Last week, the Vatican announced that it will publish an expensive limited edition of the proceedings of the 1308 papal trial of the Knights Templar, the medieval crusading order of warrior-monks that for two centuries was both the most dreaded military force in the Western world and a staggeringly powerful corporation operating largely independent of any state or crowned head. The rediscovered documents, part of the Secret Archive of the papacy, are coming to light at a strange time. Thanks to a burgeoning industry of conspiratorialist and anti-clerical history books begotten by the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the Templars remain a living presence in popular culture. This has happened precisely because the historical record concerning their sudden annihilation in the early-14th century at the hands of Philip IV (“the Fair”) of France has been so sparse and ambiguous. Time and revolution have damaged and dispersed the sources, and made the Templars a magnet for speculation and imagination.
It is curious that people like Mr. Brown should use the Templars as a means of building a counter-myth to Roman Catholicism. It was a secular power, the French crown, that bullied the Church into seizing Templar assets and liquidating the order’s leadership. Behind the scenes, the papacy did as much as it could to give the Templars a fair shake. This was long known, but what has now come to light for the first time is a specific contemporary account of Pope Clement V’s Processus contra templarios, including private interviews with Templar officials imprisoned by Philip IV. The documentation started to emerge in 1995, when palaeographer Barbara Frale first found a trove of Clementine documents accidentally bound together with later papers. Professor Frale has succeeded, through stubborn attention to damaged and near-indecipherable papers, in completing the portrait of Philip IV’s attack on the Templars.
In the 12th and 13th centuries the prestige of the Templars and their spearhead role in recapturing the Holy Land for Christianity made them a popular avenue of charity. Their direct connection to the Pope made them almost totally exempt from secular taxation. And pilgrims and other knights used them as a bank, handing over their lands and goods at home in exchange for use of what we would now call an international chequing account. Some have described them as the first ever multinational. As their income and power grew, they began to lend to monarchs, but they were soon to discover the depth of kingly ingratitude. They also attracted envy and hostility from the secular public. Philip IV, deeply in hock to the Templars and eager to lay hands on their property, used his control of the French Inquisition to accuse them of heretical practices, seizing their lands and arresting their leaders in 1307. Soon the Church had to bow to Philip IV’s power, disband the order, and burn the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, at the stake.
One major point of controversy over the years has been whether there was any truth at all to the charges. No one has doubted that Philip obtained confessions by means of torture, but were the accusations a complete fabrication, or did the Templars’ consciousness of real guilt make the assault easier? (This is a debate that has echoes in modern times; analysts of Soviet show trials of the 1930s had trouble believing that torture and Bolshevik discipline alone could combine to produce surreal confessions of treason and sabotage.) Prof. Frale’s analysis of the pope’s inquiry suggests that Philip did in fact have a kernel of truth to work with. Clement apparently concluded that the Templar order probably did make new members spit upon the cross, deny Jesus Christ and plant “obscene kisses” on the bodies of senior officers.
This would not have been surprising, since it was common for medieval guilds and military orders to bind new recruits together by making them do unspeakable things, often involving mockery of religion. Hazing in the military, fraternities and sports hasn’t really changed much. And the ceremony would have had the added benefit of preparing Templar warriors for humiliation and forced apostasy in the event of capture by Muslims. Clement thought the Templars were not beyond reform, and we now know that he personally absolved de Molay, who had harboured his own hopes of eliminating financial and behavioural excesses. But Clement’s French cardinals, unwilling to confront Philip, stood in the way; and when Philip started rounding up Templar assets, other European kings fell in line.
Perhaps this version of the story seems unromantic compared to fairy tales about the Holy Grail and hidden descendants of Jesus. But in a world where finance and political power interact in complicated ways, where governments grapple with footloose “non-state actors” driven by religious passions, where torture is in the headlines every day and where ever freer use is made of asset-forfeiture laws, it would be unfortunate if the true unvarnished tale of the Templars and their enemies were obscured behind a veil of fictions. As William Faulkner reminded us, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
in National Post – Canada