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Article: Malta: Knights, Wars and Wine

August 3, 2007

John Zmirak / Taki’s Top Drawer:

The Knights got named for Malta because that small, Mediterranean island was ruled for centuries by this distinctive religious order, the last group to carry on the spirit of the Crusades. It was founded around 1100 by a band of Italian merchants and a pious knight known to history only as Blessed Gerard. Its mission at first was simple: to open shelters in the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims who got sick with Levantine diseases, or caught one of the millions of arrows flying around the region at the time. Many elderly or sick Christians in fact took ship to Jerusalem intending to die there, in the town where (medievals believed) the General Resurrection would begin. (Nowadays old folk prepare for the possible heat of the afterlife by moving to the Sunbelt, giving Purgatory a healthy head start.)

Since these shelters offered hospitality, they were called “hospitals”—which is where we get the word—and the group that ran them was dubbed the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem. Unlike certain other medieval medical facilities (for instance, the London clinic called St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, where mentally ill medieval Englishmen were locked away with no access to SSRIs or even standard psychoanalysis. Conditions there were so “interesting” that the place’s name gave rise to the modern word “bedlam.”) the Knights’ shelters were compassionate and clean. Indeed, as Jonathan Riley-Smith, author of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, writes:

“A feature of their nursing was this: because every poor man and woman was Christ, he or she should have not just good treatment, but the best and most luxurious treatment possible. This was, of course, a religious imperative, but it was also the application of a basic nursing principle, taught in the greatest of the western medical schools at Salerno, that patients tended to get better if they were well-fed, clean, and comfortable.”

Riley also points out a surprising feature of this crusader estate: Its shelter welcomed sick Moslems and Jews on the same terms as Christians, even serving them halal and kosher food. As one Hospitaller document insisted, “Friends should be loved in God and enemies on account of God.” However, the time and place were far from peaceful, and the Knights were not slow to see that their charitable work required a paramilitary wing. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was an island of Western influence in a hostile Islamic sea—like a medieval Baghdad Green Zone, except without CNN. At first, the knights who agreed to carry the sword served simply as escorts to groups of pilgrims, but—boys being boys—they soon formed an army. By 1170, the Hospitallers were less focused on treating wounds than on inflicting them. They controlled seven enormous fortresses and more than 140 estates around the Holy Land, with thousands of manors scattered all across Europe, earning money for their foreign mission…

Full article here.

Related Post:
Destination: Malta

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