Post-classical history


The mysterious idol of the Templars

Fascination of a myth

It was coming up to Christmas 1806. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was camped with his army near the Polish castle of Pultusk, on the shores of the river Narew, some 70 kilometres north of Warsaw.

He was at the height of his power: one year earlier, his great victory at Austerlitz and the following treaty of Pressburg, had allowed him to extend his control to almost cover the whole of Europe.

That August, the Confederation of the Rhine had decreed at a gathering in Regensburg, the entrance of the various German states into the French political orbit, putting an end to the thousand-year history of the Holy Roman Empire.

Again, on 14 October, he had inflicted a morally and materially shattering defeat on the Prussian army in the neighbourhood of a town called Jena; now he was preparing to meet the Russian troops, who had enlisted to stop his worrisome advance into Polish land. They too, were to suffer a mighty defeat, just like Pultusk, on St. Stephen’s day (Boxing Day). But at this moment the situation was still serious, the French troops were frightened by the cold and lack of supplies; and yet the Emperor was taking a bit of time to deal with a matter that clearly concerned him.

The Emperor kept thinking of a tragedy titled Les Templiers, written by a fellow Frenchman called François Raynouard, a lawyer of Provençal origin with a passion for history. The play covered the grim events of the trial ordered by the King of France, Philip IV the Fair, against the most powerful monastic and military order of the Middle Ages, the “Poor fellow-soldiers of Christ”, better known as the Templars. The tragedy described the unjust destruction of this order of knight-monks, who were also clever diplomats and expert bankers, and in Raynouard’s view, the innocent victims of the French King, who had treacherously assaulted them to make himself master of their wealth. The Emperor had not liked the play: first, because Napoleon, having crowned himself Emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804 in the presence of Pope Pius VII, saw himself as the moral heir of the charisma of the French sovereigns of the Dark and Middle Ages, along with the consecrated oil which, according to legend, had been miraculously brought down from Heaven by a white dove during the baptism of King Clovis. Napoleon found the cynical and cruel depiction of Philip the Fair really out of place. Above all, though, Raynouard had mercilessly disappointed the solid beliefs felt by a whole culture – of which Napoleon himself was an illustrious representative – about that celebrated order of monks who carried swords, so suddenly fallen from the height of power, wealth and prestige into ruin and the disgraceful charge of heresy. It was an adventurous story, full of mysteries and hints of dark things, and it was magnetically attractive to the rising romantic taste, glad to colour everything with touches of the irrational. The Emperor was a pragmatic spirit, and his interest in the affair was wholly different, however. The doom of the Templars had been, in its time, the herald of a clear political plan. And paradoxically it went on being so, although the issue was five centuries old.[1]

That fanciful, nostalgic way of looking at the ancient military order had appeared in Europe in the early years of the 18th century, born of the encounter of a genuine desire to renew society with a not wholly objective reading of history. By the end of the 1600s all Western countries had a bourgeoisie that had grown rich on trade and the beginnings of industrial production, amassed genuine fortunes, and had their children given the best of education side by side with the children of the most ancient nobility. Wealthy and highly prepared, the members of this emergent social group felt ready to take part in the governance of the country, but rarely achieved it, because society was still structured in the ancient fashion, in a stiff and closed system that concentrated political power in the hands of the aristocracy. The heirs of fortunes built on degrading, plebeian “trade” could only hope to enter the elite by marrying the daughter of some illustrious and recently ruined house, ready to let its blue blood be diluted with fluids of humbler origin. After the wedding, the bridegroom would start living as his new friends and relatives did, and was absorbed into the system. The renewal of thought caused by the Enlightenment led this new emerging class to look for an independent way to gain power, a way that allowed them to work effectively to grow their societies and make them fairer. People looked back admiringly to the past of certain European regions such as Flanders, Germany, the French area, or England, where powerful corporations of merchants and artisans had been able to form and, through group solidarity, defend themselves against the arrogance of aristocrats. The corporations of builders who had raised great Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres, in particular, were suspected of owning scientific knowledge in advance of their age, and to have handed them down through the centuries under the most jealous secrecy. Legitimate historical curiosity mixed with the need to find illustrious origins, and in the early 18th century this brought about the formation of actual clubs, motivated by Enlightenment ideals yet certain that they were carrying on a hidden tradition of secret societies going all the back way to Biblical antiquity. Their name was taken from that of ancient guilds of master builders, in French maçonnerie– freemasonry. Eighteenth century society still had a passion for the concept of nobility, especially of ancient origins, as when in the midst of the Dark Ages the ancestors of the great dynasties had performed the deeds that would build a future of renown and privilege for their descendants. An immense fascination was attached to ancient orders of chivalry; even though the image was imprecise, they were seen as a kind of privileged channel, a fast track to the heights of society for persons of natural talent unlucky enough to be born outside the aristocratic caste. And the Templar order, the most famous and debated of them all, seemed to lie exactly where all these interests converged.

From legend to politics

Maybe the scientific knowledge that had allowed the great cathedrals to be built was the same with which the legendary Phoenician architect Hiram had constructed in Jerusalem the most celebrated building in all of history, the Temple of Solomon. The temple was not only a colossal piece of architecture, it was the holy place built to contain the Arcane Presence, the Living God, and as such was not supposed to be touched except by the hands of those initiated into the highest mysteries. It was imagined that Hiram’s ancient teachings had reached the European Middle Ages at a particular time, when the westerners had reached Jerusalem with the First Crusade (1095-1099), establishing a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land. And the history of the Middle Ages and of the crusades in the Holy Land featured a particular presence that had even drawn its name from that of Solomon’s Temple: the Militia Salomonica Templi, better known as the Order of Templars. Founded in Jerusalem, immediately after the First Crusade, to defend pilgrims to the Holy Land, the Templars had experienced a practically unstoppable growth, that had made it, barely 50 years after its foundation, the most powerful military religious order in the Middle Ages; until it had been overwhelmed, about two centuries later, by a mysterious and grim affair of heresy and dark magic that had ended with the death by burning of its last Grand Master.[2]

Celebrated intellectuals of the time, such as Dante Alighieri, had accused the Templar trial, without mincing their words, of being essentially a monumental frame-up ordered by the French King Philip IV the Fair who wished to take over the order’s patrimony, most of which lay in French territory. But already in the 16th century, some lovers of magic such as the philosopher Cornelius Agrippa had raised the possibility that the order might practice strange and hidden rites, rites celebrated by the dim light of candles, where mysterious idols and even black cats would appear.[3]

There was no clear idea of what role the Pope, then the Gascon Clemens V (1305-1314) had played in the affair. This man seemed ever hesitant, ever supine before royal will; and yet he had dragged on the trial of the Templars over no less than seven years, practically until his death, which took place only a month after that of the last Templar Grand Master. Many sources now readily accessible were then unknown, but even those that were known were studied with methods wholly different from today’s.

History was treated as a literary endeavour, or a pastime meant to entertain and to enlighten the spirit. Therefore facts were selected from the past according to whether any moral teaching could be got from them, or whether they could stimulate the imagination like an adventure novel.

What was known of this Pontiff, whose lay name was Bertrand de Got, was that he had been born in France, that he had started the Papal exile in Avignon and that he had released Guillaume de Nogaret – the true “evil spirit” of Philip’s reign, whom the King used for his most shameless actions – from excommunication. The King of France had been victorious in every confrontation with papal authority and even in the matter of the Templars’ trial, many facts seemed to indicate that the Church had easily bent to the sovereign demands. But there was another fact that made minds lean towards this idea, a fact that had nothing to do with historical studies proper, but could have a major effect. The Church’s attitude in the early 1700s was hugely cautious towards the aggressively rising new Enlightenment ideas; ideas that intended to promote a renewal of thought and of many social dynamics. At the root of this rejection lay several factors. Many of the high prelates who had leading roles in the hierarchy came from the same noble houses that managed secular power, and had a similar mentality and the same way of looking at the world. The Church had always been exempt from the social conditions that dominated the centuries, in the sense that it was possible to reach the height of spiritual and temporal power with one’s own natural qualities, however humble one’s origins. Many of the most famous Popes were from decidedly poor families; we just have to think of the legendary Gregory VII, who as a child had had to work as a porter, or the recent John XXIII, who came from a large peasant family who were not always certain where the next meal would come from. This, at least, was the theory, since in fact things were often very different: the immense patrimonies connected with so many church positions made them very desirable prey for the nobility, who, by placing their younger sons within the hierarchy, could insure a privileged life for them without making a dent in the family capital. The highest point of corruption in this sense had taken place in the Renaissance, when it had become the practice to actually sell the most important posts, such as bishoprics, the richest abbotships and the title of Cardinal.[4]

The scandals, and the impossibility of swiftly reforming such customs, had raised political as well as religious protests, and had resulted in the Protestant schism. At the beginning of the 1700s, no less than two centuries after Luther’s protest, the violent polemics raised by Protestant thought in the 1500s and 1600s had hardly died down. The Papacy was accused of having trapped mankind in a network of inventions set up for its own advantage, built upon the only real weave of Christian doctrine – the primitive Church. A school of historical studies had been set up in Magdeburg in Germany for the purpose of showing up the whole endless queue of falsehoods that were believed to have been piled up by the Catholic Church over 1,000 years for the sole purpose of bending the faithful to its own material interests. Its members, called the Centuriators of Magdeburg from the name of their published works (The Centuries) had indubitable intellectual qualities, and even if they had stuffed their writings with considerable amounts of imagination, they gave plenty of trouble to generations of Catholic scholars.[5]

In short, the wounds opened by Luther’s mighty schism were far from closed, and any innovation that seemed to place the well–established and reassuring Catholic tradition of thought in any doubt seemed the flag of yet another onslaught. Galileo Galilei had been among the most illustrious victims of this reaction. The tendency quickly established itself to see the Church as an ally of that oppressive secular power that needed to be overthrown, and several Freemason groups took a strongly anti-clerical tinge that they had not had at their start. From the idea that reason was the favoured, if not the only way to improve human life, there developed progressively a near-divine concept of intellect itself: reason as the spark of divinity entrusted to man by God. God himself was pure reason, praised as the Grand Architect who had built the universe. The mysteries whereby the highest builder had raised the cosmos called back to mind those by which another architect of legend, Hiram of Phoenicia, had built the Temple in the Holy City Jerusalem. Solomon, to whom divine wisdom had granted measureless wealth, had raised the temple, and the temple brought back to mind the Templars, also destroyed because they owned fabulous wealth, and possibly – everything seemed to prove it – possessors of Hiram’s secrets. That same Catholic Church that seemed then to be in the way of any progress however small was nothing else but the heir of the mediaeval Papacy; an institution that had covered up for centuries the fragile bases of its historical claims by unleashing its most terrible weapon, the Inquisition, against those who held the proofs that could unmask it.

