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It has been said that the Knights Templar were ‘a bit more enthusiastic than the average Crusader!’ and while that might be true, the only real way to verify it is to take a look at the Crusades and see what it was really like.
The Templars, and their contemporaries would make an interesting study in the Religious extremism. Were they really an extremist group? Or were they a product of their time? I think that to answer this question, we really have to look at the events surrounding the time and some of the doctrines of the Templars.
The Western mind often looks at an event without looking too much at what happened before, but with the Crusades, if you do this then you’ll get a distorted view of what was really going on the Crusades didn’t happen in a vacuum, but there is some discussion as to the beginning of the build up to the Crusades.
Islam had burst on the scene in the early part of the seventh century, sweeping in to the Arab lands like a breath of fresh air after nearly five hundred years of the Roman and Byzantine rule. Within a few years they had swept the Byzantines (and with that all Christian states) out of the Arab lands and the land in which two of the world’s great faiths were born.
By the year 732 AD, much of Europe was under the Muslims and Christianity, which were on the verge of being extinguished. With the Barbarians pressing from the North and the Muslims from the South, the Christians had to do something defend themselves. But the tide turned and at the Battle of Tours in the Central France, the Islamic advance was first checked and then slowly driven back.
The first crusade may have been unorganized and the Crusaders may have been ill disciplined, but the results were spectacular, all of the Bible lands were taken from the Muslims and three Crusader Kingdoms came into being.
It’s not certain exactly what date the Knights Templar came into being, but most seem to think that in the year 1118 a Knight by the name of Hugues de Payens and eight others who went in Pilgrimage took an oath to defend and protect the pilgrims and holy places that had been taken from the Muslim.
Even before the Crusade, it was possible for people to go on Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in fact, this is one thing that Medieval Christendom shared with Islam as one of the five pillars of Islam is Pilgrimage and Jerusalem is the third most holy site in Islam. But the way was dangerous and pilgrims literally took their lives in their own hands when travelling the route. Also, since the year 1030, it had become much more dangerous as the Turks had taken Jerusalem off the Arabs and they had no intention of obeying the guarantees of safety that the Arabs had given the Christians. The Christians, some say, that persecution had broken out and the West was horrified at it.
First, they had to deal with the petty states, into which Europe had fragmented, when the Roman Empire had broken up. Then they either had the choice of going into the land of the heretics of the Byzantine Empire and on into lands occupied by the Barbarian Muslims, neither they could take their chances on the high seas and make landfall in the land. For the first time there was a body of Knights willing to take the risk of acting as armed escorts to those willing to make the journey.
By 1120, the Knights were recognized at the council of Nablus as a ‘co-fraternity it was only later at the council of Troyes, in 1128 that the co-fraternity became a Religious order.
They were first known as the “Miletis Templi Solomonis (Poor Knights of Solomon’s Temple” and were only later shortened to “The Templars.”
The reason that they were called the ‘poor knights’ was simply that’s what they were. Unlike their contemporaries in the Hospitallar Knights who were all from the Aristocracy the Templars weren’t! Most were actually from the lower classes of knight and some weren’t even knights (because sergeants at arms could also be members of the order, though not full members!).
They were, however, one of the first Religious Military orders and in many ways paved the way for all such cadres of the future.
Being ‘poor’ knights had a major impact on the order as they always needed to seek funding, this could be gotten by one of three ways:
(1) By donation from wealthy benefactors in the West, and for that you needed to be seen to be effective at what you did. That meant protecting the holy sites and pilgrims from the constant raiding that was going on from both sides. There were a series of Crusades that took place, but even in the relatively quiet times both sides were raiding and harassing each other, probing the defences and stealing the plunder to finance their war.
(2) By raiding. Caravans were still travelling the trade routes, and as much as you protected your own you would also raid the enemy’s caravans to both deny them their goods and to build up your own resources. The Templars didn’t have the lands in Europe and the titles to fall back on: all they had was what was with them in the field. That meant that they needed to take what they could.
(3) By taking prisoners. Nobles and Knights captured in battle were often ransomed back for a price to their families; this was an acceptable practice in medieval times, as it allowed the Knight to fight another day, while replenishing the stores of the victory.
The one main difference with the Templars was that they took an oath similar to that, which the monk took, one of poverty, chastity and obedience.
One of the most influential figures supporting the Templars at their founding was Bernard of Clairvaux a Cistercian abbot at the abbey of Clairvaux in France. Some have claimed that it was because of his support that the Templars accepted a way of life similar to that of the Cistercians.
