Saturday I watched a History Channel documentary about the Knights Templar. The documentary was a mix of solid historical research and wild speculations, and I found myself feeling sorry for the serious historians whose opinions got sandwiched between interviews of conspiracy theorists.
The Templars were a strange product of the Crusades. We remember them as warriors, but first and foremost the Templars were monks. Like other monks they had vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and lived in community. Unlike traditional monks they carried swords, and were the Crusader equivalent of special forces. There were plenty of other military orders in the middle ages, fighting everywhere from the Baltic to Spain, but the Templars have lived on in public imagination because unlike the other military orders they did not dwindle out of European history but were crushed in one of the most spectacular political take-downs of the middle ages.
The Templars set up what may have been the first international fiance system, using proceeds from real estate, trade and money-lending to provide cash for their war in the Holy Land. Their big mistake was lending money to King Phillip IV of France. Phillip was not the most scrupulous of monarchs; he had already had Pope Boniface VII beaten and imprisoned, and forced Boniface’s successor to move to France to live under his “protection”. Rather than pay off his debts, Phillip had Templar leaders rounded up on some rather bizarre charges, and confiscated the order’s property.
And this is where the conspiracy theories start: first, Phillip accused the Templars of every sin from witchcraft to sodomy. How many of these accusations were true? Templar leaders confessed to all kinds of crimes under torture, though they would later recant. Since the order was notoriously secretive, they could offer no evidence to refute the accusations, just as Phillip could produce no evidence to prove them.
Second, Phillip only managed to catch a handful of Templars. Many, perhaps as many as ten thousand, simply disappeared. Compounding the mystery, all the Templar property Phillip confiscated did not amount to much: it was barely enough to cover the expense of arresting and imprisoning the leaders. If the Templars were the bankers of Europe, to where did their money go? At this point the History Channel documentary started to get embarrassing to watch, suggesting that the money could have seeded the Swiss banking system, or gone to Robert the Bruce of Braveheart fame, or wound up in a cave in Nova Scotia.
Of course, simpler and less romantic explanations were overlooked. Why not just assume that the Templars were not as rich as everyone thought they were? Just because someone acts rich does not mean he is isn’t living beyond his means, and the order was in decline by the time Phillip crushed it. Or simpler still: if the Templars really were the founders of modern banking, then what good would it do them to have piles of gold on hand? Wouldn’t their money be better used invested in trade or lent out?
Had they bought a load of silk in Palestine to sell on the European market, and when the cargo arrived to Naples or Genoa the captain found out that the Templars were in trouble, wouldn’t he just sell the goods and pocket the cash himself? Or, if they had lent money to princes other than Phillip, wouldn’t those princes just stop paying it back when the Templars went under? And they certainly wouldn’t tell anyone about it.
Now here is an interesting historical parallel to the Templars:
There is a famous story about an angry mob in Vienna that decided to storm the mansion of the Rothschild family in order to steal their treasure. They were expecting vast piles of gold, but all the looters got their hands on was the silverware, because the Rothschilds were international financiers; they didn’t keep their money in the mattress, but in a network of investments that spanned the globe.
The Rothschilds of course were Jews (you cannot write a blog post about conspiracies without mentioning the Joooos). All during European history, kings who had been previously friendly to Jews would suddenly declare them to be well-poisoners, Christ-killers, perverters of sound doctrine, seducers of Christian maidens, etc., and expel them from his kingdom. In the end it would always turn out that he owed them money.
And yet people still believe calumnies against Jews and conspiracy theories about the Templars, looking for convoluted answers instead of simple ones. I guess it is a way to spice up a boring life.