Secret Vatican archive now at Sydney

30 May 2008

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It is "very unusual" for the Vatican to release a reproduction of material from the Secret Archives Neil Boness says.

The University of Sydney has purchased Australia's only copy of the recently released manuscripts of the trials of the Knights Templar - a $10,000 reproduction of a document that rehabilitates the medieval Christian military order.

The Knights, recognisable by the white robes with a red cross they wore over their chain mail, guarded pilgrims visiting the Holy Lands. In the early 14th-century King Philip IV of France accused the knights of heresy and sodomy, and many of the order's leaders were burnt at the stake.

"The crux of these trial documents is that Pope Clement V didn't think the Templars were guilty of heresy," says Neil Boness, Rare Book librarian at the University's Fisher Library. It is "very unusual" for the Vatican to release a reproduction of material from the Secret Archives such as this, known as the Processus Contra Templarios - Papal Inquiry into the Trial of the Templars, he added.

According to John Pryor, Associate Professor for Medieval Studies at Sydney, there was "significant pressure" exerted on the Pope by the King's agents to find the order guilty.

"Several thousand of the order survived in Spain and elsewhere, but mainly they disappeared into society," says Pryor. He hopes the documents will assist potential PhD students: "There is a huge scholarly interest in the trials."

The order was popularised by Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, and has been the subject of all sorts of myths and legends over the years. The Knights have been linked to the modern-day Freemasons, and portrayed as guardians of the Holy Grail.

The key document in the reproduction is known as the Chinon Parchment and it shows that the Pope absolved the Knights of heresy charges. It was "misplaced" in the Vatican archives until it was discovered by a researcher in 2001.

The elaborate reproduction is bound in an ornate leather case, and includes scholarly notes and reproductions of the original parchments - mould stains and all - as well as the wax seals used by their inquisitors. Only 799 copies were made: Pope Benedict was given the first copy, and the University owns copy number 300.

"We had to apply to the publishers to buy a copy," Boness says. As the home of Australia's "largest group of experts in medieval studies," it is appropriate that Australia's only copy of the trial is housed at the University of Sydney, Pryor notes.

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100