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The Templars and the Grail
Knights of the Quest
By Karen Ralls
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2003 Karen Ralls
All rights reserved.
WARRIOR-MONKS of the MIDDLE AGES
Who were the Knights Templar? Were they ever the guardians of something extraordinary, perhaps the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant? Why were they suppressed for alleged heresy in 1312, after rising to the heights of wealth and power? Did the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, know in advance about their planned downfall? And did they really survive in secret afterwards? Such questions have surrounded the historical Templar Order through the centuries; they both fuel and are fueled by the Templar mythos. As this book unfolds, we will examine various theories. But let us begin with a history of the Order at the height of its power.
A new species of knighthood
The Knights Templar, best known today as fierce warriors of the Crusades, were a devout medieval military religious Order that uniquely combined the roles of knight and monk in a way the Western medieval world had never seen before. In a famous letter, In Praise of the New Knighthood, written to his colleague Hugh de Payns, St. Bernard of Clairvaux elevated the Knights Templar Order above all other Orders of the day, including its main rival, the Knights Hospitaller. This letter established the image of the Templars as a fierce spiritual militia for Christ. As medieval historian Malcolm Barber explains, St. Bernard regarded the Templars as a new species of knighthood, previously unknown in the secular world, pursuing a double conflict against both flesh and blood and the invisible forces of evil. "Strong warriors, on the one hand, and monks waging war with vice and demons on the other ... A body of men who need have no fear ... these men had no dread of death, confident in the knowledge that in the sight of the Lord they would be his martyrs."
As a holy militia fighting for Christ, the Templars were willing to put aside the usual temptations of ordinary secular life for a dedicated life of service. They accepted many sacrifices, such as living by a strict religious Rule apart from secular society, giving all of their personal property to the Order, not shaving their beards, as well as having no ornamentation on their clothing, no luxurious foods, no women, little meat at meals, and the like. They were something like a spiritualized version of modern-day elite military special forces—such as the famed U.S. Navy Seals, the Marines, or the British SAS—who live by far more rigorous standards than other soldiers. They were elite special forces for Christ, the most disciplined fighting force in western Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, the Templars were not monks—though they did take the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They "were religious people who followed a religious Rule of life and wore a distinctive habit, but who, unlike monks, did not live in an enclosed house." The main purpose of monks who lived in an enclosed community was to pray and to fight spiritual battles. But from what we know of the Templars from the history of the Crusades, they also fought many bloody physical battles in the defense of Christendom.
Not everyone agreed initially with St. Bernard's idea of combining spiritual devotion with physical fighting. Some churchmen saw these two functions as simply incompatible because there was great concern about sins and souls in medieval society. Even St. Bernard himself struggled with some of these issues. The Byzantines, too, were "deeply shocked to see in the Crusader armies so many priests who bore arms" and went into battle. But by and large the Templars gained much respect as they demonstrated their battle skills and won victories. The power of the New Knighthood concept was so strong that even the older religious institution, the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Hospitallers or the Order of St. John, had to adapt by adding to their official Rule a new knightly monastic ideology. This new idea "fused two current ideals of medieval society, knighthood and monasticism, into a code for a community of warrior-monks."
St. Bernard himself led a strictly ascetic life. "He fasted so much that he ruined his health ... A little cubicle beside the stairs, more like a closet than a room, served as the abbot's cell ... Here he slept at night, with a straw-covered block of wood for a pillow. And thus he lived for thirty years." Such a near-anorexic lifestyle was not unusual in medieval times, but St. Bernard's was unarguably one of the most austere. Martin Luther thought highly of St. Bernard: "I regard Bernard as the most pious of all monks and prefer him to all the others ... He is the only one worthy of the name 'Father' and of being studied diligently." Quite a compliment, especially coming from the man who started the Reformation!
Bernard's powers of persuasion were extraordinary, and his dedication to the idea of a "new knighthood" was unflinching. Part of his insistence was in reaction to what he considered the excesses of secular knights. He often complained about their idle words; immoderate laughter; playing of chess and dice; hunting and hawking; going to soothsayers, jesters, or storytellers; and staging plays. He especially criticized their pomp and pride and said that these were to be avoided by monastic knights. The Templars, in his view, combined the best of both the practical and the spiritual—"lions in war, lambs in the house." He would refer to the monastery at Clairvaux as the entrance to "the heavenly Jerusalem" and "the fortress of God," and many suggest this was because of his close association with the early inner circle of the Knights Templar, who defended and won "fortress Jerusalem" for Christendom in 1099.
