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The order of Malta: modern by tradition.

On receiving the invitation to address the Australian Catholic Historical Society on the history of the Order of Malta, I was both honoured and daunted. Why?

The Society within the cultural life of the Church is a very august organisation with a proud heritage--now more than 70 years old and under the patronage of the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney. It is also a respected and revered custodian of Australian Catholic tradition. Having accepted the invitation, an early challenge was that of limiting the length of my paper. How does one condense the history of a church/ state institution, which has enjoyed a distinguished lineage for almost ten centuries, into a thirty minute address?

A Unique Institution

Let me start with some brief background on the Order, before I embark on this history odyssey.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (or the Order of Malta as it is more usually known) has a unique status within the Catholic Church. It is of hybrid nature a religious body but with its members--lay persons, men and women or Knights and Dames--being non-religious.

Established in mediaeval Jerusalem by a Benedictine--the saintly Fra Gerard--around 1048 to run a hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land, it is a religious entity with its international membership today made up of eminent practising Catholics who have made a contribution to church and state.

True--it does have official chaplains as religious advisers and they too are embraced within the Order, but their status is different to that of the Knights and Dames. In Australia the Order, as elsewhere, has an active relationship with the Church and with those cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests who are chaplains to the Association.

Over its long history, its members have pursued two goals: Tuitio Fidei, (the protection of the faith) and Obsequium Pauperum (aid to those in need). Of course these two aims merge together in practice. While this history of the Order will have a focus on Obsequium Pauperum, such must be viewed through the ever-present prism of Tuitio Fidei.

That the Order is an integral part of the Catholic Church is reinforced by its links with the Holy See, from its early days through to the present. The 12th century Papal Bull--see more below--conferring sovereignty on the Order underlines the support from Rome from early times. Over the centuries, there have been many popes who were Knights of Malta. These included in more recent times John XXIII and Benedict XVI. There have also been a number of other important institutional links enduring still today with the Holy See and the Papacy.

The Order's 11th century establishment has meant that it enjoys a seniority in time to other western rite Catholic religious orders, with the exception of the Benedictines and the Augustinians. Bodies established after the Order of Malta include the Franciscans--founded in 1209--and the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--established in 1540.

An Acknowledgement

I wish to gratefully acknowledge an indebtedness to the erudition of my Confrere Sir James Gobbo for making available to me his earlier scholarship. Any errors however in my text are completely of my doing.


In 1048 although Jerusalem was under Muslim control it was still possible for Christian pilgrims, with difficulty, to visit the Holy Land. Some merchants from Amalfi who had trading interests in Palestine and Asia Minor paid for the building of a hospice there for pilgrims. Amalfi, along with other city states Venice and Genoa then controlled much of the trade between the East and Europe.

At that time, at least so far as Europe was concerned, there were few hospitals providing medical treatment as we know it today. There were hospices certainly which were essentially places where food and shelter were provided. The limited role of a hospital was to change under the Order in Jerusalem, partly due to the influence of Greek doctors and the more advanced Byzantine tradition of organised hospital care.

After the armies of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099, the existing hospital infrastructure grew considerably and could soon accommodate some 2,000 persons. In many respects the Hospital was very avant garde. There was a separate bed for each person and the bed linen was changed regularly. By contrast, even into the 1700's, it was common for hospital patients in Europe to sleep three to a bed.

The Order's Hospital in Jerusalem after 1099 had two physicians and two surgeons in full time attendance. It was to be a long time before hospitals in Europe had permanent medical staffing as a matter of course. In feudal times, doctors were generally not part of the staff of a hospital and they only provided treatment on an irregular basis to patients. Indeed, even a well known hospital like St Bartholomew's in London, as late as the 18th century had doctors calling only once a week.

It needs to be remembered that although the Catholic Church became very active in health care, it did not unequivocally foster the practice of medicine. In the 11th century it prohibited post-mortem examinations. As one historian put it, "the practice of surgery was left to uneducated itinerant bone setters, oculists and cutters of stone".