But were they more ‘enthusiastic’ than the average Crusader Knight?
To answer this question, we really need to think of the situation that the Templars were in. They had taken an oath defend pilgrims en-route to the Holy Land as well as defending many of the places there. For them the path to getting the resources wasn’t easy, as many of them were from the lower order of Knights, but the job they did was done in such a way that they won the respect (if not the love) of both allies and foes.
The crest for the Templars has two knights riding one horse, this was a reminder that in the early days of the order they literally had almost no equipment and had to build up what they had by any mans they could.
The Templars also had a code to live by. We used to think of the Knight in medieval times being chivalrous, but the Religious orders in the Crusader states went much further.
There were three main religious orders in the Crusader states. The first to actually arrive were the Hospitallers or the Knights of the order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, who first took their oath as a co-fraternity sometime around 1060 AD, although the official order was recognized in a papal bull in 1113. The Templars arrived around 1119, but didn’t officially become an ‘Order’ until around 1129, when they were recognized by the church at the Council of Troyes, where they were also given their first land.
The other main order was the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic order that arrived around the year 1190 for the third Crusade. They were to prove themselves in battle, but for the first fifty years it was the Templars and Hospitallers who undertook the role of defenders of Christendom.
While the Templars did get given Land in Europe, it was often in the states, where there were problems with the frontiers (like in Spain, where the Kings of Castille and Aragon used both the Templars and the Hospitallers) and they were used to secure the border areas. Most of their funds for keeping the order going were got from raiding and ransoming prisoners.
Unlike today, where such a thing is looked on with horror, in medieval times it was the accepted norm and there was a code as to how it was to be played out. One famous King, who was captured and ransomed around this time, was Richard the Lionheart. Captured by Leopold V of Austria and ransomed in the same way (though legend tells it differently). So for the Templars to employ this method of fundraising was acceptable in that time.
The Templars, and in fact all the Crusaders had some justification in what they believed. Many of them believed that there was a point at which violence and for that matter war itself became justified. They believed, there were times, when there was no choice, but to take the wrongdoer on and, if necessary to use force to do it. The important thing to realize is that the Religious orders of the day did operate to a large degree within the confines of the code set down by the Just war.
While this was the practice in medieval times, not everyone agreed with the practice and a notable exception contemporary to the Templars would have been St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who had been a warrior, but when God spoke to him, he renounced all warfare and followed where God led him. Not long after the third Crusade he himself went on pilgrimage, where legend has it that he met Saladin’s brother and sought to convert him
One of the reasons for the Templars following the path that they did was simply because like most religious extremists since that time they were actually not that well educated (at the time a mere 1% of the population was able to read and write) and often had to rely on what their religious teachers told them. They had no way of knowing that they were fighting in the name of the one who said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” Sadly. This is the same as most religious extremist groups where the followers have no real idea of what was really said. This can also be said of the Muslim extremists claim and call to “Jihad,” that is often interpreted as a call to an armed struggle, but the real original meaning was “to contend with” and the idea of a spiritual or military struggle isn’t specified..
Were they ‘more enthusiastic than the average Crusader?’
The Templars were ‘more enthusiastic’ than the average Crusader, simply because their very lives depended on their doing the job that they had been tasked to do. They were well trained soldiers, who had taken an oath to defend the pilgrims and holy places. Ne one was going to stop them doing that, no matter how hard they tried! But at the same time they were a product of their time in that they were a reaction against what had gone on before and a result of the teaching that was given to them by the authorities of the day (supported by both the pope and Kings, as it suited their purpose, as soon as it didn’t they were abandoned and the movement collapsed).
In some ways they were a beacon of men, who were good to their word and no matter what the situation they faced, they always put the safety of those in their charge first, they were fearless in battle and feared by their enemies. But they were also trustworthy and respected by them.
In other ways they are a warning to us of what can happen, when man’s interpretation of when the Holy Writings (regardless of whose they are) are taken out of their setting and interpreted to the masses, where the people either don’t have the educational skills to read the writings for themselves (like the Taliban in Pakistan whose language is Pashto or Urdu, but the language of the Qu’ran is that of 7th Century Arabic!) or don’t have the resources to challenge what is being taught. Sadly, neither Islam nor Christianity have a monopoly on these positions, but the Templars can teach us about how to use the best in the situation while being wary of the mistakes of the past.
Lastly, the Templars and the Crusades were just one chapter in the struggle that is still going on today, the struggle for dominance between the two great missionary faiths of History. It will only stop (and both agree on this), when Jesus himself comes back.