By Danièle Cybulskie
Two years ago, Dan Jones gave us the scoop that he was writing a new book on the Templars, and now the moment has arrived. On September 7th, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors will be in stores in the UK (Sept. 19 in the US). To mark the occasion, Dan sat down with me via Skype to talk Templars, Knightfall, and The Colour of Time – and he gave me a brand new scoop to share with our readers. Here’s our (condensed) conversation.
DC: The obvious question to start with is: why the Templars? Because it’s very different from the stuff you’ve done before.
DJ: I’ve written about six books now, and when I signed this deal, I’d been writing for about ten years. And those books had been about medieval England, which will always be the subject I’ll come back to and I love, but I’d covered a lot of ground, and what I didn’t want to do was to start narrowing down. I just wanted to do something different, but not too different. [People] have heard of the Templars if they’ve read The DaVinci Code or watched the movie or played Assassin’s Creed. And that’s important because I want to bring people into the fold. That’s always been the urge is to get people reading and thinking about and enjoying medieval history. It was also this opportunity to expand my geographical scope because this is a story that takes place across multiple territories from Syria, Palestine, Egypt, what’s now Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, Ireland, Scotland. Big geographical spread. Which, having written about England for quite a while, was attractive to me because it was a different scale. It was an epic story [and] it was a self-contained story in the sense that the Templars have an end point. So, there were lots of things that made this an attractive proposition for me intellectually [and] commercially, and I loved doing it. I genuinely did. I’ve had more fun writing this book than for a long time because I was finding out a lot. I was working with new sources, I was learning a lot, and it was just like – you know that experience when – you watch Game of Thrones, right?
DJ: That experience that you used to get more in the older series where you’d be in Westeros a lot or in the North a lot, and all of this has been filmed in Northern Ireland and Iceland, and then suddenly you’re in Dorne and just the whole visual palette changes, and you’re in new territory. And that was cool for me.
DC: I remember talking with you about that, and how much you were liking the new process and scope. I noticed for [The Templars] you could easily have stayed with England, geographically, but you’ve stayed with the Holy Land pretty much the whole time. Why?
DJ: That’s where the action is. The challenge with writing about the Templars in a narrative history across the best part of two hundred years – six, seven generations or more – is to make the story in some sense coherent. So, you’re making editorial decisions about focus and saying where is the story happening? And what are the sources? Where is my richest material? The action is in the Holy Land. That’s where the Templars are – it’s in their DNA. They’re set up and named for the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. So, really, their raison d’être is Jerusalem. I tended, in the book, to shift just a little bit, and there’s a chapter on Aragon, a chapter set in England. The back three chapters of the book are set in France. So, there’s a reasonable moving around across the terrain, but ultimately, it comes back to the Holy Land because we’re talking about a crusading order.
DC: I just figured I should ask!
DJ: It’s a very good question because it was the hardest structural question, building this book. How do I gather in as much of the experience of the thousands and thousands of men – and some women – who were involved with the Templars? How can I plug this into a story that still has shape? And the attempts to move the story between theatres of operations was quite challenging. I would have liked to have sat more in Spain, but then I realized that that probably wasn’t the book that I was writing.
DJ: And here’s your scoop for this year: the next big (medieval) history book that I do is going to be the crusades. I’m just totally at the architecture stage at the moment, but I think I’ve worked out how to solve that problem – it’s not going to be easy.
DC: No, because you’re going to have even bigger scope there.
DJ: Yeah, exactly. When you start talking about the crusades, the feature of the crusades, post-mid to late twelfth century, is the dispersal. They’re just springing up all over the place – the Baltic, and southern France, and you have Spain and Portugal (Iberia) from a very early stage. So, how do you build that into a narrative? And that, then, asks really fundamental questions about the narrative structure of the book. But that’s for another time. I mention it because I had to draw those lines around what I was writing in this book [The Templars] and what I wasn’t writing in this book. Having this crusades book in the future was sort of helpful in that sense.
DC: When we were talking before, we talked about how you wanted to keep the momentum going through the book, and I think the four divisions in the book [Pilgrims, Soldiers, Bankers, Heretics] really helped with that forward motion. I was actually kind of surprised at how well they fit, chronologically.
