Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

Part B: The Knights Templars

B1. Introduction

The Crusades—Wrong Ideas respecting their Origin—True Causes of them—Pilgrimage—Pilgrimage of Frotmond—Of the Count of Anjou—Striking Difference between the Christianity of the East and that of the West—Causes of their different Characters—Feudalism—The Extent and Force of this Principle.

Among the many extraordinary phenomena which the middle ages present, none is more deserving of attention, or more characteristic of the times and the state of society and opinion, than the institution of the religio-military orders of the Hospitallers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights. Of these orders, all of which owed their origin to the Crusades, and commenced in the 12th century, the last, after the final loss of the Holy Land, transferring the scene of their activity to the north of Germany, and directing their arms against the heathens who still occupied the south coast of the Baltic, became the founders, in a great measure, of the Prussian power; while the first, planting their standard on the Isle of Rhodes, long gallantly withstood the forces of the Ottoman Turks, and, when at length obliged to resign that island, took their station on the rock of Malta, where they bravely repelled the troops of the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, and maintained at least a nominal independence till the close of the 18th century. A less glorious fate attended the Knights of the Temple. They became the victims of the unprincipled rapacity of a merciless prince; their property was seized and confiscated; their noblest members perished in the flames; their memory was traduced and maligned; the foulest crimes were laid to their charge; and a secret doctrine, subversive of social tranquillity and national independence, was asserted to have animated their councils. Though many able defenders of these injured knights have arisen, the charges against them have been reiterated even in the present day; and a distinguished Orientalist (Von Hammer) has recently even attempted to bring forward additional and novel proofs of their secret guilt. To add one more to the number of their defenders, to trace the origin, develope the internal constitution of their society, narrate their actions, examine the history of their condemnation and suppression, and show how absurd and frivolous were the charges against them, are the objects of the present writer, who, though he is persuaded, and hopes to prove, that they held no secret doctrine, yet places them among the secret societies of the middle ages, because it is by many confidently maintained that they were such.

As the society of the Templars was indebted for its origin to the Crusades, we will, before entering on our narrative, endeavour to correct some erroneous notions respecting the causes and nature of these celebrated expeditions.

The opinion of the Crusades having been an emanation of the spirit of chivalry is one of the most erroneous that can be conceived, yet it is one most widely spread. Romancers, and those who write history as if it were romance, exert all their power to keep up the illusion, and the very sound of the word Crusade conjures up in most minds the ideas of waving plumes, gaudy surcoats, emblazoned shields, with lady's love, knightly honour, and courteous feats of arms. A vast deal of this perversion of truth is no doubt to be ascribed to the illustrious writer of the splendid epic whose subject is the first Crusade. Tasso, who, living at the time when the last faint gleam of expiring chivalry was fitfully glowing through the moral and political gloom which was overspreading the former abodes of freedom and industry in Italy, may be excused if, young and unversed in the philosophy of history, he mistook the character of European society six centuries before his time, or deemed himself at liberty to minister to the taste of a court which loved the fancied image of former times, and stimulate it to a generous emulation by representing the heroes of the first Crusade as animated with the spirit and the virtues of the ideal chivalry. But the same excuse is not to be made for those who, writing at the present day, confound chivalry and the Crusades, give an epitome of the history of the latter under the title of that of the former, and venture to assert that the valiant Tancred was the beau ideal of chivalry, and that the "Talisman" contains a faithful picture of the spirit and character of the Crusades.

We venture to assert that the Crusades did not originate in chivalry, and that the first Crusade, the most important of them, and that which gave the tone and character to all the succeeding ones, does not present a single vestige of what is usually understood by the term chivalry, not a trace of what the imagination rather than the knowledge of Burke described as embodying "the generous loyalty to rank and sex, the proud submission, the dignified obedience, and that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom—that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness." Little surely does he know of the 11th century and its spirit who can suppose any part of the foregoing description to apply to those who marched in arms to Asia to free the sepulchre of Christ; slightly must he have perused the Gesta Tancredi of Radulphus Cadomens, who can conceive that gallant warrior, as he undoubtedly was, to have been the mirror of chivalry.

