Posted May 28th, 2013 at 11:56 am2 Comments
The last blog ended in the 1120s, with the newly formed Templars in Jerusalem starting to feel uneasy with the idea of monks spilling blood.
Although King Baldwin ii and Patriarch Warmund of Jerusalem had blessed the Order, the early Templars knew the real judges of their innovation, the people who would ultimately decide if warrior monks had a place in society, were three thousand miles away, in the palaces, monasteries, and cathedrals of Europe.
From his long experiences at Europe’s noble courts, Hugh of Payns, the founder and Master of the Templars, knew exactly what he needed.
A heavyweight sponsor.
And as luck would have it, he was well connected to one of the heaviest of them all.
THE CISTERCIANS: A RADICAL DEPARTURE
Around ten years earlier, in 1112, an earnest twenty-two-year-old nobleman from Fontaine-lès-Dijon knocked on the doors of the forgettable abbey of Cîteaux, fourteen miles south of Dijon.
His mother had died three years earlier, and he had been on a spiritual journey ever since.
The abbey of Cîteaux was only fourteen years old. But its philosophy was new, and a radical break with the past.
Since the early 500s, all European monks had lived by a ‘Rule’ (a constitution setting out how a monastery was to be run) devised by St Benedict, a wise and seasoned recluse from Umbria in Italy.(1)
For the following half millennium, there were no other monasteries in Europe. Benedictine monks (or ‘black’ monks, named after the colour of their habits) had a monopoly.
But over time, the daily schedule Benedict had carefully planned for his monks had begun to fall apart.
He wanted monks to do three humble tasks a day: opus dei (the work of God, or praying), opus manuum (the work of the hands, or physical labour) and lectio divina (sacred reading). These three activities were meant to provide an unchanging rhythm to a life of simplicity and spirituality.
But many monasteries had given it up centuries ago.
The often high-born ‘black’ monks avoided rustic humility and physical labour, focusing instead on increasingly lengthy and elaborate liturgy, and surrounding themselves with gold and books, enjoying the privileges of wealth and learning, entertaining important visitors, and politicking at the highest levels. The grandest and most famous of these privileged abbeys was at Cluny in France, which produced four popes, and was for many centuries the largest building in Europe.(2)
But that was all going to change.
At Cîteaux, the abbey the earnest young man stood in front of in 1112, there were no gold crosses and jewelled chalices in the chapel.
Everything was made simply, of bare wood and stone. At the abbot’s table, there were no trestles overflowing with stuffed birds and aged wines. When the pope visited a dependent house several years later, he was quietly impressed to find that the kitchen could only rustle up a few dried fish and some pressed herb juice.(3)
Cîteaux offered a life of simplicity, prayer, and hard manual work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody was very interested in the idea. The abbey did not sell itself well. It lacked support and was heading for closure.
However, its fortunes were about to turn.
The young man who knocked on its gates was called Bernard. And he had brought with him a group of around thirty men including his five brothers and an uncle. Under the spell of his enthusiasm, all joined the abbey with him as novice monks.(4)
The abbot (head) of the monastery at the time was St Stephen Harding, an Englishman from Dorset.
Stephen quickly recognized Bernard’s talents, and soon appointed the dynamic twenty-five-year-old to the post of abbot of a new abbey to be built seventy miles to the north of Cîteaux, just east of Troyes in the Valley of Bitterness (La Vallée d’Absinthe).
To help Bernard, Stephen sent with him four of his brothers, one of his uncles, two cousins, an architect, and two other monks. They were to build the abbey by hand, stone by stone.
Bernard was intensely magnetic and, as his reputation grew, armies of men and women joined him at his new abbey, which he called Clairvaux (from clara vallis, or Bright Valley). In no time, the order expanded, and Bernard founded new abbeys across Europe to house the legions of men and women who wanted to follow the simple life he championed.
Quickly, the order became the biggest buzz of the age.
To mark the break with the past, the monks wore white habits instead of regular Benedictine black. (A colour scheme the Templars would eventually adopt, along with numerous other Cistercian traits.)
The same fears of sin, purgatory and hell that twenty years earlier had prompted more than a hundred thousand people to go on the First Crusade were now drawing thousands of people to his new, raw, earthy kind of monasticism. And as explained in a previous blog, these new monasteries welcomed lay brothers (conversi) on a huge scale, opening up monasticism to ordinary people.
The order was called the Cistercians, and although Bernard did not found it, he picked it up when it was dying, and gave it the kiss of life.(5)
By the time he died in 1153, the Cistercian order had grown to 343 monasteries, 163 of which he had personally founded.(6)
The order was set to be one of the most powerful organizations of the medieval world.
