restricted access 3 The Order of Saint John in Malta
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3 The Order of Saint John in Malta By the time the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem reached the central Mediterranean island of Malta, it had already existed for over four centuries . The Order was originally founded in the eleventh century as a hospice for the care of pilgrims in Jerusalem. In time, it grew into a religious and Hospitaller brotherhood, which dedicated its service to poor and sick pilgrims. After the First Crusade and after a considerable increase of members and properties in the Holy Land and in Europe, the brotherhood was formed in 1113 into a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Conditions in the Holy Land became increasingly turbulent, leading to greater involvement of the members of the Order in the military affairs of the Crusader States, thus evolving after 1120 into a military order integrating the monastic and military ways of life and bound by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.1 Transport by sea was the quickest, cheapest, and safest way of traveling between Europe and the Holy Land, and the Knights of Saint John had to undertake seafaring activities.2 However, there is no indication of the existence of a naval fleet for the period during which the crusaders held their territory in the Holy Land. The earliest evidence that might suggest the existence of an armed Hospitaller fleet is the obscure title of commendator navium, encountered in a document dating to 1234.3 With the fall of Acre in 1292, the Hospitallers retreated to Limassol on Cyprus . The new residence on an island required a fleet to guard this position, leading to the official initiation of the Order’s navy in 1300.4 In 1306–7, the Order of Saint John purchased the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Leros from the Genoese admiral Vignolo Vignoli, who had established control over these officially Byzantine islands. Little is known about the Knights’ initial occupation of these islands, but it appears to have involved fighting against the local inhabitants, who fiercely opposed the Order’s arrival.5 Like all other military orders, after the loss of the strongholds in the Holy Land, the Order of Saint John was left without a military role to justify its continued existence.6 In the decades to follow, increasing vitality of Muslim shipping in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean necessitated a concentrated effort by the Knights to arm a fleet to counter this activity.7 Activities of the Knights during the period when they were based in Rhodes are beyond 74 Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime History the scope of this study. But the circumstances of their departure from Rhodes provide insights into the structure and the organization of the Order as well as its introduction to the Maltese Islands. It should be emphasized that the Order of Saint John had two major functions to justify its existence and to acquire financial and political support for its survival. The first function (which lies outside the scope of this volume) was to provide hospital services to those in need. The second was to fight the forces of Islam. Acquiring the status of an island nation in the thirteenth century, the Order’s major weapon in performing the second task was its fleet. Recognition of the organization, administration, function, and performance of this fleet is, therefore, key to understanding the political, economic, and military context of the Order during its three centuries of activity in the central Mediterranean . Arrival of the Order in Malta The expulsion of the Order of Saint John from its base in Rhodes in 1522 and its arrival in Malta was a turning point in history for the Knights and the islands . Information about the events of this period survived through contemporary historical documents. In addition to the accounts, iconography appears as an alternative source of information, providing data especially about the specifics of the naval forces of these new occupants of Malta when they first arrived at the island. In studying this period, one may have difficulty recognizing the distinction between the objective truth regarding the actual events and the official historical accounts, which were sometimes manipulated to further a political agenda. Interpretation of the texts and paintings requires an understanding of the period and the circumstances under which these works were created. In most cases, these official accounts and paintings served to promote the power and glory of the Order of Saint John. Impartiality was not the major objective in...


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Subject Headings

  • Malta -- History.
  • Malta -- History, Naval.
  • Malta -- Commerce -- History.
  • Piracy -- Malta -- History.
  • Underwater archaeology -- Malta.
  • Malta -- Antiquities.
  • Mediterranean Region -- History.
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