Dr. Partner’s short book is divided into two equal parts, of which the first is easier to read and review than the second. It begins by surveying the history of the Knights Templar from their foundation in the early twelfth century to their brutal suppression in the early fourteenth. The familiar story is well told, and subjected to much perceptive comment. It reminds us that the author is a distinguished historian whose published works on the late medieval papacy are highly regarded by academic colleagues and by a wider circle of students.
The knights and serving brothers of the Temple, like those of the Hospital, came into being to minister to the needs of pilgrims to the Holy Land: the Hospitallers to tend the sick poor, the Templars to give armed protection to those going up to Jerusalem from the coast. As time passed the two orders came to resemble each other ever more closely. In both, the knights took monastic vows. The Templars were fighting men from the beginning; the Hospitallers, without abandoning their charitable provision for the sick, gradually became so. Both orders developed their military skills and organization to the degree that their knights and sergeants became a substantial, as well as the best trained and disciplined, part of the army of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. There they accepted the custody of castles that secular lords could no longer afford to maintain. Such services in the land in which the human Christ had lived and died attracted the benefactions of the pious in all parts of the Christian West. Both orders therefore became wealthy international organizations. Their lands, and the establishments from which those lands were administered, and their members and servants who were the administrators, could be found in nearly all regions of Europe as well as in the Latin East.
They came to be identified in the public mind with the defense of the Holy Land. Many who wished to give money to provide financial support for the Christian cause in Palestine did so by making their gifts or bequests to the Templars or Hospitallers as the safest means of ensuring that their pious intention would be fulfilled. When Henry II of England taxed the chattels and incomes of his subjects as a means of financing a new crusade, each group of officials that levied the tax in every parish in the land was accompanied by a Templar and Hospitaller. Members of both orders were to be found as trusted agents and men of affairs in papal, royal, and baronial households. In short, Templars were familiar figures in the Latin Christian world throughout much of the twelfth and all of the thirteenth century. Like members of the numerous monastic and mendicant orders, Templars were everywhere recognizable by their distinctive dress, as well as by their churches and their residential and administrative centers.
They had critics and enemies. Like other international religious orders the Templars had been granted by successive popes a large measure of exemption from episcopal authority. Bishops resented such privileges because their control of ecclesiastical affairs within their dioceses was thereby reduced. The Templars’ special status was resented by many of the secular clergy; their wealth drew criticism, as clerical wealth always does, from a still wider circle. Evidence of such hostility is provided by some of the leading historians of the age, especially by William of Tyre in the twelfth century and Matthew Paris in the thirteenth. The Templars came under closer and still more hostile scrutiny after the Holy Land was finally lost in 1291. This seemed to deprive them of the main reason for their existence and therefore for the wealth with which they had been endowed. There were plans for uniting Templars and Hospitallers into a single order and devoting its resources to the financing of a new crusade.
It was while the future of the order, as well as that of the crusade to the cast, was still uncertain that the French government took matters into its own hands. On Friday, October 13, 1307, royal officials, by what would nowadays be called a dawn sweep, arrested virtually every Templar in the kingdom. In its swift efficiency the operation seems to belong not to the fourteenth century, when administrative methods were often slipshod, but to the twentieth. So too does the sequel. The Templars, their morale, and sometimes their limbs, broken by solitary confinement in conditions of exceptional severity, and by the threat or application of torture, produced confessions of such general uniformity that they can only have been elicited by the accusers’ use of a carefully prepared questionnaire. The confessions related mainly to acts said to have been part of the ritual by which new members were admitted to the order. Templars confessed that they were then required to deny Christ, to spit, or even to urinate, on a crucifix, to kiss one of the brethren present on the navel and, as the phrase went, at the base of the spine, and were encouraged to take part in acts of buggery.
Many of those who confessed tried at a later stage to retract their confessions, especially if they saw any prospect of being transferred from the prisons and jailers of the French king or those of his royalist bishops. Some of these would-be retractors were treated as relapsed heretics, and fifty-four of them were burned alive on a single occasion by the order of the Archbishop of Sens. Pressure was put on Pope Clement V to condemn the order, but he was unwilling to do so without bringing a greater measure of common justice into the proceedings against them. The affair dragged on for five years until, in 1312, Pope Clement suppressed the order. Two years later a pair of its greatest officers, the Grand Master and the Preceptor of Normandy, protesting their innocence, were burned at the stake on an island in the Seine.
Why did it all happen? The well-known events are riddled with many uncertainties. Who took the initiative, King Philip the Fair or his ministers? For what reasons? Simply to alleviate the government’s financial problems, or to force a situation in which the wealth of the order would be available for a new crusade? Or was it because the king and his advisers genuinely believed that the Templars had absorbed ideas and practices in the Levant that had transformed them into an association of heretics? Were the charges against the Templars justified and proved?
