It's very easy to distort history if the version that is being sold is more exciting or seen to be more interesting than the standard version that while cool, doesn't enthral the general populace for reasons generally to do with what people want to believe rather than what is most likely true. A recent blog post here at NZ Conservative shows how such alternate histories can capture the imagination of people, much to the annoyance of researchers and archaeologists.
This post is on the Knights Templar, themselves subject to people who would rewrite their history for their own ends. I've copied the forward to a book by French historian Régine Pernoud, where she attempts set the story straight on the Knights and I hope that rather than being swayed by the likes of fiction writer Dan Brown, you'll consider that the truth is far more worthwhile.
Historical distortions are difficult to straighten out. A mistake about a chemical compound or an airline schedule will be exposed in due course by an explosion or a missed connection, but misconceptions about the past can persist for centuries, despite the diligent work of historians, either because vested interests benefit from the distortions (the Whig view of history) or because the fanciful version is more fun.
This is particularly true of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, the Templars. The order was founded at the start of the twelfth century by a knight from Champagne in eastern France, Hugh of Payns, who, five years after the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade, made a pilgrimage in the Holy Land with his liege lord and namesake, Count Hugh of Champagne. Seeing the need for knights to protect the pilgrims from Muslim marauders, but also sensing a call from God to lead the life of a monk, Hugh and eight companions formed a hybrid community of monk-knights. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and followed the rule of a religious order but remained under arms.
Not all the leaders of the Church at the time approved of this notion of a military order. Saint Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, had grave doubts about the moral legitimacy of killing for Christ. However, Hugh of Payns found a champion in the leading churchman of the time, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who not only endorsed the concept but also drew up a strict rule much like that of his own Cistercian order which was approved by the Pope.
It was an idea whose time had come. The rulers of Latin Christendom all wished to go on crusade but ran the risk of usurpation if they left their kingdoms for any length of time. The Templars became their proxies. Endowments of land provided an income with which the order could equip knights, sergaents and squires; build castles and hire mercenaries. Their monastic vow of obedience led to a military discipline impossible to impose on prima donna knights. There was no time limit to their period of service, as here was with a feudal levy; as celibates they had no children to provide for; and the authority within the order did not depend on feudal ties. The chief of the Syrian Assassins, Sinan ibn-Salman, said that there was no point in killing a Templar Grand Master because there would always be another knight to take his place.
By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Templars had become a rich and powerful institution with fortresses in London and Paris, a network of well-run land-holdings throughout Europe, and a strong military and political presence in the Holy Land. There is almost no evidence of corrupt knights--certainly less than there is of corrupt monks--but there is some of a certain institutional arrogance and conspicuous consumption: the Templar fortress at Acre was adorned with four gold-plated lions costing '1,500 Saracen besants'. Answerable only to the Pope, bishops resented their autonomy and kings their wealth.
In 1307, King Phillip of France, looking for ways to make up the deficit in the royal finances, decided to expropriate the property of the Templars. Accusing the order of treachery, blasphemy, sodomy and devil worship, he ordered the arrest of al the knights in his jurisdiction and called upon the Kings of England and Aragon to do the same. The subsequent torture and trial of the Templars, and the procrastination of the then Pope, Clement V, and his dissolution of the order at the Council of Vienna in 1311, is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Medieval Church.
As disgraceful as the fate of the last Templars--the last Grand Master, James of Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris--has been the appropriation of the Order by myth-making Freemasons in the eighteenth century, whose mytagogy and obfuscation persists to this day. From Walter Scott's Ivanhoe to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the protrayal of the Templars is as false as it is absurd. This distortion exasperated, and even enraged, the French historian Régine Pernoud, who has already set right many of our misapprehensions about the Middle Ages in her Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. Now in The Templars she rehabilitates the devout Catholic knights, exposing 'the incredible crop of fanciful allegations attributing to the Templars every kind of esoteric rite and belief, from the most ancient to the most vulgar. . . .' As she rightly points out, the truth is accessible in archives and libraries; it is not impossible to uncover the facts. The result is an excellent, unadorned history which is a pleasure to read.
Where there is controversy, she gives her opinion based on her wide knowledge of the Middle Ages. She considers that the charges made against the Templars are bogus: 'only a few historians, committed to defending the memory of Philip the Fair come what may, give any credience to the accusations of which the Templars were victims.' She also sets the dissolution of the order in historical context, comparing it to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in the eighteenth century; and pointing out that the brain-washing and torture to which the Templars were subject presaged the methods of totaliarian governments in modern times.
There is no canonised Templar saints. Apart from the Grand Masters, little is known about the individual knights who joined the order: few could read or write (something that was to prove a grave disability at the time of their arrest) and so none left any record to what he thought or endured. Every knight who entered the order knew that he was likely to die in battle. The white of his tunic was that of the martyrs in the Book of Revelation, and the read of the cross the colour of the blood that was shed. After the defeat of the Latin Christians at the Battle of Hattin, the Templar knights taken captive were given the choice of apostasy or death. None chose to deny Christ. All were decapitated by ecstatic Sufis on the orders of Saladin. Saladin went on to gain a reputation as merciful and magnanimous in victory--another historical distortion: the Templar knights, we can be sure, to an eternal reward.
Related Link: Historical Distortions and The Templars | The Foreword to Régine Pernoud's The Templars: Knights of Christ | Piers Paul Read | Ignatius Insight