Templars: Fact and Fiction

The Knights Templar, a medieval order of warrior monks sworn to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land, have been romanticized in popular fiction since early in their history. The first Templars story, a poem called Le Conte du Graal, was written in 1180 by Chretien de Troyes. Troyes’ work was “imitated” by contemporary writers who linked the Templars with the Holy Grail, establishing the Grail legend which Elonka Dunin described during Friday’s panel as “medieval fanfiction.” More modern fictional accounts range from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, published in 1819, to titles from our own century such as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which featured throughout Ms. Dunin’s panel as a fantasized version of an already fantastic story.

Contrary to Mr. Brown’s mythology, the Templars were anything but a secret organization. They were famous for their dedication to battle: once they had committed to a battle they wouldn’t retreat until the battle was won or every other banner had fallen. They were also prominently involved in civilian life: “It would be like saying Microsoft was a secret organization,” said Ms. Dunin. Their credit was good throughout Christendom, so they evolved a kind of multinational banking corporation and built famous and very defensible fortresses across Europe. Following the early Crusades, Jerusalem was opened up to Christian pilgrims, but there was great danger from bandits on the main roads from the port to the holy places.

The Templars’ headquarters were located on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site which is sacred to Jews and Muslims who weren’t keen on the invading Christians, making the region hazardous in general. Ms. Dunin told the tale of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s “Night Journey” to Al-Aqsa, the Farthest Mosque. The story goes that Muhammad was transported on a heavenly steed to “the farthest mosque” and then ascended into heaven and met the prophets and God Himself, who gave him laws for the Muslims including a command to pray 500 times a day! When Muhammad left God’s presence, he met Moses, who told him to go back and negotiate for fewer prayers. Eventually God conceded that Muslims only had to pray five times a day; Moses thought this was still too difficult but Muhammad couldn’t face the prospect of contradicting God again so he got back on the horse and returned to Mecca.

Ms. Dunin debunked some Templar myths. They did have initiation ceremonies, but the rumor that Templar Knights worshiped a pagan deity called Baphomet was begun as a slander involving a misunderstanding about the Prophet Muhammad, who was known as Mahomet and was a hated figure in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The eventual fall of the Templars was speeded by similar malicious rumors begun by the French King Philip, who felt threatened by the Templars’ military prowess and financial influence–he also owed them money. Rosslyn Chapel, which features prominently in The Da Vinci Code, is unlikely to be a centre of Templar religion. It is just one of many buildings across Europe containing references to Templar activity, as the Templars were so prevalent for so long, and well-to-do families would often dedicate a younger son to God by sending him to train with Templar units. Academics believe Freemasonry to have begun in the 18th century, long after the Templars had been disbanded and individual monks had turned to new trades, so there is probably no direct link between the two organizations.

The Shroud of Turin, believed to have been the cloth that wrapped Jesus’ body in the tomb and to have retained the imprint of his face, is similarly dubious, though it was owned by the family of a Templar who was burned at the stake for blasphemy during the order’s final persecution. Dan Brown’s Priory of Sion was not an ancient cult; it was founded by a Frenchman called Pierre Plantard, in 1956, as part of an attempt to assert his tenuous claim to the French throne. He forged documents supporting his claim and hid them in France’s equivalent of Roswell, NM, or Scotland’s Loch Ness–a place where strange things were already reputed to have happened.

An audience question led to a brief biography of Dan Brown. He was originally a musician who didn’t have much success, so he switched to writing novels but couldn’t find The Book that would make his name. Deliberate controversy sells books, and it seems that that is how the idea for The Da Vinci Code came to him. But long before Dan Brown wrote his novel, entrepreneurs have made money out of the Templar legacy, and con artists and conspiracy theorists have found the Templars to be a rich source of inspiration. Many urban legends have grown up about the Templars–Ms. Dunin warned her audience against reading books by conspiracy theorists who believe that the Templars were in league with aliens and that they were involved in reconquering Jerusalem. If you want to read accounts based more in reality, recommended authors include Malcolm Barber and Helen Nicholson.

Other audience questions referred to the Portuguese Order of Christ, which many believe was founded by former Templar knights and may have nurtured Christopher Columbus, and the possibility that Templars began the Swiss banking powerhouse. One audience member asked for tips on research techniques. Ms. Dunin advised them to choose a small part of an issue and get about 20 relevant books out of the library, then read only the pages that refer to the issue and work out what the authors agree on, as the consensus is often more likely to be close to the truth of the matter. Choosing books from the “Recommended Further Reading” lists and lists of sources in academic studies will also help researchers.

Author of the article

Anne Chadwick

Anne Chadwick has been dashing off terrible artwork at her home in rural England for only a very short while. She started life as a singer and viola player (please send any amusing viola jokes to rhapsody_angel@hotmail.com) but has turned her hand to proofreading because the world needs writing—ahem—righting. Another passion of hers, alongside music and championing good usage of English, is the learning of other languages. The current target is Arabic, through classes, book-learning, reading Arabic literature and—most important when learning any new language—interacting with real live native speakers; in this case, Arabs. Her current addiction to crochet leaves little time for other relaxing occupations but her comic bats keep her company when the hooks just won't do what she wants them to do. You may see her modelling (or "modeling" in America!) the odd crocheted creation around the con, if you look closely enough.

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