There have always been, and are still, those who think that the order was guilty, and those who think it innocent. Between the two extremes, one finds people who think that there can be no smoke without fire and that, even if the charges were exaggerated, some things about the order must have been seriously amiss. It is only just to the Templars, however, to recall, as Partner does, that the accusations that they were heretics, blasphemers, sodomites, idolaters, and magicians became a kind of standard list which the French officials of the day put to repeated use. They pressed the same charges against. Pope Boniface VIII, the Bishop of Troyes, and the count of Nevers. King Philip and his agents smeared dangerous opponents with a mixture made up of ingredients which were to become familiar.
Is the suppression of the Templars to be regarded as a minor episode, “a murky footnote to the history of the crusades”? It is surely more than that. In a society characterized by religious orders, the abuse and suppression of one of the oldest and most respected are evidence of major change and of that process which has been called “the waning of the Middle Ages.” For his part Dr. Partner soars far beyond this modest generalization. He discusses the connections between magic, sorcery, and heresy. He notes the belief in magic, and the use of magicians, at many levels of society in many ages. He observes that in the late Roman world there were bureaucrats in the imperial service who were suspected of consulting magicians in order to further their careers.
So, too, in the late medieval world, in courts like those of the popes or the kings of France in which bureaucracies were still developing, servants of Philip the Fair, like William of Nogaret, pressed such charges against their adversaries. Pope John XXII (1316–1334), who earlier in life had been chancellor to a cadet branch of the French royal house, denounced a number of his enemies as magicians: the Bishop of Cahors, Matteo Visconti, and Federigo di Montefeltro. “The relevance of the late Roman magical world to [that] of the later Middle Ages is that both were societies with courtier-dominated bureaucracies” in which “men of humble origins found a means of promotion to the highest power and influence.” Both Nogaret and John XXII “suffered from panic fear of magical attack, and their maniacal aggression against people whom they suspected of such attacks was typical of the insecurity and superstitious violence of court officials who lived in fear of competitive plotting of others of their own kind.”
This is comparative history of an adventurous and spectacular kind. Nor does it end here. The legal proceedings of the early fourteenth century of which those against the Templars were a part were, Partner writes,
the first of a long series of political trials in the French and English royal courts which included the accusation of magical ill-doing. Such charges were periodically made in these courts…into the early modern period of the seventeenth century.
The attack on the Templars thus takes its place for Partner not only among the long sequence of late medieval and early modern witch hunts, but also in the succession of groups which from time to time have been suspected of meeting in secret to conspire against society: the Bacchanalia in republican and the Christians in Nero’s Rome; the sorcerers in Valens’s Byzantium; the Assassins in medieval Islam, directed by the Old Man of the Mountain.
The Templars have never been forgotten. Their aura of magic, idolatry, sexual perversion, secret rites, and arcane oriental wisdom has attracted many imaginative writers, starting with the Gothic novelists of the eighteenth century, who were at home with similar themes, and including Walter Scott, Balzac, Gérard de Nerval, and Lawrence Durrell. For modern purveyors of the sensational, especially those who masquerade as historians, Templars are still part of a familiar stock-in-trade. Apart from fiction and near-fiction, they were discussed by Bodin and Voltaire as recurrent types of minorities unjustly persecuted by established governments. Practitioners of magic have regarded the ancient East as the ultimate source of their knowledge and have believed that it was transmitted to the West through channels that included the Templars. The Knights’ supposed possession of pre-Christian traditions has made them interesting to modern students of folklore. Others, like the Abbé de Barruel in the late eighteenth century and the Austrian orientalist Joseph Hammer in the early nineteenth, linked the alleged beliefs of the Templars with those of the ancient Ophites and Gnostics, the medieval Assassins and Albigensians and the Freemasons and revolutionary groups of their own day. Such speculations took them into the realms of comparative mythology, so that their interests overlapped with those of modern anthropologists who treat myth as one of the foundations of man’s spiritual and social life.
Dr. Partner provides a lively and illuminating discussion of all these large topics in the second half of his book; and he has plenty to say on Freemasonry, the modern group with whom the memories and myths of the Templars are most closely associated. When the first Masons’ lodges were founded in the early eighteenth century they were soon provided with ancestors. One influential voice in the process was that of the Chevalier Ramsay, a Scottish, Roman Catholic Jacobite, secretary to Fénelon and client of Cardinal de Fleury. He linked the Freemasons of his day with the crusaders of the past, who included men who worked in stone and fought the Saracen. Not only this, but they passed on to the medieval West the wisdom of the Egyptian and Hellenized East.
