The most horrific disease at the time of the Knights Templar

Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.

leper monks
A bishop confronted by several monks in the 1300s who have got leprosy

You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.

But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.

The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.

Greensted-Church-Essex-Lepers-Squint
The leper squint at Greenstead

So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.

When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.

Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:

I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.

The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.

And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.

The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.

Here is a tribute to the leper king of Jerusalem:

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Sacred statues without hair and clothes

2017-08-05 14.28.56I was in Lisbon in August of this year and made an interesting discovery…

This year, I was walking up a steep hill in Lisbon to visit the medieval cathedral. This austere fortress-like edifice was built after the city was taken from its Muslim rulers by the Templars and the Portuguese army – assisted by many foreign crusaders – in the year 1147.

What the Christians found when they entered the city was a huge mosque at its centre. This was torn down and the cathedral erected in its place.

It’s not the most attractive medieval building in Europe and with its thick walls and arrow slit windows, you get the impression that the citizenry were expecting their former rulers to try and return and recapture the place.

It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a Muslim city here, at the westernmost end of a global medieval caliphate stretching from India to the Algarve in southern Portugal. Algarve, by the way, is from the Arabic “Al-Gharb” meaning the west. The city had been in Muslim hands for over four hundred years. It’s been the capital of Catholic Portugal for the last eight hundred years. So the Islamic heritage has been largely erased.

2017-08-05 14.28.27-1Half way up the hill, I found an antique shop selling statues from the 17th to 19th centuries that had once adorned churches in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Curiously, many of items had lost their clothes and hair at some point. So pictured here is Jesus Christ with the bloodied wounds from his crown of thorns but the crown, his hair and robes have gone.

What you’re left with is the puppet-like body that was always underneath to be manipulated as the church saw fit. His arms could be extended, his legs crossed, his head bowed, whatever was required.

This would have been little different to statues of the medieval period and today, as in those times, these are often carried in processions around the streets on special feast days.

Quite a morbid shop I must say, but completely fascinating.

 

Were the Knights Templar heretics?

What heretical ideas might the Knights Templar have adhered to or imported from the east into the very heart of western Christendom?

There’s an interesting section in the book The Templars History and Myth by Michael Haag on medieval heresy in relation to the Templars that is a good starting point. Let’s look at three heretical movements that could have influenced the Templars:

  1. The Cathars

burning_heretics_02Guillaume de Puylaurens was born in Toulouse some time after the year 1200 and lived to witness the region he grew up in convulsed by a heretical movement called the Cathars. He was in turn a priest, then worked for the local bishop and eventually rose to become chaplain to Raymond VII of Toulouse – who was basically a medieval warlord resisting the authority of the King of France.

Guillaume would spend his closing years freelancing for the Inquisition and sending heretics to the flames. The 13th century saw the emergence, through clerical orders like the Dominicans, of that frightening ecclesiastical phenomenon that would bring so much misery to Europe – the Inquisition or Tribunal of the Holy Office.

Guillaume spotted heretics all over the place in southern France. Arians, Waldensians and Manichaeans were actively spreading their ideas if his chronicles are to be believed. Common themes in all these heresies, particularly the Cathars, were a questioning of the divine nature of Christ, the promotion of poverty as a virtue, a rejection of the material world and a scathing criticism of the wealth and power of a church that falsely claimed it ruled in the name of Christ.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time when the Catholic church exercised total authority over the people of Europe but the truth was very different. Ask a priest, bishop or pope at the time and they’d have listed the many threats out there to church dominance. It would have felt to these men that Roman Catholicism was under constant attack from powerful and evil forces.

The Languedoc region, with its capital at Toulouse, was the centre of the Cathar heresy that led to a papal crusade and the burning of their leaders, many of whom were local aristocrats. It was also a region where the Templars had ties of family, wealth and property. Michael Haag argues that some of the Templar patrons were known Cathar supporters.

It would take forever to detail all the Cathar beliefs that so offended Rome. In short, they continued a dualist tradition that had existed in early Christianity with a belief that the world was so corrupt and evil, it could not have been created by a good God. Therefore, a malign force had conjured up the material world while the true God was calling us all to rejoin him in the spiritual realm.

