Shedding Light on
Misunderstood Knights | Vincent Ryan | Catholic World Report
Two new books about the Templars and the Hospitallers separate historical fact from popular fiction
Michael Haag, The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (Harper: New York, 2013) 448 pp, paperback, $16.99
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Knights Hospitaller in the Levant, c. 1070-1309 (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2012) 352 pp, hardcover, $105.00
One of the most commonly perpetuated myths about the First Crusade is that participation in the campaign was primarily driven by economic motivations, particularly by younger sons who had minimal inheritance prospects and thus regarded the crusade as a promising land-grab. Specialists in this field have eviscerated this dubious premise. For instance, computer-based prosopographical studies of the first crusaders have shown that the expedition was actually largely comprised of the oldest sons, who had access to the family’s assets which were essential to financing their participation in the crusade.1
The behavior of the first crusaders further illustrates how deeply flawed this notion that participants were chiefly interested in acquiring lands. After capturing Jerusalem in the summer of 1099, most of the crusaders venerated the holy sepulcher and returned to Europe. Manpower shortages were one of the most pressing problems for the Latin Christians who remained in the region. The emergence and growth of the Templars and Hospitallers was one response to this mounting crisis. Two recent books on these respective military orders highlight the central role that each played in the defense of the crusader states in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The Origins of the Templars
The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag at first glance might seem like another entry in the publishing subgenre of Templar-related nonsense.2 The somewhat sensationalist title is likely a reflection of marketing concerns, as the book itself is a fairly sober and thought-provoking study. This is the second tome that Haag has written on the order, and his ease and confidence in discussing various aspects of the Templars is one of the strengths of the book.3 Though the loss of the Templar archives has clouded our understanding of the genesis of the order and its early history, Haag pieces together a pretty reasonable account of the first two decades of the Templars. In the aftermath of the First Crusade, Christian control of Palestine was far from secure as Muslim bands raided the countryside and harassed the steady stream of vulnerable pilgrims on the open roads. Around 1119, Hugh of Payns and several other companions started a group that would be dedicated to protecting Christians who were visiting the holy sites. Haag wrongly claims that Hugh was a veteran of the First Crusade, but he rightly emphasizes how a massacre around Eastertide of 1119 of more than three hundred European pilgrims who were visiting holy sites outside of Jerusalem was undoubtedly a catalyst in the founding and acceptance of Hugh’s group. Hugh and his comrades were aided considerably in their endeavor by the support of Baldwin II of Jerusalem. Most significantly, the king provided them with a headquarters which was thought to have been the location of the Temple of Solomon and it was from this connection that these knights would ultimately derive their name.