Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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Review: Roderick Cavaliero's 'The Last of the Crusaders and the Knights of St. John'

Nothing like it existed in Islam.

by Ferdinand III


Few books truly cover the Hospitaller Order in requisite detail and perspective. Johnathan Riley-Smith's 'Hospitallers', Sire's 'The Order of Malta', Nicolle's 'The Knights of St. John' [reviewed here], and Bradford's 'The Great Siege' [reviewed here], Verrot's 'The Order of St. John', are all mandatory reading for anyone interested in one of Europe's most successful and important organizations. Well known historian Cavaliero's work is an addition to the above list. Cavaliero's importance is in his intricate detail, lucid presentation and refusal to apply Marxist politically-correct bafflegab, to his subject. As Cavaliero so truthfully writes:

Malta under the Knights in the eighteenth century, was a very successful society, by comparison with its close neighbours, and the Knights provided an efficient if not a popular environment in which the island prospered.”

Bequeathed by King Charles of Spain in 1530 to the Knights of St. John, Malta had a higher standard of living by 1600 than any other locale in Europe. It also famously and vitally, withstood the Muslim onslaught in 1565 in which 40.000 Muslims lost their lives in the Great Siege. As Cavaliero points out, the Knights brought wealth to the island through bonded cargo trade [cargo shipments were able to load and rebond tax free on Malta]; corsairing and the capturing of Turkish booty and disrupting Muslim supply lines and trade; private building programs funded by the Order; and the attraction of investment through low taxes, and small government. With the exception of pirating all of these singular positive examples still exist today.

Cavaliero's appraisal of the Knights is based on facts and output and it is a decidedly colorful and brilliant picture:

The Hospitallers lived and fought hard; they were operating a navy second to none in the Mediterranean, of which no ship ever struck her colours and surrendered to the enemy; they were prosecuting a Crusade in which there were gains to be made both in this world and in the next. In 1655 and 1657 they took part in attempts to seize the Dardanelles and block them, in league with Genoa and Venice. In 1664 the Knights attacked Algiers and in 1707 they assisted the Spaniards in holding Oran....The record of the Order throughout the seventeenth century showed a vast credit list of captures.”

The Hospitallers were the elite of Europe's families. They were somewhat selective in following their monkish vows of chastity, poverty, and avoiding women and drink; but as Cavaliero said they lived and fought hard. They were well trained, educated, and capable of building a castle, constructing cannons, or piercing robed Muslim warriors with shot and sword. They were masculine men and such creatures would find our society, so feminized and statist, a rather curious and inglorious existence.

The Knights were never loved by the Maltese, and were in fact ignored by the Maltese nobility. There was, as Cavaliero highlights, always a tension between the separated and elitist Knightly class, and the rest. Yet the Knights brought religious cohesion, a certain level of gravitas in piety and faith; and a moral code which included sumptuary laws, codes of public behavior, rules against even spitting, swearing or going shirtless in public. These laws, excepting those regarding expensive clothing and ornamentation still exist today.

Under the Knights the Maltese developed a complex city state structure and became the most affluent jurisdiction in Europe. Even today Maltese living standards are superior to the average on the Continent. Even so the great fortifications built by the Knights on Malta, some of the most imposing, complex and massive in the world; costed a great deal of money. All of it was privately funded or debentured. The greatest medieval defensive sites can be found on this small island, incomparable in scope, depth, height, and intricacy, and quite impossible for a besieger to take. The wealth needed to fund such a program is simply astonishing – and it all came from the Knights, yet by the mid 18th century financial dislocation was apparent:

...ceaseless building, bigger and better walls, constant refurbishing of weapons, extensive replacement of galleys and in 1701 the creation of a squadron of men-of-war....soon caused the expenses to exceed the revenues...”

Neither the order nor the island ever went bankrupt and this is an important and rather astonishing fact. The defensive barriers have no equal anywhere in the world, and for an island of some 300 square kilometers there are more lavish churches, palaces and buildings of munificence than any other locale on the globe. All of this was privately financed, with most small towns building extravagant churches for example, just from local parish donations. It is doubtful if in our modern world, such munificence and tolerance for private funding would be countenanced.

Another vital aspect of the Hospitaller order was its dedication to the sick and suffering. Charity was mandatory as part of a Knight's social contract. The Order in the capital city of Valetta possessed for centuries, Europe's largest and most advanced Hospital. Pioneering techniques in hygiene and diet, not to mention proper analysis and surgery, gave the Hospital a well deserved reputation for efficiency and quality. As Cavaliero states:

The Hospital was obliged to provide for the sick and wounded of all races, creeds and colours free of charge. No sick man was to be denied treatment....Early visitors to the Hospital remarked with wonder that every patient, noble and commoner, rich and poor, slave and free, was served off silver plate...”

Islam of course never in its history had anything approaching what the Hospitaller system of care and charity offered. The Knights in combat crusaded against the Moslem. But if sick or wounded even Islam's soldiers and citizens would be taken care of. The reverse was never true.

This is one of the benefits of this book. There is no 'revisionism' of the Hospitaller order and no effort made by Cavaliero to be morally equivalent in his appraisal of the Order, or its effect on the life of Mediterranean civilisation. The book is also full of interesting facts, most not well known, and those will be covered a little later.