Voltaire ever cynical and definitely not a Hospitaller or Knight of Malta was centuries later to describe medicine as, "the art of amusing the patient while nature cures the illness".

As indicated, Fra Gerard had been in charge of the Hospital in Jerusalem from around 1048. With the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by the Crusaders, there was a formalising of his group of committed workers who pledged themselves to follow certain religious principles and to work for the Hospital. They became known, not surprisingly, as Hospitallers. Their worthiness was formally recognised in 1113 by Pope Paschal II in a Papal Bull (a form of letters patent or decree) as an independent religious order of the Church, thus conferring a sovereignty which is still in force today.

The early novice Hospitaller had to commit to a set of rules and to confirm that he was not married nor in debt, nor subject to any other lord --or to another order. At a later date distinctions of noble birth became all important with the move into military activities--traditionally linked to knightly endeavours. The family tree was carefully investigated before a candidate could be considered for membership. (This practice still largely survives in Europe where aristocratic lineage has been seen as a condition of membership of the Order.)

Upon admission the novice swore to live and die in the service of the Order, in chastity and without personal property, and to regard the sick and the poor as his lords and masters. It was a hard oath for a young man often of wealth and nobility to take but it has to be seen in the context of his religious faith. The commitment was taken seriously and rigorously enforced. Therefore, the Order which Blessed Gerard founded was quite revolutionary in its day for its members were required to treat the sick and the poor "as our lords, whose servants we acknowledge ourselves to be". This was a remarkable rule in the 12th century when the then known world was still based on the feudal concept of lord and serf.

Soon after 1099 the Hospitallers had hospitals also at the main pilgrim embarkation ports in the Mediterranean such as Marseille, Messina and Bari. The Hospitaller Order of St John, as it became known, grew rapidly. Indeed the 1113 Papal Bull recites that the Order was confirmed in the tenure of "all its honours and possessions" with properties in Pisa, Bari, Otranto, Taranto and Messina.

Military Role of the Hospitallers

Some fifty years after foundation, the Hospitallers developed a military capability. This was required largely because of the need to defend their presence in Palestine against the increasingly hostile Islamic warlords. This hostility had intensified because of the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 and the behaviour of the Crusaders after the city fell to them.

At that time all members of the Hospitaller Order swore the three oaths --poverty, chastity and obedience--a characteristic of religious orders even today. Their discipline then was strict and although all of them became soldiers they continued to care for the sick in their hospitals.

Eventually the Muslims recaptured Jerusalem and regained control of the whole of Palestine and Syria. In 1291 the Knights Hospitaller were obliged to leave Jerusalem.


From 1309 Rhodes was to become the new home for the Knights who were now a naval as well as a military power. From Rhodes they could maintain links with the cities of Asia Minor and also harass Muslim shipping. Rhodes had a good harbor, its land was fertile and it had ample forests to supply timber for shipbuilding.

The Knights however were never to lose sight of their Christian faith and origins plus their primary role as Hospitallers. It was to be an important element of their survival for it meant that in spite of occasional military setbacks they still generated spiritual and financial support. On Rhodes the Knights continued their ministration to the poor through hospital work. The hospital constructed by them in 1478 is still substantially intact and is now the Archaeological Museum. It was in advance of any hospital then to be found in the West.

On admission to the Hospital the patients were required to bathe, confess and make their wills before the Prior. They were not permitted to disobey the orders of the physicians, or to change the prescribed treatment, but were always treated with respect. Irrespective of means they all had their own bed, protected by curtains, and might choose their food which was served as in the past from silver vessels. Both these measures were very significant and not just because they represented a departure from the accepted norm in Europe. Individual beds and the serving of food from metal vessels and not wood were important aspects of healthcare because they minimized the danger of cross infection from contagious disease.

There were several important medical measures introduced in Rhodes, including under Grand Master d'Aubusson (1503-1512) a health commission. Its membership consisted of Knights of the Order and citizens of the island as well as physicians and apothecaries from the Hospital. During plague epidemics a strict quarantine was enforced. All persons who had been exposed to the disease were isolated for a period of forty days (reputedly the origin of the term "quarantine"). If the exposure had been through their fault, a fine of 50 ducats was levied.

Organisation of the Order

It was during the Rhodes period (1309-1522) that the Knights settled on a more formal organisational structure. Members of the Order who came to Rhodes from all over Europe were from the beginning of the fourteenth century grouped according to the language spoken. There were thus, initially, seven such groups or Langues (Tongues): Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (with Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany. In 1462 Castile and Portugal separated from the Langue of Aragon and formed an eighth Langue.

The Order as a sovereign entity was ruled then and now by the Grand Master. The Sovereign Council of the Order for a long time minted its own currency and maintained then and now diplomatic relations with other states. His Highness the Grand Master was titled Prince of Rhodes, as later he was Prince of Malta. The high officers of the Order were selected from different Langues or political states as is still effectively the case today.

The defence of particular portions of the walls of Rhodes, which were about three kilometres in length, was allocated to individual Langues. Each had an auberge or inn which was its meeting place. These are well preserved in Rhodes today. Most are in a winding avenue known as the Street of Knights and each has its own coat of arms conspicuous on the facade of its premises. I recommend a stroll down this "memory lane" which walk I did some decades ago.

The Knights always aspired to return to Palestine and at their zenith on Rhodes they controlled much of the seaways plus major cities in Asia Minor and many of the islands around Rhodes.

One of the best preserved examples of the Order's physical presence on the nearby eastern coast of what is now Turkey is the Castle of St Peter at Bodrum. The Castle was constructed by the Knights and is today substantially as they left it when they had to pull back in the face of Muslim aggression.. The walls of the Castle bear the coats of arms of members of the Order and of their patrons. This is especially evident on the English Tower which was built as a result of gifts made by King Henry IV of England and certain English nobles such as the Earl of Arundel, brother of the Duke of Norfolk.

Once the Turkish Moslems had conquered the walled city of Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1453, it was only a question of time before they sought to capture Rhodes.

In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent assembled an enormous army and navy and laid siege to Rhodes. His forces arrived in 400 ships with a reported troop force of 100,000 men. The assembling and supply of the large besieging force was not difficult for the Muslims since Rhodes was only 30 kilometres off the coast of Turkey. The fortifications of Rhodes had been increased by the Knights. They were only about 500 in number, supported by about 1,500 mercenaries and were greatly outnumbered. The siege lasted four months.

Eventually the Knights were forced to agree to surrender. In 1523 they were allowed with full military honours to leave in their ships with all their followers and possessions on the understanding they would no longer wage war against Islam. It was a promise that they were to break. Some 4,000 residents of Rhodes exited with the Knights. Amongst the possessions taken were precious relics of the Order and the much venerated spiritual art work icon of the Virgin Mary from the mountain shrine at Philerme (Filerimos) some fifteen kilometres from the city of Rhodes. According to legend, the image of the Virgin of Philerme (still an important and revered icon of the Order today) was painted by St Luke the Evangelist.


With their expulsion in 1523 from Rhodes the Knights having been a sovereign power in Rhodes now once again found themselves momentarily without a home. In 1530 they were granted the islands of Malta and Gozo by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor upon the insistence of Pope Clement VII. The Deed of Donation by the Emperor is in the Archives of the Order of St John in the National Library in Valletta. It is a superb example of the art of the legal conveyancer. It recites that the gift is made so that the Knights "should no longer be compelled to wander the world". It provided that the Knights were to pay as a due a falcon, to be presented to the Emperor each year on the Feast of All Saints. It also established that the Order should remain neutral in any war between Christian nations.

The Knights became the Sovereign Government of Malta. Consistent with their spirituality and defence of the faith they also continued via their traditional Hospitaller involvement the care of the sick and the poor. This was to be combined with a military and naval focus on the Muslims. It was again only a question of time before Suleiman responded to the mounting interference by the Knights' maritime forces with his trade and shipping in the Mediterranean.

