How White Supremacists and Islamists exploit the Middle Ages

IMG_3976I’ve tried to avoid this topic but with comments from white supremacists appearing on social media channels linked to this blog, I need to make my position crystal clear on the relationship between the Knights Templar, white supremacists and Islamist-inspired terrorists.

It’s quite simple. There isn’t one.

That unfortunately hasn’t stopped groups in my native United Kingdom like the English Defence League adopting Templar symbols and mottos as their own. White supremacist marchers who stormed Charlottesville in 2017 employed imagery referencing the Holy Roman Empire and the Templars. The words Deus Vult  and Saracen Go Home were recently sprayed on a mosque in the town of Cumbernauld, Scotland and extreme right groups in northern Europe and the United States can be heard yelling Non Nobis Domine.

Groan.

This might all be ignorable if the consequences weren’t so potentially fatal. On 22 July 2011, Anders Breivik killed eight people in the Norwegian capital by detonating a bomb and then made his way to a summer youth camp where he gunned down 69 teenagers. On YouTube he had posted a rambling manifesto covered in Templar imagery and ranting about the need for a crusade. I blogged at the time that this murderous sociopath had zero in common with the Knights Templar.

Why did I claim that? Here’s some reasons:

  • The Knights Templar were not loners or sociopaths. They were a military order endorsed by kings, princes and popes. The Templars ran agri-businesses (huge farms to finance the crusades), banking operations and were high level political advisers. They were not bedsit bombers or hate filled cranks.
  • Turcopoles were local Middle Eastern warriors who joined the Templars as auxiliaries. They were often Christians whose families had been Christian for longer than many families in Europe.
  • In one recorded incident, the Templars admonished a Christian who was trying to stop a Muslim praying in the Al Aqsa mosque, which was rebranded the Temple of Solomon while Jerusalem was under crusader control.
  • The Templars were respected by their Saracen opponents – not because they were racists but because of their bravery and dedication. First into battle and last to leave.
  • Christians respected Arabic learning. When the Spanish city of Toledo was taken by crusaders after centuries of Muslim control, scholars from all over Europe descended on its libraries like locusts. When the Templars were put on trial, they were accused of having been influenced by and admiring Islam.
  • Muslims and Christian realms were in much closer proximity – literally bumping up against each other. The caliphate in Spain bordered France. In Sicily, the king issued proclamations in Norman French, Greek and Arabic. The crusader states conducted trade and diplomatic relations with their Saracen enemies out of necessity. Templars would have known their Saracen counterparts, probably by name in many instances.
  • There was no concept as we understand it of white supremacy in the Middle Ages. The Templars were certainly a Christian order but Christians could still be found in large numbers in north Africa, the Middle East and the Byzantine empire (modern Turkey and bits of Syria on occasion). Christians were white and brown, to put it crudely. Please show me where a Templar ever talked about whiteness being a defining issue.
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Christian and Muslim play chess in the Middle Ages

Ultimately the Templars were all about keeping the Holy Land Christian and pushing back the caliphate in modern Spain and Portugal. But they saw this as a lofty, spiritual cause – not a thuggish day out to beat up some migrants and asylum seekers.

That is not to deny the existence today of extremist and violent Islamist inspired terrorism. To me, the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda are the mirror image of white supremacism. They preach a murderous form of religious supremacism where their victims are both Muslim (Shia, Sufi, dissenters) and non-Muslim. They frame the past in terms that are also completely ahistorical. Ignoring the complexities of medieval politics, they boil the past down to a binary struggle between the “caliphate” and the Christian “House of War”. This is as false as the perspective of white supremacists.

The caliphates of the past that they imagine were 100% Muslim were nothing of the sort. The Ottoman empire was a patchwork of ethnicities and faiths. In fact, Ottoman Constantinople had a much more diverse population then modern day Istanbul. The Ottomans also stoned less people to death over a four-hundred-year period than ISIS in two years of nightmarish terror in Syria and Iraq.

