Over the last seven centuries, the Knights Templar have left the realm of history and entered the realm of pop culture. They’re a major plot point in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the villains of the Assassin’s Creed series of games, and feature in an astonishing array of pseudo-history and conspiracy theories.
Despite their outsized legend and legacy as fodder for the fever dreams of Alex Jones and his ilk, the Templars were a real organization, and one that occupied an essential place in the politics, culture, and society of medieval Europe. To learn more about them, I talked to Dan Jones, a heck of a historian who just released a new book on the topic (The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors.)
The Templars began humbly enough in 1119, some two decades after the First Crusade had taken Jerusalem, as a small order of former knights intended to protect pilgrims on their way to the holy city. They were a religious order, like monks, who took vows; unlike monks, however, they were intended to be arms-bearing warriors.
As strange as this might sound to us, the Templars brought together two of the most important strands of 12th-century culture: a zeal for religious reform that expressed itself in the foundation of new orders, and an emerging culture of knighthood. The Templars were a perfect hybrid, an expression of the contemporary vogue for “systems by which to live your life,” as Jones put it. They were willing to vow, fight, and die for a system of Christian belief. The closest analogue for their mindset in our world, Jones said, where such sentiments are increasingly rare, is probably that of an ISIS recruit.
Very quickly, though, the Templars transformed into something much more important and extensive than an order of hyper-religious knights. “They became an elite, crack troops at the heart of crusader armies; they developed a system of donations and estates all over what’s now western Europe, an enormous commercial and financial empire; they got into property management, estate management, shipping, production, commodity trading, you name it. Financial services was a big part of it,” Jones told me.
Wealth and financial might quickly came to define the Templars. Within three decades, they had become rich beyond imagining, with estates and properties scattered everywhere from England to France to Spain that supported the order’s activities in the crusader kingdoms of the east. “It’s a little like the Silicon Valley guys today, going around pitching their idea to big, high-rolling investors,” Jones said. People bought in at all levels. Kings of England, France, and Jerusalem gave enormous amounts; poor people gave a coat, an animal, or a vegetable plot. Large swathes of medieval European society bought into what the Templars were doing.
Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the Templars were a force to be reckoned with. Kings and lords subcontracted financial services like taxation to them and lodged their valuables in Templar vaults. Their techniques of estate management and investment were on the cutting edge of the European commercial revolution that led to unprecedented economic growth across the continent. They fought in every major crusade and military action of the Crusades in this time. They were part of the bridge between a much-more-integrated east and west. In an era before national boundaries as we understand them existed, they were the equivalent of an NGO or a multinational corporation, Jones said.
But as the 14th century kicked off, the Templars fell fast. They fell afoul of the king of France, Philip IV. They were arrested on trumped-up charges like befouling the Eucharist and conducting terrible secret rituals. The grand master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake and the order disbanded. From there the Templars entered first the realm of legend, and now that of pop culture.
Give the full interview a listen below if you’d like to know much, much more about the Templars. Check out Dan’s book—The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors—here. It’s a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it.
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