THE TEMPLARS' GOLD
After seven centuries this is still an irresistible title. The Nazis sent squads of diggers into France looking for the Templars' Gold, but they never found it. So when I claim to know what happened to it, I will be immediately suspected of having been abducted by aliens and I will be set in the front rank of cranks and weirdos. Nevertheless, I will tell you where it went; and you will read on with an appalled fascination.
The Knights Templar were founded in around 1120 as a Christian organisation devoted to facilitating pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The name “Templar” comes from their having set up their headquarters next to the ancient Jewish Temple. They called themselves Knights because they were a military Order: it was necessary to be armed so as to protect the pilgrims whom they were escorting. They took a vow of poverty, which is indicated by their badge of two men on one horse. The badge also reminded them of their obligation to share their goods and chattels. So far, so innocent.
Within a short time, however, we see the Templars establishing a network of travel routes all over Western Europe. They set up their own churches: these were called “Temples” and they were constructed on a circular pattern in contrast to the traditional rectangular shape of Christian buildings. This is a bit of a giveaway. We are seeing Islamic ideas, if only architectural, introduced to Western Christendom. In some places the Temple competed with the Church. A good example is Cowley, Oxford, which is divided into Temple Cowley and Church Cowley.
It is clear that the organisation became very wealthy. They paid for the construction of Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest achievements of mediaeval Europe. Durham Cathedral was theirs, too. A few years ago, during renovation work, it was discovered that roof timbers were marked with Arabic numerals. (The mediaevals were not stupid. They built their roofs on the ground, marked with symbols which bits fitted into which other bits like IKEA furniture, dismantled the completed construction, then reassembled it where it was supposed to go.) We learn from this that Muslim specialists were sometimes employed on Christian building sites.
We should not be surprised to observe that westerners travelling east were exposed to a culture shock. Islam had taken over most of the world's great civilisations. These include Egypt, Mesopotamia, much of the Hellenic world, Persia, adjacent parts of India and the overland and oversea routes to China. The Crusaders brought back peaches and apricots, improved mathematics and engineering, and, believe it or not, a more civilised view of how women should be treated. This latter evolved into the code of Courtly Love. (That sounds all very well on the surface, but its protection does not appear to have been extended to women of the lower classes.)
It would not be surprising to see the percolation of alien religious ideas into western Europe. For instance, witchcraft as understood in the late mediaeval period appears to have been a rather reduced cult of the Divine Wisdom. [Margaret Murray argued (“Witchcraft in Western Europe”) that witchcraft was a survivor of a pre-Christian indigenous religion; but Robert Graves asked, if that was the case, why were its ritual terms Arabic?] The Templars were accused towards the end of worshipping false gods, in particular Baphomet. Most commentators think this was a misreading for “Mahomet”. More likely it means “Divine Wisdom”.
The end of the Templars came in 1312 when they were officially suppressed by Pope Clement V. But Clement was only confirming what the French King Philippe le Bel had already achieved. Philippe had borrowed lots of money from the Jews. Then, not wishing to repay them, he expelled them in 1306. Cancelling his debts in such an abrupt way did not fill his treasury, so he turned on the Templars in 1307. The Prior of the Order, Jacques de Molay and other leaders were hideously tortured. They confessed to worshipping Baphomet and anything else the torturers could think of, but they never revealed where their gold was hidden. Philippe never laid hands on their gold. There were contemporary rumours of heavily laden carts being shipped out of Paris when the Templars were arrested, but enquiries led nowhere.
So, you ask, where was the Templars' gold?
Let us look at the Templars' organisation and compare it with familiar modern institutions. In its original role as facilitator of pilgrimages, it may be seen as a sort of Thomas Cook's. As a charity, receiving donations and legacies, let us compare it with Oxfam. (And look what has happened to Oxfam when some of its senior operatives lost sight of their original ideals). Turn them into a conglomerate like Carillion, then equip them with a private army. Nobody would ask where Carillion's gold is hidden. Carillion's wealth (measured by its stock market valuation) depended on its success or otherwise as a functioning commercial organisation. When it stopped functioning, it had large debts and few assets. No gold. Its ability to fund large projects depended on lines of credit drawn on a network of bankers. Now, let us imagine that the government had expelled the bankers and burnt the Board of Directors at the stake. Where then would be the company's gold?
The Templars' gold, then, existed in the form of credit accounts with large numbers of what we would call bankers. How else could a Mediterranean-wide travel agency operate? One might even venture to suggest that the primitive banking industry of the mediaeval period was brought into existence by the Templars. The expulsion of the Jews might be seen as the destruction of the French banking system. Furthermore, one consequence of the dissolution of the Templars could have been that the early bankers in Italy were deprived of their chief creditor in one fell swoop. They would suddenly be presented with a lot of unclaimed money in dead accounts, with the need to find profitable uses for it. Could that have been the initial kick-start of the northern Italian economy?
The Italian republics got wealthy on trade and manufacture, and the facilitation of both. Kings, on the other hand, still believed that gold was wealth. They paid alchemists to transmute lead into gold, even though, if these efforts had been successful, the value of gold would have been depressed and inflation would have resulted. The Kings of Spain shipped so much silver into Europe that they had to sell it in Antwerp and Amsterdam to pay their debts, while their subjects were left to carry out what trade they could with donkey-loads of copper coins. Hence “Castilla indigente, ayer dominadora”. Adam Smith worked it all out in “The Wealth of Nations”; once Great Britain had adopted his ideas it became the wealthiest power on earth.
The most eloquent comment on the Templars' Gold is still part of our cultural heritage: it is the fable of The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.
The mysterious aspect of the Templars is kept alive by the Freemasons, who claim to trace their origins back to Hiram Abiff, the legendary architect of Solomon's Temple. Popular writers even today are trying to excite their readers with the awesome mystery of the occult legends of the Templars. So I have to apologise for telling you that it was all to do with the invention of Travellers' Cheques.
Footnote: When the Daesh captured Palmyra they tortured the eighty-year-old museum curator to make him reveal where the city's gold was. Obviously he could not tell them, because there wasn't any. So they killed him and went on to smash up the museum and the ancient buildings.