According to the account in Michel Mourre's historical encyclopedia, the Knights Templar constituted the world's first international bank. -- BACKGROUND: Mourre devoted the last decades of a brief reclusive life to the drafting of reference works that are perhaps unique in the 20th century for their solitary erudition. -- Little-known in the English-speaking world, Le Mourre, as the work has popularly come to be known, was first published in France in 1978, several months after the author's death at the age of 49. -- It has gained a certain reputation as a monument of erudition, and has been kept up to date in several subsequent editions. -- The passage translated below is from the 1996 French edition....
THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR
By MIchel Mourre
From Mourre's Dictionnaire encyclopédique d'histoire, vol. 5 (1996; orig. 1978), pp. 5436-37.
TEMPLARS or Knights Templar or Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Pauvres Chevalier du Christ et du Temple de Salomon). Military religious order founded in 1118 in Jerusalem (conquered from the Muslims since 1099) by eight French knights grouped around Hugues de Payens, from Champagne. The king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, gave them a house on the site of Solomon's Temple (whence their name), but it was St. Bernard who finally made of them a Church institution by having their foundation approved by the Council of Troyes (1128) and by undertaking himself to be the propagandist of the new order in his treatise De laude novae militiae. Indeed, the Templars represented a seductive attempt to unite the two most noble forms of life known to medieval Christendom, knightly life and monastic life. Organized according to Cistercian rule, the Templars included knights and chaplains, both noble, but also sergeants and servants; supreme authority belonged to a grand master, elected by the knights of the Temple of Jerusalem, who, for the most important acts, was obliged to consult the chapter and was bound by the vote of the majority. The Templars wore an enormous white coat (borrowed from Cîteaux) marked by a great red cross.
Along with the Hospitaliers of Saint John, the Templars formed the standing army of the Latin states of the East. They built fortresses of which imposing ruins still stand: Safed, Tartus, Toran, the Krak des Chevaliers, the Château Pèlerin. At first animated by an incontestable heroism and spirit of sacrifice (which they still exhibited in the siege of Damiette, 1218), the Templars nevertheless were greatly lacking in flexibility, and their taste for provocation brought misfortune upon the Crusaders on several occasions, notably at the disaster of Hattin (1187), which was followed by the loss of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless the order kept its prestige in the 13th century and continued to prosper: thanks to the privileges that had been conferred upon it by popes, the Order of the Temple constituted a veritable sovereign state and soon became a considerable financial power. Thanks to its commanderships along the route to the Holy Land, the order became the world's first international bank and practically monopolized financial operations with respect to trading in the East. It often used its wealth for the best causes (for example, paying the ransom of captive Christians after the fall of Jerusalem), but it was also more and more hated, especially when the definitive loss of Palestine (1291) caused it to lose its original raison d'être. From then on, the Templars were hardly more than bankers.
At the beginning of the 14th century, they numbered about 15,000, including 2,000 in France, when Philip the Fair decided to attack the order in order to seize its treasure. The king and his jurists were sure of finding public opinion favorable, irritated as this was by the Templars' wealth and haughtiness, but also by the mystery of its ceremonies, which gave the order the air of a secret society and made every calumny plausible. On Oct. 13, 1307, Jacques de Molay, the grand master, along with sixty Templars, were arrested and accused of heresy and monstrous crimes (profanation, idolatry, sodomy). Tortured, the accused confessed to everything, and Clement V, shaken by these confessions, ordered the other Christian princes to arrest the Templars in their realms (January-May 1308). Then the pope changed his mind, and appointed ecclesiastical commissions to conduct their own investigation, during which the Templars retracted their confessions. But the weak Clement V did not have the capacity to resist for long the king who had made him pope, and the jurists of Philip the Fair worked to create a climate of terror: in May 1310, Enguerrand de Marigny obtained from his brother, the archbishop of Sens, the conviction as relapsed heretics of fifty-four Templars who had retracted their confessions; they were burned at stake. The Council of Vienne (October 1311), however, refused to recognize the guilt of the Templars. But Philip the Fair pressured Clement V, who, in the papal bull Vox in excelsis (Apr. 3, 1312), declared the dissolution of the order, whose possessions were transferred to the Hospitaliers (this kept the hoped-for profits out of Philip the Fair's hands; in the end he got out of the affair only an indemnity of 200,000 livres tournois to clear his treasury's acounts, and 60,000 livres for the expenses of the trial). The Templars who kept to their confessions were freed. But on Mar. 19, 1314, the grand master, Jacques de Molay, and the head of the province of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charnay, led to a great scaffold in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, were called upon to repeat the tale of their crimes before the assembled crowd. They courageously protested, denouncing the absurdity of the accusations victimizing them and proclaiming the purity and holiness of their order. Philip the Fair, furious, had them burned at the stake that very evening as relapsed heretics. The innocence of the Templars, proclaimed by Dante in his Purgatory, is today almost unanimously recognized.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003