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Caspar Gutman: What do you know, sir, about the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and other things?
The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM), known also as The Knights Hospitallers, the Knights of St. John, the Knights of Rhodes, the Knights of Malta, and about a dozen variations thereon, is a Roman Catholic religious order and the oldest and perhaps most important of the three great orders of crusading knights, the other two being The Knights Templar and The Teutonic Knights.
The birth of the Order dates back to around 1048. Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Caliph of Egypt the authorization to build a church, convent, and hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims. The Order of St. John of Jerusalem — the monastic community that ran the hospital for the pilgrims in the Holy Land — became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. With the Bull of 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital and placed it under the ægis of the Holy See, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other secular or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became an Order exempt from all Church authority except for the pope's, and paid no tithes. All the Knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The habit of the order consisted of a black cloak with a white cross, which by the thirteenth century had assumed the eight-pointed form familiar today as the Maltese Cross.
The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem regarding The Crusades obliged the Order to take on the military defense of the sick, the pilgrims and the territories that the crusaders had conquered from the Muslims. The Order thus added military operations to its hospitaller mission.
When the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land fell in 1291, the Order settled first in Cyprus and then, in 1310, led by Grand Master Foulques de Villaret, on the island of Rhodes. The military role of the Order shifted from land-based to naval-based operations in the Mediterranean, serving as a sort of Catholic Coast Guard against both Muslim navies and pirates and sometimes engaging in something very like piracy against Muslims themselves.
In 1523, after six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Knights were forced to surrender and abandon Rhodes. The Order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de l'Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, granted to the Order by Emperor Charles V with the approval of Pope Clement VII. In 1565 the Knights, led by Grand Master Jean de la Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege by the Turks. In 1571, the fleet of the Order, then one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, contributed to the ultimate destruction of the Ottoman naval power in the Battle of Lepanto.
Two hundred years later, in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island for its strategic value during his Egyptian campaign. Because of the Order's Rule prohibiting them from raising weapons against other Christians, the knights were forced to leave Malta (ironically, the very anti-Christian sentiment of the Revolutionary French helped provoke a rebellion among the Maltese only two years afterwards). Although the sovereign rights of the Order in the island of Malta had been reaffirmed by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order has never been able to return. After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome. In the 20th century the original Hospitaller mission became once again the main activity of the Order and lives on today as the Sovereign Order of Malta.
It should be noted that there are various Protestant honorary societies, such as the German and Dutch Johanniterorden and the English Venerable Order of St. John, that claim descent from the original Roman Catholic military order. These groups served largely as honors for the nobility of their respective countries, but have also performed important charitable works, such as the well-known St. John Ambulance service.
In popular culture, the Knights Hospitallers are much less used than their brother orders, the Templars and The Teutonic Knights. They tend to be used more as local color, their distinctive habits adding a note of pageantry to a historical setting (as, for example, in John Webster's The White Devil, whence the picture quote). When they do appear, they are apt to appear as gentler, more likable figures than those other knights, perhaps because of the emphasis on their hospitaller function, or possibly because they never alienated powerful secular figures, as the Templars did the King of France and the Teutonic Knights the King of Poland (incidentally, a great many Templars who survived that organization's destruction promptly joined the Hospitallers, because...well, what else is a Warrior Monk with no order of his own going to do?). Interestingly, there are a surprising number of extremely fine paintings of Knights of Malta by distinguished artists such as Titian and Caravaggio (who was himself for a brief time a member of the Order).
Tropes Associated With The Knights Hospitallers:
- All Monks Know Kung Fu
- Badass Preacher
- Badass Bookworm: All Brethren were well educated and knew philosophy, sciences and arts. During the times when literacy was reserved to the upper layers of the society, the brethren formed both a military and intellectual elite.
- Black Knight: They favoured blackened armour as it stood better rust at sea than if it had been polished.
- Bring My Red Jacket: Their combat uniform was, and is still, a red surcoat with a white Maltese cross. The famous black habit was changed around 1248 due to practical considerations (Fighting is kind of hard while wearing a bulky monk's robe!)
- Chest Insignia: Just look at the picture.
- Church Militant
- Combat Medic: They got their start off as an monastic order that cared for the sick and wounded and from then on the order trained its memebers with the best medical knowledge availible during their time.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: The siege of Malta. About 8000 Maltese militiamen who barely knew how to use a gun lead by 700 knights in an old, outdated order against a 40,000 strong force of troops from the one of the most powerful empires in the old world. Guess who won?
- Forensic Phlebotinum: By tradition Hospitallers would deed their bodies over to be dissected For Medical Knowledge after their deaths. Just Think of the Potential.
- Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Yeah, that's a lot of text, but we all know what it really means: Pirate Knights. Pirate Monk Knights.
- Pirate Monk Doctor Knights
- Warrior Monk
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The Hospitallers are unique in offering examples of sea-faring knights.
Works associated with the Knights Hospitallers:
- David Thewlis plays a nameless but profound Hospitaller in Kingdom of Heaven. In the director's cut he is implied to be an angel, as he walks into the desert and vanishes without a trace.
- Some extended material calls him Brother John. Which tells us next to nothing.
- The Maltese Falcon: They were the original owners of The Black Bird.
- A sort of appearance in the Belisarius Series. The military religious order founded by Michael of Macedonia on the suggestion of Aide are called the Knights Hospitaller most of the time, though the imagery used (especially the red cross on white) is usually that of the Knights Templar. One edition even slips up and calls them Templars in one instance.
- Dorothy Dunnett's The Disorderly Knights, third book in the Lymond Chronicles, depicts the 1551 siege of Malta, in which the Turks sack Gozo and take Tripoli. Grand Master Juan de Homedes is portrayed as a greedy incompetent, while the knights are too distracted by in-fighting to focus on their defenses. Many of the individual knights do mean well including Lymond's childhood friend and future sidekick Jerott Blythe, but the blindness of their faith leaves them suceptible to anti-Muslim bigotry as well as to manipulation by charismatic leaders such as Lymond's great antagonist, the falsely-pious knight Gabriel.
- In Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, the Hospitaller, Ralph de Vipont, is a much less formidable figure than any of the other challengers at Ashby-de-la-Zouche.
Live Action TV
- Incredibly tenuous, yet obligatory Doctor Who example: the original TARDIS prop had a St. John's Ambulance badge on the door. Apparently it's making a reappearance in the next season with Matt Smith.
- The Siege of Rhodes, the first British opera (1658), is about the conflict of the Hospitallers against the Turks for the eponymous island.
- The Black Templar Space Marines in Warhammer 40000 wear Hospitaller colors and are organized along the lines of a monastic order, although they are just as much Templars.
- The Sisters Hospitaller of the Adepta Sororitas are perhaps a more straight example. A non-militant section of the Sisters of Battle, They are excellent fighters by the Imperium's standards, but their main focus is on treating the wounded and easing the pain of the dying. While they have no problems torturing a confession out of heretics using their medical gear, they are still beloved as saints amongst the Imperial citizenry for their tireless and selfless (often self-sacrificing) efforts in the medical field-- famous as they are for darting across a battlefield without any sign of fear so that they can treat a wounded soldier, no matter his or her rank.
- Along with the Templars, The Knights Hospitaller are one of the knightly orders battling the demonic minions of The Unholy on the living planet of Wormwood in Rifts.
- Dungeons and Dragons has featured various Paladin variants known as Knights Hospitaller; they focus more on the normally secondary casting/healing aspects of the base class than its martial ability.
- One of the best defense-and-counterattack oriented armies in the DBM and DBMM.
- In Infinity, the Hospitallers are one of several elite, Church-funded power-armor units that PanOceana can field, specializing in battlefield rescues and medical support.
- One appears in a walk-on part in John Webster's The White Devil.
- Morgan Black, a protagonist in Age of Empires III, is a Hospitaller and embarks on a quest on which one of the objectives is finding a way to rebuild the order. Oddly enough it turns out to be the Hospitallers rather than the Templars the ones behind the Ancient Conspiracy this time.
- Assassin's Creed: With the Templars operating as a mysterious background force, Hospitallers represent a lot of the generic knights to be stabbed-inna-throat in Acre. One of the high-profile targets is their leader, an actual surgeon in an early mental asylum. Of course, prone to massive historical revisionism.
- In both Total War games set in the Medieval period, Hospitallers appear in the roster of almost all Christian factions (along with Templars, Teutonics and the Knights of Santiago). In Medieval they only appear as part of the free troops granted when a crusade is launched, while Medieval II allows the creation of Hospitaller guilds in any province, although the prerequisites for them quasi-require a Crusade or two. Medieval II's extension campaign centered around the Crusader Kingdoms expands their roster a lot. Finally, in Empire, the Knights of Malta are their own minor faction which usually spends the whole game keeping the Barbary Pirates in check.