Sunday, June 11, 2006

Knights of Christ (part two)

Better viewed in firefox, as always.


Given the efforts they made on Latin Christendom’s behalf, the amount of criticism attracted by the military orders seems incongruous. Partly it stemmed from the ‘perceptions gap’ referred to above, which led European-based commentators to undervalue the orders’ contributions in the Holy Land. The orders may also have suffered from lingering doubts about their conceptual legitimacy. The merging of a secular institution (knighthood) with a spiritual one (monasticism) that seemed diametrically opposed to it raised initial misgivings, which were sufficiently widespread to provoke the writing of a letter of encouragement to the Templar brethren in 1128; several years later, the Templars felt obliged to commission one of the day’s leading theological commentators to write a defence of their new institution. Circumstantial evidence scattered over the next two centuries, including several writings explicitly or implicitly questioning the orders’ calling as well as spurious assertions by the Hospitallers of an existence in biblical times, suggests that the feeling there was something ‘unnatural’ about fighting monks never completely died out.

In general however it was Christendom’s embrace, not rejection, of the military orders that magnified their shortcomings and created a tendency to overlook their achievements. The orders were the institutional embodiment of the crusading idea, and their advent during the period of this idea’s ascendancy (the early twelfth century) ensured them not just an enthusiastic reception but a largely uncritical one. The Templars and Hospitallers were accepted literally as a ‘Holy Knighthood’, who would fight not men’s battles but God’s; their monastic and international character represented their transcendence of worldly ties in the direct service of Christ, a calling which dictated spiritual as well as soldierly excellence. In short, they were expected to be both faultless and victorious. By its nature, the crusading concept on which the orders were based precluded objective explanations for defeat; military failure had to be explained by spiritual failure rather than external circumstances, since the latter were clearly no obstacle to those fighting as the ‘right arm of God’. The orders thus came to carry vicarious guilt for Frankish setbacks in the East, a trend exemplified by the readiness to blame them for specific defeats despite the fact that they were only one contingent in crusader armies.

Unrealistic expectations also drew excessive attention to the institutional blemishes that inevitably emerged. To begin with, the privileges heaped by papal and royal decree on the two major orders soon became incongruous with their ascetic vocation. Ranging from tax exemptions to immunity from suit in royal courts, these rights became a widespread source of resentment against both the Templars and Hospitallers, particularly as the orders were seen to be abusing and fraudulently extending them. External manifestations of piety were central to the crusading ideal and the orders, whose original austerity had been much praised, quickly amassed unseemly wealth through privilege and through public donations, the latter often made in the belief that they were more virtuous than ‘traditional’ monastic orders. Lay criticism of the military orders focused on their concern with money, which seemed inappropriate for organisations devoted to fighting the enemies of Christendom. The extent of the orders’ assets throughout Europe also supported the view that their continual appeals for aid for the Holy Land, which increased in proportion with Frankish defeats, had to indicate some kind of fraud. This was partly a function of the ‘perceptions gap’ that dogged the orders’ public relations; the Levant’s distance and fluid politics meant that the information they sent to Europe in support of aid requests often proved out of date, giving rise to cynicism about the orders’ motives. Critics also rarely appreciated the cost of maintaining castles and knights in the numbers required by Outremer, or the amount of revenues soaked up in maintaining the orders’ European chapters and non-combatant brethren.

Avarice was a standard criticism of monastic orders by the twelfth century, but to this vice the military orders added pride, a sin associated with the knightly class. Thus while the orders’ hybrid character may not in itself have been a significant problem, it did expose them to dual criticism. That the orders were proud is beyond doubt; it is attested by complaints from all segments of society, as well as by admonishments in the orders’ own internal documents. Pride allegedly led the orders to put their own interests before those of Christendom, the defence of which was their original raison d’etre. By virtue of their wealth and military importance the Templars and Hospitallers inevitably became involved in Outremer’s politics, in which they proved willing to make alliances with Muslim rulers and to takes sides against fellow Christians, even to the point of armed force; their partisanship in the extended papal-imperial contest of the early thirteenth century drew particular ire from commentators. The murder by the Templars in 1173 of an Assassin ambassador travelling under the King of Jerusalem’s protection was cited by contemporaries as evidence of fanaticism, greed (for lost tribute revenue from the Assassins) or contempt for legitimate authority, all of which jeopardised the crusader states’ wider interests. On balance however the orders played a subsidiary rather than a dominating role in Outremer’s politics, at least before the collapse of feudal authority in the thirteenth century, by which point the demise of the crusader states was only a matter of time.

Certain institutional traits rendered the military orders an easy political target. Perhaps most important was their lack of social roots in either Europe or Outremer; recruiting mainly from the minor nobility (often younger sons) and common knights, the orders lacked connections and influence with other powerful social institutions such as the secular clergy or the upper nobility. This was one reason for their dependence on Papal patronage, which inevitably bred resentment among the clergy and suspicion among secular authorities. The military orders were, in one historian’s succinct phrase, ‘out of the mainstream of circumstance’; their interests were international, and as such they constituted a quasi-alien element in the body politic. Initially this was not a problem, but as the orders’ wealth and power expanded their independence began to be perceived as a threat by monarchs trying to centralise authority in their own hands. The lacklustre response of the orders to these political challenges can also be partly explained by their social recruitment base, which produced a low level of education among the brethren and even among the orders' leaders.

Ultimately the orders’ political fortunes, like their military ones, fluctuated with the wider environment. The impact of specific events like their clashes with the Emperor Frederick II has already been noted, but more importantly long-term trends within Christendom proved unfavourable to the military orders. A general decline in monasticism’s prestige and expansion in monarchical power was less significant than the waning of the crusading idea itself, of which the orders had been both supreme expression and beneficiary. As the crusading ethos was overexploited and debased by political expediency, and as the Frankish presence in the Holy Land withered away, the military orders effectively became obsolete, carrying on only through a sort of ‘historical momentum’ derived from their power and prestige. As this ran out they had to adapt to new political realities (as did the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Order) or face extinction (the fate of the Templars).

No comments: