Were the Knights Templar heretics?

What heretical ideas might the Knights Templar have adhered to or imported from the east into the very heart of western Christendom?

There’s an interesting section in the book The Templars History and Myth by Michael Haag on medieval heresy in relation to the Templars that is a good starting point. Let’s look at three heretical movements that could have influenced the Templars:

  1. The Cathars

burning_heretics_02Guillaume de Puylaurens was born in Toulouse some time after the year 1200 and lived to witness the region he grew up in convulsed by a heretical movement called the Cathars. He was in turn a priest, then worked for the local bishop and eventually rose to become chaplain to Raymond VII of Toulouse – who was basically a medieval warlord resisting the authority of the King of France.

Guillaume would spend his closing years freelancing for the Inquisition and sending heretics to the flames. The 13th century saw the emergence, through clerical orders like the Dominicans, of that frightening ecclesiastical phenomenon that would bring so much misery to Europe – the Inquisition or Tribunal of the Holy Office.

Guillaume spotted heretics all over the place in southern France. Arians, Waldensians and Manichaeans were actively spreading their ideas if his chronicles are to be believed. Common themes in all these heresies, particularly the Cathars, were a questioning of the divine nature of Christ, the promotion of poverty as a virtue, a rejection of the material world and a scathing criticism of the wealth and power of a church that falsely claimed it ruled in the name of Christ.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time when the Catholic church exercised total authority over the people of Europe but the truth was very different. Ask a priest, bishop or pope at the time and they’d have listed the many threats out there to church dominance. It would have felt to these men that Roman Catholicism was under constant attack from powerful and evil forces.

The Languedoc region, with its capital at Toulouse, was the centre of the Cathar heresy that led to a papal crusade and the burning of their leaders, many of whom were local aristocrats. It was also a region where the Templars had ties of family, wealth and property. Michael Haag argues that some of the Templar patrons were known Cathar supporters.

It would take forever to detail all the Cathar beliefs that so offended Rome. In short, they continued a dualist tradition that had existed in early Christianity with a belief that the world was so corrupt and evil, it could not have been created by a good God. Therefore, a malign force had conjured up the material world while the true God was calling us all to rejoin him in the spiritual realm.

If this was true, Jesus Christ could not have been tainted by human flesh and was therefore an entirely spiritual entity. Again, an idea that many early Christians adhered to. This meant the Virgin birth story was a lie. This contempt for the carnal led some Cathars to reject meat and dairy products as well as abstaining entirely from sex.

TLSMacCullochThe argument runs that the Knights Templar were noticeably absent from the so-called “Albigensian crusade” launched by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars. That name derives from the town of Albi, a hotspot of Cathar activity. It’s also conjectured that the Templars wanted to carve out their own state in southern France, in opposition to the king, with the help of local magnates and Cathars.

Some have argued that the Cathars were in possession of the treasure found under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. They reputedly hid it down a well in the fortified town of Caracassonne.

The problem with arguing a Templar/Cathar connection is that the knights were repeatedly held up as exemplars of the church militant.  They were protected by the papacy, lauded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and fought tenaciously to extend Catholic dominion in the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula. So surely they were on the pope’s side against these accursed Cathars?

However, the Templars also came to a barbaric and disgraceful end at the hands of that very same church. Their leaders and last Grand Master faced the same flames that engulfed many a Cathar. Both Templars and Cathars endured horrific torture and interrogation from priests and bishops. So can we deduce some kind of link from this?

It’s maybe not so surprising that the man entrusted with crushing the Templars, the King of France’s keeper of the seal Guillaume de Nogaret, was from a family that had fallen in with the Cathars. Possibly, Nogaret felt he had to over-compensate for this unfortunate treachery in his background by being ultra-loyal to king and pope.

  1. The Gnostics

I shudder every time I decide to touch this subject. Gnosticism almost defies description. But let’s have a go. I apologise in advance for the crudeness of this summary if any Gnostics are browsing this blog.

gnosisFirst thing to say is that elements of Gnosticism predate Christianity. You can find some of the basic tenets in Plato and other philosophers as well as the beliefs of certain ancient religious cults.

Basically, there have always been thoughtful people who have looked at the horror of the world around them and thought – this runs counter to who I am and what I should be. This world is false and empty. It’s a distraction. There must be a path back to a better kind of existence in tune with a true God who would not have wanted this to happen.