Ramsay himself said nothing of the Templars, but once connections between Freemasons and crusaders were suggested, the entry of the knightly order was inevitable, since “the Temple is the center of the whole architectural metaphor on which Freemasonry is based.” During much eighteenth-century Freemasonry, especially in Germany, the Templars were portrayed as transmitters of secret knowledge. This development, Partner notes, attracted toward Freemasonry a number of men concerned with magic, some of whom were genuine believers and some charlatans out to manipulate others for their personal profit. They claimed, by their communion with spirits, to have access to buried treasure and to the secrets of transmuting metals and distilling elixirs of life.
The influence of such men gave the Templars an ever more prominent place in the Masons’ lodges in Germany, and subsequently in France. Sometimes this took absurdly visible form. Some German Masons met on solemn public occasions arrayed in medieval armor; one of the most influential figures among them, Karl von Hund, went to his grave in 1776 clad in the costume, designed by himself, of the Provincial Grand Master of the Order; in 1808 the Masonic lodge of the Chevaliers de la Croix, which had among its brethren many members of the French nobility, organized and attended in Paris a requiem for the Templar master Jacques de Molay. It was held in the Church of St. Paul on the anniversary of his execution. The officers of the lodge appeared in medieval dress; the Templars’ piebald banner was carried in the procession.
The Templarist element in Freemasonry did more than provide the occasion for pageantry and display; it could also arouse the suspicions of those in authority. Masons confine knowledge of their beliefs and rituals to the circle of those who have been initiated into the order, and the brethren reveal themselves to each other by private codes of recognition. To outside observers their lodges therefore have the aspects of secret societies, and during the past two centuries there have been politicians and governments who have regarded them as conspirators against the established social order. In 1785 the lodges of the so-called Illuminati were dissolved by order of the Bavarian government.
Such suspicions have been strengthened by those Freemasons who have regarded themselves as descendants and heirs of the medieval Templars. Were their lodges pledged to avenge the murder of Jacques de Molay as Solomon had avenged that of Hiram, builder of his temple? When questioned during the Inquisition, Cagliostro told his examiners that the modern Templars intended to exact a price for the execution of the last Grand Master by destroying all monarchic and ecclesiastical institutions. The French Revolution could be seen by those crazy enough (of whom there seems to have been no shortage during the Age of Reason) as the vengeance of Jacques de Molay.
Freemasons have been denounced as a sinister international force by heads of governments into the present century, and especially by Hitler. During World War II the Vichy government cooperated with the Germans in legislating against the Masons. In Vichy circles, there were reports that Masonic groups, which included politicians, businessmen, and technocrats, were ready to take power. These “synarchists” were supposed by some to have been influenced by the ideas of Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, who, incredibly, had seen the medieval Templars as a group of managerial ruler-technocrats, who aspired to rule in Europe, Asia, and Africa. One of the critics of the twentieth-century synarchists, wishing to publish a pamphlet against them under a nom de plume, chose that of Geoffroy de Charnay, the Templar Preceptor of Normandy, who went to the stake in 1314.*
At the beginning of this review I said that the second half of Dr. Partner’s book was more difficult to read than the first. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, he discusses so many diverse and complex developments in a mere ninety pages that the reader’s curiosity is more often aroused than satisfied. Further study is required, and the author is helpful in providing excellent notes and bibliography. Within severe limitations of space he is always admirably clear and to the point; and as one who has to describe so many zany ideas by a variety of deluded or irresponsible writers, he is a model of sobriety in his judgments on the Templars. In his opinion, so far from possessing exceptional powers or knowledge, they were mediocrities who could not rise to meet the demands of crisis in which they were involved. This is indeed an astringent verdict. The medieval Templars, almost from their origins, owed their position in the world to the support of the papacy. When they were brought to their time of trial, that support was not forthcoming in sufficient measure.
The second cause for the difficulty of the second section is the mixture of the true and the false in practically everything to do with the Templars. The one so often merges into the other that it is hard for readers to decide what kind of a phenomenon they have to try to understand. What of the Freemasons? Are they members of a benevolent society and social club, or custodians of perennial verities, or actors in ceremonies that embody only elaborate make-believe? Have they ever been politically significant? Much serious historical research is still being devoted to this question. The writers who appear in Dr. Partner’s discussion include scholars, eccentrics, and charlatans, some of them, perhaps, all three. Some readers may find that, in the story of the Templar myth, which the author so skillfully presents, there are people, organizations, and ideas that elude understanding. Academic historians with traditional interests—like this reviewer—will sometimes feel out of their depth; but there are bolder spirits concerned with fields of historical study that are still being explored, and who mingle in interdisciplinary territory with students of anthropology and comparative religion. This is decidedly a book to challenge them.
November 24, 1983
As I write, the alleged Grand Master of the P2 Masonic Lodge, a group outlawed by the Italian government and disclaimed by other Italian Masons, has escaped from a Swiss jail where he was held pending extradition for questioning about illegal operations of the Banco Ambrosiano and other crimes. ↩