Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

B8. Chapters

Mode of holding them—Templars' Mode of Living—Amusements—Conduct in War.

Such as we have described them were the members, the possessions, and the various offices of the powerful society of the Temple. In order to complete our view, it only remains to trace its internal government and most important regulations. We shall therefore commence with an account of the chapters, from which all the acts and rules of the society emanated.

It is frequently declared in the statutes, that the Master was in the place of God; and that all his commands were to be obeyed as those of God. But these expressions, which were borrowed from the rule of the Benedictines, are, as we have already seen, not to be understood too literally; for the constitution of the order of the Templars was aristocratic, and not monarchic; and the Master was anything but absolute. In every matter he was to be guided by the opinion of the majority of the chapter.

The general chapter, or high legislative assembly of the order, consisted of all the great officers, of the great-priors of the provinces, and the most distinguished of the knights who could attend. Every brother, even the lowest of the serving-brethren, was at liberty to be present as a spectator; but only the proper members of the chapter had the privilege of speaking. The place of holding the chapter was undetermined, and was left to the choice of the Master. All laws and regulations were made or confirmed in the general chapter: there brethren were received—the great officers appointed—visitors chosen to be sent to the different provinces. It is remarkable, that a papal legate never seems to have been present at a chapter of the Templars; though the legates frequently assisted at those of the other orders. This is, most probably, to be ascribed to the secrecy in which the Templars were pleased to envelope their councils and proceedings; and as they rarely held general chapters, a suitable pretext could not well be wanting for freeing themselves from the presence of the legate when they desired it. Those who impute to the Templars the holding of a secret doctrine naturally regard this as the cause of their not admitting to their chapters those who were not initiated in it.

A general chapter was not often assembled—a circumstance easily to be accounted for. Though the order was wealthy, it might not be well able to bear, without inconvenience, the expense of deputies from all the provinces journeying to the kingdom of Jerusalem, where the chapters were in general held; and further, it was obviously the interest of the Master and the great officers to avoid assembling a body which would at once assume the powers which they were in the habit of exercising.

In the intervals between the meetings of general chapters, the powers of the order were exercised by the chapter of the Temple at Jerusalem. This was composed of the Master, the dignitaries of the order, such of the provincial masters as happened to be present, the two assistants of the Master, and such knights as he chose to invite to it. This last provision was the great source of the Master's power; and, when he was a man of talent and address, he could, by managing to get his friends and those whom he could depend on into the different offices, and by summoning to the chapter such knights as were attached or looked up to him, contrive to carry any matters that he desired. The laws, however, by way of check upon him, made it imperative that the high officers of the order should have seats in the chapter; and as these were not appointed by the Master, and were independent of him, it was supposed that they would not be his creatures. This chapter could decide on all matters relating to the order, some important affairs, such as war and peace, excepted; make laws and regulations, which were binding on the whole society; and send visitors to the different provinces. All public documents, such as papal bulls, were addressed to it and the Master; all decisions in matters of importance came from it; and all the brethren who were received in the West were sent to it to be distributed where they might be wanting. The declaration made by a French knight on his examination, that the receptions in the chapter of Jerusalem were rare, as the members could be seldom brought to agree respecting a candidate, gives a hint that it was not in general a scene of the greatest harmony and unity. It is, indeed, but natural to suppose, that, as it was the chief seat of the power of the order, it was also the great theatre of intrigue and cabal.

Each province of the order had its general chapter, and also a smaller one, presided over by the great-prior, and composed of the principal officers and such knights of character and estimation as the prior chose to call to it. In like manner every preceptory and every large house of the order had its chapter, at which all the brethren were required to attend. The commander was president, and each question was decided by the majority of voices. The chief transactions in it consisted in the reception of new brethren, and the making up of quarrels and disputes, which must have frequently fallen out among men like the Templars, who were almost all soldiers. It was holden early on a Sunday morning; and the strictest secrecy, as to what took place, was enjoined on all present, for secrecy was the soul of the order.

The ordinary chapters were held in the following manner. Each brother, as he entered, made the sign of the cross, and, unless he was bald, took off his cap. The president then rose and said, "Stand up, beloved brethren, and pray to God to send his holy grace among us to-day." Each member repeated a pater noster, and, if there was a chaplain present, he said a prayer. Search was then made to see that there was no one present but those who belonged to the order. The president then delivered a discourse, exhorting the brethren to amendment of life. During this discourse no one was on any account to leave the room. When it was ended, any one who had transgressions to acknowledge went up to the president and made confession. He then retired out of sight and hearing, and the sentiments of the assembly were taken, which were afterwards signified to him. The brethren were also to remind each other of their transgressions, and exhort to confession and penitence. If any one accused a brother falsely, he was severely punished for it: while the inquiry was going on the accused was obliged to retire from the chapter. The discipline was usually administered in presence of the assembled chapter, with a scourge, or with a girdle. Those who were sick were not punished till they were recovered.

When these matters were over, the president explained a portion of the statutes, and exhorted all present to live suitably thereto. He then said, "Beloved brethren, we may now close our chapter, for, praise be to God, all is well; and may God and our dear Lady grant that it may so continue, and goodness be every day increased. Beloved brethren, ye must know how it is with pardon in our chapter, and who has not part therein; know, then, that those have no part either in the pardon of our chapter, or in the other good works of the chapter; who live as they should not; who depart from the righteousness of the order; who do not acknowledge their offences and do penance in the mode prescribed by the order; who treat the alms of the order as their own property, or in any other way contrary to law, and squander them in an unrighteous, scandalous, and foolish manner. But those who honestly acknowledge their faults, and conceal nothing out of shame or fear of the punishment of the order, and are right sorry for their transgressions, have a large share in the forgiveness of our chapter, and in the good works which take place in our order. And to such, in virtue of my authority, I dispense forgiveness in the name of God and of our dear Lady, in the names of the apostles Peter and Paul, of our father the pope, and of you all who have given me authority; and pray to God that, according to his mercy, he will, for the merits of his mother, and of himself, and all the saints, forgive you your sins, as he forgave the famous Mary Magdalene." He then implored the forgiveness of those to whom he might have given any offence or done any injury; and prayed for peace, for the church, for the holy kingdom of Jerusalem, for the order and all its houses and people, for the brethren and sisters of the order, and for its living and dead benefactors; finally, for all the dead who waited for the mercy of God, especially those who lay buried in the Temple burial-grounds, and for the souls of the fathers and mothers of the Templars. The chaplain, if present, repeated a confession of sin, in which all followed him, and then pronounced an absolution. If there was no chaplain present, each brother repeated a pater and an ave, and so the chapter ended.

The statutes of the order are full of the most minute directions respecting the equipment, clothing, and mode of living of the various members of the order. They were obliged to attend divine service punctually each day at all the different hours at which it was celebrated, and regularly to observe all the fasts of the church; they were also to have at their houses both public and private devotions. Their meals were also strictly regulated. They assembled by sound of bell: if there was a priest in the house he said grace for them, if not, each brother repeated a pater before he began to eat. During the meal a clergyman read out something edifying for them, and when it was over no one was to speak till grace was said. There was no difference made in the quality of the food; all, both high and low, fared alike, and they ate two off one plate. They had flesh-meat but three times a week, unless when festival days occurred. On days when they had no flesh-meat they had but two dishes. When the order were in the field a server regulated the supply and distribution of provisions. Before giving out the provisions he was to direct the serving-brethren to notify it to the superiors of the order, that they might come and select the best for themselves; he distributed the remainder without any other distinction than that of giving the best to the sick. The plate given to every two of the brethren was so large that what remained when they were done was sufficient to satisfy two of the poor. Two brethren were allowed as much food as three Turcopoles, and two of these as much as three of the servants. The brethren were not allowed to seek for any food elsewhere than from the server, vegetables, game, and venison excepted. But as by the rules of the order the chase was prohibited to them, they could not procure these themselves.

