Professor tells television audience of battling knights
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History Channel viewers regularly tune in for information about a name from the past, a distant place or a forgotten age. Part history and part entertainment, it generally adds up to solid information.
It's not often that a university can boast that the on-camera expert is one of its own. That was the case recently when California University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Paul Crawford appeared on the "Lost Worlds" segment about the Knights Templar.Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette
Paul Crawford with a model of a 13th-century knight in armor on display at his office on the California University of Pa. campus. Dr. Crawford appeared on the History Channel, talking about the Knights Templar.
Click photo for larger image.
Dr. Crawford, 45, who has a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was formerly a professor of medieval and early modern history at Alma College in Alma, Mich. Before that, he lectured in ancient and medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
As the newly hired assistant professor of ancient and medieval history at CalU, he teaches Western civilization, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the craft of history or, as he describes it, "how to be a historian."
Dr. Crawford spent two days filming the Knights Templar segment, highlighting the religious order of fighting monks. It has aired several times since its initial July screening. Traveling to Syria for the program, he visited castles used by the knights in the two days of filming in mid-February. About five minutes wound up on screen.
The unique thing about him is that he is so interested in the crusades and the Knights Templar that he is able to draw students in, said Laura Tuennerman, chairwoman of the university's Department of History and Social Science.
CalU students love the History Channel, said Ms. Tuennerman, who participated in Mr. Crawford's selection. The university, which chose from a pool of 30 to 40 candidates, appreciated that he can talk about history to a public audience in addition to writing at a scholarly level.
"I think he has a real love for what he studies, and he gets that sense across to his students," she said.
Conveying his knowledge of the subject, Dr. Crawford said a French knight named Hugh founded the Knights Templar with two friends. Explaining the lack of surnames, Mr. Crawford said it depended on a person's station in life. At the time, an aristocrat was known through family connections and might have borne more than one name. On the other hand, common folk living in a town knew everyone else and a first name was enough.
In any event, it was Hugh who believed pilgrims traveling the dangerous Holy Land route from Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem needed protection from criminals and bandits, and founded the Knights Templar.
So dangerous was the trek, Dr. Crawford said, that one pilgrim, Saewulf, is said to have advised, "Don't stop to dig a grave for your friend because it will turn out to be your own."
Along with protecting pilgrims, the knights became monks, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The idea of fusing fighting and religion was novel at the time, monks being the cloistered group they are, Dr. Crawford said.
In what Dr. Crawford describes as a public relations maneuver, Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot of the Chistercian Order, negotiated official church approval for the knights. A mover and shaker of his time, one of the abbot's students became a pope.
About the same time the Knights Templar were doing their thing, another order, the Knights Hospitaller, began a hospice for injured pilgrims once they reached Jerusalem, Dr. Crawford said. Although the Knights Templar are extinct, the Hospitallers continue today as an order of the Catholic church and are called the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Both orders during the Middle Ages, Mr. Crawford said, became an essential part of the army of defense of the Christian Holy Land.
Although the existence of the Knights Templar is questioned from time to time, they received official religious sanction in 1129 until the order was dissolved in 1312 by Pope Clement V.
The Knights Templar were very disciplined soldiers who, when not battling on behalf of pilgrims, led a prayerful life. They were so disciplined that one secular noble, unable to defend his castle, relied on the knights for defense, Dr. Crawford said.
Although the knights built several castles, by 1291 they lost them because they either didn't have the manpower to maintain them or the support of the Christian West, he said.
While the public perception is that some crusaders got involved for the money, Dr. Crawford said, "the idea that the crusaders crusaded to get rich is almost always wrong."
The Knights Templar were an interesting lot, but Mr. Crawford finds one story particularly fascinating. It involved the battle of Acre, when the knights were driven out of the Holy Land. Apparently, an anonymous writer, an aide or secretary to the Master of Templars or of William of Beaujeau, recounted the battle in which his boss was mortally wounded.
William was especially vulnerable, according to the account, because he did not have time to dress in heavy armor. Fighting for hours, the master, at one point, raised his arm and was struck in the chest with a javelin and fatally wounded. The vivid account of the hard-fought battle would make a great movie, Dr. Crawford said.
Filming in Syria, where many of the finest crusader castles can be found, was an experience itself. During filming, Dr. Crawford was made aware by the crew that they were being followed by a Syrian secret policeman. There are not many Americans in the country and while some Syrians were friendly, others clearly were not, said Dr. Crawford, who does not speak Arabic.
"It was unnerving, but at the same time, it was such a privilege to be in a place with a history 5,000 years old," he said of Syria, where he spent an extra two days when filming concluded.
While in the country, he visited nine fortresses and castles, including two large, well-known ones, Krak des Chevaliers and Margat. Some of the finest crusader castles in the world can be found in Syria, he said.
"They're absolutely awesome. [It was] an amazing experience."
The Knights Templar marked Dr. Crawford's second History Channel experience. In November 2004, he appeared in another segment about the crusades.
"The more you do it, the easier it gets and the fewer takes you need."
Although it might look effortless on screen, Dr. Crawford said, there's an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work.
"You're trying to tell the truth and do it in an interesting way and say it in away that your [historian] friends don't say, 'What did he say that for?' "
For more information about the period, check the-orb.net, an online reference for medieval studies to which Dr. Crawford contributes.
First Published September 24, 2006 12:00 am