“Gnosis” = knowledge. Our world is the result of a cosmic catastrophe. We must acquire the knowledge that takes us back to our true essence. That will reunite us with the true God. When the catastrophe occurred, it sent millions of pieces of divine essence hurtling through the universe. Some of us have a piece of the divine within us and our aim must be, through total rejection of everything we see around us, to make our way back to God.

Like the Cathars, the idea of a bodily Jesus being born and dying was complete anathema. Jesus had come to impart knowledge – not drink wine, eat bread and die on a cross. The Gospel of John reads in a very Gnostic manner once you know the basics. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word”. Gnosticism on a plate!

abraxasThose who support the idea of a Templar/Gnostic connection point to the use of certain symbols on their seals, for example the demi-god Abraxas. This entity had the body of a man and head of a cockerel.

Abraxas was one of the Archons – servants of the evil or creator God that had landed us in the mess we find ourselves in today. These Archons, 365 in total, stand between humanity and the true God to whom we must return, though not all of us can.

The Catholic church viewed Abraxas as a pagan god so what is this creature doing popping up on Templar seals?

  1. The Assassins

assassinThose of you acquainted with Assassin’s Creed will view the Templars as diametrically opposed to the Assassins, locked in a centuries old conflict. But there’s a different view.

James Wasserman, in his book Assassins: The Militia of Heaven, writes that through contact with the Assassins, the Templars imbibed Islamic forms of Gnosticism.

Wasserman thinks the Templars were swayed by the occult practices and teachings of the Assassins. They also shared the selfless bravery of this murderous organisation. Templars were always first in and last out of any battle and never flinched in the face of furious Saracen onslaughts. The Assassins performed a ritual where their own adepts were ordered to leap to a certain death from a precipice – which they duly did.

There is also a sense of both the Templars and Assassins being outsiders. The Templars were feted then rejected and crushed by the Catholic church. They had their own organisation, ethos and objectives. The Assassins, who belonged to the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam, killed both crusader and Saracen leaders.

Allegedly off their heads on hashish, the Assassins turned political assassination into something of an art form. They managed to murder Raymond II, count of Tripoli in 1152; Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem, in 1192 and made an audacious but unsuccessful attempt on the life of Saladin. The Templars justified their killing for Christ by calling it “malecide”, the murdering of evil, not people. These were two groups with very strange morals from our point of view.

The Templars and Assassins were physically based very closely to each other in the Holy Land. Did that proximity lead to a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

Your thoughts on this would be very welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Crusaders in Egypt

Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fat...
Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fatimids. Madrid Skylitzes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the middle of the twelfth century AD, the crusaders began looking at Egypt as the territory they had to annex if their venture was to have any chance of success. I say “Egypt” but of course the nation that we know today didn’t exist at this time and from 909 to 1171 was part of the huge and sprawling Fatimid empire. This Islamic realm stretched from Morocco to modern Jordan and Syria. It took its name from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, from whom the Fatimids claimed descent and therefore legitimacy.

The real significance of the Fatimids was that they weren’t Sunni. They didn’t recognise the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Worse, from the perspective of the caliph, they adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam and sought to overthrow their Sunni overlords. And they came quite close to achieving that aim. Throughout the tenth century – the Fatimids were by far the most powerful Muslim force but internal and external problems were stacking up.

i10438903255The Fatimids had originated in modern Algeria and through conquest, took over the existing Islamic dominions including southern Italy. In that area, they constantly bumped up against the military power of a very resurgent and aggressive Byzantine empire. But keen to push east and overthrow the caliph in Baghdad, the Fatimids took Egypt and established the city of Cairo. This effectively became their capital and it was from here that they pushed up into the Levant – all the time promoting their version of Islam and insisting that the Sunni caliph was an imposter.

Trouble began for the Fatimids with a rather mad ruler called al-Hakim whose random brutality became the stuff of legend. This included flattening the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and killing all dogs in Cairo because he couldn’t stand their barking. However, al-Hakim was at the same time accused of being too lenient towards non-Muslims by the caliph in Baghdad who began accusing the Fatimids of being less than pure, certainly not descended from Fatima and possibly  – horror of horrors – being of Jewish ancestry! Mercifully for everybody, al-Hakim went out for a stroll one night in Cairo and only his blood stained cloak and a confused donkey were found. He was never heard of or seen again.