If this was true, Jesus Christ could not have been tainted by human flesh and was therefore an entirely spiritual entity. Again, an idea that many early Christians adhered to. This meant the Virgin birth story was a lie. This contempt for the carnal led some Cathars to reject meat and dairy products as well as abstaining entirely from sex.

TLSMacCullochThe argument runs that the Knights Templar were noticeably absent from the so-called “Albigensian crusade” launched by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars. That name derives from the town of Albi, a hotspot of Cathar activity. It’s also conjectured that the Templars wanted to carve out their own state in southern France, in opposition to the king, with the help of local magnates and Cathars.

Some have argued that the Cathars were in possession of the treasure found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. They reputedly hid it down a well in the fortified town of Caracassonne.

The problem with arguing a Templar/Cathar connection is that the knights were repeatedly held up as exemplars of the church militant.  They were protected by the papacy, lauded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and fought tenaciously to extend Catholic dominion in the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula. So surely they were on the pope’s side against these accursed Cathars?

However, the Templars also came to a barbaric and disgraceful end at the hands of that very same church. Their leaders and last Grand Master faced the same flames that engulfed many a Cathar. Both Templars and Cathars endured horrific torture and interrogation from priests and bishops. So can we deduce some kind of link from this?

It’s maybe not so surprising that the man entrusted with crushing the Templars, the King of France’s keeper of the seal Guillaume de Nogaret, was from a family that had fallen in with the Cathars. Possibly, Nogaret felt he had to over-compensate for this unfortunate treachery in his background by being ultra-loyal to king and pope.

  1. The Gnostics

I shudder every time I decide to touch this subject. Gnosticism almost defies description. But let’s have a go. I apologise in advance for the crudeness of this summary if any Gnostics are browsing this blog.

gnosisFirst thing to say is that elements of Gnosticism predate Christianity. You can find some of the basic tenets in Plato and other philosophers as well as the beliefs of certain ancient religious cults.

Basically, there have always been thoughtful people who have looked at the horror of the world around them and thought – this runs counter to who I am and what I should be. This world is false and empty. It’s a distraction. There must be a path back to a better kind of existence in tune with a true God who would not have wanted this to happen.

“Gnosis” = knowledge. Our world is the result of a cosmic catastrophe. We must acquire the knowledge that takes us back to our true essence. That will reunite us with the true God. When the catastrophe occurred, it sent millions of pieces of divine essence hurtling through the universe. Some of us have a piece of the divine within us and our aim must be, through total rejection of everything we see around us, to make our way back to God.

Like the Cathars, the idea of a bodily Jesus being born and dying was complete anathema. Jesus had come to impart knowledge – not drink wine, eat bread and die on a cross. The Gospel of John reads in a very Gnostic manner once you know the basics. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word”. Gnosticism on a plate!

abraxasThose who support the idea of a Templar/Gnostic connection point to the use of certain symbols on their seals, for example the demi-god Abraxas. This entity had the body of a man and head of a cockerel.

Abraxas was one of the Archons – servants of the evil or creator God that had landed us in the mess we find ourselves in today. These Archons, 365 in total, stand between humanity and the true God to whom we must return, though not all of us can.

The Catholic church viewed Abraxas as a pagan god so what is this creature doing popping up on Templar seals?

  1. The Assassins

assassinThose of you acquainted with Assassin’s Creed will view the Templars as diametrically opposed to the Assassins, locked in a centuries old conflict. But there’s a different view.

James Wasserman, in his book Assassins: The Militia of Heaven, writes that through contact with the Assassins, the Templars imbibed Islamic forms of Gnosticism.

Wasserman thinks the Templars were swayed by the occult practices and teachings of the Assassins. They also shared the selfless bravery of this murderous organisation. Templars were always first in and last out of any battle and never flinched in the face of furious Saracen onslaughts. The Assassins performed a ritual where their own adepts were ordered to leap to a certain death from a precipice – which they duly did.