Bernard himself was old school: a mystic who believed spirituality came from compassion, love, and a wonder for the natural world. He argued passionately against the ‘new learning’ of the universities, where men like Peter Abelard sought God through Greek logic and scientific disputation.
For Bernard, faith was something to be felt viscerally.
His advice was sought by kings and popes. And he wrote unceasingly on every topic imaginable.
For most of his lifetime, he was one of the most respected and listened to voices in Christendom.
So when Hugh of Payns needed a spokesman for the wavering Templars, he could not have chosen better than Bernard of Clairvaux, the man the church came to call its doctor mellifluus, the ‘honey-tongued teacher’.(8)
THE TEMPLAR CONNECTION
As an influential knight, Hugh of Payns had his pick of who to approach to gather support for his new Order.
Wisely, he spread the net wide, travelling about Europe gaining allies. He moved in the highest circles: for instance, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that King Henry i of England granted him an audience in 1128, and plied him with gold and silver as he left.
After visiting Scotland, Hugh returned to the continent, and the chronicle records with amazement that he took with him from the British Isles an army of new recruits so large nothing like it had been seen since the days of the First Crusade.(9)
Hugh was clearly impressive, a born leader: able to charm, persuade, recruit, command, and inspire.
And he did the obvious thing.
He repeatedly asked Bernard of Clairvaux for support.
Although Bernard’s in-tray was permanently overflowing with everything from the mundane administration of his monastery to correspondence with the leaders of Christendom, he eventually got round to answering Hugh.
To Hugh, knight of Christ and master of Christ’s militia, from Bernard, abbot (in name only) of Clairvaux. Fight the good fight. Once, twice, and even a third time, if I am not mistaken, you have asked me, my dear Hugh, to write an encouraging sermon to you and your fellow soldiers.(10)
Hugh knew Bernard personally. Perhaps the history of the Templars (and the crusades, and even Europe) would have been very different if the two had been strangers. But they were not.
Hugh and Bernard were both close friends of Count Hugh of Champagne.
The Count gave Bernard the land to build his new monastery at Clairvaux, and Hugh had spent his life as a senior vassal at the Count’s court. The two Hughs had crusaded together numerous times, and in 1125 Count Hugh had taken the ultimate step of giving up his title, repudiating his wife, and taking his solemn vows to join Hugh as a Templar knight.(11)
The mutual connection to Count Hugh was enough to get Hugh through the doors of Clairvaux and gain an audience with Bernard.
But there was an even stronger connection Hugh relied on, too.
One of Hugh’s fellow Templars was Andrew of Montbard, who later became Master of the Templars from 1154–6. Andrew knew Bernard inside out: he was Bernard’s maternal uncle and friend, and the two corresponded intimately throughout their lives.(12)
Unsurprisingly, Hugh got his wish. After significant petitioning, Bernard eventually wrote him a long letter, ‘in praise of the new knighthood’.(13)
Hugh’s intention had been to get some words of spiritual comfort for his knights.
He can have had no idea how epoch-defining Bernard’s letter would turn out to be.
It began to circulate widely, copied repeatedly by scribes as it passed from hand to hand across Christendom.
In no time, Bernard’s letter became the Order’s official press release and public mission statement.
As more and more people read Bernard’s thundering words, the Templars’ lives, and the Crusades, were changed forever.
‘IN PRAISE OF THE NEW KNIGHTHOOD’
Bernard used the letter as an opportunity to crack European military society wide open, describing how the knights of Europe were vain, arrogant, and godless. He came from a French knightly family himself, so knew the gory details all too well.
He did not hold back. He humiliated the ordinary knights of Christendom:
Therefore what error, knights, so immense, what frenzy so unbearable draws you to military actions at such expense and effort, all for nothing but death or crime? You cover your horses in silks and drape your armour with swatches of flowing cloths; you paint your lances, shields and saddles; you bling up your bridles and spurs with gold and silver and jewels; and with this pomp you rush only towards death, in shameful fury and shameless madness. Are these military insignia, or the trappings of women?(14)
When Bernard had finished slamming the narcissistic self-serving thugs of the nobility, he declared that the Templars were the antidote: the perfect incarnation of a new, true chivalry, who fought for God and not their own devilish petty squabbles.
