By Steve Tibble
High-profile crime might be plastered across the chronicles, but it was just the visible end of a much bigger problem. Criminality was everywhere.
In extreme cases the lack of access to any respected system of justice could cause a complete social breakdown – criminal activity, without any prospect of redress, could have a cumulative and hugely destructive impact.
In the 1250s, for instance, getting access to honest justice in the king of France’s lands was so difficult that it began to affect royal revenues – people literally voted with their feet and moved elsewhere, to places where they felt their property rights, amongst other things, would be better respected.
As John of Joinville, the French crusading chronicler, wrote, ‘there were so many criminals and thieves in Paris and beyond that the whole country was full of them’. King Louis IX, for reasons of good kingship and morality, did everything he could to improve matters – he set about reforming the legal system.
But he also understood that a moral stance went hand in hand with good business and sound finances. After the system of justice had been overhauled, ‘the king’s territories began to improve, and people came to them because of the sound justice done there. There was such population growth and regeneration that the king’s revenues from land sales, legal proceedings, trade and other sources doubled in value compared with earlier times’.
Doing good could sometimes be its own, very tangible, reward.
But petty crime was never going to go away – the best one could hope for were better ways to handle the consequences. Even when dealing with the military monks, supposedly fanatical upholders of Christian morality in the crusader states, theft was an ever-present possibility.
The pervasive nature of larceny within small communities is apparent from the strict and wide-ranging definitions of the crime that were set out in the Rule of the Templars. Theft was broadly defined as being ‘when a brother steals things from the house’, or even more circumstantially, ‘when a brother leaves a castle or other fortified house at night except by the gate’.
It was specifically written that ‘if the master or commander asks a brother who is under his command to show him the things of the house that are under his command and authority, the brother should show them all; and if he keeps anything back and does not show it, he will be considered a thief’.
In an age without many keys or locks, keeping hold of one’s own possessions was a delicate and important matter – trust was the real lock, and every effort was made to keep that trust intact. This too was reflected in the ordinances of the Templars. If, it was written, ‘a brother puts his hands in another’s bags and the brother to whom they belong says that he has lost what was inside, and he can have him convicted of having put his hand inside the bags and can prove that he has lost what he says from the bags, he will be convicted a thief’. Proof of guilt was inevitably hard to find, but if caught in the act, there had to be visible penalties.
Most of this was hardly major criminality. It was just theft of the most petty kind – the perennial combination of human weakness, temptation and opportunity. At Château Blanc (the Templar castle of Safita in the county of Tripoli), for instance, a brother was suspected of fraud and confronted about his activities. The accused knight was the man ‘in charge of the sheepfold’ – unglamorous work, but presumably someone had to do it. His superior ‘told him to show him all the things that he had under his command, and the brother showed him everything except a jar of butter and said that he had nothing else. And his commander knew that the jar was there and accused the brother…he was expelled from the house because of it’.
A little harsh perhaps, but presumably this was felt to be indicative of the broader issues which had created the original suspicions – the order did not seem to be too sad to lose him, so there were perhaps other, unspoken, reasons for his dismissal.
We also know that several Templar knights in Cyprus were expelled because of theft. The rot started at the very top – one of the accused knights was the Templar commander of Paphos, a certain Brother John Harelip, who was found guilty of embezzlement. He had received 600 besants, 400 of which were for the building of a house for the order, and 200 of which were to be held in reserve for later contingencies.
As with so many modern building projects, things did not go according to plan. After a while, his senior officer ‘sent a brother who asked him for the [reserve fund of] 200 besants, and Brother John said that he had put them towards the expenses of the house. And the commander sent for them and ordered the besants to be given to him’. When finally confronted, Commander John was forced to confess the fraud – he ‘told him that he had spent them, and he could not [or would not] say on what’.
Theft by means of ‘wastage’ (as modern businesses describe internal shoplifting by their staff), was also rife. ‘Losing’ equipment, either accidentally or, as was suspected, stealing it, perhaps to pay for illicit pleasures such as gambling or prostitutes, was explicitly recognised as a problem. Many sections in the Rule of the Templars were devoted to defining which items were acceptable to be ‘taken away’ from barracks, and which were not.
