The Knights got named for Malta because that small, Mediterranean island was ruled for centuries by this distinctive religious order, the last group to carry on the spirit of the Crusades. It was founded around 1100 by a band of Italian merchants and a pious knight known to history only as Blessed Gerard. Its mission at first was simple: to open shelters in the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims who got sick with Levantine diseases, or caught one of the millions of arrows flying around the region at the time. Many elderly or sick Christians in fact took ship to Jerusalem intending to die there, in the town where (medievals believed) the General Resurrection would begin. (Nowadays old folk prepare for the possible heat of the afterlife by moving to the Sunbelt, giving Purgatory a healthy head start.)Share
Since these shelters offered hospitality, they were called “hospitals”—which is where we get the word—and the group that ran them was dubbed the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem. Unlike certain other medieval medical facilities (for instance, the London clinic called St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, where mentally ill medieval Englishmen were locked away with no access to SSRIs or even standard psychoanalysis. Conditions there were so “interesting” that the place’s name gave rise to the modern word “bedlam.”) the Knights’ shelters were compassionate and clean. Indeed, as Jonathan Riley-Smith, author of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, writes:
“A feature of their nursing was this: because every poor man and woman was Christ, he or she should have not just good treatment, but the best and most luxurious treatment possible. This was, of course, a religious imperative, but it was also the application of a basic nursing principle, taught in the greatest of the western medical schools at Salerno, that patients tended to get better if they were well-fed, clean, and comfortable.”
Riley also points out a surprising feature of this crusader estate: Its shelter welcomed sick Moslems and Jews on the same terms as Christians, even serving them halal and kosher food. As one Hospitaller document insisted, “Friends should be loved in God and enemies on account of God.” However, the time and place were far from peaceful, and the Knights were not slow to see that their charitable work required a paramilitary wing. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was an island of Western influence in a hostile Islamic sea—like a medieval Baghdad Green Zone, except without CNN. At first, the knights who agreed to carry the sword served simply as escorts to groups of pilgrims, but—boys being boys—they soon formed an army. By 1170, the Hospitallers were less focused on treating wounds than on inflicting them. They controlled seven enormous fortresses and more than 140 estates around the Holy Land, with thousands of manors scattered all across Europe, earning money for their foreign mission.
When Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s Arab armies in 1187, most Christian armies declared victory and went home. The Hospitallers stuck around, conducting a kind of insurgency until 1291, when they fled to safety in Cyprus, and then to Rhodes—which they conquered in 1309, and governed until 1522. While they gave up dreams of reconquering Jerusalem, the Knights kept up a first-rate navy to suppress the Arab pirates who traded in white slaves. When Rhodes fell to the new Islamic superpower, the Ottomans, the Knights removed to Malta. They controlled that island until 1798, when French knights opened the gates to Napoleon’s armies. After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the British saw no reason to turn this strategic spot over to an order of antiquated papists, so the Brits remained there until 1964, and the Knights remained in exile. That might have logically spelled the order’s end, if logic had any say.
But chivalry, faith, and institutional inertia spoke louder, and the Knights kept on recruiting and raising funds. With gentle nudging from various popes, the group switched from cannons to ceremonial swords, and rediscovered its founding mission: providing ambulances on battlefields, and opening hospitals for the poor.
Unlike some groups that fell prey to lurid scandals (such as the Templars) or were coopted by crafty kings, this order thrives today, with thousands of members around the world. There’s a small priestly core surviving as the world’s corps of warrior monks, and a large male membership of Knights (dames may enroll as Dames). The organization still retains a unique status as a “sovereign order” with some of the rights of an independent state—keeping diplomats in 92 countries, and holding a seat at the U.N. It issues passports, mints coins, and maintains two post offices in Rome. As my friend, Knight of Malta Stephen Klimczuk, likes to recount, if you visit the order’s palace on the Aventine Hill in Rome:
“You can look through a famous keyhole in the grand doors and see three sovereign entities—looking through the gardens of the Knights’ extra-territorial compound through Italy to the dome of St Peter’s in Vatican City. There is no other place on earth where one can do something like this.”