Chivalry and the Crusades commenced in the same century, and drew their origin from the same source. One was not the cause of the other, but both were effects of the same cause, and that cause was feudalism. This inculcated "the proud submission, the dignified obedience," etc., etc., which were gradually idealised into chivalry; it impressed on the mind of the vassal those principles of regard to the rights and property of his lord which seemed to justify and sanction the Holy War. Previously, however, to explaining the manner in which this motive acted, we must stop to notice another concurring cause of the Crusades, without which it would perhaps never have begun to operate.

Man has at all periods been led by a strong impulse of his nature to visit those spots which have been distinguished as the scenes of great and celebrated actions, or the abode of distinguished personages. The operation of this natural feeling is still stronger when it is combined with religion, and there arises a conviction that the object of his worship is gratified by this act of attention, and his favour thereby secured to the votary. Hence we find pilgrimage, or the practice of taking distant journeys to celebrated temples, and other places of devotion, to have prevailed in all ages of the world. In the most remote periods of the mythic history of Greece, where historic truth is not to be sought, and only manners and modes of thinking are to be discerned, we constantly meet the theoria, or pilgrimage to Delphi, mentioned in the history of the heroes, whence we may with certainty collect that it formed at all times a portion of the manners of the Greeks. India, at the present day, witnesses annually the pilgrimage of myriads to the temple of Juggernaut, and Jerusalem has been for thousands of years the resort of pious Israelites.

The country which had witnessed the life and death of their Lord naturally acquired importance in the eyes of the early Christians, many of whom, moreover, were Jews by birth, and had always viewed Jerusalem with feelings of veneration. All, too, confounded—as has unfortunately been too much the case in later times—the old and the new law, and saw not that the former was but "beggarly elements" in comparison with the latter, and deemed that the political and economical precepts designed for a single nation, inhabiting one small region, were obligatory on the church of Christ, which was intended to comprise the whole human race. Many of the practices of Judaism were therefore observed by the Christians, and to this principle we are perhaps in a great measure to ascribe the rapid progress of the practice, and the belief in the efficacy, of pilgrimage to the Holy City.

The abuses of pilgrimage were early discerned, and some of the more pious Fathers of the Church preached and wrote against the practice. But piety and eloquence were vain, and could little avail to stem the torrent when men believed that the waters of Jordan had efficacy to wash every sin, though unattended by sincere repentance. The Church, as she advanced in corruption, improved in worldly wisdom, and, taking pilgrimage under her protection, made it a part of her penal discipline. The sinner was now ordered a journey to the Holy Land as a means of freeing his soul from the guilt of his perhaps manifold enormities. Each year saw the number of the pilgrims augment, while the growing veneration for relics, of which those which came from the Holy Land were esteemed the most efficacious, stimulated pilgrimage by adding the incentive of profit, as a small stock of money laid out in the purchase of the generally counterfeit relics always on sale at Jerusalem would produce perhaps a thousand per cent. on the return of the pilgrim to his native country. A pilgrim was also held in respect and veneration wherever he came, as an especial favourite of the Divinity, having been admitted by him to the high privilege of visiting the sacred places, a portion of whose sanctity it would be supposed might still adhere to him.

The 11th century was the great season of pilgrimage. A strange misconception of the meaning of a portion of Scripture had led men to fancy that the year 1000 was to be that of the advent of Christ, to judge the world. As the valley of Jehoshaphat was believed to be the spot on which this awful event would take place, the same feeling which leads people at the present day to lay a flattering unction to their souls by supposing that death-bed repentance will prove equivalent in the sight of God to a life passed in obedience to his will and in the exercise of virtue, impelled numbers to journey to the Holy Land, in the belief that this officiousness, as it were, of hitherto negligent servants would be well taken by their Lord, and procure them an indulgent hearing before his judgment-seat. Pilgrimage, therefore, increased greatly; the failure of their expectations, the appointed time having passed away without the Son of Man coming in the clouds of Heaven, gave it no check, but, on the contrary, rather an additional impulse; and during this century the caravans of pilgrims attained to such magnitude and strength as to be deserving of the appellation of The armies of the Lord—precursive of the first and greatest Crusade.

