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Is It True about the Templars?

The Guilt of the Templars

by G. Legman
Basic Books, 308 pp., $8.50

The trial of the Knights Templars is one of the causes célèbres of medieval history. Of all the spiritual and military Orders that flourished in the Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, none stood higher in reputation and influence. The Knights, who took monastic vows, were also pledged to the defense of the Holy Land against the Saracens. Fostered in its early days by St. Bernard himself, protected and privileged by popes, enriched by the gifts of kings and magnates, the Order soon became a wealthy landowner not only in the crusader states, but in every country of Latin Christendom. It also developed the greatest single banking organization of its time, with the kings of France as the most illustrious of its many royal and noble clients. The wordly wealth and greatness the Knights had achieved by the thirteenth century was a far cry from the poverty of their two founders, so poor, it was said, that they had but one horse between them. Like all the great Orders, they seemed to a growing number of satirists and critics to have forgotten their early ideals. But while other Orders survived, the Templars were brutally suppressed.

The efficient planning and rapid execution of large-scale enterprises was not a normal medieval skill, but the Templars were overthrown with a ruthless despatch which would command the admiration even of modern executives and staff officers. Ruthlessness and efficiency—these were the characteristics of the men to whom King Philip the Fair of France entrusted his affairs—men like Pierre Flote, who had directed the campaign against Pope Boniface VIII, or Guillaume de Nogaret, who took charge of the attack on the Templars. Early on 13th October, 1307, in accordance with sealed orders sent to the king’s officers a month earlier, every Templar in France was arrested. The coup achieved complete surprise. On the previous day the Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, escorted the pall at the funeral of a Capetian princess in the presence of the king himself. Next morning he was that king’s prisoner, never again to know freedom until he was burnt at the stake nearly seven years later.

As soon as the arrests had been made, Nogaret published an account of the crimes of which the Knights stood accused: how each Templar on admission to the Order was obliged to deny Christ, to spit, even to urinate, on a crucifix, to greet with an obscene kiss the knight who received him; how each was encouraged to the practice of sodomy; and how at some meetings of the Order a head was exhibited to be worshipped as Baphomet. The accused were given no opportunity to organize an effective defense. The imprisoned Knights were examined separately by the Grand Inquisitor in the presence of the king’s officers. Those unwilling to answer questions were menaced or afflicted with physical torture. Scores of confessions were produced, and the Pope was urged to suppress the Order. Clement V, a Frenchman who spent much of his pontificate on French soil, was always vulnerable to pressure from the French king, but even he was reluctant to condemn the Templars. He attempted to take over the investigation into their affairs. When the opportunity was given them of appearing before papal commissioners, Templars who had previously confessed withdrew their confessions. Hundreds now showed themselves ready to defend the Order. But Philip the Fair was not to be thwarted. Whenever there seemed to be hope for the Templars he intervened decisively against them. At one stage a batch of fifty-four of them were burnt alive on the order of the Archbishop of Sens, a brother of one of Philip’s councillors; at another, he cowed the Pope by threatening to press for the posthumous trial of Boniface VIII, with heresy and sodomy among the charges he was prepared to make, just as he did against the Templars. The king had his way, and in 1312 Clement finally declared the suppression of the Order.

WERE THE TEMPLARS innocent or guilty? It is a question of which historians have been, and remain, divided. Some have been impressed by the sheer number and unanimity of the confessions, and the accusations made by medieval critics of the Order, and have believed that these must have had some foundation. Others have stressed that nothing had been heard of such charges during the Order’s previous history: how could such things have been kept so completely secret for so long? They point to the lack of material proof other than the confessions, to the methods used to extract those confessions, to the complete failure to prove the charges in England, Germany, and Spain. Solution of the problem is not made easier by the fact that King Philip remains an enigma, whose personality and purposes no historian has ever satisfactorily interpreted.

