A unique glimpse of the everyday life of the Knights Templar

everyday lifeProfessor Helen Nicholson is a globally recognised expert on the Knights Templar. I’m very honoured to be sharing a platform with her at the Bradford Literature Festival on 30 June, 2018 discussing all things Templar related.

Ahead of that, I want to bring to your attention Helen’s most recent book that reveals the daily life of the Knights Templar – with fascinating insights. The book is called The Everyday Life of the Templars and I heartily recommend it.

What did the Knights Templar eat and drink? What was their daily routine? If you could be transported back to a Templar preceptory (one of their rural estates), what would you have seen going on?

Well, to give you a flavour of the answers to those questions to be found in her book, I’ve just interviewed Helen and here – exclusively for my users – she gives some glimpses of the secretive life of the Knights Templar. To find out even more, you’ll of course have to get a copy of her compelling read from Amazon and other online retailers.

So, here is Professor Nicholson in conversation with me:

What motivated you to write a book about the everyday life of the Templars?

I have been researching the surviving inventories and records of the Templar estates in Britain and Ireland from the period from the Templars’ arrest early in 1308 until the point when the estates were handed over to the Hospitallers. The inventories from Ireland and the sole inventory from Wales were published many years ago but the records from England remain unpublished. There is an enormous amount of information about the crops being grown on the Templars’ estates, the livestock being raised, the people employed there, manufacture of cheese, butter, cider, wine, which brothers were living in each Templar house and the other people who lived there. So the records give an insight into life in these Templar properties early in the fourteenth century. Other scholars have studied similar records from the Templar properties in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. So I thought it would be interesting to draw this material together to give wide picture of how the Templars and their tenants and workers would have lived.

Where did you find most of the source material, given the Templars didn’t write much about themselves?

When the Templars were arrested, full inventories were made of their properties. Their properties were administered by royal or church officials, until the pope decided the fate of the Order. Many of these records survive: from England & Wales, Ireland, France, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. They give a snapshot of what was in the Templars’ properties on the day the Templars were arrested, and an ongoing picture of day-to-day activity over the next few years. Many records were not retained, or have been mislaid or destroyed, but enough survives to give an overall picture.

If we had visited a preceptory in the 13th century – what activity would we have seen going on?

There would not have been many Templars living in each house; most preceptories/commanderies in England were home to only four brothers or fewer, and many were leased out to tenants and had no Templars in residence. The rural commanderies/preceptories were like manor houses, running the estate farm. The farm workers would have been busy maintaining the fields and crops, taking care of the livestock and doing maintenance around the estate. The cook would be making potage (a type of oat porridge) for the workers’ daily meal. There might be a clerk attached to the commandery who kept the day-to-day records. There would have been household servants looking after the house. Any Templars in residence would have administered the estate, holding the manor court, ensuring rent was paid, farm work was done, workers were hired and paid as necessary. There would also be non-Templars living in the house: some of them were former Templar employees who now received a pension, while others had made a donation to the Templars in return for food and lodging for the rest of their lives. In addition, the Templars had wide networks of supporters who could come into their houses to make donations or transact other business. Some Templar houses had valuable religious relics which pilgrims would come to see. Travellers would come to find lodging, and Templar houses made regular weekly donations of food to the poor. So Templar houses would have been busy places.

Was the day punctuated by prayer?

The Templars’ regulations expected the Templars to follow the normal monastic pattern of prayers at fixed times during the day. The Templars should go into the chapel for these services, but as not every house had a chapel in actual fact they might have to say their prayers as they went about their work (as the regulations allowed them to do if they were on a military campaign). Most Templar houses with a chapel did not have a Templar priest, but employed a secular priest or a friar as priest in their chapel.

How effective were the Templars as farmers (compared to the monasteries for example) and did they engage in any other kind of business?

So far as the records show, the Templars were effective farmers who made careful judgements on the most effective way of working their land for good long-term returns. Apparently they were more generous employers than the Benedictine monks. Their livestock produced meat and other products such as wool and hides, which they could use or sell. They manufactured some food products (cheese, butter, cider, wine) and sold some of this produce as well as consuming it within the estate. The records from after the Templars’ arrests also show that some people owed money to the Templars — not large amounts — so, like other religious orders, they did make loans, but this was not a major business for most Templar houses.

What role did women play on Templar estates and were they allowed to be members of the order?