In truth the belief in the merit and even the obligation of a pilgrimage, to Jerusalem, in the sight of God, was now as firmly impressed on the mind of every Christian, be his rank what it might, as that of the necessity and advantage of one to the Kaaba of Mecca is in the apprehension of the followers of Mohammed; and in the degraded state of the human intellect at that period a pilgrimage was deemed adequate to the removal of all sin. As a proof of this we shall narrate the pilgrimages of two distinguished personages of those times. The first occurred in the 9th, the second in the 11th century.

In the reign of Lothaire, son of Louis the Debonnaire, a nobleman of Brittany, named Frotmond, who had murdered his uncle and his youngest brother, began to feel remorse for his crimes. Arrayed in the habit of a penitent, he presented himself before the monarch and an assembly of his prelates, and made confession of his guilty deeds. The king and bishops had him straitly bound in chains of iron, and then commanded him, in expiation of his guilt, to set forth for the East, and visit all the holy places, clad in hair-cloth, and his forehead marked with ashes. Accompanied by his servants and the partners of his crime, the Breton lord directed his course to Palestine, which he reached in safety. Having, in obedience to the mandates of his sovereign and of the church, visited all the holy places, he crossed the Arabian desert, which had been the scene of the wanderings of Israel, and entered Egypt. He thence traversed a part of Africa, and went as far as Carthage, whence he sailed for Rome. Here the Pope, on being consulted, advised him to make a second pilgrimage, in order to complete his penance, and obtain the perfect remission of his sins. Frotmond accordingly set forth once more, and having performed the requisite duties at the Holy City, proceeded to the shore of the Red Sea, and there took up his abode for three years on Mount Sinai, after which time he made a journey to Armenia, and visited the mountain on which the ark of Noah had rested. His crimes being now, according to the ideas of those times, expiated, he returned to his native country, where he was received as a saint, and taking up his abode in the convent of Redon, passed there the remainder of his days, and died deeply regretted by his brethren.

Fulk de Nerra, Count of Anjou, had spilt much innocent blood; he had had his first wife burnt alive, and forced his second wife to seek refuge from his barbarity in the Holy Land. The public odium pursued him, and conscience asserting her rights presented to his disturbed imagination the forms of those who had perished by him issuing from their tombs, and reproaching him with his crimes. Anxious to escape from his invisible tormentors, the count put on him the habit of a pilgrim, and set forth for Palestine. The tempests which he encountered in the Syrian seas seemed to his guilty soul the instruments of divine vengeance, and augmented the fervour of his repentance. Having reached Jerusalem in safety, he set heartily about the work of penance. He traversed the streets of the Holy City with a cord about his neck, and beaten with rods by his servants, while he repeated these words, Lord, have mercy on a faithless and perjured Christian, on a sinner wandering far from his home. During his abode in Jerusalem he gave abundant alms, relieving the wants of the pilgrims, and leaving numerous monuments of his piety and munificence.

Deep as was the penitence of the Count of Anjou, it did not stand in the way of the exercise of a little pious fraud. By an ingenious device he deceived the impious malignity of the profane Saracens, who would have made him defile the holy sepulchre; and the chroniclers tell us that as he lay prostrate before the sacred tomb he contrived to detach from it a precious stone, which he carried back with him to the West. On his return to his duchy he built, at the castle of Loches, a church after the model of that of the Resurrection at Jerusalem, and here he every day implored with tears the divine forgiveness. His mind, however, could not yet rest; he was still haunted by the same horrid images; and he once more visited the Holy Land, and edified the faithful by the austerity of his penance. Returning home by the way of Italy, he delivered the supreme pontiff from a formidable enemy who was ravaging his territory, and the grateful pope conferred on him in return the full absolution of all his sins. Fulk brought with him to Anjou a great quantity of relics, with which he adorned the churches of Loches and Angers; and his chief occupation thenceforward was the building of towns and monasteries, whence he acquired the name of The Great Builder. His people, who blessed heaven for his conversion, honoured and loved him; the guilt of his sins had been removed by the means which were then deemed of sovereign efficacy; yet still the monitor placed by God in the human breast, and which in a noble mind no power can reduce to perfect silence, did not rest; and the Holy Land beheld, for the third time, the Count of Anjou watering the sepulchre of Christ with his tears, and groaning afresh over his transgressions. He quitted Jerusalem for the last time, recommending his soul to the prayers of the pious brethren whose office it was to receive the pilgrims, and turned his face homewards. But Anjou he was never more to behold; death surprised him at Metz. His body was transferred to Loches, and buried in his church of the Holy Sepulchre.

