Blogging the Age of Faith

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Knights Templar

From Slate magazine

The Knights Templar

Following the colossal success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, two new thrillers, The Last Templar and The Templar Legacy, have remained firmly planted on the New York Times best-seller list. These books don't chase the chimera of the Holy Grail, so breathlessly pursued by the two protagonists of the Code; instead they focus on one of the links in the chain of clues in Brown's book—that of the extraordinary Order of the Knights Templar.

The real Templars bear little resemblance to their fictional re-creations. They were founded in the Holy Land in 1119 by two French knights, who swore to devote themselves to the protection of Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and the holy places. Crusaders had captured Jerusalem in 1099 and then struggled to establish an effective military and political structure to protect their conquests. The contribution of these founding knights was tiny, but they quickly captured the imagination of the Western Christian world. Soon, they were given a base in the al-Aqsa Mosque, which Christians believed had been the site of the Temple of Solomon. They received papal recognition at the council of Troyes in Champagne in 1129, where they were described as a "military order," a quite unique institution at the time, for they not only swore the usual monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but made a fourth key promise—to defend the holy places from the infidel.

From then on they grew rapidly into an international order, receiving lands in the West that they developed into a great network of preceptories. This enabled them to supply men and money for the cause of the Holy Land, as well as to offer a range of services to crusaders, most important help with finance, a role that they expanded into something like a modern banking service.

Such an order might seem invulnerable, but by the early 14th century, the Knights Templar faced a serious crisis. In 1291 the Christians had been driven out of Palestine by the Mamluks of Egypt and were thus obliged to wage the holy war from their remaining base in Cyprus. This expulsion was particularly serious for the Templars, whose prestige and functions were so closely identified with the defense of the sites associated with Christ's life, death, and resurrection. They were desperate to see papal plans for a new crusade take concrete form. In 1307, in response to a request from Pope Clement V, James of Molay, the grand master, therefore traveled to the West to advise the papacy and gather support in the courts of Christendom.

It was thus that on Oct. 12, 1307, James of Molay was present in Paris, holding one of the cords of the pall at the funeral of Catherine, wife of Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV, "the Fair," of France. But the master had no idea what awaited him. Without warning, royal officials, acting on secret orders from Philip, fell upon the Templars living in France, in a coordinated operation that took hundreds into custody. The order for the arrests said that the Templars were not a force dedicated to the defense of the Holy Land, willing to endure martyrdom for their beliefs—they were in fact apostates who denied Christ, spat on crucifixes, engaged in indecent kissing and compulsory sodomy, and worshipped idols.

Although rulers outside France initially found the allegations difficult to believe, and the pope was outraged because he had not been consulted, at first sight the charges seemed justified. Most of the Templars confessed to one or more of the allegations, including Molay himself, who repeated his admissions in public in the presence of a select gathering of university theologians. In the end, neither the papal attempt to take over the trial, nor a robust defense of the order led by two Templar lawyer-priests, could shake the impact of these first confessions. In March of 1312, at the Council of Vienne, the pope felt obliged to suppress the order after nearly two centuries of service to the Christian faith. Two years later, on March 14, 1314, Molay and Geoffrey of Charney, preceptor of Normandy, were burnt to death as relapsed heretics on an island in the Seine in the center of Paris.

The trial caused a sensation and remains a subject of fascination and speculation seven centuries later. The circumstances are intriguing, not the least because they evoke such striking modern parallels; Stalinist show trials and McCarthyite inquisitions have their medieval precursors. Philip the Fair himself was certainly motivated to suppress the order by an interest in their property, for he presided over a regime in constant financial crisis. Yet as a fanatically pious and often credulous king, he may have genuinely believed that his realm was threatened by a secret anti-Christian conspiracy, which it was his duty to crush.

Few historians today doubt that the charges were concocted and the confessions obtained by torture. But Templar innocence has been given no protection against modern sensationalism, for the raw material offered by the order's spectacular demise is too tempting to ignore. Among the first to exploit it were the 18th-century Freemasons. The Freemasons adopted the legend of the murder of Hiram, king of Tyre, who was employed to build Solomon's Temple and was murdered because he would not reveal Masonic secrets. According to the Freemasons' version of history, the Templars were abolished because, as occupants of Solomon's Temple, they held key knowledge that could potentially discredit both church and state.

As myth has it, on that March evening in 1314, unique knowledge was supposedly handed down to the care of future generations, making the Templars and their mystery a particularly fertile resource for novelists and popular historians. Sir Walter Scott, whose eye for a gripping story made his books best sellers in their time, created the template for fiction and drama that many have since followed. In Ivanhoe, which he published in 1819, his villainous Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, views with contempt the austerities of the first Templars, since whose time he and his fellows have adopted secret practices "dedicated to ends of which our pious founders little dreamed." Today, as Casaubon says in Umberto Eco's satire Foucault's Pendulum, "The Templars have something to do with everything."


  • At 2:53 PM, Anonymous kisstheconcrete said…

    The organization of the Knights Templar proves to be very successful to the expansion of Christianity. It provided a safe passage to the Pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Before the Pilgrims were harassed and ambushed, so this no doubt made it easier for the Pilgrims and it also made the numbers of those who visited increase. When taking the monastic vows they swore to always protect holy places from heathens and those who didn't acknowledge God. This oath perhaps made it easier for true Christians to spread the word of God.

