The ill treatment of Jews in medieval Lent

I’ve got a large collection of very old books, which I browse for this blog. And in one 1826 almanack, there’s a few pages about a disturbing custom practised in the Middle Ages: the stoning of Jews. It appears that from the sabbath before Palm Sunday to the last hour of the Tuesday before Easter, “the Christians were accustomed to stone and beat the Jews”. Any Jewish person not wishing to be assaulted, just had to pay whatever monies were demanded.

Jews in Lent
Jews had a rough time during medieval Lent

This looks suspiciously like extortion under a religious guise. This sort of anti-semitism was pretty rife at the time with Jews seen as the Christ-killers as well as disliked for their role as money-lenders – a role that Christians had more or less forced them into, by excluding them from other professions.

In 1262, Londoners broke into many Jewish homes and murdered seven hundred people in cold blood. King Henry III handed over their ruined synagogue in Lothbury (a street that still exists) to the friars of the sackcloth. Another synagogue became the church of St Olave in a street called Old Jewry (which you can still see as well).

The Templars in Lincolnshire

Interesting news article HERE from the Scunthorpe Telegraph about the Templars in Lincolnshire – a county in eastern England. It name checks Bottesford Preceptory, one of several Templar estates in the county. A Preceptory, by the way, was a Templar manor and would include farms, mills, workshops, living quarters, a great hall and a chapel. There was a vast network of Preceptories across Europe stretching from Wales to the Holy Land.

Lincoln cathedral
Lincoln cathedral – well worth a visit by Templar fans!

Templar preceptories in Lincolnshire included Witham and Aslackby as well as Great Limber and Temple Bruer. It must be said that today’s remains give little away – in some cases, there’s nothing left. Temple Bruer, for example, was used for military exercises but you’ll only find a farmyard there now.

If you are planning a visit to Lincolnshire, you do have the splendid medieval cathedral at Lincoln and nearby medieval buildings to sate your interest in this period of history.

If you have any further information about the Knights Templar in Lincolnshire – do share!

Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar

Bit of festive fun – here are ten things you may not have known about the Knights Templar – add your own facts in the comments below:

The Templars allegedly ran a white slave trade

Let’s start with a contentious claim made by Michael Haag in his book The Templars – that the Knights Templar were involved in trading Turkish, Greek, Russian and Circassian slaves brought from the east and set to work in their preceptories in southern Italy and Aragon. The centre of this grim trade was the Mediterranean port of Ayas in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Turkish or Mongol slavers would capture or buy these unfortunate human beings then sell them to the Templars. I’d be very happy to be told that this is complete tripe. But it’s recorded in various sources.

Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar!
Ten things you never knew about the Knights Templar!

Saladin specifically slaughtered the Templars AFTER the Battle of Hattin

The battle at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 was a disaster for the Knights Templar and the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem – Saladin and his saracen army emerged totally triumphant.  In the aftermath, countless Christian soldiers were sold as slaves – so many that the price went down to 3 dinars each and one was reputedly sold in exchange for a shoe! Initially, the Templars and Hospitallers were also sold off as slaves. But Saladin then decided that he really wanted all the Templars slain – without exception. Those who had bought Templars were compensated with 50 dinars each and the knights were then brought before the Muslim ruler. Conversion or death was the choice. It seems few decided to convert. There are accounts from both sides of what happened next – a grisly mass beheading often carried out by zealous individuals and botched very badly. In revenge, Richard the Lionheart would later execute 3,000 prisoners at Acre in one of the worst war crimes in history.

The Al Aqsa Mosque was the global headquarters of the Knights Templar

Even today, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is fought over – a holy place that inspires bloody hatreds. In the early 12th century, it was firmly under the control of crusader Christians. The Dome of the Rock was renamed the Templum Domini and the Al Aqsa Mosque became the HQ of the Templars – sited on what was believed to be the palace of Solomon. Beneath were Solomon’s stables, or so it was thought, and abundant rumours that hidden somewhere on the site was the Holy Grail….or the Ark of the Covenant. Much of the existing mosque today was of Templar era construction.

Henry III pawned his crown jewels to the Templars
Henry III pawned his crown jewels to the Templars

England’s crown jewels were pawned by King Henry III to the Templars

Facing a rebellion by his barons, King Henry III of England sent the crown jewels to the Temple in Paris for safekeeping and to raise money for his fightback. The previous king, John, had made a series of concessions to the same barons by agreeing to sign the Magna Carta. The Templars were broadly supportive of the kings as both advisers and bankers (and pawnbrokers!).