These instances may suffice to show what the opinion of the efficacy and merit of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was at the time of which we write. We here find convincing proof that in the minds of princes and prelates, the highest and most enlightened order of society, it was confidently believed to avail to remove the guilt of crimes of the deepest die. And let not any one say that the clergy took advantage of the ignorance of the people, and made it the instrument of extending their own power and influence; for such an assertion would evince ignorance both of human nature in general and of the temper and conduct of the Romish hierarchy at that, and we might almost say at all periods of its existence. However profligate the lives of many of the clergy may have been, they never called in question the truth of the dogmas of their religion. Even the great and daring Gregory VII., in the midst of what appear to us his arrogant and almost impious assumptions, never for a moment doubted of the course which he was pursuing being the right one, and agreeable to heaven. The clergy, as well as the laity, were firmly persuaded of the efficacy of pilgrimage, and in both the persuasion was naturally stronger in proportion to the ignorance of the believer. We accordingly find that vast numbers of all ranks, and both sexes, clergy as well as laity, annually repaired to the tomb of Christ.

It remains to be explained what the principle was which gave origin to the idea of the right and justice of recovering the Holy Land, which was now in the hands of the fanatic Turks, instead of those of the tolerant Saracens. This cause was, as we have above asserted, the feudal spirit, that is, the spirit of the age, and not that emanation of it termed chivalry.

Religion, whatever its original nature and character, will always take a tinge from the manners and temper of those who adopt it. Nothing can be more illustrative of the truth of this observation than the history of the Christian religion. Any one who opens the Gospel, and reads it without preconception or prejudice, cannot fail at once to recognise the rational and fervent piety, the active benevolence, the pure morality, the noble freedom from the trammels of the world, joined with the zealous discharge of all the social duties, which every page of it inculcates. Yet we find this religion in the East degenerating into abject grovelling superstition and metaphysical quibbling, pursued with all the rancour of the odium theologicum, while in the West it assumed a fiery fanatic character, and deemed the sword an instrument of conversion superior to reason and argument. This difference, apparently so strange, arose from the difference of the social state and political institutions of the people of the East and of the West at the time when they embraced Christianity.

The free spirit had long since fled from Greece when the first Christian missionaries preached the faith among its people. But the temper of the Greek was still lively, and his reasoning powers acute. Moreover, he had still the same leaning towards a sensible and material religion which has at all times distinguished him, and the increasing despotism of the empire depressed and enfeebled more and more every day the martial spirit which he had displayed in the days of his freedom. No field remained for his mental activity but that of philosophy and religion. The former, which had long been his delight, he had contrived to subtilize into an almost unintelligible mysticism; and in this form it speedily spread its infection through his new faith, which was besides further metamorphosed and changed in character by an infusion from the dualistic system of Persia. Meantime the ascetic spirit which had come from the East joined with the timidity engendered by the pressure of despotism to make him mistake the spirit of the Gospel, and convert Christianity into a crouching cowardly superstition. When the emperor Nicephorus Phocas sought to infuse a martial and fanatic spirit into his subjects, and to rouse them to vigorous exertion against the Saracens, his bishops replied to his exhortations by citing a canon of St. Basil, which directed that he who had slain an enemy in battle should abstain during three years from participation in the holy sacraments. The priest of a little town in Cilicia was engaged one day in saying mass when a band of Saracens burst in, and began to plunder the town. Without waiting to take off his sacerdotal vestments, he seized the hammer, which in the churches of the East frequently serves the purpose of a bell, and, flying among the infidels, plied his weapon to such effect that he forced them to a precipitate flight, and saved the town. What was the reward of the gallant priest? He was censured by his diocesan, interdicted the exercise of his ghostly functions, and so ill-treated in other respects, that he flung off his robes and joined the Saracens, whose more martial and energetic creed accorded better with his manly sentiments. When the pilgrims of the first Crusade began to arrive in such terrific numbers at Constantinople, the Greek emperor and his subjects could hardly persuade themselves of the possibility of religion being the actuating cause of such a portentous movement—so little did religion and deeds of arms accord in their minds!

