The Knights Templar are often characterised as the first bankers in the world. To some it seems odd that Christian soldiers could have been involved in usury – lending and charging interest – when the church condemned this. We know for certain that they operated as a kind of bank using cheques and taking deposits.
Usury was a sin – so were the Templars sinners?
There is an awful lot of confusion about the Knights Templar and the way they operated as bankers and money lenders. How could they have been involved in banking when usury was a divine sin? What was their relationship with Jewish lenders?
The first thing to say is that in ancient and feudal societies, there was often a rather sniffy attitude towards earning a living through trade – and certainly through usury. Charging interest on loans was seen as a form of theft or deception. In the Koran, it’s described as the work of the devil. Assuming various mistranslations of the Christian bible, it seems to be roundly condemned in both the Old and New Testament.
The Torah makes a distinction between interest deducted before the loan is handed over and interest deducted afterwards. What is clear – as with so much of the Old Testament – is that many prohibitions applied within the Jewish community did not apply outside.
In other words, there was a loophole allowing interest to be charged to gentiles because…well….they’re gentiles. But Jews could not charge other Jews interest. However, the main reason that usury became associated with Jewish communities was that members of this religion were often barred from the professions and membership of the trade guilds – so they had to make a living somehow.
DISCOVER MORE: Why were Jews expelled from England?
The medieval economy was crying out for more usury!
For Christians – brought up with the stark image of Jesus driving the money lenders out of the Temple (a story that has been opened up to other interpretations by scholars in recent times) – there could be no usury, or so it seemed.
The thing was that medieval monarchs, barons, traders and pilgrims needed loans. As the economy of the Middle Ages became more sophisticated, this ban on usury became an obstacle to growth and the easier movement of goods. The whole economy could not rely solely on Jewish lenders for credit and so we see banking groups emerge in northern Italy and credit arrangements at trade fairs across Europe.
So, did the Templars practice usury?
And then there were the Templars. A lot of their members came from aristocratic backgrounds and when they joined, they turned over their wealth to the order. Or sympathetic lords made vast donations – including one ruler of Aragon who turned almost his entire kingdom over to the Order though that was whittled down a bit after his death.
But essentially, the Temple was sitting on vast piles of land and bullion by the thirteenth century. Their hundreds of thick walled preceptories were not just places of worship but banks as well.
Templar banking meant people could be more mobile
This sprawling network of preceptories across Europe and the Middle East allowed the Order to offer a way for people to become more mobile without fear of losing their wealth. So, if you were a pilgrim going to Jerusalem or a crusader off to fight Saladin, you could deposit physical wealth and land deeds with the Order. You could then withdrawals whenever you needed – subject to what could be described as bank charges.
The added bonus of dealing with the preceptories was that you knew you were leaving your money in a heavily guarded place. Nobody was going to come and rob the place because it also housed the most fearsome knights in Christendom. Rather like having a barracks inside your local branch of Citibank.
As I mentioned, there were banking groups emerging in Italy in the early Middle Ages and one of the families that would become major bankers would be the Medici. This family would also provide great rulers like Lorenzo de Medici and…..popes. So being involved in banking/usury would not be a barrier to advancement in the church.
Did the church turn a blind eye?
All of which leaves the question – why didn’t the church condemn the usurious activities of the Templars and other Christian money lenders? One website I read this week suggested that the church “forgot” about the rule against charging interest. This is nonsense. What the church did – in its cynical and calculating way – was to suggest upper levels of interest that could be charged beyond which, the lender would be acting unethically.
Put another way – a great big ecclesiastical blind eye was turned towards the usury of the Temple. So long as it facilitated the crusades called for by successive popes and greased the wheels of war and pilgrimage, nobody was going to complain. The Order only came a cropper when a cash strapped French king decided he could no longer keep his greasy mitts off the Paris Temple that was renowned for sitting on more bullion than any other.
This is a tale of the Knights Templar, a nail from the crucifixion and the holiday island of Madeira. It’ll stretch your credulity to breaking point. But I’ve done that a few times already so here goes!
The Knights Templar collected many sacred relics – bits of dead saints and items associated with the life of Jesus. Those relics linked to the death of Christ are called Passion relics and one of them, a nail driven through the flesh of Jesus, is claimed to be in modern Portugal.
A crucifixion nail once owned by the Knights Templar?
In 2010, a nail reputed to be from the crucifixion was found on the island of Ilheu da Pontinha in Portuguese owned Madeira. It was contained in an ornate box next to three skeletons and three swords, one with a religious symbol. The nail was smooth suggesting that it had been handled many times in the past.
The theory that emerged was that the Knights Templar had brought this sacred relic to Madeira and three of the order’s knights had been buried with it. It is true that the Templars had a significant base in Portugal with their headquarters in the town of Tomar.
Possibly not from the crucifixion or owned by the Templars
The Bad Archaeology website, which specialises in debunking what it says are false claims, pointed out that it’s very hard to date nails, most of which looked pretty much the same until the 19th century. It also pointed to the inconvenient fact that Madeira, located in the Atlantic some distance from Portugal, was discovered a hundred years after the Knights Templars were suppressed.
A prominent Portuguese archaeologist working at a major excavation on Madeira at the time the nail was discovered derided the claim that it came from the crucifixion. He said it dated to construction work in the 17th or 18th century.
Ilheu da Pontinha has a colourful reputation among the Portuguese as the tiny island has attempted to declare independence from the rest of Portugal in the recent past as this news report details:
For the Knights Templar – saints’ relics were very important. And ordinary people invested a great deal of faith in the leg bone or skull of a dead holy person. Various stories circulated at the time about the power of these relics.
Did holy relics have magical powers?
Two beggars had the misfortune to get a little too close to the relics of Saint Martin. They were desperate not to be healed as nobody would ever give them money again. And they certainly didn’t want to do an honest day’s work.
But the sweep of the crowd edging forward to touch the body of the saint caught them up and before they knew it, their blindness was cured. The chronicler says the two men were hugely pissed off by this – rather like the character unwillingly healed in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.
FIND OUT MORE: Was cannibalism practised in the crusades?
Several heads of John the Baptist
One story that shows how everybody was a sucker for a good relic in the Middle Ages was the claim by monks at the abbey of Saint Jean in Aquitaine, south west France, that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist.
This would have come as something of a surprise to a church in far off Antioch – modern Turkey – where they quite sure that the head of John the Baptist had been sitting above their altar for centuries.
But nothing was to stop the French monks who were a bit hazy on the small details of where and how they’d found this head so far from where it had been chopped off a thousand years before. Needless to say plenty of French peasants began claiming that their ailments were cured by the head in their midst. And as relics seem to need the company of other relics, John the Baptist was soon joined by the remains of Saint Eparchius.
Saint Eparchius brings dead criminals back to life!
Saint Eparchius had died in the sixth century and his good deeds in life had centered on rescuing condemned criminals. Bit soft on crime you could say. One man hung at the gallows was brought back to life by the saint whose head now joined John the Baptist. The sky burned with fire when the two relics were put together.
Another relic that showed off its power was that of Saint Junianus whose bits and pieces were being transported in a sack by some monks and one night they stopped off at a village to sleep. After they left, the villagers erected a wicker fence around the place where the relics had been set down. Later that very day, an angry bull charged in to the fence and died instantly.
Holy relics for curing dysentery
Bishop Gregory of Tours, who was writing in the very early medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire, was sure that Saint Martin – mentioned above – had cured him of all sorts of things. One was a massive attack of dysentery that left him vomiting and on the toilet constantly. His physician couldn’t cure him but lo and behold, some dust taken from Saint Martin’s tomb and mixed in to an elixir, did the trick.
Touching Saint Martin’s tomb also sorted out Gregory’s recurring headaches, removed a fishbone from his throat, cured what sounds like chickenpox or shingles and when his tongue swelled up, he took to licking part of the tomb. Yuck!
Most incredibly to Gregory, a woman who had been beaten up and rendered speechless by a ghost (I’m not making this up!) recovered her speech and was able to tell Gregory all about what had happened after she visited Martin’s tomb. I’m hoping she didn’t have to lick it as well.
Did the Knights Templar make it much harder for the likes of Robin Hood to rob from the rich and give to the poor?
Impossible to rob the rich – thanks to the Templars
Using the smart financial system devised by the Templars, the rich no longer had to lug caskets of loot around with them. Instead, they lodged some money with the Temple in, say, London and withdrew it in Acre or Tripoli, hundreds of miles away.
How on earth could they do this in the Middle Ages? The theory is it all came down to the use of secret codes on chits, understood at the other end. As a result, a knight going off on crusade didn’t have to drag sacks of money around. Thieves waiting by the roadside would now find that the potential pickings were markedly reduced.
Like all bankers, the Templars charged an administration fee and interest but somehow managed to avoid the opprobrium of the church with regards to engaging in usury – an activity that had been largely confined to the Jewish community. The term ‘cheque’ it’s been argued refers to the chequered board on which Templars settled their accounts.
The Templars were also able to move huge amounts of money around. For example when the king of France was captured and ransomed during one of the crusades, the ransom was paid off by the Templars because their ships stationed offshore were crammed with gold to pay for the crusader wars.
I’ve always associated the Shriners with Laurel and Hardy in the movie where they have to go to a convention and they’re both wearing a fez.
That might have been a Shriner convention because that’s the required headwear for this society within the Freemason order. With nearly half a million members in the United States, they are little known outside the US and, correct if I’m wrong, claim a kind of bond/link/influence from the Knights Templar.
Founded in the 1870s by two Freemasons who were watching some kind of theatrical Arabesque in New York after a masonic gathering at the Knickerbocker Cottage (a favourite Masonic haunt of the time) and decided to form an exotic sounding organisation called the Ancient Arabian Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS – not the catchiest acronym ever).
Members are allocated to Shrine Centers – or Temples – and engage in a distinct set of rituals which includes using the Arabic greeting for ‘hello’ to each other.
As an accepted society within the Masons, you have to be a fully fledged Freemason – and a Master Mason at that – to be able to join. It’s not possible to be a Shriner and not a Mason. This is like a subset within the Masons – not a venn diagram overlap. Officers within the Shriners are called a ‘Divan’ and the top dog is called a ‘Potentate’ assisted by a ‘Chief Rabban’.
As I say, they’re completely invisible on the European side of the Atlantic but in north America, expect to see them on parades in dinky cars and replete with the fez when they meet for their Imperial Council Session.
The Shriners Hospitals for Children have a budget of over three quarters of a billion dollars and were originally set up during the polio epidemics of the early twentieth century. They now cater for a range of childhood disorders.
There is no real link to the Knights Templar of old but through the Masons, a link to the existing Knights Templar of the Masonic variety.
Reuters reports today that a manuscript has been found in Nantes, France in a public library written by Leonardo Da Vinci in secret code from right to left. There seems to be no doubt that it was written by his hand.
A journalist discovered the document which was part of a donation made to the library in 1872 by a rich chap called Pierre-Antoine Labouchere. This is the second major find in this collection. Two years ago, a manuscript by Mozart was unearthed among all these papers. Labouchere seems to have hoovered up a random assortment of stuff in his life.
It was a French king who destroyed the Knights Templar – King Philip the Fair – when he had the knights arrested en masse in 1307. But could the Templars have got their revenge over 450 years later when the last French king was imprisoned in the Temple fortress in Paris after a revolution overthrew the monarchy.
Templar revenge against the French king
Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1789 French revolution. Louis was a direct successor to King Philip. So, not surprisingly, some have seen this as a kind of revenge meted against the French royals by the Templars.
Some Templar commentators even think that the knights had continued to exist down the centuries despite the trials and executions carried out by Philip. It’s even asserted that when King Louis was eventually guillotined to death in front of a vast crowd in January 1793, somebody leaped forward and yelled: “Now, Jacques de Molay you are avenged!”
That was a reference to the last Templar grand master who was burned to death not far from Notre Dame cathedral in 1314. If one takes this theory of Templar revenge seriously, then another fact might support it.
French king imprisoned in the Paris Temple
The Templars constructed a huge fortress in the middle of Paris for their headquarters. It once dominated what is now the Marais district. Incredibly, the fortress survived the extinction of the Knights Templar and still stood strong at the time of the French revolution.
Behind its thick walls, the knights had once stored vast amounts of bullion. One story has it that during a riot in Paris against currency devaluation, King Philip was forced to seek refuge at the Paris Temple. While there, his eyes feasted on all this Templar gold. And, the theory runs, this set him on a course of crushing the knights and stealing their wealth.
It’s perhaps fitting or even ironic that King Louis XVI also visited the Temple but this time as a prisoner. How the ghosts of those tortured and executed by his ancestor must have laughed at this pathetic spectacle. He was joined at the Temple by Marie Antoinette, his unpopular wife – who would also lose her head on the guillotine.
