The military religious orders such as the templars and the knights of malta, in their origins, functions, organization, and historical significance, were essentially distinct from the secular orders of knighthood such as the Golden Fleece. The military religious orders appeared initially in the 12th century as a response to the appeal of the crusading movement. For centuries the Church had exhorted medieval knights to use their swords only in the cause of justice. In proclaiming the crusade in 1095, urban ii pointed to such a cause. The formation of the military religious orders soon after can be regarded as the logical outcome of the effort to Christianize the soldier.
In entering orders wherein the principles of monasticism and chivalry were combined, the knights pledged themselves not only to observe the canonical vows, to practice asceticism, to recite the canonical hours, but also to defend Christendom against the infidels by force of arms. Each order was directed by a master; clerical members served the spiritual needs of the knights. The papacy exempted the orders from the jurisdiction of diocesan ordinaries, from the observance of interdicts, etc. The orders contributed substantially not only to the maintenance of the crusaders' states in the Holy Land, but also to the Reconquest in spain and to the conversion of the pagans in eastern Europe.
The secular orders of knighthood came into existence at the close of the medieval era under the auspices of kings and princes who considered these honorary societies as symbols of their power. The secular orders did not participate significantly in the military defense of Christendom, and their members did not adhere to the monastic life.
The prototype of the military religious orders was the Order of the Temple, founded about 1119 by Hugh de Payens for the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land. At his request, bernard of clairvaux wrote the Liber de laude novae militiae, a justification of the idea of the military religious order. To sceptics Bernard demonstrated the possibility of reconciling and conjoining the military and monastic professions. The nova militia of which he spoke was both a new kind of knighthood and a new kind of monasticism. In large measure the phenomenal growth of the Templars and of the other military religious orders can be attributed to his influence. In imitation of the Templars, the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, already caring for the sick and pilgrims, assumed a share of the responsibility for the military defense of the Holy Land. Another foundation in the Holy Land, the teutonic knights, gained renown in the conquest and conversion of Prussia. The knights of the sword, organized in 1202 by Bp. albert i of riga, performed a similar role in Livonia.
Several military religious orders were founded in the Iberian peninsula. There is no substance to the opinion that they were an imitation of similar organizations existing among the Muslims. The Hispanic orders were modeled on the Templars and the Hospitallers and reflected most clearly the influence of St. Bernard. The first of the peninsular orders, calatrava, founded in 1158, was directly affiliated to the Order of Cîteaux and was indeed a military arm of that order. The Leonese knights of alcÁntara, the Portuguese Order of aviz, and the Aragonese knights of montesa were affiliates of Calatrava and thus of Cîteaux. The Portuguese order of christ, though not a dependency of Calatrava, observed its customs. Thus all the major Hispanic orders, with the exception of the knights of st. james (santiago), which followed the Rule of St. augustine, pertained to the cistercian observance.
Several military orders disappeared just as quickly as they had come into being. One should mention that especially in modern times there has been a tendency to invent
military orders and to attribute to them a false, fraudulent, and fantastic history. The destruction of the crusaders' states and the completion of the Hispanic Reconquest deprived the military religious orders of any real reason for existence. In 1312 Clement V suppressed the Templars, but the Hospitallers (Knights of Malta) have survived until modern times because they never abandoned their original function of caring for the sick. At the close of the Middle Ages the kings in Spain and Portugal assumed direct control of the military religious orders, gradually turning them into honorary societies of nobles.
Bibliography: h. prutz, Die geistlichen Ritterorden (Berlin 1908). j. m. a. delaville le roulx, Les Hospitaliers en Terre Sainte et à Chypre (Paris 1904). j. f. o'callaghan, "The Affiliation of the Order of Calatrava with the Order of Cîteaux," Analecta Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis 15 (1959) 161–193; 16 (1960) 3–59, 225–292. e. maschke, Die Religion in Geschichteund Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 5:1121–24. k. hofmann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 8:1326.
[j. f. o'callaghan]