The Templars were, he declared, what Christian knights should be. They embodied virtue and rejected the vices of the age, fighting a war that was more spiritual than physical:
[It is] a new kind of knighthood, I repeat, one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.(15)
They were the model of humble, professional, lethal warriors:
They are careful to avoid all excess in food and dress, being concerned only with what is necessary. … They never sit about idly or wander aimlessly, but always when (rarely) not riding out, they do not hang about eating bread, but mend and refurbish their clothes and weapons and get their kit straight … . They accept people of every rank, and defer to skill not noble blood. They vie with each other for honor; they bear each other’s burdens … . They detest dice and gaming; they abhor hunting, and take no pleasure in the ridiculous and cruel custom of falconry. They abominate jesters, magicians, story-tellers, singers of scurrilous songs and jousts as so many vanities and mad deceptions. They shave their hair, knowing from the Apostle that it is shameful for a man to have flowing locks. They rarely wash and seldom tidy their hair, content to be disheveled and dusty, unkempt, covered in dust and blackened by the marks of the sun and their armour.(16)
Because their military life was steeled with a strong religious discipline, Bernard declared the Templars to be the ultimate fighting machines:
Truly, [the Templar] is a fearless knight, secure on every side, for as his body is encased in iron, his soul is protected with the breastplate of faith. Protected by both, he fears neither demons nor men.(17)
This is some of the first writing in European history to cast chivalry as a spiritual exercise as well as a physical one, paving the way for the trouvères of France, the troubadours of Languedoc, and the Minnersänger of Germany to develop the ideas of ‘courtly’ chivalry that would give rise to the Arthurian and Grail romances.(18) (And interestingly, the Templars featured explicitly as the guardians of the Grail in the most famous of all early medieval Grail romances: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal.)(19)
After introducing the Templars and explaining who they were, Bernard rapidly got to the heart of Hugh’s concerns.
Was it okay for a monk to fight, or was it sinful? The church had long lived by the maxim ecclesia abhorret a sanguine, the church abhors bloodshed. For instance, Pope Urban ii had explicitly forbidden monks and priests from fighting in the First Crusade (1095–9). So the Templars’ concerns were real. Were they, as monks, cutting themselves off from eternal salvation by breaking the commandment not to kill?
From his monastic cell in rural Champagne, Bernard answered unambiguously with his trademark authority:
Go forth confidently, knights … . Know that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ … . Be joyful, brave athlete, if you live and conquer in the Lord. But glory and exult even more if you die and join the Lord. Life is fruitful and victory is glorious, but a holy death is more important than either. If they are blessed who die in the Lord, how much more are they who die for the Lord!(20)
Much of the rest of the letter is taken up with theological justifications for Christian religious warfare. Although the ideas are abhorrent to the modern mind, they resonated in the twelfth century, where bloody battles against Islam in Spain and Southern Europe had raged for five centuries.(21)
In a final flourish, Bernard explicitly put his seal of approval onto the idea of monk-knights.
In a wondrous and unique way they appear gentler than lambs but fiercer than lions. I do not know if it would be more appropriate to call them monks or knights, unless perhaps it would be better to recognize them as being both. They lack neither monastic meekness nor military might. What can we say of this, except that this has been done by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes. They are hand-picked by God, who has recruited them from the ends of the earth, the courageous men of Israel chosen to guard vigilantly and faithfully the bed of the true Solomon, the holy sepulchre, with sword in hand and superbly trained for war.(22)
THE MILITARY CHURCH
Hugh of Payns had got more than a brief letter of encouragement for his knights back in Jerusalem.
Bernard had written him a blueprint for the armed wing of the Cistercian order, setting out a manifesto for monk-knights committed to the same rugged spiritual life he was bringing to the monasteries of Europe.
As the letter circulated ever more widely, any rumblings of dissent toward the idea of armed monks dried up.
Bernard had placed the Templars at the vanguard of a militant church that not only wanted to join in with the forces fighting the crusades, it wanted to lead them. He was positioning the church’s fighting monks as the elite spearhead of the crusader armies.
Although at the time it looked like Bernard’s vision of church warriors was coming out of the blue, with hindsight he was pulling together a number of currents in medieval theology and taking them to a new, more extreme conclusion.
For instance, for several centuries, the church’s Peace and Truce of God movements had forced knights to swear oaths on holy relics to limit the randomness of their destructivity and Christianize their indiscriminate violence.(23)
Then, at the end of the previous century, Pope St Gregory vii had begun talking about a Vatican knighthood of St Peter, a militia sancti Petri, to serve the church and its policies.
And finally, on launching the First Crusade in 1095, Pope Urban ii had explicitly offered salvation to the knightly class in return for focusing their violence onto holy causes.
All of these developments saw the church trying to harness knights to become enforcers of church policy.
But Bernard, writing in the depths of the French countryside miles from any of the great clashes of civilizations, took it to the next level again.
It is perhaps not surprising.
He was a revolutionary.
He had already transformed medieval religious society by smashing the monopoly of the black monks and building up an army of white ones. At the same time, he had also broken the stranglehold of noble blood in monasteries by bringing in ordinary people as lay conversi.
Now he was turning society on its head again, but this time lending his unique authority to shattering the three traditional groups of church, knights, and workers (oratores, bellatores, laboratores) that made up medieval Europe, and legitimizing a wholly new category: holy warriors.
With a stroke of his pen, he tossed aside centuries of tradition that monks and priests could not shed blood.
And this was proof of Hugh of Payns’s skillful judgement in choosing him.
If Hugh had approached anyone else, that person’s opinion may well have been just another voice in an ongoing debate.
But as it was Bernard of Clairvaux who spoke in favour of the Templars, the matter was permanently resolved.
Although the Templars went on to be controversial in many ways, no one ever seriously again challenged their right to be monks who killed for Christ.
And nor did they.
The Templars were here to stay.
(1) St Benedict drew on a previous anonymous monastic Rule, The Rule of the Master, but the success of Benedict’s Rule lay in its overriding spirit of moderation, humanity and common sense.
(2) Cluny produced Popes St Gregory vii, Urban ii, Paschal ii and Urban v. It was the largest European building until it was overtaken by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
(3) In 1131, Pope Innocent ii visited Clairvaux and was impressed with the asceticism of the monks. When he went to Cluny (the grandest of the French Benedictine monasteries) the following year and was served a royal banquet, he freed Clairvaux from having to pay dues to Cluny in recognition of Clairvaux’s attempt to return to the humble origins of St Benedict’s Rule.
(4) Bernard’s youngest brother was sent back home to look after his father and sister. Two years later, the youngest brother and father also joined the community. Later, Bernard’s sister, Humbeline, left her husband and became a nun.
(5) The Cistercian Order was founded by Saint Robert of Molesme, Saint Stephen Harding, and Saint Alberic.
(6) Numbers are from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
(7) The story of Abélard and Héloïse was immensely famous in medieval times. Héloïse was a scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew in Paris. Abelard, one of the city’s greatest minds, was employed as her tutor, and the two became lovers, married in secret, and had a child called Astrolabus. When her uncle Fulbert found out, he had Abélard castrated. Abélard entered a monastery and Héloïse entered a nunnery. Her poignant love letters to him from her cloister are some of the most famous medieval letters of all time.
(8) The Latin word doctor means teacher. Bernard is one of the official ‘doctors of the church’, a group of around 35 saints who are proclaimed by the pope to have had a far-reaching impact on the church and its teachings. The most recent person to have been given this title was St Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), who was given the title in 2012.
(9) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London, 1961, pp. 194-5.
(10) Hugoni, militi Christi et magistro militiae Christi, Bernardus Claraevallis solo nomine abbas: bonum certamen certare. Semel, et secundo, et tertio, nisi fallor, petisti a me, Hugo carissime, ut tibi tuis que commilitonibus scriberem exhortationis sermonem.
(11) A letter still exists from St Bernard to Count Hugh congratulating Hugh on becoming a Templar, although Bernard had been hoping that Count Hugh would become a Cistercian with him at Clairvaux.
(12) Bernard’s much-loved mother was Aleth of Montbard, and Andrew of Montbard was her brother, Bernard’s father was Tescelin, lord of Fontaines.
(13) It’s full title is Liber ad milites temple de laude novae militiae (Book to the knights of the Temple, in praise of the new knighthood)
(14) Quis ergo, o milites, hic tam stupendus error, quis furor hic tam non ferendus, tantis sumptibus ac laboribus militare, stipendiis vero nullis, nisi aut mortis, aut criminis? Operitis equos sericis, et pendulos nescio quos panniculos loricis superinduitis; depingitis hastas, clypeos et sellas; frena et calcaria auro et argento, gemmisque circumornatis: et cum tanta pompa pudendo furore et impudenti stupore ad mortem properatis. Militaria sunt haec insignia, an muliebria potius ornamenta?
(15) Novum, inquam, militiae genus, et saeculis inexpertum: qua gemino pariter conflictu infatigabiliter decertatur, tum adversus carnem et sanguinem, tum contra spiritualia nequitiae in coelestibus.
