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ORB Encyclopedia: Online Essays


Paul Crawford

The military orders were associations of knights and other persons who followed a monastic rule established by a pope or church council. They attempted to live out ideas about reformed Christianity which had gained wide currency by the twelfth century, and they also attempted to live out ideas about ideal knighthood which were gaining currency in the same period. The activities of these associations were viewed at least in principle as defensive, and the associations arose in the context of Crusading.

The most famous of the military orders were the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights. A number of other minor orders existed at various times and places as well. Notable examples of smaller orders included the Spanish orders of Santiago, Alcantara and Calatrava; the short-lived Baltic orders of the Sword and of Dobrin; the English order of St. Thomas of Acre; and the Syrian Order of St. Lazarus, apparently reserved for leper knights.

By combining the monastic and military vocation in medieval society, the military orders fit neatly into attempts by churchmen (particularly popes) to divert the violence and aggression of Europe's nobility into more civilized and useful outlets. The Peace and Truce of God are two other well-known examples of religious attempts to mitigate noble warfare.

Some churchmen objected to the the idea of the military order on the grounds that the combination of the two vocations--military and monastic--seemed to violate canon law. Priests were not supposed to shed blood (though some did, anyway). But the military orders' fighting members did not violate canon law, for they were lay brothers, not clerics. Military orders did count clerics among their members, but as chaplains, not as knights, sergeants or squires.

Some medieval critics also objected that the military vocation seemed contradictory to the monastic ideal of withdrawal from the world. But part of the eleventh-century reform movement involved attempting to apply Christian and especially monastic principles to daily life. The Peace and Truce of God were part of this attempt, and the establishment of colleges of canons, who lived in the world while following a religious rule, became popular at about this time. The period also saw a new emphasis on the Christian duty of the warrior to protect women, children and those weaker than himself. Indeed, some churchmen drew a connection between Christ's statement that no man has greater love "than this: that he lay down his life for his friends" and the self-sacrificing vocation of the ideal Christian knight, whether in or out of a military order.

The military order had also been foreshadowed by the establishment of loose lay confraternities of knights in the eleventh century. These men often banded together to protect abbeys; some scholars believe that their example had an effect on the subsequent development of the military order.

Genuine military orders were first created in the Holy Land in the early twelfth century, where they soon became mainstays of the defense of the Crusader kingdoms. They formed the first professional standing armies in the Latin world since late Roman times.

Their implementation spread in a manner similar to the spread of the crusade idea. Just as the crusade was applied to Spain, the Baltic, and southern France, and finally deteriorated into an anti-imperial instrument in Italy, so military orders extended their operations to, or were invented in, all these theatres.

Some of the military orders failed to survive the loss of the Holy Land in 1291. Others, including the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights, and St. Lazarus, still exist today, though in considerably modified form. None retain any military aspects.

See text articles on the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights, and the minor orders. See also the catalog of primary sources, glossary of terms, selected bibliography, chronological tables, maps, leadership lists, and photo collection.

Copyright (C) 1996, Paul Crawford. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Paul Crawford, crawford@alma.edu

Updated: 29 March 1996

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