Knights Templar – A Secret History: Interview with the author Graeme Davis

davisI recently mentioned a great book on the Knights Templar by Graeme Davis that explores the many stories and myths that surround this intrepid order of warrior monks.

Graeme got in touch and I leapt at the opportunity to review his book and connect with the man himself. 

On your behalf, I posed some searching questions and I think you’ll find this a fascinating read. Share your thoughts and views as ever. But without further do – let’s go meet Graeme Davis!

You have a fascination for myth and folklore – where did this come from? And tell us how it’s influenced both your books and work on games.

It started very young. At the age of six or seven, I saw Jason and the Argonauts on my parent’s black-and-white TV, and was fascinated by Ray Harryhausen‘s monsters. A week or two later, the traveling bookmobile brought a children’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey to my little school, and I was hooked. That Christmas, I asked a rather nonplussed department-store Santa for a book on Greek mythology. For the rest of my childhood, I read Greek and Norse myths, the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and anything else I could get my hands on.
About a decade later I discovered Dungeons & Dragonsand was immediately attracted to its use of creatures and concepts from mythology. I spent hours in the local library ploughing through a multi-volume set of English and Scottish folklore by county – initially to find new monsters for my games, but more and more I became intrigued by the stories themselves and the recurring motifs that seem to be independent of race and culture.

You wrote a compelling book on the Knights Templar – what interests you about the Templars? Why do you think they generate so much interest?

holyI first became aware of Templar conspiracy theories when I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as a college student. I was studying archaeology and learning about the Middle Ages at the same time, and my penchant for myth and folklore had begun to develop into an interest in historical fantasy. The Templars of legend defied the worst that the Catholic Church and the crowned heads of Europe could throw at them, and are still active today, and that is a powerful narrative. Their secrets and their powers are just defined enough to make them intriguing without exposing them to detailed analysis, which ensure that they will always be intriguing.

In the book, you claim the revelations came from a certain Dr Emile Fouchet – am I correct in assuming that he may be an imaginary character? Where did you get the idea of Fouchet from?

Fouchet is completely fictional. My intention was to assemble all the Templar legends and conspiracy theories that I could find and weave them into a single narrative, but that required a framing device. By creating Fouchet and his research, I had a unifying fiction and a single voice for all the speculation that was needed to hold everything together.

The Templars have generated as much fiction as fact – do you think it matters if the boundaries are blurred or do you feel it might be even be impossible to wholly separate fact and fiction?

I think it has been impossible to separate Templar fact from Templar fiction since 1139, if not before. The events surrounding the Order’s dissolution added to the fiction, and with the rise of Templar imagery in Freemasonry that started in the 18th century, the legend grew and grew.

The Templars were accused of some pretty racy stuff back in 1307 – do you believe any of the charges were true?

Most of the charges were pretty standard for a group accused of heresy. Sodomy was a normal part of the package – we  get our word “bugger” from the name of the Bulgarian Bogomils who were accused of heresy in the 10th century. More serious, in many ways, were the charges of secret adherence to Islam, including the Baphomet-Mahomet connection remarked on by many historians. The practicalities of life in the Crusader States – and later, in the shrinking Christian foothold in the eastern Mediterranean – required those on the ground to make certain compromises for the sake of survival, and to the “armchair quarterbacks” who were safely at home in Christendom, this must have looked a lot like defection to the Islamic cause. The accounts of contemporary Arab historians show that the Templars were regarded as anything but allies.
The other charges were partly reiterations of these two – “every imaginable crime and vice,” “defy the authority of the Church,” and so on – and are too vague to shed any light. The story of trampling and spitting on the cross, one of the best-known to modern readers, emerged from questioning under torture, and was not among the formal charges.

What about the stories of treasure found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – are you sceptical?

I see this story as a continuation of a legend that goes back to Roman times and before. The Temple was said to contain a secret chamber into which a mechanism could lower the Ark of the Covenant for safe-keeping if Jerusalem were attacked; certainly, the Ark was not among the treasures looted from the Holy of Holies by Roman troops in AD 70. It is easy to see how rumours of a secret chamber could grow into a story of hidden treasure, especially taking into account the Islamic view of Solomon as a powerful sorcerer in addition to a wise king.

