21 January 2018

AN EVERYDAY STORY OF COUNTRY FOLK

Helen J. Nicholson, The Everyday Life of the Templars: The Knights Templar at Home. Fonthill, 2017.

Full marks to whoever came up with the title, which gives colour and promise to what is a fairly arid academic study of the routine and domestic side of the Knights Templar. Helen Nicholson is a professor of history, currently at Cardiff University, who since 2003 has been working her way through the records made by Edward I’s officials during the round-up of Templars in England, Ireland and Scotland and its aftermath.
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She’s produced several scholarly books based on those archives, most notably an account of the trial of Templars in the British Isles. In this new work, she’s combined the records relating to the administration of the Order’s estates by Edward’s men, from the arrests in 1308 until they were handed over to the rival Knights Hospitaller five years later, with research by other scholars into Templar establishments elsewhere in Europe, to give as full account as possible of what those lands and properties were like, how they were run, and of the day to day life on them.

Those extensive holdings across Europe represent the major, if less glamorous, part of the Templars’ activities and occupied the majority of the personnel; as Nicholson sums up, ‘most of the Order’s members lived away from the frontier on the Order’s wide-reaching estates in Europe; they never visited the Holy Land and their warfare was in prayer, not physical weapons.’ However, ‘The Templars’ estates were the background to the Templars’ military achievements, without which they could not have operated as a military force.’

It’s a fairly specialist work, assuming familiarity with the Order’s history, and isn’t for those only interested in the sexier side of the Templars. It doesn’t deal with their military activities or their involvement in medieval Europe’s power politics, let alone the lurid accusations surrounding their demise. It does, however, give valuable perspective to those aspects of the Templar story.

The study opens with a chapter examining the collective and individual rhythm of Templar life as laid down in the Order’s rule – the regime of prayers, meals and so on. Chapters then follow on how the estates were organised and run, the kind of work that went on in them, the religious and spiritual life, the business and financial side (including the Order’s celebrated banking activities), and finally the lifecycle of the individual Templar, from recruitment through initiation and career progression to death. The book is quite short, around 100 pages of main text, with 30 of notes and references and an extensive bibliography. There’s also a large section of colour and black and white illustrations.

It’s all properly academic, with a lot of minutiae - for example, tables showing percentages of the grain harvest given to estate workers in England broken down by county – but it all gives texture to the life of the Order, with sometimes unexpected facts emerging. For example, it seems that very few Templars ever moved from the area in which they were recruited.

Naturally, running their numerous estates required a vast staff of workers and servants, the majority of whom were not members of the Order, with no more than two or three actual Templars present in most establishments. Agreeing with previous estimates, Nicholson calculates that there were around 1500 members of the Order proper – i.e. those who’d been through the initiation ceremony and taken the vows - at the time of the suppression.

The most eye-opening aspect, with the most potential for changing our image of the Templars, relates to the involvement of women. From isolated references, there has long been speculation – particularly among we ‘alternative’ researchers – that the Order wasn’t entirely the all-male organisation of popular perception. But given the facts presented here it’s a wonder that there was ever any mystery about it.

Given that the Templar holdings were not any different to other feudal estates – carrying on the same business with just a couple of brothers to oversee it - it’s not surprising that the Order employed female servants and workers, such as milkmaids. However, the records make it clear that women could and did get more deeply involved, taking the same vows as the men and being considered full members of the Order.

King Baldwin II of Jerusalem ceding the Temple to Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer

Nicholson notes that the earliest surviving form of the Templar Rule, from its formal establishment at the Council of Troyes in 1129, which abolished the (now lost) original set by the embryonic Order’s founder, Hugues de Payns, a decade earlier, decreed that ‘it is no longer permitted to have sisters’ – clearly implying that originally it was permitted. Strangely, however, it’s clear that despite this prohibition sisters continued to be admitted throughout the Templars’ history.

A document of 1198 from a Templar preceptory in Tarragona in Spain identifies its head (preceptrix) as Lady Ermengard de Oluya, ‘sister of the knighthood of the Temple’, and names other sisters among its complement (including one quaintly-named Sister Titborgs). A house of Templar nuns is recorded at Mühlen in the diocese of Worms. This situation prevailed until the very end: at the time of the arrests ordered by the Pope, special arrangements had to be made in some areas for accommodating the sisters found in Templar properties (none of whom were arrested or tried).

As it's outside the book’s scope, there’s no discussion of the accusations of heresy and idol-worship that brought about the Order’s downfall and which have fuelled controversy ever since, the couple of references Nicholson does make expressing scepticism. She speculates that the charge brought by the Inquisition against the Order that its initiation ceremonies were ‘clandestine’ merely meant that they didn’t follow the correct procedures laid down by Church law, rather than implying secrecy - which isn’t particularly persuasive, given what the Inquisition alleged went on in those ceremonies. Similarly, her statement that, given that most Templar houses were open to non-members, ‘The heretical practices alleged against the Templars in 1307 could not have taken place in reality, because public outcry would have stopped them very quickly’ is rather disingenuous; nobody, from the Inquisition onward, has suggested that the alleged blasphemous rites were indulged in by every member, or that they took place anywhere but behind closed doors.

Overall, however, The Everyday Life of the Templars is a valuable contribution to Templar studies, both academic and alternative, giving background and perspective to the Order, and grounding the Templars in the real world of the Middle Ages. – Clive Prince


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