The Vatican and the Knights Templar

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Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

A replica of the minutes of trials in which Pope Clement V absolved the Knights of Templar of heresy in 1308.

The reality of the saga of the Knights Templar is almost as amazing as the myths that embellish it. On Thursday the Vatican plans to add another colorful chapter when it publishes a long-misplaced, 699-year-old papal report on the medieval holy warriors. Vatican publisher Scrinium will offer 799 copies (the 800th will go to the Pope), at $8,375 apiece, of a 1308 parchment titled Processus Contra Templarios (Trial Against the Templars), which chronicles the order's sordid endgame: the accusations of heresy, the Templars' defense, and Pope Clement V's absolution of the order, before he did an about-face and eliminated it.

Interest in the group extends far beyond the ranks of Church historians, of course. The tale of the Templars remains a gaudy thread woven through the religion, politics and literature of Western civilization, with a recent boost from the embellishments of Dan Brown, who cast the Knights as a key part of the conspiracy to conceal Church secrets in his best-seller The Da Vinci Code.

Almost from their founding, the Templars have been rumored
a.) to still exist
b.) to be impossibly rich, and
c.) to guard the Holy Grail (the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper) and other Christian relics.
Most of these stories are probably baseless, although for 150 years in the high Middle Ages, their order was incontestably one of the most powerful and creative military and economic forces in the world.

The Templars were a creature of the Crusades, when various Christian forces sailed from Europe to fight the resident Muslims for control of the biblical Holy Land. After the first Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1096, European pilgrims began streaming into the city, and 23 years later, two veterans of the Crusade founded an order of monastic knights to protect the travelers. They were allotted a headquarters in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, viewed by Jews and many Christians as the site of the Temple of Solomon — hence the new group's name. Initially modest (its coat of arms was two knights on one horse because that was all they could afford), its fortunes skyrocketed when the Vatican extended it extraordinary privileges, exempting it from local laws, taxes and any authority but the Pope's. Suddenly it was bestowed with spectacular gifts of money and land and inundated by volunteers from some of Europe's most noble families. Well-equipped and trained Templar knights became one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Holy Land — 500 Templar knights are said to have played a major role in defeating a Muslim force of 26,000 in 1177's Battle of Montgisard.

Their non-military exploits were more ambitious still. For the convenience of the monied pilgrims they chaperoned through hostile turf, the Templars developed a system whereby they left their wealth and lands at the disposal of a Templar institution at home, in exchange for a coded invoice that was then redeemed at the group's headquarters in Jerusalem. Researchers believe the Templars kept any revenues generated by the estates, effectively accruing interest — a practice otherwise forbidden as usury by the Church at the time. The journal American Banker wrote in 1990 that "a good case can be made for crediting [the Templars] with the birth of deposit banking, of checking, and of modern credit practices." It certainly made them some of Europe's richest and most powerful financiers. The Templars have been described as taking crown jewels and indeed entire kingdoms as mortgage for loans, and they maintained major branches in France, Portugal, England, Aragon, Hungary and various Mid-Eastern capitals. The group controlled as many as 9,000 estates, and left behind hundreds of buildings great and small. (The London subway stop Temple is named after one of them.)

But many of the myths attending the secretive order have less to do with their financial empire than with their most famous piece of real estate. Who knew what wonders they might have unearthed digging beneath the Mosque to the alleged Temple of Solomon, not far from where Christ was crucified? They claimed to own a piece of the True Cross; they may very well have possessed the Shroud of Turin, since it was a Templar descendant's family that first made it public; and unsubstantiated rumor has put them in possession of both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. The latter claim provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for fabulists from medieval romance peddlers to Dan Brown.

Unless you take The Da Vinci Code as a work of history, however, the glory didn't last. The order lost its purpose and credibility when the Muslim warrior Saladin drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187, setting the Templars on a path of retreat that saw them give up their last Mid-Eastern foothold, in what is now Syria, in 1303. From there, the decline was precipitous: The Templars failed in an effort to take control of Cyprus, and then, in 1307, Philip IV of France found it more convenient to order the arrest and torture of the Templars to extract confessions of heresy than to repay his heavy debts to the order. This led to the trial under Pope Clement, who was based in Avignon and under the protection of Philip.

The document the Vatican will release Thursday, misplaced in its archives until 2001, is reportedly the official transcript of that trial and Clement's 1308 verdict, which found the Templars to be immoral but not heretical. The Pope allegedly intended to reform them. But under continued pressure from his French protector, Clement instead disbanded them in 1312 and gave most of their riches to a rival military order.

The notion of that much money, power and influence vanishing at a Papal penstroke appears to have been too much for the mythic sensibility of the West, which wanted to believe that the Templars must somehow have survived, adapted, or been subsumed into another, even more secretive trans-national group. Over the centuries, the allegedly still-extant order has been portrayed as malevolent, benign, heroic and occult. Organizations all over the world, without any direct connection, have appropriated its name. (The Freemasons reportedly have an "Order of the Knights of Templar," thus consummating a kind of conspiracy theorist's dream marriage.) Such homages should not obscure the fact that however much power they enjoy in the realm of fiction and fantasy, it almost certainly does not equal that which they once actually possessed — and then abruptly lost.