The Knights Templars, whose full name was "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon", were founded in 1119 by knights who had sworn to protect Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099.
The documents being published of trials against the Templars between 1307 and 1312 had been closely guarded by the Vatican for over seven centuries. The Knights are often portrayed as guardians of the legendary Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper before his crucifixion. Legends of their treasures and secret rituals have been depicted in cinema and books such as "The Da Vinci Code".
"This is a milestone because it is the first time that these documents are being released by the Vatican," Professor Barbara Frale, a medievalist at the Vatican's Secret Archives, told Reuters. "Nothing before this offered scholars original documents of the trials of the Templars."
Pope Benedict will be given the first set of the work, published by the Vatican Secret Archives in collaboration with Italy's Scrinium cultural foundation. The highly controversial Templars were accused of heresy and sexual misconduct. Although, their name maintained that they were “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ” the Knights Templar were anything but poor. By amassing enormous wealth they were able to help finance some of the wars of European monarchs.
The Vatican expects most copies of the work to be bought up by specialized libraries at top universities and by leading medieval scholars. They will publish only 799 numbered copies.
One controvesial aspect of the documents is the so-called Chinon Parchment, which contains phrases in which Pope Clement V absolves the Templars of charges of heresy. King Philip had relied largely on the claim of heresy in his attempts to eliminate them. Templars were burned at the stake by King Philip's agents after they made confessions that most historians believe were forced. The parchment, also known as the Chinon Chart, had been "misplaced" in the Vatican archives until Frale came across it.
"The parchment was catalogued incorrectly at some point in history. At first I couldn't believe my eyes. I was incredulous," she said. "This was the document that a lot of historians were looking for."
Historians point out that Philip certainly had his own motive to kill off the Templars. The monarch was heavily indebted to them for helping him finance his wars. Finding an excuse to get rid of them may have been a convenient way of canceling his debts, believe some historians.
Frale confirms that according to the trial documents, Pope Clement was convinced that the Templars had committed some grave sins, but that they were not heretics as Phillip claimed.
Templars were known to have strange customs and practices that were generally frowned upon. Their initiation ceremony is believed to have included spitting on the cross, but Frale said they justified this as a ritual of obedience in preparation for possible capture by Muslims. They were also said to have practiced sodomy.
"Simply put, the pope recognized that they were not heretics but guilty of many other minor crimes -- such as abuses, violence and sinful acts within the order," she said. "But that is not the same as heresy."
Despite his conviction that the Templars were not guilty of the charge of heresy, in 1312 Pope Clement nonetheless ordered the Templars to be disbanded for what Frale called "the good of the Church" following repeated clashes with the French king.
Frale says the trials against the Templars between 1307 and 1312 was also a battle of political wills between Clement and Philip, and said that in light of the newly discovered documents, Clement's position will need to be reappraised by historians.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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