There now began a long period of anarchy and secession of territories from the Fatimid empire. Nubians, Turks and Berbers fought between each other and the rulers had difficulty asserting control. By the mid-twelfth century – two new and very large threats had emerged that would eventually combine to destroy the Fatimids. The crusaders had taken Jerusalem and established a string of kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean coast. And from the north had emerged the Seljuk Turks – uniting Sunni Islam under vigorous military rulers.

For the crusaders of Jerusalem – Egypt became a very attractive target. The Seljuks had invaded the crusader kingdom of Edessa and the Byzantines had claimed sovereignty over Antioch. So the kingdom of Jerusalem began looking southwards at the Fatimids who were busy arguing amongst themselves. Almaric I of Jerusalem, together with the Byzantines, invaded Egypt, which seemed ripe for the taking. And sure enough – they defeated the Fatimids in their first battle.

This has given rise to a question still hotly debated today – could Almaric have annexed Egypt? In the end he retreated but there’s plenty of reasons for supposing he could have succeeded. Some senior figures in the Fatimid empire were already working with the Sunni Seljuks while others remained loyal to the original Fatimid aims. So the ruling elite was divided and treacherous.

It’s been argued that Almaric could have relied on the Coptic Christians of Egypt to rally to his side but that may be an assumption too far. Eastern Christians did not necessarily look favorably at the Latin rites, western crusaders and vice versa. The Greek rites church of Byzantium had gone its own way, splitting from Rome, a hundred years earlier. The Coptic church, with its long history of a powerful patriarch in Alexandria, did not look to Rome for spiritual guidance. But a Latin crusader king could conceivably have convinced the Copts to come on side – they were a much larger percentage of the population at that time – and Almaric might have assured them that he would put the forward march of Islam on hold.

Who knows? It didn’t happen but as I’ll show in future posts – that didn’t stop some very well known crusaders having another go at Egypt.

 

 

 

Assassin’s Creed – so did the REAL assassins hate the Templars that much?

assassinAssassin’s Creed has been a hugely successful franchise – but was there REALLY ever a major battle between the Knights Templar and the Assassins? Did they hate each other to the extent that the game suggests? And in fact – who were they in reality?

Well, to start with we better re-cap on Assassin’s Creed. To crunch down the storyline and probably not do it complete justice – Desmond Miles is a young American brought up by a family who come from a long line of Assassins. He gets away from his Assassin family in South Dakota to become a bartender in New York city. But while there, he is kidnapped by the Templars – sworn enemies of the Assassins – and forced into a machine called the Animus which sends him back in time.

assassin2The machine is owned by Abstergo Industries, a Templar run enterprise. The Templars are using Desmond to get hold of “Pieces of Eden” that are in different locations, of course. The Pieces of Eden are part of a device used by the First Civilisation on our planet to control early humans. The First Civilisation was run by god-like creatures of superior intelligence called the Precursors or Isu, who had created the human race and were initially worshipped by their creations.

Human beings were mind controlled slaves at the outset but then bred with the Isu over time and this eroded the ability of the First Civilisation to control their creations who eventually rebelled.  This coincided with a cosmic calamity to befall the earth reducing humanity to a few thousand. The recovering race of humans comprised those who wanted to restore some kind of order – Templars – and those who valued free will more – Assassins.

Desmond, therefore, is being manipulated by the Templars to bring the world back to a more disciplined path while the Assassins try and stop him giving away the location of Pieces of Eden that would allow this to happen. And this is battle between Templars and Assassins has been raging for thousands of years.

It’s a fun story and encompasses elements of Greek mythology, Scientology, gnosticism, philosophy and so on. But it’s not very historical. There was a Knights Templar order of militarised monks. And there was a fanatical sect called the Assassins. They did exist at the same time in the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The Assassins were Shia Muslims and fought both the Sunni Muslim kingdoms of medieval Asia and the Christian crusaders who had come as invaders to the region. Their tactic was to assassinate leaders on both sides, which they did with horrific success. But their attitude to the Templars was more ambiguous.

The historian Dan Jones writes that they tended to avoid battling the Knights Templar. That may have been out of respect but also an awareness that if you killed one or ten or a hundred Templars, there were always others to take their place. The Templars could, basically, regenerate rapidly. Killing a king or a sultan could cause chaos. But the Templars took the death of their own warriors in their stride.

So in reality, far from being engaged in an eternal life or death struggle – the two forces seem to have sidestepped each other. Rather a different story then!