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A Pilgrimage of Faith, War, and Charity: The Order of the Hospital from Jerusalem to Malta
By Victor Mallia-Milanes
Religion, Ritual and Mythology Aspects of Identity Formation in Europe, edited by Joaquim Carvalho (Pisa University Press, 2006)
Introduction: The Hospitaller Order of St John, whose origins are traced back to the years before the First Crusade, began as a purely charitable institution in Jerusalem and, through the crusading movement and other related factors, gradually evolved into an exempt religious-military order of the Latin Church. Its two functions – to care for the sick and the poor and to fight for the Christian faith – were retained throughout its protracted pilgrimage from Jerusalem, through Acre, Cyprus, and Rhodes, to Malta. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Order’s consequent eviction from the central Mediterranean island determined the need to rethink its constitution and to revert to its original charitable raison d’être. Its performance during this long pilgrimage constituted both a strong element of historical continuity and a powerful force of long-term change.
Whatever the true political motives behind it were, Urban II’s famous sermon, delivered in an open field outside Clermont on 27 November 1095, was an ingenious intellectual endeavour at reconciliation. He succeeded in bringing intimately together hitherto disparate realities to form a new conceptual phenomenon. Cloistered monastic life, chivalry, spiritual combat and worldly warfare, the traditional pilgrimage, the evangelical virtues of love and peace – all these realities had been for long distinct and incompatible. The emergence of the Cluniacs in the 11th century and the pervasive spiritual fervour of the 12th created the context which rendered changes in the general attitude towards these realities possible. Indeed their occurrence had already begun albeit at almost imperceptible rhythms. The ‘emergence of a new ideal of Christian knighthood’ was one such, the innovative fusion of the miles Christi, spiritually fighting the forces of evil, and the knight endeavouring to ‘repel the enemies of Christ by material arms’. Warfare was thus transformed into a holy activity and whoever participated in it was offered spiritual rewards in the form of indulgences for the remission of sins. The alarmingly dangerous spread of Islam which ‘had swept through Asia Minor and had almost reached Constantinople’, the persistent requests from Byzantium to the West for mercenaries and other military help, and the Latin Church’s response to both consolidated the revolutionary drift in the shape and form assumed by the crusading movement which Urban II’s long preaching tour round France had inaugurated.