Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:

The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.

Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.

And so on.

I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.



A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

They did more than this, however:

Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.

As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.

If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.

Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.

And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.

As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.


Like the iron maiden, the flail is an invention of a later time, or so says the Public Medievalist:

The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these:

A military flail is a medieval weapon consisting of a short handle attached to a chain, at the end of which is a metal ball. This is not to be confused with a two-handed variant, often also called a flail, which derives from the threshing implement of the same name. Varieties of the one-handed version have multiple chains or spiked heads. They have appeared in a range of medieval movies and books, and they are held in the collections of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Only problem is: they never existed.

Despite the weapon’s popularity in pop cultural depictions of the Middle Ages, the flail was almost certainly an invention of the imaginations of later people.

More at the link, including commentary from Kelly DeVries.

Elgin Marbles

In the wake of the British Museum’s decision to lend of one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia, the Telegraph asks, “Why are the Elgin Marbles so controversial?” and provides some answers:


What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.


I think that one of the keys to this whole controversy is the line that “Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.” A grad school professor of mine told me once that the ideology of the modern Greek state, founded in 1832 as a result of a revolution against the Ottoman Empire (and the help of the UK, France, and Russia), is that the state is in fact a continuation or reassertion of the Classical polis of Athens. A Greek I once spoke to hinted that he actually believed this. As such, one can see how the Elgin Marbles would assume such an outsized importance – and how any Ottoman treatment of them was completely illegitimate. Such uses of history are hogwash, of course. Why is the modern Greek state not figured as a continuation of the Byzantine state? Or a reassertion of Classical Sparta – or Bronze Age Mycenae? You can’t cherry-pick what you most value from history and ignore everything else that’s happened before and since (apparently Israelis used to practice archaeology on this principle, by shoveling off the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic layers in order to get to the Biblical ones that they were really interested in, and which their own state, they claim, is simply a new instantiation of). It is amusing to read how the British see the Parthenon as having fallen into ruins – this is a trope in furta sacra (accounts of medieval relic thefts), and employed to justify those thefts. Even the notion that “if they had been left in place, the air pollution in Athens would have damaged them” is not necessarily a watertight argument: when I lived in London a story broke that in the 1930s the British Museum cleaned the sculptures a little too enthusiastically, thereby destroying traces of the original colors used to paint them. Besides, say the Greeks, when they come back will go into a specially-designed Parthenon Museum, where they will be protected from the climate (my brother-in-law has visited this, and claims they’ve got an empty room all ready for them).

But I think the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum anyway. The Marbles do not belong to “Greece”, they belong to all of Western Civilization. And spreading things around geographically is like diversifying your investment portfolio – it helps to guard against the whole thing being destroyed in some disaster. Besides, Greeks, how about some gratitude to the people who helped free you from the Ottomans in the first place?!


Here are some pictures of the last time I visited the Duveen Gallery in 2010:

I took one of these pamphlets but I can’t find it now. The British Museum website probably gives just as much information.




A Code of Conduct for Historians

From my friend Richard Raiswell, an interesting article by Suzannah Lipscomb in History Today. This is her proposed code of conduct for historians:

  • Use evidence to support your interpretation and seek to understand that evidence correctly.
  • Do not wilfully present evidence out of context, especially not in such a way that the lack of context will render the meaning of the evidence different, unclear or manipulable.
  • Do not cite evidence from sources that you elsewhere discount.
  • At best, do not waste a reader’s time on unsubstantiated sources.
  • At least flag up evidence that is drawn from such sources; do not use it silently.
  • Triangulate; search ardently for evidence that might undermine, as well as corroborate, your hypothesis.
  • Avoid assumption creep: do not allow assertions to move from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’; do not build more elaborate layers of interpretation on a foundation that is rocky.
  • Do not rely on the secondary assertions of other historians; ad fontes! Go back to the original sources.
  • Guard against confirmation bias; interrogate the ‘facts’ anew and bring a fresh analysis to them; do not mould the facts to your interpretation.
  • Root out and resolve any internal inconsistencies in your argument.
  • Cite sources so that they can be traced, with page numbers, archival call numbers and publication details.

The biggest historical scandal in recent years has been the book Arming America by Michael Bellesiles, which got a lot of attention as it touched on a hot-button cultural issue. (I haven’t read it, but I understand that he claims that American gun culture was the creation of arms manufacturers for the purpose of selling off their surplus stock after the Civil War, and that prior to this time guns were simply not important to your average American civilian.) For his overturning of received wisdom (and, let us admit, in a direction that liberal academics really wanted to believe), he received the prestigious Bancroft Prize. To the NRA, his book was a challenge they could not afford to ignore, and they went after him personally and professionally. Unfortunately, it turns out that he really did make quite a lot of stuff up – he claimed to have consulted archives that disappeared in the San Francisco earthquake, for instance – and then kept making up excuses about why he could not produce his notes. For his blatant and systematic fraud, he lost his job at Emory. I once met someone from the department there who claimed that the only possible excuse for his behavior was some form of mental illness. Fine, but one wonders how many other violations of Lipscomb’s code are out there – fraud that is not as blatant, or does not provoke the scrutiny of interested parties. Who has the time to comb through every footnote?

This is obvious, but bears repeating: if we demand respect for our professional credentials, then we must practice with integrity.

