How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.



Crusader massacre of Jews

English: Massacre of Jewish people in Metz (Fr...
English: Massacre of Jewish people in Metz (France) during the First Crusade Français : Massacre des Juifs à Metz par les premiers Croisés 1095 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The First Crusade saw motley bands of peasants, opportunists, criminals and the medieval equivalent of gangsters flock together and go on crusade in search of riches.  On the way to the Holy Land, they often targeted Jews in Europe treating them as if they were de facto Saracens – infidels in their midst.  A chronicler called Solomon bar Samson wrote of a massacre in 1096 in the German city of Mainz, which was clearly horrific even by the standards of the time.  It was led by a noble called Emico who forced his way in to the city with armed men and sought out the Jewish population.

Terrified, the Jews of Mainz headed towards the Archbishop’s palace and took refuge, prepared to fight to the last against the thugs approaching them.

“The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy. They were indeed a poor support; even the bishop himself fled from his church for it was thought to kill him also because he had spoken good things of the Jews.”

In spite of all their efforts, the Jews within the palace could not stop Emico breaking in and men, women and children faced up to the inevitable.  They were going to die.  They would either die at the hands of the crusader gang or at their own hand.

“Then all of them, to a man, cried out with a loud voice: ‘Now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked, and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Only One, the Everlasting and then let him cut his own throat or plunge the knife into his own body.'”

As Emico and his men stormed the courtyard, the Jewish leader Isaac ben Moses stretched out his neck and one of the gang duly cut his head off.

“The others, wrapped by their fringed praying­shawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] “with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction” the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: “There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.”

Emico had arrived with 12,000 men and the Jews were hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately armed.  The Jewish women killed their own sons and daughters and then themselves.

“Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another.”

The tales of suicide and murder go on depressingly and unfortunately this kind of pogrom would be repeated several times over the next hundred years in northern Europe.

The more bizarre and strange saints

The Knights Templar were keen on their saint martyrs – the upper class Roman woman Euphemia for example, butchered in the arena during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century AD.  Diocletian was the last pagan emperor and while a brilliant administrator and largely responsible for saving the empire at a time of huge crisis, he unleashed a rather ill judged attack on Christians that backfired spectacularly within a generation.  The following emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and Diocletian had given the faith a legion of martyrs to venerate.

Euphemia was broken on the wheel then fed to a bear in the arena.  The martyrdom stories of these saints are always rather lurid and test one’s credulity to the maximum.  Another such martyr was Saint Lucy.  According to different versions of the story she either tore out her own eyes and gave them to her husband (oh that I was making this up) or they were taken out by a Roman soldier with a fork!   She if often shown, rather confusingly, with her eyes in her head but another set, the real ones I presume, on a plate.   Here she is from one church I’ve visited in Europe.

Saint Lucy with her two sets of eyes

Another saint martyred in the Roman era and popular in the medieval era of the Templars was Saint Denis – after whom a district of Paris is named.  Under the Romans, Paris was called Lutetia and in an earlier persecution, under the Emperor Decius, Saint Denis – a Christian bishop – was beheaded.  True to saintly form, he picked up his head and walked round for a while before dying.  Yes, this is in the story.  A statue of him can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in New York which I enjoyed visiting earlier this year.

Saint Denis carries his own head around for a while

While the Templars were at the height of their power and influence in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, Saint Francis of Assisi was founding a new order of friars – the Franciscans as they came to be known.  In 1219 he went to Egypt at a time when the crusaders were attacking the city of Damietta and according to accounts from the period, hoped to be martyred.  Instead, the story goes, Egypt’s Islamic rulers were so bowled over by Francis that they promised to convert at some unspecified date in the future.  That I find this story impossible to believe is an understatement.  This sculpted tableau I came across in southern Europe last year in a medieval Franciscan church tells a different and more credible story.  The picture says it all.

Franciscans beheaded by Saracens

Of course the daddy of all Christian martyrs and a saint hugely revered by the Templars was John the Baptist.  See my earlier post on the Johnannite heresy.  The man who cleared a path for the Messiah and baptised him in adulthood.  He was then beheaded and his head delivered to Salome, step-daughter of Herod, on a plate.  Here he is – well his head anyway – on said plate.

John the Baptist - well, his head anyway

HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England

Not far from where I work in central London, a large building looms running along nearly an entire street.   This imposing edifice is Freemasons’ Hall – the HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England.  Built in the 1920s, its construction meant the loss of a row of eighteenth century houses but it’s certainly a fine art deco building, listed for protection by the government.  In the immediate vicinity, are two or three pubs where I’ve often seen Freemasons having a drink – you can spot them a mile off.  And there are several regalia shops selling all the gear you need to be a mason.  I thought I’d take a few snaps today and share them with you.  As you know, many Freemasons believe their order is the continuation of the Knights Templar.  I’ve touched on this claim before and will deal with it again in other posts – but in the meantime, enjoy a few views of Freemasons Hall.

HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England - in London
Pentagram etched in to the pavement in front of the main doors
Close up of the insignia and anniversary date of the Lodge founding
The significance of the dates next to the clock
Freemason regalia shop nearby