In 1307, arrest warrants were issued for the Knights Templar from the King of France on charges of heresy, sodomy and conspiracy. This led to the trial over a seven year period of many knights including the leaders of the Templar order. But what did most people think at the time – did serious commentators believe the Templars were guilty?
It’s often assumed that most people in what we call the Middle Ages were thick and gullible. But this is a bit of a Victorian fabrication. The educated classes, although in a minority, were more than capable of thinking critically – though within a very religious framework.
So, did clever people think the Knights Templar were guilty as charged? The answer is that opinions were surprisingly divided. In Italy, there was deep suspicion about the motives of Philip, King of France. One writer, Cristiano Spinola, raised his doubts shortly after the Templars were arrested.
And he was echoed by the poet Dante who doesn’t accuse the Templars of greed in his epic story, the Divine Comedy. But he does take a swing at King Philip, accusing him of avarice and asserting that the monarch had “lawlessly brought his greedy sails into the very Temple itself”.
The Florentine banker, adventurer and chronicler Giovanni Villani ascribed a whole series of catastrophes that befell the French royal family on Philip’s decision to seize the Templars and their wealth. When he heard that the last Templar grand master Jacques de Molay and other Templars had been burnt at the stake, he referred to it as the death of martyrs.
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author who wrote a collection of stories called the Decameron about a group of people escaping the plague and telling each other tales to pass the time. He wasn’t born when the Templars were arrested but his father had been in Paris at the time and Boccaccio was very interested in what had happened to the knights.
He saw it as a classic wheel of fortune tale. They had risen, succeeded and then fallen. Like many contemporary church chroniclers during the lifetime of the Templars, he was both fascinated and slightly repelled by the rapid enrichment of the Templars, which he thought must have corrupted their once lofty ideals.
Raymond Llull was a philosopher born in what is now Spain who had tried unsuccessfully to get the Knights Templar and the rival Knights Hospitaller to merge. The Templars had flatly rejected this idea. Llull had been a fan of the Templars but after his offer had been dismissed, he began to cheerlead for the French king.
What seems to have driven Llull is a strong desire for unity in the church. He came to regard the Templars as a disruptive influence and so maybe convinced himself that it was for the best that the knights went up in flames.