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Military Orders

Recruitment to the Military Orders in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Alan Forey

As military orders were involved in warfare, death rates were probably higher in these institutions than in contemplative religious houses, even though by no means all brethren engaged in fighting. The recruitment of new members was therefore of constant significance. Many military orders were primarily associated with particular regions and obtained recruits mainly in these: the Spanish military orders drew on the Iberian peninsula, and German-speaking areas provided most of the postulants of the Teutonic order. It was only the Templars and Hospitallers who usually recruited throughout western Christendom; even these, however, saw France as their most important source of new members.

Recruits to the military orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like those to monasteries, were expected to satisfy certain criteria. Men of servile status were excluded, and in the thirteenth century, though apparently not in the twelfth, postulants to the rank of knight in an order had to be of knightly descent. At least in the Temple and Hospital, knightly recruits at that time were also to be of legitimate birth. Married men were eligible for entry, but--except in the Spanish order of Santiago, in which married men could become full members--married recruits had to abandon their wives, and this could not be done without the consent of the spouse

Entrants were also asked about their health, both physical and spiritual. Military orders did not want to become refuges for handicapped or sick offspring, and they did not admit those who were excommunicate. Nor could they receive apostates from other religious foundations. They were also anxious to ensure that they did not become liable for a recruit's debts, and therefore questioned a postulant about his financial position.

By the time that military orders were being established, the practice of child oblation was declining, and children who were reared in houses of military orders were not normally obliged to become professed brethren. Some military orders, like some monastic foundations, also decreed minimum age limits for admission. A postulant to the Teutonic order could not take vows before the completion of his fourteenth year, and in the order of Santiago the minimum age may have been fifteen. The Temple, on the other hand, specified no precise age, but expected recruits to be old enough to bear arms and mature enough to make a decision about entering.

Evidence from the trial of the Templars suggests that, although a few had made their profession when they were still boys or youths, the average age of entry was the mid to later twenties. Records of that trial also throw light on the social backgrounds of postulants. Although knights predominated at the Templar headquarters in Cyprus, in the order as a whole the brother sergeants, who had to be merely of free status, comprised the largest group. An English Hospitaller survey of 1338 also reveals a preponderance of sergeants. It has further been shown that knights who monopolised major offices in the Temple were rarely drawn from more important noble families, while examinations of the family backgrounds of members of the Teutonic order have stressed the significance of recruitment from the ministerialis class.

Some minor military orders, such as the Spanish order of Mountjoy and the Swordbrethren in Livonia, may have encountered recruiting problems throughout their history, and it is possible that there were more general difficulties in attracting sufficient recruits in Spain in the thirteenth century. There also seems to have been a widespread lack of clerical postulants, even in the leading military orders: these frequently had to employ secular priests in their chapels. But generally, the main orders fighting in the Holy Land in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries appear to have had little difficulty in attracting a sufficient number of lay recruits, even when they had suffered heavy losses in war. Those aspiring to enter the Temple did not always find ready acceptance. Money was a greater problem than manpower.

The motives which led individuals to enter a military order were varied. Although child oblation had been rejected, parental and family pressures were still of significance. Many recruits were younger sons, and saw a military order as a means of livelihood, even if they did not enter until they were in their twenties. The warnings addressed to recruits on admission indicate that these orders were often thought to provide a comfortable existence. Their military activities may also have made them more attractive to some potential postulants than contemplative foundations.

Among other mundane factors was the possibility of enhanced status. Historians of the Teutonic order have pointed out that for ministeriales entry might lead to an improvement in social standing. An order could also be a refuge for old age. But for some recruits admission occasioned material loss rather than gain, and the significance of spiritual aspects should not be minimised. In the Templar admission ceremony it was stated that the purpose of entry should be to abandon the sins of the world, to serve God and to do penance. Life in a military order was seen as a means of salvation, and no recruit was unaware of this when making his decision.

Copyright (C) 1998, Alan Forey. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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