Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States
Helen Nicholson explores an unusual, but contentious, account of the effect that the crusades had on the Middle East
Reviewed by: Helen Nicholson
Author: Michael Haag
Publisher: Profile Books
Price (RRP): £16.99
The 700th anniversary of the pope’s dissolution of the Templars is an obvious occasion for new books about their history. The tale of the Templars’ foundation, rise and fall has been repeated many times, and this book follows the well-trodden path, fitting the Templars’ story into an account of the crusades to the Holy Land and concluding with their disbanding in 1312.
The narrative of the crusades as told here, however, differs from the norm. Most books on the crusades concentrate on the western European Christians (the ‘Franks’) and say very little about the Muslims. Haag’s work describes in detail the divisions between Arabs and Turks, and Sunnis and Shi’ites, explaining the history of their conflicts. The fractures between the peoples of the Middle East are made clear, and readers can understand how the crusaders and other European settlers fitted into the politics and culture of the Middle East.
Haag traces the history of Islamic-Christian relations in the east before the crusades and explains the basis for the western Europeans’ expedition to Jerusalem at the end of the 11th century. He argues that, contrary to popular belief, most of the people of the lands the crusaders conquered were Christian, not Muslim. He describes how the western Europeans and local Christians lived alongside each other in the Middle East and argues that the Europeans were much more tolerant than the Muslims in their dealings with the local peoples.
The rise and the role of the Templars and Hospitallers in the Holy Land are included as part of the history of the crusades. Haag notes that these institutions also held land in Europe and, particularly, in the Iberian peninsula, in what is now Spain and Portugal. They received land here in the 1120s, before they had started to gain castles in the Holy Land, and Haag points out that far more Templars can be identified in the west between 1129 and 1148 than in the east. This would suggest that the crusade to the Holy Land was not, in fact, central to the Templars’ existence (or, indeed, the Hospitallers’), but Haag does not develop the point: his interest is primarily in Muslim-Christian relations in the Holy Land.
After the final destruction of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Templars and Hospitallers fled to Cyprus with other Christian refugees and tried to continue their war against Islam. The Hospitallers captured Rhodes, set up a base there and began a naval war, often making alliances with local Muslims as they had done in the Holy Land. As their war was fought until the end of the 18th century, a brief description of how they continued crusading ideals after 1291 would have been an obvious concluding chapter to the book. Instead, Haag follows the fate of the Templars. He concedes that King Philip IV of France’s attack on the Templars was political, and he admits that torture was used. Yet he accepts the Templars’ confessions, which resulted from intimidation and torture, as factual evidence.
Apparently he has not read the documents for himself. Pope Clement V did not state that the Templars practised an entrance ritual and there is no good evidence for any ‘Templars’ head’ idol, as Haag suggests, although over the centuries many scholars have tried to construct one by using evidence acquired through torture.
Perhaps the title of this book should have been ‘The Tragedy of the Crusades: How Christianity Lost, Won and Lost the Holy Land.’ The Templars are never central to Haag’s story, and arguably this would have been a better book without them.
Dr Helen Nicholson is reader in history at Cardiff University and the author of A Brief History of the Knights Templar (Constable and Robinson, 2010)