13.08.04, Riley-Smith, The Knights Hospitaller in the Levant, c.1070-1309

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Dale Streeter

The Medieval Review 13.08.04

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Knights Hospitaller in the Levant, c.1070-1309. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. xiii, 334. ISBN: 978-0-230-29083-9.

Reviewed by:
Dale Streeter
Eastern New Mexico University

With this book, Jonathan Riley-Smith has made another significant contribution to the understanding of the military orders in the Levant during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Here he focuses on the "other order," the Hospitallers, whose bifurcated role to both nurse the sick and to fight to defend the Holy Land is often hard for modern minds to appreciate. This work is the newest addition to the author's large body of work that defines modern Crusade studies. The author has written a book that concentrates his attention on the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, from their approximate foundation in latter half of the eleventh century, even before the conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099, to their evacuation to Rhodes after the fall of Acre in 1291. The activities of the order, first as the Knights of Rhodes and then, after 1530, as the Knights of Malta, reflected in their military activities and then finally as a charitable organization continuing to the present day provide a certain symmetry to their history. Riley-Smith has provided a meticulously researched and thorough presentation of the order and its religious, military, economic, and political activities in the Levant.

The book is organized in five parts comprising fifteen chapters, a prologue, an epilogue, an appendix that provides a list of the masters of the order from 1099 to 1317, a set of maps, endnotes, bibliography, and index. The maps are useful to locate places named in the text, although not all places mentioned are found on the maps. The map of the Levant unfortunately does not distinguish between towns and castles, a small but useful distinction. The notes are complete and informative and reveal the deep research the author has undertaken. Although quite readable, as are all of Riley-Smith's works, this is not a popular history in the sense of superficial or rudimentary. It is a work of intensive scholarship relying primarily on original documents, particularly the order's own legislation. Indeed, any student of the period will find that the bibliography and references are in themselves an education. The endnotes are fully referenced with discursive comments to illuminate the points and provide useful cross references to the text. This reviewer was dismayed, however to find missing text in the notes, most likely a production error (chap.1, n. 82). The index is complete, but not comprehensive. The main topics, places, and personalities are listed, but for major entries a list of pages is provided without subheads. Although this is not uncommon in modern publishing (the cost of indexing is rising like everything else), it is unfortunate in a book of this caliber for those who wish to look again at some earlier point. One suspects that the author found this annoying as well.

Part I contains chapters one to four and provides a survey of the history of the order from its inception to the loss of Acre and its relocation to first Cyprus and then Rhodes in the fourteenth century. Particularly of interest is the relationship between the Hospitallers and their sometime partners and constant rivals, the Templars. The competition for resources and support from the western kingdoms is a constant theme in their relationship. The vying for influence and power in the Levantine states is complex and not always an attractive sight in light of their declared missions. Riley-Smith also posits that for the most part the Hospitallers supported the ruling houses (the legitimate cause), while the Templars supported the barons or settlers, as he calls them.

In part II, the evolution of the mission of the order is described in two chapters. The original mission was "to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and bury the dead" (69). This duty reflected the desire among pious laymen to live the vita apostolica that was becoming increasing popular in Europe. Riley-Smith observes that "in their loving respect for the poor, the Hospitallers foreshadowed the Franciscans" (69). The intense level of care given the sick, as if the patient was Christ himself, was the primary care of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. The ratio of nurses to patients in the Hospital was 1:2, which made high demands on the order's manpower. The apparent conflict of this care giving with the growing role in the military defense of the Holy Land was never completely resolved. However, the necessity to protect the Christian states and the pilgrim travelers could not be avoided. The military orders provided the constantly available military force in the Levant. To this end the order organized itself into brothers-in-arms and brothers-in-service, with the latter carrying out administrative and nursing roles. It was not, however, unusual to move from one role to the other, depending mostly in the duties assigned by the brother's superiors. Quite clearly, the brother knights (mostly from noble families) served primarily in a military capacity and the loss of horse and weapons automatically resulted in transfer from brother-in-arms to a service role, yet during one's years in the order a brother could expect to perform both functions. Riley-Smith suggests that the contrast between the Hospitallers, who undertook both charitable and military duties, and the Templars, whose focus was exclusively military, is indicative of their differing characters and behavior. Critically important for the order was its exempt status that gave it administrative and ecclesiastical independence from the ordinary authority of the episcopacy. This was granted by pope Alexander IV in Christiane fidei religio as early as 1154.

In part III, Riley-Smith describes the order's organization and constitution. In chapters seven through ten, the customs of the order, its officers, and their duties are explained in great detail. Superficially, the Hospitallers, like the Templars, were organized along the lines of the Cistercian Order: there was an overall head called the master who ruled the order administratively and militarily. His authority was derived from the general chapter, the collection of the heads of the subordinate units of the order meeting at regular intervals to legislate and resolve conflicts. The leadership of the order reflected both its religious and military character. Conventual priors were the chief priests in each convent who ultimately shared power with the conventual bailiffs, knights in charge of the various commanderies. The chief officers of the order included the marshal, who oversaw military actions; the treasurer, who had custody of the tithes and other income of the order and its expenditures; and the drapier, who was responsible for the clothing of the brothers as well as the tack and care of the horses. There was also occasionally a grand commander, a sort of deputy to the master, who had charge of the order in the Levant when the master was in Europe or when the mastership was vacant. Later offices were the Turcupolier in charge of the military auxiliaries of the order and the admiral, who commanded the Hospitaller fleet that became increasing important to the order in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Part IV describes the assets of the order, the properties obtained either by donation or purchase in both the Levant and in Europe. Chapters eleven through thirteen detail the importance of the income derived from these properties, either those European manors owned directly or from tithe income from churches or from money fiefs in the Holy Land. Particularly important possessions, though not income producing, were the castles manned by the Hospitallers in Syria and Palestine, the most important of which were Bethgibelin in the south near Ascalon and Crac des Chevaliers and Margat in the County of Tripoli. All of these fortifications were crucial to maintaining the existence of the settlers and the rump kingdom of Jerusalem after 1187. The loss of those castles to the Mamluk armies set the conditions for the end of the European presence in the Levant.

In part V, the denouement of the order in the Levant is covered. The loss of the mainland in 1291 forced the Hospitaller's transition to Cyprus to maintain the existence of the order. The Hospitallers saw themselves, along with the Templars, as the main hope for a restoration of the Christian states in the Levant or, failing that, the frontline defense against Muslim expansion. Unlike the Templars, the double mission of the Hospitallers allowed them to maintain their function as providers of charity to the poor and the sick. They quickly established hospitals in Cypress and later on Rhodes. It was perhaps this dual mission that saved them from the fate of the Templars, whose military character and arrogance was perceived as an opportunity by Philip the Fair to crush the order and seize their assets. The Hospitallers were not immune from criticism, however, and the order was notorious for its materialism and venality (231). In the epilogue, Riley-Smith states his intention to chart the development of the order from one "dedicated to the care of poor pilgrims, into a great international Order that was rich, privileged, and influential" (230). In the troubles that afflicted the Templars, the Hospitallers remained neutral and profited by their rival's demise. If nothing else, the story of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem is one of perseverance and adaptation, of change when change was needed.

This superlative study of the Hospitallers should find itself on the shelf of all Crusade scholars and of interested students of that period. It is a reliable and informative work from one of the foremost historians of the subject.

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Author Biography

Dale Streeter

Eastern New Mexico University