Strange Bedfellows : The Rise of the Military Religious Orders in the Twelfth Century
By Sarah E. Hayes
The Gettysburg Historical Journal, Vol.13:1 (2014)
Abstract: Most people would not describe Christian monks as militaristic. However, there are instances in history when Christians have strayed from their basic pacifist beliefs in the name of defending their religion. The most famous example of this would be the Military Orders of the medieval Crusades, when full scale war was encouraged by the Catholic Church in order to protect the Holy Land. These militant monks formed a new breed of religious organization where brothers were soldiers willing die defending Christianity against the infidel. Although the Order of the Temple, or the Templars, was the most infamous of the Orders, the Order of St. John, or the Hospitallers, was also highly influential. Both came to wield immense power in the twelfth century, despite their counterintuitive identity as religious warriors. Yet it is precisely their contradictory nature that makes them so intriguing. Although they were devout members of a pacifist religion, they were also its dominant military force. By the most basic tenants of Christianity, the Military Orders should never have existed. It is the goal of this paper to uncover the various factors that allowed for their ascendancy through the analysis of primary sources and secondary research. The rise to power of the Military Orders was due to shifts in religious military thought, acquisition of immense wealth through donations from prestigious patrons, ecclesiastical privileges, and a military need in the Crusader states.
Introduction: Peace is one of the core beliefs of Christianity. In principle, Christians do not support war or violence of any kind. To become involved with a military expedition of any sort would be counterintuitive especially to those who have pledged their lives to religious orders. However in some instances, Christians have strayed from this basic belief in order to fight for their religion. The most famous example of this are the Crusades of the Middle Ages, during which full scale war was encouraged by the Catholic Church in order to protect the Holy Land. Out of these conflicts developed a new breed of religious organization, the military orders, which were made up of soldier monks who were willing die defending Christianity against the infidel. Despite their counterintuitive identity as religious warriors, they came to wield immense power in the twelfth century, particularly the Order of St. John, or the Hospitallers, and the Order of the Temple, or the Templars. The rise to power of the military orders was due to shifts in religious military thought, acquisition of immense wealth through donations from prestigious patrons, ecclesiastical privileges, and a military need in the Crusader states.
The members of the military orders were monkish knights who combined the life of a religious order with soldiering. Their primary function was the military defense of the Church and protection of the Crusader states. According to Desmond Seward, the military orders were “the first properly disciplined and officered troops in the West since the Roman times.” The fact that they were religious orders as well as professional soldiers in an era when armies were only mustered in times of crisis and gave them a discipline that other military forces of the time did not have. However, they did remain religious orders. The Primitive Rule of the Templars states “You who renounce your own wills… and scorn the temptations of your body, sustained by the food of God.” These are monkish vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty. Like monks, they followed an identical dress code when within their religious house, for example, the Hospitallers all wore a black habit emblazoned with a white cross and Templars were required to have a tonsure. Men who joined the military orders entered a solemn and sober world, not the worldly life of secular knight. However despite their monkish lifestyle, they remained members of the laity and, unless they chose to be, were not bound to their order for life. The most famous of these military orders were the Templars and Hospitallers, but other smaller orders throughout Europe and the Holy Land also played important roles in fighting those considered enemies of Christ, who were usually other religious groups. They were established primarily in the twelfth century and quickly grew to enjoy immense wealth and power.