But with the nations of the West the case was different. In these the ruling portion, that which gave tone to the whole, were of the Gothic and Germanic races, whose hardy bands had dashed to pieces the worn-out fabric of the Western empire. Worshippers in their native forests of Thor and Odin, and the other deities of Valhalla, who admitted none but the valiant dead to share in the celestial pork and mead which each day crowned the board in their lucid abode, their manners, their sentiments, their whole being was martial, and they infused this spirit into the religion which they adopted from their Roman subjects. In making this change in its tone they derived aid from the Jewish portion of the sacred volume, which has been in all ages abused, by men ignorant of its character and original use, to purposes of fanaticism and persecution; and the religion of Christian Europe, from the fifth century downwards, became of a martial and conquering character. By the sword Charlemagne converted the pagan Saxons; his successors employed the sword against the heathen Vends; and by fire and sword Olof Triggva-son spread Christianity throughout the North. In former times this mode of conversion had been in a great degree foreign to the Western church; and persuasion had been chiefly employed in the dissemination of the faith among the heathen nations.

The religion of the West we thus see was martial; but this spirit alone would not have sufficed to produce the Crusade which was to interest and appear as a duty to all orders of men. Here the feudal principle came into operation, and gave the requisite impulse.

In the 11th century the feudal system was completely developed in France and Germany, and the modes of thinking, speaking, and acting derived from it pervaded all the relations of life. From the top to the bottom of society the mutual obligations of lords and vassals were recognised and acted upon, and each vassal deemed it a most sacred duty to defend by arms the honour and property of his superior lord. There was also a kind of supreme temporal chief of the Christian world acknowledged in the person of the Emperor of Germany, who was viewed as the successor of Charlemagne, and the representative of the Roman emperors. The feudal ideas extended even to the hierarchy, which now put forth such exorbitant claims to supremacy over the temporal power. The head of the church was an acknowledged vicegerent of Him who was styled in scripture Lord of all the kingdoms of the earth. Jesus Christ was, therefore, the apex of the pyramid of feudal society; he was the great suzerain and lord paramount of all princes and peoples, and all were equally under obligation to defend his rights and honour. Such were evidently the sentiments of the age.

It is hardly necessary to remind the reader that the religion of the period which we treat of was of a gross and material character, and that the passions and infirmities of human nature were freely bestowed on the glorified Son of God. He was deemed to take a peculiar interest in the spot of land where he had sojourned when on earth, and more especially in the tomb in which his body had been deposited, and with grief and indignation to see them in the hands of those who contemptuously derided his divinity, and treated with insult and cruelty those of his faithful vassals who underwent the toils and dangers of a distant journey to offer their homage at his tomb. Nothing could, therefore, be more grateful to his feelings than to behold the sacred soil of Palestine free from heathen pollution, and occupied and defended by his faithful vassals, and no true son of the church could hesitate a moment to believe that it was his bounden duty to arm himself in the cause of his lord, and help to reinstate him in his heritage. Here, then, without having recourse to the romantic principle of chivalry, we have an adequate solution of the phenomenon of the first Crusade. Here we have a motive calculated to operate on the minds of all orders, equally effectual with men of piety, virtue, and wealth, like Godfrey of Bouillon and Stephen of Chartres, who looked for no temporal advantages, as with the meanest and most superstitious of the vassals and serfs who might be supposed to have only sought a refuge from misery and oppression by assuming the cross. We would not by any means be supposed to deny that many other causes and motives were in operation at the same time; but this we deem the grand one. This was the motive which gave dignity to and hallowed all others, and which affected the mind of every Crusader, be his rank or station in society what it might.

Pilgrimage then was esteemed a duty, and a powerful mean of removing guilt and appeasing the wrath of the Almighty; the spirit of the age was martial, and its religion, tinged by the ancient system of the North of Europe, was of the same character; the feudal principle was in its vigour, and extended even to the relations of man with the deity; the rude and barbarous Turks had usurped the heritage, the very crown-lands, as we may say, of Jesus Christ, and insulted his servants, whose duty it plainly was to punish them, and free the tomb of their lord;—the natural result of such a state of circumstances and opinion was the first Crusade.