contributor.author: Gabrielle M. Spiegel

title.none: Barber, Trials of the Templars

identifier.other: baj9928.9402.007 94.02.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gabrielle M. Spiegel, The Johns Hopkins University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Barber, Malcolm. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.02.07

Barber, Malcolm. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Reviewed by:

Gabrielle M. Spiegel
The Johns Hopkins University

(BMMR will encourage reviews and re-reviews of books of some age and merit by way of reconsidering where some classics of the field stand now. For now, this reproduces a review of a book fifteen years old that is now being brought out again by Cambridge University Press in their series of "Canto" books and is so highlighted for a new generation of readers.)

This review originally appeared in Speculum 55 (1980): 329-332.

The fourteenth century appears to have come into recent fashion, if only as a mirror for the troubled conscience of present-day historians. The arrest, trial, and ultimate suppression, between 1307 and 1312, of the Crusading Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, more familiarly known as the Templars, appealed thus to Professor Malcolm Barber, who chose to retell the sometimes brutal story because he finds in it "some relevance to the world of the late twentieth century so many of whose people have been, and continue to be, oppressed by regimes which use terror and torture to enforce conformity of thought and action" (p. vii). Despite the forthrightly acknowledged present concerns, Professor Barber has managed, on the whole, to write an informative and highly readable book about this, in his words, "medieval tragedy."

Professor Barber's book embraces a triple purpose: to trace in detail the course of events by which the Templars were arrested, charged with crimes, and brought to confession and punishment; to examine the motivation of the chief participants; and, finally, to assess to what extent were justified the charges levelled against the order—charges ranging from heresy to homosexuality, from the denial of Christ to obscene kissing on mouth, penis, anus, or navel. In the first and third of these aims the author succeeds admirably, but in the second and admittedly more difficult goal the book is marred by a restrained but nonetheless distorting bias that animates the author's approach to the policies and personages of the government of Philip the Fair.

By October 1307, when Philip unleashed his baillis and senechaux upon the unsuspecting brothers, the Knights Templar were a powerful and, most of all, rich order with some 764 houses scattered throughout western Christendom, the largest concentration of which was to be found in France. In the course of collecting funds in the west to be used in defense of the Holy Land, the Templars had become an international baking system, lending and safeguarding monies throughout the Continent and, in France, assuming the function of a royal treasury as well, housed in the Temple outside the walls on the right back of Paris. In 1291 the fall of Acre and consequent Christian abandonment of mainland Palestine removed from the Templars the main reason for their existence. It was, in Barber's view, the fatal combination of wealth and functional obsolescence that made the order vulnerable to Philip the Fair's unbounded greed and driving need to find ever new sources of revenue to finance the burgeoning Capetian bureaucracy and war machine. Having experimented with new forms of taxation, lay and clerical, having despoiled the Jews and Lombards, Philip turned to expropriate this final reserve of wealth which lay within his grasp. The result was the secret order for the arrest of Templars residing in France issues in September, followed by the early morning round-up and imprisonment on Friday, 13 October.

Barber traces with considerable skill the precise flow of events leading from arrest to trial and the extraction of confessions which, more than anything else, lent substance to the charges brought against the order. Of 138 Templars questioned in Paris during October and November, 105 admitted that they had denied Christ during their secret reception into the order, 123 that they had spat at, on, or near some form of the crucifix, 103 that they had indecently kissed, usually on the base of the spine or the navel, and 102 implied that homosexuality among the brothers was encouraged (although only 3 admitted directly engaging in homosexual relations) (p. 61). This immediate and virtually unanimous confession of guilt on the part of the Templars, including the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, and the Visitor, Hughes de Pairaud, cast a pall over the order from which it never recovered. Although the confessions were extracted by torture and later denied before papal inquisitors, the Templars had sentenced themselves out of their own mouths. Barber's richly detailed discussion of the confessions, of the subsequent attempt of lesser members of the order to mount a defense before papal judges, and of the collapse of that effort when, on 12 May, 1310, Philip hastily had 54 Templars burnt at the stake outside Paris makes this the finest portion of the book.

