16.03.02, Conedera, Ecclesiastical Knights

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Michael Peixoto

The Medieval Review 16.03.02

Conedera, Sam Zeno. Ecclesiastical Knights: The Military Orders in Castile, 1150-1330. Fordham Series in Medieval Studies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. pp. ix, 258. ISBN: 978-0-8232-6595-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Peixoto
Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon

The subject of the military orders has fascinated both academic historians and the general public for generations. In recent years, a wealth of new studies on the cultural and economic history of the orders has focused particularly on their activities in Western Europe. There remains, however, a dearth of scholarship on the Iberian military orders, especially in the English language, despite an incredible outpouring of scholarship on both the military orders and crusades more generally, and the relatively new historiographical popularity of the Iberian Peninsula and social life on the frontier between Christianity and Islam. Conedera's work addresses this lacuna well and, among other things, provides an eminently readable, yet detailed introduction to the Spanish military orders. To be clear, this is not a military history of their exploits, nor even a chronological account of the major historical events and developments of these religious institutions in Iberia. Rather, Conedera provides a comprehensive perspective on the vocation of the brethren of the orders of Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara, placing them in a social and spiritual context through his exploration of archival sources in the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid along with a wide array of printed sources. Fundamentally, Conedera argues that the military orders in general, and the Spanish military orders in particular, have been misrepresented in the historiography as "warrior monks"--that the misnomer incorrectly distorts the warrior rhetoric within mainstream medieval monastic culture and fails to understand the type of religious life experienced in the military orders (9). In keeping with his title, he suggests that "ecclesiastical knights" would be a far better way to describe his subjects. Far from simply a semantic discussion, Conedera's subtle shift in the language used to describe the military orders serves as a vehicle for a more accurate understanding of what these brethren were and how they interacted in medieval religious society.

Ecclesiastical Knights begins with an exploration of the foundations of the military orders. Conedera suggests that the circumstances of each military order's origins formed a religious life that, despite monastic influences, remained distinct from a monastic vocation. In moving from institutional beginnings centered on vows and a rule for life to a life governed by the necessities of the military efforts on the Spanish frontier, the orders did not "simply 'copy' the universal orders [Templars and Hospitallers], but rather they followed trajectories of development that imitated them in some respects and not in others, according to the particulars of local context" (49). The Spanish orders were directly connected to the Cistercians in a way that even the Templars were not. The relationship between the Cistercian abbey of Morimond and the two orders that it oversaw (Calatrava and Alcántara) offers an overt distinction between the monastic life and its counterparts in the subordinated orders. Conedera writes, "even granting that Morimond was the seat of a more bellicose spirituality within the order, defining the place of the fighting brethren was a difficult task. Were they conversi? Were they monks? Ultimately the Cistercians seem to have decided that they were sui generis and gave them a place somewhere between the two" (39-40). For Conedera, the inability to fit the military orders neatly into either existing Cistercian category is what necessitated the reimagining of their role in medieval society.

It is a frequent refrain among scholars of the military orders that the spirituality of the brethren has been understudied and is little understood. Venturing into this void, Conedera shows his expertise on medieval devotional practices. In his second chapter, Conedera takes the reader through recruitment, daily routines, the veneration of particular saints, sacramental practices, vows, and institutional customs. This examination of the religious life builds his case for a governing ethos of knighthood over one of monasticism. In each case, from the prayers that the brethren recite daily to the emphasis on food and dress over communal vows, the life of the orders was designed, Conedera concludes, for uneducated laymen (67). For example, the vow of poverty was especially problematic, as the necessities of military life demanded a certain quantity of personal wealth. As in cases of other religious practices (namely chastity), the allowance of married brethren and the presence of wives and family members in the order of Santiago further complicated the need for special exceptions to the typical life of members of the regular clergy. In all these cases, the military orders acted as knights, rather than monks, despite their status as part of the church hierarchy (admitting priests within their own order). However, while the presence of priests may qualify the Spanish orders as a part of the Church, their subordination to the knights points to an understanding of auxiliary roles that supports the primary emphasis of the orders as ecclesiastical knights, even when knights themselves were a minority of the brethren (56-57). Indeed, the very geographical structure of the orders' territories reinforced this same hierarchy. Conedera suggests that this "priority of territory over affiliation reflects the mind-set of military men beholden to the practical necessities of defense, organization, and settling large tracts of land" (60). Despite all the emphasis on making considerations for the life of the laity, Conedera still argues that Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara were in practice religious orders rather than simply military organizations, militiae (82). While Conedera accepts the complication of this "false-dichotomy" brought on by the fluid medieval definition of the word "order" as both a class of society and an institutional designation, he nevertheless concludes that the act of swearing vows to attain salvation, whatever the need to adjust the practices of monastic life, was enough to set them apart from contemporary "urban militias and military confraternities" (82).

