Were the Knights Templar secretly part of the Cathar heresy?

The Knights Templar were accused of rejecting the divinity of Christ, spitting on the crucifix, not believing the church sacraments and conducting their own masses without a properly consecrated priest. They emerged in France in the 12th century at the same time that a very dangerous heresy had gripped the south of the country: Catharism.

Albigensian_Crusade_01
Pope Innocent III excommunicates the Cathars then has them massacred

The Cathars were Christians who rejected the Pope’s authority and that of his church of priests and bishops as well as holding “gnostic” views such as the existence of an evil deity in constant conflict with a good God. They found a great deal of support not only among ordinary people but even sections of the aristocracy, most notably Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse. Unfortunately for Raymond, his tolerance of the Cathars led to a direct conflict with the most powerful pope in history, Innocent III.

Innocent sent a papal legate Pierre de Castelnau to try and turn Raymond away from the Cathars but not only did the count reject these overtures, Pierre was murdered on his way back to Rome. A furious pope ordered the French king to head a crusade against the Cathars and armies poured into the Languedoc region of France. The surrendering Cathars were either put to the sword or burnt to death.

But their ideas persisted. Many agreed with their view that the church should return to traditions of poverty and piety. Their questioning of the Catholic view that the bread in the mass literally becomes the body of Christ continued to be discussed in low whispers before erupting to the surface centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. Many of France’s elite had family connections to the Cathars including Guillaume de Nogaret, the top adviser to King Philip of France and scourge of the Templars. His parents and grandparents were reportedly Cathars. It seemed that in spite of the success of Innocent’s crusade, Catharism still lurked in dark corners of French society.

Many of the charges levied against the Templars by King Philip of France and his adviser De Nogaret smack of Cathar beliefs. The charges certainly would have resonated with medieval public opinion, familiar with the scandalous views and practice of the southern French rebels.

There may have been genuine fears that as the Templars had operated at the same time as the rise of Catharism that they had imbibed some of their philosophy. Or that the Templars were influenced by ancient Christian beliefs in the east that were very similar to those held by the French heretics. Worse, there may have been an underlying fear that Templar military might could be used to carve out a Cathar sympathetic state in southern France. As the crusades in the Holy Land crumbled, where might Templar energy and know-how be expended?

Possibly what King Philip of France saw in the order was an unimaginable danger that needed to be rapidly snuffed out.

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What exactly were the Templars accused of?

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.

401270_279190018817179_100001785495655_671372_1873688118_nThis 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.

Cathars – the crushing of a medieval heresy

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promised more on the Cathars – so here goes!

The crusades had got off to a ripping start in the Middle East with Jerusalem taken by the crusaders and several Christian kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coast (roughly equivalent to Israel, western Syria and Lebanon today).  All this religious zeal and the success of the endeavour gave the papacy the idea to turn this energy – a combination of the sword and the bible – on to a heresy in France that had annoyed the pope greatly.

Rome had fought to establish its primacy as the centre of the church – with the pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, as its leader. This was not a given in the early days of Christianity and there were still some who baulked at the idea of Rome telling them what they should be thinking and how to pray. One such group were the Cathars and their beliefs were complete anathema to Rome.

They didn’t believe in a formal clergy for a start and took a very dim view of the wealth and riches of the Catholic church.  In the Languedoc region of France, they had powerful supporters among the feudal nobility and the general population. This all posed a dire threat to the papacy – it needed to stamp out this affront to clerical authority.  The weapon that would be chosen would be crusade – a bloody confrontation with the Cathars every bit as violent as what had been meted out to the Saracens in the east.

The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out.  These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed.  Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.

So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe.  A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness.  An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards.  There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.

Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes.  What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc.  If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.

The Cathars had to be crushed.  No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.   I’ll talk more about how the crusade against the Cathars developed in the next few blog posts.

 

Cathars – rebels against the church

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We always think of the crusades as something that happened in the Middle East pitching western Christian warriors against eastern Muslim saracens.  In fact, the crusades of the Middle Ages were far more complex than that – and even involved a war initiated by the Pope against a group of Christians he felt had grown to powerful and influential based in southern France.

The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out.  These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed.  Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.

So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe.  A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness.  An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards.  There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.

Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes.  What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc.  If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.

The Cathars had to be crushed.  No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.

In 1207, the pope called on King Philip II of France to take action.  He did nothing.  Half of what we now call France was under the control of the English (or the Plantagenet kings to be more precise) and he didn’t much fancy a war against his own nobles.

But the pope wasn’t going to go away and forget these Cathars – he decided that Rome had to strangle the Cathars using all the powers at its disposal. I’ll be looking at how the Cathars were crushed in the next few posts.