All these diverse ideas, born independently of each other but within the same context, ended up merging, and their outlines adapted till they fitted each other like the pieces of a complicated picture puzzle. From simple victims of raison d’etat and of Clemens V’s political weakness, the Templars became bit by bit the unlucky heroes of a wisdom many thousands of years old, older and higher than Christianity, that could have spread progress and social welfare, but had been sacrificed to destroy the unjust privileges of an institution everlastingly allied with absolute power and its manifold abuses. Templarism, that is a highly-coloured, romantic view of the old order, projected in the social reality of the 1700s, became so compulsively fascinating a phenomenon as to take a protagonist’s role in the history of European popular culture; but there were serious differences in the shape taken by the phenomenon in different countries. If in France the Templars appeared as champions of free thought against the oppression of the twin dinosaurs of the ancient regime – Crown and Church – in Germany to the contrary studies on the Templars were promoted exactly to strike at those very radical and subversive groups whom they inspired.

Prince von Metternich, the leader of the reaction against the upsets caused by Napoleon all over Europe, had started a cultural policy intended to destroy the credibility of the contemporary Freemason and neo-Templar groups. The intention was to prove that those heroic brethren of a secret order from which the French and the Revolution were proud to be derived, were in fact nothing but a bunch of heretics and perverts, the enemies of God, of the Church, of the State.

From champions of free thought and guardians of sublime knowledge as they had been in France and England, the Templars became in Austria the stronghold of the most unyielding heresy. Napoleon probably was aware of this political exploitation of the legend, and if he was, that must have increased his interest.[6]

About the Baphomet, and other demons

In the same year as the French Emperor was to write his review of François Raynouard’s none too brilliant tragedy on the Templars, the London publishers Bulmer & Cleveland published a book by Joseph Hammer (later Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall), calledAncient alphabets and Hieroglyphic characters explained, with an account of the Egyptian priests. The author was a young Austrian scholar from the town of Graz in Steyermark, who had joined the diplomatic service in 1796 and three years later had become a member of an embassy to Constantinople. He was later to take part in several British expeditions against Napoleon in the Middle East, meanwhile studying the ancient civilizations and travelling widely. This intense research, and the remarkable openness of his mind, would lead him to become over the next 50 years one of the greatest oriental scholars of his time, author among other things of a textbook on the history of the Ottoman Empire which is recognised as the first significant treatment of a previously unexplored field. In 1847-1849 he was to crown his career by becoming chairman of the immensely prestigious Austrian Academy of Sciences, which was to count among its members such figures as Christian Doppler and Konrad Lorenz.[7] What he had printed in 1806 were his first experiences of research; and, possibly to support the wishes of his mighty patron Metternich, and surely under the influence of the “black legend” of the Templars in his time, he placed in this review of ancient scripts a hypothesis born from mere similarity in sound, which would however rouse great shock and interest. Hammer-Purgstall had in fact identified a word written in hieroglyphics, which in his reading sounded like Bahúmíd, and which, if translated into Arabic, meant “calf”.

Today we can reconstruct his work’s development, and these scholar’s oddities acquire a logical explanation. We do in fact find that some witnesses, not members of the Order, who testified in the trial of the Templars in England, had mentioned strange rumours according to which the Templars kept an idol in the shape of a calf. Furthermore, some testimonies in the trial carried out in southern France featured that strange name, Baphomet, which made such an impression on Hammer-Purgstall, because it seemed to approximate his mysterious word. These few witnesses of obscure notions are at most ten or so, and are really a droplet in the over one thousand testimonies (affidavits) still preserved today from the Templar trials, in most of which neither fiends nor calves appear. But the 19th century scholar, drawn by the romantic taste of his time and by a really quite unscientific research method, fell victim in good faith to the magnetic fascination of an idea: he paid no attention to proportion, only saw the tiny amount of descriptions with their disquieting details, and forgot a whole world of much more reliable and rational confessions. And, to the pleasure of Prince von Metternich, he designed for the Templars an exoteric and decidedly grim aspect.[8]

The pieces of the mosaic struck him as fitting each other perfectly, and the pull of the idea drove him further into his investigations. But it was only in 1818, after Waterloo and Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena, after the Congress of Vienna and the dawn of Restauration, that Hammer-Purgstall’s theories started taking a mature shape; and they did so by heftily drawing from other sources. In that year he published the work fated to achieve the highest fame in this area, whose eloquent title was Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum – The Mystery of Baphomet; Revealed. The author gave up his former belief that the Templar idol’s strange name came from an ancient hieroglyphic term, and embraced a more complex theory: the word was no longer from the Egyptian language, but was a compound of two Greek terms joined to mean a “baptism of the spirit”. He claimed that it proved that the Templars had inherited from antiquity, through the Cathar heretics of south France, the doctrines of the ancient Ophite sect. The latter took their name from the special cult they offered to the snake (Greek Ophis) from the Biblical book of Genesis. To them, the God of the Bible was not the principle of good but of evil, who out of petty jealousy had kept man in a condition of ignorance; and it had been the snake who was not the enemy, but the friend of humankind, to reveal the path of truth, that is, to gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”), divine knowledge.[9]

This was the primeval religion, the most ancient one known; it always survived in the shadows with its secrets, escaping down the millennia the persecutions of the Church and of the various powers that relied on it. One of the worst charges the King of France had thrown against the Templars was that they forced their novices to deny Jesus and spit on the Cross; this could be matched with an information from Origen (who had lived in the early 3rd century AD) that the Ophites forced their new members to blaspheme Jesus.

Shortly after the publication of Hammer-Purgstall’s theories, it happened that the Duke of Blacas, a famous collector of exoteric-type objects, found as if by magic two extremely strange little caskets supposedly dated to the Middle Ages and representing some sort of devil-cult. The Baphomet received at that point the public consecration and the henceforth famous shape that none of the Templar sources, rare and mutually contradictory as they were, ever could grant. It was depicted as a kind of devil with the horns and legs of a ram, the breasts of a woman and the genitals of a man.[10] The brilliant and dishonest occultist Eliphas Levi rediscovered these fascinating fakes in the late 1800s, finding material in them that was most useful to his speculations; and he dressed the ill-defined Baphomet in that threatening devilish majesty in which he towers to this day in so many fantasy pictures. Fans of the occult are free to believe what they wish, but historical evidence leaves no reasonable doubt but that Baphomet is nothing but an ugly doll invented – neither more nor less – by romantic fantasy, and still in use to this day to profitably catch the simple.[11]

The truth about the “Mysterious idol of the Templars” must be sought in a wholly different direction.

Paper secrets

Although his writings sounded like genuine revelations at the time, Hammer-Purgstall had invented very little, and the bulk of his content was anything but of his own making. The idea that the Templars were the secret guardians of a most ancient religious wisdom had already been proposed some 20 years earlier, in a less extensive form, by the German book dealer Christian Friedrich Nicolai. Nicolai owned a tavern in Berlin that was a favourite meeting place for intellectuals. Among them, a personal friend of Nicolai’s called Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, possibly the most outstanding personality in German Enlightenment.[12]

In 1778, Lessing had written a genuinely explosive book. It was a part of a much larger text written years earlier by Samuel Reimarus, professor of Oriental languages, and bore the provocative title: An Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God. Its original author had kept it secret; now Lessing published it posthumously with the more reassuring title: The Goals of Jesus and His Disciples – another fragment from the Anonymous of Wolfenbüttel. Reimarus argued that Jesus had nothing divine about him; his activity would have been simply that of a political Messiah, a kind of patriot leader who wanted to free the Jews from Roman rule. When he died, his disciples refused to accept the facts and decided to steal the body, and went on to invent the news that he had risen, eventually founding a new religion. Samuel Reimarus was the first member of Western Christian culture to separate Jesus from the Christ, terms that had for so many centuries meant one and the same thing. That moment marks the start of the “quest for the historical Jesus”, a new direction in research, intended to reconstruct the historical visage of Jesus beyond what was held to have been invented by the Catholic Church with its dogmas; while before then there had only been a Christology, that is the study of the life of Jesus in the light of theology and the Gospels.[13] Both Lessing and Nicolai inclined to what used to be called “rational Christianity”, something very close to Deist philosophy, which substantially denied the divinity of the Christ to assert the existence of a single and sole creator God, the rational principle of absolute goodness and the origin of all things. Some radical circles reached the conviction that Church and Papacy had stubbornly and dishonestly hidden a frightening truth for no better reason than to ennoble their historically dubious origins, placing them within God himself. And the strongly reactionary attitude of some Catholic areas, clinging to total denial, strengthened their opponents’ belief that they had something to hide.

By 1810, Napoleon had become the master of most of Europe, and he decreed that all the documents of conquered kingdoms, including the States of the Church, were to be taken to Paris to become part of the vast Central Archive of the Empire. So it was that the colossal bulk of papers accumulated by the Popes were packaged up and set into motion towards France. Thanks to the esoteric tradition that had been growing, the arrival of the documents concerned with the trial of the Templars was surrounded by great expectations and even by a morbid kind of curiosity: those papers, kept safe for so long within the mighty walls of the Vatican, would certainly have revealed disconcerting facts. It was widely and largely correctly believed that the papal archive had always beenSecretum, that is reserved to the Roman curia, and that no outsider would ever have been allowed a view of them. A kind of frenzy arose among the French officials charged with the expedition; it seemed clear that the truth about that obscure and complicated affair would have appeared, whole and inviolate, to the first man who could lay his hands on the minutes of the trial. Monsignor Marino Marini, personal manservant of the prefect of the Vatican Archives, had plenty of trouble with certain generals who insisted on opening particular crates of documents even before the convoy left Rome; and while the pragmatic Miollis was looking for the Bull of Excommunication against Napoleon, intending to quietly get rid of a most uncomfortable fact, Baron Étienne Radet was poking around elsewhere, eager to lay his hands on the trial of the Templars.

Even after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy, when the papal archive was allowed to return home, Monsignor Marini was still fighting to prevent the new government from “carelessly” keeping a number of documents of the highest historical interest, including the Inquisition’s trial of Galileo Galilei and the trial of the Templar Order. He only got them back by a crafty suggestion: he saw fit to point out to the new government that the actions of Philip the Fair threw a decidedly nasty light on that very image of French monarchy that they intended to rehabilitate. It was therefore rather better, ultimately, that they should go back to the Vatican Archives, which were then closed to the public.[14]

The Duc de Richelieu felt it wiser to yield to the Holy See’s complaints, as well as to Monsignor Marini’s witty arguments; but he looked surely on with great regret as the documents of the Templar trial, which Raynouard had meanwhile studied without finding the hidden truths, left Paris to return at last to the safe recesses of the Vatican, where the mysteries of Baphomet and many other demons would have been hidden away for heaven knew how many more centuries. And yet what really happened was that on 10 December 1879, the brand new register of requests to consult the Vatican Secret Archive recorded its first request. Over the course of the centuries, many people had been given special permission to visit the great palace where the documents of the Popes’ thousands of years of history were kept; but only then were scholars first allowed regular and continuous access to the precious papers.[15] From the middle of the 19th century, historical studies had made a quantum leap, because the general trend of thought, thanks in part to the rising tide of Positivism, had lost the taste for irrationalism that had fascinated early Romanticism, in favour of a much more realistic approach. Palaeography and diplomatics – the disciplines that teach to decipher the complex writings of the past and to reliably distinguish genuine from false documents – had been taking giant strides. This was the start of a brilliant cultural period, which witnessed the systematic publication of many mediaeval sources, no longer by private and sometimes amateurish learned gentlemen, but by professional historians who produced systematic collections valid to this day, such as for instance the German-area Monumenta Germaniae Historica, which among other things, contains many edicts of Charlemagne and an enormous number of immensely important texts from the Holy Roman Empire.

