The Forgotten Militant Order: the Knights of St. Lazarus
by Helena P. Schrader
The so-called Militant Orders – monastic orders open to fighting men – were children of the Crusades. Scollins and Wise (in The Knights of Christ ) list no less than 17 military orders, 8 of which were founded in the Iberian Peninsula, 2 of which were Italian, and 2 German. The most famous and most powerful militant orders, however, were the Templars and the Hospitallers, both founded in the Holy Land and international in their structures and membership.
Initially, true to the Word of Christ, the Church of Rome condemned violence of any kind. By the 5th century, however, the Church conceded that there were circumstances under which the use of force – even homicide – was necessary, excusable, and potentially pious. The concept of the “just war” emerged and was recognized theologically by St. Augustine.
Furthermore, the more Islam threatened the Christian world, the more the Church recognized the need for armed men to defend it against armies determined to spread Islam with the sword. Meanwhile, wherever secular power was weak, the need for men willing to protect clerics, women, and peasants against everything from Viking raids to common robbers was equally evident and urgent.
The fact that the Church drew its leadership from the ruling class – the secular lords with strong military traditions – meant that most clerics in the Middle Ages were themselves imbued with a warrior ethos. This fact was borne out by the number of bishops who donned armor and took active part in warfare, from the Battle of Hastings to the Battle of Crécy. Thus it is not surprising that by the end of the first Christian millennium, Christianity recognized the need for armed force and men who wielded it, but that did not mean the Church had completely abandoned its principles.
On the contrary, the Church sought repeatedly to restrict, reduce, control, and direct warfare and violence. Violence against churches and clergy was punished with excommunication, for example, and there were frequent clerical diatribes against the vanity, arrogance, and violence of the warrior class.
When the Byzantine Emperor appealed to Pope Urban II for aid in fighting the Seljuk Turks and freeing the Holy Land, there is little doubt that Urban II had dual motives for calling for a crusade: on the one hand, he wanted to free the Holy Land, but on the other he wanted to free France and Western Europe from excess numbers of violent young men, trained in the profession of arms, who were too quick to fight each other and prey upon the defenseless.
Balderic, one chronicler of Urban II’s speech calling for the First Crusade, quotes the Pope as saying:
"Christian warriors, who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext. You, who have so often been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places. You, who sell for vile pay the strength of your arms to the fury of others, armed with the sword of the Maccabees, go and merit eternal reward …. If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels …. Soldiers of Hell, become soldiers of the living God!"
What is remarkable in retrospect is the extent to which Pope Urban II struck a chord with his audience. Not only did they take the cross in great numbers (and proceed to bathe in the blood of infidels when they reached Jerusalem), but for the next 200 years fighting men flocked to serve Christ, not just in crusades, but as fighting monks bound by monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. This was made possible by the creation of new monastic orders that enabled men to be both monks and knights.
While members of these orders were expected to abjure all wealth and property, to attend Mass multiple times a day, to fast, pray, and eat in silence, and to live in controlled communities cut off from the outside world, especially women, members were not required to give up the profession of arms. Rather, these orders were designed to capture the religious zeal of the time and funnel the fervor and energy of fighting men into religious channels.
The most famous of the “fighting orders” or militant orders were of course the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of St. John), two orders founded in the Holy Land and, for their age, truely international in character. Although not powerful and largely forgotten, there was a third military order also founded in the Holy Land, the Order of St. Lazarus.
The Order of St. Lazarus evolved from a leper hospital that had existed in Jerusalem prior to the First Crusade. After the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, it became part of the Hospitaller network of hospitals, but by 1142 the Order of St. Lazarus broke away, and by 1147 it was known as the Leper Brothers of Jerusalem.
About this time the Order also started to expand, eventually having houses in Tiberias, Ascalon, Acre, Caesarea, Beirut, and possibly other cities as well. Furthermore, it began to have military brethren, whose role was primarily the defense of the leper hospitals. These military men were most likely former Templars and Hospitallers who had contracted leprosy, because we know that both the Templar and Hospitaller Rules required members with leprosy to join the Order of St. Lazarus.
Possibly some knights and sergeants joined St. Lazarus without being lepers, however, because there are recorded incidents of the Order of St. Lazarus taking part in military operations – possibly at the Battle of Hattin; certainly at the Battle of Gaza in 1244, at Ramla in 1253, and during the defense of Acre in 1291.
After the fall of Acre, the Order of St. Lazarus moved its headquarters to Cyprus, abandoned all military activities, and thereafter concentrated on its mission of providing comfort and care for the victims of leprosy until the mid-14th century.
Scollins and Wise, The Knights of Christ, Osprey Publishing, London, 1984.
Hopkins, Knights, pp. 82-83.