Does the secret Chinon parchment exonerate the Knights Templar as claimed?

Clement
Did this pope really exonerate the Knights Templar?

Astonishingly, the Vatican sat on key documents relating to the trial of the Knights Templar for seven hundred years until author and Vatican archivist Barbara Frale uncovered the so-called Chinon Parchment and made her discovery public in 2001. This was followed in 2007 by the Vatican’s belated release of the original trial documents.

However, contrary to what many people think, the parchment and trial account are not an exoneration of the order by the pope of that time – far from it!

Back in 1307, the Knights Templar had reached a bit of a low ebb. The crusades were failing. The Holy Land was lost. Cyprus was their main eastern stronghold.

So, the last Grand Master – Jacques De Molay – headed west to drum up interest in a new crusade. But by this time, the medieval public had gone down with a severe case of crusade fatigue. Regaining Jerusalem – surrendered to Islam over a century before – looked like a total lost cause.

Add to that a mercurial king of France, Philip the Fair, who was continuously short of money. He’d shaken down the Jews, Lombards and monasteries and now cast a greedy eye over the Templars. Weren’t they loaded? Only one way to find out.

So, in 1307 he rounded the Templars up, locked the knights in dungeons where they were tortured to sign false confessions and headed for the Paris Temple, a massive fortress, to fill his boots with Templar loot. Needless to say, he found nothing. The money had gone.

In order to assault the Templars, the king had to sell this drastic action to his people with a tsunami of fake news about the order. The knights were sorcerers, heretics, sodomites, rebels, robbers and so on. These accusations needed a holy seal of approval and luckily for Philip there was a compliant French pope at hand, Clement V, to give the thumbs up.

For seven years, the pope and his cardinals questioned Jacques De Molay and other senior Templars to squeeze confessions out of them. De Molay had returned to France in good faith to raise money and recruits for a new crusade but now found himself in court fighting for his life. At times, he broke down and admitted to the king’s trumped up charges but then recovered his nerve and tore up his previous statements.

There was only one way this appalling farce was going to end and in 1314, De Molay was burnt at the stake with two other Templars as heretics who had refused to recant. And so it might have rested. But clearly the church felt more than a pang of guilt at destroying a military order that had shown nothing but unswerving loyalty to its Catholic mission and the pope. The Chinon Parchment shows how the pope wrestled with his conscience.

Frale’s discovery of this stunning document might look like a complete exoneration of the Templars by the papacy. But it’s not. In a rather mealy-mouthed way, it lets the knights off the heresy hook but damns them on other charges. It certainly casts doubt on the way in which their dissolution was conducted and reveals a pope who was bitterly unhappy at being strong armed into this course of action.

Interestingly, it airs the Templar justification for one of its more curious practices – that of spitting on the crucifix. The order claimed that this prepared knights for being captured by the Muslim enemy. Attempts by the Saracens to break their will in captivity through acts of sacrilege could be resisted by the imprisoned Templars because they had already role played this kind of scenario.

Frale has also claimed that the Vatican archive contains evidence that the worship of a head may not have been a profane and pagan activity but a veneration of the body of Jesus. It’s often assumed that the head referred to was variously that of John the Baptist or the prophet Mohammed (if you think the Templars were secretly in league with the Saracens!) or even a cat. But Frale thinks it might have been a representation of the Messiah.

However, the Templars are not given a seal of approval anywhere in the Chinon Parchment. The pope seems to have absolved the Templars without exonerating them. Maybe this gave them a papal passport to heaven but it still meant they were going to be burnt to death first.

It’s hard to imagine this gave them much comfort as their bones were broken in torture chambers and their bodies consumed by fire.

 

 

Ten accusations made against the Knights Templar

Templar artworkIn 1307, the Knights Templar were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured under secret orders issued by the King of France. The trials of top Templars would last for years and lead to many being burnt at the stake including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. He was incinerated in public in front of Notre Dame cathedral.

A string of scandalous accusations were made against the Knights Templar to justify smashing the order. I recommend Malcom Barber’s detailed account of The Trial of the Templars if you want to learn a lot more.