Between 1841 and 1851, the French historian Jules Michelet published, in an equally authoritative and prestigious series – Collection des Documents inédits sur l’Histoire de France – the contents of an ancient register from the reign of Philip the Fair, which was then preserved in the Royal Library of Paris, and some other similar documents; it was an excellent edition for its time, which finally gave a scholarly picture of some of the most important documents of the trial against the Templars. The Michelet edition is still in use, although it is not widely known that its main item, the minutes of the long trial that took place in Paris between 1309 and 1312, comes from a copy that the King had made for his own Chancellery, while the original, which had been sent to the Pope, is in the Vatican Archives and still unpublished. The documents show no trace of Baphomet, of the magic Gnostic caskets, and of the other dark mysteries that people connected with the Templars; nor would a character like Michelet’s, or the earnest spirit of the historical collection, have allowed such fantasies. Even popular contemporary culture had noticeably matured, so that themes that had been so fashionable 20 years earlier may no longer have interested people; and it was exactly thanks to that improvement in historical method that Pope Leo had made the anything but easy decision to open the gates of the Secret Archives.

The sudden death on 10 June 1879 of Monsignor Rosi Bernardini, prefect of the Archive, had led to the choice of a successor who was not only a scholar but a major figure in contemporary Germany culture, Cardinal Josef Hergenröther; years later, Ludwig von Pastor, a famous historian specialising in the Papacy, was to call this nomination the dawn of a new age for studies on Catholicism and on Western civilisation.[16] As soon as the Archives were opened, the Austrian historian Konrad Schottmüller, a fellow-countryman of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, started a work of several years’ duration, using modern historical methods to find and publish what he thought were the main records of the trial against the Templars. His work was carried on in the early 1900s by Heinrich Finke, and their overall result was the most complete and reliable edition of Vatican sources on the trial available to this day. Large-scale study of the documents relating to the Templars’ trial surely turned out to be a severe disappointment to many, when the first scholarly editions started placing in the public domain the contents of those ancient parchments once kept in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo: no trace could be found of the sensational revelations expected by some, but on the other hand, many truths thus far unknown came to light, making it at last possible to write the history of the trial with accurate and modern criteria.

In 1978, Cambridge University Press published The Trial of the Templars by Malcolm Barber, which was to be the start of a new and very fertile season in this field of mediaeval studies. For the first time it was possible to follow the process of the trial as a whole, thanks to the authentic documents. A few years later, in 1985, the Sorbonne historian Alain Demurger published another fundamental text, titled Vie et mort de l’Ordre du Temple, which picked up the thread from Barber and developed further aspects with the same scholarly rigour.

When the historian Peter Partner published The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth with the Oxford University Press, the world’s scholars were also given a clear account of how many exoteric legends about the Templars had enchanted and animated intellectual and political groups for two centuries; sometimes by culture-driven suggestions, sometimes by downright conscious invention. The original documents, properly read and inspected, left no more space to those magic-tinged chivalric fancies that past writers had indulged, trying to interpret the history of the Templars in the light of caskets, hieroglyphic writings, or dubious texts written at least 300 years after the end of the Order.

These three monuments of historical method and research would not allow the collective view of this ancient, notorious order of knights to stay the same. There was now certain evidence that the trial had been nothing but a colossal, tragic conspiracy with political reasons and strong economic interests, though several points were still obscure; and that was pretty much the opinion clearly stated by a number of illustrious contemporaries, such as Dante Alighieri, who saw one way or another, the unfolding of the trial and bore witness to their views. The great Tuscan poet makes the founder of the French Royal House, Hugh Capet, say in so many words that (among the many crimes of his descendants) Philip the Fair had destroyed the Templars for no other reason than greed.[17]

The brothers of the glorious Baussant

The order of the Temple was founded at the beginning of the 12th century. In the years that followed the First Crusade, a French knight called Hugues de Payns, lord of a fief near the city of Troyes and vassal of the Count of Champagne, had brought together a few comrades in the city of Jerusalem, just taken back by Christians, founding a brotherhood of lay soldiers who lived as lay people with the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.

In 1119, a gang of Saracen robbers slaughtered a caravan of Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Places. The event had an enormous resonance; even in the distant lands of the West, Christian society wept over those unarmed, butchered travellers. The government of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were growing increasingly concerned over a problem that was to become chronic in the history of the Holy Land: the troops available were wholly inadequate to efficiently defend the country, so the population was under the constant threat of attack. It was maybe as a result of this tragedy that the following year, 1120, Hugues de Payns and his comrades committed themselves before the Patriarch of Jerusalem to fighting in defence of Christian pilgrims. Having given up voluntarily the prosperity of their noble estate, and having embraced poverty as a mark of conversion to atone for their sins, Hugues de Payns’ lay knights had taken the name of “poor fellow-soldiers of Christ”; they lived on alms from the population, and wore clothes thrown away by others and, again, given to them as alms.[18]

A few years later, the group grew till they amounted to some thirty people. They were too many to remain with the Canons in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or it might be that the King of Jerusalem had felt the potential in the brotherhood and decided to take it under his wing; at any rate, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ moved to a wing of the royal palace which the sovereign had earlier used as royal quarters.

The building stood near some ruins which were identified as the remains of the ancient Temple of Solomon; so people started calling them Militia Salomonica Templi, or even Milites Templi, and later, more commonly, Templars.[19]

Hugues de Payns and his companions had taken the three monastic vows of poverty, obedience and chastity before the Patriarch of Jerusalem; without being ordained priests, which would have been incompatible with the profession of arms which was at the heart of their mission, they were members of a kind of brotherhood in the service of the Holy Sepulchre, and had achieved a Church dignity comparable with that of the many lay-brother monks who, without becoming priests, lived out their lives of penance and prayer in the convents of the various religious orders. It may have been this special vocation of theirs which suggested to Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, the next step: if the brotherhood had become a genuine order of the Church of Rome, with all the exemptions and privileges that went with that, the new body would have been free from possible external interests. It would have been a mighty resource for the defence of the Holy Land.

The project faced many difficulties. In the thousand-year history of Christianity, the profession of arms had never had a favourable press, and some of the ancient Fathers of the Church even regarded soldiering as an offence against God. To deal with the issue, the greatest mystic of the time, Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux, was called upon. Some scholars hold that he was related to the family of Hugues de Payns. The King of Jerusalem seems to have written a letter to him, asking him to patronise the new order’s birth and work out a special religious rule in which service to God “should not be in contrast with the noise of war”.[20]

In 1126 or 1127, Hugues de Payns left the East and travelled to Europe to canvass his project with the various feudal lords and find new followers. He also met the celebrated abbot, who had thus far proved deaf to his prayers; it may have been then, speaking in person with the head of the religious brotherhood, and hearing from his own lips of the difficulties faced by the Christians in Jerusalem, that Bernard reconsidered the King’s proposal. He realised that the military activity of these monks, if restricted purely to the defence of pilgrims and of other defenceless Christians, could be seen as a good thing, and very useful for the kingdom in the Holy Land. From then on, the abbot threw the whole weight of his authority behind the establishment of the new order. Bernard explained his great enthusiasm for the new project in a treatise titled De Laude Novae Militiae, in which the Templar Knight was celebrated as a warrior saing. He also brought in other religious celebrities of the time, such as the aged and venerated Stephen Harding, who had written rules for important monastic foundations; he gained the Papacy’s support through the help of Aymeric of Burgundy, head of the Papal chancery and right-hand man of Pope Honorius II. Thanks to his precious patronage, in January 1129, during an ecumenical council held in Troyes, the Papal legate, Cardinal Matthew of Albano, granted pontifical approval to the new order of the Templar militia, and approved its rule in the Pope’s name. A fine recent book by Simonetta Cerrini gives a clear account of the genuine spirit of the Templar rule, and the context of its approval.[21]

The brothers of the Temple lived in communities separate from the world, and divided their time between prayer and armed service in defence of the Christian population. They were divided in two main groups: the milites, those who had received the investiture as knights, who wore white clothes as a mark of purity and perfection, and the sergeants, who had to be satisfied with darker clothes and carried out essentially working tasks. Their popularity and protection from rulers made the order a mighty institution, and their power grew in time, thanks to the special immunities they received: in 1139, Pope Innocent II, a disciple of St. Bernard, granted the Templars a privilege titled Omne Datum Optimum, which lay the groundwork for the Order’s independence from any lay or ecclesiastical authority. This was later strengthened by several successive concessions, which made the Templars a wholly autonomous body, subject only to the authority of the Pope.[22] In 1147, Pope Eugenius III decreed that the Templar habit was to carry a red cross as a distinctive sign, in memory of the blood that the warrior monks shed in defence of the faith.[23] To be brief, the new Order adopted the principle of ora et labora which regulated the life of all Benedictine monasteries, but in this case the manual labour carried out by the Temple monks took the form of military activity. Barely 30 years from its foundation, the Order had grown so swiftly that it was necessary to divide its establishments into a number of provinces, and its development continued throughout the twelfth century. By about 1200, the Temple was present in the whole Mediterranean basin, from northern Europe to Sicily, and from England to Armenia, with hundreds of properties including fortresses, commands and landed estates of various kinds. The provinces were under the control of a general overseer called the Visitor, who was charged – exactly – with visiting the various regions of the Templar world and refer back to the Grand Master and to the General Chapter of the order, who met once a year. By the end of the 1200s there actually were two Visitors, one for the East and the other for the West.[24] The Templars were admired for their reputation as heroes of the faith, envied for their riches and the many privileges bestowed on the Order, and they also had a considerable religious charisma in contemporary society: their leaders were regarded as highly authoritative experts in recognising genuine relics, of which the order had a vast store. It is legitimate to wonder on what basis their contemporaries developed this view, or else how the Templars went about distinguishing the authenticity of such objects. They certainly were greatly helped by their profound knowledge of the eastern world, in which the Order had been born; but according to some sources, it seems that the Order’s priests used relics of Jesus because their sacred power strengthened the force of prayer during exorcisms.[25]

The warriors of the Temple were subject to a strict military discipline that made them, when the time to fight came, a tight force with great capacity for coordination. Their military skills went with a great deal of esprit de corps which the rules tried to encourage in every way, and the obedience to a most rigid code of honour from which no deviation was allowed. Their flag was the glorious banner called the Baussant because it was half white, half black, the symbol of Templar pride and excellence. Together with the fighters of the other great military religious order, the Hospitallers, they were the backbone of the Christian armed forces in the Holy Land; but there was an important difference between the two orders. While the Temple was from the beginning an institution designed for the military defence of the Holy Land, the Hospital of St. John had been born as a brotherhood to care for sick pilgrims, and had only later become also a military order for the defence of the realm.[26]

