Considering the amount of popular fiction about them today, it may seem odd that Templars appeared very rarely in the epic and romance literature of the Middle Ages and never as the main characters.
The earliest reference to them is in the dark epic Raoul de Cambrai . The story, written in the last quarter of the twelfth century, is set in what is today northern France, supposedly in the tenth century. It is a tale of betrayal, honor, murder, and redemption. The Templars only figure in the last of these. At the very end of the story the antihero, Bernier, faced with execution for killing his mother’s murderer, volunteers instead to go to Acre and become a Templar as his penance.1
The Temple is used as a place of penance in other epics, such as La Chevalerie d’Ogier de Danemarche and Renaut de Montauban. In Ogier the knight is willing to serve in the “Hospital or the Temple” as his penance.2 This is an early indication that the order of the Hospitallers and the Templars were interchangeable in the minds of many people. Like Raoul, the knight in Ogier, named Charlot, is joining the Temple (or Hospital) as penance for the murder of another knight. It is pointed out, by the way, that Charlot is deeply sorry for this and he leaves all his property to Ogier, father of the murdered knight.3 It was well understood that penance without repentance was useless. Joining the Templars with the wrong attitude earned no points in heaven.
These popular medieval works of fiction underlined the purpose of the military orders as religious houses. They were seen by the authors as places where a well-born fighting man could atone for his sins of violence by using that violence against the enemies of Christ. This is the aspect of the Templars that was stressed in Bernard of Clairvaux’s exhortation to the knights. So in this case, the fictional knights are mirroring the actions of contemporaries and, perhaps, encouraging others to follow their example.
It is surprising that in the many works which make up the epic stories of the crusades, the Templars only appear in a supporting role. In the Chanson des Chétifs (“the song of the miserable prisoners,” sometimes translated as “the song of the bastards”). The character Harpin is based on a real person who was in captivity during the First Crusade.4 While in prison the real Harpin made a vow that, if he were ever freed, he would end his life as a monk. He joined the monastery of Cluny in 1109. However, that didn’t make good drama, so the author of Chétifs has him join the Templars instead.5
Again, in the story the Templars exist, but we never see them fighting or taking an active part.
One role that the Templars often played in medieval fiction was as protectors of lovers. In the thirteenth century a number of romances featured lovers who went to the Templars seeking refuge. In Sone de Nancy, the Templars help the lovers escape from a queen wishing to have Sone for herself.6 I wonder if they weren’t assigned this role in literature because in reality they and the Hospitallers so often made up the escorts for royal brides on their way to their new homes.
In some epics Templars also are those who arrange for the burial of doomed lovers.7 Neither of these roles is that important and, for the most part, the Templars are generic examples of kind, pious, and chivalrous men.
The fact is, the Templars were not that important in medieval literature. Unlike Richard the Lionheart or Saladin, there are no rousing poems extolling their exploits. Why not? I think it’s because the Templars were seen as background. They were a fine group of men doing an important job but not the real players. They were often mentioned in passing as examples of selfless knights, generally to chastise those who neglected their duty. An example is the crusader poet Marcabru, who wrote, “In Spain and here, the Marquis and those of the Temple of Solomon suffer the weight and the burden of pagan pride.”8 Marcabru thinks someone should help.
In modern fiction the Templars are associated with Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but in medieval lore their only connection with Arthurian literature is as the guardians of the Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. The Templars are knights who “dwell with the Grail at Munsalvaesche. Always when they ride out, as they often do, it is to seek adventure. They do so for their sins, these Tempeleisen, whether their reward is defeat or victory.”9 The Templars in Parzival are a small part of the story, more background than anything else, and they have several characteristics that the real Templars didn’t share. For instance, in Wolfram’s story there were female Tempeleisen .
Apart from a few authors who drew on Wolfram’s work, the Templars are not seen in association with the Grail or with the very popular tales of King Arthur and his court. In the world of medieval fantasy, the Templars had no place. By the end of the thirteenth century they were considered more symbols of debauchery than guardians of secret wisdom. The phrase “drunk as a Templar” became commonplace in France. In the sixteenth century, Rabelais uses it in his work. “Once he got together three or four good country fellows and set them to drinking like Templars the whole night long.”10In Germany, “going to the Temple” was a popular euphemism for visiting a brothel.11
For over six hundred years, popular writers didn’t consider the Templars worth their time. This changed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with Sir Walter Scott’s two novels The Talisman and Ivanhoe. Set in the time of the crusades, these works, a blend of history, legend, and imagination, reintroduced the Templars to a world that, outside of Freemasonry, had forgotten them.
Scott’s villain is Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Templar who embodies the medieval complaints of pride and greed. Added to these character flaws, Bois-Guilbert also plots against the true king and lusts after the Jewish woman Rebecca. He is the consummate evil adversary in the neomedieval revival that began in Britain in the early nineteenth century.
Ivanhoe was first published in 1820. It has been filmed many times and the book is still in print. Generations have received their first, sometimes their only, impression of the Templars from Scott’s rousing fiction.
It is only at the beginning of the twenty-first century that the Templars seem to have come into their own in fiction. The last part of the twentieth century saw an explosion of myths and theories about the Templars, most of which can be categorized with Bigfoot and UFOs. These unhistorical theories yielded a gold mine of plot ideas that are still being refined into fun and exciting stories.
Most recently there have been at least three novels about the Templars. Two, The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury and The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry, are set in the modern world. They both show how the legend of the Templars can be relevant to concerns that we have today. The third,The Knights of the Black and White by Jack White, is a historical novel that uses some of the recent legends, placing them in the time of the real Templars.
It seems a shame that the Templars had to wait seven hundred years to finally be given a starring role in fiction.
Helen Nicholson, Love, War and the Grail: Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights in Medieval Epic and Romance 1150-1500 (Boston: Brill, 2004) p. 35.
Ibid., p. 38.
Jean-Charles Payen, La Motif du Repentir de la Littérature Française Médiévale (Geneva: Droz, 1968) pp. 212-13.
I know that the Templars weren’t around then. That didn’t bother medieval writers of fiction any more than it does modern ones.
Suzanne Duparc-Quioc, Le Cycle de la Croisade (Paris, 1955) p. 85. “Au Temple pourservir s’est Harpins adonés.”
Nicholson, p. 53.
Ibid., p. 54.
Marcabru, “Pax in Nomine Domini,” ll. 55-58 in Marcabru: A Critical Edition ed. Simon Gaunt, Ruth Harvey, and Linda Paterson (Cambridge, MA: D. S. Brewer, 2000) p. 440. “En Espaign’ e sai lo Marques et cill del temple Salamo soffron lopes e’l fais del orgoill painaor.”
Wolfrom von Eschenbach, Parzival, tr. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York: Vintage Books, 1961) book 9, paragraph 469, p. 251.
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, tr. Burton Raffel (Norton, 1990) p. 184.
Jean Favier, Philippe le Bel (Paris: Fayard, 1998) p. 332.