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An image to excite an Islamist ideologue

Islamists also use medieval analogies to prop up their world view. The 2017 terrorist attack in Barcelona led some blood-soaked supporters of ISIS on social media to invoke the memory of the medieval caliphate that once ruled Spain and Portugal – Al-Andalus. Ignoring the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslim co-existed under that caliphate, they claimed it was only a matter of time before Islamic rule was reinstated.

Let’s be clear on this. Islamism is an ideology developed largely in the 20th century around groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the puritan Salafi and Wahabbi schools of thought. Contrary to its claims, it is not and never has been mainstream Islam. Fortunately for the Islamists though, white supremacists characterise this ideology as…mainstream Islam – doing it a great favour. Islamist ideology has borrowed heavily from fascist and Leninist methodology and created a totalitarian version of the caliphate that neither Saracens or crusaders would have recognised.

Every so often in the history of Islam currents have emerged that are dubbed, by Muslims, as “Khawarij”. Heretical and violent bigots who believe they have the right to determine who is a good Muslim and who is not – and then to excommunicate (“takfir”) or even execute those who don’t meet their criteria. In the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammed anticipated these people who would “recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats. They will slay the followers of Islam and would spare the people of idolatry. They will pierce through the religion just like an arrow which goes clean through a prey.” He called on other Muslims to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are Khawarij, twisting Islam to a bloody agenda. And they have a symbiotic, mutually supportive relationship with the white supremacists. Because both Islamists and white supremacists strive for an end of days civilizational clash. They crave the end of compromise, co-existence and moderation yearning instead for what ISIS terms the “extinguishing of the grey zone”.

If we want a world safe for our children – we must reject both ideologies. We can start by disconnecting the Knights Templar and the Saracens from this hateful garbage – both white supremacism and violent Islamism. It’s time for Medieval Studies departments and other experts to stop hiding under stones cowering and come out to refute this distortion of the medieval era. There has been an encouraging start from THESE medieval experts.

The silence of others is literally costing lives.

Your views, as ever, very welcome. But advocacy of racism and/or violence will be taken down.

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How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.

 

What were the Templars up to in their first decade of existence?

According to the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre, nine “noble men of knightly rank” from the Champagne region of France founded the Templar order in the year 1118. So what they do in their first ten years? Well, the answer is a bit vague:

  • They didn’t wear their characteristic white mantles and red crosses until after 1129 – in fact they wore secular clothes for the first few years
  • But they did observe holy vows of chastity and obedience as if they were monks
  • Nine men swore to protect all the roads leading into Jerusalem so that pilgrims could get to the sacred sites peacefully – just nine men!
  • They gave up holding any property themselves but pooled their resources into the new order
  • The King of Jerusalem gave them what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as their new headquarters
  • They believed the mosque was the Temple of Solomon and called it this
  • After nine years – William of Tyre recounts that there were still only nine knights
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Council of Troyes – turning point for the Templars?

It does seem unusual that the order didn’t grow at all in its first decade. And yet, at the Council of Troyes in 1129, both Pope Honorius and the Patriarch of Jerusalem showered praise on the Templars and allowed them to wear a white mantle. Later they began to sew red crosses on to the front of these mantles.

With support from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – who was a leading cleric of the time but also related to one of the founder Templars and from the same part of France – the order developed its own rule book. Money was pumped into the order through bequests by rich nobles. By 1170, there were 300 knights and “countless” Templar sergeants (a lower rank that could not wear the coveted white mantle).

The mystery though is why the order appeared to stand still in its first decade and yet suddenly expand at an incredible pace after 1129 – both in terms of members and wealth. Why did the King of Jerusalem give nine knights with bold claims control of the Temple of Solomon? And why were Popes so willing to make the Templars answerable only to themselves and to no king, prince or bishop – something that would come to generate intense hatred towards the Knights Templar.

