Shedding Light on Misunderstood Knights

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.

The fledgling group received a major boost when they secured the support of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential churchmen of the period. His advocacy facilitated a widespread acceptance of this potentially controversial fusion of knighthood and monasticism. At the Council of Troyes in 1129 the pope officially recognized the Templars as a religious order of the Church. Bernard continued to work for the order’s acceptance and spread in Europe. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Templars was his treatise, De laude novae militiae, which elaborated on the benefits of this unique order. Haag’s discussion of Bernard’s celebrated pro-Templar treatise is surprisingly brief. Haag at one point suggests that the order’s prohibitions against long hair and stylish clothes were designed to discourage homosexuality, but a fuller consideration of De laude novae militiae would have shown that these elements were perceived as embodying the frivolities of chivalric culture. Bernard argued that the Templars exemplified a new kind of knighthood (novae militae), which stood in stark contrast to the excesses of secular chivalry.4 By the mid-twelfth century, these members of the “new knighthood” were no longer just protecting pilgrims; they now occupied a central role in the defense of Outremer (what contemporaries called the crusader states).

The cursory treatment of De laude novae militia is indicative of how the book is not really a standard study of the Templars. In fact, you have to read more than one hundred pages before the Templars figure prominently in the narrative. Someone interested in a traditional history of the controversial military order would be better served seeking out Régine Pernoud’s The Templars: Knights of Christ, Piers Paul Read’s The Templars, or one of the many books by Malcolm Barber, the leading scholar on this topic. Haag’s book is better understood as a history of Outremer (see his subtitle) in which the Templars play a leading role. This is not a critique. Indeed, this approach makes the book feel fresh even as it covers well tread terrain.

Even more intriguing is his argument that though much of the Levant had come under Muslim control by the time of the Crusades, the population of the region was still predominantly Christian. This interpretation is certainly controversial, but is not without some merit. In arguing that Christianity remained the majority religion among the people living along the eastern Mediterranean, Haag is utilizing the research of the Israeli scholar Ronnie Ellenblum. The problem here is that Ellenblum was primarily describing the population of medieval Palestine, not the larger Levantine world. Haag makes similar claims about the twelfth-century Christian population of Egypt, bolstering his assessment with a second-hand reference to a 2005 Princeton dissertation.5 Haag rightly challenges the general assumption that these regions had been broadly Islamized on the eve of the Crusades, but his definitive assertions of the opposite are equally lacking in conclusive evidence.

Based on his assessment of the Christian demographics in the Levant Haag frequently describes the campaigns of Saladin and other Muslim leaders as “Islamic imperialism” and portrays the Crusades as a counter to a new wave of Islamic expansion throughout the Mediterranean world. Once again, the author mixes some useful revisionism with sloppy argumentation. Contrary to the claims of some modern commentators, the Crusades did not just emerge out of nowhere; they are best understood as a phase in the often combative relationship between Christians and Muslims that had been going on since the seventh century. But to portray the First Crusade as a campaign designed to roll back Muslim expansion is too broad an interpretation. To support such a view Haag engages in some amateur source analysis. He treats Fulcher of Chartres’ account of Urban II’s speech at Clermont in 1095 as if it were a journalistic transcription of what was said, even though Fulcher wrote his history years after the event and the evidence that he was even present at the famous sermon is minimal. The reason that Haag wants to elevate this account of the speech is because in this version Urban makes no mention of the liberation of Jerusalem being the object of the campaign; rather, Fulcher portrays the pope as presenting the expedition in very broad terms, purportedly saying that “if you permit [the Turks] to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them.”6

Besides the issues I noted above, the biggest problem with prizing such a depiction is that the letters Urban wrote while promoting the crusade and the charters of those who went on the expedition overwhelming show that contemporaries viewed the liberation of Jerusalem as the goal of the First Crusade. Likewise, Haag correctly notes that the Second Crusade did not only involve the campaign in the East, highlighting the fighting against Muslims in medieval Iberia as being another aspect of this crusade. But he then neglects the third prong of the Second Crusade, which involved fighting against the Wends in northern Europe, perhaps because it does not fit into his combating “Islamic imperialism” thesis.7

Nonetheless, as long as one is alert to these not insignificant flaws, there is still much to recommend in this book. It is an engaging read on a fascinating era. Haag might not have all the answers, but his vigorous questioning of standard assumptions makes The Tragedy of the Templars a worthy contribution.

The character and faith of the Hospitallers

While the Templars have received considerable publicity over the last several decades from all outrageous conspiracies they have been linked to and all the fourth-rate novels that have used the order as a plot device, the Hospitallers remain relatively neglected. The insufferable 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, features a Hospitaller character whose name is… “Hospitaller.” (Apparently, the parents of ‘Hospitaller’ really wanted to encourage their son down a particular path in life.)8 I highlight this example from the dustbin of cinematic history because it sadly might represent the apex of this order’s penetration into the popular consciousness in recent years. Hopefully, the latest book by Jonathan Riley-Smith, the pre-eminent Crusades scholar of the past thirty years, will help the order garner more attention and appreciation among the reading public.

