Historical Remarks

1. Circumstances

The historical events of the 11th century have largely influenced and partly caused the origin of the Order of St. John. Many faithful from the Christian Occident used to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem

since Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Caesar Constantine,
had re-discovered the grave of Christ - which is commonly referred to as "The Holy Sepulchre" -, had it restored and had a church built at its site.

The Church was persecuted all during the first centuries of its existence by the Roman Empire and its Emperors, the Caesars. It was Caesar Constantine who was attracted by Jesus Christ and his Church so that he converted himself and he was so much convinced that the Christian religion is the right way, that he even made it the official religion of his empire.

Constantine's mother Helena wanted to find out more about the origins of Christianity. That is why she initiated archaeological research in Israel, the country where Jesus Christ was born and lived, preached, healed, suffered, died and rose from the dead. As a result of that the grave in which Jesus' body was laid after his death on the cross and which he left alive after his resurrection, was found. This tomb of Jesus is commonly referred to as "The Holy Sepulchre". Helena had it restored and she had a church built at its site. As the Christians were not persecuted any longer, soon many faithful came to Jerusalem as pilgrims to see and to literally get into touch with those places where Jesus redeemed us, to pray there and to celebrate the memory of Christ's death and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist together. These pilgrimages continued during many hundreds of years.

Pope St. Leo IX. (1049-1054)
granted the "Indulgence of the Cross" for those who undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in AD. 1053.

When people went to confession in those olden times the penance they were given by the priest was not only some short prayers, but sometimes a real hard exercise for maybe many months or even years. To shorten this time of penance the Pope could grant an indulgence taking off part of the penance or all the rest of it. Such an indulgence was granted to those who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Other priests used to directly give grave sinners, e.g. murderers, the penance to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. But we must be aware that in those times there were no airplanes and no cars. Going to Jerusalem meant therefore to ride on horseback for many weeks facing all the dangers of a long tour as a stranger through foreign countries without regular supplies and security. No wonder, that most of those pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem being sick and exhausted. Therefore there was an urgent necessity to create an institution to accommodate and nurse those pilgrims. Next to the Holy Sepulchre there was a Benedictine Monastery called St. Maria Latina. Like all Benedictine monasteries it also had a house for the guests and visitors. This guest house became more and more a hospital because of the above mentioned reasons.

It was a monk called Brother Gérard who was given the responsibility to look after the guests by his monastic superior.

The early history and development of the Order of St. John was largely influenced by the crusades, but they were not the cause of its foundation.

Or in other words: If there would not have been crusades the Order of St. John would still have existed but surely it would have developed quite differently. The cause for the crusades was that the Ottoman Empire occupied the Holy Land and that the Christian Occident wanted to get it back out of the hands of who they called infidels. It came like that: AD 637/638 the Saracens took over Jerusalem and impeded the Christians to celebrate their cult. From AD 969 the Christians were oppressed, ill-treated and taxed by the Fatimid Rulers. The assault of the Seljuks in AD 1071 demolished nearly the whole Christian Jerusalem.

Therefore Pope Blessed Urban II. (1088-1099)
proclaimed in Clermont (in France) a "Holy War" against the oppressors of the Holy Land:

"Most beloved brethren: Urged by necessity, I, Urban, by the permission of God chief bishop and prelate over the whole world, have come into these parts as an ambassador with a divine admonition to you, the servants of God. I hoped to find you as faithful and as zealous in the service of God as I had supposed you to be. But if there is in you any deformity or crookedness contrary to God's law, with divine help I will do my best to remove it. For God has put you as stewards over his family to minister to it. Happy indeed will you be if he finds you faithful in your stewardship. You are called shepherds; see that you do not act as hirelings. But be true shepherds, with your crooks always in your hands. Do not go to sleep, but guard on all sides the flock committed to you. For if through your carelessness or negligence a wolf carries away one of your sheep, you will surely lose the reward laid up for you with God. And after you have been bitterly scourged with remorse for your faults, you will be fiercely overwhelmed in hell, the abode of death. For according to the gospel you are the salt of the earth. (Mt 5:13) But if you fall short in your duty, how, it may be asked, can it be salted? O how great the need of salting! It is indeed necessary for you to correct with the salt of wisdom this foolish people which is so devoted to the pleasures of this world, lest the Lord, when He may wish to speak to them, find them putrefied by their sins unsalted and stinking. For if He shall find worms, that is, sins, In them, because you have been negligent in your duty, He will command them as worthless to be thrown into the abyss of unclean things. And because you cannot restore to Him His great loss, He will surely condemn you and drive you from His loving presence. But the man who applies this salt should be prudent, provident, modest, learned, peaceable, watchful, pious, just, equitable, and pure. For how can the ignorant teach others? How can the licentious make others modest? And how can the impure make others pure? If anyone hates peace, how can he make others peaceable? Or if anyone has soiled his hands with baseness, how can he cleanse the impurities of another? We read also that if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch. (Mt 15:14) ; But first correct yourselves, in order that, free from blame, you may be able to correct those who are subject to you. If you wish to be the friends of God, gladly do the things which you know will please Him. You must especially let all matters that pertain to the church be controlled by the law of the church. And be careful that simony does not take root among you, lest both those who buy and those who sell [church offices] be beaten with the scourges of the Lord through narrow streets and driven into the place of destruction and confusion. Keep the church and the clergy in all its grades entirely free from the secular power. See that the tithes that belong to God are faithfully paid from all the produce of the land; let them not be sold or withheld. If anyone seizes a bishop let him be treated as an outlaw. If anyone seizes or robs monks, or clergymen, or nuns, or their servants, or pilgrims, or merchants, let him be anathema [that is, cursed]. Let robbers and incendiaries and all their accomplices be expelled from the church and anathematized. If a man who does not give a part of his goods as alms is punished with the damnation of hell, how should he be punished who robs another of his goods? For thus it happened to the rich man in the gospel (Lk 16:19) he was not punished because he had stolen the goods of another, but because he had not used well the things which were his.

"You have seen for a long time the great disorder in the world caused by these crimes. It is so bad in some of your provinces, I am told, and you are so weak in the administration of justice, that one can hardly go along the road by day or night without being attacked by robbers; and whether at home or abroad one is in danger of being despoiled either by force or fraud. Therefore it is necessary to reenact the truce, as it is commonly called, which was proclaimed a long time ago by our holy fathers. I exhort and demand that you, each, try hard to have the truce kept in your diocese. And if anyone shall be led by his cupidity or arrogance to break this truce, by the authority of God and with the sanction of this council he shall be anathematized."

After these and various other matters had been attended to, all who were present, clergy and people, gave thanks to God and agreed to the pope's proposition. They all faithfully promised to keep the decrees. Then the pope said that in another part of the world Christianity was suffering from a state of affairs that was worse than the one just mentioned. He continued:

"Although, O sons of God, you have promised more firmly than ever to keep the peace among yourselves and to preserve the rights of the church, there remains still an important work for you to do. Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Byzantine Empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for a while with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.

"All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honour. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let them eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide."

From Fulcher of Chartres. Gesta Dei per Francos. As reproduced in A Source Book for Medieval History, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher and Edgar Holmes McNeal (New York: Scribner's, 1905), 513-517.
quoted from: Mosaic Unit 6 Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusade

Later on St. Bernard of Clairvaux became one of the most important promoters of the idea of the crusades:


BUT THE KNIGHTS OF CHRIST may safely fight the battles of their Lord, fearing neither sin if they smite the enemy, nor danger at their own death; since to inflict death or to die for Christ is no sin, but rather, an abundant claim to glory. In the first case one gains for Christ, and in the second one gains Christ himself. The Lord freely accepts the death of the foe who has offended him, and yet more freely gives himself for the consolation of his fallen knight.

The knight of Christ, I say, may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently, for he serves Christ when he strikes, and serves himself when he falls. Neither does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good. If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil. He is evidently the avenger of Christ towards evildoers and he is rightly considered a defender of Christians. Should he be killed himself, we know that he has not perished, but has come safely into port. When he inflicts death it is to Christ's profit, and when he suffers death, it is for his own gain. The Christian glories in the death of the pagan, because Christ is glorified; while the death of the Christian gives occasion for the King to show his liberality in the rewarding of his knight. In the one case the just shall rejoice when he sees justice done, and in the other man shall say, truly there is a reward for the just; truly it is God who judges the earth.

I do not mean to say that the pagans are to be slaughtered when there is any other way to prevent them from harassing and persecuting the faithful, but only that it now seems better to destroy them than that the rod of sinners be lifted over the lot of the just, and the righteous perhaps put forth their hands unto iniquity.

5. What then? If it is never permissible for a Christian to strike with the sword, why did the Savior's precursor bid the soldiers to be content with their pay, and not rather forbid them to follow this calling? But if it is permitted to all those so destined by God, as is indeed the case provided they have not embraced a higher calling, to whom, I ask, may it be allowed more rightly than to those whose hands and hearts hold for us Sion, the city of our strength?

Thus when the transgressors of divine law have been expelled, the righteous nation that keeps the truth may enter in security. Certainly it is proper that the nations who love war should be scattered, that those who trouble us should be cut off, and that all the workers of iniquity should be dispersed from the city of the Lord. They busy themselves to carry away the incalculable riches placed in Jerusalem by the Christian peoples, to profane the holy things and to possess the sanctuary of God as their heritage. Let both swords of the faithful fall upon the necks of the foe, in order to destroy every high thing exalting itself against the knowledge of God, which is the Christian faith, lest the Gentiles should then say, "Where is their God?"

6. Once they have been cast out, he shall return to his heritage and to his house, which aroused his anger in the Gospel, "Behold," he said, "your house is left to you desolate." He had complained through the Prophet: "I have left my house, I have forsaken my heritage," and he will fulfil that other prophecy: "The Lord has ransomed his people and delivered them. They shall come and exult on Mount Sion, and rejoice in the good things of the Lord."

Rejoice Jerusalem, and recognize now the time in which you are visited! Be glad and give praise together, wastes of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people. He has ransomed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all peoples. O virgin of Israel, you were fallen and there was none to raise you up. Arise now and shake off the dust, O virgin, captive daughter of Sion. Arise, I say, and stand on high. See the happiness which comes to you from your God. You will no longer be referred to as the forsaken one, nor your land any more termed a wilderness; for the Lord takes his delight in you, and your land shall be peopled. Raise your eyes, look about you and see; all these are gathered together and come to you. Here is the help sent to you from the Holy One! Through them is already fulfilled the ancient promise, "I will make you the pride of the ages, a joy from generation to generation. You will suck the milk of the nations and be nourished at the breasts of their sovereignty." And again, "As a mother consoles her children, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem you will be comforted."

Do you not see how frequently these ancient witnesses foreshadowed the new knighthood? Truly, as we have heard, so we have now seen in the city of the Lord of armies. Of course we must not let these literal fulfilments blind us to the spiritual meaning of the texts, for we must live in eternal hope in spite of such temporal realizations of prophetic utterances. Otherwise the tangible would supplant the intangible, material poverty would threaten spiritual wealth and present possessions would forestall future fulfilment. Furthermore, the temporal glory of the earthly city does not eclipse the glory of its heavenly counterpart, but rather prepares for it, at least so long as we remember that the one is the figure of the other, and that it is the heavenly one which is our mother.

From Bernard of Clairvaux. In Praise of the New Knighthood. As reproduced in Bernard of Clairvaux: Treatises, trans. Conrad Greenia, vol. 3 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 127-145.
quoted from: Mosaic Unit 6 Bernard of Clairvaux on Christian Knighthood, ca. 1140

Even if most civilised nations think differently in our days, in those times people felt, that a "Holy War" would be justified being the fight against infidels and heretics serving the pope.

Already St. Augustine of Hippo used the expression "bellum iustum" (justified war)
in the letter "The Correction of the Donatists".

and St. Thomas Aquinas calls the conditions of its justification to be "iusta causa" (just cause), "recta intentio" (right intention), "legitima potestas" (legitimate power), "debitus modus" (right mode) and the principle of discerning the goods. The chivalry of the Occident went off into a strange remote country claiming to free the Holy Sepulchre and to restore the Honour of God. That is how they understood what they were doing. The occidental chivalry actually had the ideal precondition for the realisation of the idea of the crusades: The philosophy of chivalry was the ideal of service for the church and Christianity, for the Lord and for the women (i.e. to be a gentleman).

Blessed Gérard
This page is part of the publication: Blessed Gérard and his "everlasting brotherhood": The Order of St. John of Jerusalem

This page was last updated on Saturday, 23 July 2016 04:08:59


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