There followed in 1565 the Great Siege of Malta, arguably one of the most famous and best recorded martial exercises in history. The Siege lasted from May to September in that year. Despite much loss of life, the defenders held firm and the Islamic forces finally withdrew. This represented the first major defeat for the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. If Malta had fallen, it would have given the Muslims strategic control of the Mediterranean and threatened Christendom. Their defeat marked the commencement of their decline.. Not long after, in 1571, in the famous Battle of Lepanto, the Turkish Muslim fleet was destroyed by superior forces which included the galleys of the Order.

The Great Hospital in Valletta

After the historic victory of Lepanto, the Knights made Malta their then undisputed home. They built a beautiful new city, Valletta. It was richly endowed with beautiful churches and named after Jean de Valette, the Grand Master at the time of the Great Siege. St John's Co-Cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as the conventual church for the Knights. The Grand Masters and other Knights donated gifts of high cultural value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art. Above all, the Knights continued their commitment under Obsequium Pauperum to the care of the sick and constructed the Great Hospital, which once again was ahead of its time.

As a brief aside it is of interest to note that the Great Hospital with its proximity to Turkey was to be utilized some 241 years later in the treatment of seriously injured Australian and New Zealand troops evacuated from the beaches of Gallipoli.

The building later to be known as the Holy Infirmary is still intact although now no longer used as a hospital. It was 155 metres long, airy and spacious. Each patient had a separate area with his own bed and mosquito netting. When not at sea or on active service, the Knights were obliged to tend to the patients and serve their meals. All eating and drinking implements were made of silver, "not for ostentation but for decorum and cleanliness".

The Infirmary was adorned by a series of paintings by Mattia Preti depicting episodes in the Order's history. He was an Italian painter of standing who spent some years on Malta carrying out commissions for the Order. Even more distinguished was the great Caravaggio allegedly a Knight of Malta who took refuge in Malta following a serious criminal charge in Rome. His great masterpiece "The Beheading of St John the Baptist" (the patron saint of the Order) and other works still hang today in the Cathedral in Valletta.

Part of the Order Hospital was a "ronta" or wheel in a contiguous building. It consisted of a room with a large rotating bed, communicating with the road outside through a discreet opening in the wall. Through this window unwanted or illegitimate babies (then called foundlings) were discreetly left on the bed from where the Infirmary staff collected them and cared for them. The entire apparatus was built in such a way that the person depositing the infant could do so without being seen from inside and thus without revealing any identity. The children were kept there until foster mothers could be found for them. Records reveal that in 1787 and 1788, 212 babies were admitted. The Infirmary also offered hospitality to many pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. They were given food and shelter and passages were sought by them on ships directed towards the East.

In 1676 the Holy Infirmary founded the University School of Anatomy and Surgery in Malta which was to become one of the most famous in Europe. The study of anatomy was made compulsory for all medical students and they regularly had to attend lessons and demonstrations on the dissection of cadavers. In order to facilitate this study, it was determined that the bodies of patients who had died in the Infirmary could be dissected by the senior anatomy teacher. At that time, such an opportunity for studying anatomy was rare.

An early account of the Holy Infirmary was depicted in a chronicle of March 1687 by an emissary of His British Majesty, who said: ".... passing through the gate, I went around the Pharmacy, which was very well stocked. Then I visited the Doctors' rooms and entered the Square Courtyard. An intense perfume permeated it! There was a garden of oranges and lemons. From here I passed into another Courtyard which, in turn, had a certain number of citrons, and their sweet fragrant perfume wafted freshly in all the rooms arranged around it. Although there were numerous patients the atmosphere was pleasant, sweet and clean ... All the patients were served by Knights with silver plates...."

