The Knights Templar, the medieval Christian military order accused of heresy and sexual misconduct, will soon be partly rehabilitated when the Vatican publishes trial documents it had closely guarded for 700 years.
A reproduction of the minutes of trials against the Templars, "'Processus Contra Templarios -- Papal Inquiry into the Trial of the Templars'" is a massive work and much more than a book -- with a 5,900 euros ($8,333) price tag.
"This is a milestone because it is the first time that these documents are being released by the Vatican, which gives a stamp of authority to the entire project," said Professor Barbara Frale, a medievalist at the Vatican's Secret Archives.
"Nothing before this offered scholars original documents of the trials of the Templars," she told Reuters in a telephone interview ahead of the official presentation of the work on October 25.
The epic comes in a soft leather case that includes a large-format book including scholarly commentary, reproductions of original parchments in Latin, and -- to tantalize Templar buffs -- replicas of the wax seals used by 14th-century inquisitors.
Reuters was given an advance preview of the work, of which only 799 numbered copies have been made.
One parchment measuring about half a meter wide by some two meters long is so detailed that it includes reproductions of stains and imperfections seen on the originals.
Pope Benedict will be given the first set of the work, published by the Vatican Secret Archives in collaboration with Italy's Scrinium cultural foundation, which acted as curator and will have exclusive world distribution rights.
The Templars, whose full name was "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon", were founded in 1119 by knights sworn to protecting Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099.
They amassed enormous wealth and helped finance wars of some European monarchs. Legends of their hidden treasures, secret rituals and power have figured over the years in films and bestsellers such as "The Da Vinci Code".
The Knights have also been portrayed as guardians of the legendary Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
The Vatican expects most copies of the work to be bought up by specialized libraries at top universities and by leading medieval scholars.
Burned at the stake
The Templars went into decline after Muslims re-conquered the Holy Land at the end of the 13th century and were accused of heresy by King Philip IV of France, their foremost persecutor. Their alleged offences included denying Christ and secretly worshipping idols.
The most titillating part of the documents is the so-called Chinon Parchment, which contains phrases in which Pope Clement V absolves the Templars of charges of heresy, which had been the backbone of King Philip's attempts to eliminate them.
Templars were burned at the stake for heresy by King Philip's agents after they made confessions that most historians believe were given under duress.
The parchment, also known as the Chinon Chart, was "misplaced" in the Vatican archives until 2001, when Frale stumbled across it.
"The parchment was catalogued incorrectly at some point in history. At first I couldn't believe my eyes. I was incredulous," she said.
"This was the document that a lot of historians were looking for," the 37-year-old scholar said.
Philip was heavily indebted to the Templars, who had helped him finance his wars, and getting rid of them was a convenient way of cancelling his debts, some historians say.
Frale said Pope Clement was convinced that while the Templars had committed some grave sins, they were not heretics.
Spitting on the cross
Their initiation ceremony is believed to have included spitting on the cross, but Frale said they justified this as a ritual of obedience in preparation for possible capture by Muslims. They were also said to have practiced sodomy.
"Simply put, the pope recognized that they were not heretics but guilty of many other minor crimes -- such as abuses, violence and sinful acts within the order," she said. "But that is not the same as heresy."
Despite his conviction that the Templars were not guilty of heresy, in 1312 Pope Clement ordered the Templars disbanded for what Frale called "the good of the Church" following his repeated clashes with the French king.
Frale depicted the trials against the Templars between 1307 and 1312 as a battle of political wills between Clement and Philip, and said the document means Clement's position has to be reappraised by historians.
"This will allow anyone to see what is actually in documents like these and deflate legends that are in vogue these days," she said.
Rosi Fontana, who has helped the Vatican coordinate the project, said: "The most incredible thing is that 700 years have passed and people are still fascinated by all of this."
"The precise reproduction of the parchments will allow scholars to study them, touch them, admire them as if they were dealing with the real thing," Fontana said.
"But even better, it means the originals will not deteriorate as fast as they would if they were constantly being viewed," she said.