DJ: I’m glad that worked. There’s a degree of artifice to it, but largely, those four [roles] – pilgrims, soldiers, bankers, heretics – that does, largely, define the story. As you’ve found, I’m sure, reading the book, the section on bankers contains a lot of war, and the section on war contains a bit of finance. I like making books into those kind of building blocks because I think it helps me to navigate the story, and I hope it helps readers to navigate the story, as well.
DC: Your new Amazon video for The Templars talks about “fake news media”, so this might be a good time to talk about right now. Tell me how you think the Templars speak to us today.
DJ: It can always sound really glib when historians start dancing up and down and saying, “hey, my book is super-relevant today.” And, justifiably, a lot of historians get jittery or sour-faced at the word or the question “how is this relevant?” So, I prefer a slightly different term, which is resonant. And there are aspects of this story that really, I suppose you could say, show us that human behaviours, ambitions, and endeavours haven’t changed fundamentally over the past eight to nine hundred years, even if the dogma, the clothes, the languages have changed. We’re still talking about a story that has, at its root, a series of overlapping conflicts in the near Middle East between sunni [and] shi’a Islam with the insertion of Western, Christian military power into that. That’s one thing that you don’t need to think very hard about – to see that we’re still dealing with similar issues today.
I think what you also get from the Templars is that these basic functions are there in the Middle Ages and are still there now. They start as basically a private security firm, as we’d now call it, [and] a little bit like [a] road service – your car breaks down and they come and rescue you. There are some of those functions. And then, at the height of their military capability, you’ve got an elite, semi-autonomous, military organization that is comparable in its capability to the SAS, the Navy SEALs, the Green Berets, the French Foreign Legion…
What really struck me, that I wasn’t prepared to be so struck by, was the financial stuff. Because we’ve all read that the Templars were the world’s first bankers – this sort of specious statement, which is not true. I was sort of worried that that part of the book was going to fall to bits under examination. And while it’s true that you couldn’t really describe the Templars as the world’s first bankers, what they were providing was financial services across borders on a really dramatically competent scale. Competent in that they did their job well, and competent in that they did it massively across lots of different places, subcontracting treasury functions across governments. Running these huge swathes of French government on behalf of the crown. Paying kings’ ransoms. Having the ability to bail out both Louis VII and Louis IX when their crusades went south. Their ability to collect tax from multiple jurisdictions and funnel it to the Nile delta. I mean, serious financial operations in an age before wire transfer, made possible by the underlying business infrastructure that the Templars built. And in some sense, I’m describing the material somewhat to you now in the language of business today, but that language does not seem to me to be inappropriate. We are still doing basically the same things, which surprised me, and I think it’ll surprise a lot of readers to see these things cropping up in the thirteenth century.
And then, the big one is obviously the trial and the downfall of the Templars and the incredibly sophisticated way in which the French crown went about taking down the Templars. Fake news has become a sort of catchall term for the dark arts of propaganda, disseminated through the modern press. Well, we don’t have the modern press at this time, but we certainly do have an incredibly amoral and highly competent group of ministers around Philip IV of France who were devastating in their attacks on the Templars and deployed such sophisticated techniques in attacking them. The insight that Philip IV had, and it feels like an insight that’s important to us in thinking about the world today, was that the way to attack the Templars was to attack them in terms of their values and what they stood for. To attack their probity, to attack their chastity, to attack their Christianity. And the understanding that that was how you’d break the order, not by attacking the individuals. The business assets and the values were what were of worth to the Templars. So, I think all of that feels quite powerful, given some of the issues that are high on the news agenda today.
DC: Yeah, absolutely. I was thinking about the end and the trial, and it’s still kind of surprising – and you get at it in the book – if you read a lot of fiction about the Templars and think of them as warriors, how quietly they go out.
