BATTLES OVER FAITH: The siege of Antioch in today?s Syria, shown below in a 13th-century painting from Acre, was a key moment in Hospitaller history. Above, Turkish dead after the Ottoman defeat at Rhodes, 1480. From a medieval account, ?Obsidionis Rhodie Urbis Descriptio,? by William Caoursin.

The Christian Soldiers of the Holy City

Knights of Jerusalem: 
The Crusading Order of 
Hospitallers, 1100-1565
By David Nicolle

Osprey Publishing, 224 pages, $25.95.

They began as a charitable organization, a brotherhood charged with caring for Jerusalem’s indigent pilgrims before the First Crusade. They ended the Crusades as warlords, infamous for their violence and greed. This role reversal would seem to be a staple of American foreign policy, but it is not, or not only that. It is also the history of the Holy City’s Order of the Knights Hospitallers — the subject of a new book by British historian David Nicolle.

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory commissioned a certain Abbot Probus to establish a hospice to care for Christians visiting Jerusalem. Two hundred years later, Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, renovated that facility, now operated by monks of the Benedictine Order and known as the Hospital of Saint John. This hospital, good for a meal and a bed, was located near Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional burial place of Jesus Christ. Caliph al-Hakim destroyed both church and hospital another two centuries later, and the philanthropic merchants from Amalfi, Italy, who rebuilt the hospital complex went on to establish themselves as the Knights Hospitallers. That organization’s founding work was to heal the victims — but only the European Christian victims — of the First Crusade.

No Crusade was more successful than the first, which, in 1099, captured the Holy Land for Christendom. But even as the flag of Pope Urban II was raised above Jerusalem, victory was squandered. It was not enough to conquer Palestine; it had to be defended. Long away from French and Italian hearth, the knights of Europe were homesick, and many returned there, leaving Jerusalem vulnerable to attack. It was this vacuum that militarized the Hospitallers. While some maintained their monastic charter, others — regarding themselves not as monks but as knights — turned to peacekeeping and to pre-emptive violence: regularly sacking Muslim outposts and pirating Muslim traders. Constant Holy War was regarded as the only means of defending Christian life and property in the land where Christianity began.

While each pope would later struggle to raise his own army for action against the infidels, pagans and schismatics, mercenaries answered the call of the First Crusade in droves: After all, participation in the taking of the Holy Land was said to nullify one’s sins; a place in heaven was ensured, then, for those who would commit murder while alive. With Hospitaller monks becoming Hospitaller knights in the wake of the First Crusade, knights already active at the very dawn of that Crusade became intensely Christianized and had their occupations religiously, or theologically, imbued. With the Crusades, the lone soldier became, suddenly, salvifically, the confraternal Christian soldier; while the armored, squired warrior regarded himself as if a naked Christ — a martyr in the fight against Islamic rule.

It should be remembered, though, that the Knights Orders founded in the aftermath of that Crusade — including the Hospitallers, the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights — soon matured into more pragmatic institutions. Essentially, they became governments in search of countries to govern — movable city-states, wandering the Mediterranean on missions of money and power. After Jerusalem was lost to Saladin in 1186, the Hospitallers evacuated and re-established themselves at Acre. But when the Mamluks reconquered Acre, Sidon and Beirut, the Hospitallers were displaced once again, and in 1306 they invaded the Byzantine island of Rhodes. The 14th century was largely spent defending Rhodes from the Ottoman Turks. In 1522, the Ottomans finally conquered Rhodes; that same year, the Hospitallers retreated to Italy and then to the island of Malta, where they operate to this day (albeit peacefully) under the eight-pointed cross of the Knights of Malta.

David Nicolle’s Hospitaller history is of a piece with the archaeological relics it describes: Like a stone fallen from a fortress ruin in Israel, Syria, Lebanon or Turkey, Nicolle’s book is heavy, hard and dry; like any tourist site, it has the tendency to bore. Its style is the worst of academia, though the author’s reserve can be redeemed by an occasional hyperbole of detail.

Here is Nicolle on Hospitaller food:

And on Hospitaller clothing:

But what make this book ultimately worthwhile are its illuminative illustrations, its full plates and in situ details of paintings and church carvings. The Hospitallers’ world was best captured in the images, and imaginings, of the “Obsidionis Rhodiae Urbis Descripto” of Guillaume Caoursin, which Nicolle generously, and often viscerally, excerpts. Brother Caoursin was a Hospitaller vice chancellor responsible for sending his Order’s Papal dispatches to Rome. A thousand words, and a thousand corpses, are contained in his picture of the Ottoman defeat at Rhodes in 1480. The Turkish dead lie beyond the walls. Disembodied heads abound, and bleed freely. That angry red, even today, in reproduction, will not fade.

Joshua Cohen is the literary critic of the Forward.

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