Amusements could not be rigorously prohibited to men who were semi-secular, and had to mingle so much in the world as the Templars. They were therefore allowed to tilt, but only with headless lances; whether only among themselves, or also at public tournaments, is uncertain. They were permitted to run races with their horses, but for no higher wager than a headless cross-bow bolt, or some other trifle. Chess and draughts were prohibited games; nor were they allowed to play at any other game whatever for a stake. Hawking was absolutely forbidden to the Templar, probably on account of the high price of hawks, and of this being the favourite amusement of the secular knights. The reason assigned by the statutes is:—"Because it is not seemly in the members of an order to play sinfully, but willingly to hearken to the commands of God, to pray often, and daily in their prayers before God to bewail their sins with weeping and tears." A Templar might not even accompany one who was going out a-hawking. Moreover, as shouting and bawling were unseemly in a member of an order, he might not go a-hunting in a wood with bow and crossbow, nor accompany any one thus engaged, except to protect him against the heathen. In fine, every species of chase was forbidden to the Templar, except that of the lion 'who goes about seeking whom he may devour, whose hand is against every one, and every one's hand against him.

The battle was the Templar's scene of glory, and consequently every thing relating to the conduct of the order in war was strictly regulated. On the march the Templars, as the guardians of the holy cross, formed the vanguard of the Christian army; in the array they were in the right wing. The Hospitallers usually formed the rear-guard, and in the field were posted on the left. The Templars mounted and set forward at the voice of their marshal, the standard-bearer preceding them with the standard of the order. They moved in a walk or a small trot. The march usually took place by night, on account of the heat of eastern climes, and every precaution was adopted to prevent confusion or inconvenience. When the standard halted for encampment, the marshal selected a place for his own tent and the chapel, which was to contain the true cross; the tents of the server, and of the great-prior of the province, had also their places marked out. It was then cried out, "Brethren, pitch your tents in the name of God!" on which each Templar forthwith raised his tent in his rank. All the tents were around the chapel, outside of its cords. The herald pitched by the standard. No brother was allowed, on any account, to go out of hearing of the war-cry, or to visit the quarters of any others than the Hospitallers, in case these last should be encamped beside them. The place for encamping was selected by the prior of the province in which the war was, who was therefore in some sort quartermaster-general; the marshal assigned the different quarters, and over each he set a knight-preceptor to govern and regulate it.

When the battle commenced, the marshal usually took the standard out of the hands of the sub-marshal and unfurled it in the name of God. He then nominated from five to ten of the brethren to surround and guard it; one of these he made a knight-preceptor, who was to keep close by him with a banner furled on a spear, that, in case of that which the marshal carried being torn, or having fallen, or met with any other mishap, he might display it. If the marshal was wounded or surrounded, this knight was to raise the banner in his stead. No one was to lower a banner, or thrust with it, on any account, for fear of causing confusion. The brethren were to fight on all sides, and in every way in which they could annoy the foe, but still to keep near enough to be able to defend the banner of the order, if needful. But if a Templar saw a Christian in imminent danger, he was at liberty to follow the dictates of his conscience, and hasten to his relief. He was to return to his place as speedily as possible; but if the Turks had gotten between him and the banner, he was to join the nearest Christian squadron, giving the preference to the Hospitallers, if they were at hand. Should the Christians meet with defeat, the Templar, under penalty of expulsion from the order, was not to quit the field so long as the banner of the order flew; and, should there be no red-cross flag to be seen, he was to join that of the Hospitallers, or any other. Should every Christian banner have disappeared, he was to retreat as well as he could.

Such were the military principles of the order of the Temple—principles which,

. . . instead of rage,

Deliberate valour breathed, firm and unmoved

With dread of death to flight or foul retreat;

and never, unquestionably, was more unflinching valour displayed than by the Templars. Where all were brave and daring as the fabled heroes of romance, the Templar was still regarded as prominent, and the Cardinal of Vitry could thus speak of them in the early part of the thirteenth century, when they may be regarded as somewhat declined from their original elevation:—

"They seek to expel the enemies of the cross of Christ from the lands of the Christians, by fighting manfully, and by moving to battle at the signal and command of him who is at the head of their forces, not impetuously or disorderly, but prudently and with all caution—the first in advance, the last in retreat; nor is it permitted to them to turn their backs in flight, or to retreat without orders. They are become so formidable to the adversaries of the faith of Christ, that one chases a thousand, and two ten thousand; not asking, when there is a call to arms, how many they are, but where they are: lions in war, gentle lambs at home; rugged warriors on an expedition, like monks and eremites in the church."

The language of the worthy cardinal is no doubt declamatory and rhetorical, and some deduction must consequently be made from it; but still enough will remain to prove that the chivalry of the Temple must still have retained no small portion of the virtues for which they had been originally renowned.