Organization and Social Function of Templar Communities in France


A review of Templar Communities in Medieval Champagne: Local Perspectives on a Global Organization, by Michael Joseph Peixoto.

The history of the integration of military orders into the multilayered geopolitical, social, religious, and economic landscapes of medieval Europe has seen a renaissance in recent decades, especially where the Templars and France are concerned. Here, more than elsewhere, the Templars have left easily trackable parchment and paper trails in regional archives, thus allowing historians to reconstruct many of the economic roots and social bonds that anchored individual Templar communities to particular localities. However, how these ties and the interactions between Templars and the outside world contributed to, and resonated with, the institutional development and history of the Order of the Temple as a whole is not always easy to grasp, because historians have long accepted that the order’s central archive (i.e., the archive maintained by the Templars in their Levantine headquarters in Jerusalem, Acre, and Cyprus) has been lost. The present dissertation investigates the social function of the Templar houses in the county of Champagne by examining their relationship with the larger Templar organization, their ties to the crusading movement, and their place within Champenois society. The study suggests that the Templar order, as a large international organization held together by clear governmental structures radiating outwards from the Holy Land into western Europe, “is but a figment of our imaginations” (p. 391) and may never have maintained a central archive in the first place. Therefore, the Templar sources that have survived in abundance in western archives should not be limited to the interests of local historians but instead should be treated as authoritative sources on the institutional growth and development of the order as a whole.

These are provocative statements that will undoubtedly stir some controversy among historians of the military orders. But there is no denying that the underlying hypothesis—i.e., that the history of the institutional development of an international military order can be told through the prism of regional archives—opens the door to nothing less than an almost complete reassessment of the agencies, efforts, and methods involved in the order’s expansion into one particular part of France on the one hand, and the structural dynamics between center and periphery of international organizations like the Order of the Temple on the other. The main argument advanced throughout the dissertation is that close textual and codicological analysis of the Templars’ archival documents, and examination of their production, dissemination, and organization, reveal that Templar houses in Champagne developed without institutional oversight in isolated and independent ways as a result of localized support for the Holy Land. Central leadership only extended its control over them after they had proven successful, resulting, in turn, in the establishment of a permanent local leadership structure that more or less replaced the sporadic supervision exercised by the roaming officials sent by central command. Under local leadership, Templar houses became effectively semiautonomous franchises: independently rooted in the economic and social landscape of the locality but united by a common imagery and ethos that capitalized on the popular appeal of the order’s association with, and role in, the Holy Land.

This argument is played out over six chronologically arranged chapters. The first chapter focuses on the production and reproduction of Templar documents from Champagne and discusses how these can be used to illustrate differences in administrative practices from which conclusions about the local organization of Templar communities can be drawn. What becomes apparent is that we are looking at a fundamentally decentralized administration and extremely malleable local Templar communities. The second chapter drills deeper into the charters to examine the circumstances under which Templar houses emerged in Champagne. It argues that the establishment of Templar communities took two different forms, being either the outcome of a particular patronage relationship or the result of a conscious attempt by the order to consolidate donations in land and revenue into manageable units. Whereas the first model usually applies to the earliest Templar establishments (the commandery of La Neuville being a prime example), the second applies to most foundations from the 1160s onwards, at which point the Templars in the East had been granted enough rights and properties in Champagne to warrant the formation of local administrative units that were first put under the loose supervision of roaming Templar officials and later developed their own permanent administration. The third chapter focuses more closely on the development of local and regional administrative structures by illustrating how interference from central leadership in the administration of the Champenois houses increased once these houses had proven their economic worth; as a result, by the thirteenth century a new and local Templar leadership had emerged under which the Western European houses gained unprecedented levels of independence from the Templar organization in the East. What constituted this economic success and how it manifested itself is the topic of the fourth chapter, which succeeds brilliantly in unraveling the Templars’ most lucrative investment strategies, methods of asset liquidation, and general integration into the local market economy. The chapter culminates in the stunning conclusion that contrary to common wisdom, the Templars of Champagne were never capable of contributing significantly to the war effort in the East and, most likely, had been reliant on financial subsidies from the Holy Land. Their value to the organization as a whole was, therefore, not monetary but symbolic, in that they helped Champenois society create and sustain a connection with crusading and the Holy Land. This relationship between support for the Templars in Champagne and support for the crusader cause in the Holy Land is discussed in the fifth chapter, where it is argued that the Templar organization was willing to subsidy its Champenois holdings because of their immense value as focal points for recruitment and popular outlets for crusade enthusiasm. As such, the fate of the Templars’ western commanderies was inevitably very closely tied to the status of the crusader states and to society’s willingness to support the crusading cause. In the sixth chapter the author demonstrates that in spite of the general decline of the order over the course of the thirteenth century, Templar houses in Champagne managed to slightly improve their economic situations through sound property management (evidenced by the increase of vidimus charters) and renewed royal support, leading to the conclusion that the arrest of the Templars in 1307 “was not the final blow in a long history of deterioration […]; it was instead a bolt from the blue” (p. 391).

Neither the Templars in Champagne nor their archival remains or the interconnection between Templar support and crusading are terra incognita for historians of the military orders. Therefore, the thematic overlaps between this dissertation and other recent studies of the Templars, especially Damien Carraz’s LOrdre du Temple dans la basse vallée du Rhône (11241312) (Lyon, 2006) and my own Templar Families: Landowning Families and the Order of the Temple in France, c.11201312 (Cambridge, 2012), are more frequent than the author himself likes to acknowledge. The dissertation is firmly embedded in the historiography of medieval culture and diplomatics, and looking as it does at archives and charters not primarily as vehicles of content but as media imbued with agency in the Templars’ strategies of representation and organization, it follows closely in the footsteps of Brigitte Bedos-Rezak (who supervised the dissertation). By presenting the charter evidence for the Templars in Champagne in unprecedented completeness and by paying close attention to codicological as well as textual detail, the dissertation also makes important contributions to our understanding of the interconnections between society’s religious and crusading impulses, thereby complementing in many ways recent research by Richard Kaeuper, Theodore Evergates, and Anne Lester. Above all, however, it manages to convince us that much of what we thought we knew about the relationship between center and periphery in the Order of the Temple (and, indeed, in medieval international organizations more generally) warrants fundamental reassessment.

This is a very important study indeed!

Jochen Schenk
School of Humanities in the College of Arts
University of Glasgow

Primary sources
Archive départemental de l’Aube, Troyes: Fonds for the Commandery of Troyes (31 H)
Archive départemental de la Marne, Châlons-en-Champagne: Fonds for the Commandery of La Neuville in Châlons–sur–Marne (53 H)
Archive départemental de la Seine-et-Marne, Melun: Fonds for the Commandery of Beauvais–en–Gâtinais (H 687)
Archives nationales de France, Paris: Series K, M, S
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Fonds Latin (9035, 15054, 17098) & Fonds Nouveau Acquisitions Latin (1-71)

Dissertation Information
New York University. 2013. 441pp. Primary Advisor: Brigitte Bedos-Rezak.

Image: Knights Templar playing chess, 1283. From Wikipedia.

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