You mention in the book the possibility that the Templars got to America. Do you think there’s any likelihood that could have happened and why would they have gone there?

The story of the lost Templar fleet implies that a great Templar treasure went somewhere, and it has not been found in Europe. Scotland, its most likely destination, has yielded nothing, and the next stop is Scandinavia, where the Templar captains could very well have learned of the old Viking sea-routes to Iceland and Greenland, possibly from former Templars who had sought refuge among the Teutonic orders. While it was in decline, the Norse Greenland colony did not die out for another century, and the routes would still have been known in 1308. From there, following clues in the Icelandic sagas, it would be possible to follow Lief Eriksson’s original route and find North America. Did the Templars do so? There is no conclusive evidence, and for all we know the lost fleet – if it truly existed – might just as well have gone into the Mediterranean.

Assassin’s Creed and other works have popularised the idea of a centuries old battle between Templars and the church/Inquisition – why does this idea clearly have so much appeal?

They are perfect for historical fantasy: a secretive organisation with mysterious powers, untold wealth and influence, and a shadowy agenda which can be fitted to almost any storyline for a book, movie, or game. The idea of a secret war that lays behind the events of history as we know it is endlessly intriguing, and whether the Templars are cast as vicious power-seekers or tenacious underdogs, their historical reality and centuries-long pedigree makes them an ideal secret society to use.

Are you planning any further writing or games based on the Templars?

Not at this time, although Templar history and Medieval history in general have informed a lot of my fantasy writing down the years, and this will no doubt continue to be the case.

Here is a list of other publications by Graeme Davis that feature the Templars:

Colonial Gothic Organizations Book 1: The Templars
A sourcebook on the Templars for Rogue Games’ tabletop roleplaying game set in America’s early history.
GURPS Crusades
A mostly-historical sourcebook on the Crusades, including the role of the Templars and the Hospitallers.
“The Knights Templar,” Pyramid #3/86, December 2015
Different versions of the Knights Templar, defined for the GURPS tabletop roleplaying game.
“Templars: The Fighting Priests,” Pyramid #3/19, May 2010.
A discussion of the Templars and Templar-like organizations in fantasy games.
You can join Graeme Davis on his blog (https://graemedavis.wordpress.com/) where he has posted some of the reviews of the book: https://graemedavis.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/knights-templar-a-secret-history/
For those who don’t like Amazon, the book can be ordered directly from Osprey Publishing’s web site at https://ospreypublishing.com/store/osprey-adventures/dark-osprey/knights-templar
The rest of the Dark Osprey line can be seen at https://ospreypublishing.com/store/osprey-adventures/dark-osprey
Last October, Graeme published a curated anthology of early American horror stories set in and around the Colonial era. Not related to the Templars as such but great stuff! It is available via most online booksellers and direct from the publisher at http://pegasusbooks.com/books/colonial-horrors-9781681775296-hardcover
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The First Templar versus Assassins Creed

Well, out there in Templar games land, the war is hotting up between those who say that Assassins Creed is unbeatable and that The First Templar is a crock versus those who say The First Templar is more historically accurate and the Assassins Creed is far away from the truth.

The Game Front website seems to be softening its initially hostile line towards The First Templar while Kotaku thinks the latter game is actually quite good.  But some messages left on the Game FAQs website are pretty hostile towards The First Templar.  A Bulgarian firm developed The First Templar and its view of the Middle Ages is undeniably bleak and desolate.  Here’s a quite balanced account of The First Templar from ZGR.

More on the Templars and chess

Well – my posting on the Templars playing chess (scroll down a bit to find it) was popular and one comment from Cairo was so good that I want to share it as a separate post – so over to my new Egyptian friend for the rest of this post:

