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a man out of his time,
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This review is from: The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders (Arkana) (Paperback)
Whether one approves of their aims or not, it's difficult to dispute that the Military Orders were the epitome of knightly heroism; time and again they fought to the death against what must have seemed hopeless odds, and sometimes even triumphed over them. That confidence in the ultimate victory of their cause - along with their embroilment in conspiracy theories ancient and modern - is probably the source of their continuing fascination for our relativistic world. Yet for Desmond Seward, the attraction is evidently that 'they alone preserve the mystique of rank and birth in a world which finds aristocracy incomprehensible'. So far from being irrelevant, as one reviewer says, this attitude is the foundation of the book.
Seward is in fact - or would like to be - one of their own*, and closely identifies with the Orders' own values. His admiration of 'rank' and his too-evident relish for their military exploits and occasional bloodthirstiness make me a little uneasy; as an historian he is far too uncritical, and too ready to apologise for the Orders. For example, he dismisses the claim that they contributed to the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, yet it is a well-founded one. Their heroic last stand at Acre, when the cause was already lost, was no compensation for the stupid way they had often goaded the Muslim powers, and refused to co-operate with one another. He mentions the infamous action where the Templar Master insisted on attacking a Saracen army with a tiny detachment; 'a typical medieval man who believed in trial by battle', he shrugs - it doesn't seem to bother him that the Master ran away and allowed his men to be slaughtered. Privilege of 'rank', I suppose; but fanaticism at other peoples' expense is inexcusable. And his only comment on the Teutonic Knights' genocide of the native Prussians is 'a great achievement of colonisation'.
When it comes to the suppression of the Templars, he simply refuses to believe the charges against them. It raises an interesting problem; modern historians have tended to accept that there is no smoke without fire, but the reality is that the only evidence is from confessions under torture and threat of torture. The reasons people might have wanted to disband the Order once it had outlived its original purpose are obvious enough. Why should the whole thing not be just one huge libel?
He finishes by saying that the surviving Orders can continue 'as long as they keep their traditions and patrician character'. He may well be right; for centuries they were often under threat because it was clear to all that they mattered. Now they don't matter, and there is no reason they shouldn't carry on indefinitely.
This is an entertaining tale, then, of 900 years of spectacular chivalry; but as history it needs to be treated with caution. Arguably the very existence of the Orders was a betrayal of the Christianity they were supposed to defend; without doubt their actions were frequently a blot on its name. The Teutonic Knights form an unwelcome exception to the rule that Christianity spreads by choice, not force. Yet their contribution was critical at times in checking the westward spread of militant Islam. Europe, and the world, might have taken on a very different shape without them.
*After the book was first published, he did in fact become a Knight of Malta; but of course he won't have had the opportunity to find out whether he has the mettle to match his exemplars.