(16) Et in victu et vestitu cavetur omne superfluum, soli necessitati consulitur. … Nullo tempore aut otiosi sedent, aut curiosi vagantur: sed semper dum non procedunt (quod quidem raro contingit), ne gratis comedant panem, armorum seu vestimentorum vel scissa resarciunt, vel vetusta reficiunt, vel inordinata component … . Persona inter eos minime accipitur: defertur meliori, non nobiliori. Honore se invicem praeveniunt; alterutrum onera portant, ut sic adimpleant legem Christi. Scacos et aleas detestantur; abhorrent venationem: nec ludicra illa avium rapina (ut assolet) delectantur. Mimos, et magos, et fabulatores, scurrilesque cantilenas, atque ludorum spectacula, tanquam vanitates et insanias falsas respuunt et abominantur. Capillos tondent, scientes juxta Apostolum ignominiam esse viro, si comam nutrierit. Nunquam compti, raro loti, magis autem neglecto crine hispidi, pulvere foedi: lorica et caumate fusci.
(17) Impavidus profecto miles, et omni ex parte securus, qui ut corpus ferri, sic animum fidei lorica induitur. Utrisque nimirum munitus armis, nec daemonem timet, nec hominem.
(18) It is no accident that the earliest Grail romance, Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal, came from the region around Clairvaux.
(19) Eschenbach’s story centres on the Grail kept at the castle of Munsalvaesche, guarded by a group of chaste knights called Templeisen.
(20) Securi igitur procedite, milites, et intrepido animo inimicos crucis Christi propellite, certi quia neque mors, neque vita poterunt vos separare a charitate Dei, quae est in Christo Jesu; illud sane vobiscum in omni periculo replicantes: Sive vivimus, sive morimur, Domini sumus. Quam gloriosi revertuntur victores de praelio! quam beati moriuntur martyres in praelio! Gaude, fortis athleta, si vivis et vincis in Domino: sed magis exsulta et gloriare, si moreris et jungeris Domino. Vita quidem fructuosa, et victoria gloriosa: sed utrique mors sacra jure praeponitur. Nam si beati qui in Domino moriuntur, num multo magis qui pro Domino moriuntur?
(21) In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Europe via Gibraltar. The Iberian Peninsula (Spain) fell, and by 717 Muslim forces had conquered the South of France. Their advance was halted in 732/3 by Charles ‘the Hammer’ at the Battle of Poitiers (also called the Battle of Tours). The Muslim armies retreated to the Pyrenees. For the next 700 years, Muslims and Christians fought over Spain, and there were regular Muslim attacks (known as razzias) into Europe, sometimes as far East as the Alps. The battles of the Reconquista (Reconquest) were a constant feature of life between the 700s and 1400s, and many European nobles travelled to Spain to fight in them. They reached their peak in the 1000s to mid-1200s.
(22) Ita denique miro quodam ac singulari modo cernuntur et agnis mitiores, et leonibus ferociores, ut pene dubitem quid potius censeam appellandos, monachos videlicet, an milites: nisi quod utrumque forsan congruentius nominarim, quibus neutrum deesse cognoscitur, nec monachi mansuetudo, nec militis fortitudo. De qua re quid dicendum, nisi quod a Domino factum est istud, et est mirabile in oculis nostris? Tales sibi elegit Deus, et collegit a finibus terrae ministros ex fortissimis Israel, qui veri lectulum Salomonis, sacrum scilicet sepulcrum, vigilanter fideliterque custodiant, omnes tenentes gladios, et ad bella doctissimi fortissimi.
(23) The Peace of God (pax dei) consisted of summoning gatherings of knights and forcing them to swear o saints’ relics that they would not harm church property or vulnerable noncombatants like children, women, merchants and others the church wanted to protect. The Truce of God (treuga dei) was similar, but involved banning the knights from fighting on certain days: initially Sundays, but eventually Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, special saints’ days, lent and advent.
Photos of Templars from National Geographic, Templars: The Last Stand (2011)
Rule of St Benedict, ms Add. 16979, fol. 21v, Monastery of St Gilles, Nimes, British Library (1129)
Scene from The Name of the Rose, film by Jean Jacques Annaud (1986)
Beneventan chant notation, ms 063, Monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy, The Schøyen collection (1150–1200)
Stephen Harding, Cîteaux manuscript, Municipal Library Dijon (c. 1125)
Peter Abelard and Héloïse by Jean de Meaun, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France (1300s)
King Henry i of England, from Matthew Parris, Historia Anglorum, ms Royal 14.C.VII, British Library (1250–9)
Seal of Andrew of Montbard, Histoire des ducs de Bourgogne de la race capétienne, avec des documents inédits et des pièces justificatives. T. 4
Knights from the early 1400s, Manasse Codex, Zürich (1304-40)
Portrait of Wolfram von Eschenbach, Manasse Codex, Zürich (1304-40)
The three orders of society, Li Livres dou Sante, ms Sloane 2435, fol. 85, British Library (1200s)