There is also a sense of both the Templars and Assassins being outsiders. The Templars were feted then rejected and crushed by the Catholic church. They had their own organisation, ethos and objectives. The Assassins, who belonged to the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam, killed both crusader and Saracen leaders.

Allegedly off their heads on hashish, the Assassins turned political assassination into something of an art form. They managed to murder Raymond II, count of Tripoli in 1152; Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem, in 1192 and made an audacious but unsuccessful attempt on the life of Saladin. The Templars justified their killing for Christ by calling it “malecide”, the murdering of evil, not people. These were two groups with very strange morals from our point of view.

The Templars and Assassins were physically based very closely to each other in the Holy Land. Did that proximity lead to a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

Your thoughts on this would be very welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

Investigating the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: THE PRIORY OF SION

Priory_of_Sion_LogoOne of the great mysteries and contentious discussion points about the Knights Templar is whether the order was established by an already existing secret society called the Priory of Sion. This, as you will know, forms the basis of the story behind Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The story goes that the priory was formed to protect the sacred bloodline of Jesus Christ from the Catholic church, which feared the threat to its power and the terrible truth that would fatally undermine the papacy’s authority and fabulous wealth.

The Messiah had conceived at least one child with Mary Magdalene, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. Her descendants were the Merovingian kings overthrown in the eighth century CE who ruled over a large part of modern France, Germany and Switzerland.

The priory’s aim was to reinstate the dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy over Europe ruled by the descendants of Jesus. The Knights Templar had been formed by the priory to achieve this objective, whatever the official reasons given for their creation.

Subsequent centuries had seen a secret battle played out between different forces including the priory, the Templars, the church and Freemasons. They were fighting and scheming for control of the Holy Grail. But what exactly was the Grail? A physical object like a cup used at the Last Supper or the bloodline of Jesus Christ? The so-called Sang Real?

This is all of course discounted by mainstream medieval historians as hokum. The history of the Knights Templar, in their view, does not require additional layers of fantasy to be fascinating. The Priory of Sion is utter nonsense invented by con artists and spread by the credulous. Well, below, we’re going to examine the case for the existence of the Priory of Sion and the case for the prosecution.

First – let’s hear from the defence – those who believe the Priory of Sion was very real.