Among other things, the Templars were to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land and defend the Christian holy places there against the growing Muslim presence. Ironically, their adversaries, the Saracens, were also expertly trained to be martyrs and not fear death; and although the two faiths were very different, some of the underlying principles in their training were similar. It is well known that the Templar leadership regarded Saladin, the leader of the Saracens, with respect on a number of occasions and that certain Muslim chroniclers at times referred to Templar leaders in equal terms, even when they were fiercely at war. Thus the myth that the two sides never honored one other is simply not true. In fact, the Templars may have learned much about mathematics, architecture, and sacred geometry from their alleged enemies. It is known that the Templars hired Arab interpreters and scribes—filling a rather obvious need during the Crusades, though it led to later accusations of fraternizing with the enemy. And on the island of Majorca, the Templars employed Saracens to help farm the land, much to the chagrin of the papacy.
There is evidence of medieval Templar links with the Muslim world, especially with the Nizari Ismailis, a religiopolitical Islamic group that still flourishes under the leadership of the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismailis, also known in medieval times as the Assassins, were trained as holy warriors—not unlike the Knights Templar. Christian crusaders had some contact with the Assassins at the beginning of the twelfth century, even before the founding of the Templar Order in 1119. The medieval mission of Hasan-i-Sabah, Arab chronicler of the Crusades, to the Ismailis of Syria resulted in the early European contact with the Assassins during the Crusades. "The mythical Old Man of the Mountain ... was the Syrian chief of the [Assassin] Order ... The first documented contact between the Assassins and the Crusaders took place in September 1106. Tancred, prince of Antioch, attacked the newly acquired Nizari castle of Apace outside of Aleppo. The Christians defeated the Nizaris and leveled a tribute against the sect. Tancred captured the new Syrian chief dai, Abu Tahir, "the Goldsmith," and forced him to ransom himself. In 1110, the Nizaris lost a second piece of territory to Tancred."
Despite their losses, the Syrian Assassins were able to expel crusader troops from various castles and strongholds, something that the Seljuk Turkish princes had been unable to do.
In the beginning of the fourteenth century, the world explorer Marco Polo fueled European fascination with the Assassins when he compiled many legends about them into a collection, adding embellishments of his own. In the classic account of his travels, Polo described tales of "a magnificent enclosed garden hidden at Alamut in which all details corresponded to Muhammad's description of Paradise." Since then, legends about both the Templars and the Assassins have been plentiful.
The Templars as empire-builders and financiers
The Knights Templar were more than spiritual special forces for Christ. They were also highly practical, being diplomats and trusted advisors to kings and Popes; special guardians of a number of royal treasuries; maritime and seafaring experts; major property developers; caretakers of land and animals; agriculture experts; and business experts in commerce, trade, markets, and fairs.
Indeed, the Templars became one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations the Western world has ever known. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Order acquired extensive property not only in the West, especially France, but also in the crusader states of Palestine and Syria. It developed a network of hundreds of preceptories and commanderies throughout Europe and the Latin East. Aristocratic families, kings, and fallen soldiers gave the Order thousands of properties—churches, farms, mills, villages, monasteries, ports, and so on—to assist the knights in their crusades. Within just ten years or so of their official founding, they held donated lands in nearly every part of western Europe and beyond—a truly spectacular rise to power that has hardly been seen before or since. And the more popular they became, the greater their wealth and the number of new recruits.
The extent of the Templar empire at its height was probably unknown, even to certain kings. Templar wealth was spread widely across numerous commercial activities and subsidiaries and supported by diverse elements, so it would have been hard to specify the precise location and form of all their assets. With such an extensive empire, the Templar Order was similar to a modern-day multinational corporation. Indeed, Masonic Knights Templar Grand Historian Stephen Dafoe and Alan Butler refer to this vast medieval web of connections as "Templar, Inc." However, unlike in a corporation, much of the Templars' wealth donated by individuals remained in their treasuries and could not be moved without the owner's permission.
