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Sunday 24 February 2013

Relics of the Knights Templar

In a previous post (Another Templar Head) I mentioned Juliet Faith’s book The Knights Templar in Somerset. While the Templars had churches in many other counties as well, Somerset is unique in having two particular relics—both depictions of heads—that were found in or near two of these churches. One is a wood carving and the other is a painting on a wood panel. This ties in with the idea, popular among amateur devotees of the Templars but derided by academics, that the Knights Templar were guardians of some mysterious secret which involved (among other things) the symbolic worship of a Head.

Now Juliet has written another book: Glastonbury, the Templars, and the Sovran Cloth: A New Perspective on the Grail Legends. People who instinctively groan when they hear the phrase “Templar Head” also groan when they hear “Holy Grail” or “Turin Shroud”. But the truth is that relics such as the Grail and the Shroud were major preoccupations of the mediaeval world. As I pointed out in The History of Biblical Literalism, the modern-day conception of Christianity as a text-based religion is really an invention of the Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation. Before then—in the time of the Knights Templar and earlier—the focus was more that of a European-style mystery religion... all about symbolism and ritual. Relics (and symbolic copies of relics) would have played a huge role, particularly those connected with the central “mystery” of Christianity – the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Legends connecting Glastonbury with the Holy Grail can be traced back to the 12th century (at least some of the “legends” were probably the work of the monks at Glastonbury Abbey!). The Grail, of course, was supposed to have been the chalice used at the Last Supper, which subsequently caught the blood of the dying Christ. For mediaeval Christians, this would have been one of the most sought-after relics of all. Of equal importance was the burial shroud of Christ – which again would have been soaked in Christ’s blood. Without giving away too much of Juliet’s book, her central idea is that the Shroud would have been a kind of “Holy Grail” in itself, and the Templecombe panel painting may have been the lid of a vestment case designed to hold the original Shroud or a copy of it.

I think Juliet may be onto something here. No doubt “rational skeptics” will be utterly dismissive of the idea, but rational skepticism breaks down if you try to apply it to a culture that wasn’t rational in the way that modern scientific culture is. To my mind, the fact that veneration of relics played such an important part in mediaeval life, and that piety came before historical accuracy (in fact the very concept of “historical accuracy” is a post-mediaeval invention) make it very likely things like this would pop up in and around a major religious centre – which Glastonbury undoubtedly was in mediaeval times.

(Ahem) It may also be worth mentioning that my own book, Bloody British History: Somerset, has a chapter on “Secrets of the Knights Templar”, for which Juliet kindly provided a couple of images. As a result, she received a complimentary copy of the book, as seen in this photograph with the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in the background.

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