Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.05.09 Nicholson, The Knights Templar

22.05.09 Nicholson, The Knights Templar

This book offers a short entry-level history of the Knights Templar intended presumably for either the interested general reader or perhaps for undergraduate students seeking to acquire a solid introduction into the history of the order. It forms part of the ARC Humanities Press series “Past Imperfect” which produces books similar in size, shape, and purpose to Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” albeit with a focus on the medieval era (defined as covering 400-1500 CE).

The book performs its introductory purpose admirably. As is to be expected from a book written by Helen Nicholson, it is written with tremendous clarity and verve, including lots of interesting stories and examples. The result is a very lively and engaging piece of work. Structurally, the book considers its subject in seven chapters covering: the order’s beginnings (ch. 1), the concept of a military order (ch.2), the order’s beliefs (ch.3), its military role (ch. 4), the order’s impact on broader society (ch.5), the end of the order--the Trial of the Templars (ch. 6), and then a conclusion which essentially surveys the way in which different groups and individuals have drawn upon the memory of the Templars the centuries following their dissolution (ch.7).

Reflecting on this structure, the book provides discussion on a broad range of issues that are fundamental to understanding the history of the military orders and these are all explained very lucidly and with some excellent illustrative examples. On this latter point, it is a feature of this book that Nicholson uses many little-known examples--unfamiliar even to academics--which makes this a refreshing read even for a seasoned academic (there are some classic examples from well-known primary sources that are getting rather worn from scholarly overuse, but they rarely feature here!)

There might be some scope to grumble that some topics might have warranted more attention. A case could be made for more coverage on the development and purpose of the communications- and resource network spanning the Templars’ great network of estates in Western Christendom and the Near East. Perhaps greater discussion on their role in Iberia might have been useful and possibly more on the order’s changing popularity across Western Christendom over time. Nonetheless this is only a very short book so naturally it can’t cover everything.

A particular point of strength is the chapter on the Trial of the Templars where, despite the enormous complexity of this event and the helplessly entangled motives and interests of its various participants, Nicholson provides an exceptionally clear distillation of the trial and the central interpretive questions and issues that it poses. There are several other places where the book offers helpful summaries of key academic debates. For example, there is a concise overview of the ongoing discussions surrounding the date of the order’s original foundation: did it happen in 1119? 1120? earlier? These summaries reduce complex questions to their essential elements very effectively, providing useful recaps for teaching whilst also serving as a reminder that readers are getting a history that very much reflects the current state of the art.

It might be thought that a concise and introductory book of this kind offers little for a seasoned specialist in the history of the military orders and yet entry-level books of this kind can be very helpful for scholarly readers for two reasons. First, they provide a space for authors to offer verdicts on important overarching questions concerning their subject as a whole--opportunities rarely afforded in shorter studies on points of detail; second, any attempt to summarise research on any complex subject can serve to benchmark the current state of play and also to highlight fields where more research is needed.

From an academic perspective, Nicholson’s decision to include a chapter on “impact” was most intriguing, with “impact” being defined here seemingly as the Templars’ broader impact on Western Christendom. In this case, this chapter discusses research on the Templars’ contributions to broader advances in technological innovation, financial services, and economic growth. This field is still at an early stage in its development and much remains to be done, but recent work has enabled historians to begin to construct hypotheses in this area. The Knights Templar reflects this developing conversation, providing a good overall survey alongside some insightful glimpses into specific areas of activity, for example the Templars’ involvement in the textile industry. The chapter entitled “beliefs” likewise reflects substantial recent advances in work on Templar spirituality.

In other respects, this book reflects Nicholson’s longstanding views on many key topics. For example, in her discussion on the Templar Trial, she sustains her opinion that the Templar Trial, whilst a very complex affair, has not been survived by any persuasive evidence indicating any actual heresy within the order. Like most historians she is also highly cynical about the motives driving Philip IV when he initiated the trial.

Overall, this book performs its intended purpose extremely well: an interested reader will be able to pick it up, read it, and acquire a solid introduction to the history of the Templars in the space of less than 100 pages. Writing such a book represents a significant achievement. Just as importantly, given that this book has been written by a historian working at the very cutting edge of research in this field--and indeed many related fields--readers can be sure that they are reading an account that reflects current thinking on this topic.