Losing the Sepulchre, losing honour

In 1187 the Sultan of Egypt, Saladin, who had managed to unite Muslims into a single front against the crusader states, annihilated the Christian army at a place called the Horns of Hattin. All captured Templars and Hospitallers were slaughtered, several fortresses fell to the Muslims; Jerusalem was lost, and the Holy Sepulchre was lost to the Christians for good, save for a brief spell in the time of the Emperor Frederick II, who made a special agreement with the Sultan al-Kamil that seemed like treachery of a kind to many.[27] The loss of Jerusalem was a colossal injury to the Templar Order, born exactly to defend the Holy Land. Historians have abundantly documented its grave material losses; but there may yet be more to say about what we would call today the troops’ morale. The Templars had an extremely close bond with the tomb of Christ; just in that ultimately sacred place, the ideal and material centre of Hugues de Payns’ first brotherhood had been born. Losing the Sepulchre meant losing their own honour. At the beginnings of the 13th century there was a great collective movement to restart the Crusade and recover the Holy City, and Pope Innocent III, who felt very strongly on this matter, tried to help the military orders, who were on their knees after Saladin’s victory. Between 1199 and 1203, a new expedition to the East was set up, under the leadership of the city of Venice and of some great French barons; but once it had reached Constantinople, the crusader host took advantage of the grave political decline of the Byzantine Empire, whose immense wealth excited the crusaders’ greed. Though excommunicated by Innocent III, what was to be the fourth crusade for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre turned into an ugly bloodbath at the expense of fellow-Christians, even though their Church was supposed to have broken away from Rome with the schism of 1054. The Venetians, who had driven the shift of object from Jerusalem to the wealth of Byzantium, shared the immense loot of the city – incalculable amounts of precious metals, artworks, unique relics – with the French, and they also partitioned the territories of the former empire, creating a new Latin empire of the East. The event left a dark shadow over the image of crusading in general; it had become clear that some ideas no longer had the same hold over people’s hearts, that political and economic interests stood now above everything else. From then on, Christian society started doubting whether it would ever be able to really retake the Holy Sepulchre.[28]

The Islamic re-conquest of the Holy Land went on apace throughout the 1200s, and the military orders were forced to become used to defeat after defeat. The Order of the Temple had to adapt itself to changing conditions changing, for its part, its functions; if it was no longer possible to focus on military service, since the Islamic front was too strong, it was possible to advance the financial activities that one day, when the time was right, could have served to reconquer Jerusalem. The Temple thus became a kind of bank in the service of the Crusade; Popes used it to keep and invest the alms collected for the Holy Land, and the order was also used as a treasury by Christian sovereigns.[29]

Between 1260 and 1270, the Sultan Baibars cut the Christian kingdom down to a thin strip of coast land headed by the town of Acre in Syria. Western society started feeling serious doubts about the utility of military orders; many wondered whether it was right to keep these gigantic enterprises, loaded with privileges, going, when all they seemed to do was taking one defeat after another and seemed wholly unable to recover the Holy Places. In 1291 Acre also was taken, in spite of a desperate resistance in which Templars proved heroic and the Grand Master Guillaume de Beaujeu died fighting to cover the retreat of others. The last bulwark in the Holy Land was now gone, and the crusading age closed with defeat.[30] The event immediately had serious consequences for the military orders, who were forced to find other Eastern seats. Templars and Hospitallers moved to Cyprus, while the Teutonic Knights, an order founded in the middle of the 13th century, shifted their activities to the frontier of north-eastern Europe.[31]

The fall of Acre convinced Pope Nicholas IV that it was necessary to join Templars and Hospitallers into a new single order, larger and stronger, and finally able to recover the Holy Land. This project had already been mooted in the Council of Lyons, 1274, when it had also been suggested that the leadership of the new Order should be offered to one of the Christian sovereigns, possibly a widower or unmarried in order to respect the monastic nature of the institutions. Nothing had come of this initiative, because the Grand Masters of both Temple and Hospital had opposed it fiercely. In 1305 the new Pope Clemens V started the idea of fusion off again, and requested the heads of Temple and Hospital to offer a view on the matter and also to produce a plan for a new Crusade. Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay declared firmly against it: if the two Orders had been united and placed under a European sovereign, the latter would have made the new Order a tool for his own political goals and forgotten all about Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

As for the new Crusader expedition, the Templar leader suggested to the Pope that its military leadership should not be entrusted to Philip the Fair, but rather to James II of Aragon. The Catalan sovereign could be very useful thanks to his powerful fleet, and besides – and this was very important – he was known to be very respectful of Apostolic authority and to have a mind in line with that of the Templars, who regarded the Pope as the order’s lord and master. Philip the Fair, on the other hand, declared himself openly autonomous from Papal authority. Only a few years earlier, from 1294 to 1303, the King of France had been in open conflict with Pope Boniface VIII and had been excommunicated by him; the assault of Anagni, intended to arrest the Pope and take him prisoner beyond the Alps, had prevented the Bull of Excommunication from being published, but the King’s position was still very dubious. There also was a fact that should not be neglected: Philip the Fair wanted to pass the Crusader troops through Armenia, with the intention of conquering that kingdom, which was Christian though not Catholic, and make it a French dependency. The Temple had a province of its own in Armenia, and the local leaders had informed the Templars that they would never have admitted French cavalry within their fortresses, for fear of being treacherously attacked. The memorial written by Jacques de Molay unmasked the French monarchy’s true intentions in the Crusade to come, and no doubt put a major spike in Philip the Fair’s plans; the king and his advisers surely saw the Order as a serious obstacle in their international policy. Still in 1306, Philip the Fair found himself beset by popular revolt because of some financial manoeuvres of his which had unleashed horrendous inflation in the kingdom. The king badly needed good money to stop the hole, and in the Paris Temple Tower – a fortress of awe-inspiring size – vast liquid capitals were kept. That was when the plot against the Order was started.[32]

Early in 1307, Jacques de Molay sailed from Cyprus to the European mainland to meet with Clemens V, while the leader of the Hospitallers had put off the trip because he had been forced to take command of certain military operations involving his order. The Grand Master of the Temple would never come back to the East again; a few months later, the long trial was to start, whose notorious events may be summed up in a few essential phases.

Under a cloak of infamy

At dawn on 13 October 1307, the King of France’s soldiers appeared in full battle dress at all Templar commands in the kingdom to arrest all the monks in residence; they immediately started questioning them, tortured a number of confessions out of them, and had them written up in official form so as to send them to the Pope as evidence. They were following, word by word, the warrant of arrest signed by Philip the Fair and secretly sent out on the previous 14 September. The King claimed to have acted after consultation with the Pope and on a direct request of the French Inquisition, because a strong suspicion of heresy had arisen over the order. He said:

They who are received within the Order ask thrice for bread and water; then the preceptor or master who receives them leads them secretly behind the altar or in the sacristy; then, still in secret, he shows them the cross and image of Our Lord Jesus Christ and orders them to thrice deny the Prophet, that is, Our Lord whose image is present, and to thrice spit on the Cross; then they are made to strip their clothes off, and he who receives them kisses them at the end of the spine, under the pants, then on the umbilicus, and finally on the mouth, and says that if any brother of the order wants to be joined with them carnally, they must not deny themselves, for under the statutes of the order they are required to bear it. For this reason, many of them practice sodomy. And each of them wears over their shirt a thin strand of rope which he is always to bear, his whole life long; these strands have been touched and placed around an idol with the head of a man with a long beard, a head they kiss and worship in their provincial chapters: but this is not known to all the brothers, but only to the Grand Master and the elders. Furthermore, the priests of their order do not consecrate the Body of Our Lord; this will have to be investigated most especially when Templar priests will be questioned.[33]

With incredible speed for the time, the fruit of a detailed strategy worked out in advance over years, Philip the Fair’s officials gathered hundreds of confessions across the kingdom, which were presented to Clemens V as evidence of heresy before the Curia had time to react. The lawmen of the Crown had meant this to tie the Pope’s hands, leaving him little or no space for autonomous action: immediately after the arrests, Guillaume de Nogaret, the royal lawyer who had been sent to Anagni to arrest Boniface VIII, organised some popular assemblies in which the Templars’ guilt was advertised as certain. Franciscan and Dominican friars were ordered to preach to the people of the Templars’ heresy, so as to create a true prejudice among the commons.

Inquiries went on throughout France at a frantic pace till the start of the next year; in a short time, the dossier of accusations set up by the King’s men of law swelled to monstrous proportions, and the charges already set out in the indictment of October 1307 were joined by new ones, formed from materials gathered here and there as pressure and torture produced their crop of confessions. It was an obscene crescendo, greedily fed by popular imagination that was to continue all the length of the trial like a river bursting its banks, dragging all kinds of detritus on its rabid way to the sea. It wasn’t enough to have denied Christ and outraged the Cross: the charges against the Templars were eventually to grow from seven to more than seventy.[34]

Clemens V went from a state of utter confusion in the weeks that followed the arrests to a suspicion that the King was acting entirely in bad faith: a suspicion that turned into certainty when, towards the end of November 1307, two Cardinals sent to Paris to question the local Templar prisoners and so clarify the situation, came back to the Curia with the news that they had not been allowed to so much as see the prisoners. In December, a second delegation of the same prelates reached Paris, this time with the power to excommunicate Philip the Fair if prevented again from meeting the prisoners. This allowed Jacques de Molay to denounce all the violence and grave irregularities he had suffered. The following February, the Pope suspended the whole French Inquisition for grave irregularities and abuses of power, which stopped the trial in its tracks. The whole spring that followed was spent in a heated diplomatic war between the King, who had taken over the Temple’s goods and wanted the Order condemned, and the Pontiff, who refused to make any decision before he had personally examined the prisoners. Faced with Clemens V’s obstinacy, the King understood he had no choice; so he allowed a minority of Templars, including the Grand Master and other high officials of the Order, to leave Paris under escort to reach the Roman Curia, then resident in Poitiers, and be questioned by the Pope. Between June 28 and July 2 of 1308, Clemens V was at last able to make his own investigation of the Templars; although the Pope was the only person on Earth who had the legal authority to investigate the order, paradoxically it was only then that he was able even to see the accused in person, after months in which the confessions that had been tortured out of them had been going openly all over Europe. The evidence was by now as polluted as it could possibly be, the Order’s honour had been crushed under a colossal cloak of infamy.

