Monday, November 9, 2015

The Tragedy of the Templars by Michael Haag

Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will already have seen this review. However, I've been reading a lot of books lately which I'd love to review for Vintage Novels, and my backlog is growing faster than my once-a-week blogging schedule can keep up with. So, I'll be cross-posting a few of my Goodreads reviews in order to get ahead. Enjoy!

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader StatesThe Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know that before I can claim to know anything about the Templars, I have to read Malcolm Barber's The New Knighthood. That, however, will have to wait till I can afford it. In the meantime, I decided to try The Tragedy of the Templars, half supposing it might turn out to be hilariously bad, but hoping I'd glean some worthwhile facts.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The Good

This book is readable! Honestly, I'm thrilled that Barber and Hamilton and Edbury are producing such quality work on the Crusades, but you have to acknowledge they can be stiffish reading. Haag's Tragedy of the Templars, on the other hand, combines a formidable level of historical detail with an easy writing style, accessible to a popular audience.

It also contains some brilliant myth-busting on the Crusades generally. Haag spends a good deal of time setting the scene before he introduces his heroes the Templars, and this segment of the book was the one I found most useful. Relying heavily on primary sources from both Christian and Islamic perspectives, Haag outlines the history of the Christian East from Byzantine splendour (during which the Negev was irrigated and farmed) through the centuries of Islamic misrule and persecution (during which Christians retained a solid population majority throughout Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Levant), the first prosperous century of Crusader rule (throughout which Palestine saw a magnificent flowering of art and culture), and the very sad decline under the scorched-earth tactics of Saladin and his Ayyubid and Mameluke successors.

In the meantime, Haag explodes Mohammed's Night Journey from Jerusalem, arguing that the city's significance as the third holiest city of Islam stems in large part from its importance to Christians and only solidified around 1187. He thoroughly debunks Saladin's status as a Muslim hero--before conquering Jerusalem in 1187 he spent most of his time waging war on other Islamic rulers and was seen as an ambitious empire-builder rather than the champion of Islam. He also draws on a wide range of original source documents to demonstrate that the aid of the Eastern Church was a major motivating factor to the organisers and leaders of crusades.

Finally, this book solidly confirmed a number of things I'd gathered from reading other sources. For example, the fact that native Eastern Christians formed the majority of the population of the Near East up until well after the Crusader States fell in 1291. And the fact that the Muslim minorities that did live in the Crusader States were extremely well-treated to the point that the Christian lands became somewhat of a haven for Shia, Ismaili, and other splinter sects persecuted in larger Sunni Islam. And the consistent disregard Muslim conquerors had for the lands under their possession, to the point that the Christians consistently found land which had been under Islamic rule to be depopulated and ruinous, while Muslims consistently found land which had been under Christian rule to be rich and beautiful beyond compare. In all these things, Haag relies heavily on eyewitness evidence from Muslim chroniclers.

The Bad

That said, there was a lot in this book that I found misleading and/or biased. I gathered from reading the book that Haag is a Catholic and a huge Templar fanboy. Consequently, he thinks the Templars' independence from local church authority structures, and their sole answerability to the Pope, the best thing ever. His pro-Templar bias--and I'd have called myself mildly pro-Templar myself--led to some odd distortions of the history. Every time the Templars scratched their noses it's lauded as some tremendous victory; and so we're left with the impression that they single-handedly won Montgisard made the 3rd Crusade a success saved Outremer from an alliance with the Assassins etc etc.

And a lot of this Templar cheerleading is done at the expense of the local Frankish nobility, who weren't perfect either but are painted as traitors and villains. Raymond III of Tripoli, for instance, is made the villain of Hattin, and he and Balian of Ibelin are depicted as treacherous deserters (and thinking back, I'm wondering if he meant to insinuate that Balian's missing the battle of Cresson was too convenient by half). They're also described as the only two men in the kingdom who refused to acknowledge Guy of Lusignan's rule, which is demonstrably historically false. It's true that one of the nobles did in fact refuse to swear homage to Guy, preferring rather to bequeath his estates to his family and exile himself to Antioch--but this was Balian of Ibelin's elder brother Baldwin, not Balian himself, who swore fealty to Guy and served him faithfully until the death of Guy's wife, Queen Sibylla, invalidated his claim to the throne. Raymond of Tripoli also initially refused to do homage for his principality of Galilee, but Guy's response--to muster an army and attack the principality--bordered on the insane and left Raymond with little choice but to ally himself with Saladin, a treachery for which all the historical evidence is that he died bitterly repentant. One last dig is levelled at Balian for breaking his oath to Saladin in choosing to undertake the defence of Jerusalem, after having travelled to the city, alone and unarmed, to collect his wife and children, under a safe-conduct from Saladin on condition that he only spend one night in the city. The fact is that Balian only consented to stay and defend the city after he was unanimously begged to do so by its people and leaders, and that he sent his apologies to Saladin, who immediately forgave him the breaking of his oath and arranged safe passage for Balian's wife and children to Christian-held Tyre. (Which was one of Saladin's not-unknown chivalrous actions for which I think Haag gives him too little credit).