MolayHere were some of the most noteworthy charges:

  1. New entrants to the Templar order had to deny Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints
  2. Templars were told that Christ was a false prophet and there was no hope of receiving salvation through belief in him
  3. Knights were ordered to spit on a crucifix and even urinate or trample on it
  4. The order worshipped a head of some description, possibly that of a cat or with three faces or an idol called Baphomet
  5. This idol was encircled with cords, which the Templars then wore around their waists
  6. The Knights Templar rejected the sacraments of the Catholic church
  7. It was thought that the Grand Master and other leading Templars could absolve sins even though they were laymen and not priests
  8. New entrants were kissed on the mouth, the navel, the stomach, the buttocks and the spine and homosexuality was encouraged
  9. The Templars were only interested in financial gain and pocketed donations for their own use
  10. Chapter meetings and initiations were held in strictest secret with only Templars present and those that revealed any details to people outside of the order would be punished with imprisonment or death

A short film from the Smithsonian includes a reenactment of what the alleged initiation ritual looked like.

How the Templars became the Order of Christ in Portugal

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From my trip to the Viagem Medieval in Portugal in 2017

In 1312, Pope Clement V ordered all Christian rulers to seize the assets of the Knights Templar and hand them over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. One king refused to obey. In Portugal, King Dinis took over the Templar assets himself.  In effect, he used his royal power to protect and reshape the order so that it could continue. The result was the formation of the Order of Christ.

By 1319, King Dinis had convinced Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to recognise his new order. Dinis argued that Portugal still faced a significant threat from Muslim armies to the south. 150 years before, the Templars had helped the first kings of Portugal to create their country. This had involved conquering cities like Lisbon and Santarem from Muslim control to forge a new Christian nation.

The Templars had always been in the front line pushing the frontier ever further southwards. They had done so at considerable risk to their own safety. For this, Portugal was grateful. And so when the king was asked to suppress the Templars, he recoiled. Dinis came up with a novel and unique solution. Today, we would call it rebranding. He took brand Templar and relaunched it as brand Order of Christ.

As with the Templars, the new order followed the Cistercian rule – the code by which those monks led their daily lives. The Cistercians and Templars had always been closely interconnected. From 1357, the Order of Christ was moved to the same headquarters the Templars had used and built – the castle at Tomar.

FullSizeRender (2)King Dinis was a complex character. A poet who resisted church power and did more than any king before him to promote a strong Portuguese identity.

His son Afonso IV continued his father’s legacy nurturing the Order of Christ which was soon to play a leading role in the age of discoveries, which would see navigators from Portugal sail around Africa and discover Brazil.

This year, I went to a historical reenactment festival in northern Portugal called the Medieval Journey – Viagem Medieval. Every year, huge crowds turn out to see battles and short plays about a particular monarch. This year, it was the turn of King Afonso IV.

The festival slogan was a bit grim: Hunger, Plague and War. But Afonso IV reigned during a stormy period that included the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated populations across Europe. He also had to see off attacks from both Muslim armies and those of neighbouring Castile, another Christian kingdom that would evolve in future centuries into modern Spain.

Here are some images from my visit and a video of the battle scene – enjoy!

Tomar – mysterious city of the Knights Templar

I’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.

I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.

I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.

 

How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.

 

Templar secret initiation rites

When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that their initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross. So what is true?

The reward
Frale has an explanation for strange initiation rites

Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth. But it was the desecration of the crucifix that shocked medieval opinion. These were supposed to be religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land and they were denouncing their own faith in private.

The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.

This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…

As for some of the other more lewd aspects of the initiation, Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question. Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand.

However, this failed to convince king Philip who viewed this bizarre rite as a very strong excuse for banning the Templars, burning dozens of them and confiscating their property.

Christmas: How to show a God being incarnated

From the start of Christianity, there had been stormy debate about the nature of Christ’s divinity and his humanity. Early Christians were bitterly divided over whether he was all human, all divine or a bit of both. Some thought he started out human but was then “adopted” into the Godhead. Others thought he was divine but inferior to God the Father. And on top of this confusion was the question of Mary. Mother of Christ? Mother of God? Virgin or not?

The idea of a holy person being born of a divine father and earthly mother went right back into Egyptian mythology and was nothing particularly new. But the concept was a difficult one to grasp and Christians certainly wrestled with the mechanics down to a minute level.

Here is a statue from 1300 made in the Rhine valley. It has two little doors and when closed shows the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. But when it opens, there seated in majesty is God the Father within the body of Mary. I can’t help feeling that this image throws up more questions and dilemmas about the concept of the virgin birth.

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How The Devil Got His Horns

Giotto - Scrovegni - -28- - Judas Receiving Pa...

On BBC Four this week, historian Alastair Sooke tackled the vexed question of how the devil got his horns? Did he always look as we imagine him? Well, if we go back to the start of Christianity – there are some surprises in store.

