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Monday, October 11, 2010

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A brief history of the Hospitallers and the Knights of St. John.

Western history would be much different without this military-hospice order.

by Ferdinand III


 




It is clear, that the repulse of Islamic Jihad from Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and eventually the Balkans; was a turning point in history. So too was Catholic Europe's 200 year conquest of various tracts of the Levant and Israel. The military orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers were enormously successful in tying down the Islamic Jihad to the Mediterranean basin and littoral. They helped to prevent deeper incursions into the heart of Christianity, first through the Crusades; and then secondly, through their naval strength in the eastern and central Mediterranean basin. It is no exaggeration to state that without these military orders, commissioned and supported by the Catholic Church, that Europe would be a far different place – and a sorrier one at that. But few know the history of either order, including the Knights of Malta, or St. John, formerly known as the Hospitallers.


An excellent book on the history of the Hospitallers by David Nicolle [reviewed here] reveals the evolution of this military-hospice order from the 13th to 16th centuries. During the long career of this organization the name has changed, as well as the focus of the group. Known as the Hospitallers of Jerusalem until 1309, the members were then called the Knights of Rhodes, from 1309 till 1522 when the Turks ejected them from the island, and the Knights of Malta since 1530. famously, and contrary to most historical accounts the Knights of Malta saved Rome and most of Italy from an Islamic takeover, when they improbably with a few thousand men, defeated a Turkish army of 80.000-100.000 men.


The origin of the Hospitallers most likely pre-dates the first Crusade [1096-1099]. Hospices were indispensable to shelter the many thousands of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Each 'state' would have had their own hospice cared for by professionals and providing an incredible array of diets, sleeping accommodations, and sick-care, far beyond what the average citizen of Europe could expect in their homeland. The most famous of these sites, was an Italian hospice built in the year 1050 by the merchants of Amalfi, who at that time had commercial relations with the Holy Land. Attempts have been made to trace the origin of the Hospitaller order to the Amalfians but this is impossible. The Knights of St. John had John the Baptist as their patron, while the Italian hospice was dedicated to St. John of Alexandria. Moreover, the former adopted Augustinian law, while the latter followed the Benedictines.


The Hospitaller order was most likely initiated by one 'Gerard', who provided a small hospice and hospital near the site of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His successor was one Raymond of Provence (1120-60), who created more spacious buildings near the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and henceforth the hospice became an infirmary served by a community of Hospitallers in the modern sense of the word. These were professional 'nurses' with male and female infirmarians servicing the specific sexes. About 2000 or more sick individuals were being cared for by the organization at any period in time. It was the largest hospital, with the most advance techniques, in the world.


As the order and hospice grew in importance, and in donated capital, Raymond instituted a second innovation. To accompany and defend pilgrims, he created an armed escort, which in time became a small professional army,with heavy cavalry or Knights, and lightly armed local infantry and cavalry, named 'Turcopoles'. Given the lack of men and Christian warriors to defend the Latin states recently conquered from Islam, the Order of St. John or the Hospitallers, imperceptibly became a military unit, without losing its eleemosynary or hospice character. The statutes of the ninth grand master, or leader of the Hospitallers, one Alfonso of Portugal, circa 1200, a distinction was made between secular 'knights' or nurses, and the pious fighters or external 'Knights' attached to the order by a perpetual vow to fight all 'infidels' in the name of Christ. These warrior Knights enjoyed the same spiritual privileges as monkish, or charitable members of the Order. From at least 1200 therefore the Hospitallers contained two distinct classes of members: the military brothers and the brothers infirmarians.


While the Order of St. John became a mixed order, that of their brethren monk-warriors, the Templars, was a purely military form the beginning. The Templars followed a different monastic rule and wore a different habit — the white habit of the Cistercians whose rule they followed, with a red cross, while the Knights of St. John wore a black mantle with a white cross. In battle both orders wore a red surcoat over their armor, with the white cross. After some period of time as one would expect, the two 'monkish warrior sects' became competitors. Both were recognized by the Roman Church as singular and exalted incarnations of Papal, and thereby Christian organization. Both received extensive privileges, tax breaks and write-offs, absolute independence of all spiritual and temporal authority save that of Rome exemptions from all tithes with the right to have their own, clergy, rituals and cemeteries. Both were charged with the military defence of the Holy Land, and the most redoubtable strongholds of the country, the splendid ruins of which still exist, were occupied by on or the other (Rey, "Monument de l'architecture militaire des Croisés", Paris, 1865). On the battlefield they shared between them the most perilous posts, alternately holding the van and rear guard.


When the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was at the height of its glory, the Hospitallers possessed no fewer than seven massive strongholds, and many lesser posts and estates totaling more than 140. Many of these were situated on the coast, others in the mountains; and of these Margat and Krals, in the territory of Tripoli, are the most famous. They enjoyed the revenues of more than one hundred distinct estates or 'casalia' in the Holy Land. In Europe they received benefactions, land transfers, and much in the way of donations and capital. One writer in the thirteenth century credits the Hospitallers with about nineteen thousand manses or manors. Such wealth and power necessitated the creation of a financial administration in order to assure the regular payment of revenues of these widely scattered possessions. This was the task of Hugh of Ravel, seventeen Grand Master of the Holy Land (c. 1270). The lands attached to a single house were placed under the command of a Knight of the order, who formerly was called a preceptor, but after-wards took the title of commander. This official was charged with collecting the revenues, one portion of which was devoted to the support of his community, formed of a chaplain and some brothers the other portion being destined for the houses of the Holy Land. This latter portion consisted of an annual and invariable impost called "Responsions".


Thanks to these resources, drawn mostly from Western Europe, the order was able to survive the fall of Latin states in the Holy Land. After the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin (1187), the order of St. John only retained their possessions in the Principality of Tripoli, and these they lost a century later by the fall of Acre (1291). Ousted by the Turks, the Knights were forced to seek refuge, under their grand master, Jean de Villiers, in the Kingdom of Cyprus where they already has some possessions. King Amaury assigned them as a place of residence the town of Limassol on the coast. Having become islanders, the Hospitallers turned to naval warfare, harassing the Turkish coast; capturing Muslim slaves and booty; and imposing themselves on sea traffic. They also used their naval strength to protect sea-borne pilgrimages to the Holy Land and trading vessels. Thus did the Knights of St. John mutate to the Knights of Rhodes, an order which existed from 1390-1522 and the Turkish invasion and destruction of the Christian kingdom of Cyprus.

 


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