*annoyed huff*

Finally, Haag tends to gloss over, explain away, excuse, or simply ignore Templar sins. Some of these excuses are reasonable--eg the explanation that the massacre after the 1099 siege of Jerusalem was treated with hyperbole by its chroniclers (who would not have expected anyone to believe tales of the streets flowing with blood up to the horses' knees--a thing more or less physically impossible). Some of the explanations are worth bearing in mind, like the alternative interpretation of the Cresson disaster. Some of the explanations sounded completely specious to me--Templar involvement in the Muslim trade in Christian slaves is something I want to know more about, and not from someone keen to gloss over their faults; while I don't at all consider the slaughter of the Assassin envoys during Amalric's reign remotely excusable, let alone a good thing! I was interested to see what Haag would do to rehabilitate Gerard of Ridefort, the Grand Master whose lunatic advice led directly to the disaster at Hattin and who also nursed a petty grudge against Raymond of Tripoli all the way to the loss of the kingdom. Disappointingly, Haag either omits or skips over these parts as quickly as he can, and then fast-forwards to quote from a foreign chronicler's positive obituary after the Master's somewhat redeeming death in battle.

So, in a lot of ways this was a highly valuable book, from which I learned a huge amount. In other ways, I disagreed with it vehemently, and it left me wondering if I could really trust it at all in the parts where I didn't already know something about the history (like the trial of the Templars and the dissolution of their order in the early 1300s). Some of it opened up some fruitful avenues for further research, some of it confirmed stuff I'd learned from more trustworthy sources...and some of it was offputtingly partisan.

Conclusion? Still one of the best and most accessible books I've so far read on the Crusades, but don't let him convince you Balian of Ibelin was anything less than a hero.

View all my reviews

Find The Tragedy of the Templars on Amazon or The Book Depository. 


Jamie W. said...

All of this is really piquing my interest about Outremer!

Suzannah said...

Good, good, good :D.

JJalsevac said...

Nice review. You are quite the Near East history buff! Anyone who feels that passionate about the reputation of Balian of Ibelin must feel pretty at home with the material. Its fun to dive into a time period and become one with it.

Carol Jins said...

Very good review.. Planning to have a copy of this book. I have read the good part of your writing not the annoyed huff part..coz I want to explore the bad things by reading.

Unknown said...

In one of your former posts- I believe it was in LotR Plot, Part 1- you mentioned that you try to avoid heaps of writing advice. That made me curious about your approach to research and preparation. When you read historical books like the Tragedy of the Templars, what does your research process look like?

Suzannah said...

Joseph, I have become rather a Crusader history buff--thank goodness I have a nice and patient family who are willing to listen to me going on for hours about things like whether Countess Hodierna could possibly have been the one who ordered the Assassin hit on her husband Raymond II of Tripoli (conclusion: a preposterous idea, but doesn't it make a good story?)

Carol, I hope you enjoy this book! I included the "Bad" segment in my review because I thought in a lot of ways the book only gave one side of the story and I wanted to make sure my readers don't read the book without understanding alternate interpretations :).

Hi, Hannah! Yes, I do try to avoid most writing advice. My research process is actually pretty simple--I try to read a number of reputable scholarly works on the topic. I'll take notes of things that strike me as being worth remembering, and stash them away for future reference. If I need more specific information, I'll google it (Yay Google Books!). Because OUTREMER is such a huge project I've been trying to make sure I keep up a steady stream of reading revolving around that time period and location. Now, as I'm writing the first draft, I keep the most helpful books in a big pile on my desk.

Also, I would never DREAM of writing anything historical without trying to immerse myself in original source documents which might demonstrate how the actual denizens of the time period thought and spoke and acted. Some of my most important sources include Anna Comnena's ALEXIAD, William of Tyre's HISTORY OF DEEDS DONE BEYOND THE SEA, the Old French CONTINUATION of William of Tyre's history based off the account written by Balian of Ibelin's squire Ernoul, and the TEMPLAR OF TYRE, an account of the 13th century in Outremer. All these provide me with invaluable eye-witness details.

So it basically looks like me reading books, taking notes, and trying to convince myself to spend hundreds on translations of primary sources! :D


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