The story has it all: Vatican intrigue, corruption, medieval castles, secret knights, papal enquiries, and royal conspiracies.
But it is not fiction.
More than 5 meters of recovered parchments reveal the actual account of one of the most important trials of the Middle Ages: The Processus Contra Templarios (Latin for “Trial Against the Templars”).
The Knights Templar was a powerful and secretive medieval order originally formed to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The order was dissolved following charges of heresy in 1314.
This book reveals the order’s innocence.
The parchment is the transcript of the hearings that took place at Chinon, France in August 1308. It chronicles the accusations of heresy, the Templars’ defense and the Pope’s absolution of the order.
Since the Knights Templar was accused some seven centuries ago, the order has entered the realm of legend. Most recently the best-selling book, The DaVinci Code, speculated on the order’s actual, secret purpose.
Now, in an effort to restore the Templars’ reputation, the Vatican is selling 799 copies of the Processus Contra Templarios at 5,900 euros ($8,377) apiece.
The reproduction comes in a soft leather case, complete with a faithful replica of the original papal wax seals. Printed on a special synthetic parchment, it also contains translations into English and Italian, and scholarly commentary.
Barbara Frale, the 37-year-old Vatican archives official who rediscovered the Chinon parchment after more than 10 years of research in the Vatican Secret Archives, spoke with Discovery News about her find and about the medieval, crusading order.
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News: What’s it like working at the Vatican’s secret archives?
Barbara Frale: It’s such an incredible adventure. The archives are an endless labyrinth of historical treasures. The lives of so many Popes fill some 80 kilometers of shelves underground, beneath the Vatican. There are millions of original documents, you almost feel dizzy there.
It’s really detective work, and it begins right from the huge Index Room, which contains some 3,800 books.
Finding the right document is not easy at all. Also, you need years of study, a specialization in paleography, and several years of work experience to decode the ancient writings.
RL: What is your main area of study?
BF: I’ve been studying the history of the Knights Templar since 1995. At the Vatican Archives, I came across some big paper registers written when the papal court was in Avignon, France (1309-1378). I noticed that a bulk of documents which belonged to Pope Benedict XII actually contained some papers dating back to the reign of a former Pope, Clement V.
The document featured a piece of the trial of the Templars, namely the only enquiry which had been held by the pontiff, himself, at Poitiers, in the summer of 1308. There also was a “Rubrice,” a summary of notes written on some cheap paper.
These annotations turned to be a historical treasure far more than the refined and expensive parchments. There I could find the real thoughts of the Pope. My fascination with the Templars could only increase at this point. I had to dig deeper.
RL: So, how did you discover the Chinon parchment?
BF: In 2001 I found a list of provincial enquires that Clement V ordered to be held by diocesan bishops. An enquiry appeared to be a hearing held by Bérenger Frédol, one of the best canonist of his time and the Pope’s nephew. It appeared very strange to me that such a man would be sent to the country, to hold one of the ordinary diocesan hearings.
I was right: the enquiry was indeed the Chinon hearing. When I saw that original parchment with the seals of the three cardinals appointed by Clement V to judge the Templar General Staff in his name, I could not believe my eyes. It was the document so many historians had been searching for.
RL: What these documents from the Vatican Archives reveal that wasn’t known before?
BF: Since the trial of the Templars ended with the destruction of the order, with the Grand Master Jacques De Molay burning at the stake in 1314, it was believed that Pope Clement V agreed on the heresy charges moved by the King of France, Philip IV “The Fair.”
On the contrary, the Chinon parchment and the Rubrice show that Clement V wanted the Templar order to be saved. He wanted to reform and restore it to its original strength. Indeed, the Knights received the papal absolution from all charges of heresy.
RL: How did it happen that the Templars were imprisoned?
BF: It was a very dramatic event: on Friday 13, October 1307 the French soldiers broke into all templar preceptories and imprisoned the monks. It was a heavy abuse of power as the Templars were a religious order completely independent from royal authority.
The truth is that the King of France, who badly needed money, wanted to seize the Templars’ wealth. The order amassed fortunes through property and banking but declined after the Muslim reconquest of the Holy Land.
RL. What were some of the charges against them?
BF: The accusation of heresy focused on them denying Christ, spitting on the cross, and giving ‘three obscene kisses’ on the low spine, the navel and the mouth.
RL Were these charges true?
BF No. In reality, this was an initiation ceremony. It was performed to show the new knights the humiliation they could suffer if they fell into the hands of the Saracens. The hearings made Pope Clement conclude that the ritual was not blasphemous, although he did find the Templars guilty of lesser infractions of church law because of this ceremony.
RL: The Pope’s absolution did not prevent the King of France from burning many Templar leaders at the stake and basically dissolving the order. Could you explain why Clement V did nothing to save the Templars?
BF: The risk for the Pope was a schism in the Church. So he decided to sacrifice the Templars. The order was already enjoying a bad reputation because of charges of heresy and sexual misconduct
RL: The Catholic Church has been asked by several supposed descendants of the Templars to offer apology for what happened 700 years ago. What do you think?
BF: A serious historian knows that medieval issues must remain confined to the Middle Ages. You cannot transfer such issues, even if they are dramatic, to present time.
There has been a lot of talking about the Templars. So many books have taken inspirations only from legends, obscure traditions, supposed secret rituals and lost treasures. This has nothing to do with the historical documents.
RL: Your discovery is going to rewrite the history of the Templar order. Have you received a free copy of the Vatican book?
BF: No, but I am not missing it. After all, it is such a large book I would not know where to put it. The only place I can think of is a box under my bed, but I think it would not be the best company to sleep with.
in Discovery News
It should be said that the first Templar group to be officially taken on a tour of the Secret Archives of the Vatican and to be presented with copies of the Chinon Parchment was the OSMTHU, back in 2002 under the Mastership of Fr+ Fernando de Toro-Garland.
After the visit was made public, many other groups claimed to be present and tried to legitimate their “close ties with the Vatican” (which were non-existent) by saying it had actually happened to them! Well, it hadn’t.
The fact that we were the first to be invited to take a look at the document was never used to legitimate or not our position. As Barbara Frale says, the parchment should not be taken out of its context, which is the middle ages. It does nothing to legitimate our Order or any other Order for that matter (look at this piece of news). And we never claimed that it would.
But it’s nice to remember that in the serious academic world, where history is history, we were considered back in 2002 worthy enough to be invited to look at it closely. And we have the photos.
Photo taken during the visit. From left to right the late F+ Horacio Amadeo Della Torre, by then Preceptor of the Order, Prior of Argentina and member of the Magisterial Coucil; F+ Rosario Tomarchio (hidden behind F+ Horacio), Bailiff of Catania; Father Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive; F+ Fernando de Toro-Garland, by then Master of the Order; Barbara Frale; Fr+ Antonio Paris, by then Priori of Italy and Seneschal of the Order, member of the Magisterial Council (today Master of the Order) and F+ Jose Antonio Cabrera Diaz, by then Prior of Spain (now Treasurer of the Order and member of the Magisterial Council). Other Templars were present, including Fr+ William McCallum, Australian member of the Magisterial Council, but not pictured here.
As you can see it wasn’t a group of tourists that visited a library, it was the true elite of the OSMTHU that has been governing the Order for many years. I still can’t forgive myself for not having been there!