Five great novels on the Knights Templar

Five books that transport you back to the world of the Knights Templar – capturing the sense of time and place, bringing to life the mysteries and secrets. Which novels should you be taking on your summer holidays? Here’s some good reads!

templar-knight-book-two-crusades-trilogy-jan-guillou-hardcover-cover-artThe Knight Templar – Jan Gillou

This was one of a trilogy of books that introduced us to a troubled Swedish templar knight called Arn Magnusson.  Gillou was more famous in the 1970s for writing novels and journalistic exposes about the intelligence community, even being accused of being involved in espionage himself. But for this blog, it’s his Templar trilogy that catches my eye and the excellent movie Arn that resulted from those novels.

A Moorland Hanging – Michael Jecks

Cold-blooded murder has transformed Simon Puttock’s official obligation into something horrid, and he will need the able assistance of his friend, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, to draw a criminal out. A former Knight Templar, Sir Baldwin knows much of duty and servitude and of evil freely indulged in the name of godliness or greed. Now, justice must be served, even if their search exposes extortion, foul corruption, rule by fear, and killers willing, even eager, to shed more blood.

Brethren: An Epic Adventure of the Knights Templar – Robyn Young

This book takes you on a journey through Paris, London, Egypt and Palestine at the eve of the last crusade. A young knight is a on quest to find a dangerous book that belongs to an organisation within the Knights Templar called the Anima Templi. But it seems that a lot of other people want the book as well.

Knights of the Black and White – Jack Whyte

Whyte wants to strip away the conspiracy theories and take a long hard look at the real Templars. His books set out to immerse you in the gritty contemporary history of the order bringing the medieval world to life.

The Last Templar – Raymond Khoury

Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEG_4908282This was a US best seller beginning with four Templar knights in modern day Manhattan who storm into an art gallery on horseback to steal some Vatican exhibits. An FBI agent must journey across three continents to find the long lost secret of the Templar order.

Oh and I forgot one novel – Quest for the True Cross by….me! Order it by clicking on the image in the left hand margin. Now on Amazon in paperback and kindle.

 

 

 

The Templars and Islam -friends or enemies?

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Christian and Muslim play chess in the Middle Ages

Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.

Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.

That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.

It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.

 

Ten best medieval TV series

Like most of you – I love watching historical TV series.  Even the ones that are a little suspect from a factual point of view.  Some lists of medieval TV series include stuff I wouldn’t regard as being strictly medieval.  Hope I’m a bit more authentic here.  We’ve been spoilt in the recent past so let’s look at what we’ve been offered.

PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. It was a period called The Great Anarchy that tore families apart and reduced some aristocrats to outlaw status. This was at the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.

THE DEVIL’S CROWN

This was a BBC series about the Plantagenet kings that never got repeated after a controversial airing in the late 70s. It’s quite gory in parts including a very disturbing castration. The style is a bit dated but to get to grips with English history at the time of the Templars, I can’t recommend this enough.

DA VINCI’S DEMONS

Total nonsense about a young Leonardo da Vinci on a quest to find the “book of leaves”. Set at the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. The series was pulled as it got sillier and sillier. But it’s a decent enough romp through the corruption of Italy at its most artistic and innovative.

GAME OF THRONES

It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well.  Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist? I’m always of the view that the Targaryen family are basically the long reigning Plantagenets of England who went a bit off the rails with Richard II. The dynasty ended with his murder and a usurper Henry taking over. Sounds familiar?

WORLD WITHOUT END

Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he?  Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.

THE WHITE QUEEN

BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.

MERLIN

Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.

THIBAUD

This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest! It’s a classic depiction of the Templars all neatly laundered white tunics and long flowing hair. Nobody seems to ever get filthy and dirty in the battle scenes.

ARABIAN KNIGHTS

This cartoon series was part of the goofy 1960s/70s kids show Banana Splits – it completely shaped my early view of the saracens.

THE TUDORS

I was brought up to believe that the Middle Ages ended at the Battle of Bosworth and you couldn’t really call the Tudors medieval.  But I think that view might be simplistic. The Tudors were as much medieval as modern and so I’ve included the delightful Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. Henry is depicted as rather dashing and good looking – which he was to start with – but he never becomes the corpulent ogre that he did in real life in this series.

Many of these TV series exerted a huge influence on the writing of my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross which you can download on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback in the US and UK. See if you can spot the TV historical influences! And watch the book trailer promo video here: