Review 1574: The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

Maurice Druon’s spectacular historical novel The Iron King ends with a dramatic scene in which Jacques de Molay, the Master of the Knights Templar, is burned to death at the stake, and dying, curses Philip IV, King of France, as well as Pope Clement V. It was my interest in this particular event and my curiosity about the truth of Druon’s story that led me to read The Templars.

This book is a high-level history of the Knights Templar, an order of knights dedicated to poverty and to the protection of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As well as being about the battles it fought for Christendom (an appalling time), it is more interestingly about how the organization grew to become one of the most powerful multinational forces in Europe during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.

Although The Templars is meant to be a history for the general public, it does provide footnotes and citations for those who want to explore further, which I think is good. I have lately read a few history books and biographies that didn’t even bother listing sources, so there’s no way of ascertaining how accurate they are, which I find a disturbing trend. The book is written to hold its audience’s attention, which it does a fair job of. But, of course, it’s mostly about the Crusades, so you have to have a lot of fighting.

As for the Templars’ end, Jones depicts them as a mostly honorable and dedicated group of men who toward the end were fighting a losing battle. Europe wasn’t interested in crusades anymore, and the last few were disasters resulting in huge losses of men, largely through the misjudgments of Western leaders who did not understand their enemies rather than because of the Templars themselves. After these disasters, the Templars found themselves without enough knights to keep control of the territory they had once won.

It was on a trip to Europe to try to win support for another crusade that Jacques de Molay and all the knights in France were arrested on the same day. There had been much talk of combining the Knights Templar, the Knight’s Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights into one unit, which de Molay hoped to counter. What he did not anticipate was that King Philip of France wanted the Templars’ money and valuables. Starting with the testimony of one aggrieved man who had been ejected from the Templars for some crime, the king’s men had the knights tortured until they admitted crimes like denouncing Christ and committing sodomy. Although prosecution of the Templars was a church matter, not a civil one, Clement V was too much under Philip’s thumb to do much more than make mild efforts on their behalf. The result was that Templars who renounced their “confessions” were burned by the Inquisition. This shocking ending, Jones proposes, is why the Templars are still such a fascination in popular culture, although popular culture tends to treat them as satanists, when they were innocent of the charges against them.

So, yes, Druon got it right.

Jones did one thing that drove me crazy, which he claims is accepted practice in covering this time period, and that was to anglicize everyone’s names. I have never run across this before, but I think it’s ridiculous and ethnocentric. For example, Jacques de Molay is called James of Molay throughout the book. Why would anyone do this, accepted practice or not? Does Jones think the French name is too tough for us? If it’s accepted practice, it’s stupid.

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Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 563: The Scottish Chiefs

Cover for The Scottish ChiefsWritten in 1810, The Scottish Chiefs tells the romanticized story of William Wallace, the Scots hero we know today as Braveheart. Jane Porter was a contemporary and acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who deemed her the first author of historical fiction, then went on to write some himself.

The novel begins in 1296 and covers roughly eight years. After the untimely death of Alexander III, Scotland could not decide between two claimants to the throne—Robert Bruce or John Baliol—and called upon its neighbor, Edward of England, to adjudicate. He chose the weakest candidate, Baliol, and shortly afterwards seized the country for England. At the start of the novel, his governors have been mistreating Scotland for two years by imprisoning its leaders and taking their property for themselves.

William Wallace has been minding his own business and trying to stay out of trouble when he is summoned to meet with Sir John Monteith. Monteith passes him a metal box given to him by Lord Douglas before Douglas was kidnapped by the English. Monteith’s home is overrun by English soldiers, and he is afraid someone will discover the box, so he asks Wallace to remove it. However, the soldiers glimpse it under his plaid, and assuming it is treasure, they soon arrive at his home to take it. Wallace escapes, but his wife Marion is murdered by the dastardly Heselrigge, English governor of Lanark.

After his wife’s murder, Wallace vows to devote his life to freeing Scotland from the English. The novel follows his adventures and his defeats of the English in battle. Wallace’s victories are muddied by the jealousy and treachery of many of the Scottish chiefs, who refuse to believe the purity of his motives and fear his growing power over the populace.

The novel is written in the overblown style of Romanticism. It features a godlike Wallace, heroic figures like beautiful and saintly Helen Mar and faithful Edwin Ruthven and villains such as the perfidious Lady Mar and vicious Heselrigge. The dialogue is florid. However, the deeds described are truly exciting, and Porter manages at times to build quite a lot of suspense. The introduction by Kate Douglas Wiggan, educator and author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, relates how her copy of the novel was in tatters from re-reading when she was a child and how she would beg for ten more minutes of reading time when called to supper.

While reading this novel, I was trying to decide whether a modern youngster would love it or be bogged down by its style and length. I am not sure, but children read for plot, and there is much in this tale to make it a page-turner. That it is about a man who was truly a hero should make it even more exciting to them. In any case, if the writing style of early 19th century Romanticism doesn’t bother you, I think anyone might enjoy reading this novel.