The estate records show that women were employed as cooks and to do the laundry. They were also employed on farm work: for example, picking grapes, milking the sheep, helping with the harvest. In addition, the estate records from the Templars’ commandery at Payns in Champagne refer to a Templar Sister (her name isn’t recorded; she’s simply refered to at ‘the sister’) and her female servant, Hersant. So, yes: women could be members of the order and women could live in the Templars’ houses.

Did all this activity in the preceptories across Europe really fund the military ventures of the Templars?

Yes — that was the purpose of the Templar properties in Europe! But clearly a lot of money would have been needed to maintain the Templars’ estates, invest in property, pay their workers and carry on the charitable work they did in Europe, so not all the income from their estates would have gone to the East.

How did it all end? What happened to the property owned by the Templars after 1307?

At the Council of Vienne in spring 1312, Pope Clement V gave the Templars’ former property to the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers were able to claim some of the properties, but some properties were taken back by the families of the original donors, some were kept by the kings who had arrested the Templars, some property was given to other religious orders, and in Spain and Portugal much of the property was used to found new military-religious orders.

If you enjoyed this interview and you’re in the United Kingdom on 30 June, 2018 – try and join us in Bradford, Yorkshire for what will promise to be a hugely fascinating discussion. Click HERE for tickets.


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.


The Baptism of Infidels

baptismThe issue of forced conversion from Islam to Christianity – and vice versa – in the Middle Ages is surrounded by a fog of confusion, preconceptions and lack of reliable sources.   Let’s take what we now call Spain and Portugal as an example.

At the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifty century, the Christian Visigoths ruled the peninsula.  They had adhered to the Arian version of the faith but were cajoled by the papacy in to accepting mainstream Catholicism.  In the year 711, Christian Iberia fell to an invading army from north Africa and so began seven hundred years of an Islamic presence.

By the 1000s, some historians believe the majority of Spaniards had converted to Islam living in the more populous and thoroughly Islamified cities in the south like Cordoba and Seville.  The northern crusader kingdoms that emerged like Leon and Aragon were more sparsely populated.

The Islamic position was to tolerate the ‘dhimmi’ faiths of Judaism and Christianity on condition they paid a special tax, obeyed the laws of the caliphate and did not seek to convert muslims. The position on those who commit apostasy – leave Islam for another religion – is still argued about.  The main body of the Koran leaves room for doubt that the death penalty was automatic but the subsequent ‘hadith’ – or sayings of Mohammed – are a lot more strident.  Click here for more on that debate.

Like Jews in the rest of Europe, Christians were barred from certain professions and were at the receiving end of petty restrictions.  They were often forced to do menial jobs like cleaning the sewers or the streets.

I think most ordinary people – once deciding that the caliphate in Spain was going to be a permanent feature – threw their lot in with the faith of the ruling class.  After all, who wants to pay more tax than they have to and if you wanted to advance in society, why make a fuss over theology.  That may be too simplistic, but I think a combination of peer pressure, financial pinch and fear of authority drove people in to the mosques.

There were periods of oppression where the official tolerance collapsed – normally in response to external threats.  But otherwise Spain and Portugal became lands of three faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  Once the Christian kings of the north began to push the muslims back towards Morocco, they didn’t immediately embark on forced conversions of muslims.  Indeed, one Spanish king proudly declared he was the sovereign of the three faiths of Spain.

But the Catholic church wasn’t going to tolerate this situation forever.  Jews and muslims were herded in to ghettoes – there’s still a part of Lisbon called the ‘Mouraria’ after the “moors” that lived there.  You also find ‘judiarias’ in Iberian cities where Jews were grouped.  Again, I think most ordinary people waited and saw if the new rulers were going to prevail then threw in their lot with the ruling faith.

Those that couldn’t stomach conversion held out and by 1492 when the last emir, of Granada, had been kicked out – there was still a sizable muslim community.  This was when King Ferdinand and even more so Queen Isabela struck and made ‘infidels’ either convert or leave the country.

All of which begs the question, did the Templars enforce conversion to Christianity on muslims they found themselves ruling over.  I think the answer is no.  In outremer, the Holy Land, the mission of the Order was to protect the Holy places and allow access by Christians on pilgrimage from all over Europe.  But the idea that they actively sought to force Christianity on the muslims and Jews of Jerusalem or Acre seems wide of the mark.

The medieval papacy seems to have reserved its most cruel behaviour for other Christians promoting heretical strands of belief – like the Cathars.  Particularly as the Cathars threatened the church’s property interests in southern France as well as the loss of thousands of souls.