Sunny greetings from Cairo, Egypt.
I can not claim that I am a chess or history veteran, however, being a good reader for Islamic/Arabic states history and a chess amateur at the same time, gives me a chance to comment on this article. I would summarise in few points.
1- “Shah mat” is not king is helpless! actually is “king is dead” as “mat” in Arabic means “die or dead”. Needless to say that the term is half Persian half Arabic. However, in Egypt we use another term: “Kesh mat” and honestly I did not know exactly what does “kesh” mean? could be another Persian word, Turkish or even Kurd!! Yes, do not wonder many words, terms and expressions moved freely between the three nations.
2- The elephant is still used till now among Arab players for what you call Bishop! But the Rook is derivative of “Rokh” which is a legendary huge bird like a Phoenix. We use “Rokh” in our chess notation, however, among norms “Rokh” is used to be “Tabya” which is Turkish word means “Tower with a gun” or castle.
3- Ironical, chess is a forbidden game in many classical books of “Fatwa” [check this” http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fatwa ] and it as treated the same way as dice and backgammon, that is to say gambling games, waste of time and keeps muslims distracted from Quran and contemplation of Allah. “I used your words with little twist”. Nowadays, some “Salfi” muslims, [extremely radical wing of muslims] add to the reasons of forbidding chess, it has a Cross on the top of the King!! Despite these “fatwas” muslims norms and elite continued to play chess, even the top statesmen like the Abasside Khalife Haroun ArRasheed, who sent – I read once – chess set to the French King Charles Martel long time before the Crusaders.
4- The crucial subject is: when and how chess was baptised and let me say christened ? I won’t ask where because it is obvious, the place is Spain or to be more specific “Castilla” which is the north part of Spain – in Arabic “Quashtalla” that was under the rule of Catholic Kings who for long time had a war versus the South Andalucia – in Arabic Andalus –
That book “Libro de los juegos” could be the start of that process.
The none copy righted photo you used is not far from another one : http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/islam/games/ The baptism process was complete I assume by the end of 15th century, worth mentioning that the last Arabic/Islamic kingdom of Granada fell down in 1492.
5- I knew that the major concern of this blog is not chess, but I found this article coincidently and saw that will be good to give a view from a revered angle.
The Knight Templars have a very bad reputation in Arab History books, it will be interesting to have some bits and bites from time to time.

Did the Knights Templar play chess?

Here we have an image of two Templars playing chess in the Middle Ages.  It’s a well known and heavily reproduced image on the web.  Just one thing vexes me – the Templars were officially forbidden to play the game.

In the Rule, largely devised by Bernard of Clairvaux, it’s quite clear that Templar knights are not to indulge in gaming and chess is specifically off the Templar menu.  Bernard was an austere Cistercian monk who hated the daily pleasures of secular folk and anything that distracted holy men from scripture and contemplation of God.

Chess might also have been frowned on as an ‘eastern’ import – originally from India, it seeped in to pre-Islamic Persia and after the Arab/muslim conquest spread throughout the Islamic world which included, at one time, southern Europe.  The term ‘chess’ is believed to be a derivation from Shah, the title of a Persian king and used by the rulers of Iran up to the 1979 revolution.  Check mate was originally ‘Shah mat’ or ‘the king is helpless’.

By the 1100s, when the Templars come on the scene, the famous ‘Lewis chess’ had been made in Norway and many centuries later discovered by archaeologists on the Scottish Hebrides (originally ruled by Norway) in 1831.  There can be little doubt then that the game was well known throughout the Templar period.

Could Templars have played it to improve their battle strategic skills? Well, the 20th century Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once pointed out (possibly excusing his poor grasp of the game compared to Lenin who loved it) that people who are good at chess are not always good in real battles.  There spoke the commander of the Red Army.

But as anybody who plays chess can appreciate, it does alter your way of thinking.  It’s a great way of forcing you to look several steps ahead to developments that may not always be immediately visible.  So the Templars may have warmed to the game in spite of Bernard’s strict prohibition.

The picture above is from the ‘Libro do los Juegos’ (book of games) published in 1283.  That’s over a hundred years after the death of Bernard.  It may be that over the passage of time, the attitude towards chess changed within the order.

There’s no doubt the church had its misgivings about chess as it became something of an addiction in courtly circles and games were played for money.  But in spite of ecclesiastical grumbling, it was the board game that refused to die.  Indeed, the Middle Ages saw the rules refined to create new names for the pieces and faster openings as sometimes games could last days – rather like cricket.

Gajah, the elephant in the original Indian game, became the bishop and Ratha the chariot became the rook.