The Templars were known to have had tremendous stores of gold and money in their treasuries, a subject about which there tends to be misconception and even wild speculation. They lent great sums of money, not only to kings, but also to Popes and prominent merchants. In fact, some believe that a number of their business methods were the prototypes for some of our modern-day banking practices. They originated the concept of a letter of credit, for instance, and for very good reasons:
Travel in the 12th c was extremely dangerous. Bandits occupied every forest, and even controlled many towns and villages. It was therefore perilous enough to get oneself safely, from one part of the region to another, let alone to consider transporting large amounts of money ... The Templars solved this problem ... For example, a merchant from Bristol in England, who wanted to undertake a financial transaction in Paris, would simply deposit a prescribed sum of money in the Templar establishment in his own town. In exchange for the money, he would be supplied with a promissory note written in cipher—an item that would have been of no use to a potential robber. Our merchant would then travel to Paris, unencumbered by the cash, and go immediately to the Templar headquarters in Paris. On production of the note, and proof of his identity, he would be given his money in the local currency less (and this is the most important part) a handling fee. The fee was not large; certainly a good investment in terms of insurance for the safe arrival of the money.
At the time, Church law forbade the practice of usury, lending money for interest. So the Templars had to recover their administrative costs in other ways, mainly by adding a service charge, instead of charging interest directly. Sound familiar? This is much the same basic procedure as with traveler's checks today. So when traveling abroad and using traveler's checks, we can be mindful of their medieval Templar origins.
There are few complaints on record concerning how the Templars handled other people's money, even huge transactions for kings. They were generally regarded as extremely trustworthy. Rare accusations that they were greedy did not usually refer to their loan practices. Templar loans from southern France did include a clause about a fixed fee due the lender, which may have caused some resentment. British Templar historian Helen Nicolson explains that these loans included a clause in the loan agreement that if the coin depreciated in value between the time of the loan and the repayment, then the borrower must add a fixed sum to compensate the lender. As the fixed sum would remain the same however much the coin depreciated, it is likely that an interest charge lay buried in this fixed sum. Again, if land was given as the pledge for the debt, it might be stipulated in the loan conditions that the produce from the land did not count towards the repayment of the loan.
So what had started out as basic financial services provided to pilgrims—a sideline to crusading—developed into a full-scale financial empire. In the twelfth century, crusading loans were the Templars' most common financial transactions, but by the thirteenth century the Templar empire had grown considerably, becoming a key part of the European financial system. Barber describes:
The most basic facility (and probably the most widely used) was the use of Templar houses for protection of important documents (including treaties, charters, and wills) and the guard of funds and precious objects, all of particular concern to the pilgrim or crusader who might be away for several years ... [and] the Templars held documents associated with forthcoming Crusades, perhaps left as security for a loan which made the expedition possible in the first place, or as a pious donation, always in the forefront of the mind of the departing crusader who wished to set in order his relationship with the ecclesiastical world.
In other words, noble and peasant alike were inclined to leave their valuables with the Templars, where they knew they would be kept safe and in good condition, even for a number of years. They also tended to put their earthly affairs in order before they left, in case they would die in the Holy Land and never return. Many crusaders made out a will, if they did not already have one.
The Templars' wealth was distributed throughout their vast empire. Butler and Dafoe comment:
If we stop for a moment to consider the implications ... to service such a network, Templar wealth, at least in terms of gold, must have been constantly redistributed throughout the many preceptories and certainly the ones in the larger and more popular cities of western Europe ... Much of the Templars' wealth was constantly moving about, and was being used to make more money, thickening out the services on offer and expanding the business empire ... to finance bigger and better ventures.
This sounds similar to how corporations and banks operate today: major urban offices usually have more assets than smaller branches in outlying areas, so many of these assets are put to use in other investments.
However, it is important to reiterate that much of the Templars' wealth could never be moved at all, due to their strict policy of storing the owner's money and goods in a secure box within their various treasuries, where it could not be accessed without the owner's permission. This is not unlike bank policy today regarding safety deposit boxes. So no doubt the assets from other Templar enterprises—and not the valuables deposited with them by individuals—made up the capital that was "kept moving."
Since the Templars were the trusted guardians of wealth for so many people—royalty, nobles, and peasants alike—their storage practices have fueled many unanswered questions: Inasmuch as the French Templars ran their central Paris treasury, how much gold or treasure was in it at the time of their arrests in 1307? And where did it all go? Others wonder if the Templars really did find anything in the Holy Land, and if so, what was it? Did the Templar Order hold such sacred treasures in their treasuries—in France and elsewhere?
Excerpted from The Templars and the Grail by Karen Ralls. Copyright © 2003 Karen Ralls. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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