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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Image and Actuality

Templar seal and drawing by Matthew Paris [public domain]

In many countries the ever-rising number of private vehicles on the roads has made for massive traffic jams at peak hours, and the root of the problem lies in the fact that the vast number of vehicles carry only a single person - the driver. Efforts at alleviating the problem by improving public transport have in most cases failed to decrease the congestion. In Israel, the transport minister recently introduced an incentive to encourage drivers to take passengers, by allowing cars with at least one passenger other than the driver to use the public transport lanes. In defending this plan, which, like any new initiative came up against opposition as being certain to prove ineffective and only contributing to the confusion of the public, it was claimed that the average number of people in a vehicle is 1.2 and that if it were to rise to 1.4 road congestion would be significantly reduced. Indeed, the minister went so far as to claim that if it could be increased to 1.7 there would be no more traffic jams in Israel... and peace would reign throughout the world (he didn't actually say that last bit, but he might as well have, for there is about as much likelihood of world peace as there is that drivers will agree to forego the convenience of using their own car merely in order to avoiding the debatable pleasure of sitting for hours in a traffic jam).

The problem of traffic congestion has nothing whatsoever to do with the Templars, who are the subject of this small piece. It was simply that the image chosen by the order to represent them on seals and documents brought this topic to mind, and I hope you will forgive the digression. The image, however, is quite an interesting one.

Prior to my academic career I worked for a few years as a graphic artist, and on occasion I was required to design a logo for an institution or company, and to find a design or a symbol that in some manner represented the client's aims and attributes. When the Poor Fellow-Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici) as they chose to be called, requested from a long-forgotten artisan the creation of a symbol that would represent them as they perceived themselves and their ideals, the resulting design must have pleased them greatly. It aptly represented two central attributes of the order; one discernible and dominant - its military role, the other an aspiration, and generally not fulfilled - a life of simplicity, of poverty, in line with the ascetic tradition of Christian monasticism.

Two knights making do with a single horse had nothing to do with reality. The average Templar knight had two or more equines, and no Templar horse had two riders. But the idea that the image represented was an important one, certainly in the initial years. The Templar Rule, based on that of the Cistercians, directed the brothers towards a frugal lifestyle. Although they would not have shared horses, Statute 25 of the Primitive Rule commanded them to eat in pairs sharing a single bowl. There are many other restrictions and prohibitions on dress, personal possessions and manners of behaviour. In these early days the order was extolled by St Bernard of Clairvaux in his treatise On the Praise of the New Knighthood. The brothers possessed the opposite of all the lowly characteristics he identified in secular knights. They were disciplined and obedient, avoided luxury in food and vestments, rarely bathed, but instead were "dirty and hirsute, tanned by the coat of mail and the sun". They lived a celibate, communal life with no personal possessions, and consequently reached "evangelical perfection".

But good intentions, however easy they might be to commit to and to proclaim, are often hard to carry out or sustain. A great deal of water ran under the bridge between 1139 when Pope Innocent II in his bull, Omne datum optimum officially approved the order and gave it papal protection, and Pope Cement V's bull of 1312, Vox in excelso, by which the Templar order was dissolved. Many of the accusations having to do with supposed heretic beliefs and immoral acts, which were made against the brothers in 1307 when they were rounded up, tortured and interrogated, were obviously false. One accusation, however, seems to have certainly been well-founded, and it is supported by plenty of evidence throughout the two centuries of their existence - that they were increasingly motivated by greed.

One of many instances that illustrates this is the behaviour of the Templar master, Bernard of Tremelay and his knights at the Frankish siege of Ascalon in 1153. Ascalon was the only coastal city to remain in Fatimid hands after the fall of Tyre in 1124. As an outpost of Islam within Frankish territory it was a thorn in the Flesh of the kingdom and its strong defences could only be overcome by a concerted effort of the entire Christian army. William of Tyre gives an account of an episode during the siege that must have been highly damaging to the reputation of the order. On the night of 15 August, the Muslim defenders attempted to set fire to a Frankish siege tower, but the wind blew the flames against the city wall and part of it collapsed. The Frankish army rushed to enter the breach. However, according to William, the Templars got there first, and the master only allowed Templar knights to enter the breach, according to William because the first to enter would receive the greater part of the spoils. As a result of this act the Fatimids were able to block the breach, trapping the Templars inside. The Muslims slaughtered the master and knights and hung their bodies over the walls. This disaster almost brought an end to the siege. Some historians have voiced doubts as to the accuracy of William's account but if it is a faithful representation of what occurred, then perhaps the French historian René Grousset was right in seeing this as the beginnings of a long career of greed and violence, far removed from the ideals voiced by Bernard of Claivaux and illustrated in the image of two knights on a single horse.

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