Case for the Defence

  • Incredible_Facts_Templars_knights_crusades_7The Priory of Sion was founded in Jerusalem after the First Crusade resulted in the capture of the city by Christian forces in 1099. It was based on the site of the Byzantine Hagia Sion, which subsequently housed a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. The Priory and Abbey were one and the same thing. This church was the site of the bodily and spiritual “assumption” of the Virgin Mary into heaven (in Catholic dogma). It’s now under the control of the Benedictines.
  • The Priory of Sion founded the Knights Templar to achieve its hidden objectives. This was to protect the bloodline of Jesus – the real Holy Grail. The term Holy Grail means “Sang Real” or Royal Blood. The Templars were the Grail Knights spoken of in legend. It was their role and destiny to defend the Grail, the bloodline, at all costs. This they would do until the time came to make the bloodline known to humanity.
  • Saunière1852-1917A 19th century French priest François-Bérenger Saunière discovered the truth about the Priory of Sion after being sent to run a church in the French village of Rennes-le-Château. The church was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus Christ, who had fled to France after the crucifixion. While in this role, Saunière installed the statue of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, the hugely popular pilgrimage site. He was a pious cleric who believed he had stumbled on a great truth.
  • Saunière seemed to become very rich, very quickly. He built a large estate between 1898 and 1905 that included the Rococo-style edifice, Villa Bethania and the Tour Magdala with an orangery. The 1998 novel Menorah conjectures that Saunière had found the seven-branched candelabra of the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed and sacked by the Romans.
  • 71mFQClUroL._SL1260_In the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail it was pointed out that Rennes-le-Chateau was located close to the ancestral home of Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar. The three authors of the book wondered if Blanchefort had buried Templar treasure in the vicinity. They believed that during the second world war, German soldiers had very likely excavated the area. Why? Because the Nazis, obsessed with the occult, were aware that their favourite composer Richard Wagner had visited Rennes-le-Château and shortly afterwards written his opera Parsifal, based on a medieval Grail quest story of the same name. Wagner knew that Rennes-le-Château was concealing a Grail mystery.
  • The book detailed how in 1891, Saunière had the altar stone removed in his church and inside one of two Visigothic pillars supporting it, discovered four parchments in sealed wooden tubes dating from between 1244 to the 1780s.
  • The 1780s parchments were the most interesting authored by a priest called Antoine Bigou who was the chaplain to the Blanchefort family just before the 1789 French Revolution. They appeared to be texts from the New Testament in Latin but were written rather oddly and clearly contained coded messages. They became the subject of three documentaries made for the BBC in the 1970s by one of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Henry Lincoln. It referred to the last Merovingian king, Dagobert II, as follows once decoded: “To Dagobert II, king, and to Sion belongs this treasure and he is there dead.”
  • Another parchment contained the enigmatic message: “Shepherdess, no temptation. That Poussin, Teniers hold the key. Peace 681. By the cross and this horse of God. I complete this daemon of the guardian at noon. Blue apples.”
  • Nicolas_Poussin_-_Et_in_Arcadia_ego_(deuxième_version)Saunière made the discovery of the parchments known to the bishop of Carcassonne who, realising their importance, sent him to Paris straight away. While there, visiting clerics and mixing with society people, he went to the Louvre to acquaint himself with the Poussin painting The Shepherds of Arcadia, long believed to include a Templar related secret message.
  • Asmodeus / Devil at Rennes-le-ChateauSaunière returned to Rennes-le-Château and embarked on a bizarre redecoration of his church that included a representation of the demon Asmodeus who, in Talmudic legends, built the Temple of Solomon. In Kabbalistic circles, Asmodeus was the offspring of King David and the queen of the demons, Agrat bat Mahlat.
  • On 22 January, 1917, Saunière suffered a stroke and died. The huge estate he had built was passed to his long serving housekeeper Marie Denarnaud. Gradually sliding in to genteel poverty after the second world war, Denarnaud sold the estate to a businessman called Noël Corbu (1912-1968). She promised to confide a secret to Corbu that would make him rich and powerful but tantalisingly died before she could impart this knowledge.
  • The author Dan Brown took the story of these hidden parchments and brought the story of the Priory of Sion back to public prominence with his book The Da Vinci Code. The adventure starts with the murder of a curator at the Louvre called Jacques Saunière (same name as the priest who served at Rennes-le-Château) , who also happens to be the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. His killer is a Catholic monk under the direction of a “teacher” who wants to use the secret of the Holy Grail to destroy the Vatican. The real meaning of the Holy Grail is the bloodline of Christ and it leads the book’s hero to the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, located under the Louvre.
  • Dan Brown has asserted strongly that the Priory of Sion is fact and not fiction.

