Fake News, Medieval Style: The Truth about the Templars
Dan Jones (1999) read history at Pembroke, and has gone on to write prolifically on medieval history, as well as co-writing and presenting documentaries and TV shows like Elizabeth 1 and Secrets of Great British Castles. His latest book, The Templars, The Rise and the Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, has revealed just how much impact Templar history has on contemporary politics.
The Templar Knights are associated in popular culture with the Holy Grail, and with quests and mystery. It’s not a recent phenomenon; even when the Templars were still active they were mythologised, Jones explains, as well as being subject to a medieval version of fake news that ultimately led to their fall (incidentally, a mere thirty-five years before Marie de Valence founded Pembroke). Since then they’ve remained present in popular culture, all the way to Dan Brown and the Assassins Creed video games. Their spectacular downfall and the many unanswered – and unanswerable – questions historians still have about the Templars are easily explained by conspiracy theories and wild speculation. It seems harmless enough on the surface, but you don’t have to dig very deep to understand why it’s so important to reveal falsehoods in the Templar narrative.
The problem, Jones explains, is the borrowing and distortion of Templar history by white supremacists. False readings of history give false legitimacy to dangerous agendas and beliefs. From Charlottesville and the KKK in America to Anders Breivik and the European far-right, a skewed version is history is being used to justify divisive, violent politics. In reality the Templars’ story is far more nuanced than the imagined binary of Islam vs. Christianity, with Templars fighting at the front lines. Jones emphasises that it’s less about what the Templars were actually like, and more about the power of history, and the way that people have always used stories to support deeply held beliefs and ideologies.
History can provide context, comfort, and justification – rightly or wrongly. It can inspire solutions to complex problems, and it’s natural that people would look for those in an era of massive technological change and economic challenges. For historians like Dan there is important work to be done challenging false narratives and making history as truthful as it is exciting and relevant.