Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.
Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.
That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.
It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.
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.
The Knights Templar were believed to be attracted to the gnostic variant of Christianity which in turn draws from pre-Christian beliefs with a heavy influence from Plato. Crudely put, the material world is a sham and through a deep knowledge attained through intense meditation and a life of good, we can open the curtain to reveal the true spiritual world beyond. OK – that’s very, very crudely put. But essentially, the gnostics viewed God and the Christian story in philosophically dualist terms – there is the human story played out here in a world of material shadows, but hidden from view is the true nature of God that we must strive to discover.
Some early gnostics venerated the figure of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. He was born when Adam was 130 years old (remember that everybody in the book of Genesis lives to a crazily old age). Adam, incidentally, would live another 800 years after the birth of Seth. This son was given by God to Adam to replace Abel who you will recall had been killed by biblical bad guy Cain. In chapter five of Genesis, you will discover that it’s through Seth’s lineage that we arrive at Noah and given that every other human being is snuffed out by the flood, that makes Seth the father of humanity.
Seth has been worshiped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam – he is seen as the originator of the Kabbala to many Jews and to Islamic Sufis, he was a prophet possessing great wisdom passed on to him by his father Adam. Up to the Middle Ages, there was a branch of Christian gnosticism now termed the Sethians. Needless to say this adoration of Seth is believed to have been passed down to the Knights Templar.