Also good, although less detailed, is his handling of the struggle between the french monarchy and the papacy for control of the proceedings, the end result of which was to internationalize the trial under papal leadership. It is in his analysis of the trial outside France that Barber contributes significantly to the history of the Templars. The course of the trials in England, Aragon, Navarre (ruled by Philip the Fair's eldest son, Louis), Majorca, Castile, Portugal, Italy and Germany demonstrates incontestably that only in France or in territories under French influence were there substantial confessions to the alleged crimes. In England and Aragon, whose laws of procedure forbade the use of torture, confessions came only after the papal inquisitors had taken over and introduced torture. The sole exception was the admission of the English Templars to a belief in the power of absolution exercised by the Grand Master and regional preceptors in chapter, which Barber convincingly explains as a consequence of Templar confusion over the changing definition of absolution in the thirteenth century, to which Templar practice did not conform. The sharp distinction in obtaining confessions between countries that did and did not employ torture makes entirely plausible Barber's conclusion that "it would now be difficult to argue, as some nineteenth-century historians did, that the Templars were guilty of the accusations made against them by the regime of Philip the Fair" (p. 243). This conclusion is all the more instructive given that Jean Favier's recent biography of Philip the Fair accepts the validity of Templar guilt and the veracity of the charges brought against them.

Yet it is precisely in the treatment of the "regime" of Philip the Fair that Barber's book disappoints most. Having shown the falsity of the charges against the Templars,the burden falls on Barber to indicate who, then, devised them, on what they were based, and why they were invented. In answering these questions Barber presumes that Philip the Fair and his ministers were motivated by a brutal indifference to right and truth in their search for revenue, a view that one would have though is now outmoded. His rather facile response to this set of questions is that Nogaret fabricated the charges at Philip's instigation; that he drew upon the stock of medieval heretical views and popular superstitions in framing them, and that he did so in the service of the "twisted legalism" of Capetian rule, which sought to mask its true purpose under formally articulated provisions.

Although Barber professes to accept the "modern" view of Philip the Fair as, in Joseph Strayer's phrase, a "constitutional king," he uses it only to argue that the moving force behind the whole sordid affair of the Templars was Philip himself. Yet it is difficult to believe that a king as scrupulous and conscientious in other respects as Philip demonstrably was would have attacked the Templars with such violence merely for financial gain. While Barber attempts to link the Templars with other "outgroups" [ n.b. today we would say "others"] and to consider all equally victimized by Philip's extortionary practices, the effort remains unconvincing. It was one thing to harass the despised Lombards and the Jews, who operated on the border of permissible Christian behavior, but quite another to proceed against a monastic order, garnered with all the spiritual prestige, however momentarily tarnished. of the highest deals of Christian Europe. Surely a king of Philip's acknowledged religious sensibilities would have understood the moral difference between these actions.

Only on the last page of the book does barber raise the possibility that Philip and his counselors really believed the accusations of heresy against the Templars. Yet in the final analysis, this provides the most reasonable explanation for Philip's actions and solves the problem of why he did not attack the Hospitalers as well, whose wealth and position were comparable to the Templars. Barber himself shows that as early as 1305 Philip was receiving reports of scandalous practices among the Templars from informers such as Esquieu de Floyran, who approached the king after having failed to sell his rumors to James II of Aragon. Why Philip, unlike James, proved receptive to these reports is, in turn, best explained by the shift in Philip's personal concerns toward a more religious bent, which Robert-Henri Bautier has recently argued took place after the death of this wife, Jeanne of Navarre, in April 1305 (See R.-H. Bautier, "Diplomatique et histoire politique: Ce que la critique diplomatique nous apprend sur la personalite de Philippe le Bel," Revue Historique, 259 (1978): 3-27). Jeanne's death struck Philip with great force and appears to have produced in him an almost fanatical desire to reform himself and his kingdom in the image of his holy grandfather, St. Louis. Barber's wholesale dismissal of Philip's claim that he acted as an agent of God "to defend the liberty of the faith of the Church" as mere rationalization raises a serious issue of how much a modern interpreter is permitted to disregard the written record in assessing the motivation of historical actors, accessible only through their reported words.

In the end, the best evidence suggests that is was not the desire for specie but the weightier coinage of religious purity and personal righteousness that motivated Philip the Fair, a coinage potentially more dangerous to the rights of nonconformity and dissent than even Professor Barber fears.