In his third chapter, Conedera turns to the activities of the orders outside of the convent. He examines both the landed properties of the orders and their charitable activities. In particular, the Spanish orders ransomed captives and sought donations to afford the ransoms of Christian captives in Muslim hands. Conedera points out that these ransoms focused almost exclusively on individuals who were not professed members of the orders, as the knights themselves would often be killed rather than ransomed. In his assessment of ransoms and other nonmilitary activities, Conedera suggests that James Brodman's distinction between military-monastic and military-hospitaller requires more nuance (2001). While the brethren of the Spanish orders were primarily oriented toward warfare, they also upheld a code of conduct that included innovative forms of charity, from caring for the sick to ransoming of Christian captives (111). Thus, the rejection of the idea of a warrior monk should not immediately indicate a nonmonastic pastoral role. Rather, the situation was much more complex. All of the military orders focused on warfare through their religious vocation while employing or overseeing others who handled various charitable and pastoral duties.

The centerpiece of Conedera's research is his detailed study of the hermandades, or the agreements between the different military orders (chapter 4). It is through these records of agreements, equal parts dispute resolution and mutual pledges of obligations, that Conedera argues the military orders articulated a "consciousness of a common mission and shared religious vocation" (122). He shows that with the pope, king, and Cistercian overlords far from the Spanish frontier, the military orders came to rely on their relationship with one another for an understanding of their spiritual mission. Hermandades were not unique to the military orders. Conedera distinguishes the hermandades of religious communities from the political ones between towns. Spanish orders participated in both in the thirteenth century (115). The early hermandades for the Spanish orders appear little different from standard dispute resolutions common in many documents across medieval Europe. The tone notably shifts in a 1202 document written in Castilian that conveys a pact for mutual assistance in battle and an agreement to share spoils (119). Later hermandades detailed procedures for settling disputes over tolls, outlined chains of command in battle and mutual protection, provided for the burial of brethren in the cemeteries of their rival military orders when necessary, and described a hierarchy of relationships between the military orders, where, interestingly, the Temple and Hospital prefer their obligations to each other over the Spanish orders and vice-versa (125). In practice the hermandades were often not followed. Conedera relates that disputes were seldom successfully resolved from within the brethren of the military orders exclusively. Property disputes often required outside ecclesiastical intervention and could take decades to settle. Conedera's perspective on the hermandades is that they present a testament to the ideal values of the orders. Whether or not they worked in practice, these documents report the articulation of a desire for spiritual brotherhood expressed over generations through statements of expected military and social conduct.

The study of the military orders has all too frequently been treated as somehow separate from the study of other major religious movements of the Middle Ages. While the important work of Jochen Schenk, Templar Families: Landowning Families and the Order of the Temple in France, c.1120-1307 (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Damien Carraz, L'ordre du Temple dans la basse vallée du Rhône: ordres militaires, croisades et sociétés méridionales (Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2005), have begun to change this perception, the military orders remain a marginal portion of crusading studies. On the other hand, recent work such as Katherine Smith's War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture (2013) has shown the fruitfulness of incorporating an understanding of knighthood into an assessment of religious vocation. Conedera's work certainly contributes to this conversation in new ways. Like Conedera, I agree that it may go too far to suggest that the military orders represented a new kind of reformation (Simonetta Cerrini, La rivoluzione dei templari: una storia perduta del dodicesimo secolo, Milan: Mondadori, 2008). But the military orders do not need to have been monks to have had a significant influence on medieval religious life. He conclusively shows how ecclesiastical culture, perhaps even monastic, permeated institutions of knighthood and allowed those knights to redefine their own vocation in religious terms. Importantly, Conedera offers a fresh perspective on the extant archival material. Regarding the spiritual influence of the Cistercian general statutes for the orders of Calatrava and Alcántara, he writes, "Yet I suggest that the absence of evidence is itself significant, and for the same reason that it is significant in the case of the orders' foundation. The lack of normal Cistercian texts for Calatrava and Alcántara indicates the orders' inability or unwillingness to articulate themselves as Cistercian communities" (53). His ability to find meaning in the practices and writings of the military orders rather than looking for more explicit connections in a lost or nonexistent document permits a new interpretation of the experience of the military orders, one that is not necessarily governed by their later decline or by polemical narrative accounts. In that context then, Conedera's work offers a welcome addition to the study of the military orders, bridging the gap between the history of religious movements and the crusader institutions in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

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