Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Shield and the Sword: Ernle Bradford

This is the history of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, from its origins as a hospice for pilgrims established in Jerusalem around 1080 up to the present day – the book was published in 1972, but the order is still in existence and operates around the world today. It is, indeed, the oldest international NGO (non-government organisation) in existence; present day descendants include the St Johns Ambulance Brigade in the UK and Malteser International (, a German NGO providing emergency medical assistance in places like DR Congo, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.

The Knights of St John was always an international organisation with members from across Europe. It soon developed from the provision of hospice and hospital services to pilgrims to their protection on the journey to the Holy Land. The early history of the Knights is also the history of the Crusades – the attempts by western Europeans to take over and control the Holy Land, Syria and the Levant. The first crusade began in 1097, and the Christians were finally driven out of the Holy Land in 1291, although Pope Eugenius IV preached a new crusade as late as 1440, but by that time his call was barely heeded. The story of the Crusades is a sorry one, and Bradford does not hesitate to delineate the atrocities and mistakes made by the ruthless and poorly led Europeans.

After their expulsion from the Holy Land, the Knights took over the island of Rhodes and remained there until defeated by the Turks, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1522. After a period of homelessness, the Knights moved on to Malta, which many found a poor substitute for Rhodes. It was in Malta that the famous Great Siege of 1565 took place, again against the Turks. This time, however, the Knights and the people of Malta held out against the Turks – though only just. Over time the role of the Knights changed and by the time Napoleon laid claim to Malta the Knights proved indecisive and unable to mount an adequate defence. But the Maltese themselves soon got rid of the French, liking them even less than the Knights, and asked the British to take control of the island. Malta gained independence in 1964.

Their expulsion from Malta could well have been the end of the Order, however it miraculously survived, and the final chapter of the book explains how the Order reinvented itself and continues its existence up until today. This book will be of immense delight to anyone interested in the history of the Crusades, of Rhodes and of Malta. The author provides plenty of fascinating detail while maintaining the reader’s interest throughout – the book is a compact and readable 227 pages long. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ode to a Banker: Lindsey Davis

I thoroughly enjoy all the Falco mysteries by Davis, and this one is the twelfth in the series. She writes with a wonderful sense of humour and a great eye for detail. Even though the story is set in Rome AD74 it’s as if she had recently visited and learned the daily habits of people – what they ate, what they wore, how they decorated their homes, how fires were put out, how the subtle relationships between men and women were handled, and much more.

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer who has somehow managed to marry well above his station in life, which keeps him on his toes and provides a constant source of mystery and amusement for the reader trying to figure out the relationship between husband and wife. In this particular story the exact nature of the relationships between a wealthy banker and his first and second wives also contributes to the mystery. The banker is also an arts patron and publisher, and there is much insight into the world of publishing before the days of printing and paper. And even though this book was published in 2000, her insights and parallels between the world of banking in ancient Rome and the scams and hedge funds leading to the banking meltdown of 2008 are quite eerie. The banker is murdered, and Falco has to figure out if this was the result of a banking deal gone wrong, or an angry writer feeling cheated, or a wife becoming overly jealous. A great read!