The most horrific disease at the time of the Knights Templar

Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.

leper monks
A bishop confronted by several monks in the 1300s who have got leprosy

You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.

But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.

The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.

The leper squint at Greenstead

So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.

When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.

Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:

I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.

The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.

And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.

The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.

Here is a tribute to the leper king of Jerusalem:

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

Why so much blood and gore in Roman Catholic churches in the Latin world?

Porto, Portugal

I’m half Portuguese and for years I’ve watched English friends of mine recoil at the sight of the blood and gore that is to be found all over statues in churches in southern Europe. My great grandmother’s crucifix has pride of place in my study in London and it’s a gore fest. Why is it then that the Latin world loves to see Jesus, the saints and martyrs covered in wounds, cuts and bleeding?

Porto, Portugal

The first thing to say is that at the time of the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14th centuries, it may have also been a common sight in northern European churches. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demanded simplicity and a cull of graven images, seen as being sinful as per the Ten Commandments. So an English church in 1150, say, may have had equally gory paintings on its walls subsequently whitewashed during the Reformation.

Click HERE for an article on the discovery of lurid murals in an English church where William Shakespeare was born. While England has got used to a more restrained and buttoned up form of Christianity over the last five hundred years, southern Europe has continued with life sized representations of Jesus and the saints being scourged or executed.

Spain is home to some pretty gory Christian icons and this life sized Jesus was one I discovered in the Roman/medieval city of Segovia.   The same city includes a Templar church built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.

Christ in death in the church of San Martin, Segovia
A close up image of the same image of Christ

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.

When Braveheart killed two Templar masters

BraveheartThose who have seen the movie ‘Braveheart’ will know that the English army got a pasting at the battle of Stirling Bridge after which a furious King Edward I – ruler of England and his dominions in Wales, Ireland and France – charged back from the latter country to confront William Wallace, now appointed Guardian of Scotland.

Edward was an energetic king who seemed to relish battle on multiple fronts expanding his realm to cover what is now called the ‘United Kingdom’ as well as struggling to hold and increase the ancestral lands on the other side of the English Channel.

Edward expected all subjects to back his campaigns and this included the Templars.  Now, of course that posed – in theory – a little problem for the Order.  Their first loyalty was to the Pope, not any particular king.  They were also forbidden to fight in wars that pitted Christian against Christian.  However these rules didn’t seem to stop the Templar master in England – Brian Le Jay – joining Edward’s side at the Battle of Falkirk.  This was the great clash where Edward got his bloody revenge against Wallace, weakening the great Scottish general.

Le Jay was a rather colourful character.  One of these people in history who seems to have stuck his finger in the wind, worked out which way it was blowing and acted accordingly – to make sure he was on the winning side.  He’d actually been the Grand Master in Scotland before taking over in England.  So by the time Falkirk came round, he found himself with the stronger king, ready to do battle at his side.

ivanhoe-movie-poster-copyEdward had previously insisted, when Le Jay was still Scottish master, that he swear allegiance to him and not the Scottish king and Le Jay, sensing which way that political wind was blowing, duly obliged.  No wonder the Victorian Scottish novelist Walter Scott detested the memory of Le Jay and based his evil Templar characters on him in his novel, Ivanhoe.

To my knowledge, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the man who became Templar master in Scotland after Le Jay and was in place for the Battle of Falkirk – John de Sawtrey – also fought with Edward against the Scottish king.  So the Templars were very much on the Angevin/English side against Scotland.  A good decision in that Edward won the battle – a bad decision in that both Templar masters were killed pursuing Scottish solders who were fleeing through a forest.

In spite of the support of these Templar leaders, Edward I had a bit of form when it came to regarding the Templars as little more than piggy banks to be raided when he needed the money.  In his youth, he had attacked the Temple in London to get funds for a civil war against the barons.  This was when Simon de Montfort and the barons had rebelled against Edward’s father Henry III.

London had come out for the barons and Edward had to flee the city with his tail between his legs.  His wife, Eleanor – later revered in saintly terms when she died – was forced to take refuge in Saint Paul’s cathedral from a mob that was pelting her with stones and filth.

On his way up to fight the Scots, Edward I had availed himself of Templar hospitality including a night at Temple Newsam outside Leeds, which I mentioned in an earlier post.  By all rights he and his family should have been well disposed to the Templar Order but as Europe turned against the Templars, so did the Angevin monarchs.  Edward I’s son, Edward II, had no hesitation grabbing Templar property when the opportunity presented itself.

As for Wallace – he had cut down the two most powerful Templars in the kingdom but he himself would be brutally executed in London not long after.  The spot where he was hung, disemboweled, etc is not far from where I work and flowers are still placed there by fans.

Yorkshire Templars arrested in fateful year of 1308

cropped-templar-artworkI’ve mentioned Temple Newsam in two previous posts so one more fact to share with all Yorkshire Templar enthusiasts – I assume such people exist.  When the command came from the Pope to round up the Templars, who exactly got arrested at Temple Newsam, the estate just outside the modern northern English city of Leeds?  According to contemporary documents – the preceptor was a knight called Geoffrey des Arches and he was taken away with his brothers running preceptories at Temple Hirst, Faxfleet and Cowton.

Other Yorkshire Templars rounded up included Thomas de Betterby, a porter at Temple Hirst called Adam Creyte, Henry de Kereton and Roger de Sheffield from Cowton and Stephen de Radenage, a priest from Westerdale.  Names that also are recorded are Henry Craven, Patrick de Ripon and Richard de Ripon and Thomas de Stanford.

Yorkshire accounted for a large chunk of Templar wealth in England which annually came to about £4,720.  That doesn’t sound much in today’s money but this is when a pound was a substantial amount of money.  Having said that, if I tell you that the value of Temple Newsam at its confiscation in 1308 was £93 17 shillings and 2 pence – it does come across as a bit trifling.

It must have come across to the Templar knights as a terrible twist of fate to have Edward II shutting Temple Newsam down when just eight years earlier, they had put up his father, Edward I, on his way to fight the Scots.

A Templar unfriendly view of Saladin

Alaa Mattar in Cairo kindly reminded me of a movie about the life of Saladin that I was aware of but had forgotten about.  I think it was originally called ‘El Naser Salah el Dine’ and was filmed during the Nasser era in Egypt – so there’s lots of nationalist and pan-Arab references.  This was a time when the Middle East was emerging from British and French colonial rule and a new pride was being born.  One could say a rebirth of sorts is taking place now and so it seems appropriate to celebrate this movie again – it’s well worth seeing and a five star recommend from me.