An episode which combines mystery and drama with the technical problems of evaluating the evidence has attracted a wide range of writers, from professional medievalists to propagandists, cranks, and seekers of the sensational. For many who have discussed it, and Mr. Legman seems to be among them, it has been their first major excursion into the history of medieval Europe. Among other students of the subject whose work he most often cites are Jean Charpentier, who is a poet, novelist, and prolific literary biographer; G. A. Campbell, who has also published popular accounts of The Civil Service, Our Police Force, and His Majesty’s Mails; and Hammer-Purgstall, to whom Mr. Legman’s book is dedicated, was an expert on Arabic and Persian literature and the author of a monumental history of the Ottoman Empire.

When experts from other fields turn to writing history, the results can sometimes be immensely beneficial for historians and historical studies. But those experts must have done something to equip themselves with the historians’ knowledge and skills, and Mr. Legman has done very little of this kind of homework. He accepts the existence of non-events which never occurred, like his unfortunate references to the capture of Jerusalem by the Christians in 1299 and its loss under de Molay. He treats insecurely founded statements by other writers, and especially by Campbell, as if they were solidly established historical facts on which judgments could be safely based. And such judgments The Templars, we are told, by their greed prevented the conversion of the Assassins to Christianity. And, more than once, that the Templars “lost the crusades.” Just like that. Not for Mr. Legman the calm, judicial frame of mind. His purpose is not to weigh the evidence, but to press the case against the Templars at every opportunity. When they took tribute from the Assassins, this is quoted as typical of their money-grubbing ways. He does not know, or does not care to state, that all the rulers of Latin Syria, and the Hospitallers, took tribute from the Saracens when the opportunity presented itself. His discussion of usury, learned as it is in many respects, misfires because he shows no awareness of the place of credit transactions in the government and economy of medieval Europe.

A FAIR SAMPLE of this method is his treatment of the Templars’ seal, which bore the device of the two poor knights and their single horse. “Their formal seal,” he writes, “showing one Templar riding behind another on one horse, is an almost open flaunting of the pederasty that seems originally to have recommended them to Bernard of Clairvaux. Note the popular legend (Lea, p. 155 below) that the seal shows the Devil himself ‘seducing’ a Templar from behind.” Mr. Legman does not intend all parts of his book to be taken seriously, and perhaps this outrageous passage, unjustified and unjustifiable, is one of them. He wishes his readers to understand the word “seduce” in a sexual sense. Lea, to whom we are referred, uses it in a general sense. According to the legend, a demon in human shape told the Templar that if he would believe in him, the Order would grow in wealth and power. This was the temptation to which the Templar was seduced. Professor Barzun, in a Preface to the book, hails Mr. Legman as “simply a scholar.” But what kind of scholarship is this? And to what kind of scholar is St. Bernard no more than “the homosexual protector of the Order”?

As his previously published work shows, Mr. Legman may well write with more authority in the fields of literature, folklore, and sexual customs. He has edited the Journal of Erotic Folklore, has written on The Causes of Homosexuality, and promises a book on The History and Psychology of Religio-Sexual Orgies. His essay on the Templars is mainly concerned with the religious and sexual aberrations of which they were accused, and of which he is certain that they were guilty. He tries to establish what happened at Templar ceremonies; by excursions into comparative religion and anthropology, he suggests the sources of their alleged malpractices, or compares them with similar phenomena in more recent times. He is at times deeply erudite and highly entertaining. He is always prejudiced, sometimes malicious, occasionally repulsive (e.g., the wholly irrelevant passage, which is another not intended to be taken seriously, about emptying the semen from used condoms to fertilize the melon patch). Thus, the accusation that the Templars believed in the power of their idolatrous head “to make the land produce and the trees blossom” leads to a wide-ranging discussion of fertility rituals, with references to The Farmer’s Almanac, the Ball of Kirriemuir, and attempts “to force the fertility of the earth by human example,” reported in Vance Randolph’s “UnprintableOzark Folk Beliefs. In the ritual of the kisses, said to have been part of a Templar’s initiation, the author has little difficulty in seeing “one implying or symbolizing a complete erotic itinerary of the new recruit’s bare body under the guise of ritual kisses.” And so it continues to homosexual orgies and ordeals in other groups, homosexuality in the Levant, with references to Aleister Crowley (also not intended to be taken seriously), Burton’s “Terminal Essay,” “a very rare collection of bawdy American College songs,” Dissertationibus XXV de Osculis (Frankfurt, 1680), and so on. There is never a dull moment, but not all of it is rational discourse. From time to time the flow of allusion and anecdote is broken by a verdict or opinion, unheralded and unproven. “I believe,” he writes, “that the secret of the Templar idol was that it represented the miraculous ‘head of Sidon,’ of the Levantine neo-goddess or anti-Virgin of Maraclea in Tripoli, whose extraordinary legend (Lot’s wife?) is detailed by Lea…below, characterizing it curtly as ‘rubbish.’ ” We are not told why the author believes this, nor why Lea is wrong.