The Knights Hospitaller in the Levant, c. 1070-1309 is actually a reworking of the Cambridge professor’s very first book.9 However, he has substantially overhauled, rewritten, and expanded upon that initial foray into the topic. That this is no mere “second edition” is further reflected in the different titles of the two books. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Hospitallers, were the oldest of the military orders. They actually predate the First Crusade, originating in Jerusalem in the late eleventh century to tend to the medical needs of western pilgrims. While historians agree that the order gradually developed out from an eleventh-century hospice established by and connected to the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary the Latin in Jerusalem, there has been plenty of debate about the precise date of its origination – Riley-Smith proposes no earlier than the late 1060s. In 1113 Pope Paschal II granted the Hospital of St. John papal privileges, confirming it as an autonomous institution free of its Benedictine founders. Pope Innocent II was especially supportive of the Hospital, issuing a number of papal bulls, which expanded the order’s various privileges, encouraged donations by the faithful, and reiterated the Hospital’s independence from the local ecclesiastical hierarchy.

One of the recurring themes of the book is the tension in the order between its commitments to nursing and warfare. Riley-Smith observes that the Hospitallers were rather ambivalent about their role in warfare, at least in the official decrees and documents of the order. The use of arms was not mentioned in the order’s legislation until 1182. The four promises a Hospitaller made at his profession contained no reference to fighting or even to the protection of the Holy Land. Downplaying their knightly activity may have been in part because the order existed for decades before it took on a militarized role. The care of the sick, particularly pilgrims, was its original and overriding charism. The prioritizing of this charitable function was natural. It was perhaps also a way to conform more closely – at least more than the military orders that embraced their soldierly efforts – to the norms of medieval religious life. The early Hospitallers appear to have been somewhat sensitive to criticisms of their fusion of monasticism and knighthood. Even Pope Alexander III, a supporter of the Hospitallers, was unenthusiastic about the growing military function of the order. On several occasions he encouraged the Hospitallers to concentrate on their charitable ministry and only take up arms in an emergency.

Charting the militarization of the Hospitallers is a challenge. The evolution was clearly gradual, though the order was likely imitating the Templars in taking up arms. An 1126 charter makes a passing reference to a Hospitaller with the military title of constable. Ten years later, King Fulk of Jerusalem entrusted the Hospital with the strategically important castle of Bethgibelin in the southern part of the kingdom. In 1142 the order was given control of a string of frontier castles, which included the famous fortress of Krak des Chevaliers. By 1166, there were only three castles in the kingdom of Jerusalem that were not controlled by either the Hospitallers or the Templars.

Some critics of Riley-Smith like to highlight his membership in the Knights of Malta, the modern incarnation of the Hospitallers, questioning how truly objective he can be on the topic.10 The analysis in the book shows how baseless this charge is. The author is quite forthright in his criticisms of the order. When the kingdom of Jerusalem devolved into political factionalism in the 1180s, he observes that Roger of Moulins, the grand master of the order, “did not cover himself with glory” during this period. In examining the efforts of the Third Lateran Council to address episcopal complaints about the order, Riley-Smith readily admits that “it is clear that the Hospitallers’ behavior was becoming intolerable.”

Indeed, the evolution of the Hospitallers into a wealthy international body increased both its financial involvements and charges that it had betrayed its original mission. Riley-Smith is very interested in the growth and structure of the Hospitallers with the largest sections in the book being devoted to an examination of the assets and organization of the order. The collapse of the crusader states in 1291 would contribute to the dissolution of the Templars. The Hospitallers proved more adaptable in dealing with this setback, setting up headquarters on Cyprus for a short interlude, before later relocating to the island of Rhodes in 1309. The order’s activity in large-scale management earned it a fair amount of criticism, but without this experience it seems doubtful that the Hospitallers would have been able to create a state on Rhodes from which it would act as a frontline against Ottoman expansion over the next several centuries (a fascinating era that lies beyond the scope of this book).

The resiliency of the order in the wake of the many disasters and setbacks it endured throughout is remarkable. As the venerable professor reflects at the book’s close, “[A] history that on the surface appears to have been one of dismal reverses is at a deeper level a triumph of character and faith.” Hopefully, the publisher has plans to release an affordable paperback edition in the near future. At its current price one would need access to a mythical Templar treasure to add this excellent study to their personal library.


1 Indeed, crusading depleted many family fortunes as it was an extremely costly undertaking. Jonathan Riley-Smith’s landmark study The First Crusaders, 1095-1131(Cambridge, 1997) is an essential read for anyone interested in these issues.

2 Holy Blood, Holy Grail remains the fool’s gold standard for pseudo-historical trash with a Templar angle, very much embodying Umberto Ecco’s oft-repeated maxim that you can tell someone is a lunatic “by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”

3 His first venture into the field was The Templars: History and Myth (London, 2008), a useful antidote to the myths and conspiracies that have barnacled themselves onto the order.

4 Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood, trans. M. Conrad Greenia (Kalamazoo, 2000), p. 46.

5 Haag, The Tragedy of the Templars, pp. 211, 385, footnote 5. That he is citing it through the footnote of another book make me skeptical Haag has actually read this dissertation.

6 Ibid, p. 97.

7 Ibid, p. 178.

8 This ridiculousness is soon topped, when “Hospitaller” the Hospitaller later tells Orlando Bloom: “I don’t put much stock in religion” – a mindset which seems reasonable considering he only happens to be a professed member of a religious order! My wife might suggest that I still vividly recall the numerous historical errors from the film and get riled up on this topic when properly needled, but I will neither confirm nor deny such an assessment.

9 Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Knights of St John in Jerusalem and Cyprus, c. 1050-1310 (London, 1967).

10 For an example of this perspective see Christopher Tyerman, The Invention of the Crusades (Toronto, 1998), p. 125.

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About Vincent Ryan 0 Articles
Vincent Ryan earned his doctorate in medieval history at Saint Louis University and has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History Conference. He is an Assistant Professor of History at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN and the co-editor of The Crusades: Medieval Worlds in Conflict (Ashgate, 2010).