UPDATE: From an Atlantic article by Benjamin Schwartz. Don’t be like “the sycophantic courtier [Arthur] Schlesinger [Jr.], whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.”

Film Review

As we approach the first anniversary of the death of our dear colleague Kevin Crawford, I wanted to share with you his review of the film Anonymous (2012). Knowledge is good!

Anonymous dramatizes the absurd idea that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays of “William Shakespeare” but could not claim to have done so as a nobleman.

This piece of utter nonsense, although beautifully shot and mostly well-acted, gets more than a few things wrong…

Elizabeth I was childless, not the mother of countless male bastards who got to be foster-child earls. She was not de Vere’s mother, and most certainly not his lover and a mother of HIS child (who later gets to be the Earl of Southampton). At least we get the first film to include Queen Elizabeth engaged in oral sex with her son/lover right before he fathers his own son/brother on his own mother/lover…

Christopher Marlowe is shown alive in 1598; he died – by the nagging inconvenience of murder – by 1593.

Apparently, Shakespeare was Marlowe’s murderer; Ben Jonson accuses him of the crime, claming he “slit (Marlowe’s) throat” in Southwark. Hmmmm. Marlowe was murdered by Ingram Frizer in the suburb of Deptford when Mr. Frizer slipped his dagger in Marlowe’s left eye. Ouch. (Marlowe also dies in the film on the same day Essex leaves to meet the rebellion in Ireland – these two events happened six years apart. Oops.)

In 1603, either the Rose or the Globe Theatre burns down; the film doesn’t make it clear, but we know the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613, and the Rose never caught fire.

Richard III is billed as premiering in 1601, but was actually printed four years earlier in 1597 and performed well before its publication. Even worse, RIII is performed in the film as a rabble-rousing prelude to the Essex rebellion, when in fact Richard II – a VERY different play – was performed before the uprising (Shakespeareans are, admittedly, divided on how much the play’s performance was connected to Essex, but the play’s deposition scene was banned on stage and in print for many years).

The poem Venus and Adonis is depicted as a bestseller written and printed especially for Queen E in 1601. It was published in 1593; no known 1601 edition exists.

Ben Jonson is shocked that Romeo and Juliet, written in 1598, is entirely in blank verse. ButGorboduc precedes it as the first drama to use blank verse throughout a play by more than 35 years. By 1598 the form was standard in the English theatre. Oh, and Romeo and Juliet has quite a bit of prose in it, too. Like nearly fifteen percent of the play.

Elizabeth’s funeral takes place on the frozen Thames. The ceremony took place on land and the Thames did not freeze over that year.

Richard III was not the first play performed at the Globe.

Shakespeare was not illiterate. His grammar school education had him reading and translating major works in Latin and a few in Greek. How many modern college graduates read Latin and Greek? How many were doing so after the equivalent of sixth grade? Take lots of time with your answer…

Shakespeare spelled his own name in different ways? Fine. So did Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford. Indeed, Oxford spelled the work “halfpenny” eleven – ELEVEN – different ways. Was he illiterate? Obviously, which means he couldn’t have written Shakespeare. I guess that means Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays when she wasn’t having sex.

And so on…

We Got Here First!

Columbus tried to get to Asia by sailing across the “Ocean Sea” in 1492, and he’s lucky that the New World was in the way, because he would have starved to death before he ever got to Asia. No, he did not “discover” “America,” given that there were plenty of people living here already. But by this point in European history his sponsors were in a position to capitalize on the event, and so now a majority of the people in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as their native tongue.

But was Columbus the first non-native to gaze upon the New World? There have been plenty of attempts to claim that he wasn’t, for various reasons. I remember finding a book in the library at U. of Minnesota claiming that fisherman from Bristol had discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 1480s, and made annual trips there (but who kept the discovery under wraps as a trade secret, which is why no one knows about it). Gavin Menzies has made a nuisance of himself by claiming that one of the Chinese treasure fleets rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1421 and made it to the New World. The Vikings did indeed make it to Greenland, and Newfoundland, in the tenth and eleventh centuries – but both of these settlements were later abandoned.

Now Muslims have gotten in on the act. The latest, from a Facebook friend:

Muslims found Americas before Columbus says Turkey’s Erdogan

Muslims discovered the Americas more than three centuries before Christopher Columbus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

He made the claim during a conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul, pointing to a diary entry in which Columbus mentioned a mosque on a hill in Cuba.

Mr Erdogan also said “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178”.

He said he was willing to build a mosque at the site Columbus identified.

The Turkish president – whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam – gave no further evidence to back up his theory, instead stating: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th Century.”

Columbus is widely believed to have discovered the Americas in 1492, while trying to find a new route to India.

But in a disputed article published in 1996, historian Youssef Mroueh said Columbus’ entry was proof that Muslims had reached the Americas first and that “the religion of Islam was widespread”.

However many scholars believe the reference is metaphorical, describing an aspect of the mountain that resembled part of a mosque.

No Islamic structures have been found in America that pre-date Columbus.

Mr Erdogan said he thought “a mosque would go perfectly on the hill today” and that he would like to discuss building this with Cuba.

Needless to say, Mr. Erdogan’s opinion is about as accurate as Holy Blood, Holy Grail.