NOTE: This may be the first of a new, occasional series of commentaries looking at events and organizations of the past with the idea of learning lessons from what they did, good or bad. So that we lovers of liberty in the 21st Century can hopefully avoid the mistakes and repeat the successes. Please let TPOL know if this is of interest!
Warrior Monks and Entrepreneurs
Most people have heard of the Knights Templar (KT), the ancient military order of “christian” (Catholic) warriors. And today, there are 1500 groups worldwide who claim to either be successors or to carry on the ideals and activities of that order in some way. Today, there are those which are both pro- and anti-Masonic, Catholic and anti-Catholic and interdenominational.
There are even libertarian groups, like the Liberty Round Table (aka Knights of Non Aggression), which are based, at least loosely, on the concept of a chivalric order dedicated to a strong code and defense of ideals and people.
There is also a whole lot of “common knowledge” that is just plain wrong about the KT. And of the Crusades themselves, with which the KT are closely associated.
Although the entire idea was corrupted and became an evil endeavor, the original purpose of the Crusades were defensive: pilgrims from western Europe to the Holy Land (today’s Israel and Palestinian territories) were being preyed upon by both bandits and the Islamic governments that controlled the area and the sea lanes and land routes.
Heavily endorsed by the Church (Pope and Cardinals and Bishops) and the State (Emperors and Kings and Nobles), the Crusades quickly became another State- and Church-sponsored bloodfest of aggression and conquest. Just as 800+ years later, “freeing the slaves” was Honest Abe’s excuse for a war of aggression against the seceding Southron States, the “protect the pilgrims” meme excused not just liberation of the Levant but wars of booty and conquest and ethnic cleansing. Not just against Muslims but against Jews and Orthodox and Coptic followers of Christ. As well as opportunities for massive kidnapping and enslaving even people (and children) of their own lands: the Germanies, France, and the Italian states.
But the KT were different. First off, they were voluntary, paying their own way, and not under the sponsorship (or control) of government or Church officials. Later they were tolerated and then endorsed and cozened or threatened into becoming another arm of Church and then State. But even then, they did retain some freedom (if not liberty) right up to 1307 when the Church (and most monarchs and lesser rulers) suppressed the order, leading to massive confiscation, executions and ultimately the torture and execution by burning at the stake on 18 March 1314. (Hundreds of “judicial murders.”)
Why we can learn about living in liberty from the Templars
First, the Templars were volunteers and a private enterprise, initially. They lived their faith and saw a need and decided to fulfill it: to protect travelers peacefully exercising their God-given rights to make a pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” who were being preyed upon by outlaws and government goons alike. They didn’t ask for political or religious sanction or sponsorship; didn’t apply for grants or licenses. They armed and equipped themselves and went out to do the job that they thought needed to be done.
Second, they saw needs, offered their services, and did not force themselves upon those who could use their help. They were not nannies who treated those they served as wards or incompetents. They did not demand fees or tithes or tribute.
Third, although they are best known for their martial exploits and service in combat, there is evidence that they tried and often did succeed in improving conditions for travelers (pilgrims and others) and sojourners through negotiation, persuasion, and working for peace – NOT doing “peacekeeping” in the modern sense.
Fourth, when they saw needs later in the 200-year history of the original organization, they found ways to meet those needs because of their presence, skills, and reputation. The major area was in banking: they took on the task of protecting tangible wealth (gold, silver, jewelry, precious art) in their commanderies (or “temples”) and on the road – both trails and “highways” and on the high seas. They created (or reinvented) the idea of drafts – of checks that could be more easily carried or sent from one place to another. And with greater safety and reliability. And presented to another Templar establishment to be redeemed for the same materials of equal value. Many consider them to be the first group to establish what evolved into our modern banking system.
Fifth, they accepted pay for value, not payment of tribute or taxes. True, they did accept donations from many people, including some of great wealth and power, but those donations do not seem to have been with strings attached. People know what they believed AND what they practiced, and were willing to support them. They valued the services provided and paid what they believed they were worth. And so, the Templars became wealthy.
Sixth, they were internally a “communist” or “socialist” system in which all the members individually owned nothing but their arms and armor, and other wise shared all things in common. Templars voluntarily gave up many of their personal liberties in order to become a Templar, a “Poor Solider of Christ.” But a Templar could revoke his oaths at any time except in actual combat. And externally, they seem to have been supporters of free markets and voluntary transactions in the marketplace.
As I said, they grew wealthy. And in some places, they lent that wealth out freely – and sometimes to the wrong people: they lent in particular to kings. Who were known (then and now) for their lack of morals. The rulers grew envious, greedy, and desperate.
For many of these things, they were condemned by many – especially (eventually) the rulers of the Roman Catholic Church and the secular rulers of many of the lands of Europe and the British Isles. (Especially those who owed the Templars a lot of money. And remember, the Church itself was a government in many places at that time: the Papal States and many bishoprics and archbishoprics and even monasteries and convents ruled over certain lands and inhabitants thereof.)
And these were ideals – there were some Templars who did NOT live up to their oaths, who did NOT take their responsibilities seriously. Who misused their power and influence and wealth. As there will always be people who do that. Ultimately, Church and State conspired together and took action – using the misdeeds of some as an excuse to condemn all. And kill them and seize their wealth – or all of it that they could find.
And so ended an amazing experiment in liberty and free markets and voluntary service.
But we can and should learn from them: both the good things and the mistakes and bad things. And apply those to the 21st Century and beyond.