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900 Years of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

THIS YEAR, THE SOVEREIGN MILITARY and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, called of Rhodes, called of Malta (commonly known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta), is celebrating its nonacentenary. It is one of the most interesting survivals of the age of the Crusades and the most creative period in the formation of orders of the Church. Associated with it, and mutually recognised by a common declaration of 1987, are four non-Catholic orders of St John: the Johanniterorden in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands and the Most Venerable Order of St John in Britain and the Commonwealth, which runs St John Ambulance. These are not orders of the Church but Christian lay confraternities and orders of chivalry claiming a share in the traditions of St John of Jerusalem and legitimised by the recognition of the federal parliament of Germany and the crowns of Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom respectively. The five orders constitute a major international force for good, with approaching half a million volunteers at work throughout the world.

As with any true religious order, the nucleus of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is provided by fully professed brothers. Although they are relatively few -- about forty -- they have the support of some 10,000 lay men and women, who could be compared to Fransciscan tertiaries and are made knights and dames in various categories by the grand master by virtue of his sovereignty.

Their order is recognised as a sovereign entity by nearly seventy countries, with whom its grand master exchanges ambassadors. It is represented, sometimes with observer status, on many international organisations, including the United Nations. It has recently entered into an agreement with the government of Malta whereby one of the sites on the island of greatest significance in its history, Fort St Angelo, has been leased to it with the extra-territorial status its properties in Italy already enjoy. Mobilising many thousands of volunteers, it is engaged in hospitaller work on every continent and in organising large-scale pilgrimages, especially to Lourdes. Spectacular efforts have been directed towards the Balkans in recent years.

The decision to choose the nine-hundredth anniversary of the taking of Jerusalem by the First Crusade as a date to commemorate its foundation is somewhat arguable. It actually originated twenty years before the Crusade in a hospital for poor Western pilgrims established around 1080 by the Benedictine abbey of St Mary of the Latins, at that time the only Catholic foundation in Jerusalem. Its autonomous existence began when its freedom from St Mary was confirmed by Pope Paschal II in 1113. There can be no doubt, however, that the occupation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, the establishment of Western government there, the explosion in the number of pilgrims from the West reaching the city and the growing prestige of the hospital which cared for them gives the year 1099 a particular significance.

It is best known for having been `a military order', but its military history is sandwiched between two entirely pacific periods. The early Hospitallers, nuns as well as brothers, were committed in a radical way to the service of the `holy poor' and in their care of the poor when they were sick they foreshadowed much of what is done today. They made no distinctions as far as the religion of their patients was concerned. Their enormous, 2,000-bed hospital in Jerusalem set very high standards of nursing care. They sent out primitive ambulance teams to bring in those who were too ill to admit themselves. Their surgeons served in a mobile tented hospital that accompanied Christian field armies. They had an `outreach' programme to care for mothers too poor or unwell to look after their babies properly. They ran a major orphanage.

The uncompromising nature of their ideal, the benefits of their work and the reputation their great hospital gained generated massive endowments throughout Catholic Christendom: although it has never been proved conclusively that the order was the greatest ecclesiastical landowner in England, it probably was after it had acquired the bulk of the Templar lands in the fourteenth century. These huge estates required an international governmental apparatus, which evolved so early that the order was the first body to feature all the elements that characterised a true order of the church. It therefore pioneered the structures later employed by the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits.

Within fifty years of its foundation, however, it had established a military wing and, although nursing remained a major task, the brother knights were dominant by the late twelfth century. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the Hospitallers were known primarily for their role as members of a military order, maintaining and garrisoning great castles in the Levant, like Crac des Chevaliers, collaborating, and sometimes quarrelling, with the Templars (until their suppression in 1312) and the Teutonic Knights (whose order also survives), and later running warlike little theocracies on Rhodes and Malta; it was its government of Malta which led to its recognition as a sovereign entity. Although damaged by the Reformation in northern Europe, it continued to fulfil a quasi-crusading role, particularly as a naval power in the Mediterranean, until Malta fell to Napoleon in 1798.

There followed nearly a half-century of chaos and demoralisation and, with crusading now out-of date and with its ethos either neutered by romantics or demonised by liberals, one might have expected an institution such as this to have gone into terminal decline.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century, however, one of the most remarkable governments the order had ever had renounced its military functions and readopted the care of the sick as a prime activity. The provincial structure was rebuilt on a new basis. Sovereignty was preserved. The Order's survival demonstrates the importance of adaptability. Founded at the same time as the Cistercian, Carthusian and Premonstratensian orders, but, unlike them, closely associated for many centuries with an ideal which has been rejected, it now has the potential to become one of the most modern-looking of the Catholic religious institutions engaged in active works of charity, being run, as it always has been, by lay brothers rather than by priests, enjoying the support of thousands of lay men and women and having in its relationship with the non-Catholic orders of St John a truly ecumenical dimension.

Jonathan Riley-Smith's highly illustrated book Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St John was published in May. It is available to readers of History Today at a special price from the Museum of the Order of St John, St John's Gate, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4DA (phone 0171-253 6644). Price 14. 95 [pounds sterling] hardback, 9.95 [pounds sterling] paperback, plus p+p.
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Author:Riley-Smith, Jonathan
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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