After finding that the officers of the King of France had made extensive use of torture, Clemens V found that, beyond the falsehoods constructed by the royal lawmen, the Templars admitted that a tradition existed, handed down in strict secrecy, that obliged new members to deny Christ and to carry out some kind of outrage against the Cross (generally spitting). The brothers explained it by saying, modus est ordinis nostri, or “it’s a habit of our order”. The existence of this secret ceremonial, a kind of test of obedience placed at the end of the actual ceremony of admission, shifted the responsibility towards the order itself; it was clear that the fault could not be ascribed to the individual brothers, if they had been forced into those unworthy acts by their own seniors just to obey some Order custom. The Saracens used to torture Christian prisoners to compel them to reject Christianity, and as a tangible sign of apostasy, they required them to spit on the Crucifix: the Templars’ odd ritual repeated this custom in a highly realistic theatrical manner, including threats, beatings and even isolation in a jail cell. Its purpose was to steel the new member’s character through a traumatic experience, that is by putting him immediately in the presence of what he would suffer if he ever fell into enemy hands; it probably also served to inculcate that total obedience that the Order demanded, surrendering one’s own freedom to hand himself over to the judgment of his superiors in a practically total subjection. The denial of Christ and the spit on the Cross had later been joined by elements of other origin, of the kind of senior-to-junior bullying and “initiations” well known in armed formations, gross and humiliating practical jokes performed by veterans on recruits: these included the three kisses (on the mouth, on the umbilicus and on the buttocks) and the warning not to deny oneself to brothers in search of homosexual sex. The invitation to sodomy was a simple verbal humiliation, never followed by concrete acts; only six Templars out of over 1,000 who confessed in the trial ever actually spoke of homosexual relations with fellow knights.[35]

A trial without a verdict

In the Pope’s presence, the Templars had the opportunity to explain that the gestures of the admission ritual were nothing more than a stage performance that had nothing to do with intimate belief, a very unpleasant nuisance which had to be accepted because the Order required it. The fact that the denial happened under constriction excluded personal responsibility, and there could be no real guilt if the outrage against religion had not been done of one’s own will. Clemens V became convinced that the Templars were not heretics, even though the Order could not be absolved because it had allowed a vulgar and violent military tradition, wholly unworthy of men under vows, to exist. His final judgment was severe, but not condemning; not heretical, but hardly without stain, the Templars had to offer solemn repentance, begging the Church’s pardon for their faults; then they would have been absolved and taken back into the Catholic communion. Between 2 and 10 July 1308, the Pope heard out in person these requests for forgiveness and absolved the Templars as penitents; but an important part of the order had not been reached by his operation. The Grand Master and the Order’s highest officers, who had left Paris with the rest of the convoy, had been kept by royal soldiers in the fortress of Chinon on the shores of the Loire, under the excuse that they were too ill to ride all the way to Poitiers. Clemens V immediately understood that the King intended to cut off at the neck the significance of the Papal investigation; for if the Pope had not been able to hear the leaders of the Temple, those who knew the whole truth, it was always possible to claim that his verdict was not complete or significant, since it had come from minor witnesses. After completing his investigation of the Templars who had reached him, Clemens V secretly sent to Chinon castle three cardinals, who heard out the Templar leaders from 17 to 20 August 1308, received their demand for forgiveness, and absolved them in the Pope’s name. It was not what we would call a quashing of the sentence, but a sacramental act which however had juridical features as well: the charge moved against the Templars had been for crimes against religion.[36]

Assaulted in his rights by the illegal arrest of the Templars, then once again deceived by the King’s fraudulent effort to prevent him from meeting the heads of the Order, the Pope could consider the Chinon inquiry as a forceful moral victory; the only kind of victory, alas, open to him, given his extreme political weakness. No later than the following October, shortly after the events of Chinon became widely known, Philip the Fair’s strategists set out on a long-prepared action that attacked directly the Church of Rome: the bishop Guichard di Troyes, who had earlier fallen into disgrace at the Court of France and had then been involved in a financial scandal, was charged with sorcery and burned alive on royal order, even though Clemens V himself had previously cleared him of the charges. This repeated the plot of a trial of a few years earlier, against the bishop of Pamiers Bernard Saisset, whom Philip the Fair had hounded on charges of lese-majesty and condemned to death against the will of the Pope.

This fact was connected with the trial against Boniface VIII and that against the Templars, amounting as a whole to a plan to destabilise: a bishop, a Pope and a whole religious order had fallen under accusation for terrible crimes such as heresy and sorcery, and this showed that the Church of Rome was riddled with corruption in every part of its body. Philip the Fair’s lawmen were planning to dig up the body of Boniface VIII to subject it to a public trial, at whose end it was to be burned under the charge of heresy, sorcery and blasphemy. The dead pope’s burning would have placed the whole Church in an illegal position: the whole reign of Boniface VIII would have been considered invalid, and everything that happened after the abdication of Celestine V, not excluding the election of Clemens V, would have proved null and void. With the College of Cardinals split and most French bishops loyal to Philip, the King threatened a schism that would separate the Church of France from that of Rome. Clemens V was faced with a dreadful dilemma: he had to choose whether to condemn the order of the Temple as the sovereign demanded, or save it and risk the burning of Boniface VIII’s body and the French schism with all its consequences.[37]

The Pontiff chose to protect the unity of the institution for which he was responsible, sacrificing a part to preserve the whole. The Order of the Temple was by now effectively destroyed, blasted away by the wave of scandal and defamation. Many brothers had died in the King’s jails, many more had lost their motivation for good. In the spring of 1312 an Ecumenical Council was gathered in Vienne to decide, among other things, the fate of the Templar order; the Pope did not conceal that the judgment was most controversial and a large part of the council opposed their condemnation. After long thought, he felt there was only one way to solve the issue, avert irreparable scandal, and serve the interest of the Crusade: avoid a verdict and act instead by way of administrative decision; that is an official act required for practical reasons. Being a great expert in canon law, he sought for an expedient not to condemn the Order of the Temple, of whose innocence at least where the most serious charges were concerned he was certain: in the Bull Vox in excelso, the Pope declared that the Order could not be condemned for heresy, and was therefore “closed” by administrative fiat and without a verdict, to avoid grave danger to the Church. The goods of the Templars were handed over to the other great religious-military order, the Hospitallers; that at least made them safe from the greed of the French crown, and so they might possibly still serve the cause of re-taking the Sepulchre and Jerusalem, the reason why so many people had in the past donated gifts to the Temple. Philip the Fair did not exactly accept that decision happily; in the end, however, the Hospitallers were able to have a consistent part of what had been the Temple’s patrimony.[38]

Though unjust, the end of the Templar order was proving historically convenient: the scandal roused by the trial had to be placated, and the doubts created by the Templars’ confessions needed to be silenced. The scandal had made the Order odious to sovereigns and to all Catholics; it would no longer be possible to find an honest man willing to become a Templar. The order had therefore lost its usefulness to the Crusader cause for which it had been established, and furthermore, if a swift decision on the issue had not been reached, the king would have completely squandered its goods. Clemens V therefore decided to get the Templar order “out of the way” by refusing to issue a final sentence, but forbade any further use of name, habit and distinctive signs of the Temple under the penalty of automatic excommunication for anyone who ever dared proclaim himself a Templar in future. The Pope thus eliminated the Order from contemporary reality, but by not issuing a formal sentence he left judgment on the Order in abeyance.

In the end, then, there was no conviction or convict, but a defendant severely punished for crimes other than those he had been indicted for. Something of the same kind also happened with the trial against the late Boniface VIII; which is hardly surprising, since the two issues were intimately bound up with each other, and their resolution was the result of a long diplomatic struggle made not just of negotiations but also of actual blackmail from both sides.

The fate of the leading Templars was still undecided, and they awaited the Pope’s judgment, when, on 18 March 1314, after proclaiming the Order innocent, Grand Master Jacques de Molay and Preceptor of Normandy Geoffroy de Charny were abducted by royal soldiers and condemned to be burned on a little island in the Seine without any reference to the Pontiff. Old, sick for years and severely tested by that long clash with the French monarchy, Clemens V was no longer in any condition to exert influence; he died about a month later, and his death marked the start of the Church of Rome’s exile in Avignon. Later Popes, pressed by other emergencies, preferred not to deal with the odd situation of the Templar order, never condemned but practically shut down by virtue of a wholly exceptional decision.[39]

The mysterious presence

The most recent research into the documents of the Templar trial has allowed many points to be clarified. They proved among other things that the construct of Philip the Fair’s indictment had an explosive impact because it was built on some foundation of fact; certain charges such as the denial of Christ, the obscene kisses and the spitting on the Cross came from a few actual facts, suitably distorted and reworked into evidence of heresy. A few years before he moved openly against the Temple, the King of France had secretly intruded into the Order some spies to collect any kind of information that might help damage it; then a group of royal men of law led by Guillaume de Nogaret had worked the information into a detailed and imposing castle of accusations. These clever technicians of the law started from a few basic points and derived facts from them just as is done in mathematical sciences when building a theorem. It’s no exaggeration to say that Nogaret and Co. built the “theorem of Templar heresy”. Their technique was that of the half-truth: every charge they wanted to prove must have a hook in a genuine fact, unpleasant or censurable, but committed without intention of sin; Templars would admit the fact itself under questioning – such as that they had been forced to deny Christ – but they would then deny the charge that hung from it, that is that they did not believe in Christ. But at that point, their position hardly looked solid.[40] The very same identical scheme was employed to argue that the Templars had turned their back on Christ en masse to indulge the worship of a mysterious idol.

The charge started with a material and evident fact. The Templars wore a little strand of linen string over their tunics. That was something nobody could deny, because everyone had seen it, indeed it was clearly mentioned in the part of Templar statutes dealing with the brothers’ dress. The Templars knew that it had some kind of symbolic rather than practical value, since they were under obligation never to take it off – even when they slept at night – but they did not have any clear idea what it was. Leaning on this unarguable fact of the little linen string, Nogaret and the King’s other strategists would argue that that object had in fact a perverted meaning, and stated that it had been in contact with a devilish object, a dark and mysterious idol in the shape of the head of a man with a long beard. According to the charge, the Templars offered this idol special liturgies, reserved only for the highest dignitaries. These were solemn ceremonies during which it was worshipped, kissed and rubbed with the linen strands that would later be distributed to all brothers in the Order.

The linen belt was a most banal little object which could never in itself have been used to defame the Templars; but it was something that concerned the whole Order, all its members, one by one. The idol on the other hand was a wholly exclusive matter, that could only be used against the higher officials. Making the Templar linen strands be somehow “fouled” by contact with the dark idol, however, Nogaret threw the charge of idolatry on every single monk of the Temple, “contaminated” by the idol possibly without knowing it thanks exactly to that little belt he wore every day.