    The Knights Templar later expanded and developed into more monastic houses. This development made Christianity more accessible. Also since the Knights Templar were a religious group they probably spread their religious ideas to the people they traveled with. By protecting these Pilgrims they showed that Christianity was a positive thing were as before it was viewed negatively.

    However, could something so successful in spreading religion be evil? The mystery around the Knights Templar involves them being anti-Christians. Some of the Templars confessed to one or more of the allegations and were as a result burned to death. Or maybe the King was just being jealous of the prosperity of the Templar.

  • At 6:26 AM, Blogger bcpcguy said…

    Very interesting! Before reading this blog entry, I had only an elementary understanding of who the Knight’s Templar were and just exactly what they did. Now, its great to know that this organization existed to provide safety and refuge to the Christian Pilgrims as they visited the HolyLand. Why? The Pilgrims had experienced a great amount of oppression throughout this time period, according to articles I have read in the past, and the Knights Templar gave some relief to the constant harassment.

    It was not only the relief and protection they gave to believers in the Christian faith that made their existence worthwhile, but the fact that they were spreading Christianity by making it more available to the “general public” and removing some of the negative connotations associated with the religion that truly set them above the rest.

    In my opinion, there so-called “confessions” to the outrageous allegations had to have been obtained through torture. I can’t make myself believe that this highly-esteemed group of individuals were idol worshipping atheists who engaged in sodomy and inappropriate kissing. It all seems to be a story concocted by those who were threatened by the existence of the Knights Templar and wanted them “removed” from society.

  • At 6:26 PM, Blogger Krangor said…

    So, the Knights Templar showed Christianity as a positive thing? As invaders and slayers of infidels? I remind you these infidels did not consider themselves as such. The knights Templar were certainly, as bcpcguy said, set above the rest, as they are one of the most famous participants in the most atrocious wars ever conducted in the name of religion. Christians then, as well as now, consider the holy land theirs, despite the fact that it had at that time been occupied by Muslims for several hundred years.

    I think an interesting correlation could be made with relics. The holy land could be seen as like a massive relic, the possession of which would be a great demonstration of ones faith and sure to bring the blessings of God. Taking this land from the Muslims was much like taking a relic from someone else, only on a much more grand scale.

    It is interesting to note that these Muslims did not invade the holy land, violently disposing and forcing the Christians away, but arose in that region, much like the Christians and Jewish before them. Perhaps this is a sign of were Gods alliances truly lie, as I remind you that the Muslims eventually repelled the Western Christian invasion, and maintained dominion over the relic of the holy land ever since.

    I have no doubt that the Templar were framed, to get them out of the way of King Philip IV. This is not necessarily an indication of their chastity and of the Kings malevolence, but perhaps represents them exhausting their usefulness and becoming a nuisance that Phillip saw fit to do away with.

  • At 7:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I’m really glad I looked over this article; this happens to be one of my favorites. It’s interesting how someone or, in this case, a group of people, can have the best intentions in the world to then be attacked and captured by King Philip IV of France. I think it is amazing that the templars devoted themselves to the protection of Christian pilgrims visiting the holy lands. However, I think it is horrible for the King of France to attack the Templars while their master is in France attending a funeral. To me, this is a cheap shot. Why would anybody want to do something that horrible to these good people? They promised vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and to defend the holy places from infidel. Christian pilgrims were vulnerable to cruelty during the crusades, so for the Templars to stand behind them, and make one of their sole purposes to protect them is a generous gesture.

    One thing that really impressed me about the Templars was their orderliness. Not only, were the Templars able to help the Christian pilgrims in their war efforts, but they were also able to supply men and money to the pilgrims. The Templars were also able to concoct a banking service for the pilgrims, to help them financially.

    It’s hard for me to believe that a group that was this giving to the Christian pilgrims could turn out to be evil.

  • At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    since i refuse to read the da vinci code based on it's crackpot theories and the fact that it was made into a movie (i hate that!)i didn't really understand at first the whole "search for the holy grail" thing and while i found this artical to be quite interesting i don't really get why so many people lust after finding the holy grail, other than for pride and monitary purposes. all of the work and effort, not to mention money, put into finding the cup that Jesus suopposidly drank from at the last supper that in all actuality is probably long gone or burried in some farmers field in Jeruselum or has been blown to smitherines in one of the many MANY wars over the holy land...but i digress. these people worked so hard to find this grail and they claimed to be Jesus loving God fearing people yet when hundreds were taken into custody they were depicted as "apostates who denied Christ, spat on crucifixes, engaged in indecent kissing and compulsory sodomy, and worshipped idols." maybe i am completly off the topic and wrong,but i guess what i'm trying to get at is why and how can people spend their entire life based on a lie and a search for something that may not exsist? this blog has given me alot to think about.

  • At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sensing the hostility to Dan Brown and his book, I won't get deep into enjoying the read, my apologies. However the real templars are quite surprisingly different in a lot of ways. The templars that were accused for not doing as they should have been and more really surprised me because it defeats the purpose of why they were created. It almost seems to me as though there was some manipulation of the power that was given to them through the land and other privileges that were given to them.
    Whether or not those accusitions were true, it still leaves a bad mark on those who were the templars and the name of the knights in general. However, because not all the Templars were in of the same group that was accused, I find it very interesting that the myth is true that the knowledge is still passed down to new Templars to live with.


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