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Secret Societies of the Middle Ages

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Author Topic: Secret Societies of the Middle Ages  (Read 1861 times)
Trena Alloway
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Posts: 2386

« Reply #30 on: January 04, 2009, 11:07:07 pm »

We will not undertake to maintain the genuineness of these two epistles, but we may be permitted to point out the futility of some of the objections made to them. Hammer pronounces the first of them to be an undoubted forgery because it commences with swearing by the law, and ends by being dated from the era of the Seleucides. Both, he says, were equally strange to the Ismaïlites, who precisely at this time had begun to trample the law under foot, and had abandoned the Hejra, the only era known in Mohammedan countries, for a new one commencing with the reign of Hassan II. He further

p. 127

sees, in the circumstance of a letter from the Old Man of the Mountain (Sheikh-al-Jebal) being dated from Massyat, a proof of the ignorance of the Crusaders respecting the true head and seat of the Ismaïlite power. These objections are regarded by Wilken as conclusive. They will, however, lose much of their force if we bear in mind that the letters are manifestly translations, and that the chief of Massyat at that time was Sinan, who some years before had offered to become a Christian, and who does not seem at all to have adopted the innovations of Hassan the Illuminator. Sinan might easily have been induced by the friends of the King of England, one of the most steady of whom was Henry of Champagne *, who succeeded Conrad of Montferrat in the kingdom, to write those letters in his justification, and it is very probable that the translations were made in Syria, where the Arabic language was of course better understood than in Europe, and sent either alone or with the originals. The translator might have rendered the title which Sinan gave himself by Senex de Monte, which would be better understood in the west, and he may also have given the corresponding year of the era of the Seleucides (the one in use among the Syrian Christians) for the year of the Hejra used by the Ismaïlite chief, or indeed Sinan may have employed that era himself. In this case there would remain little to object to the genuineness of the letter to the Duke of Austria. Hammer regards the expression our simplicity (simplicitas nostra) as being conclusive against the genuineness of the second letter. We must confess that we can see no force in the objection. Sinan might wish to represent himself as a very plain, simple, innocent sort of person. It might further be doubted

p. 128

if a European forger would venture to represent the prince of the Assassins--the formidable Old M a n of the Mountain--in such a respectable light as he appears in these two epistles *.

But there is another account of the death of the Marquis of Montferrat, which is probably much better known to the generality of readers than any of the preceding ones. The far-famed author of "Waverley" has, in his romantic tale of the "Talisman," made Conrad to be wounded and vanquished in the lists by the son of the King of Scotland, the champion of king Richard, and afterwards slain by the dagger, not of the Assassins, but of his confederate in villany the Master of the Temple, to prevent his making confession of their common guilt!

Yielding to none in rational admiration of the genius of Sir W. Scott, we cannot avoid expressing a wish that he had ceased to write when he had exhausted that rich field of national feelings and manners with which he was alone familiar, and from which he drew the exquisite delineations of "Waverley" and its Scottish brethren. All his later works, no doubt, exhibit occasional scenes far beyond the power of any of his imitators; but when his muse quits her native soil, she takes leave of nature, truth, and simplicity. Even the genius of a Scott is inadequate to painting manners he never witnessed, scenery he never beheld.

The tale of the "Talisman" is a flagrant instance. Topography, chronology, historic truth, oriental manners, and individual character, are all treated with a most magnanimous neglect, indeed, even, we might say, with contempt; for, careless, from "security to please," as the author is known to have been, his vagaries must sometimes have proceeded from mere

p. 129

wilfulness and caprice. It would, we apprehend, perplex our oriental travellers and geographers to point out the site of the fountain named the Diamond of the Desert, not far from the Dead Sea, and yet lying half-way between the camp of the Saracens and that of the Crusaders, which last, we are told, lay between Acre and Ascalon, that is, on the sea-coast, or to show the interminable sandy desert which stretches between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. As to historic truth, we may boldly say that there is hardly a single circumstance of the romance in strict accordance with history; and as to the truth of individual character, what are we to say to the grave, serious, religious Saladin, but the very year before his death, being in the flower of his age, rambling alone through the desert, like an errant knight, singing hymns to the Devil, and coming disguised as a physician to the Christian camp, to cure the malady of the English monarch, whom he never, in reality, did or would see *? We might enumerate many additional instances of the violation of every kind of unity and propriety in this single tale †.

Let not any deem it superfluous thus to point out the errors of an illustrious writer. The impressions made by his splendid pages on the youthful mind

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are permanent and ineffaceable, and, if not corrected, may lead to errors of a graver kind. The "Talisman" moreover affects a delusive show of truth and accuracy; for, in a note in one part of it, the author (ironically, no doubt) affects to correct the historians on a point of history. The natural inference, then, is that he has himself made profound researches, and adhered to truth; and we accordingly find another novelist, in what he terms a history of chivalry, declaring the "Talisman" to be a faithful picture of the manners of the age. Sir W. Scott, however, has himself informed us, in the preface to "Ivanhoe," of his secret for describing the manners of the times of Richard Coeur de Lion. With the chronicles of the time he joined that of Froissart, so rich in splendid pictures of chivalric life. Few readers of these romances perhaps are aware that this was the same in kind, though not in degree, as if, in his tales of the days of Elizabeth and James I., he had had recourse to the manner-painting pages of Henry Fielding; for the distance in point of time between the reign of Richard I. and that of Richard II., in which last Froissart wrote, is as great as that between the reigns of Elizabeth and George Il.; and, in both, manners underwent a proportional change. But we are in the habit of regarding the middle ages as one single period of unvarying manners and institutions, and we are too apt to fancy that the descriptions of Froissart and his successors are equally applicable to all parts of it.


117:* Gesta Dei per Francos, vol. i. pp. 994, 1062.

117:† William of Tyre makes their number 60,000. He declares his inability to give the origin of the name Assassins.

122:* Raumer, Geschichte der Hohenstauffen, ii., p. 490. Wilken, Geschichte der Kreuzzüge, iv., 489.

124:* Annales Muslemici, tom. iv., pp. 122, 123. Hafniae, 1792.

127:* An instance of Henry's intimacy with the Assassins has been given in p. 81.

128:* Sir J. Mackintosh (History of England, i. 187) seems to regard the letters as genuine.

129:* May it not be said that real historic characters should not be misrepresented? Sir W. Scott was at full liberty to make his Varneys and his Bois Gilberts as accomplished villains as he pleased; he might do as he pleased with his own; but what warrant had he from history for painting Conrad of Montferrat and the then Master of the Templars under such odious colours as he does?

129:† The author invariably writes Montserrat for Montferrat. The former is in Spain, and never was a marquisate. As it were to show that it was no error of the press, it is said, "The shield of the marquis bore, in reference to his title, a serrated and rocky mountain." We also find naphtha and bitumen confounded, the former being described as the solid, the latter as the liquid substance.

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