By Danièle Cybulskie
If you’ve only ever dipped your toe into the medieval world, you’ve probably still heard about the Templars. Modern fiction’s favourite bad guys, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a.k.a. the Templars) was an order of military monks whose primary functions were in helping to “free” the Holy Land from Muslim control, as well as helping the pilgrims who traveled there. They were not the only such order, and never actually achieved their objective to reconquer the Holy Land, yet a brief glance at the medieval history section of a bookstore will (more often than not) show more books on the Templars than any other subject. So, what is it about the Templars that makes them so fascinating?
1. They Were Impressive Warriors … and Also Monks
Right away, the Templars seem to be founded upon a mystery: how can an order of pseudo-monks be militaristic? Isn’t that a contradiction? In a word: yes. However, the Templars were not the only Christians who believed that killing “infidels” was less egregious than allowing them to control the Holy Land. Plenty of popes were on board with the idea that there were different degrees of killing; for example, Innocent III forbade anyone to use crossbows on Christians, but using them on anyone else was not a problem. In fact, popes were behind many calls to crusade, so clearly, the contradiction between being Christian and being a soldier was not as big a deal to medieval minds as we might think. Still, the idea that those who devote their lives to being spiritually pure while also breaking one of the Ten Commandments is fraught with complexity, so wondering about the justification is a common draw, pulling the Templars into stories like that of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.
2. They Were Also Impressive Bankers
Being a part of a much-needed military unit in a conflict in which land is being conquered and parceled out is a recipe for becoming very rich very quickly. The Templars amassed a huge amount of wealth and land over the years; so much that they were able to lend out money to kings. Being great warriors with the integrity of monks, the Templars were also good people to store your money with. Because of their vast network and their capital, medieval people could deposit money at one temple and withdraw it at another. Like all bankers over the centuries, they were still sometimes vulnerable to robbery, though, with even Prince Edward (later Edward I “Longshanks”) of England succumbing to temptation, and robbing them of somewhere around a thousand pounds (according to Marc Morris in A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, p. 56). Anyone who controls that much money is rich pickings (pun intended) for villainy in medieval fiction, and the Templars unsurprisingly appear as a corporation in Assassin’s Creed.
3. Theirs Was an Order of Secrets
As members of a religious order, Templars were required to take vows, which understandably involved ritualistic elements, just as any other swearing-in ceremony would. The general public didn’t seem to know much about these ceremonies, although there is some debate around whether or not the public could attend them. Nevertheless, the fact that no one knew much about these rituals was turned around on the Templars when they fell out of favour, and their secrecy became the source of great speculation over what sordid deeds they were performing (more on that later). All of a sudden, they were “hiding” things from the people, and hiding, of course, never means anything good. Because few documents exists that outline Templar activities, their secret ceremonies are another great source for invention, as in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.
4. They Were Present During the Most Famous Crusade
To think of crusading is to think of Richard I (the Lionheart) and his greatest foe Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) who were at odds during what we now call the Third Crusade. The Templars were right in the thick of the siege of Acre, Richard’s greatest victory in the Holy Land and also his greatest slaughter of captives. To picture military monks there at the site of both Christian victory and the utter brutality of the crusades is to see them at their most powerful and most troubling. Given the moral complexity of crusading in general, the Templars’ presence during this most famous crusade is good fodder for fiction. A novel which puts the Templars and Acre at front and centre is Andrew Latham’s The Holy Lance.
5. They Had a Famously Brutal Ending to the Order
In the Middle Ages, money, politics, and religion almost always formed a messy and dangerous tangle. For the Templars, this culminated in the obliteration of their order, the torture of their members, and the fiery death of many, including their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, in 1314. Their persecution was predominantly at the hands of Philip IV (The Fair), who arrested all the Templars in France at once, and proceeded to draw confessions out of them through torture. This arrest was unusual, since the charges against them were heavily religious (not civil) in nature, as this great article by Julien Théry-Astruc points out. They were accused of heresy, including denying Christ and idol-worship, as well as homosexual acts, as part of their ceremony, although the evidence was scanty to say the least. Before the last executions were carried out, the Templars’ reputation was dragged through the mud and has never really recovered. Because the Order was so brutally and thoroughly destroyed, and because the motivations behind their sudden destruction remain unclear, what the Templars’ part in their fall from grace could have been is a compelling mystery. The curse of Jacques de Molay is the starting point of Maurice Druon’s The Iron King.
In a nutshell, the Templars remain compelling to modern minds because we just don’t know enough about them to sate our curiosity. Everything about them is mysterious in some way, and the dark shadow cast over them by Philip the Fair remains to this day. No matter where you meet them, the Templars are an interesting part of modern medieval fiction.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist