This month marks the ten year anniversary of Italian scholar Barbara Frale’s discovery of lost medieval documents relating to the trial of the Knights Templar. Frale, a scholar of medieval paleography, was doing historical research at the Vatican Secret Archive when she uncovered a fourteenth century manuscript which recounts a previously unknown chapter in the history of the trial of the Knights Templar. The manuscript is now widely known as the Chinon Parchment, named after the Chateau de Chinon, a castle in the Loire Valley of France where emissaries of Pope Clement V investigated the charges of heresy which had been made against the leadership of the Knights Templar.
The history of the Knights Templar has always been the subject of enormous interest to a certain cadre of the public. As Umberto Eco famously dramatized in his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, it is a favorite of occultists, conspiracy theorists, and a variety of political extremists. Far more benignly, the history of the Templars also shows up in connection with some forms of Freemasonry, where the disappearance of the medieval order serves as a kind of founding myth for the modern charitable fraternity, a subject brought to life in a spate of recent popular films and novels.
But beyond all the mythology, the Knights Templar were a real historical organization, an order of Christian knights that existed from 1119 to 1312 AD. Originally called the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the order’s purpose was to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land in the years following the second Crusade’s successful capture of Jerusalem. While the Knights Templar began as a semi-monastic military order dedicated to individual poverty and service to the Crusade, the organization grew rapidly in wealth and worldly importance. By the time of its dissolution in the fourteenth century, the Templars had built a staggering military and financial empire, consisting of hundreds of castles and outposts that could be found in every part of the Christian world. Their military reach encompassed all of Europe, the Mediterranean and lands along the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the popularity of their mission and their high public standing, they attracted large donations, both from members of the order, and from bequests left to it by wealthy lay families. As their wealth grew, the Templars developed a banking system issuing notes of credit to travelers in order to ensure the availability of their funds in foreign lands, a strikingly modern innovation which contributed to the order’s ability to raise the capital it needed to supply its military efforts in the Holy Land and elsewhere. Eventually, the Templars found themselves deeply involved in the financial activities of princes and kingdoms throughout Christendom.
Enter Philip IV of France (1268-1314): often known as Philip the Fair, Philip IV became king in 1285 at the age of seventeen and spent most of the following twenty years waging war to expand his kingdom. After decades of military engagement, the costs of war nearly bankrupted him. To pay for his war debts, he first set his sights on the local Jewish population, whom he expelled from the country in 1306 and whose property he expropriated for public use. Next he levied a tax on the clergy of his country, confiscating half of their annual income. Then he turned to his creditors, the Knights Templar, and took drastic action to eliminate his debt at its root.
On Friday, October 13, 1307, agents of the Philip IV rounded up and arrested hundreds of Knights Templar throughout France in a effort coordinated to strike the order by surprise. Members of the order were imprisoned, accused of heresy and harshly interrogated; many were tortured into confessing their participation in strange rites, ritual renunciations of Christ, acts of sodomy, and the worship of a mysterious idol called Baphomet. While these charges should have been under the jurisdiction of the Church, Philip acted quickly to preempt the pope’s involvement and hoped that by seizing the initiative, he could force the church’s hand in condemning the order. On the whole Philip was successful, and Pope Clement V found himself unable to prevent the execution of many of the leading Templars, including the last Grand Master of the order, Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake in Paris in March of 1314. The pope formally disbanded the order in 1312 in the course of the lengthy investigation into heresy charges that followed the Templars’ arrest. Philip naturally was able to seize Templars’ property in his kingdom.
The Chinon parchment, which Barbara Frale discovered, is significant because it documents the fact that some of the leading members of the order, including its Grand Master, had been absolved by the pope and readmitted to the church’s communion by the pope’s investigative committee long before Philip had them executed. Frale argues that this provides evidence of the pope’s original intention to rehabilitate the leading Templars and perhaps to save their order.
The Chinon parchment, along with all of the existing transcripts and documentation of the trial of the Templar Knights, was published by Scrinium in 2007 for the Vatican Secret Archive in an extraordinary limited edition called Processus Contra Templarios. Only 800 copies were produced, including 799 numbered copies which were reserved for sale and one unnumbered copy which was reserved for Pope Benedict XVI. A companion volume containing translations of all the documents in the 2007 publication came out in 2009. Copy number 164 of the 799 numbered copies can be found in the Rare Book Collection of the Law Library of Congress.