DJ: It is surprising, isn’t it? But it’s founded on a sort of slight misapprehension of what the Templars were in totality. If you think of the organization as a pyramid, or an iceberg, then the bit above water is the heroic, crusading, military force, but the vast majority of the organization, and certainly most of it in Western Europe (excluding the Iberian peninsula), was about business. It was about managing estates, creating revenue, sending profits to the theatres of war. And so, by definition, if you’re a Templar in France, you’re no good for fighting. If you were hard enough to fight, you’d be off in Cyprus. The Templars had had a very nice time in France for two hundred years, thank-you very much, so it’s only surprising when you think about the reputation of the Templars, not about the fact of what life in a preceptory in France must have been like.
DC: I think that the book that you’ve written makes a lot of sense in that it keeps the focus on making clear what they were like in the Holy Land as crusaders because I think that’s their biggest role in the popular imagination. I did appreciate, though, that you just quietly closed the door on the Grail and the idea that they might still exist.
DJ: I spent the last year of this book working on Knightfall. I was working with them right from the pilot script to – I’m still working with them. And so that show was the other side of Templar history. It’s heavily infused with the history, but also it fully embraces the mythology, and so I was getting my sort of mythological kicks working with the producers and the writers and the departments and the actors on that. Why kill the joy? As I’m getting older I’m becoming much more chilled out about that kind of stuff. It’s really super fun to believe that the Templars have the Holy Grail. In fact, let’s look back at 1200-1210, Wolfram von Eschenbach sticking the Templars in the stories of King Arthur, guarding the Holy Grail. These two things can coexist. Make the history books super exciting, show people that real history is as exciting as the mythology, and don’t try and view it as a zero sum in which you’ve got to destroy the other one.
DC: I like that it’s not a zero-sum game because you don’t want people to be turned off by history.
DJ: A big part of history – of any history – is the mythology. In regards to Knightfall, I was in heaven because I was able to do both things. There were times I was sitting in my little black chair on set, watching [them] film, writing a book with my laptop on my knees. People would come over and say what do you think about minutiae, and I’d give them the information, we’d make a decision. And sometimes it’d be a historical decision, sometimes it would be a TV decision, sometimes those two things could coexist, sometimes they couldn’t. It was a fucking amazing experience. It was a lovely, lovely, lovely group of people. And it was also just a really educating experience. “History” – us people writing history books – we’re only going to absorb a small number of the Knightfall audience, let’s say. People who write books about the Wars of the Roses, you’re only going to absorb a small amount of the Game of Thrones audience. They’re not all just going to suddenly come over en masse and go. “Wow! History!” You’re sharing your markets.
DC: The next book coming up is The Colour of Time, right?
DJ: Yeah, that’s going to be next autumn. September.
DC: That’s going to be great.
DJ: It’s amazing. We have done about 120 of 200 images and they’re amazing. Marina [Amaral] is a genius. Her work is unbelievably good. The immediacy of the effect that it has when you show people these photographs, and the power it has to change people’s emotional response to historical subjects is astonishing, and I just feel very privileged to be working with her.
DC: You look at a picture and you think you’ve got the impact of it, and suddenly it’s in colour – it just changes everything. It’s a beautiful thing that she’s doing. And for you, it’s a completely different century.
DJ: And I’m very conscious of that, and I’ve got a good team of people that I’m working with to make sure I don’t blunder into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’m doing a lot of the curation of the book. Selecting two hundred pictures to tell a story between 1850 and 1950 has proven to be a bigger task than I could have imagined to begin with. And it’s a really editorial process because you’ve got to go, okay, I’ve got eighteen or some photographs to tell a global history of, let’s say, the 1920s. How do I pick them? It’s aesthetic but also editorial. Because it’s not just a coffee table book. It’s a proper history book.
DC: So, is modern history pulling you away?
DJ: Well, I’ve got the biggest book of them all coming next – a book on the scale of The Plantagenets to write next, which is the crusades book. But I’m not going to leave the [medieval] period because I love it. I’m immersed in it, and I’m always finding out more about it. It’s just a case of adding things on, bit by bit.
We’re awfully glad he’s not leaving the medieval world behind. You can pick up a copy of Dan Jones’ book The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors in UK bookstores starting tomorrow, and US bookstores September 19th. If you can’t get enough of Dan’s Templars, check out his page at Penguin Random House for a list of tour stops this fall, and get your mythological kicks with Knightfall, coming soon on the History Channel.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist