Since Jonathan Riley-Smith wrote his pioneering book on the history of the Hospitallers, The Knights of St John in Jerusalem and Cyprus, 1050-1310 (London, 1967), our knowledge of the Order, its statutes, and history has greatly improved. One should mention, in this regard, the important contribution made by Anthony Lutrell, whose meticulous research about different aspects of the Order's history was partly condensed in the three-volume collection published by Ashgate (1982, 1992, and 1999). Three congresses devoted to the history of the Military Orders have provided an important stimulus to research, as well. The present book, fulfills an important need, as it brings together the investigations of the last fifty years, research that is not always easily accessible to the general reader.
As Dr. Nicholson herself declares, "This study is intended to provide a reference work for scholars and students who come across the Hospitallers in the course of other reading or research. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive guide to the whole history of the Order" (ix). Still, the historical range of her work is rather impressive. It runs from the origins of the Order in the early twelfth century up to the present day, while giving attention to the changing geographical foci of the Hospitallers, from the Latin East and the European frontiers, to Rhodes and Malta. Readers will find special interest in the list of the Order's masters (xi), the up-to-date, comprehensive bibliography (147-167), as well as the maps and beautiful pictures (many of them original) that enrich the volume. Dr. Nicholson has succeeded in giving a clear description of the first steps of the Order, its development under papal patronage and European support, and its military activity in the Latin East and the European frontier. The Hospitallers' presence in Rhodes (1306-1522) and Malta (1530-1798), as well as the later development of the Order up to the present day, receive special attention from a chronological perspective. The chapters dealing with the Hospitallers' organization and religious life, as well as the Order's economic and political activities in Europe, provide an interesting insight into their way of life and their influence on European history as a whole. As such, these chapters are of great importance for the general reader, who may not be familiar with the history of the Crusades and the Latin East. References to the sources -- though scanty for the later period -- supply the readers with first-hand information and enrich an otherwise descriptive approach.
The attempt to provide "a reference work" dictated the selective approach that characterizes the book, though it sometimes brings about tricky generalizations. Thus, the legitimization of war, so problematic in Christian theology, receives just a brief mention, as does the no-less problematic relationship between Hospitallers and Templars, which had a decisive role in the dramatic history of the Latin Kingdoms. Although the author is conscious of the need for previous information to understand some concepts and carefully explains their use in the Hospitaller context, an introductory chapter dealing with the Crusades, their origins and development, as well as a glossary, might perhaps have facilitated reading for the general public.
Still, as it stands, Helen Nicholson's book answers a need that the ever-growing interest in the Crusades and the Middle Ages has only increased.