Sunday, June 04, 2006

Knights of Christ (part one)

Exam season is here, so I'll be recycling essays for a week or two. With the Da Vinci Code playing in theatres I'm getting a bit sick of people going on about the Knights Templar, so to dispel the romance here's the first half of a piece I did for my crusades subject last year.

Footnotes removed for the usual reason - because IE can't handle them.


Once established, the military orders quickly came to play a central role in Frankish military operations in the Latin East. The Templars and Hospitallers were able to draw recruits and revenues throughout Christendom, in contrast to Outremer’s feudal lords whose military capacity was limited by their lands’ modest resources and in particular by a chronic shortage of Frankish manpower. From the mid-twelfth century the two major orders each maintained around three hundred knights in the Kingdom of Jerusalem alone, making their joint contingent comparable in size to the Kingdom’s feudal levy. As time progressed, Outremer’s feudal system proved unable to cope with the perpetual military readiness dictated by the crusader states’ position, and increasingly yielded the burden to institutions designed for continual war against the infidel. Thus the military orders began from an early stage to receive control of strongholds that the secular nobility could not afford to maintain or garrison; by 1180 the Hospitallers alone were responsible for twenty-five castles in the Latin East. The orders built fortresses of their own and waged an ongoing frontier war with Islam, as well as fulfilling the Templars’ original role of protecting pilgrims. As the resources of the feudal lords declined with the loss of territory to the Muslims, the orders’ importance increased till by the mid-thirteenth century Outremer’s defence rested primarily upon them.

The orders also provided the most effective troops available to the Franks in the Latin East. Western European battlefield tactics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries relied on the heavy cavalry charge, a manoeuvre ill-suited to countering the light cavalry tactics employed by the Muslims. Successful use of the charge in this context required a level of experience and discipline that was lacking in knights newly arrived from Europe, where battles were infrequent and governed by the chivalric imperative to seek individual glory. By contrast the military orders benefited from the experience gained by individual members through extended service against the infidel, as well as from an accumulated knowledge of warfare in the East that was codified in each order’s statutes. Discipline was imposed on individual knights through their vow of obedience to the order, supplemented by severe punishments for disobedience or cowardice on the battlefield. The orders’ troops could furthermore be relied on to remain in the field for as long as their commanders ordered, being free from the political and economic constraints that hamstrung feudal armies and in particular crusading expeditions from Europe. The brethren of the military orders were in short the first professional soldiers that the west had produced since the fall of Rome, and their qualities soon came perforce to be acknowledged within the hierarchies of Outremer. From the mid-twelfth century onwards, the Templars and Hospitallers were involved as a matter of course in military operations and discussions of military policy in the Latin East. On campaign their troops were typically assigned to the army’s rearguard and vanguard (the positions most exposed to attack), were given responsibility for defence of the army’s encampment at night and escorted the True Cross.

The best known aspect of the orders’ military prowess, however, was their heedless courage in battle irrespective of circumstances. The bravery of the warrior monks was universally recognised, and their reputation reached legendary proportions. Nor was it merely theatrics; on many occasions it won the day for the Franks, for instance at Damietta in 1219, or at Montgisard in 1177, where a charge by the outnumbered Templars scattered the enemy and almost captured Saladin. The Muslims considered the brethren of the military orders to be the Franks’ most formidable troops, courageous to the point of fanaticism. Muslim chroniclers described the Templars as ‘demons’ and likened the orders’ castles to impregnable lairs of wild beasts, ‘a bone in the throat of Islam’. Saladin, a leader noted for his magnanimity, reportedly vowed to ‘cleanse the land of these two impure orders’ and routinely executed captured Templars and Hospitallers.

For some critics, bravery merged with pride - the military orders’ other universally acknowledged trait - to become foolhardiness, compromising military outcomes. At the siege of Ascalon in 1153, for instance, the Templars allegedly caused an assault to fail by preventing their fellow Christians following them through a breach in the walls, desiring the glory for themselves. As a rule, however, claims of recklessness by the orders are ambiguous or associated with a particular individual rather than systemic traits. The Ascalon story derives from a single account written years after the event and inconsistent with the reports of eyewitnesses.Similarly, the alleged role of the Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort in the disaster at Hattin is based on one potentially biased source and receives no mention in other contemporary accounts of the battle. Even if true, the irresponsibility displayed on this occasion and earlier the same year at Cresson (where a hundred Templars charged fifteen hundred Muslims and were wiped out almost to a man) reflects on de Ridefort’s leadership rather than on the Templars as an institution.

In any case, a degree of aggressiveness was essential to the reputation that drew the orders recruits and revenues from all over Christendom; they could not be seen as reluctant to fight when their prestige stemmed from an image of holy warriors smiting the infidel. It was failure to meet this paradigm, rather than a perceived excess of zeal, that underpinned most allegations of military incompetence made against the orders. Generally speaking the orders’ leaders had a sound understanding of the current military situation, which rarely favoured the Franks; they were thus inclined towards a prudent approach that often put them at odds with crusaders from Europe, for instance at Damascus in 1148, Mansurah in 1250 and during the Third Crusade. The crusader states’ distance and unfamiliar political environment meant that westerners had little understanding of the situation ‘on the ground’, and of the practical problems that the orders faced in maintaining Outremer’s long-term viability. Cultivation of relations with the Muslims, for example, made strategic sense but seemed to compromise the orders’ first principles and gave rise to accusations that they were in league with the infidel. Similarly, criticism that the orders’ brethren tended to hide in their castles during Muslim invasions and frequently surrendered fortresses without resistance reflects lack of knowledge of Outremer’s defence system. Castle garrisons were only expected to delay an invader until the field army had been mustered, and a castellan without hope of relief was well advised to surrender his fortress in exchange for safe passage and so preserve his garrison for the crusader states’ scarce manpower.

Not all of the orders’ shortcomings were mere matters of perception. Contemporaries noted the disparity between their resources and the forces they actually deployed in Outremer, and some degree of underutilisation did probably exist, though this is better explained by administrative deficiencies rather than indifference. Throughout nearly two centuries of residence in the Holy Land, the orders never developed a novel approach to warfare against the Muslims. The rivalry between the two major orders and their independence from secular authority undermined concerted Frankish action against the infidel, more significantly as the Templars and Hospitallers became dominant political powers in Outremer during the thirteenth century.

In the final analysis however the military orders should not be judged too harshly; they failed because they had undertaken an impossible task. The crusader states were strategically untenable; their survival depended ultimately on the political condition of the surrounding Muslim powers, and internal factors such as the orders’ performance could only delay catastrophe. To achieve anything more would have required sustained support from the west, but this was never forthcoming; Frankish immigration to the Levant was never more than a trickle, while crusades from Europe were sporadic, ephemeral and dissipated across too many fronts. The military orders, by contrast, never wavered in their commitment to Outremer. Their conduct in the hopeless defence in 1291 of Acre, the last Frankish foothold in the Holy Land, provides a fitting epitaph for their role in a crusading enterprise that was doomed from the outset. We should be inclined to accept the judgment of King Amalric of Jerusalem, who by the mid-twelfth century had already concluded that ‘if we can achieve anything, it is through them [the military orders] that we are able to do it’.

No comments: