In 1307, the king of France – Philip the Fair – issued orders to arrest every Knight Templar in his realm. This was done in total secrecy in what one writer has described as the medieval equivalent of a dawn raid. A couple of ex-Templars, disgruntled with the order they had once sworn loyalty to, had spilled the beans to the king’s officials about all manner of dubious practices the Templars were alleged to engage in.
This included the notorious kiss on the base of the spine, the mouth and the navel. There was also the worship of a head – sometimes described as a cat’s head or a three-faced head or the head of John the Baptist or a head in the sand that spoke, etc, etc. The Templars denounced Christ, it was alleged, and stamped, urinated and spat on the cross. This was the very cross that they displayed on their tunics and yet they dishonoured it.
The heresies that the rumour mill attributed to the Templars included being closet Muslims, closet Cathars or closet Mandaeans. The latter were an eastern gnostic sect who revered John the Baptist but rejected Jesus Christ. The stamping on the crucifix was believed to evidence the Templar disdain for Christ. The Cathars were a major heretical movement in France that threatened both royal and church power in the south of the country. Cathars rejected the Catholic church’s hierarchy and sacraments disputing the real nature of Jesus. As regards Islam, it has been argued from the medieval period to the present day by some that the Templars had got a little too close to Muslim belief and the scientific knowledge held in the caliphate’s universities and libraries.
Of course, all of these accusations may be utter tripe. The real reason for the Templars being rounded up, tortured and forced to confess to all of this was that king Philip of France just needed their money. He had bolted to the Paris Temple during a mob riot in the city asking the Templars for their protection but while in their safekeeping, he had seen their wealth at first hand and determined to get his hands on it. Philip had form in this regard having already mugged France’s Jewish population, Lombard merchants and even the church. Why not shake down the Templars?
But in the ‘no smoke without fire’ camp, there are those who think the Templars may genuinely have been influenced by eastern philosophical and religious ideas that crept into their ritual and belief. Maybe not in the lurid terms described by the charges at their trial – but hateful to the western church all the same. The truth is – we don’t know. But what is certain is that the allegations above were upheld at the time and dozens of Templar knights including the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay were burnt at the stake on the basis of their forced confessions.
This is one of a series of Christmas posts showing medieval depictions of the birth of Christ and an insight into how a Knight Templar might have celebrated the season. So here goes with The Visitation – the event sacred to Catholics when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Both women were pregnant with the son of God and the Baptist respectively. According to the church, the unborn baby John knew Jesus was in the other womb and leaped for joy. Elizabeth, suffused with holiness, announced that she knew Mary was going to have a very special birth.
The statue was made in about 1310, shortly after the destruction of the Knight Templar order. Look closely at it. There are two cavities on each woman’s tummy covered in rock crystal. In the past, it’s believed that there were images of the babies under the crystal. This kind of imagery was not uncommon in German speaking Europe where this statue came from.
Today I visited the birthplace of John the Baptist as part of my journey to Israel. The Franciscan monastery at Ein Karem – a village now swallowed up by Jerusalem – is a nineteenth century construction sitting on top of an earlier Byzantine church destroyed during a huge revolt by the Samaritans in Israel during the fifth century. This is a revolt I knew little about before my current visit to Israel but the destructive wave it unleashed is becoming ever clearer – worth a blog post in the future I think!
Anyway – here is the church and the spot at which John the Baptist – dear to the Templars – was conceived.
We tend to regard Christianity as a ready made religion with in-built concepts like the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ co-existing and the redeeming of sins through the great example of the crucifixion. But all these concepts were hotly fought over in the early centuries of Christianity. The Trinity was seen as a lapse in to polytheism, the human nature of Christ was spurned by Gnostics while the idea of a purely divine messiah was rejected by the Ebionites. And the idea of God in the form of his Son being actually crucified was rejected by others who still called themselves Christians.
One variant of Christianity – or offshoot – even denied that Jesus Christ was the saviour. Indeed he was seen as either a lesser figure to John the Baptist or an outright imposter. Far from blazing a path for somebody to come after him, John was the redeemer and the baptism of Christ was the act of a superior bestowing a gift to an inferior. Incredibly, there are still people adhering to this view in the Middle East today.
When the Templars were in ‘outremer’ – the Holy Land and crusader territories in the Levant – they undoubtedly encountered many of the eastern variations on Christianity. Unlike the west, religion was disputed and debated over much more vigorously in the east. From the legalisation of Chrisianity under Constantine to the Middle Ages, the clash of views resulted in murderous feuds between patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.
Most Christians, though, would have outrightly condemned the Johannites or ‘Saint John Christians’ as the Portuguese called them when they encountered such people in the Arabian gulf during their sixteenth century age of navigation. But it’s been conjectured that the Templars, far from condemning this obviously heretical view – embraced it. Thus the head of the creature called ‘Baphomet’, said to be held by the Order, was the head of John the Baptist. Look at the similarity between the two words – Baphomet and Baptist – say supporters of this view.
This rather gnostic veneration of John the Baptist as a great teacher – a view sometimes called Mandaeism – was the great secret of the Templars, it is alleged. A proponent of this theory is Lynn Picknett and here she is explaining it in more detail.
Eusebius – Christian historian of the early legal church under the Romans and a bit of a spin doctor – quotes the story of a group of Christ’s descendants meeting the Roman emperor Domitian in the first century AD. Domitian was a brooding, autocratic ruler hated by the senatorial class but viewed more favourably these days as a reformer, even if his methods were a touch insensitive.
The story of his meeting with the Desposyni of Christ was written over two hundred years later by Eusebius and could be an attempt to suggest that Christianity was more influential at the time than it actually was. There is nothing from contemporary sources in the first hundred years after Christ that indicates the Romans were even aware of this Middle Eastern mystery cult. It just didn’t blip on their radar.
When Tacitus writes about Christians a hundred years after the crucifixion, it’s mainly to snigger about reports that these strange people eat their god during their services.
Anyway – here’s what Eusebius wrote about the meeting between Domitian and the bloodline of Jesus:
There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Jude, brother of Jesus, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done. So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work. Being then asked concerning Christ and His kingdom, what was its nature, and when and where it was to appear, they returned answer that it was not of this world, nor of the earth, but belonging to the sphere of heaven and angels, and would make its appearance at the end of time, when He shall come in glory, and judge living and dead, and render to every one according to the course of his life. Thereupon Domitian passed no condemnation upon them, but treated them with contempt, as too mean for notice, and let them go free. At the same time he issued a command, and put a stop to the persecution against the Church. When they were released they became leaders of the churches, as was natural in the case of those who were at once martyrs and of the kindred of the Lord. And, after the establishment of peace to the Church, their lives were prolonged to the reign of Trajan.