The Infirmary was staffed by a well qualified medico-surgical group. In 1725 the records indicate that the professional personnel included three senior physicians, three junior physicians, three senior surgeons, two junior "experienced" surgeons and six medical practitioners and a phlebotomist, with two assistants, "applying leeches, cataplasms and vesicants". The nursing staff consisted of a certain number of "servants or guardians" but as before the food was distributed and served by Knights and novices who looked after the sick during meals.

As the power of Islam waned, so also did the relative importance of the military standing of the Knights of Malta--as they were known--for there was less pressure on them to maintain their soldierly regimen and discipline. By 1798 when Napoleon's fleet came to Malta on the way to Egypt, the Knights were not able to repeat their great deeds of the past against the Muslims and Malta surrendered. Napoleon took away the treasures of the Knights including all the bullion and silver plate. Almost all went to the bottom of the sea along with most of his ships at the Battle of the Nile where Nelson scored a great victory.

The British then seized Malta and, in breach of the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, failed to return it to the Knights. The British held Malta until the Maltese secured their independence in 1964.

After Malta

With the fall of Malta in 1798, the Order was, once again, without a home for nearly 40 years. The Tsar of Russia sought to capture the Office of Grand Master in 1801 and to appoint himself to the position. The Tsar's action was entirely invalid and contrary to the Order's Rule. He was not Catholic; he was not celibate; he was not elected by a duly constituted meeting of the Order and his so called election was never approved by the Pope. In 1834 the Order was re-established, in Rome where it has remained ever since. There it has its international headquarters, enjoying extra-territorial status. The Grand Magistry, where the Grand Master as Prince of the Order officially resides, is in the Palazzo Malta on Via Condotti, some 200 metres from the Spanish Steps.

The original Hospitaller missions--Tuitio Fidei linked with Obsequium Pauperum--became once again the principal focus and activity of the Order and at the end of the 19th century, a significant revival of the Order of Malta began. This was based not on any military or naval role but on that which had always been the primary justification for the Order, namely the care of our lords the sick.

False Orders

There is not sufficient time to fully discuss a different issue which has emerged in recent centuries, namely the many unauthorised or un-recognised "chivalric" orders of St John, most of which claim some identification with the Order of Malta or its history. There are a large number of such orders, including several in Australia. Using symbols and names not unlike those of the Order, they attempt to pass themselves off as the Order of Malta. Caution should be exercised in any contact with individuals purporting to do so. In some cases they may have undertaken useful charitable work but in some overseas locations they have been fronts for disreputable, even criminal organisations.

By contrast there are several orders which are recognized including those of Papal Knighthood. Others include The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. This body does not have sovereignty. Another such body is The Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem which runs the St John Ambulance Corps in many places around the world. This body was founded in England in the 19th century and is recognized by the Order of Malta. There is today a fraternal relationship between the two organisations.

The Order of Malta Today

It is appropriate to describe briefly the current membership and government of the Order.

There are over 12,000 members of the Order in some 59 countries. As indicated earlier, the qualifications for membership are, in summary, that the candidate be a practising Catholic and have a record of community service, including a commitment to the work of the Order. Membership is by invitation not application. Admission is determined by the Sovereign Council in Rome. As a member of a religious order, Knights and Dames of the Order are still required to focus on spirituality in their day-to-day living as well as on the concomitant Hospitaller or humanitarian role. New members of the Order are reminded at their Investiture that they are joining a religious Order which requires a serious and practical commitment to their Catholic faith.

The essential government of the Order has not changed much over the centuries. Certain senior offices, including that of the Grand Master, can only be occupied by professed religious who take the three traditional vows which had formerly been taken by all members of the Order. Membership of the governing body, the Sovereign Council, is truly international. There have been two significant changes however in membership in the last century.

In the 1920's it was agreed that candidates at least in the New World did not have to demonstrate nobiliary proofs. A proportion of the Order is thus now composed of members of Magistral Grace. In other words, they are admitted at the discretion of the Grand Master.

