Thousands of Jewish people around the world are taking up an invitation from the Portuguese government to return to Portugal. Their ancestors were forced out of the country by the Inquisition from the 15th century onwards. And it seems a good moment to look back at the relationship between Portuguese Jews and the Knights Templar in Portugal.
I’m half Portuguese. There’s a joke in my family: we’re either Jews or Templars. It sounds better in Portuguese. But basically, the region of Portugal where my family come from – Tras-os-Montes in the north east – was an area that historically saw both Templar activity and Jewish Sephardic families fleeing persecution.
Some of the customs and diet in that part of the world still bear the hallmark of the Jewish influence – as does one of the local dialects, which some argue has traces of Hebrew.
There’s even a story in Portugal that Jewish families in Tras-os-Montes developed a sausage called “Alheira” which they chomped on when the Inquisition rode by in the hope they’d think it was pork.
Every Christian family had pork sausages hanging up through the winter – smoked meat that kept them going through the cold months. A Jewish family would have been very conspicuous to the authorities if it was sausage-less. Hence the Alheira!
Tomar – from Templar tolerance to the Inquisition
The place in Portugal that most evokes the Knights Templar is the city of Tomar. It’s basically Templar town. Up on the hill is a 12th century Templar tower called the ‘charola’ surrounded by a later convent occupied by the Order of Christ (the successor organisation to the Templars).
Down below in the valley, near the river Nabao, is a small house you’d easily walk straight by. But pause and enter – and there is a medieval synagogue. It’s now a museum but was once a functioning place of worship.
I’ve visited several times and there’s a very nice lady who shows you round and then details the sad history of the place. For centuries, the Jewish families of Tomar worshipped there and enjoyed the protection of the local Knights Templar – who basically dominated Tomar.
But then came the Inquisition. In a horrible twist of fate, the synagogue became a prison for those Jewish families. By then, the Templars had been crushed and the last Grand Master burnt at the stake. Appallingly, the same fate now befell some of those imprisoned Jews – executed as heretics.
This was the new intolerance of the 16th and 17th centuries which saw Spain and Portugal expel their remaining Jews and Muslims. If they wanted to stay – they had to convert becoming “new Christians”. Though that was no guarantee of safety as even converts ended up falling foul of the relentless Inquisition.
Basis for Templar-Jewish good relations
There’s a lot of commentary online about the Templars being tolerant of and even protecting Jewish people. Why would this be the case? One argument is that the Knights Templar were forever in the business of raising funds for their crusades in the Holy Land. To do this they operated medieval agri-businesses all over Europe and being commercially minded meant they had no wish to antagonise Jewish people.
For their part, the Jews were subject to all manner of prohibitions and one area they took to operating in was money lending. At this time, Christians weren’t allowed to earn interest on capital – something many Muslims still object to today.
Interestingly two of the most powerful Jewish money lenders in the Middle Ages in England were women. One gave considerable financial support to the king to build Westminster Abbey. Clearly the hope of currying favour was a factor but so was just doing good business.
Aaron, a Jewish man living in the English city of Lincoln, was one of the biggest money lenders in the twelfth century. King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart, is estimated to have owed him £616 12s 8d. When he died, the monarchy seized all his assets and this came to somewhere around fifteen thousand pounds – a vast amount in the Middle Ages.
So could it be that the Knights Templar – who operated an early system of banking with cashable cheques – and the Jewish communities had a down to earth mutual appreciation of their respective commercial activities?
Something more mystical perhaps?
The idea that business united the Templars and Jewish people doesn’t wash with everybody.
Those of a more conspiracy theory frame of mind believe that the Knights Templar were descendants of Jewish Elders or Priests who fled the Holy Land after the Romans crushed the first Jewish revolt around 70CE.
One theory has them inter-marrying with European aristocrats to become a network of clandestine “Rex Deus” families – sworn to recover the hidden treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem. I’ll deal with this in other blog posts but you get the drift.