By Thomas Lecaque
Umberto Eco wrote, “The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.” And it is those Templars—the fantasy ones—rather than the historical Templars, who live on in popular culture, in media, and, critically, in conspiratorial thinking. It is in the Oak Island Mystery, given new life from the Geocities pages of my youth into a History Channel television show. It is in the Dan Brown (and his inspirations) notions of hidden treasure that link to innumerable other treasure-based conspiracies, including those of Otto Rahn and his Nazi-era fellow travelers. It is in the violent manifestos of far-right terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik or Brenton Tarrant. These are all wrapped up in a web of popular conspiracies that inevitably fall into white supremacist and far-right ideological traps. But where on earth does this particular conspiracy come from? Why the Knights Templar, a military order from the Crusades disbanded on papal command at the start of the fourteenth century? Like so many things in the modern world, it emerges in the Age of Revolutions, specifically in the attempts of the ancien régime to deal with the intellectual aftermath of the French Revolution. The conspirators now find themselves reflected in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The game allows you to play as a member of a secret society—the Assassins—in the midst of a Templar conspiracy to cause the French Revolution and hasten its anarchical spread. This story is straight out of the late eighteenth-century conspiracy writings of anti-Revolutionary authors.
The earliest iteration of this conspiracy was written by the illegitimate son of Louis XV, the lawyer and pharmacist Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt. In 1791, he wrote The Tomb of Jacques de Molay, or the Secret History and Summary of the Ancient and Modern Initiates of the Templars, Freemasons and Illuminati, which claimed the French Revolution was the final step of a seven hundred-year-old revenge plot by the surviving Templars. In 1797, John Robinson, professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, wrote his own conspiracy text, Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, that linked the Illuminati and Freemasons together into a conspiracy against France. The text was popular enough that in 1798 the Reverend G.W. Snyder sent a copy to President Washington, who read it and wrote back to Snyder about it. The same year as Robinson, the Abbé Augustin Barruel, a French refugee of the revolution, published his multi-volume work Mémoires pour server à l’Histoire du Jacobinisme, which included conspiracies of French Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, and French philosophes as secretly masterminding the Revolution—then linking these groups back to the Templars. From these feeble but influential foundations, the notion of the survival of the Knights Templar and their links to Freemasonry—and, via the conspiracy theories around Free-masons, to a wide range of shadow government conspiracies—was born.
One of the many ways these ideas have permeated popular culture is the video game series Assassin’s Creed, made by the Parisian-based company Ubisoft. The series originally depicts an age-old struggle between the Knights Templar and the Assassins, from the crusades to the near-future, playing out in every important historical event. Later games turned it into an even older struggle between pseudo-Atlantean entities and competing ancient orders of humanity searching for their relics, in the worst possible mashup of Blavatskian thought with History Channel-esque treasure hunting conspiracy. Their 2014 offering, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, takes places during the French Revolution, in a game most notable for its incredibly detailed landscape of Paris. The game opens with the capture of Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay in 1307, followed by his immolation and the ahistorical curse of King Phillip IV and Pope Clement V. It then fast forwards to your main character, arrested and placed in the Bastille, who joins the Brotherhood of the Assassins and escapes during the storming of the Bastille. The rest of the game takes place as the character, Arno, goes through the French Revolution, discovering that François-Thomas Germain, a historic silversmith, is a Templar and is organizing a mass revolt against the Crown. By the end of the game, Arno discovers that Templar-Germain had placed Maximilien Robespierre in charge of the Revolution. He attacks Robespierre, finds Germain and kills him, and the game ends in the aftermath of the Terror. Germain gets a deathbed speech, saying that he wanted to purge the Templars who had forgotten de Molay’s teachings, explicitly reinforcing the beginning montage of the game.
This framework comes, in fact, directly from the French Revolution conspiracy theorists, positing secret societies organizing the overthrow of the French crown. It is especially the conceptual framework of the Abbé Barruel’s conspiracies. In the second volume of his Memoirs, he begins weaving the Templars into the story while discussing Freemason in the context of the death of Louis XVI—“On that day Louis XVI, who have been declared forty-eight hours before to have forfeited his right to the crown, was carried prisoner to the Tower of the Temple (so called because it formerly belonged to the Knights Templars.)” From there, Barruel laid out what was essentially the plot of Assassin’s Creed as a franchise:
In this first degree he receives the Masonic science only as descending from Solomon and Hiram, and revived by the Knights Templars. But in the second degree he learns that it is to be traced to Adam himself, and has been handed down by Noah, Nimrod, Solomon, Hugo de Paganis, the founder of the Knights Templars, and Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, who each in their turns had been the favorites of Jehovah, and are styled the Masonic Sages. At length in the third degree it is revealed to him, that the celebrated word loft by the death of Hiram was this name of Jehovah. It was found, he is told, by the Knights Templars at the time when the Christians were building a Church at Jerusalem.
