15.08.63, Buttigieg and Phillips, eds., Islands and the Military Orders, c. 1291-c. 1798

Main Article Content

Michael Vargas

The Medieval Review 15.08.63

Buttigieg, Emanuel, and Simon Phillips, eds. Islands and the Military Orders, c. 1291-c. 1798. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. pp. xxii, 276. ISBN: 9781472409904 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Vargas
State University of New York at New Paltz

This collection of twenty-two essays, the result of a conference held at Rhodes in 2011, is impressive in its breadth and analytical detail. The book will be an important resource for scholars whose research interests include the late crusades, the adaptability of the major military orders to maritime environments, and the Mediterranean as a venue for military altercations and cultural interactions. Contributors include Nadia Bagnarini, Elena Bellomo, Karl Borchardt, Emanuel Buttigieg, Mike Carr, George Cassar, Nicholas Coureas, Constantinos Georgiou, Hubert Houben, Anna-Maria Kasdagli, Michael Losse, Anthony Luttrell, Victor Mallia-Milanes, Katerina Manoussou-Della, Patricia Micallef, Fernanda Olival, Gregory O'Malley, Photeine V. Perra, Simon Phillips, Karol Polejowski, Ann Williams, and William Zammit.

After the demise of the Kingdom of Jerusalem consequent with loss of Acre in 1291, the military orders had to find new home bases and reinvent themselves as purposeful organizations. For a short time the leaders of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller made Cyprus their temporary headquarters. In 1309, they captured Rhodes and adjacent islands and installed themselves there. The suppression and demolition of the Templars up to 1312 made the Hospitallers the principal crusader order in the Mediterranean, a role they pursued for the next two centuries until Suleiman the Magnificent took Rhodes after a long siege in 1522. In need of another center of operations, the order's leaders claimed and fortified a new headquarters on the island of Malta in 1530. The volume's editors do not rehearse this background chronology, although readers might wish that they had since, first, the Order of the Knights Hospitaller receives the most attention in the volume as the principal subject of eighteen of the essays, and second, a common thread in many of the contributions is the adaptability of that order's knights to changing conditions.

In their introduction, Emanuel Buttigieg and Simon Phillips point to two objects of study, military orders and islands. Their two lead questions are: what role did islands play in the development of the military orders and how did islands change as a result of the orders' activities upon them. The editors float a few theories, for example, that an island existence does not mean isolation, that insularity and internationalism operate in relationship to each other, and that religion is a useful prism through which to view the relationship of islands and orders. I would have preferred a richer discussion of these exploratory threads since their current construction provides a weak structure on which to hang the various papers. The introduction talks past most of the contributions, mentioning the place of each among the whole only cursorily while suggesting a corporate consensus that the contributors, according to my reading, do not confirm. While all of the papers discuss the island projects and habits of the Hospitallers or another island-centered order, few of the authors specifically treat the relationship of islands and orders as a subject of study, examining instead discrete microhistorical concerns. Even fewer respond to the implied grand comparative question, which is whether the activities of military orders on the mainland differed substantially from those on islands.

The introduction is followed by twenty-two chapters organized into six thematic parts that aim to provide coherence. These organizing sections are: I: Ideas and Ideals about Island Existence; II: Relocation and Adaptation; III: Life on an Island: Interaction and Innovation; IV: Regional Political Dynamics and the Military Orders; V: Fortifications, War and Defence; VI: Economic Aspects of an Island Existence. The four chapters in part one are the most deliberate in attending to issues raised in the introduction, thus, in the interest of brevity, I will limit remarks on individual papers to them.

Simon Phillip's first chapter identifies concepts of island existence. Above all, islands provided boundaries for the various constructions of identities: some individual island communities had strong place characters; inter-islands populations formed larger composite identities; identification with military objectives against mainland enemies framed even broader sets of associations. The Hospitaller state centered at Rhodes comprised a network of islands whose bonds became stronger through local cooperation and interaction, thus the island and port town of Rhodes must be viewed as more than a single isolated place and more than a locus for playing out mainland European politics and culture. In the Aegean, some institutional developments had island rather than mainland roots. One reason is that island inhabitants did not always view matters as the Hospitallers liked, in which case the knights offered incentives and applied pressures to get their way and frame identities to fit their own expectations. Administrative records confirm a unique possession-control orientation that saw individual island holdings as nested within a regional eastern Mediterranean island partes citramarine (the islands on this side of the sea).

