Holt (2017 Congress)

Andrew Holt
(Department of History
Florida State College at Jacksonville

“The Templars and the Confraternity of Belchite:
A Comparison of Origins”

Abstract of Paper
To be Presented at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2017)

Session on “Military Orders and Crusades in Comparative Perspective
(The Levant, Spain, and the Baltic Region)”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and
the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Florida
Organized by Mildred Budny and Florin Curta
2017 Congress Program

Abstract of Paper

[Published on 15 March 2017]

The Knights Templar, founded in 1119, was the most popular of the military orders in medieval Europe. Founded as warrior monks with the charitable mission of defending pilgrims traveling in the Holy Land, they found a significant part of their early popularity rested on the poverty associated with their origins. While the Templars would grow to become a wealthy and powerful religious order, both in Europe and the Holy Land, their humble origins are well known to students of the order. Indeed, their French founders —aristocratic men of rank and wealth who had the ability to live comfortable lives — gave up their titles and possessions in Europe to take the vows of monastics, including poverty, and to live dangerous lives as defenders of Christian interests in the Holy Land. Those humble origins are perhaps best reflected in one of the earliest symbols of the order, showing two knights riding one horse, as a reflection of their poverty.

Within a few years of the founding of the Templars, a similar organization known as the Confraternity of Belchite was founded in Spain in 1122 by Alfonso I of Arágon. Conforming with formally organized military orders, this confraternity was likewise a military religious organization founded for the purpose of defending Christians and Christian interests. It made similar demands of its members as the Templars, by calling on them to provide military service in defense of Spanish Christianity. In exchange, its members were offered spiritual rewards (primarily in the forms of indulgences) for their service and sacrifices on behalf of the organization.

Yet there are some stark differences between the members of the confraternity and the Templars concerning the issues of poverty and the option of temporary vows.  As stated in their founding charter, the brothers of the Confraternity of Belchite, unlike the Templars, could retain any lands they conquered from Muslims. Indeed, their charter was not a rule that defined a religious life based on monastic values (so as to include a vow of poverty), but rather a detailed account of the spiritual and financial benefits or privileges that would be accorded to its members. Thus while individual Templars could not acquire personal wealth as a result of their efforts, the brothers of Belchite were able to do so.

Another significant difference from the early Templars was the option of temporary vows. While Templar sergeants or associates of the order could take temporary vows, full-fledged Templar knights were expected to take permanent vows. In contrast, the charter for the Confraternity of Belchite spells out three period of membership, which span one month of service, a year of service, or a lifetime of service. So a Spanish knight could theoretically join the brothers of Belchite temporarily, wage a successful conquest of Muslim-held land, and retain ownership of it once his commitment to the order had ended, thus giving legitimacy to his continued right to possess the land by virtue of his temporary service. Temporary vows for knights were not unknown at the time, as the participants of First Crusade had taken temporary vows themselves, making them “temporary ecclesiastics”, in the view of one major crusade historian. Yet the Templars represented an opportunity for like-minded knights to take permanent vows based on the same principles. The brothers at Belchite seem to have offered both permanent and temporary options for service.

While Christian efforts against Spanish Muslims have been viewed under the broad umbrella of the crusading movement, as it has been traditionally defined by the modern “pluralist” position held by most crusade historians, the organizing principles found in the charter for the Confraternity of Belchite offer challenges to this view. While they received indulgences for fighting Muslims in defense of Christian interests, the brothers of Belchite also apparently had strong financial incentives built into their founding ethos in a way not found in the organizing principles of the Templars or even the earlier participants of the First Crusade — who as part of their crusading vows had committed themselves to the monastic virtues including poverty.

Indeed, scholarship on the era of the First Crusade, inspired by the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, has argued that the earliest crusaders were not motivated by the desire for wealth. That the Confraternity of Belchite was out-of-step on such issues with the broader popular crusading movement in their time may account for its brief history, lasting only until 1136 before, as historians assume, it was absorbed into the more formal military orders.