Rule and Identity: The Case of the Military Orders

By Brodman, James W. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Rule and Identity: The Case of the Military Orders


Brodman, James W., The Catholic Historical Review


During the High Middle Ages, a number of new religious orders developed in Palestine, in Spain, and along the northeastern frontier of Latin Europe for the defense of Christian lands, not with the more typical monastic weapons of fasting and prayer, but with the sword and lance. These subsequently became known as military orders, and they developed, alongside the mendicants and caritatives, as a distinctive subset of the religious life in the High Middle Ages. In light of the inherent pacifism of Christianity, the prevalence of contemporary peace movements, and the canonical prohibitions against the shedding of blood, or even the carrying of weapons by the clergy, the genesis of this variety of the religious life is a fascinating subject.1 Recently, a leading scholar of monastic spirituality has argued that the institution of the military orders, alongside that of lay brothers, was the most important innovation of the twelfth-century reform movement. These orders, he argues, all grew from the same root-that of monasticism-onto which was grafted the military life.' This observation typifies the conventional wisdom, namely, that whatever circumstances led to the creation of a particular military order, all of them came to practice a common vocation.

A closer examination of individual exemplars of that tradition, however, reveals some fundamental differences among military orders. The most basic is one of Rule. In the twelfth century, there were two broad categories of religious observance within the Western Church. The first is monastic and was reflected in variant interpretations of the Rule of St. Benedict. The second is canonical, and it found expression in various versions of the Rule of St. Augustine. Unlike monks, whose primary focus is upon inner perfection, canons have a more public apostolate in service to churches or various caritative causes. Several military orders, such as the Orders of the Temple or the Spanish Order of Calatrava, followed customs that are monastic in derivation, while others, such as the Order of St. John and the Spanish Order of Santiago, proceeded from the canonical tradition. A few orders, most notably the Teutonic Order, combined the two rules in some fashion. Because of the two the canonical tradition of this era is more closely associated with the works of mercy-feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, ransoming captives, etc. Perhaps some clue to the underlying significance of this difference in Rule might be had from an examination of the charitable apostolates pursued by individual military orders. In other words, did the practice of a canonical Rule impose a larger charitable commitment than that accepted by orders that followed monastic customs? One test of this supposition can be the relative weight given in these orders to the establishment and maintenance of shelters and hospitals.

Anthony Luttrell, a prominent historian of the Order of St. John, argues that all military orders had a hospitaller function.3 But, even if he is completely correct on this point, Luttrell's observation does not render our investigation moot because attitudes are sometimes more important and revealing than mere actions. Caroline Walker Bynum argues persuasively in her Docere verbo et exemplo that the fundamental difference between monks and canons in the twelfth century was not one of work, because there are numerous examples of both monks and canons preaching, praying and doing good works. The distinction is rather one of attitude and focus. The canon sees his mission to teach by word and by example, whereas the monk sees himself as essentially a learner. The one focuses upon the improvement or edification of society, the other upon his own individual emotional and spiritual growth. The monk was more likely inclined toward sharing the plight of the poor, rather than ameliorating it. Indeed, Giles Constable argues that reformed monasticism in the twelfth century sought to reduce the social role of monasteries to tend to the personal religious needs of monks. …

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