Embracing Death, Celebrating Life: Reflections on the Concept of Martyrdom in the Order of the Knights Templar
By Joachim Rother
Ordines Militares. Yearbook for the Study of the Military Orders, Vol.19 (2014)
Abstract: The Templars were the first religious military order dedicated to warfare, and, to them, the anticipation of a meritorious death in battle was a key characteristic that was unique to their profession. Not only the order’s Rule and early theological texts addressed to the Templar community, such as the writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, but also a wide range of external sources, including chronicles and trial records, suggest that the Templars were particularly associated with martyrdom as the most original form of Christian sanctity, namely in imitation of Christ’s own sacrificial death. This article aims at shedding light on this neglected aspect of Templar spirituality and discusses the implications of this concept’s manifestation throughout the order’s history.
Introduction: The 1991 Ordines Militares colloquium in Toruń (Poland) was dedicated to the topic of spirituality in the military orders, but even 20 years later Kaspar Elm’s statement from that colloquium’s published proceedings still rings true: “The results of research conducted on the military orders in this field have been very limited thus far.” Especially one “religious feature” of the military orders, namely the preparedness for martyrdom, has been widely neglected. This might be the case due to the fact that martyrdom appears to play a special role in an order’s formation. Whenever the concept of martyrdom is part of an order’s spirituality, its “normative demand” eventually transcends into a corporal result, thereby crossing the borders between spirituality and reality. This makes the concept’s interpretation and implications difficult to discuss, for spirituality has always provided guidance to practice, yet rarely have its results been so drastic.
Although research on the concept of martyrdom during the era of the Crusades has gained considerable prominence, it has rarely been applied to the Knights Templar. This is surprising, as the Templars were the first military order and paved the way for a new monastic development; they were devoted to warfare only; and they, together with the other military orders, but unlike most Crusaders, established a permanent presence in the hostile environment of the Holy Land, consequently facing the threat of death both regularly and frequently. Accordingly, the question concerning the salvific, theological, liturgical, and military relevance of the concept of martyrdom in the Order of the Knights Templar needs to be raised, its roots need to be discovered, and the extent of the concept’s influence throughout the order’s conception needs to be traced. This article does not intend to explain “the” meaning of martyrdom among the Knights of the Temple; rather, it strives to provide a few preliminary insights into this highly complex field of research in order to raise awareness for this topic’s potential. By first discussing the theological basis, mainly provided by Bernard of Clairvaux, and subsequently focusing on selected fields of interest, this article also seeks to outline ways and opportunities to consider a neglected aspect of the order’s spiritual conception and self-perception.