During the Middle Ages, the Knights Templar protected Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. But by 1321, members of the military-religious order, known for their role in the Crusades, were tried for heresy and the group disbanded.
In recent years, the order of monks has become a subject of renewed interest, and have become more popularly known as guardians of spiritual treasures, in particular the mysterious lost Holy Grail, the chalice believed to have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper.
The Templars have been featured as key players in the juicy plot lines of blockbuster motion pictures and best-selling novels -- fueling keen interest in what became of the secretive group nearly 700 years ago.
Those depictions, in movies like "National Treasure" and books such as "The Da Vinci Code," are mostly fiction. But some Vatican documents giving scholars and history buffs deeper insight into the Templars' real past were on display Friday at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
The reproduction set of Vatican Templar Trial Transcripts, here for a one-day presentation, are owned by the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge in Manhattan. The Masons' ownership of the documents is somewhat ironic, because the Catholic Church historically has opposed Freemasonry and has banned Catholics from joining lodges.
Thomas M. Savini, the library's director, acknowledged that the acquisition "will raise some eyebrows" inside and outside the Masonic fraternity.
A popular theory holds that today's Masons, who number about 53,000 across New York State, including 3,000 in Erie County, evolved out of the Knights Templar. That is one of the reasons the Livingston library acquired the trial manuscripts in April.
Legend has it that the Templars went underground in the early 14th century to escape persecution by the inquisitors of King Philip IV of France, then emerged two centuries later in Scotland as the Freemasons. One branch of modern day Masons that was organized sometime around the turn of the 19th century even calls itself the Knights Templar.
But the connection between the Knights Templar of the Crusades and Freemasonry is "highly dubious," Savini said. "There is no valid historical documentation establishing that link."
Due to the great deal of interest and inquiry into the possibility of a link, the library's trustees felt a responsibility to obtain the trial documents as a resource for both Masons and non-Masons.
The library is one of just a few groups in the United States, including the Cornell University library in Ithaca, that possesses authentic reproductions of the "Processus Contra Templarios."
Seven hundred and ninety-nine numbered copies of the trial transcripts became available following the Vatican's 2007 announcement that the original parchments, misplaced for hundreds of years, had been found. The replicas were sold for 5,000 euros (about $6,300) each.
"It's almost a question of why wouldn't an organization want to have this as part of their archives," said Marlon Gayadeen, who teaches criminal justice at Buffalo State College and helped organize the Buffalo showing, one of several taking place across upstate New York.
The Masons have long been considered a secret, ritualistic society, although today's members say those days are long past. In the 21st century, Freemasons consider their group to be a society with certain private aspects, not a "secret society" with its negative connotations. Events like the display of the Templar documents are further proof of that fact.
"We're removing the cloak, so to speak," Gayadeen said.
The transcripts, in tiny Latin calligraphy, re-create the folds, faded ink and mold stains found on the original. Some of the sheets are as long as 6 feet, and sewn together by thread, as was done in the 1300s.
"People who are fascinated or intrigued by history can come up and touch something that represents a document from 700 years ago," Savini said. "That tactile experience of history is an important part of education."
Friday, about 100 people in Western New York got a glimpse of the manuscripts, including the "Chinon Parchment," in which Pope Clement V absolved the Templars of heresy charges. Leaders of the Templars were nonetheless burned at the stake under King Philip IV, who sought to erase his considerable debt to the financially savvy warrior monks by banishing them.