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How a special diet kept the Knights Templar in shape

6 min read

People with graybeards were very common in the 13th century, even among wealthy landholding, traders and lords, and average life expectancy was about 31 years, rising to 48 years for those who made it to their twenties.
But that’s not true for the Knights Templar, as many members of this Catholic military order, in the same period, lived long past 60.
And even then, they often died at the hands of their enemies, rather than from age or illness.

And these are not legend, as in 1314, Jacques de Molay, the order’s final Grand Master, was burned alive at the age of 70, and Geoffrei de Charney, who was executed in the same year, is usually said to have been around 63.
But these were not the only exceptions, because this longevity seems to have been almost commonplace. In fact, fellow Grand Masters Thibaud Gaudin, Hugues de Payens, and Armand de Périgord, to name just a few, all lived into their sixties.
This longevity was generally attributed to a special divine gift, but modern research suggests a valid alternative: the order’s compulsory dietary rules, that may have really contributed to their long lives and good health.

Contrary to many modern descriptions, the Knights seem to have lived humble lives, in service to God, and their dietary choices and their obligations reflect this.
Despite the order grew rich from carefully handled donations and by safeguarding traveling pilgrims’ money, the men themselves took formal vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and they were not permitted even to speak to any woman.
For nearly 200 years, the order thrived across Europe, peaking at around 15,000 members by the end of the 13th century.
But, most of all, they were expert warriors, and their ranks comprised some of the best fighters, warriors, and jousters in the world.

Itwas the French abbot Bérnard de Clairvaux who, early in the 12th century, helped assemble a long and complex list of rules which structured the knights’ lives.
A rulebook that became known as “the Primitive Rule of the Templars”, and drew from the teachings of the saints Augustine and Benedict, despite many of the rules originated in the order itself.
Though the document was completed in 1129, it seems that the Templar Knights had already been in existence for several years, and had already built up its own traditions and customs.
The rules were many, and various.
For example, the knights were to protect orphans, widows, and churches, avoid the company of excommunicated men, and not stand up in church when praying or singing.
Even sumptuary laws prioritized humbleness: their monk’s habits were one color alone, though on warm days between Easter and All Saints Day, the rules decreed, they were allowed to wear a linen shirt, while pointed shoes were always forbidden.

And the rules, of course, also extended into their dietary practices: How they ate, what they ate, and even who they ate with.
Their meals do not seem to have been raucous affairs.
Knights were obliged to eat together, but to do so silently. If, for instance, they needed the salt, they had to ask for it to be passed literally quietly and privately, with all humility and submission.
Traditionally, knights ate in pairs, and were told to study the other more closely, to make sure that neither was scarfing more than his share or entertaining any kind of secret abstinence, but It’s not clear what they were supposed to do if their partner wasn’t eating as he should.
In any case, after eating, everyone sat in silence and gave thanks, while scraps of bread were collected and given to the poor, and whole loaves set aside for future meals.

The knights’ diets seem to have been a balancing act between the ordinary fasting demands on monks, and the fact that these knights lived active, military lives.
In fact, you couldn’t crusade, or joust, on an empty stomach!
So three times a week, the knights were permitted to eat meat, even though it was believed that the custom of eating flesh corrupts the body.
On Sundays, everyone ate meat, with higher-up members permitted both lunch and dinner with some roast animals.
Accounts from the time show that this was often beef, ham, or bacon, with salt for seasoning it.
It’s likely that these portions were considerable and, If the knights weren’t allowed meat due to some Tuesday fast, the next day it would be available in plenty. One source even suggests that cooks loaded enough meat onto their plates to feed two poor men with the leftovers.
About Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, on the other hand, they ate more spartan, vegetable meals.
Although the rules describe these meals literally as two or three meals of vegetables or other dishes eaten with bread, they also often included milk, eggs, and cheese.
Otherwise, they might eat potage, made with oats or pulses, gruels, or fiber-rich vegetable stews, with the wealthier brothers who might mix in expensive spices, such as cumin.
In their gardens, they grew fruits and vegetables, especially Mediterranean produce such as figs, almonds, pomegranates, olives, and grain, all healthy foodstuffs that likely also made their way into their meals.

Once a week, on Fridays, they observed a Lenten fast without eggs, milk, or other animal products.
For hearty fare, they relied on dried or salted fish, and dairy or egg substitutes made from almond milk but, again, with some pragmatic concessions.
The weak and sick, for example, abstained from these fasts and received meat, flesh, birds, and all other foods which bring good health to return them to fighting shape as quickly as possible.
All the while, brothers drank wine, but this too was restricted, as everyone had an identical ration, which was diluted, and they were advised that alcohol should not be taken to excess, but in moderation.
“For Solomon said…wine corrupts the wise.”
In the Holy Lands, they allegedly mixed a potent cocktail of antiseptic aloe vera, hemp, and palm wine, known as the Elixir of Jerusalem, which may have helped accelerate healing from injuries.

Other rules were specifically designed to avoid the spreading of infections, and these included mandatory handwashing before eating or praying. Some of these innovations may have resulted from interactions with Arab doctors, renowned during the period for their superior medical knowledge by medieval medical standards.
Either way the order was one of the richest in the world, and these rules prevented the knights from sitting on their laurels or gorging themselves on fatty meat or junky food.
And, believe it or not, many of these rules resemble modern dietary advice: lot of vegetables, meat on occasion, and wine in moderation.
A meal fit not for a real king, but a knight with some crusading to do….

Images from web – Google Research

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