Of all the charges thrown at the Templars, idolatry is no doubt the darkest, and it is not at all strange that such a suggestion inspired so many novelists. Curiously, however, this charge was not Nogaret’s Pièce de résistance in the trial, not his chief weapon, but a kind of little side corollary stuck on as a kind of tail to so many other charges: in his indictment, Philip the Fair made it quite clear that only a very few Templars knew of the idol. Why such a disagreement between potential effect and actual work? The answer is simple: the prosecution, who had built a theorem on solid bases from a decade’s worth of reports from its moles, knew quite well that the three disgusting acts of the ritual of admission were common matters practised in every command of the Temple. Practically every Templar could be led by threats or other methods to admit facts that were part of the daily life of the Temple, facts which could be manipulated and distorted; but the existence of the idol, whatever it was, was an issue purely for the elite, and the hope of wringing any confession seemed very distant indeed. Rumours about that mysterious object were, to Nogaret, very attractive; they would have allowed him to create a theatrically effective comparison to shock the Pope: just as Moses came back to find, to his rage and grief, that the Jews had in his absence abandoned the cult of the sole God and had built themselves a golden calf, so Pope Clemens V was to have the evidence that the Templars, themselves monks in a religious order, secretly worshipped a strange idol that had fallen into their hands. There was however a severe problem: if only the leaders of the Temple knew of the idol, it could be expected that only a very few confessions could be gathered.

What Philip the Fair wanted was the entire demolition of the Order, so he had to convince the Pope that the whole Templar body was poisoned by corruption and heresy; the condemnation of the leaders alone was no good to the King, they would have been removed and replaced, while a mass indictment of the whole Order would allow him to demand from the Pope its total extinction. A few confessions, however red-hot, were worth little to the prosecution: even if ten or 20 Templars could be found to admit that they practised sorcery and raised devils, that would have amounted to nothing, because the thing would have seemed a sin – if a dire and inexcusable one – that affected only the culprits. At that point the Inquisition would convict the individuals. Nogaret and Philip the Fair, however, needed large numbers, and had to find charges that, even if less serious, were so widespread in the Order as to let them say that one could hardly find one Templar innocent of them. The military ritual of admission suited this need exactly; the secret ceremony with its apparent outrages against Christian religion, was ideal. The ritual was known to be commonly practised, though in widely divergent forms, so nearly every member of the Order could admit that they had carried out at least some of those guilty acts, such as denying Christ or spitting on the Cross: and since judicial procedures at the time weren’t too refined, the general confusion raised by the scandal could well be used to suggest that the whole order was affected by anti-Christianity. Emphasis on the idol in the prosecution’s scheme would have been ill-advised, since it risked suggesting that the whole castle of charges was built on mere calumny. Like the smart lawyer he was, Nogaret preferred to bet on charges that the monks themselves were more likely to confirm, and reduced the matter of the idol to an obscure, if chilling, detail: so he made it clear in the indictment that the existence of this simulacrum was unknown to the vast majority of monks. As had been expected, the harvest of reports of idolatry was exceedingly small, scarce and mutually highly contradictory, though Philip the Fair’s strategists did what they could to manipulate and paint them in the grimmest possible colours.

A mosaic of fragments

Examination of the documents leaves no doubts whatever. Only a small, tiny minority of the Templars who appeared in the trial were able to say anything at all on this phantom object. And even within this tiny minority, many mentioned it only because they had heard talk about it from others, that is, from no personal knowledge at all. That is a pretty sad haul when compared to the near totality of testimonies that have nothing whatever to say about it. Out of 1,114 Templar testimonies recorded during the trial, only 130 include even a hint of the idol, and most of those do nothing but repeat what the prosecution said; clearly these are the miserable product of torture and other forms of violence. Only 52 statements give any information at all about the idol, that is, 4.6% of the total. On this at least Philip the Fair did not lie: very few Order members were aware of the matter, as against the immense majority who had no idea what so ever. We may take this as reliable, since the inquisitors and the royal lawmen were hardly short of means to persuade. These very few witnesses, utter exceptions to the rule, don’t even describe the same object, giving in fact the most wildly different detail. I think that all this must have discouraged historians from looking with due scholarly care in this field: in effect, the great variety of images makes it all seem like a big hodgepodge of things said at random. So the whole area was condemned without distinction, as a set of tragic lies caused by torture.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that some monks gave more than one statement in the course of the trial, changing their stories from one inquiry to another for reasons that we can sometimes only guess at (torture, promised rewards, the desire to avenge some personal wrong, etc). A classic case is that of Brother Raoul de Gisy, preceptor of the command of Latigny and charged with exacting the king’s taxes in the county of Champagne: this man went from a red-hot first account of events, in which he claimed to have seen the idol no less than seven times and that it was the image of a devil, to a wholly different one where he had seen it only once, by chance, and had no idea what it really was. The explanation lies in the fact that Raoul de Gisy made his first confession on 9 November 1307 under pressure by Guillaume de Nogaret and the Inquisitor of France; an interrogation carried out immediately after the wave of illegal arrests, when the King needed most serious evidence against the Order, and fast, to justify before the Pope his violation of the rights of the Church; the second was released on 15 January 1312 in an inquiry carried out by a commission of bishops, when the Pope had already taken control of the trial and interrogations took place with greater guarantees.[41]

Historians may find themselves as disconcerted as archaeologists would when, on opening the site of an ancient garbage pit, they meet with thousands of tiny pieces of pottery, different in make, material and colour, each of which will have to be carefully identified and re-made. In spite of the difference between the disciplines, there is only one way to make order out of chaos and reach a sufficiently valid understanding: one has to work with minute patience, bringing all fragments of the same type together and at the same time discarding extraneous material that does not help and that has found its way into the heap by chance.

Some certainties may be reached as soon as we start reading with care the circumstances in which individual question sessions with the Templars took place, and they greatly help to understand many things about the trial. We know, for instance, that in some cases Templars were questioned once; but the inquisitors were not being satisfied with their statements. Instead of taking the testimonies as they were, they had the brothers tortured, then gave them time to think it over, and finally staged a second question session: this time their confessions, full of detail that their tormentors found satisfactory, were accepted and taken down as evidence. We also know that the trial went through several phases, and that these phases were widely different both in the methods used by questioners, and in their good faith. Therefore the statements sought by the questioners also changed widely according to date and place; he who asks the question is very able to influence the answer.[42]

The issue of the idol is one of the most complex, since it was a charge that lent itself more than any other to becoming coloured by fantasy, in part because of the violence in questioning the Templars, and in part because of the power of psychological suggestion – a mighty power and never to be underestimated – that rose everywhere in the dark climate of the scandal. Once we get over the first, disconcerting impact, it becomes clear that behind all the descriptions of the idol there are only five kinds of object that appear over and over again, if maybe with varying details. Three of these were cult objects, that is things basically not different from many others that mediaeval faithful saw every day in their churches: a reliquary-sculpture showing head, neck, upper chest and shoulders, a painting on wood, and finally the portrait of a man with a rather strange and ill-defined frame. No doubt, if such portraits were worshipped in secret, that made it the more urgent for investigators to know who was the man they represented, but the presence alone of such objects in Templar churches was not enough to support a charge of heresy. On the other hand, the other two objects lent themselves to it wonderfully, for they were things that could make an enormous impression in the mind of mediaeval men: had the prosecution only been able to find any such thing in a Templar command and take it to the Pope, that might have been enough to get a swift condemnation of the entire Order. The first of these supposed “idols” that the questioners tried to make the captive monks describe was a portrait of Mohammed, presented as evidence that the Templars had betrayed the Christian faith and gone secretly over to Islam. The second was some kind of monstrous or even devilish image, useful to prove that the Templars had been practising sorcery.

Portraits of Islam

The identification of the idol with a portrait sacred to Islam is found in six testimonies, but it cannot be called certain or identical in all cases. Brother Sergeant Guillaume Collier from Buis-les-Baronnies said explicitly that the brothers called the strange headMagometum, while two monks questioned in Florence and in Clermont said they had seen an idol called, respectively, Maguineth and Mandaguorra; in the inquiry that took place in Carcassonne, the monks Gaucerand de Montpézat and Raymond Rubei stated that it was made in figura baffometi, and the latter specified that he was addressed by an Arabic word, Yalla.[43] In the inquest carried out in Tuscia, near Rome, the sergeant Gualtiero di Giovanni from Naples said that during his ceremony of admission to the Temple there had been a real theological discussion to deny the dogmas of Christianity, and the idol, a figure of Allah, was at the centre of the debate: he said that brother Alberto made him deny Christ and told him that he should not believe in him. Brother Gualtiero then asked: “And in whom should I believe then?” The same brother Alberto answered: “In that great and single God that the Saracens worship”.

He then added that it was wrong to believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, because they amounted to no less than three different gods, and he ended by stating that the Grand Master of the Temple and the preceptors in charge of a province had an image which represented that same God, worshipped him as creator, and exhibited his portrait in general chapters and in the most important assemblies. This testimony may perhaps be connected with that of Pierre Segron, who was told by the preceptor that he should not believe in Jesus Christ, but only in the Almighty Father: this confession, however, contains no reference to Islam.[44]

On the name of this supposed portrait, there is one clear testimony that calls it Magometum, a form very close to the genuine pronunciation; according to two brothers in Carcassonne it was called baffometum, a form that comes from the first but is distorted on account of the passage from Arabic to French. It is this form that has given rise to the fanciful etymologies once proposed by Hammer-Purgstall and accepted today only by readers of fantasy fiction. The other two variants, Maguineth and Mandaguorra, are also deformations of the original word, while the strange invocation to the idol supplied by another Templar, Yalla, seeks to replicate the Arabic form Allah with a strong initial; aspirations which the notary who had to write the minutes in Latin rendered with the letter Y. But is it conceivable that the Templars, maybe even a small part of them, had become Muslims? Their strange secret admission-ritual practised after the licit ceremony did indeed have a direct relationship with the Muslim world: in the East it was known that Saracens forced Christian prisoners to deny Jesus Christ and to spit on the Cross, on pain of death if they refused. This is described in the chronicle of the Franciscan Fidenzio da Padova, and the ritual of obedience invented by the Templars to test their recruits repeated these gestures in a kind of theatrical performance. The King of France’s lawyers had found out about it after years of secret investigations: to manage to confirm that the Templars had gone over to Islam en masse would have been vitally important to get the condemnation they were seeking, even better if they could have proved that the mysterious idols on which the King had gathered a few scraps of information was in fact Mohammed.

