Monday, July 4, 2011

The Warrior Monks

To research the Knights Templar proved a daunting undertaking. The voluminous quantity of written material devoted to the subject was intimidating; and we could not at first be sure how much of this material was reliable. If the Cathars had engendered a welter of spurious and romantic legend, the mystification surrounding the Templars was even greater.

On one level they were familiar enough to us the fanatically fierce warrior-monks, knightmystics clad in white mantle with splayed red cross, who played so crucial a role in the Crusades. Here, in some sense, were the archetypal crusaders the storm-troopers of the Holy Land, who fought and died heroically for Christ in their thousands. Yet many writers, even today, regarded them as a much more mysterious institution, an essentially secret order, intent on obscure intrigues, clandestine machinations, shadowy conspiracies and designs. And there remained one perplexing and inexplicable fact. At the end of their two-century-long career, these white garbed champions of Christ were accused of denying and repudiating Christ, of trampling and spitting on the cross.

In Scott’s Ivanhoe the Templars are depicted as haughty and arrogant bullies, greedy and hypocritical despots shamelessly abusing their power, cunning manipulators orchestrating the affairs of men and kingdoms. In other nineteenth-century writers they are depicted as vile satanists, devil-worshippers, practitioners of all manner of obscene, abominable and/or heretical rites. More recent historians have been inclined to view them as hapless victims, sacrificial pawns in the high-level political manoeuvrings of Church and state. And there are yet other writers, especially in the tradition of Freemasonry, who regard the Templars as mystical adepts and initiates, custodians of an arcane wisdom that transcends Christianity itself.

Whatever the particular bias or orientation of such writers, no one disputes the heroic zeal of the Templars or their contribution to history. Nor is there any question that their order is one of the most glamorous and enigmatic institutions in the annals of Western culture. No account of the Crusades or, for that matter, of Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries will neglect to mention the Templars. At their zenith they were the most powerful and influential organisation in the whole of Christendom, with the single possible exception of the papacy.

And yet certain haunting questions remain. Who and what were the Knights Templar? Were they merely what they appeared to be, or were they something else? Were they simple soldiers on to whom an aura of legend and mystification was subsequently grafted? If so, why? Alternatively was there a genuine mystery connected with them? Could there have been some foundation for the later embellishments of myth?

We first considered the accepted accounts of the Templars the accounts offered by respected and responsible historians. On virtually every point these accounts raised more questions than they answered. They not only collapsed under scrutiny, but suggested some sort of ‘cover-up’. We could not escape the suspicion that something had been deliberately concealed and a ‘cover story’ manufactured, which later historians had merely repeated.