The rest of Barruel’s second volume is dedicated to the deep legacy of the Templars built into the Free Masons, and through them the Jacobins, as a long legacy of conspiratorial, heretical, anti-monarchical thought from Biblical times to the Revolution. And this is fine—conspiracy theories have existed throughout history. We as historians know that the Templars died in the fourteenth century, and that Barruel’s ideas fall within a period of conspiratorial thinking in European society. Where it becomes dangerous is in the fact that Assassin’s Creed routinely prides itself and markets itself as a series that consults with experts, and makes that aspect—its staff historians and attention to detail—part of the marketing. In a 2014 interview, Unity’s director said:
So they weren’t always in agreement, but one thing the historians were in agreement about was that we portrayed the French Revolution in the game in a very objective way. They felt it was faithful to the gray area of this period. The very fact that our narrative is not about something that’s moralistic in the sense that we’re not forcing you to side with a certain camp expresses this.
And it is in that statement, that ideology, where the problem lies—that these videos games are objective, that they reflect history, that conspiracy is just another equally right opinion, a toxic ideology far too present in our contemporary discourse. Assassin’s Creed is, of course, just a game. But video games influence our collective pop-cultural memory of the past. Assassin’s Creed builds a false history, brimming with conspiratorial thinking, to present the French Revolution.
Thomas Lecaque is Associate Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, located on Baxoje, Meskwaki and Sauk lands. His primary research area is on the crusades and apocalypticism in the High Middle Ages, but he teaches broadly in medieval world, vast early America, and video games and history. He can also be found @tlecaque.
Title Image: Abbé Barruel and Assassin’s Creed Unity Game Promotional Image, 2021. Created by Emily Banks.
Barruel, Augustin. Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism. Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1799.
Banks, Bryan. “Conspiracy and Paranoia in the Age of Trump.” Age of Revolution (Nov. 7, 2016). https://ageofrevolutions.com/2016/11/07/conspiracy-and-paranoia-in-the-age-of-trump/
Cadet de Gassicourt, Charles-Louis. Le tombeau de Jacques Molai ou Histoire secrète et abrégée des initiés, anciens et modernes, des Templiers, francs-maçons, illumines, etc. Paris: Chez Desenne, imprim.-lib, 1796-1797. Transcription: http://www.bnam.fr/spip.php?article1354
Peckham, Matt. “How Assassin’s Creed Unity Navigates the French Revolution’s Politics.” Time. October 6, 2014. Date Accessed: September 15, 2021. https://time.com/3471390/assassins-creed-unity/
Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. Eds. Michael Butter and Peter Knight. London and New York: Routledge, 2020.
 Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, tr. William Weaver (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 65.
 Patrick Masters, “Far-right claims to march in step with the Knights Templar—this is fake history,” Independent, December 7, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/atl-right-knights-templar-fake-history-news-a8094881.html ; James Purtill, “Fueled by a toxic, alt-right echo chamber, Christchurch shooter’s views were celebrated online,” Triple J Hack, March 15 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/christchurch-shooters-views-were-celebrated-online/10907056
 Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt, Le tombeau de Jacques Molai ou Historie secrete et abrégée des initiés, anciens et modernes, des Templiers, franc-maçons, illumines, etc. (Paris: Victor Desenne, imprimeur-libraire, 1791).
 John Robinson, Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: T. Dobson, 1798).
 G.W. Snyder, “To George Washington from G. W. Snyder, 22 August 1798,” Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-02-02-0435; George Washington, “George Washington to William Russell, September 28, 1798,” George Washington Papers, Series 2, Letterbooks 1754 to 1799: Letterbook 21,- Feb. 10, 1799, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mgw2.021/?q=Illuminati&sp=182&st=text
 Abbé Barruel, Mémoires pour server a l’Histoire du Jacobinisme, 5 vols. (Hamburg: P. Fauche, Libraire, 1798).
 John J. Robinson, Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades (New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc, 1992), ends with a brief discussion of how the Free Masons kept the Templar legacy alive despite lack of clear links between the two.
 This was noted after the Notre Dame fire in April 2019 when the work of late art historian Andrew Tallon, who has used laser scanners to create a model of the cathedral and the artist Caroline Miousse’s work finessing the appearance of Notre Dame for the game were proposed as resources for the rebuilding. See Alix Martichoux, “Silver lining: Late art historian’s work, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ could help rebuild Notre Dame,” SFGate, April 16, 2019, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/3d-maps-rebuild-notre-dame-fire-assasins-creed-13769593.php
 Patricia Reynolds, “The Templars’ ‘curse’ on the King of France,” The National Archives Blog, November 29 2014, https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/templars-curse-king-france/
 Ubisoft Montreal, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft, PC/Playstation 4/Xbox One. November 2014.
 Barruel, Memoirs, Vol. II, 148.
 Barruel, Memoirs, Vol. II, 166.
 Matt Peckham, “How Assassin’s Creed Unity Navigates the French Revolution’s Politics,” Time, October 6, 2014. Date Accessed: September 15, 2021. https://time.com/3471390/assassins-creed-unity/