute, they were also often employed as tax collectors and financial advisors by ruling monarchs, from Richard I of England to Philip IV of France.

A Templar Charge by Mariusz Kozik, Copyright Fireforge Games
Yet the Knights Templar would not have attracted these riches or enjoyed such prestige if they had not delivered impressive military accomplishments in the Holy Land. The ethos of the Knights Templar called on knights to fight to the death for the Holy Land, to defend any Christian molested by Muslims, never to retreat unless the odds were greater than 3 to 1, and to refuse ransom if captured. Such attitudes clearly set the Templars apart from secular knights of the period. A hundred years after their founding and a hundred years before their demise, the Bishop of Acre wrote in his History of Jerusalem that the Templars were: “Lions in war, mild as lambs at home; in the field fierce knights, in church like hermits or monks; unyielding and savage to the enemies of Christ, benevolent and mild to Christians.”

More important, the vow of obedience enabled disciplined fighting – a rarity in the Middle Ages, when most men were proud to fight as individuals, conscious of their own glory and gain. In contrast, a Templar who acted on his own was subject to severe disciplinary measures, including imprisonment or degradation for a year. There are many accounts of the Templars forming the shock troops during the advance and the rear guard during the retreat on crusades, of Templars defending the most difficult salient in a siege, and of Templar sorties to rescue fellow Christians in distress. At the height of their power, the Templars controlled a chain of mighty castles from La Roche de Roussel, north of Antioch, to Gaza, as well as a powerful fleet.

Crusader Castle of Montreal - Typical of the Fortifications of the Templars

The Knights Templar suffered a fatal blow, however, when Jerusalem was lost to Saladin in 1187. Although the consequences were not immediately apparent, the loss of Jerusalem – and the failure of all subsequent crusades to regain permanent control – slowly eroded the faith in Christian victory and, ultimately, the interest in fighting for the Holy Land. As the territory controlled by Christians shrank, so did the resources of the local barons. Soon, sufficient resources could not be raised in the Holy Land to finance its defense. This meant that the defense of the remaining Christian outposts fell increasingly to the militant orders, the Templars and Hospitallers, who could still draw on the profits of their extensive holdings in the West. But these resources proved insufficient in face of the huge cost of maintaining their establishment in the Holy Land as enthusiasm for fighting for the Holy Land waned. Throughout the second half of the 13th century, the crusader territories were lost, castle by castle and city by city, mostly as a result of the defenders having insufficient manpower to maintain their garrisons. When the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land, the Temple at Acre, fell to the Saracens in 1292, some 20,000 Templars had given their lives for the Holy Land.

The Knights Templar transferred their headquarters to Cyprus after losing their last foothold in Palestine, but they had lost their raison d’être. That would have been crippling in itself, perhaps, but what proved fatal was that they retained their apparent wealth. King Philip IV, whose coffers were again empty, decided to confiscate the Templar “treasure” – meaning their entire property.

The Arrest of the Templars from a Medieval Manuscript
To justify this move, Philip accused the Templars of various crimes, including devil worship, blasphemy, corruption, and sodomy. Without warning, on the night of Friday, October 13, 1307, officers of the French crown simultaneously broke into Templar commanderies across France and seized all the Templars and their property. While most of the men arrested were lay brothers and sergeants (since most knights who had survived the fall of Acre were on Cyprus), Philip IV made sure he would also seize the senior officers of the Temple by inviting them to Paris “for consultations” in advance of his strike. All those arrested, including the very men King Philip had treated as friends and advisors only days before, were subjected to brutal torture until they confessed to the catalog of crimes the French King had concocted.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Templars were in any way heretical in their beliefs. Furthermore, although Philip persuaded the Pope to order a general investigation of the Templars, in countries where torture was not extensively employed (such as England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Cyprus), the Templars were found innocent. (Edward II of England, a man not otherwise known for his courage and no less keen than Philip IV to obtain control of Templar wealth, initially refused the help of French torturers sent to “assist” him, with the notable words that "torture had no tradition in English jurisprudence"! It would take the Tudors to introduce that to England!)

Meanwhile, in France, Templars who retracted the confessions torn from them under torture were burned at the stake as “relapsed heretics.” Tragically, the Pope at the time lived in terror of King Philip IV, who had deposed his predecessor with accusations almost identical to those leveled against the Templars. He preferred to sacrifice the Templars rather than risk confrontation with King Philip. Thus, although the evidence against the Order was clearly fabricated and the Pope could not find sufficient grounds to condemn the Order, he disbanded it in 1312. The last Grand Master and Marshal of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charney respectively, were burned at the stake for retracting their confessions, in the presence of King Philip, on March 18, 1314.

Not until 2007 did the Vatican officially declare the Templars’ innocence based on the evidence still in the Papal archives.

Recommended Reading:

·         Barber, Malcolm, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994.
·         Hopkins, Andrea, Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, From Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry, Collins & Brown Ltd, London, 1990.
·         Howarth, Stephan, The Knights Templar, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1982.
·         Robinson, John J., Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.,

The Knights Templar were at the height of their popularity in the late 12th century and play a critical role in my biographical novel about Balian d'Ibelin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

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