Templars were not – strictly speaking – priests

While the Knights Templar did take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – they weren’t actually priests as such. Barbara Frale in her book on The Templars points out that the knights were not allowed to administer the sacraments as they weren’t formally ordained. And she argues that priests could not wield a sword in battle. Instead, they had their own Templar chaplains assigned to their houses to say mass. But by 1300, many Templar houses didn’t have chaplains. So their spiritual needs had to be administered by priests from other orders.

One monarch donated his kingdom to the Knights Templar

It wasn’t a popular move but King Alfonso of Aragon donated his kingdom to the Templars at his death. The Templars were very active in the “reconquest” (reconquista) of modern Spain and Portugal from Moorish (Muslim) rule. It’s often forgotten that the Templars were active on many fronts – in the Middle East, eastern Europe and southern Europe. The caliphate ruling the Iberian peninsula was remarkably tolerant and urbanised for the standards of the time with Jews, Christians and Muslims living together. But kings like Alfonso were determined to drive out the caliphs and the Templars assisted in this process. They often took control of dangerous areas in the no-man’s land between Christian and Muslim control. Alfonso rewarded their bravery with a big portion of his kingdom when he died but this was reversed afterwards by the counts of Barcelona.

Offshore banking was invented by the Templars

Most of you will know that the Knights were also bankers. You could deposit wealth in one of their preceptories – say at the Temple in Paris – and with a credit note they would issue, you could make a withdrawal at a preceptory in outremer (Christian controlled territories in the Middle East). This meant not having to haul heavy caskets of bullion around with you. But the Templars went a step further and had treasure ships located offshore from which crusaders could make withdrawals safely.

Charges against the Templar included “adoring a cat”

The framing of the Templars was a shabby episode with popes and kings working together to destroy the Order. Various ridiculous charges were trumped up including inappropriate kissing in various parts of the body, denying Christ, venerating idols, operating to secret codes and…..adoring a cat.

It all went horribly wrong for the Templars at the end
It all went horribly wrong for the Templars at the end

Templars were accused of behaving like Muslims

In the frenzy to blacken the name of the Knights Templar – their critics pointed to the fact that some of them allegedly spoke Arabic (well you would being in the Middle East for a while and wanting to understand your enemy’s documents and messages). They also claimed that the Templars performed rituals medieval Christians falsely attributed to Muslims. According to Helen Nicholson in her book The Knights Templar – this included worshipping idols of Mohammed (sic!!), Apollo and Jupiter. Plus spitting on crucifixes. The church loved to tell stories of Muslim Saracen soldiers urinating on the cross to antagonise crusaders. Of course, Muslims do not revere idols – certainly not of the Prophet – and the accusations against the Templars are just absurd. But it worked at the time!

The Spanish and Portuguese nationalised the Templars

The kings of Spain and Portugal more or less took over the Knights Templar. In Spain, the king took the powers of the Grand Master whereas in Portugal a successor order was created called the Order of Christ. The latter organisation was even based at the old Templar preceptory at Tomar – a stunning church you can still see today.

ISIS destroys the birthplace of Saladin

In yet another act of barbarism, the so-called Islamic State has blown up the citadel of the historic city of Tikrit – birthplace of Saladin, the great Saracen warrior who fought Richard the Lionheart in the crusades. This is one of a grim series of attacks on archaeological sites driven by a salafi/wahhabi literalist view of the Qur’an. Namely that shrines and tombs must not be venerated and so should be destroyed.

The same logic, incidentally, has been pursued by the authorities in Saudi Arabia where, in recent years, the tombs and houses of many of the founders of Islam have been levelled. This may seem odd given the image of the Saudis as ultra-religious. But it’s the type of Islam they adhere to that means they’re indifferent to the buildings that once housed the Prophet and his family and companions.

Saladin as depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven

Templar crop circle?

Lots of excitement in the English village of Temple Balsall – which is indeed a former Templar preceptory. Apparently some aerial photographs have revealed a rather odd feature in the landscape – looks rather like a mini version of the Nazca lines. Anyway, nobody has the slightest idea what they mean and it’s hoped they relate to the Knights Templar, former residents in the area. Go HERE to read more!

Templar crop circle

Precursors of ISIS

The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).

A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.

So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog.  The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.

Assassin
Victorian image of an Assassin at work

“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!

Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.

If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment. 

