Were the Knights Templar illiterate?

a knight holding a sword

Were the Knights Templar illiterate?

First, a one paragraph case for the prosecution. The Knights Templar left next to nothing in written records. All we know about them is from monastic chroniclers like William of Tyre. Most Templars were sergeant brothers who would have had basic to no literacy. While the knights were aristocratic jocks who’d never seen the need to read or write. Therefore – the Knights Templar were illiterate.

Secondly, a one paragraph case for the defence. It seems hard to believe that an order that ran hundreds of manors across Europe engaged in agriculture and established an early form of banking with cheques had no bookkeeping and records. Plus the Knights Templar were royal advisers and involved in complicated military logistics. And why no written records? Because they went up in flames at the end of the Crusades.

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Monks are literate – Knights Templar are illiterate

Like the Cistercians and other monastic orders, the Knights Templar were significant local employers running farms and workshops. But unlike the monks, the knights weren’t sitting at desks illuminating bibles all day. Ergo, they were probably illiterate.

In the case of the sergeant brothers – we can probably assume that these serfs taken on by the Templars were indeed illiterate. But in contrast, the chaplains retained by the Templars would needed a command of Latin to conduct mass. So they would have been literate – at least to a degree. Although in the trials of the Templars, some of the order’s chaplains were upbraided for having a poor level of Latin. So, it’s a confusing picture.

But what about the knights?

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Records of the Templar trials suggest they were illiterate

While interrogating Templar knights, the papal commissioners in Paris were told that these men were jere omnes sunt illiterati – which translated from Latin means: they’re all illiterate. As you might have guessed. What’s astonishing is that the last Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was described as miles illiteratus – an illiterate knight.

But some have argued – convincingly – that the Knights Templar claimed to be illiterate during their trials to avoid conducting their own defence. Basically, playing dumb in court. Didn’t work as a tactic needless to say.

In other trial records, we get a very different picture. Investigators found that not only knights but some of the sergeant brothers were indeed literate. And not just sergeants with big administrative responsibility but some lower down the chain of command.

Translators at the Templar trials – proof they were illiterate?

There’s plenty of evidence that at the trials of the Knights Templar – the charges were read to them in French and not Latin. Or their mother tongue in other countries. That assumes they couldn’t speak Latin. And given that Latin was the language of the church and courts, not being able to speak or read it was a definition of illiteracy in the Middle Ages.

Hmmm – but didn’t Templars pray several times a day from dawn until dusk? Surely that meant they would understand Latin. Well, not necessarily. In fact, the military orders were often instructed to say nothing during mass except when indicated by the priest. So – they didn’t need to know much at all. And they parroted it by rote. Just intoning some Latin didn’t mean they had a clue what it meant.

In 1310, five hundred Knights Templar agreed to hear the charges against them in Latin. Now – surely that meant they were literate? But there’s another explanation. Some historians believe they just didn’t want to hear the false accusations detailed in their own tongue.

A hail of Latin babble that was going to lead to their inevitable execution was bad enough. But to hear and understand salacious details of sodomy and heresy that they denied would have been too painful.

Surely the Knights Templar had written records?

But we come back to the relative sophistication of the Knights Templar. Running medieval agri-businesses and a banking operation – does that really point to them being illiterate? Were disciplinary proceedings against errant knights and brothers never recorded? Was there no correspondence with popes, bishops and nobles?

Plus, there was a resurgence of learning underway in the 12th and 13th centuries. Europe was emerging from a period of very low levels of literacy. And the ability to read and write was extending beyond the clergy.

Isn’t it more likely that a percentage of the Knights Templar were literate? And that the Templar records were destroyed one way or another after the order was banned. What were they needed for anyway once the knights had been disbanded?

Maybe they went up in flames in the Holy Land as their last bases were taken. Or the Knights Hospitaller who took over Templar assets just chucked them. Or vindictive church authorities incinerated all evidence of their existence. Are we really to believe that in two hundred years of existence, the Knights Templar never wrote a word?

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