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  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Knights, Ghosts and Grails

We're now fully almost nearly mostly unpacked at our new home in Morbihan, France. In between wallpapering, painting, and assembling furniture (yes, even antiquarians need Ikea...) we've had plenty of opportunity to discover the local area. A small warning: this post has little to do with French Catholic antiques or vintage religious items!

Morbihan is an area with a rich history and, as part of Bretagne, a distinct identity. Bretagne has always been an active part of French history (even when it wasn't part of France) and played an active part in the tumultuous middle ages. Just north of our village lies Carentoir, a fairly typical Breton town. It's a little sleepy, even cute. However, several hundred years ago, this was one of the Commanderies of the Knights Templar, the ancient Christian military order.

Their exploits in the Holy Land are too numerous to recount here, but one stands out: it's known that at one point the Templars occupied the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In 1818, Austrian writer Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall connected myths surrounding the Knights Templar with the Holy Grail. As far I can tell there's no evidence the Templars even looked for it, but this has snowballed into the Templars smuggling the Grail out of Palestine, linking up with the Cathars in southern France and the bloodline of Jesus and, of course, The Da Vinci Code.

I find it all a little far-fetched, even mad. As a character in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose says: “The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”

The Templars established themselves in the Duchy of Brittany in the twelfth century. Carentoir was a Commandery, the smallest unit of land ownership. The Knights had a Commandery in Sicily of course. A little earlier the Normans had also previously held Sicily in the 11th Century. Another curious coincidence linking north France with a place in the Med I've dreamed of visiting.

I always fancied the name of our town, La Gacilly, might be derived in some way from Sicily but alas I see no evidence for it. There were also Commanderies nearby at La Feuillée, La Guerche-la-Bretagne, La Vraie-Croix, Messac, Montfort, Rennes and property all the way to Paris. Many towns had Templar castles and fortified buildings, most of which are now gone. The Templars became a kind of approved security service guarding not only the persons of crusaders in transit but their domestic assets when on crusade. At their peak they became a state within a state, perhaps even a precursor of a multinational company.

Templar properties in France via Project Beaucéeant

With the loss of the Holy Land, The Templars power waned in France. Rumours about the Templars' secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them. In 1307, he had many of the order's members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. Pope Clement V, then based in Avignon, disbanded the order in 1312 under the King's pressure. Philip, incidentally, had earlier expelled the Jews from France and had begun wars with England and Flanders. Not a nice man.

(via Wikipedia)

In any case in little more than a month after the papal decree, Pope Clement V succumbed to a disease now thought to be lupus, and within eight months Philip IV died in a freak hunting accident aged 46. The Templar's abrupt disappearance, the gruesome deaths of those who ordered their dissolution and the air of mystery around them fed the fertile imagination of peasantry. For this reason, the Templars have never completely disappeared... they took on a second life in myth.

After the suppression different traditions have been attached to them, sometimes glossed, rehashed, garbled then retold again. Taking on the figurative name "red monks", the Templars remained alive in the collective memory well beyond the Middle Ages, many taking on new identities as ghosts or evil spirits, condemned to wander to atone for their dreadful crimes. Theodore Hersart of La Villemarque, who published in 1839 the Barzaz-Breiz :Popular Songs of Brittany , wrote that, people claimed to see at night the "red monks": "They are dressed in coats white and wear a large scarlet cross on the chest; they mount skeletons of horses wrapped in mortuary sheets". They pursued travelers, attacking preferably the little boys and girls, whom they would kidnap. The tales are usually gruesome and bloody. If you have the stomach for it, a victorian translation is published here. The last line gives a flavour: Then they were burnt alive, their ashes tossed to the random airs; So, in the body, suffered they for that foul crime of theirs.

The tales continue into the modern day. When Notre Dame burned to the ground, fringe websites circulated this film of a Templar ghost in the burning cathedral. Perhaps it was the ghost of Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the order executed at Notre Dame in 1314.(No, it's a fireman). Templar ghosts are reported in Prague, Bristol, and in Scotland, where they are also rumoured to have hidden the Holy Grail.

There's another connection the Grail locally. Just north of us is the vast forest of Paimpont. Since the 13th century Paimpont has been associated with the mythical forest of Brocéliande and many locations from the Arthurian legend, including the tomb of Merlin. In 1942 the rector of the church in the tiny village of Tréhorenteuc was trying to galvanize interest in its restoration. He hit upon the idea of connecting its location with the Holy Grail, by redeveloping his Church to interwine myth and Gospel and shine a light on both. Tourist trap? Possibly. The chapel at Carentoir used a similar idea for its exterior:

(via Wikipedia)

Carentoir is primarily a farming community, with little industry. However, it was the first home of the Guillemot brothers, a farming family who founded a computer hardware and software distribution firm here in the 1980s. The company expanded, creating its own software and, crucially, PC and console games under the name Ubisoft. They operated out of a local chateau before eventually relocating to Paris.

One of Ubisoft's biggest successes is Assassin's Creed, a complex action game. It depicts a centuries-old struggle, between the Assassins, who fight for peace with free will, and the Templars, who desire peace through control. Could Ubisoft have been influenced by stories from Breton childhood? Alas, this is all another coincidence as the development work for the game was completed in Montreal, Canada and the source text was from a Slovenian novel written in 1938. But still, coincidence upon coincidence. So rather than a sleepy village in the west of France we find ourselves on the edge of medieval intrigue, heretical hauntings.... and video games.

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