Pilgrimage was among the most important spiritual practices of the Middle Ages. And, although it was difficult, costly and often took months of hard travel, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the supreme form of medieval piety. Although early medieval Jerusalem was controlled by Muslim lords, these rulers generally encouraged Christian pilgrimage, just as countries today encourage the tourist trade. But pilgrimage could be a dangerous journey; many pilgrims to Jerusalem suffered illness, hunger and injury; others were assaulted and robbed by brigands. Some died along the way.
The Christian clergy of Jerusalem — who lived as a generally tolerated minority among the Muslim majority — established care centers for European pilgrimages. In Latin, pilgrims were often called “hospes,” meaning “stranger” or “guest”; hence our term “hospitality” — caring for guests. A hospice was thus a place for caring for medieval travelers and pilgrims. These hospices served as hotels, restaurants and hospitals for the pilgrims, along with a chapel for prayer and dormitories for monks. Sick or injured pilgrims were cared for by the monks of these hospices, who often also served as tour guides.
Since European pilgrims spoke many different languages, different pilgrim hospices were established for different European ethnic groups. Indeed, this practice still exists in Jerusalem today, with the Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa a noted example.
In the 1070s, the invasion and migration of the Middle East by Turkish nomads caused many disruptions on the pilgrim road to Jerusalem, with highwaymen and raiders preying on unfortunate pilgrims. This anarchy was one of the causes of the Crusades, which sought not just to capture Jerusalem but to safeguard the pilgrim routes as well. In the unsettled conditions in Palestine following the First Crusade, however, pilgrims continued to be robbed or enslaved.
Some Benedictine monks in Jerusalem, who had been knights before taking their monastic vows later in life, became tired of simply trying to heal pilgrims who had been assaulted on their way to Jerusalem. They thus decided to patrol the pilgrim route between the seaport of Jaffa and Jerusalem, protecting pilgrims from brigand attacks. These ex-knights-turned-monks soon organized themselves into the “Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem,” better known as the Hospitallers — that is, the knights of the hospital or pilgrim hospice.
While never abandoning their role of medical treatment for pilgrims, these Hospitallers increasingly dedicated themselves not to healing sick or injured pilgrims but to preventing them from being injured in the first place. In this, these knights were soon joined by another militarized monastic group known as the Templars. Together they formed the so-called Military Orders, monastic organizations dedicated to fighting the enemies of God. As such, they became the primary defenders of the Crusader states in the Middle East, providing knights for Crusader armies and garrisoning dozens of the most dangerous and costly Crusader castles for nearly two centuries.
As the Crusader principalities slowly collapsed between the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 and that of the last Crusader stronghold of Acre, Israel, in 1291, the Hospitallers suffered an identity crisis. They had clearly failed in their primary mission of protecting pilgrims, the Crusader states, their castles and Jerusalem itself. But they were determined to continue their wars against the Muslims, whom they viewed as enemies of Christianity. They continued their military operations from new headquarters on Rhodes (1310-1522) and Malta (1530-1798).
During these centuries, they became an important naval power in the Mediterranean. As inveterate enemies of Muslims and the Ottoman sultans, these monks became pirates and slavers, raiding Muslim shipping territories in North Africa and the Middle East and perpetually feuding with famous Barbary corsairs such as Barbarossa and Dragut.3 comments on this story
In 1565, the Ottoman Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent determined to capture and destroy the “Knights of Malta,” as they were then known. In one of the most remarkable sieges in history, the Hospitallers defeated the Turks and preserved their island. They were finally demilitarized over two centuries ago, when Napoleon captured Malta in 1798 on his way to Egypt and plundered their treasure.
But this thousand-year-old Order of the Hospital of St John survives still today. The once feared warrior-monks have returned to their original charitable functions, now funding medical and ambulance services in England and Palestine. And they can still be found in Palestine, where today they run an eye hospital in old Jerusalem, in the “Muristan” — Arabic for hospital — where their headquarters once stood 900 years ago (see www.stjohneyehospital.org/our-impact/muristan).
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.