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Templars and Terror: Anders Breivik's Fantasy World

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Anders Breivik's trial for mass murder has begun in Norway. He has pled not guilty. Proud of committing a massacre at a youth camp, he sees himself as a soldier at war. More accurately, he is a general -- a Justiciar Knight in the Knights Templar -- a medieval military organization that Breivik claims to have been re-founded at a secret meeting in London in April 2002.

The Norwegian government argues that the revivified Templars exist only in Breivik's noxious imagination.

That Breivik would fixate on the Templars is not entirely surprising. They have proved one of the Middle Ages' most durable historical exports, in large part because of a supposed connection to the Holy Grail. As early as 1200 medieval poets imagined Templars guarding the mysterious Grail (originally a stone that magically produced food, before it was re-imagined as the Cup of Christ at the Last Supper). The Grail and the Templars: a match made in conspiracy-theory heaven.

The real Order of the Knights Templar was founded around 1119, 20 years after the First Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in an apocalyptic bloodbath. Barely a year later, however, the apocalyptic clock stalled, and the Christians warriors had to settle into the difficult and less glamorous job of governing a city in the Middle East, as volatile then as it is today.

To survive, the Crusaders needed to embrace compromise. In particular, they had to learn to see Muslims not as agents of Antichrist but as neighbors -- sometimes as enemies, sometimes as trading partners, sometimes even as friends or allies.

I suspect that the Templars represent a reaction against making these concessions to reality. Based in Jerusalem, the Templars adopted the garb of poor men, depending entirely on charity, even for weapons. They lived abstemious lives, surrendered all property, followed a regular regimen of prayer and renounced sex. They were, in short, monks, but they fought like knights.

Not everyone was pleased at the idea. To some, the notion of a "warrior-monk" was an oxymoron. Two-headed monsters, Templars were freaks of faith and nature. The King of Jerusalem, however, saw their military potential and gave them a mission: to protect Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. He also offered them a home in al-Aqsa Mosque, which the crusaders called the Temple of Solomon. Thus was born the order and the name of the Templars.

Within a decade they had developed a formal rule and even a uniform: a white mantle emblazoned with a red cross. And the Order's popularity exploded. By the end of the 13th century, there were thousands of Templars, holding incalculable wealth and occupying more than 800 churches.

Predictably, military and financial success, when combined with secrecy inspired suspicion. What were the Templars doing with all that gold? And what went on during their secret meetings? As the Christians' political situation in the Middle East worsened, many blamed the Templars. Some even accused them of collaborating with Muslims to prolong the wars and thus to increase their wealth.

In 1307, 16 years after the last crusader state fell, King Philip IV "the Fair" of France had a brilliant idea about how to respond to, if not profit from, the rumors circulating about the Templars. On Oct. 13 (yes, it was a Friday) he ordered all of them in France arrested and their vast wealth confiscated.

The charges Philip brought against the Templars were extraordinary. They practiced sodomy, witchcraft and Satanism. They worshipped an idol, and the high point of their initial ritual was to urinate on a crucifix. At Philip's urging, a small army of inquisitors forced confessions from many disgraced knights, and by 1314 the Order had been completely dissolved -- the last Templar Grand Master, Jacques DeMolay, like many of his warrior brethren, burned at the stake.

Whether anyone actually believed the charges is unclear. I suspect Philip IV did. An unusually ruthless monarch, obsessed with conspiratorial evil, committed to personal and national purity and terrified of contagion, he likely believed his own propaganda. He might have even found Anders Breivik an empathetic soul.

Since Philip's time, the Templars have borne more than their share of fantasy and conspiratorial fear. One finds plenty of both qualities in Breivik's worldview, embodied in his famous, tendentious, 1800-page manifesto. His paranoia is obvious. Equally striking is his fetishization of armor, weaponry, and military paraphernalia, illustrated with campy images knightly valor that look more adolescent than terrorist.

To complete his historical fantasy, Breivik designed an initiation ritual for his new Templars. Dressed in European dinner suits and kneeling before a rock decorated with a skull and a candle (made from at least 51 percent bees wax!), new Justiciar Knights will read aloud an elaborate oath, vowing to fight Marxists and Muslims, to seem gentle as lambs while being fierce as lions. This oath they will sign in their own blood, before then burning the document.

Oblivious to the irony, the new Templar also promises not to initiate into the order "a madman, traitor or fool, knowing him to be such."

Is Breivik a madman? I'll leave that to psychiatrists. As a historian, I do recognize in him a peculiarly Western Christian transgression, one as old as Philip the Fair: projecting vile, sick and paranoid dreams onto the Knights Templar -- distorting what was originally, in fact, a warped vision of Christian virtue and using it as justification for bringing dark fantasies to life.

Thanks to Peggy Brown for her advice about this essay!