The Knights Templar' secret of longevity may lie in their unique diet, says new research that looked into the eating habits of the powerful and secretive medieval order.
The diet would require eating lots of fruits, vegetables, dried legumes and consuming fish rather than meat and drinking moderate amounts of wine mixed with aloe pulp.
Formed around 1119 to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, the military-monastic order amassed fortunes through property and banking. It declined after the Muslim reconquest of the Holy Land and was suspended following charges of heresy in 1314, with the Grand Master Jacques De Molay burned at the stake.
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The study, published in the journal Digestive and Liver Disease, investigated why most of the Knights Templar lived much longer compared to the people of the Middle Ages, whose life expectancy averaged 25–40 years.
Longevity appears to be a peculiar characteristic of the Templars. The best known cases include Hugues de Payens, the co-founder and first Grand Master of the order, who died in 1136 at age 66, Geoffrey de Charney, preceptor of Normandy, who was about 63 when executed, and the Grand Master Jacques De Molay who was burnt at the stake at the ripe old age of 67, after seven years of imprisonment.
"The exceptional longevity of the Knights Templar was generally attributed to a special divine gift," Francesco Franceschi, at the Catholic University of Rome, and colleagues wrote.
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But the explanation might be simpler, related to the strict observance of specific lifestyle habits established by the Bernard of Clairvaux Latin Rule. Some clauses were strictly related to hygiene and nutrition.
"Washing hands before eating was mandatory. Moreover, the refectory was always very clean with tablecloths available. As for food, hunting was strictly forbidden. Fish, cheese, olive oil and fresh fruit were much appreciated," Franceschi told Discovery News.
He noted that such habits were in stark contrast with the narrow Middle Age diet. Very rich in fat and calories, it caused several diseases, such as diabetes and gout, and was responsible for metabolic syndrome - a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
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"The Templar diet was specifically designed to fight this condition: Can one imagine an overweight knight fighting a dozen enemies?" the researchers wrote.
Franceschi and colleagues searched historical documents and found the knights used to eat meat only three days a week, partly avoiding the carcinogenic risks of grilled meat, which was very popular on medieval tables.
The Templars considered seafood a valid substitute for meat, thus taking advantage of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids on blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
Moreover, the knights consumed large amounts of legumes in addition to fruits and vegetables.
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Legumes, said Franceshi, "are the most powerful natural source of probiotics and act as nutrients for the 'good' bacteria of the gut microbiota. This was one of the secrets of their healthy diet."
Finally, the Templars used to drink low or moderate amounts of wine, mixing it with pulp from aloe, a plant boasting antiseptic, antibacterial and fungicide properties.
"We believe that diet and lifestyle habits may be the explanation for the extraordinary longevity of the Knights Templar," the researchers wrote. "If this is the case, the motto ‘learning from the past' has never been so appropriate."