Venice – evidence of an evil Crusade

One of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion must surely be the sacking of Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the year 1204. The city of Constantinople had been the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire since the emperor Constantine – the first emperor to embrace Christianity. it had been “The City” of the early Middle Ages rivalled by none. Yet by the Fourth Crusade, the eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantine Empire as it’s more commonly called though it was never called that at the time – was in a slow decline. The lands it had once ruled in Egypt and the Levant were now under Muslim control and the Balkans had mostly slipped away. 

Tetrarchs in VeniceBut Constantinople – defended by huge walls – endured. That is until a wily, nonagenarian and blind Doge of Venice called Enrico Dandolo decided that the crusades shouldn’t attack their intended Muslim target but instead divert to Constantinople and sack it. Why? Because the Byzantines had long been the commercial and political rivals of Venice. And the latter was in the ascendancy while the Byzantines were not the force they had once been. So why not kick them while they were down.

And so it came to pass that the city was put under siege and its walls breached. The destruction was on an epic scale and the Venetians stripped the place of all the booty they could carry. That included the four horses you see on top of Saint Mark’s cathedral (well, they’re replicas and the real ones are now under cover). One statue taken back that tourists always seem to miss is a third or fourth century CE depiction of the last pagan Roman emperor Diocletian and his three co-emperors or “tetrarchs”. 

This statue was obviously part of an ancient monument in Constantinople and was just unceremoniously slammed into a corner of Saint Mark’s cathedral where it looks weirdly out of place. But there it is – a piece of crusader/Templar booty.  And most tourists walk past it without blinking.

Tetrarchs in Venice

How the Nazis damaged a Templar Knight

In July, I visited the Templar church in London – it still retains its characteristic round building based (very loosely) on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The original round church is connected to a nave that also dates back to the Middle Ages. But unfortunately, the whole building has suffered over the years. Not least at the hands of the Nazis as they blitzed London with bombs in the Second World War.

You’ll recognise the church because it featured in The Da Vinci Code and other great movies and TV programmes. At the centre of the round church, on the ground, are the stone figures of several knights. Miraculously, these had survived in good condition until modern times.  One of the knights was Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville.  He was the first Earl of Essex who made the unwise decision to rebel against King Stephen in the early 12th century. On the run from the king’s forces and branded a bandit, he was shot through with arrows.

His rather messed up corpse was brought to the Templar preceptory in London but the knights were not allowed to bury him. De Mandeville had rebelled against God’s king – he’d also despoiled an abbey during this rebellion to raise funds. That didn’t play well with the church. So De Mandeville’s body, in a lead coffin, was left above ground. Various stories say it hung in an apple tree in the Templar orchard or was chucked in a ditch. Eventually he was buried and his stone image remained in good condition with some other knights until the 1940s. 

The along came the Luftwaffe. In a horrendous night of bombing in 1941, the church took a direct hit and down came the roof on top of the tombs. The damage is still very clear. Some people might think it’s wear due to age, but it’s not. The poor knights lost limbs and noses as the heavy stones and wood from the roof caved in. Here’s some images of Geoffrey de Mandeville before and after the Nazis struck:

Geoffrey de Mandeville
Geoffrey de Mandeville before the Nazis
Geoffrey de Mandeville
Geoffrey de Mandeville after the Nazis

 

Magna Carta – a feminist charter?

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 00.38.31There’s been plenty of talk in the UK about the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta this month – with the 800th anniversary looming next year. Politicians have been banging on about the need to use this ancient document to re-instil “British values” in our multicultural land.  The thing is – if any of these parliamentarians actually took the trouble to read the document they claim to know so much about (prime minister David Cameron famously couldn’t translate the latin when asked to do so on the Letterman show), they’d find some very surprising things.

For example (with supporting quotes):

MAGNA CARTA IS FOR FEMINISTS

(7) At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.

(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.

FOREIGNERS WITH MONEY CAN COME AND GO AS THEY PLEASE

(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.

THE WELSH CAN RULE THEMSELVES

(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of lands, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgement of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgement of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way.

BEING IMPRISONED WITHOUT TRIAL FOR ANY PERIOD IS A NON-STARTER

(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

+ (39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

HS2 WOULD NEVER HAVE GOT BUILT

(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.

UK WOULD EITHER HAVE TO GO METRIC OR IMPERIAL – BUT NOT BOTH AT THE SAME TIME

(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russett, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

PUNISHMENT SHOULD FIT THE CRIME – AND THE OFFENDER

(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

I’m sure these aren’t the British values that prime minister David Cameron intended!