The Crusades remain one of the most celebrated episodes of religious violence in the history of the church. I am certain that many would put forward other instances of official violence to rival the piecemeal warfare of the Middle Ages, however, the Crusades still jolt many Muslims for their unflappable conviction that God gave the Holy Land to them. Ironically a bit of good emerged from the carnage in the form of sometimes secret orders of knights whose charge was originally to care for injured and sick Christians. Thanks to Dan Brown everyone knows of the Knights Templar. There were, however, several of these orders spanning the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, and some of them survive today. In Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger a story appeared of the 900th birthday of the Knights of Malta. I don’t recall having heard of them before, but then, it has been many years since my last class in Medieval Christianity. And no wonder—they don’t even appear in Wikipedia under that name.
What is so interesting about the Knights of Malta is that, like the Vatican, they have the authority to act like a country. According to the Associated Press, the knights can issue their own passports, stamps, and money, and have diplomatic relations with real countries and even have observer status in the United Nations. The blurring of the lines between religion and politics, as any student of history knows, has deep roots indeed. The Knights of Malta, however, own no territory (no, their eponymous island isn’t theirs). A nation with no territory. At least the Vatican has its own city. The Knights still exist for their charitable works and, it is to be hoped, not for the conquest of lands legitimately owned by others.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (“sovereign” and “military” were omitted in the press), is a sub-branch of the Knights Hospitaller, the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world. It is nice to think that the church might still have a few knights up its sleeves. The concept of chivalry has largely been absorbed into chauvinism, however, and even now the Knights of Malta are men. Along with the Vatican, that makes two entities run completely by males that assert their own sovereignty. In the twenty-first century it would be nice to think that we wouldn’t need monied men in robes in order to help out those in need. But then I’ve always been prone to believe in myths. And knights tend to follow after daze. Crusades, however, have far outlived their putative usefulness.