One of the many things I learned about the Templars as I researched this book is that, far from being separate from the world they lived in, they were more than part of it. The Templars and Hospitallers were the bridge between western Europe and the City of God. Unlike many other monks, they spent their early lives in the midst of the constant warfare that existed among the lords of Europe. Whatever their reasons for joining the military orders they became examples to the rest of their class. They believed in the use of might for right’s sake. Even though they still fought and killed, it was not for personal gain but to protect the weak and preserve the earthly kingdom of God.
This was the ideal. If they didn’t always measure up to it, they still came close. Those who fought finally had a way to use their skills in battle and still achieve salvation.
Over the two hundred years of the Templars’ existence, Europe changed dramatically. In the early twelfth century, society was governed by families and family connections. The advisers and supporters of a ruler were his cousins and in-laws and brothers. His enemies were sometimes the same, but it was still all a matter of relations. A marriage, a birth, or a death could change the borders of a country. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, governments, especially in northern Europe, were becoming more centralized and bureaucratized. The king’s counselors were more likely to be non-noblemen who owed their positions to their usefulness rather than family ties.
The Templars and their fellow knights of the military orders were part of a frontier society. There were like the cavalry, coming to save the day, or the small band of rangers who protected American pioneer settlers from Indians and evil land barons. Eventually, the West was settled, the Indians were defeated; the land barons became state governors. The same sort of thing happened in Europe, only the frontier was lost and its defenders left without a purpose.
Even though in 1307 no one knew that the Holy Land was lost to the crusaders forever, there was still a feeling that the day of the Templars was ending. The small band of brave knights would be replaced by paid armies. Chivalry would become a social game rather than a way of life.
The Knights Templar were not mystics or magicians. They were not a secret society, nor did they have arcane wisdom dug up from hidden treasures. Those who say that they were are denying the real story of these men. They weren’t superhumans but pious, hardworking, flawed human beings who, in their own way, were trying to make the world better and save their own souls.
The thirteenth-century Arab chronicler Ibn Wasil may have written the tribute that the Knights Templar would have liked most. In the fighting against the French army of Louis IX, the Mamluks of al-Malik al-Salih were the bravest, fiercest warriors. “They fought furiously,” he writes. “It was they who flung themselves into the pursuit of the enemy: they were Islam’s Templars!”1
Ibo Wasil, in The Arab Historians of the Crusades, ed. and tr. Francesco Gabrieli (Dorset: New York, 1957) p. 294.”