Two facts prove that this charge was utterly false: incoherent elements, incompatible with each other, yet liable to be brought together somehow by a 14th century European mind. To begin with, it is well known that the Islamic religion utterly forbids images of the Prophet, and all images of Mohammed are actually figures of his body with his face hidden by holy fire. The “idol” ascribed to the Templars, however, was clearly the portrait of a normal human being with a bearded face; that cannot in any way be considered an image of Mohammed. The same is true of the testimony of that Templar who claimed the idol was an image of Allah: the Koran forbids utterly any representation of God whatever, for this would be idolatry, and Islamic civilisation has always been most careful to respect this rule. The second feature is even more definite: according to one witness, the portrait of this supposed Machomet had horns![45] That proves beyond reasonable doubt that the tale has no relationship whatever with real Islam; it is the fruit of tortures carried out by inquisitors and goes exactly where the torturers wanted their witness to go, for their own reasons. No Christian who had anything actually to do with any Muslim group could ever have imagined them worshipping the Devil; in spite of all the strong religious differences, Muslims were highly devout and had a few essential points of faith in common with Christians – in particular, a single Creator God, who is a benevolent and just Father. Unarguable historical evidence tells us that a certain amount of inter-religious debate went on in Jerusalem, and it is at any rate well known that St. Francis of Assisi was received by the Sultan of Egypt and took part in a theological debate with him. In the Holy Land, Muslims were essentially political opponents, people who governed Jerusalem and Syria-Palestine alongside Christians; the whole history of the kingdom of Jerusalem is full of alliances between Christian rulers and various local emirs, alliances based on common interests and setting religious differences aside.[46] In a country such as France, where no Muslim communities existed among the population, the common people had the most vague and bizarre ideas on their religious usages: the largely illiterate commoners, used to the simplistic idea that one went to the Holy Land to kill enemies of the faith, could easily be led to believe that those enemies of the faith had something dark and devilish about them. It is probably not a chance occurrence that this kind of rumour found no fertile ground either in Spain or in Cyprus, where contacts with Muslims were frequent and Christians had a much clearer view of them. Not that it made any difference to Nogaret whether or not the brothers worshipped Mohammed or even the Devil, so long as they could be charged with an unforgivable crime that struck deep into the imagination of the popular masses.

The shadow of Ridefort

In the current state of research, I think that the Templars who said that the idol was a portrait of Mahomet may have seen a vaguely human image, but strange or at least unlike those of the saints seen everywhere in the churches. Pressed by torture, and having no understanding whatever of the identity of the man represented, they were forced to make statements of that kind. Without a doubt it was the portrait of a man; but since nobody could understand who it was, then it must inevitably be something illicit. The fact is that there was no power in the mediaeval world to interpret freely a work of art, because all images were rigidly controlled, and therefore every personage could be recognised on sight. Mediaeval sacred art has fixed iconographic forms, because its purpose is not just to guide but to educate souls; already Pope Gregory I the Great (590-604) had strongly recommended to respect this precept: the faithful were largely illiterate and did not have the ability to understand too elaborate a set of concepts, so the figures that illustrated sacred history on the walls of churches were a great treasure-store for the people, forming the doctrine of the common person.[47]

There was an ancient, consolidated tradition, known to everyone and guiding them: St. Peter must always carry a large key in his hand, as the symbol of his power, St. Anthony the Abbot had to wear his monk’s hood and have a meek little pig sitting by his feet, so that the faithful could recognise them immediately. Artists had to follow fixed schemes; their interpretative liberty was limited to secondary details, and at any rate their work was evaluated by the relevant Church authorities. A representation of holy things that did not conform to Church tradition appeared suspicious and would be condemned, for it could create confusion in those who did not have enough culture to defend them from error. Had the Templar idol been a traditional image of any saint, the monks would have recognised him; instead, everyone who saw this portrait agreed that they could not tell who it was, that there were no elements to help identify him. Showings often took place at night: in the dark church, shaken by the irregular light of candles, the atmosphere became that of a mysterious and grim cult. Required to worship the portrait of someone they did not recognise, and conscious that it was a secret cult, the monks were awestruck and experienced these liturgies as terrible things.

The King of France’s agents took advantage of this fact and tied it to the charge that the Templars had gone over to Islam thanks to an easy (and unhistorical) syllogism: the Order of the Temple is friendly to Muslims, in its ceremonies a man of unknown identity is worshipped; therefore that mysterious man must be the prophet of Islam, that is Mahomet. The accusation obviously had no roots in reality, since Islamic religion forbids the portraiture of Mohammed, and therefore even if many Templars had indeed gone over to Islam, this cult described in the trial would have been utterly impossible. But Nogaret was not concerned for the charge to be true, so long as it could be believed by that western world which was being asked to condemn the Order. The King’s grand strategist had dusted off the shelf a rumour already over 100 years old, which had been popular for a while and had momentarily stained the Order’s good name. When, in 1187, Saladin had won his memorable triumph at the Horns of Hattin, and taken back Jerusalem for Islam, he had always behaved most generously to the local Christians, granting freedom not only to the rich who could pay their ransoms, but also to the poor, for the mere love of God; it was only to the Templars and Hospitallers, the true thorns in his military side, he had shown no mercy whatsoever, and had had them beheaded. In that context, the Templar Grand Master Gérard de Ridefort, captured by the enemy, had been seen to come back unhurt to his people when everyone already believed him dead. As everyone knew how the Sultan saw the Templars, this had immediately struck everyone as most suspicious. Besides, Ridefort was well known as an adventurer, an opportunist, a traitor of friends, who had risen in Templar ranks without gaining anything like a good reputation on his way up. His reputation grew even worse when it became known that he had bartered his freedom with the surrender of Templar fortresses. In a word, he had betrayed the Order in the vilest of manners.[48] The conditions agreed at the time between Ridefort and the Sultan had shocked Christian society so much that the echo of the scandal had been recorded in the Chronicle of St. Denis; besides, Christian society was appalled at the disaster just suffered, the military orders were being singled out by everyone as the main culprits in the failure, and a scapegoat hunt seemed inevitable. The cowardly, arrogant, unworthy Ridefort seemed born for the role.

This was the source that Guillaume de Nogaret pulled out of the shelves to charge the Templars of having gone over to Islam. A few similar rumours had spread again towards the end of the 13th century, when certain diplomatic agreements made by Christian leaders in the Holy Land with the Muslim enemy had not been understood in the West and had caused intense polemics. During the trial, Guillaume de Nogaret suddenly turned up and resurrected the whole affair, to which Jacques de Molay had to give an answer:

In the chronicles kept at the abbey of Saint-Denis, it was written that in the time of Saladin, sultan of Babylon, the Templar Grand Master of the time and the other heads of the order had paid homage to Saladin. Saladin in turn, having heard of the grave adversities being suffered by the Templars, said in public that they were meeting all that trouble because they had fallen into the vice of Sodom and prevaricated their faith and their laws. The Grand Master [Jacques de Molay] was astonished at those words, and he answered that he had never heard anything of the kind.

On the other hand, he knew that once upon a time, Guillaume de Beaujeu, the master of the Temple, used to murmur against the Grand Master, that he had served the Sultan and kept him sweet.

In the end, though, both he and the others were happy with that policy, because they understood that the Grand Master had had no choice. In those days, the Templar Order held several towns and fortresses, which he named, at the border of the Sultan’s land, which could not have been defended by the Christians had the King of England not sent supplies.[49]

In the Holy Land, diplomacy was as much a weapon of war as weapons themselves, perhaps even more: the first decades of the Crusader kingdom had enjoyed comparative quiet just because the Muslim powers abutting on it often preferred to make alliances with the Christians and remain autonomous than fall under the sway of a much bigger Islamic power. The work of Grand Master Beaujeu, who later died heroically at Saracen hands while he protected the flight of civilians by the sea, had been dictated by political reasons, and his full good faith had been shown by the news of that odd alliance had certainly led the ill-disposed to suspect that the Templars were inept because in reality they had no intention of attacking Islam because it had covertly gained their sympathies. The context and dynamics of the trial were to turn this scrap of gossip into a black accusation.[50]

Many faces

The Templars who described the idol as though it were a portrait of the Devil were full of surreal detail: the monster has many faces, he is associated with a black cat who always appears mysteriously, he is worshipped during a witches’ Sabbath, he is even said to answer the monk who prays to him and promises hefty material advantages. Any historian would be immediately tempted to reject such descriptions, taking them for nothing but the sorry fruit of torture; however, it is better to avoid quick judgments, because experience shows that even the most absurd statements may sometimes conceal grains of truth in their depths, real facts that have to be brought to light by cleaning them from the many dark details added on by torture, by psychological violence, and by the awful suggestions raised by the atmosphere of the trial.

We know for instance that mediaeval Christian tradition used to represent the dogma of the Trinity by means of three separate but identical figures, or even by one body with three faces. It was the vultus trifrons, an arrangement thought up in the 1200s to somehow give a visual account of the complex concept of a single God in three Persons. During the Council of Trent (1545-1563) many features of popular religion that had previously been accepted by everyone were weighed and discussed, and among them the three-faced head: it was seen that this image was too much like certain ancient representations of pagan gods, such as the Roman Diana, whom Virgil calls in the Aeneid (IV, 511) “Virgin with three faces”, or the Greek Hekate, goddess of the lower world, associated with the moon and represented with three faces to allude to its three phases – crescent, full, decreasing. Hekate was the queen of the otherworld, and in some pagan magical texts she was called upon by magicians and sorcerers; in the Roman imagination and in that of early Christianity she was seen as an image of the Devil, even though the divinity did not originally have anything evil about her, and in the tradition of mediaeval art three-headed demonic monsters can sometimes be found (as for instance in the front of the church of St. Peter in Tuscania). In 1628, Pope Urbanus VIII forbade any further representation of the Trinity under that pagan-originated and, all things considered, monstrous scheme, and in 1745 Benedict XIV ordered that the three Persons should be only represented according to images found in Holy Scripture: the Father as a venerable elder, the “Ancient of Days” of the book of the prophet Daniel; the Son as a young man, and the Spirit in the shape of a dove. We know that the Order of the Temple was originally dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and the text approved in Troyes the founder and his followers are called, exactly, Knights of the Holy Trinity; we cannot in the least exclude that the churches of the Order included some sculptures of this very peculiar kind, little used in Gothic art but absolutely licit, used as late as the Renaissance in Donatello’s decorations of the tabernacle of St. Thomas the Apostle in Orsanmichele, Florence.[51]

A magnificent manuscript from the Vatican Library, painted in Naples by Matteo Planisio in 1362, features a cycle of miniatures representing the creation of the world: God is represented as the Three Persons of the Trinity, that is a venerable elder with a two-faced head, one as an old man (the Father) and the other as a beardless teenaged boy (the Son), while the dove that represents the Holy Spirit rests on his shoulder.[52] If we exclude the dove, who is not equally visible in all the miniatures, one must admit that the Creator appears as a strange being with one head and two faces: the smooth-featured boy’s face, with no facial hair, does in effect seem like a woman’s. Mediaeval art does from time to time come up with this kind of invention, it does not find it so important to represent things realistically so much as to bring out symbolic and spiritual meanings. Certainly such images must have seemed monstrous to anyone who saw them without adequate preparation.