The other important change which followed the decline of the military role is the welcoming of women to the Order as Dames. In the tradition of humanitarian or hospitaller service and reflecting modern society the Dames play a vital role working alongside the Knights in the delivery of aid. The Order's Sovereignty Today

The Grand Magistry of the Order continues to be responsible for the international governance of the Order and for its Sovereign and diplomatic role. The Order as a sovereign entity in international law since 1113 is presently recognised by 104 states and supranational agencies with which it enjoys diplomatic or official relations, usually with an exchange of ambassadors. Among the most recent linkages are those with Canada, Russia and Timor-Leste. The number of states with which the Order enjoys relations has doubled since 1995, thus demonstrating that over nearly 10 centuries of existence its vigour and dynamism has been maintained. There is a strong diplomatic presence throughout Latin America and the African continent.

The Order enjoys Permanent Observer status with missions at the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Vienna. It is also linked through aid disbursement and otherwise with a number of supra-national bodies such as the European Union, WHO and UNESCO. The Order's diplomatic network facilitates the emergency aid role with an ability to work at the UN and elsewhere on a government-to-government basis and thus respond quickly when disaster strikes.

Humanitarian Aid

The Order carries out much of its work in the Hospitaller tradition at a regional level mainly through its national associations. It has a part time labour force of some 80,000 skilled volunteer staff ready to be called upon at short notice plus a full time corps of some 20,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics. Its work includes the conduct of leprosaria, hospitals and infirmaries, help to the aged, and the distribution of emergency aid to disaster-stricken countries.

A very significant recent development was the establishment in 2005, out of the Order of Malta Hospitaller arm in Germany, of Malteser International as an NGO entity. MI has quickly achieved international status as a professional deliverer of emergency humanitarian aid and has been active across the world including in the SE Asian region. It was very occupied for instance in providing relief following the 2004 tsunami especially in Aceh Province in Indonesia and in Thailand, Sri Lanka and southern India. It was also active in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis and more recently with the Order in Cambodia and Thailand in flood relief.

MI and the Order itself are often used as conduits for the distribution of aid money by governments and supranational bodies. This entrusting of public money testifies to the professionalism, efficiency, accountability and transparency of the operations of both bodies.

Order Aid within an Australian and SE Asian Context

Over the last decade both the Order and MI have been the recipients of funds on different occasions from AusAID, the Australian Government aid agency.

The Order in Australia has liaised with MI in its Hospitaller role. The Australian Association's humanitarian effort is visible not only domestically but with near neighbours such as Papua New Guinea and The Solomons. In Timor-Leste it has been responsible for the re-establishment of a Dili ambulance corps and the linked training by the Australian Catholic University of ambulance paramedics. It is pursuing actively an involvement in several other Hospitaller roles including palliative care and maternal health in concert with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health. It is also in dialogue with the Catholic Church there on these health issues.

Asian Expansion

A feature of the Order in Australia--established in 1974--has been a strong focus on Asia over the last decade. The Australian Association enjoys the benefits from the linkages of the Order's diplomatic relations with a number of SE Asian states including Cambodia, Thailand, The Philippines and more recently with Timor-Leste.

The development of a presence for the Order on the ground in the region was a responsibility entrusted to the Australian Association by Sovereign Council more than a decade ago. A new Order Association was established in Singapore in 2005 initially as an Australian Delegation. Steps are quite advanced under Australian auspices for an Order presence in Hong Kong and Thailand with other countries in the immediate region also under active consideration.


This short history of the Order shows an organisation possessing from its foundation in 1048 very strong and enduring values. It has a tradition and a record of tenacity and of triumphing over adversity, ever renewing itself in a way that is both faithful to its original Hospitaller role and relevant in current society, always true to the principle of "Modern by Tradition".

by James Dominguez *

* James Dominguez was a stockbroker and investment banker, Chairman of St Vincent's Public Hospital in Sydney, presently a member of other boards and a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great. He is also Ambassador for the Order of Malta to SE Asia and the Far East. This talk was given to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 9 Oct 2011.
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Author:Dominguez, James
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Speech
Geographic Code:4EXML
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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