Nothing is as it seems with the Knights Templar

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • November 2, 2007
Knights_Templar_Shields.jpgLast month’s unveiling of long secret Knights Templar documents by the Vatican Secret Archives has been the stuff of news and features stories as well as fodder for millions of kilobytes of commentary on blogs, in e-mails and, one suspects, telephone conversations and late night bar debates.

The Knights Templar stir together that most potent combination of religious zeal, extraordinary martial skills, the conflict of civilizations, rapacious kings and cowardly political popes and curial plotters. Their story, as all good and noble stories with elements of heroism and diabolic betrayal will, acts as a cautionary tale about the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s.

The straight historical take on the Knights is quite noble. The military/spiritual order emerged after the First Crusade in 1096, established to protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Lands. It evolved into an impressive fighting force, spread its influence throughout Europe and established one of the first international banking systems.

Officially recognized by the Vatican, it became a powerful mix of devotion, wealth, force and universal promoter of Catholicism. By the end of the Crusade era, its raison d’etre began to fade and the financially strapped Philip the Fair of France set his eye on destroying the order and seizing its wealth. Through a series of Machiavellian plots, Philip and Pope Clement V, acting in consort and at times at cross purposes, set in motion a chain of events that saw the Knights seized on Oct. 13, 1307, and ultimately disbanded in 1312.

In the intervening five years, there were show trials, torture sessions, forced confessions and violent executions. What many saw as a power and money grab became a twisted mess of allegations of heresy, corruption and betrayal.

Most of us know what we know about the Knights through a mix of novelistic potboilers, allegations of secret knowledge, whispers of hidden gospels and furtive truths about the origin of the church and an all-powerful cabal in the corridors of Vatican City. Each century since the demise of the order has fashioned its own explanation of the rise and fall of the Knights Templar and each explanation reflects the mood of the times.

Were the Knights a force for internationalism weakening the idea and development of the nation state? Were the Knights a rapacious force intent on controlling the world, aloof from concerns of cardinals and kings? Were the Knights a satanic cult obsessed with perversion and the work of Satan? Were the Knights seized with knowledge of the true nature of God, Jesus and the Catholic Church? Were the Knights still in existence to this day, hidden in name from officialdom but still pulling the strings in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Rome itself? Pick a political anxiety and fashion a Knight Templar theory that fit and fuelled the anxiety and you were half way home to explaining the age you lived in.

In the 21st century, the rampant and vapid portrayals of Rome, Catholicism and Christianity found in the works of Dan Brown and his cohort would be impossible without a Knights Templar underpinning. The Knights can either be the victims of an omnipotent corrupt church bent on maintaining wealth and power through lies, corruption and murderous scheming or the Knights are the mastermind of an even more intricate plot that has held control over a weak and willing Vatican for centuries. The idea that both theories can be held at the same time and often by the same people is either testament to the fluidity of the Knights as metaphor or a much starker and darker comment on our own time.

In reality the release by the Vatican of new and perhaps “definitive” accounts of the last days of the Knights Templar won’t really mean much. Because even if the Knights Templar hadn’t existed they would have needed to be invented. They are a 700-year-old precursor to the waves of paranoia that contaminate much of our public discourse and our historical understanding today.

We live convinced that nothing is what it seems, that all authority is suspect and that whatever “they” tell you is only partly the truth, only a hint of the real. Philip the Fair might have wanted gold and glory but what he unleashed was suspicion, doubt and a capacity to believe everything and nothing simultaneously.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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