The material is so various and the method so discursive that the book is not always easy reading. This difficulty is increased by the multitude of references to other books which are incorporated in the text. Mr. Legman has been bibliographer to the Kinsey Institute. He does not always score full marks in that exact science. He gives Tawney’s well known book the false title of Religion and the Rise of the Middle Classes. The information which he gives about the editors and the dates of publication of the different editions of the Monasticon have misled his publishers into supposing that Dugdale himself “vividly translated” the English abridgment of his work, which appeared thirty-five years after his death. But these are historical works, and on other literature the author is most consistently accurate and abundantly informative, so much so that his pages are over-cluttered with bibliographical data.

MR. LEGMAN’S ESSAY ends on page 134 of a book which runs to 308 pages. To supply the balance he has, in the words of his publisher, “re-edited three rare and remarkable documents.” Lea’s account of the Templar downfall is not a rare document; it is a chapter from his History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. The only editing has been to give it a title which Lea never knew, and to ram his notes into his text. But it is very much to Mr. Legman’s credit to have reprinted this fine piece, which takes a view of the Templars so very different from his own, and which will enable the reader to think for himself.

The author comes into his own with the second of his documents. He has made a few additions to the notes, and it really does deserve to be called rare. It is here entitled The Templars and the worship of the generative powers. It was published anonymously as an appendix to Knight’s Discourse on the worship of Priapus, a book withdrawn and suppresssed when it was first published in 1786, and since reprinted only in privately issued or limited editions. But it will scarcely bear the superlatives which Mr. Legman heaps upon it. He must be almost alone in supposing Thomas Wright, one of its authors, prodigious worker though he was, to be “the greatest of British scholar-antiquaries”; nor is the essay “one of the most fascinating and important ever published on the Knights Templars.” It is simply a worked-up version of material which Wright had already published in his Narrative of Sorcery and Magic.

There is another rare document, which the author might have re-edited: Hammed-Purgstall’s Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum, for which he has so high an admiration. For him it is a “lightning flash of inspiration…which still dominates all meaningful discussion of the affair of the Templars.” It is a pity that he should allow so important a key to remain buried, in its original Latin, in the obscurity of Volume VI of the Fundgruben des Orients (Vienna, 1818). One good reason for leaving it there is that it simply will not stand up to critical scrutiny; and if Mr. Legman disagrees, then let him publish a translation, so that we can all have a look at it.

In 1949 Mr. Legman published, in Love and Death, a brilliant and forceful attack on a censorship, and, beyond the censorship, public notions of “morality” which restrict discussion of sexual themes but which, in the crime story, and in comic books directed at children, permit the lurid portrayal of every kind of sadism and violence. It is a marvelously effective onslaught. The power and violence of his writing are turned against wrongs which need to be denounced, and he thoroughly knows the enemy he is attacking. But to indict the Templars of six centuries ago demands a mastery of the historian’s standards and craft which he does not possess. His readers have only to measure his performance against that of the great American medievalist whose work he reprints. Maitland wrote of Lea that “we trust him thoroughly because he keeps his gaze fixed on the Middle Ages and never looks for opinions to be refuted or for quarrels to be picked.” The same cannot be said of Mr. Legman nor, it must in fairness be said, would he probably wish it to be.

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