The Persecution of the Knights Templar by Alain Demurger

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The Knights Templar received official permission from King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1120 to establish themselves as a military religious order in the Holy Land, dedicated to helping the Church repel the threat of Muslim resurgence in the wake of the First Crusade. The Order was recognized in 1129 by the Church at a council in Troyes under the direction a papal legate and witnessed by the future Saint Bernard. For two hundred years, the Templars amassed land, castles, monasteries, and storehouses of money, and then a thunderbolt struck. On 13 October 1307, accused of heresy by France’s King Philip the Fair, the Order was sacked; its wealth and properties were seized, its charters and favors revoked, and its members arrested, tortured, interrogated, and killed. Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312.

By which time a noisy flood of legends had already begun to flow around the very name of the Knights Templar, and that flood has raged right down to the present day. Most 19th century readers learned everything they ever knew about the Order from Sir Walter Scott; most 20th century readers learned everything they ever knew about the Order from Dan Brown; most 21st century readers learned everything they know about the Order from Assassin’s Creed.

Underneath that flood of mytho-history is actual history, a fairly simple narrative in which the Templars, having become powerful and wealthy and having outgrown their original dedication and begun to show up in taverns and petty shakedowns, became an easy target in an ongoing power-struggle between the French monarchy and the papacy. This simple narrative manages to cast them as both formidable and underdogs, and that combination has made them irresistible to chroniclers and fabulists alike.

They’re the subject, for instance, of Alain Demurger’s 2015 book La persécution des Templiers, now given an uncredited English-language translation by Pegasus Books as The Persecution of the Knights Templar. Demurger is the doyenne of contemporary Templar researchers, writes in a flowing, learned prose that’s enticingly contentious; even when covering familiar ground, he seems always to be in a tense, quasi-adversarial relationship with everybody who’s covered it before him. He wouldn’t be the first scholar to resent the widespread popularity of his niche speciality, but he often seems as irritated by his fellow specialists as by the Dan Browns of the world. His note among the resisters in the Templar ranks, for instance, sounds almost like a professional scolding:

The problem is that we don’t know - or have only a very sketchy idea - who the resisters were. They existed outside of the interrogation records to which historians rush to ‘pull out the true from the false’. There is, of course, a lot of ‘truth’ in those records, but not where scholars like to ‘dig around’: not in the ‘confessions’ but alongside them, in the thousand and one pieces of information we glean through asides, small (and sometimes larger) paragraphs describing everyday life during the proceedings, through those masses of Templar names, consciously (and sometimes ‘fancifully’) recorded by the commission notaries and destined for the most part to remain only names whose silence says more and delivers more truth than the lamentable confessions obtained through torture.

His goal in this book is not to re-hash the dramatics of the Templars’ fall but rather to concentrate on the ways in which the average Templar experienced his persecution on a daily basis, far away from the international politics and often buried in the minutiae of the records, and this comes through marvelously. Demurger joins the scholars who dissent from the easy summary of the Templar story and especially from placing any credence in confessions of lurid excesses extracted under torture. Instead, he seeks a larger re-positioning of the Order in their own tale:

I believe I have revealed some facts that have not always been taken into account in the histories of the trial of the Temple, probably because, since the trial has been situated within the context of the confrontation between the papacy and the French monarchy, the temptation has been great to focus exclusively on those two powers and see the Templars merely as pawns or ‘punchbags’. I believe that my approach - starting with the Templars and their reactions as they confronted those two powers - has been beneficial insofar as it has shown that during this affair they were engaged as fully fledged players in a game in which there were ultimately three teams.

Even a generous reading of The Persecution of the Knights Templar - and the book is so engaging and intelligently dramatic that it’s hard to imagine there’ll be any other kind of reading - will be forced to admit that this larger reading fails. The broad outlines of the original story, with the Templars caught and crushed between two immensely more powerful state entities, easily survives even so smartly executed an attempt at revision as this. But even so, Demurger has written a valuable and compellingly readable account of the individual valor and suffering that’s too often obscured in wider-angle studies. It’s a welcome thing to have such an attractively-produced version in English.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.