This review will probably come as a surprise to absolutely no one. As a medievalist and someone with a particular interest in knights and chivalry, the Knights Templar feature prominently in my studies. I have also been impressed by Dan Jones’ previous works The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses, the latter of which managed to completely unravel this tangled mess without the need for a score card. Anyone who can do that has my attention if they want to stride fearlessly into the milieu of the Crusades. Basically, this book sits at the crossroads of awesome for me: a topic I enjoy by an historian I trust. As soon as it was available for pre-order, I dropped my Audible credit in the expectation of greatness.
I was not disappointed. I’ve read a number of books on the Crusades and the Templars over the course of my life, and they generally come in three forms. The first is the tome that is obviously written by scholars for other scholars, thorough but difficult for the armchair historian to fully grasp at the level of intent. The second is the “dumbed down” version of history that gives a reader the names, basic facts, etc., but is ultimately pretty dull and empty. The third is the sensationalist volume looking to capitalize on the myths and legends of the Templar legacy, following up every bit of “evidence” to support the bogus claims leveled against them at their trial, and hell bent on exploring every vague and often fictional connection to their modern day counterparts. Of these three, I prefer the first type, but I acknowledge that this isn’t exactly the place to start.
Once more, Dan Jones to the rescue. As with the two aforementioned works I cited, this is a narrative history, designed to pull in the beginners, to engage the enthusiasts, and to return the Templars to their rightful place in history as worthy subjects in their own rights without the need to embellish, slander, or otherwise fictionalize their roles. Beginning with an introduction that paints a picture of the Holy Land and how a traveler in that era might experience it, the origins of the Templars are explored, and their rise as a true world power is chronicled using a wide variety of sources and perspectives. Without apology or modern parallel, Jones puts the Templars squarely in their time and place, painting the zeitgeist around them that allowed them to flourish. Special emphasis is put forth in the reminder that their function was not to convert the faithless. Their Order was designed to protect pilgrims on Crusade and to destroy those who would do those pilgrims harm. By decree within their own bylaws, Templars did not surrender nor did they retreat, fighting instead to the last man and often pulling off the seemingly impossible precisely because they left themselves no other recourse. The experiences they gained fighting in a hostile and alien environment against the equally legendary Saladin and his forces served only to bolster their reputations and their ranks. Their power as bankers gives rise to new levels of power and restructures the reach of the Templar Order until kings and princes are in debt to their eyeballs and covetous of their wealth, leading ultimately to a betrayal that will bring down the Order and kickstart a thousand misappropriated rumors that propel a cottage industry today. Some of those extant tales are covered at the end of this book.
I think the only thing I might have liked to have seen that I didn’t get was a more in-depth look at some of the personalities involved, though I freely admit that part of this limitation is due to a lack of information. We can theorize all we’d like, but where accounts are not forthcoming, even that is a difficult to do with any credibility. In some cases, however, I know that other historians have included some deeper insights that are missing here. I can justify it by saying that this is not a biography of the Templars themselves, but rather an overview of their Order. Defensible or not, I’d still have liked these extra touches that humanizes them. We got some, don’t get me wrong. I’m just greedy enough to want it to go further. For those who are interested, the proverbial scorecard is offered in the appendices, and readers are invited to do further research into those personages that inspire such. The connections between the Templars and the Plantagenets are drawn more visibly here than in many other books I’ve encountered (notwithstanding Richard the Lionheart’s role in the Third Crusade), which is no surprise given Jones’ past work, and no less appreciated. It does open some new questions for me. The biggest one I have, which I will track down now, is why the Templars supported King John against the Pope when the Order answered only to papal authority. That smacks of treason or heresy at first consideration, two of the very things the Templars were accused of at their trial and condemnation in France. At the same time, it seems like the Templars were simply being pragmatic, understanding that the situation between the papal crown and the English crown would be temporary. And since the Templars were one of the few groups John had no quarrel with, it seems wise for them to simply stay out of the fight. Another rabbit hole for me to dig into…
On a personal level, the Templars are an endless source of fascination for me, as I’ve said. Crusader knights are a very different animal than knights of any other place or time, and the Templars were the best of the best at what they did. That same fascination I have is no doubt part of what the world feels, and likely what feeds into all of the sordid controversy that swarms their legend. But as one who walks in the footsteps of chivalry myself, and was one who has learned to understand the multitudes of interpretations across different factions, different realms, and even different individuals, I’ve come to appreciate the Templar legacy as something that could only have come about in the era of the Crusades. Theirs is a kind of knighthood that quite literally transformed the understanding of what knighthood meant as much or maybe even more than the concept of chivalry did. As always, I have to set aside my personal beliefs about the zealotry inherent in their way of life and focus more on seeing it through their eyes in order to achieve optimum understanding. Jones aids that understanding without focusing on minutiae. It’s squarely in the category of “less is more.” Doctrine is explored less than deed, and deed speaks so much louder than words.
My understanding is that this book will provide a foothold for two more projects. Jones is a consultant on the upcoming historical fiction series Knightfall, and he has committed himself to the larger study of the Crusades as a result of this book. Based on previous work and upon this one, when that time comes, you can guarantee I’ll gladly pre-order the next book. While this book will still stand alone, I suspect it will serve as an excellent stepping stone into Jones’ look at the larger whole. Part of me wishes this book had existed when I first broached this subject, and I’d love to have similar companion works on the Knights Hospitaller / Knights of Malta and the Teutonic Knights.
In any case, to learn about the Crusades on any level, to explore and contemplate any of the factions on both sides of the fight, is to confront the Medieval experience of religion on its own terms, in context. Those experiences have effects that ripple into our own era, and thus they are worth understanding as more than just for the sake of historical curiosity. A mindful reader seeking a place to start such understanding would do well with this book.