Damning allegations were made against the Knights Templar after their mass arrest in 1307. Looking through the charges, it’s hard to make out whether the accusers thought they were magicians or heretics. Prosecutors sometimes characterised the knights as sorcerers and on other occasions as defiers of church authority.
Worshipping heads that spoke to them; engaging in Satanic kissing; wearing magical ropes and initiating new members in dark and secret ceremonies. Those are some of the juicy images of the Templars created by their enemies and that have stayed with us ever since.
But were the knights really conjuring up the devil? Had they acquired magical knowledge out in the east? Or were they simply what they claimed – a group of Catholic knights protecting pilgrims en route to Jerusalem?
If you look at the charges brought against the Knights Templar during their trials between 1307 and 1314, it’s difficult for the modern mind to make out whether they were being accused of undermining the church with false belief or were they just sorcerers. In other words, were the Templars magicians or heretics?
Heretics scared the church more than magicians – but the Templars were cast as both
My understanding is that for most of the medieval period, what really scared bishops and popes was the threat of heresy. Magic was a nuisance and something to be snuffed out whenever it arose. But it didn’t pose the same kind of existential threat to the Catholic church that heresy did.
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But what about all those witches that were burned I hear you cry?! Well, the witch burning craze didn’t really take off until very late in the Middle Ages – from the 15th century through to the 17th century. With the Templars, we’re looking at the 12th to the 14th centuries. And it was heresy that gave prelates the jitters.
Why? Because false belief (as the pope saw it) undermined the very foundations of the church. And it could also be alarmingly popular. The Cathar heresy in southern France threatened to topple church authority in the region and was the subject of a vicious and bloody crusade to suppress it.
But having stated that, magic did start to feature more in high profile accusations around the time of the Templar downfall. So, when King Philip of France (who suppressed the Templars) fell out big time with Pope Boniface VIII, he accused the pontiff of communing with demons. In fact, we can say that it was King Philip who started to bring magic and witchcraft into high level politics.
The king’s first minister was Guillaume de Nogaret and he was involved in a direct, physical attack on Pope Boniface. This shocked many medieval Christians so De Nogaret tried to justify his thuggery by accusing the pope of sorcery – as well as heresy against his own church. This was a dress rehearsal for the charges De Nogaret would bring against the Templars not long after.
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Templars damned as magicians and heretics
Magic now moved from something weird that happened in villages to a standard accusation levelled by nobles against each other. Charges of high treason were often spiced up with stories of magical attacks on the king. And gradually, heresy and sorcery became intertwined in a new and deadly way.
We see this very obviously in the trial of the Templars. Because it doesn’t seem to have been enough to accuse the Templars of being heretics – spreading a false and evil version of Christianity. No – they also were charged with worshipping strange idols and engaging in sordid rituals.
And this seems to have cemented the new trend.
Two years after the Templars were totally crushed, Pope John XXII declared that witchcraft would be treated in the same way as heresy and could be investigated by the Inquisition.
Pope John actually believed there had been assassination attempts against himself through the use of magic. In one case, he accused an Italian noble of making a silver bust of him with an unlucky zodiac sign on it and the inscription “demon of the west”.
So I think in retrospect, it’s true to say that the Templars represented a turning point where the church and secular authorities began to more overtly mix heresy and magic together to concoct a stronger case against their enemies that they could sell to the public.