Even if the items themselves were those which might be legitimately taken out, there was a continual battle to stop the more wayward knights from selling or otherwise ‘losing’ them.
Once again, the Templars in the County of Tripoli were at the forefront of bad behaviour. The Rule of the order recorded that ‘a brother left the house at Château Blanc, and went to [the Hospitaller fortress of] Crac [des Chevaliers] and on his way he lost a longbow that he was carrying, and his sergeant found it and returned it to his commander; and the brother said that when he left he had left a sword in his place, and the commander did not find it; then the brother returned and pleaded for mercy…And the brothers decided that because of the sword which was lost to the house and because of the longbow which was lost – for the house had not recovered it through him – for each of these he was sentenced to be expelled from the house’.
Swords, in particular, were highly valuable items. The fate of the weapon was never fully established, but it must have been assumed that it had been sold or traded by the errant brother.
And it was not just theft.
The aristocratic, war-hardened and proud monks of the military orders were as prone as any other men to petty quarrels – and the violent disorders which they frequently led to. At one point, the Rule of the Templars states that if ‘a brother strikes any Christian in anger a blow from anything which could kill or maim, he should not keep his habit’. Multiple admonitions for the brothers not to attack other Christians in the course of resolving arguments resonate throughout the Rule of the Templars – and the way they are repeated reflects the recurring nature of the offences.
But although the theory was clearcut, in practice the brothers were all too prone to weakness. The Rule itself even gives examples of how the brothers might give in to temptation.
An example from the order’s case law explained how one particular fracas had come about. A Templar in Acre named Brother Hermant was commander of the livestock, and was naturally keen to protect the animals in his charge. But some of the Templars’ birds were going missing – they discovered that ‘two clerks took some doriez doves which belonged to the dovecote of the house. And the commander told them to do it no more, and they did not wish to stop it.’
The thieves had been caught and warned off. Up to this point the Templar brothers were clearly in the right. But they took matters too far. The clerks foolishly came back to steal some more. The incensed Templar commander ‘had a brother who watched them when they took the doves, and the commander with the brothers beat them hard and wounded one on the head. And the clerks appealed to the legate, and the legate informed the master…their habits were taken from them and they were put in irons and sent to Cyprus, because the blow was very serious.’ The severity of the punishment was not because the clerks were innocent – they were clearly guilty – but because of the disproportionate severity of the wounds that the Templars had inflicted on the thieves.
Another example of case law in the Rule is just as telling. It recounted a fistfight that had broken out between two Templar knights, for reasons that are now not entirely clear. Perhaps tempers were just frayed as the brothers were exhausted and had been instructed to carry on working at night. ‘It happened’, we are told, ‘that the convent was in Jaffa, and they were ordered to load their baggage at midnight; and some brothers who were in lodgings together heard the words, and one brother laid hands on the other by the hair and threw him to the ground, and there were brothers who saw it.’
The fight itself was relatively minor, but the breakdown in discipline was more serious – for that reason, the consequences of the brawl needed to be addressed.
The next day ‘the convent came by day to Arsuf, and they heard mass and the hours. And Brother Hugue de Manlo was Marshal, and had heard this news;…the brother rose and said that he was struck and that there were brothers who had seen it, and the Marshal thought that they should come forward…And the brother who had done the deed rose and pleading for mercy…and he was sentenced to lose his habit and be put in irons. And so there was a great debate among the old men of the house, because the blow was not apparent, nor was there any blood; and others maintained, since he had laid hands on the brother in anger and the matter had come to chapter, that it could indeed be done’.
In the event the offender was ‘sent to the dungeons of Chateau Pelerin’, but presumably not for a long period of incarceration – discipline was important (and had to be administered very visibly) but every able-bodied knight was needed on the front line.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His history of ‘Templars The Knights of Britain’ (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. C. Smith, London, 2008.
The Rule of the Templars – The French Text of the Rule of the Order of the Knights Templar, tr. J.M. Upton-Ward, Woodbridge, 1992.
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