Tag Archives: The Templars

Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Monks, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

The Templars: History and Myth – A Book Review


It’s been a while since I reviewed a book I’ve read about the Middle Ages, so I thought I’d have a look at a book I’ve just finished.  The Templars: History and Myth by Michael Haag was published in 2010. The Templars were dissolved at the beginning of the fourteenth century, so I didn’t really read the book with a view to learning anything that I could use in a story. Like almost everyone else, I’m fascinated by the story of the Templars and intrigued by the idea that a group of men held in such esteem across Europe for two centuries could fall so decisively and so suddenly.

The book begins with the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem from which the Templars took their name. It covers the early crusades and the creation of the Templars in 1119. After Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099, Christian pilgrims started travelling to worship there.  There were many thefts, rapes and murders before the Templars were formed to protect the pilgrims. They were created as an order of monks who were permitted to bear arms against the enemies of the church, and they also supported the Christian states in Outremer (as the region was known) in battles with the Muslims.

After the fall of the last Christian stronghold in Outremer in 1291, there seemed to be little reason for the Templars to continue. By then, however, they had become lenders to many of the kings across Europe. Their wealth brought about their downfall when Philippe IV of France thought it should be moved across Paris from their headquarters to his. The ensuing capture, torture and execution of most of the Templars in France mark the low point of his reign.

Haag sets out the history of the Templars very clearly, although it’s a fairly superficial history. This takes up only two-thirds of the book. The rest covers the mythology that rose up after the Templars were disbanded. Many of them seem to originate in the, surprisingly credulous, nineteenth century. There’s also a bit of a travelogue taking the reader to places where the Templars had bases. The final chapters look at books and films about the Templars, including one of my favourites, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Holy Grail and the Turin Shroud also receive mentions.

The book is easy to read and there are no footnotes to interrupt the flow of the text. Although I prefer my reference books to have footnotes, I wasn’t particularly bothered that they were missing here.

It’s a very sensible book and not as sensational as I was expecting. I’ve read things about the Templars that have more to do with the authors’ imaginations than with any researched facts. As an introduction to the Templars I think it does rather well.

One of the interesting facts in the book is that some of the French Templars who survived got married so I might write a romance about a Templar after all.



Filed under Book Review