Sunday, March 9, 2014

Knights Hospitaller - The Beginning Years

by Scott Higginbotham

The Knights Templar receive a large share of press in the form of books, movies, and novels. It is said that they held great secrets and had amassed great wealth that remains hidden unto this day. Their demise was dramatic and brutal, the surviving brother knights having been scattered abroad.

But there were other knightly orders with missions that transcended solely military pursuits. The Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem had ties to the Levant prior to the First Crusade. Pilgrims from Europe found a chilly welcome in Jerusalem from the local populace, for there was the old tension between Catholics and Greek Orthodox believers, coupled with a reluctance to offend their Muslim overlords.

“In consequence of the resort of pilgrims and traders from the West to Jerusalem it had been found necessary to build there, with the consent of the Saracens, hospitia, or places of entertainment for them during their abode in the holy city… Accordingly the monk Bernard, who visited Jerusalem in the year 870, found there, in the valley of Jehoshaphat, near the church of the Holy Virgin, a hospital consisting of twelve mansions, for western pilgrims, which was in the possession of some gardens, vineyards, and corn-fields.” [1]

The 11th century saw an upsurge in pilgrimages, and there was within the walls of Jerusalem a hospital for Western pilgrims. It was there that the sick, the weary, and those seeking a place of respite from their long journey could find rest in relative safety. In 1099, the Blessed Gerard presided over the hospital and welcomed Greek and Muslims who sought aid, even while the city was under siege by Crusaders. It has been said that his character had few equals: “His benevolence was of a truly Christian character, and far transcended that of his age in general; for during the period of the siege he relieved all who applied to him for succour, and not merely did the schismatic Greek share his bounty, even the unbelieving Moslem was not repelled when he implored his aid. When the city was taken, numbers of the wounded pilgrims were received, and their wounds tended in the hospital of St. John, and the pious Duke Godfrey, on visiting them some days afterwards, heard nothing but the praises of the good Gerard and his monks.” [2]

From Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

Their popularity and standing grew as a result, and soon they developed an austere Rule. Poverty and obedience were their mainstays, and they wore a black mantle with a white cross on their breast to show their piety. The poor and the sick were their lords, and they the servants. The best flour went to others, while these monks, in sharp contrast, were satisfied to mix their flour with clay. As the Crusaders made gains across Outremer, manors and holding were given to this fledging order as gifts. Pope Paschal II ratified their Rule in 1113 and gave them great autonomy in electing leaders and allowing them to fulfill their mission, without interference from earthly and spiritual masters, save the Pope.

In short order, “The brotherhood of the Hospital was now greatly advanced in consideration, and reckoned among its members many gallant knights, who laid aside their arms, and devoted themselves to the humble office of ministering to the sick and needy.” [3] Mothers who could not care for their children could bring their infants to these monks, without conditions. The black-robed knights would nurture and raise them into adults, many of whom joined the Order once they came of age.

Pilgrims soon found succor under the protection of the Knights Templar, for the dusty roads of the Holy Land were teeming with many troubles after the First Crusade – robbery, holding rich pilgrims for ransom, and murder were all too common. The Hospitallers, as they became to be known, noticed the praise heaped upon their fellow knights. It was not long until these monks, who were also belted knights, would add armed protection to their primary mission of tending the sick and the poor – so much so, that they rivaled their Templar brethren in military skill and stature. 

However, unlike the Templars, they endured, owing to a mission that superseded Crusades.  Although their methods were oftentimes in question, especially in later years, the motto of this Order, which is an order in existence today, is simple:

                                                 Pro fide, pro utilitate hominum
                                      “For the faith and in the service of humanity.”

Be sure to watch the short video.  Historical Fiction can certainly take us back.

[1] Keightley, Thomas (2012-02-14). Secret Societies of the Middle Ages (p. 185). Kindle Edition. [2] Ibid, pp. 186-187. [3] Ibid, p. 188
A Soul’s Ransom

Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.

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