It’s hard to tell what these simulacra described by some questioned Templars, with two, three or even four faces, ever stood for. Some testimonies certainly spoke of real things, sacred goods used for liturgy and cult, while others are no more than the deformed birth of terror and violence. For this purpose it can be very useful to consider the geographical areas where the various questionings took place. The trial took place practically all over Christendom, with inquiries in France, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, the Spanish peninsula and Cyprus. And yet all the scary and filthy testimonies concentrate in France, especially in the historical region of Midi, which was the headquarters of the dreaded Inquisition. From this region comes an unfortunately incomplete document, which can only be called “Languedoc Enquiry” since it lacks any reference to place and date of questioning. However, many clues suggest that the well-known inquisitor Bernard Gui was involved at least in the information-gathering stage. This document is an absolute mine of information about the factors that affected the trial, and does much to explain why scholars such as Nicolai, Hammer-Purgstall and many more could get such a grim picture of the ceremonies that took place in the Temple.[53]

Right from the first affidavit to survive without damage from the Languedoc enquiry, the interrogated monk, a sergeant called Guillaume Collier from Buis-le-Baronnies (Drôme), told that he was admitted with a normal ceremony, but that immediately after the preceptor refuted some fundamental dogmas of Christianity, such as the divinity of Jesus and the Virgin Birth; then he opened a secret window in a part of the church, where a silver idol with no less than three faces was kept. He was told that that idol represented a mighty patron of the Order who could get them any kind of grace from Heaven. Then suddenly he saw a mysterious red cat appear near the idol; immediately the preceptor and all those present doffed their caps and paid homage to the idol, whose name was Mahomet (Magometum).[54]

This is a genuine cliché that forms a pattern for the path of confession and is repeated from affidavit to affidavit; however, as each successive Templar speaks, the pattern grows more elaborate and more gross, as in a kind of ghastly crescendo. According to the next monk to be questioned, another sergeant called Ponce de Alundo from Montélimar (again in the Drôme), the idol even has horns; indeed, it is no longer a simple image, but a real demon who even lives and speaks – the candidate talks with him as one would with a real person, asks him for material favours and is promised its support. This time the mysterious cat who appears by the idol is black, so more similar to the animal whom contemporary imagination placed with witches; by the preceptor’s order, the devil-cat is to be adored and kissed on its anus. As we go on reading other testimonies, we find that the obscene detail of the kiss of the cat is a constant, and that the animal also seems to be nearly always black. However, two theatrical details appear: the magical feline vanishes miraculously as soon as he has received the new monk’s homage, and someone concludes that it must in effect be the Devil in the shape of a cat.[55]

The records then bring in a further sensational development: a knight by the name of Geoffroy de Pierrevert, preceptor of the mansion of Rué in the department of Var, said that he had been present at an admission ceremony during which, apart from an idol with no less than four faces and a devil-cat, the demonic presence was also manifested with the apparition of some women in black mantles, who materialised in the room even though all the doors had been closed and barred. According to him, the strange women had no carnal relations with the monks present at the ceremony. This surely disappointed greatly the inquisitors but they soon got their own back when during another session, Garnier de Luglet, from the diocese of Langres, said the witches who had appeared had indeed been allowed to corrupt the monks, vanishing immediately after they had dragged them along into deadly sin.[56]

In short, the questions were built according to a scheme that tended to dig through successive layers: first the accused was questioned about the idol’s presence, then the questioner asked whether a cat was also present, and if the answer was not positive, they proceeded to investigate the animal’s role in the ceremony and its real nature. With those who proved ready to give a positive answer in this crescendo, the questioning moved further, asking first about the apparition of witches, then hammering on the question about celebrating a demonic orgy. The procedures employed in Languedoc had unique features in the context of the broader trial. I think that it is beyond comparison that the area where the evidence is most polluted by the conscious intervention of the inquisitors: here the charges against the monks are much more serious than those conceived by Philip the Fair in his order of arrest, which was intended to get the Templars condemned as fast as possible. The very minutes of the investigation say it in so many words: witnesses would be first properly prepared with suitable tortures, then they were left several days to reflect (or recover at least enough to be able to speak), and finally were questioned again.

The way such trials were managed speaks volumes: during the inquest held in Poitiers from 28 June to 2 July, 1308, Clemens V interrogated, with the help of his assistant Cardinals, 72 Templars within five days; Philip the Fair himself and the Inquisitor of France Guillaume de Paris, immediately after the arrests, had questioned no less than 138 brothers captured in the Temple of Paris in barely a month, from 19 October to 24 November, 1307. The investigators who managed the Languedoc inquiry, however, took an amazing two months to question barely 25 persons; the “preparation” of witnesses must have been horrendous.[57]

A letter written by the Inquisitor of France Guillaume de Paris to Bernard Gui, the most famous Inquisitor of the 1300s, entrusts him with some operations in the trial against the Templars, and rouses a legitimate suspicion: the Languedoc inquiry, Languedoc being Bernard Gui’s headquarters, did not follow the scheme of Guillaume de Nogaret, but rather another drawn up by the dreadful Inquisitor, who pursued charges of sorcery and devil-raising.[58] In the indictment written in Paris by the royal lawyers, the idol is in fact quite a marginal issue and there is no trace whatever of devils; whereas, in the confession extracted from Templars in Languedoc, the strange idol is one and the same with the Devil in the shape of a cat and with witches, and the description of these sinister rituals takes up a great deal of the text. To the contrary, in the north of France, the charge of sodomy is placed very much to the forefront, as though it alone were enough to blast the Order’s reputation beyond remedy, and a boy is found who is ready to confess that Jacques de Molay (who was well beyond 60) had even abused him no less than three times in a single night.[59]

In the south, on the other hand, sodomy went altogether unmentioned: maybe the ordinary mentality was more tolerant, or else it was simply decided to go for something much more “explosive”. In a way, the idol had indeed many faces: faces different from each other, indeed sometimes incompatible, which the prosecutors hid or showed according to what the tastes and fears of the public were.

[1] Partner, I Templari, pp.155-159.

[2] Partner, I Templari, pp.115-132

[3] Ibid. pp. 106-109.

[4]Capitani, Gregorio VII, pp,189-203; Traniello, Giovanni XXIII, p.646; Rapp, Il consolidamento del papato, pp.119-123.

[5] Stove, Magdeburger Centuriatoren, col. 1185

[6] Partner, I Templari, pp.133-154

[7] Koch, Hammer-Purgstall, Joseph Frh. von, p. 401

[8] Schottmüller, II, p.90; Finke, II, p. 323

[9] Peterson, Ofiti. coll. 80-81; Camelot, Ophites, coll. 100-101.

[10] Hammer-Purgstall, Mémoire sur deux coffrets, pp. 84-134; Mignard, Monographie du coffret, pp.136-221.

[11] Partner, I Templari, pp. 160-162; Introvigne, Il <Codice da Vinci>, pp. 116-129.

[12] Jung, Nicolai (Christophe) Friedrich, p. 446; Schilson, Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, coll. 851-852.

[13] Penna, I ritratti, I, pp. 11-13.

[14] Marini, Memorie storiche, pp. CCXXIII-CCXLIX; about the Galileo trial, see Pagano, I documenti del processo.

[15] See veda Pagano, Leone XIII e l’apertura dell’Archivio Segreto, pp. 44-63.

[16] Gualdo, Sussidi per la consultazione, pp. 34-40; Gadille, Le grandi correnti dottrinali, pp. 111-132, alla p. 113.

[17] Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio XX 91-96.

[18] On their origins, see for instance Barber, The New Knighthood, pp. 1-37; Demurger, Vita e morte, pp. 20-23, and Ibid. Chevaliers du Christ, pp. 36-40.

[19] Demurger, Vita e morte, pp. 54-57. The original name is reconstructed by Tommasi, Pauperes commilitones Christi, pp. 443-475.

[20] Demurger, Vita e morte, p. 22.

[21] Hiestand, Kardinalbischof Matthäus von Albano, pp. 17-37; Cardini, I poveri commilitoni, pp. 81-114, Cerrini, La rivoluzione dei Templari.

[22] D’Albon, Cartulaire général de l’Ordre du Temple, nn. 5, 8, 10.

[23] Curzon, Règle, § 16; Cerrini, Une expérience neuve, § 6; Barbero, L’aristocrazia nella società francese, pp. 243-324; Demurger, Vita e morte, pp. 66-67.

[24] Curzon, Règle 87-88; Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 361-363.

[25] See for instance Michelet, Le procès, I, pp. 646-647; Schottmüller, II, pp. 392-393.

[26] Gaier, Armes et combats, pp. 47-56; Demurger, Chevaliers du Christ, pp. 41-43, 131-147.

[27] See The Horns of Hattin, ed. B.Z. Kedar, Jerusalem 1988, passim, and Lyons & Jackson, Saladin, pp.255-277.

[28] See the items collected in Quarta crociata.

[29] Demurger, Trésor des templiers, pp. 73-85; Di Fazio, Lombardi e Templari; Metcalf, The Templars as Bankers; Piquet, Des banquiers au moyen âge.

[30] Demurger, Vita e morte, pp. 235-236; Barber, The New Knighthood, pp. 119-220.

[31] Ibid., see for instance pp. 213, 217, 236-237; Favreau-Lilie, The Military, pp. 201-227; Edbury, The Templars in Cyprus, pp. 189-195.

[32] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 43-48; Lizérand, Le dossier, pp. 2-15.

[33] Lizérand, Le dossier, pp. 16-19. .

[34] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 311-323.

[35] Ibid., pp. 169-205.

[36] Frale, Il papato e il processo ai Templari, pp. 139-192.

[37] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 265-299.

[38] The Bull’s text is in Villanueva, Viaje literario, V, pp. 207-221; Barber, The Trial, pp. 227-234.

[39] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 300-304; Demurger, Jacques de Molay, pp. 263-277.

[40] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 207-263.

[41] Michelet, Le Procès, II, 363-365; I, 394-402.

[42] See for example Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, for instance pp. 243, 253-254, 258, 259 ecc.

[43] Ibid., pp. 243-245; Bini, Dei Tempieri, p. 474; Sève, Le procès, p. 114; Finke, II, p. 323.

[44] Gilmour-Bryson, The Trial, p. 255; Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, pp. 252-253.

[45] Ibid., pp. 245-246.

[46] Tommaso da Celano, San Francesco, p. 73; Cardini, Francesco d’Assisi, pp. 178-208.

[47] Gregory the Great, Letters, IX, epist. LII, in PL 77, 971.

[48] Runciman, Storia delle crociate, II, pp. 628, 660-675; Lyons & Jackson, Saladin, pp. 250, 303-304.

[49] Michelet, Le Procès, I, pp. 44-45.

[50] See for instance Michelet, Le Procès, I, p. 187; II, pp. 209, 215.

[51] Wehr, Trinità, arte, coll. 544-545; Naz, Images, coll. 1257-1258; Curzon, La Règle, §9.

[52] Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Lat. 3550, f. 5r.

[53] Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, for instance pp. 254, 255, ecc.; Ménard, Histoire civile, Preuves, p. 210; Michelet, Le Procès, II, p. 363.

[54] Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, pp. 243-245.

[55] Ibid., pp. 245-246

[56] Ibid., pp. 256-257, 267-269.

[57] Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivum Arcis, Armarium D 208, 209, 210 (number 217 is the Chinon parchment), and Reg. Av. 48, ff. 437r-451v): about the edition, see Schottmüller, II, pp. 9-71; Finke, II, pp. 324-342; Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 275-420; Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, pp. 199-272, alla p. 226.

[58] Frale, Du catharisme à la sorcellerie, pp. 168-186; Frale, L’interrogatorio ai Templari, pp. 199-242. On the myth of the idol, see also Reinach, La tête magique, pp. 25-39.

[59] Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 289-290.

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