Louis and Marie Antoinette couldn’t stop scheming to reclaim their throne from the Republican revolutionaries and even conspired with foreign powers. This led to their eventual bloody downfall. After a period of Republican chaos, a man called Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of France.
Napoleon demolished the Templar fortress in the first decade of the nineteenth century – it took quite a while apparently to take the thing down. He was worried that Bourbon royalists loyal to Louis would converge there regarding it as a kind of pilgrimage site. That was the last thing he was prepared to tolerate and so in went the wreckers.
Anti-Christ part two (see my previous blog post)
So, we established that in the Middle Ages – the Templars and many others believed in the stories of Anti-Christ, though these varied and his physical appearance ranges from looking a lot like Jesus to being a hairy oblong creature with iron teeth.
What most stories agreed on was that Anti-Christ would rule mankind but be toppled by Christ who would slay him. First question then is – how would Anti-Christ react when he first saw Jesus appear to take back his kingdom. One medieval chronicler was pretty blunt about it – try and work out the old English meaning:
For crist com sal be sa bright / That thoru that mikel lorde light / Him sal of stand so mikel awe / That all the filthes of his maugh / Sal breste out atte his fondament / For drede of crist he sal be shent / Sua sal he peris al be-shetin / Bath with drede and soru beten
Bathed with the dread of his own sh*t – basically. You have to remember that the medieval mind was pretty direct about bodily functions and so it wouldn’t have come as a huge surprise for a Christian to be told that when Christ comes, Anti-Christ’s bowels will loosen.
The Templars were accused by their detractors of being soldiers for the anti-Christ – not for Christ as they claimed. Other more esoteric theories suggest the Templars may have indulged in Satanic rituals or followed Gnostic beliefs imbibed in the East.
So, who exactly is the Anti-Christ?
Anti-Christ is a concept that is hard for the modern mind to grasp. I’m not convinced everybody in the Middle Ages had a firm handle on the concept.
The gist is that Anti-Christ is a figure who comes to deceive mankind and in whom Satan has some kind of controlling influence – or even dwells actively within. Anti-Christ will come at the end of days pretending to be the saviour but being the complete opposite.
Anti-Christ could have been the Emperor Nero!
Anti-Christ may be a leading political figure or somebody who claims to be a force for good in the world. Or Anti-Christ may reveal himself as a complete psychopath. Either way, Jesus Christ will come along and vanquish him.
Some early Christians thought the Emperor Nero was Anti-Christ and with good cause – he blamed Christians for a huge fire in Rome during his reign. Then, according to one source, he burned Christians as street lamps at a private party on his large estate.
A complex mythology around Anti-Christ developed with him seizing power over the entire world from Jerusalem. Then two biblical figures, Elijah and Enoch, would bear witness to his falseness but be killed for their pains.
The evil one would then go insane killing every righteous person he could get his satanic hands on until the Lord overthrew him and raised the two witnesses to the truth from the dead.
It became rather convenient for Popes to identify some of their enemies as Anti-Christ – false preachers sent by Satan. Unfortunately, that could also backfire with popes being accused of being Anti-Christ and having risen themselves up to laud it over mankind. When there were rival popes and anti-popes, this accusation became all the more prevalent.
How do you spot Anti-Christ?
But how would you know the evil one? The problem with the bible is a lack of clarity on who exactly Anti-Christ is – there are several candidates – and what he/it would appear like. So medieval artists gave it their best shot using all manner of sources to guess the appearance of Anti-Christ.
You might recognise him because he would be riding both Leviathan and Behemoth. Well, riding the two giants of land and sea would be quite an entrance.
He normally looks human – sometimes resembling Jesus who he is trying to imitate. In other accounts, he is a bit easier to recognise. One story says he is twelve cubits high, two cubits wide, red crooked eyes, golden hair, green feet and two skulls. Well, you wouldn’t miss that Anti-Christ in a hurry.
More revoltingly, Hildegard von Bingen in the twelfth century had a vision of Anti-Christ being born – from the church which was kind of represented as a woman. I’ll spare some of the details here but out pops a black head with fiery eyes, donkey’s ears, a mouth like a lion, iron teeth, etc.
The creature is a like a hairy black parallelogram with teeth. Anti-Christ will stink apparently. It will then attempt to ascend in to heaven in a parody of Christ’s ascent and be cast down so violently its head will break open.