As the dates suggest, the subtitle should read "images of the military orders in the Holy Land." This becomes very apparent in the references to the Teutonic Order, which committed considerable manpower and resources to Prussia and Livonia. However, the dates have the advantage of excluding from consideration the Templar controversy which has molded our impression of the military orders' public image.
There is relatively little use of North American scholarship, though several points in this text might have benefitted from the additional nuances that publications from this side of the Atlantic might have provided. The mitigating circumstance is that the author relied very little on secondary materials of any kind.
The text is a tour-de-force of research in primary sources--charters, chronicles, epics and romances. From the reader's point of view, the citations tend to become tiresome, but the very uniformity and repetitiveness of the references demonstrate conclusively the author's main points--that the "criticism of the military orders is no more significant than criticism of other religious orders or of the Church as a whole" (p. 129); and that the loss of Acre was a decisive turning point in public opinion, which up to that moment had supported the crusading orders strongly. In short, in 1291, "the orders were not so corrupt that they could not be saved. The concept of the military order remained unquestioned, and abolition unthinkable; at least, no one appears to have thought of it." (p. 135)
Twenty years later, of course, almost everyone seems to have thought of it--the Archbishop of Riga denounced the Teutonic Knights in Livonia, Polish dukes protested the Teutonic Knights' occupation of Pomerellia before they could take possession themselves, and the King of France destroyed the Templars. The partisan arguments these accusers made, repeated by patriotic novelists and modern historians, have made a strong impression on textbook writers and the general public alike. Nicholson's greatest achievement, therefore, is to demonstrate that reading these attitudes back into the era 1128-1291 is an anachronism of the worst sort.
The most prominent criticisms of the military orders reflected disputes between popes and emperors, policy goals in the Holy Land, and jealousy of their privileges and influence. In a world where nobody can please everybody, we need take seriously only those accusations which are more general--Pride, Greed, Rashness, Violence, and so forth--faults typical of the knightly class coming into existence as a coherent, self-conscious body at this time. The knights' piety or orthodoxy were never questioned. As propagandists, however, the military orders were never able to persuade patrons and pilgrims of the insufficiency of their resources nor of the justice of their cause. We assume that when the orders were recruiting members, they emphasized their wealth, power, and prestige because prominent nobles (with families able to make gifts and bequests) were interested in commanding sizeable forces, in rubbing shoulders with princes and prelates, and in enjoying the pleasures of the table and the hunt; and poor knights could bask in the reflected glory.
Tightly organized, with solid summaries in each chapter, this volume can be skimmed quickly. Surprisingly, in describing the membership of the orders, the author neglects to mention the priest brothers. Later, in noting that few members of the military orders became prelates, she appears to be unaware of the Teutonic Order's priests who became bishops in Prussia and Kurland (and since none were trained as priests by the order, some were inducted into membership only shortly before assuming their episcopal offices). Nicholson does note that Roger Bacon, who is often cited out of context, was a suspected heretic whose ideas were not taken seriously in his lifetime. In short, Nicholson's knights were neither saints nor social outcasts, and their contemporaries did not consider the military orders either dangerous or in opposition to the basic principles of Christianity.