Case for the Prosecution

  • davinci-code_0004The Prioriy of Sion was an invention of a French convicted fraudster called Pierre Athanase Marie Plantard (1920-2000). In 1953, he served a six-month prison sentence for fraud. This was revealed in a BBC2 programme called The History of a Mystery, part of the “Timewatch” documentary series. Timewatch was the successor to an earlier documentary strand called “Chronicles”, which in the 1970s had promoted the whole Priory of Sion thesis.
  • Three years after his prison sentence, with an accomplice called André Bonhomme, Plantard created an organisation called The Priory of Sion in 1956. Bonhomme was president and Plantard was secretary general. Initially, it was not intended to be viewed as an ancient sect pre-dating the Templars, but just a pressure group campaigning for better local housing. It also took a traditionalist Catholic line and wanted to work with the local church on things like running a school bus service. Sion refers to a hill near the town of Annemasse where Plantard lived in the Auvergne region of France. The priory folded later the same year.
  • Enter Robert Charroux, a man who believed that aliens had visited humanity in ancient history and imparted wondrous knowledge. A very similar theory was popularised in the 60s and 70s by the Swiss author Erich Von Däniken with his book Chariot of the Gods. In 1962, Charroux wrote a book Trésors du monde. It gave details of hidden treasures all over the world. Charroux had come across the aforementioned Noël Corbu who had bought the estate built by the priest Saunière. BlancheofcastileCorbu had serialised a story in the local paper claiming that the priest Saunière had discovered all or part of a 28.5 million gold pieces fortune gathered by Blanche of Castile to pay the ransom on King Louis of France during the Crusades, when he was being held prisoner by the Saracens in Egypt. This was detailed, he claimed, in the parchments found in the pillar of the altar in his church by Saunière. Cynics countered that Corbu was just trying to drum up business at his restaurant.
  • A great deal is made of the sudden wealth acquired by Saunière as proof that he had indeed found part of the wealth of Blanche of Castile and possibly other treasure. The reality, as evidenced by several church disciplinary hearings and the stripping of his priesthood, is that he was utterly corrupt, selling masses which was against church law. This view was corroborated by a local historian, René Descadeillas, in 1974 as well as a Channel 4 documentary in the UK called The Real Da Vinci Code broadcast in 2005 and a CBS 60 Minutes investigation, Priory of Sion, aired the following year. All came to the conclusion that Saunière’s wealth did not derive from discovering secret treasure but by exploiting his gullible parishioners.
  • CBS also questioned the veracity of the discovered parchments and revealed that Plantard had been investigated by the French secret services during the second world war and described as a “fantasist”. He had come to their attention as an extreme right-wing activist.
  • Plantard seems to have latched on to the Corbu story and developed it. In fact, all the protagonists in this conspiracy theory grabbed the Priory of Sion story baton and ran with it awhile – developing new angles before handing it on to another author.
  • Plantard and others then developed a lineage for the Priory of Sion transporting it back way beyond 1956 into the mists of history. It was linked by Plantard to an abbey in Jerusalem, the Hagia Sion or Church of Zion. This was originally built in the early 5th century, then destroyed by invading Persians and later occupied by a monastic order called the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. As Plantard rightly pointed out, they were absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. But experts say that order had nothing to do with Plantard’s Priory of Sion.
  • GdeS06Plantard hooked up with an author called Gérard de Sède (1921-2004) who was the Baron de Lieoux and a man heavily influenced by surrealism. The result was a tome called L’Or de Rennes, the gold of Rennes, published in 1967. The two of them concocted the yarn that the last Merovingian king was buried at Rennes-le-Château in the eighth century and that the Priory of Sion had been working clandestinely ever since to bring the Merovingians back to power.
  • Plantard had taken his Priory of Sion organisation from a defunct housing pressure group to an ancient brotherhood protecting the Merovingian line of which he now decided he was a descendant. The central proposition was that a Merovingian monarch would rule France, and possible Europe, fulfilling a prophecy of Nostradamus. Plantard styled himself “Chyren”, a pseudonym referring to “Chren Selin”, an anagram used by Nostradamus to refer to this future king.
  • Enter Philippe de Chérisey, another aristocrat influenced by surrealism, who became buddies with Plantard in the early 1960s. He undoubtedly forged medieval parchments, allegedly found by Saunière, to back up the idea of the Priory of Sion being an ancient organisation. With Plantard, he created a load of allegedly secret documents, which they placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (bit like the Library of Congress or the British Library) De Cherisey seems to have viewed these forgeries as a bit of a hoot. In later confessions, he conceded that he enjoyed setting false trails.
  • Henry Lincoln, author of Holy Blood Holy Grail, admitted that Plantard had told him De Cherisey had created the documents on which the whole Priory of Sion hoax rests.
  • The Italian author and academic Umberto Eco was fascinated by the Knights Templar and the fantasy that surrounds them. He satirised people like Plantard in his book Foucault’s Pendulum where three publishers develop a fraudulent conspiracy theory only to be sucked in to a real one. This is surely a post-modern chuckle at the fantasists and hucksters.
  • What we have with the Priory of Sion is a total fabrication half-believed by all those involved.

davisIt sounds pretty damning for Plantard and his Priory of Sion. But then there’s another hypothesis put forward by Templar historian Graeme Davis in his book Knights Templar A Secret History. Should mention that he also co-designed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Davis argues that the whole point of the Plantard hoax was to throw people off the scent of the real location of the Holy Grail.

