Friday, 6 July 2001

Piers Paul Read: The Templars (1999)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 862

In Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, every conspiracy theory, every mad story about secret societies, all of them involve the Templars. Their dramatic downfall and the bizarre accusations made against them tend to overshadow the rest of their two centuries of history and the purpose for which they worked.

Read aims to set out something of the true history of the Templars, avoiding the sort of speculation that Eco was talking about. His book is aimed squarely at the popular market, with a good deal being a retelling of very well known medieval history. He spends some time explaining some of the background of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, (to establish the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem), and to describe the development of monastic ideals (as the Templars were a monastic order), the authority of the papacy and the background to the Crusades. Most of the book is in fact a history of the Crusades, and my major criticism of it is that Read doesn't make enough effort to narrate the history with the role of the Templars at the centre.

In the end, despite Read's efforts to put the order in its context, it is the downfall of the Templars which forms the most interesting part of the book. In contrast to many narratives of the story, he makes it seem almost inevitable, as the Templars failed to adapt as the Hospitallers did after the fall of Acre and the end of the Western presence in Palestine in 1291. Unlike the other order, they put a low emphasis on learning (particularly in the law which increased massively in importance at around this time), and they were much more dependent on the West (conquering the island of Rhodes effectively made the Hospitallers independent of the control of Western monarchs). The massive psychological blow of the fall of Acre thus made them particularly vulnerable, so that when Philip IV of France moved against them, they were in a poor position to try and stand up to him, and the old fashioned, elderly grand master, James de Molay, found it impossible to make any coherent plan of resistance. Even so, it did take about ten years from the initial accusations to the final suppression of the order, and this is something brought out by Read which is a contrast to many other accounts.

The Templars includes too much background to really be a history of the order; there is scope for a more focused narrative, even one aimed at the same popular audience. I would have wanted to see more on how the Templars became a prototype of the banking houses of the late Middle Ages, more about how as a multinational organisation they related to the states around them (to phrase the question in an anachronistic way) - they very nearly became a state in their own right, when a childless Spanish ruler bequeathed his kingdom to them; his relatives managed to have the will overturned. This is perhaps of some relevance today, as the nation state is declining and the power of international corporations is growing. Read is a good writer, though, and his book is an interesting history of the Crusades even if it does not really throw new light upon its subject.

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