Anthony Luttrell's second chapter counts among the most richly contextualized and comparative contributions. Seeing the administrative and territorial powers of the Knights Hospitallers as substantially similar to the classic Ordenstaat of the Prussian Teutonic Order, he asks why the island 'order state' of the Hospitallers persisted while that of the Teutonic knights did not. Implied is that our assumptions about territorial integrity lead us to think that well-bounded mainland possessions might be more easily managed that an ambiguous construction of island holdings. However, the Teutonic Order lost moral ground as its efforts to consolidate its conquests of disparate infidel lands put it in competition with the Christian monarchies at its borders. Meanwhile, the limitations of a multi-island state in a hostile Muslim-controlled sea made the Hospitallers more focused, more adaptive, and ultimately more successful. Among the valuable limitations of the island order state, Luttrell includes: continued reliance on food, men, and military resources from the Christian mainland; pressures on the islands to work cooperatively with local populations rather than overtaxing or overexploiting them; the persistence of mixed ethnic population, which required religious, legal, and other administrative compromises; the constant need for improvements of defensive structures; and so on. An added weakness, mentioned by other authors in the collection, is the paucity of ships in Hospitaller service.

Elena Bellomo's third chapter makes several useful general points. The first is that, beginning in 1459, it became papal policy to make the Aegean and its islands the strategic locus of crusading activity. Crushing defeats of Christian forces by the Turks at Varna in 1444 and Constantinople in 1453 led a series of popes to consider a new crusading strategy, which culminated in a bull by Pope Pius II creating a new military order dedicated to Saint Mary of Bethlehem and emphasizing the order's maritime vocation. The Order of Saint Mary took Limnos as its island home, from which, being 800 kilometers from Rhodes, it could patrol and protect important islands and coastal ports without directly interfering with Hospitaller activities. The second general point is that the Order of Saint Mary found it difficult to put an island crusader strategy into effect. Specific institutional problems in this case appear in similar forms elsewhere in the volume: the short supply of ships was of perennial concern; the Turks took Limnos just months after issuance of the papal bull; the complexities and vagueness of details in the bull, which called for the merging of several small orders, hampered the new order's organization; Venice had claims on Limnos and nearby ports, so its merchants were far from enthusiastic supporters of the new order.

Emanuel Buttigieg's fourth chapter pursues the principles of isolation and connectivity as they apply to religious culture on Hospitaller islands in the centuries after the Reformation. The number, type, and circulation of books are, together, an indicator of trends. The knights held larger numbers of books of various types than we might previously have thought, including many held in suspicion by inquisitors. Lay persons appear to have had much less access to such books. Peculiar to maritime military encounters was the capture of persons held as slaves prior to capture or sold into slavery as a result of capture. Religious identity could be ambiguous, or ignored, in this setting, such that a Christian captured by Muslims and made a slave might be recaptured by the Hospitallers only to be resold, against Christian law, as a slave. Island existence, including multi-religious communities, reformation religion and politics, and inquisitorial practices, made religious culture complex and hybrid.

The papers in the book's other parts cover a diversity of topics over a wide range of places and years. Frankly, the contributions not related to Hospitaller activities seem out of place in terms of subject, temporal scope, and themes. One studies a couple of buildings occupied by the Knights Templar from 1173 to 1259 situated on the 'quasi islands' of the Italian coast bordering the Kingdom of Sicily, about 100 kilometers south of Rome; one surveys the Mediterranean activities of the Teutonic Knights across the twelfth to fifteenth centuries; another undertakes a demographic and social statistical analysis of knights of the Portuguese Order of Christ from 1640 to 1755. One might argue for the inclusion of these papers on the grounds that the Hospitaller-related contributions are equally diverse: one studies the appearance of fifteenth-century use of humanistic scripts while another investigates numismatic evidence; one gains insights on Hospitaller life on Malta through seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century travelers' texts while another surveys cartographic evidence of Hospitaller holdings in the Caribbean in the mid-1600s.

Ultimately, this collection of conference presentations enjoys the potentials and suffers the problems typical of its genre. Individual papers are interesting and well produced. However, I have already suggested that the abstract relationship between islands and military orders serves as too weak a glue to hold the diverse essays together. Many of the papers are brief, which I say not to deny their utility as they mark out starting places for new directions of investigation but because many of the authors probably would have said more if not limited by the confines of an overstuffed volume. The lack of a richer comparative context is disappointing. The Catalans, Genoese, Venetians, Turks, and many others who traveled in and through the Mediterranean spaces inhabited by the Hospitallers in the long period treated here are virtually absent from the discussion.

Article Details