The Knights Hospitaller
by Helen Nicholson

See Book Review below:

The Knights Hospitaller was published early 2002 by Boydell & Brewer at £25.00,  plus postage and packing (£2.00 UK, US$4.00 North America, £4.00 Europe and rest of the world). Order by post, fax, telephone or e-mail.

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Book Review.

The book covers its subject well and provides in its survey of the history of the Order, a digest of the more recent academic articles, which are hard to obtain unless you are in a history department at some University, or otherwise engaged in historical research. It is certainly none the poorer for this, and allows a more general readership access to findings of the academics, thus saving those who are keen to know more about the history of the Order valuable time. A real plus in its favour, is that it is an easy read. Perhaps on a stylistic point of view I might have preferred sub-chapter headings instead of the little boxes which separate sub-chapter passages.

One test for any book, especially given the numerous other books recently published covering the same subject - was there anything new to be learned against these many other volumes? Yes!

The book does not cover the history of the Order in isolation, but provides the wider setting throughout its history in relation to the other institutions, which were part of the same world. For example the Order used the same bankers as the papacy (page 49) and this affected their use of money - to withdraw most of their cash at any point may have caused a collapse of the bank, and papal bankruptcy! That the Order 1423 it offered to swap Rhodes for the Venetian Island of Euboea (now known as Evvoia or Evia) to be nearer the action against the Turks! (page 55). In the early years Dr Nicholson points out that there were regional differences in vows, as a result of this Pope Honorius in 1216 urged the Order to standardise its observations (page 68). It is noted that the German Langue was downgraded to a province of the Order sometime between 1330 and 1344, to reappear in by 1422 (page 73). That in 1793 the Order undertook negotiations with the newly formed USA for a grant of land it could settle (page 134).

There are certain issues within the history, for which there is an element of debate, perhaps beyond the book's aim;
The claim of any previous dedication of the Order to St John Almoner although given some discussion, is dismissed (Pages 2 & 3) with the only evidence being William of Tyre's record. Why would William of Tyre invent such a claim? It must be noted that Almafi from where resources came to establish the Hospital in Jerusalem, was once part of the Western extreme of the Eastern Empire. The choice of an Eastern Saint who endowed hospitals in the east would not been out of place as a patron saint. It can be noted that the Hospital under the Priory of Constantinople was dedicated to St John Almoner, perhaps demonstrating some continue affinity to an original dedication. The Priory ceased in 1259 with the end of the Latin Empire.

The chronology of location of the Order's relics needs tightening up (mentioned on pages 63 and 140) - there is a general consensus from the evidence available that the relics were in St Petersburg 1799-1917, Denmark to 1928 (in the care of Nicholas II's mother - not in the care of the Orthodox Church), and then in the care of the Serbian/Yugoslavian Royal family until 1941, and then in the care of a Monastery, remaining in Yugoslavia.

The book opens in its preface with a built in assumption that the present day "Sovereign Military Order of Malta" is one and the same as the medieval Knights Hospitaller. Such assumption is not without challenge, notably from Dr Michael Brett-Crowther, in his Lambeth Student of Theology Thesis of 1990 (Orders of Chivalry under the Aegis of the Church). The new name was already a misnomer when it came into use. By any realistic definition the Order was not "Sovereign". On the 24th January 1953, a judgement was delivered by a Court of the Holy See "in the Lord's name" - that the Order did not possess all those prerogatives which are proper to sovereignty, and that its sovereignty was merely functional.

According to the Order's historian Vertot, the idea of the Order's sovereignty emerged with its governing of the island of Rhodes, and then Malta (where it ruled as a vassal). If the Order ever had sovereignty via the rule of the two islands then this ended in 1798 with the loss of Malta. John Goodall in "The Coat of Arms" the journal of the Heraldry Society (No 45 pp203-214) argues that the Order sovereignty was located according to medieval law in the "capacity rightfully to ordain and command war". Even if this is the case, the reality was that after 1801 the Order had ceased to be military, and lacked the capacity to wage war! The Order despite its shortened name was not "sovereign", nor "military" and no longer "of Malta"! Dr Nicholson does not entirely ignore the issue of sovereignty, as she indicates that the Order in its very existence was always dependent upon the Holy See (see page 133, on the Pope's threat to dissolve the Order.).

Whilst the book points out that the Hasburg Empire halted the appointment of a Grand Master until 1879 (page 142), what Dr Nicholson omits is that the Pope bowed to pressure from Napoleon refusing to accept the elected Grand Master Caracciolo in 1807, confirming instead Guevara-Suardo the Lieutenant Grand Master, beginning the long Lieutenancy of over seventy years. This fact demonstrates that the surviving Roman Catholic Order had become subservient to the papacy, in a way that was not true before.

Of the later period of the Order - post 1798 whilst it mentions the Russian interlude, it does not contain any idea the Russian Order continued, but refreshingly it does not condemn or make the sarcastic comments about a Russian tradition (much misunderstood, and poorly researched) that you can find in some books. As someone in the field of research Dr Nicholson will be aware of the Russian tradition, not least via the Internet. Probably unsure about the status of a Russian tradition - silence has been the wisest choice. Unquestionably on the medieval period, the book is at its strongest, and the points of debate do not detract from the whole.

The book is intended as an introduction to the Order for academics working in other fields, as well as the interested general reader. It achieves this, and covers the history extremely well.
To answer the question; "is the book worth buying - given that there are other books available on the history of the Order? - in my opinion as someone who has read scores of books on the Order - certainly.

The Reverend Michael Foster.

Thursday, 24 January 2002.

Created 24th January 2002
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