Sooke starts in Ravenna, the Italian town that was the capital of the western Roman empire in its final declining years. Christians in Ravenna were still deliberating about the nature of Christ’s divinity – let alone the devil’s physical appearance. But in one church, there is a depiction of the devil in a mosaic. Christ is seated in purple like a wealthy Roman in a toga. On one side is an angel in red and on the other side is one in blue. Strangely, it’s the angel in blue that is the devil – because in the 6th century AD, blue was viewed as a more sinister colour than red (not everybody agrees with this analysis – though if it was true it would be the first image of the devil).

The devil is an angel in early writings – beautiful Lucifer who was cast out of paradise. He’s not mentioned in Genesis and details of him are scant in the rest of the bible. Yet we have a huge artistic tradition showing Satan as a diabolical tyrant ruling over hell. So where did this imagery come from? Off to Venice then – where Sooke is mesmerised by the huge 11th century Byzantine influenced mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta.

Heaven and hell are depicted. A blue figure with flowing white hair sits at the centre – a grotesque figure. Is he the devil? Well, maybe. But on his lap is a much smaller figure in a toga with his hand raised in benediction – who is he? Possible Judas? Sooke is convinced the blue figure is the devil – but he’s a custodian of hell acting on God‘s behalf, not an enemy at war with the Almighty.

Finding human-like depictions of the devil challenged the early church but eventually they settled on previously worshiped pagan deities. For the first millennium of Christianity, the church was still engaged in mopping up pockets of paganism. How better to discredit pagans than turning their Gods into the devil. The imagery of the Egyptian god Bes – a lucky amulet for centuries – became a hideous Satan. The Greek satyr with hairy legs, pointy ears and mischievous faces was transformed into the Lord of Evil.

A figure that was previously a marginal figure in the bible, often there to test and accuse – a kind of bureaucrat acting on God’s behalf – now becomes a monstrous figure acting in his own right. As the Middle Ages progressed, the devil transformed into the master of a realm distinct from heaven – and in hostile opposition to it. The Winchester Psalter in the mid-12th century showed the devil with a vast mouth swallowing up kings, queens and great secular figures. At Lincoln Cathedral, there’s an orgy of sado-masochism over the porch leaving little to the imagination as to what hell would be like for sinners.

Mystery plays, originating in France 900 years ago, took the idea of Lucifer to new extremes as lay people let their imaginations run riot. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the mystery plays that rapidly evolved what we visualise today as the devil. At a time when plague or hunger could wipe out whole populations, the hand of evil was seen everywhere by ordinary people. All the woes serfs suffered had to be a torment inflicted, not something random without a cause.

In the Baptistry in Florence, a 14th century mosaic of Satan is still blue in the face with a green body and there are two huge horns and animalistic ears, created by the artist Coppo di Marcovaldo. In Padua, Sooke views the fresco of Giotto bringing the last judgment to life – painted just a few decades later. His devil is eating and excreting victims while around him, sinners are being skewered and nearby, Judas Iscariot is hanging from a tree.

But Giotto’s devil is not his finest accomplishment – in fact, it’s rather mediocre compared to the amazing naturalistic depictions of other biblical figures. Around the same time as Giotto, it was the poet Dante who really took the concept of the devil forward. In the Divine Comedy, hell is a series of concentric circles with a giant devil embedded in ice at the centre. Dante’s devil is a three dimensional figure who is the father of sorrow and pained by his fate. This fallen angel of Dante would go on to inspire Milton and Gustav Dore more than Giotto’s comic book figure.

Siena is then visited by Sooke, which has several images painted by Luca Signorelli of devilish activity including a very eerie painting of Anti-Christ active on earth. A false prophet on a podium being advised by the devil. It’s believed this Anti-Christ was the 15th century preacher turned dictator of Florence, Savonarola, whom Signorelli despised. The demons are brightly coloured including the painter’s self portrait as a blue devil with a single horn protruding out of his forehead.

Sooke concludes that the devil appears to have gone on a journey from beautiful angel cast out of heaven to a vile demon. The historian concludes that if god is western culture’s superego then the devil is our id.

Burial place of Templar Grand Masters

This is a Templar jewel – something everybody should visit. It’s the burial place of the Templar grand masters of Portugal – a church in the town of Tomar built in the very century that the order was formed by Hugh de Payens. Every Templar Grand Master from Gualdim Pais onwards was interred in this modest church until the Templars were suppressed by order of the pope. It’s difficult to find the graves of all the masters and a simple plaque indicates the remains of Pais – a legendary figure in his own lifetime who fought the Moors alongside the first king of Portugal.

These are photographs I took there in August this year.