The “black” legend of the Templars: here’s the real story

That of the Templars it is one of the few stories of the medieval world so penetrating in the collective feeling of public opinion as to become a myth, even seven centuries after the dismantling of the most famous chivalric order of the era of the Crusades. Many legends, controversial stories and even lies transformed into false historians that surround, above all, the final phase of the Templars, the one characterized by the arrest of the leaders of the order by the gendarmes of Philip IV the Fair, king of France, in 1307, by the accusations of heresy and blasphemy, by the acquittal of the Templars by the “prisoner” Church in Avignon which however effected the dissolution of the association and, finally, by the tragic burning of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. Died at the stake in 1314 on the Isle of the Jews in Paris. A short distance from where, on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded, the “last Capet”, the last King of France by divine right, executed in the current Place de la Concorde while someone from the public apparently shouted: “Jacques de Molay , you have been avenged”.

To shed light on the history of the Templars and to do justice to an order which, between great political objectives and a historical anachronism in its terminal phase, was totally a child of its time, revealing at the same time how the culture of ties with the Temple of Jerusalem sinks its roots in a centuries-old tradition, he thought about it Barbara Frale. Frale, medieval historian and official of the Vatican Historical Archive, wrote the essay for Laterza The Black Legend of the Templars which gives a historical framework and precise coordinates to the epic of the Templars, at the end of the order after the retreat of the last crusaders from Acre (1291) which had made their role as guardians of the Christian Holy Land anti-historical, to the appetites of the French Crown for their treasure, to the political fragility of the Catholic Church and of Pope Clement Vwho tried to exonerate i Templars however, finding himself forced to conclude the story and to transfer the assets to the order of the Hospitallers, still active today as the Knights of Malta.

Frale carefully reads the symbolism of the Temple of Jerusalem of which, after the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem (1099) the Templars were the guardians, born specifically as a militia of monks-knights whose staff pray and work it was a now and fight, “pray and fight”. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the treaty In praise of the new chivalry he called them “meeker than lambs and, at the same time, fiercer than lions”. Frale recalls of the Templars that “the root of their spirituality resided precisely in the Holy Scriptures, where numerous hymns exalted the warlike deeds of the Chosen People against their enemies. A definitely holy war, because it was fought against idol worshippers, an ideology that Christian society at the time of the Crusades“, although imbued with syncretism as demonstrated later by the parable of Frederick II of Swabiafound adequate for his needs, while papal documents drew liberally on those passages in the Bible that celebrated God as Sabaoth“, or “Lord of Hosts”.

The blanket of oriental mysticism and spirituality that hovered over the Templars foreshadowed their entry into legend. However, Frale recalls, the long series of Jewish, Middle Eastern and syncretic traditions linked to the Temple of Solomon had been incorporated by medieval Christianity, permeated with myth, which for example did not fail to re-read the builder of the Temple as a “Wizard-King”, to feel a deep attraction for what came from the East reconquered to Christianity. The trial of Philip IV of France created, in fact, a legend of perversion, pagan cults, blasphemy on a tradition accepted even outside the Templars. Allowing with forcing, extorted confessions and roughness to demolish the real goal of France: the public reputation of the Templars, the only barrier to maintaining their network of military and economic power after the loss of overseas. A tradition of comradely initiation rites and tests of loyalty in the event of falling into Muslim hands was transformed in the procedural narration of the transalpine inquisitors into a myth of orgiastic and desecrating rites by the warrior-monks.

The Templars were largely cleared of the accusations by the Church itself, which with a work of guarantee ante-litteram he carried out a deep investigation of the charges against the Knights, and the death at the stake of Jacques de Molay was essentially linked to an arbitrary act by Philip the Fair. The black soul of the process was William Nogaret, chief inquisitor of France recalled several times by the Holy See for his arbitrariness. Frale, who has carefully studied the papers, reports the opposite example of Rinaldo da Concorezzo, archbishop of Ravenna and responsible for the ecclesiastical trial of the Templars for northern Italy: he acquitted the knights and condemned the use of torture to extract confessions in the provincial council of Ravenna.

Seven centuries later, therefore, we can understand the depth of the fascination still exercised by the Templars on public opinion both in the depth of their mission and in the mysteries and ambiguities that led to the end of the order of the “Poor comrades in arms of Christ and of Solomon’s temple.” The depth of the mission has seen them associated with all sorts of legends, first of all the one that saw them keepers of the Holy Grail.

The end of the order decreed in the Council of Vienne in 1312 by the Church also to protect the members from civil trials, who entered other congregations, and the subsequent death at the stake decided by de Molay, acquitted by the Church of all charges, were merged into a single context in the “black legend” that historians have gradually demolished. And the capillary diffusion of the Templars after the end of the order led to the diffusion of the legend of a continuity of the warrior-monks which gave birth to a line of books, novels and films but which has real footings: in ScotlandKing Robert I opened the doors of his domains to the fleeing Templars and many references to the order can be analyzed in the famous Rosslyn Chapel, while in Portugal the Templars simply changed their name on the initiative of King Dionysius, who founded the Order of Christ approved in 1319 by Pope John XXII.

The Order of Christ fought in the final phase of the Reconquista against the died of the Iberian Peninsula and in the 15th century, led by the Grand Master Henry the Navigator, infante of Portugal, managed the income from African lands and the newly colonized islands (Azores and Madeira) by financing the first school for navigators in Sagres, whose work paved the way for Portuguese maritime supremacy which would lead to the great sixteenth-century explorations. And today it still exists, secularized, having as Grand Master the President of the Republic of Portugal. It’s not legend, it’s history. The extreme offshoot of the Templars, undead but simply multiplied in a series of streams that have come down to the present day.

The “black” legend of the Templars: here’s the real story