In 2007 Davis met an academic who had taught at the University of Toulouse called Dr Émile Fouchet. They were at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Fouchet shared his notes on the foundation of the Knights Templar with Davis three days before he was killed in a car accident in 2012 just outside Troyes, a town in France with strong Templar connections. Accident? Suicide? Murder? Who knows.

Fouchet developed a complicated account of the Holy Grail being fought over down the centuries by Freemasons, the Inquisition and a secret continuation of the Knights Templar in various guises. One of the Templar tools was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte who they allowed to demolish the Paris Temple to cover his tracks.

The Holy Grail was hidden by the Templars at Rennes-le-Château where Saunière, an Inquisition agent, set about trying to find it. The Templars created false trails to confuse both the Inquisition and Freemasons who desperately tried to locate the Grail in Rennes-le-Château even though it had already gone. The Templars had whisked it out of the country. Eventually, the Inquisition realised Saunière’s efforts had come to nothing and they hung him out to dry with charges of corruption.

Fast forward to the Second World War and the Templars had got an ultra-right-wing nationalist called Plantard to start writing a load of baloney about secret documents and his connection to the Merovingian dynasty and Mary Magdalene. All of which, Fouchet asserted, was another false trail created by the Templars. They wanted the Inquisition and Freemasons to believe the Grail was still in Rennes-le-Château when it had left in around 1897. Where was it now? A town called Sion in Switzerland is one possibility.

One nagging problem I have with this hypothesis is that I can’t find anything about Emile Fouchet except in this book. My journalistic curiosity demands that I know who this guy was and his background and qualifications. Can anybody shed any light here?

I hope you have enjoyed this investigation of the Priory of Sion!

 

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part three

The temple as it appeared in the Roman period
The temple as it appeared in the Roman period

Last month I was in Rome and one theme of my trip was looking at pagan temples of the Roman period that were then converted into Christian churches during the Middle Ages.

In the middle of the Roman Forum are the pillared remains of a temple built by the emperor Antoninus Pius and dedicated to his dead wife, Faustina. The building took twenty years to complete between CE141 and CE161. Antoninus Pius was ruler of the Roman empire during a period of relative stability and enormous wealth. When the emperor died, it was dedicated to both him and his wife.

150 years later – after a long period of chaos – Rome became Christian and the temple fell out of use. As so often happened during the late empire, the temple began to be recycled as it fell into disuse. However the outer ring of columns and walls survived. This was in spite of one attempt to pull down the pillars, evidenced by cut marks at the top of the columns.

During the Byzantine period, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda – possibly based on the belief that Saint Lawrence was martyred there. You can still see steps leading up to the door of the church built in the Middle Ages. However, the main door of the church is now stranded in mid-air, high above ground level. Repeated excavations over the centuries have removed so much earth and debris that it’s impossible to enter San Lorenzo.

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part one

I was in Rome last month and saw evidence of pagan temples converted into Christian churches – either by being converted for new use or rebuilt using materials from the old temple.

The front of the Pantheon
The front of the Pantheon

When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, he set in train a process that would last centuries – of pagan temples being systematically demolished, plundered or converted to use as churches. The most dramatic example is the Pantheon – a huge rotunda with a still existing dome made of concrete, completed in CE126 under the Emperor Hadrian. Originally, the Pantheon was a temple to all the gods but after Constantine the clock was ticking against the images of deities like Mars and Venus.

Under the Byzantine emperor Phocas – who held sway over Rome and the papacy – the Pantheon was donated by the emperor in CE609 to the church. The Pantheon was consecrated as a place of worship to Mary and the Martyrs. This probably saved the building from demolition though as late as the 17th century, pope Urban VIII stripped bronze away from the portico.

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.