- The Trial of the Templars
The first edition of this book (1978) is thirty years old, and as the author explains in both the new preface (p. viii) and the addendum on "Recent Historiography on the Dissolution of the Temple" (pp. 294–311), the last three decades have seen an explosion of scholarship relevant to the history of the [End Page 338] Order of Knights Templars. Much of this scholarship has concentrated on the crusades and the role of the Templars in these wars. Some has focused on the leading figures involved in the demise of the order, men such as King Philip IV the Fair of France and Pope Clement V.Other works have explored many of the issues generated by study of the trial records, such as medieval attitudes toward sodomy, heresy, and the appropriateness of torture as a mode of proof. The scholarship on these and related issues justifies the second edition.
As in the first edition, Malcolm Barber tells a fascinating story, and he tells it cleanly, without needless editorializing. Barber, although trying to be as evenhanded as possible, makes clear his own stance, and I think he is absolutely right. The Templars were honorable and mostly courageous men who ran afoul of a few malcontents who made up a great many stories about them, largely drawn from a repertory of slurs men used for centuries against their enemies.The Knights were particularly vulnerable in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century to people's willingness to believe these stories because they were blamed for the loss of the Holy Land to the Muslims in 1291. It was their supreme misfortune to endure these slurs while a vacillating pope reigned and a seemingly obsessive French king, the most powerful man in Europe, ruled. Perhaps the pope's vacillation was courageous in its own right. He had such great burdens, including the desire to keep his predecessor Boniface VIII from being exhumed and judged a heretic at the instigation of Philip IV.The French king meanwhile was probably swayed by the stories of ill-practice, but he was possibly attracted also by the hope of a windfall profit from the suppression of the order and the confiscation of its resources.Worse still, within the arsenal of inquisitorial investigation since the thirteenth century was the weapon of torture. It was applied in the Templars' case, at least in France, with a frequency, cruelty, and arbitrariness that make one's flesh crawl. Its use taints all the trial material, for even hearing about the tortures and the burnings that sometimes ensued created a regime of fear that made even the most courageous of men—isolated in prison, cold and starving—capitulate. Shame led to the recantation of coerced confessions, which in turn led to threats or hints of further torture, the implementation of which induced many recanters to confess again and to weep bitterly at their weakness for doing so. Rather than such prolonged torment, death in battle would have been eminently preferable, even death at the stake, judging by the stoic willingness of some who refused to confess or to renounce their recantations and accepted this fate.
Barber describes and admits other possible interpretations of the evidence. He does not even reject out of hand recent approaches that take the testimony—or some part of the testimony—elicited under torture at face value. Yet, I hear a "still small voice" in this wonderful book, a voice that whispers with majesty: the persecutors of the Knights Templars shed innocent blood, and they shed it abundantly. [End Page 339]