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.
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.
This 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.
Today I visited the birthplace of John the Baptist as part of my journey to Israel. The Franciscan monastery at Ein Karem – a village now swallowed up by Jerusalem – is a nineteenth century construction sitting on top of an earlier Byzantine church destroyed during a huge revolt by the Samaritans in Israel during the fifth century. This is a revolt I knew little about before my current visit to Israel but the destructive wave it unleashed is becoming ever clearer – worth a blog post in the future I think!
Anyway – here is the church and the spot at which John the Baptist – dear to the Templars – was conceived.
The Templars loved to worship saints who had given up their lives in name of Christ so here’s a list of top ten martyred saints the knights would have known and possible revered. Many of them were martyred during the reigns of two Roman emperors – Trajan Decius and Diocletian. As a rule, the Romans didn’t ban religions outright. The only criteria for clamping down was disloyalty to the state and sedition.
But as the empire, under increasing attack from stronger enemies, became more unstable – it sought greater unity. These two emperors demanded pledges of loyalty from all citizens and while some Christians went along with this and made the dutiful sacrifice to the emperors at a local temple, others did not. Under the emperor Diocletian in particular, this resulted in a nasty end. Ironically, Diocletian was the last pagan emperor with his successor Constantine embracing Christianity.
AGATHA – died 251 CE – during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius who had outlawed Christianity, Agatha was tortured very brutally including being rolled over broken tiles, cut in various places and burning coals applied to her flesh. The incorrupt body was apparently sent to Constantinople centuries later but then parts of Agatha ended up in Catania.
ALBAN – died 304 CE (disputed) – an Englishman and a pagan by birth. He hid a priest from the Roman authorities and then to protect him, dressed as the priest when soldiers arrived at his house. The local governor new Alban and asked him to return to the state religion. He refused. After being scourged he was taken to be beheaded but supportive crowds blocked the way and a river had to be crossed. Alban caused the waters to part so he could be martyred for Christ. The executioner was so impressed that he converted on the spot. Both men were then beheaded.
EUPLIUS – died 304 CE – like so many of the early martyred saints, this is another one under the reign of Diocletian. He was found reading the gospels and was led to the place of execution with the sacred texts hung round his neck. He had been brutally tortured and beheading was apparently a sweet release.
FEBRONIA – early fourth century – like many other young female martyrs of this time, she was said to be exceedingly beautiful and a virgin. She refused to renounce her faith and was roasted on a gridiron, had her teeth knocked out and breasts cut off. Then she was executed. Out of remorse, the uncle of the local Roman prefect was said to have dashed his own brains out.
GENESIUS – died 285 CE – yet another Diocletian purge victim. This time starting out in life as a pagan comedian who mocked the Christians but then suddenly realising the error of his ways, converted. The praetorian prefect Plautian reacted by having Genesius stretched on a rack and torn at with hooks before the inevitable beheading.
GORDIUS – early fourth century – a Roman soldier who became a Christian. In the town of Caesaria, he was told there were to be games in honour of the god Mars. When Gordius showed up, both pagans and Christians were queueing up for the festivities and entertainment in the arena. So he began insulting Mars and was dragged before the governor who offered him riches to recant. But he wouldn’t. So it was off to the torturer and when that didn’t work, he was burned to death.
LUCY – died 304 CE – one of the most revered female saints from very early on in the church’s history. Martyred at Syracuse in Sicily, she was reputed to have either gouged out her own eyes to put off a potential suitor (bit extreme!) or they were gouged out by the Romans during her torture. As a result, she is patron saint to the blind.
POLYCARP – died 155 – the Knights Templar believed they had the head of Saint Polycarp. He was said to have been a disciple of the apostle Saint John. Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna before John was banished to the island of Patmos, from where he wrote the Book of Revelation. It’s claimed he was martyred during a persecution by the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That is the emperor played by the actor Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator.
QUIRINUS – early fourth century – Diocletian abdicated as emperor but his co-emperor Galerius continued the policy of purging Christians. Quirinus was a bishop who was ordered to sacrifice to Jupiter and refused. He was tied to a millstone and chucked in the river. But miraculously, the millstone and Quirinus floated to the top and he continued to preach for a while to the huge crowds. Then he sank and died.
VITALIS – first or second century – an early Christian martyr. A similar tale to the above with a refusal to renounce Christ and accept the state gods leading to his execution. What distinguishes this story is that his wife Valeria was then set upon by the pagans and died of her injuries. She was subsequently canonised too. One of the statues in St Peter’s square in Rome is of Vitalis and the Byzantines built a octagonal basilica to him at Ravenna that can still be seen today. It includes a mosaic of the emperor Justinian, a Christian and a Roman ruler.
Couple of things to note.
Many Christians did not wish to be martyred and so sacrificed to the gods. This caused an early division within Christianity where some of the faithful refused to associate with those who had chickened out of martyrdom. These die-hard Christians were called Donatists and held sway in parts of north Africa. Their view did not prevail and even though the martyrs were lauded, those Christians who had chosen the path of compromise prevailed.
Also – just to reiterate that the Roman state was largely disinterested in theology. It was more focussed on the correct practice of religion and loyalty to the emperor than what the Christians actually stood for. There is an enduring myth that when Rome became Christian, slavery, brutal capital punishment and the games disappeared. They did not. Christians and pagans shared many social values including the holding of slaves and the need for executions to maintain order. In fact, Christians introduced new capital crimes related to moral failing – for example executing slaves who assisted their owners in committing adultery.