Editorial Comments -
Jeri Westerson is an amateur historian of medieval England, has an art degree, and writes medieval mysteries. Read about her work at http://www.freewebs.com/westerson/ or her blog Getting Medieval at http://www.jeriwesterson.typepad.com
Of Templars and Holy Grails
By Jeri Westerson
Holy Orders, Batman! The Templars have sure been getting a lot of press lately, what with "The DaVinci Code" and all.
But let's face it, as successful as Dan Brown's book is, he didn't invent these guys. They go way back to the time of the first Crusades into the Holy Land.
Before we get into a little history I would like to offer this caveat:
Please don't get your history from novels or movies. Yes, these can certainly spark your interest in a subject (I know the movies did it for me when I was just a wee pod) but novels/movies are fiction and by their very nature are telling you lies of sorts. They may take a moment in history and bend it to their will: put people in times and places where they never existed and dally with dates and the order of events. And that's fine when you're only telling a story.
But if you read something and think to yourself, "Hmm. I didn't know the Templars guarded the Holy Grail. I've learned something new!" You'd be horribly misled. Because that is just plain fiction!
Back to history. Templars were a Christian military order of religious knights, which would seem contradictory to the tenants of the faith, but one must remember the times in which these things occurred and not judge them by the standards of today.
In 1118, during the reign of Baldwin II in Jerusalem, Hugues de Payens, a knight, along with eight of his companions bound themselves by a perpetual vow to defend Christendom. Baldwin accepted their services and assigned them a portion of his palace, adjoining the temple of the city; hence their title "pauvres chevaliers du temple" (Poor Knights of the Temple).
At first, they had no rules of their order and no habit (for instance, monks of the Order of St. Benedict wore a black habit. They still do.) They later took on the Rule of St. Benedict which includes the three perpetual vows of chastity, poverty, and permanence but they also included crusader vows as well.
They took up the white habit of the Cistercians, another holy order of monks, and added the red cross to that. They were quite poor to begin with and their purpose was to protect the highways and byways of the Holy Land so that pilgrims could travel in relative safety to view the sacred sights.
But as with all good plans, it didn't stay that way.
Soon, the popes took them under their wing, exempting them from all the jurisdiction of kings and princes. Their property was exempted from all taxation, even from tithes, and the Templar churches and cemeteries could not be placed under interdict, that is, be under any restraint imposed upon it by local church authorities usually as a form of punishment.
As you can well imagine, this soon brought about jealousies and conflict amongst the clergy of the Holy Land. The Templars could increase their landed property and revenues without taxation or tithing to local church authorities. As early as 1156, the clergy of the Holy Land tried to override these privileges of the Templars and other military orders, but the pope interceded for them time and again.
The order's numbers grew. Joining these orders was a way for very naughty knights to expiate their sins and it was also a way for fathers to get their troublesome sons out of the country and do "some good out there in Palestine."
Were they a secret society? In as much as any closed society is secret.
After all, monks in a monastery seldom traveled beyond the walls of their convents and what they did all day was somewhat secret to the laity. But the Templars were unusual in that they were a military order and yet were not supposed to own personal property themselves (they can often be seen depicted as two knights sharing a horse. That and other peculiarities of the order fostered a suspicion of homosexual activity, which was certainly not more prevalent than in any other closed society at the time.)
So what does this have to do with the Holy Grail, already?
Wondering that, are you? Well, you'd be right to wonder. Because it doesn't. Remember, they were founded to protect the Holy Land. Not the Holy Grail.
Enter Wolfram Von Eschenbach.
But let's hold off on Wolfy for a second here. Let's talk a little about the Holy Grail. Just what is it?
Traditionally, it is the cup out of which Jesus Christ drank the wine from the Last Supper. Originally, the explanation was of a dish, not a cup, so in Latin gradale. In French we have gradalis or gradale which is a dish for serving only the best morsels. In popular or low French it was greal whose etymology derives from grata because the stuff tastes good from the dish. Medieval Latin gives us gradale and old French gives us graal, greal, or even greel which trickles down to English spelling to give us grail.
No mention of Templars yet, you'll notice. Hold on. We're getting to it. You will also notice that no credible historians mix up the words san greal with sang real, the conceit of The Da Vinci Code and of its predecessor Holy Blood, Holy Grail from which Dan Brown got his holy bloodline ideas for the novel. San greal merely means Holy Grail. Sang real means royal blood. See how easy it is to twist words to work for you? Clever, really.
And no where did anyone in any place in any time think for one minute that the grail was anything other than stone, dish, or cup. Certainly not a woman and certainly not Mary Magdeline. It was just not an option. Except in fiction. Remember that? History, fiction. Let us not confuse the two.
Enter Wolfram Von Eschenbach. Again. He wrote a poem called "Parzival" sometime between 1205 and 1215 and based on the French poem. To these may be added ancient Welsh folk-tales otherwise known as the "Mabinogion" and the English poem "Sir Percyvelle" (15th century).
The oldest version of the story is the trilogy of Robert de Boron, composed between 1170 and 1212, of which only the first part, the "Joseph d'Arimathie," and a portion of the second, the "Merlin," exist. The most detailed history of the Grail is in the "Grand St. Graal," a French prose romance of the first half of the thirteenth century, where we are told that Christ Himself presented to a pious hermit the book concerning this history.
Besides these versions there are three French prose romances, also from the thirteenth century, which, though concerned chiefly with the quest, give also an account of the history of the sacred vessel. Of these the most notable is the "Queste del St. Graal," and shows up in its entirety in Malory's "Morte d' Arthur" which of course gives us such tales as "Camelot" and more recently "Spamalot."
Not seeing much Templar action so far, are you? Or any body else's secret society, for that matter. We press on.
Wolfy's poem tells of the grail (which in this poem is a precious stone) possessing miraculous powers which are revamped annually by a consecrated Host which a dove brings down from heaven and lays down upon the stone every Good Friday. Pretty neat.
This legend of Parcifal was already part of medieval lore though it is Galahad who is the virginal pursuer of the grail--whatever it may be. Soon these tales were connected to the tales of King Arthur, a much-embellished epic as it turns out, with new characters added and new angst for poor Art.
But now we're getting somewhere because Arthur's rather earthy, Celtic beginnings not only take on the embellishments of Christianity in the Middle Ages but the romance of many of these tales as well. Who are these Roundtable knights? They are the embodiment of chivalry's highest achievements of purity, strength, beauty, piety...all that. And who out there should be the recipients of that sterling reputation as well, the living embodiment of Arthur's knights? Sounding like Templars.
Celtic quest legends, magic, legends of vengeance gleaned from the Mabinogon fused with the Christian legend of Joseph of Arimathea (which embodies the legend of the conversion of Britain) and you are poised for something pretty nifty.
Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have gotten a hold of the cup of the Last Supper and caught some of Christ's blood in it while he suffered on the cross. He escaped with it across the sea and was told by angels to keep going until he made landfall at Britain. He was to build a church on the spot on which his staff--when thrust into the ground--sprouted. This happened to be near Galstonbury Abbey. (So here we are again near King Arthur's Camelot.)
He buried the grail in the foundations, and the church was dedicated to Mary and Jesus. Now the Grail is finally home in Great Britain just waiting for the Arthurians to grab it, throw Lancelot in for good measure, and call the seekers of this most Christian of symbols grail knights. Lump that with the romance of the Templars and a whole new legend is born, though one virtually ignored by the Church at the time and the centuries following.
If you're a writer, you can call this silence a conspiracy. If you are a historian, you call it a non-issue.
So if grail there ever was--and with the evidence of such dubious beginnings it is doubtful--then the Templars were certainly not busy guarding it.
So what happened to the Templars? Well, it wasn't good.
Over the centuries of their existence they got a bit greedy, a bit power hungry, and just got themselves a lot of enemies. King Phillipe the Fair of France owed the Templars a lot of money, was a bit tired of them owning all that land, and denounced them, tortured them, and had them executed.
The Templar order was dissolved by the Pope and any Templars anywhere else, especially in England, were told to become proper monks in a monastery or suffer the consequences. Some escaped, probably, but as for their legendary cache of treasure, my guess is that most of it was gone and/or scattered to such a degree that it wasn't worth worrying over.
Now something interesting here.
Vatican documents unearthed in March of 2002, shed new light on the Templars and their relationship to Pope Clement V. History claimed he denounced them in 1308. These documents were known but thought destroyed by Napoleon when his men looted the Vatican during their invasion of Italy.
According to the document known as the “Chinon Parchment”, the pope sent emissaries to France when Phillipe the Fair had them imprisoned to conduct what was essentially a secret trial and exonerated the Templars for allegations of sodomy and blasphemy. But such a decree of exoneration would not be popular, and many of the crowned heads of Europe did what they liked first before informing the pope of their activities. And Clement V was said to be easily manipulated. So good-bye Templars.
But it makes a great story. As Steven Speilberg, Monty Python, Dan Brown, and a host of other writers, directors, and creative types--including myself--can attest to.
The connection of Templars and the grail is a fiction that seems to be part of the social fabric, or as was touted more recently on an NPR interview, a "literary fetish."
The Da Vinci Code has taken it many leaps forward into everyone’s favorite device, conspiracy theories, taking on the Church and the basic beliefs of Christianity itself.
Should you read the book or watch the movie?
Well, it is fiction and as long as you know that then it is simply entertainment. But if you aren’t certain about your own faith and that of your children, perhaps a more in-depth study of Scripture, Church history, and art history for that matter, might be a better first step.
Just remember, knowledge is power.
And don’t believe everything you read in novels or see in movies. They’re supposed to entertain, not tear communities apart.
Note: Jeri Westerson is an amateur historian of medieval England, has an art degree, and writes medieval mysteries. Read about her work at http://www.freewebs.com/westerson/ or her blog Getting Medieval at http://www.jeriwesterson.typepad.com