A Separate War: The Quest for Identity in Military Order After the Crusades | Kevin O’Gorman |

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Thunderous applause greeted Teutonic Grand Master Burchard von Schwanden when he entered the city fortress of Acre in 1290. Townspeople and his brothers-in-arms lined alleyways covered with vibrant clothes and led the way with candles and church relics. The knight’s timing could not have been any better. When he arrived at Acre, it was the last major military post remaining in the Crusader states. Also serving as the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun was advancing on the city with a massive Muslim army. While Burchard and the city of Acre were saved from fighting by the sudden death of the Sultan in Cairo, the Grand Master’s journey and plans for the Holy Land did not have a similar finality. In his Chronicle of Prussia, written in 1341, forty years after the city fell, the Teutonic Order chaplain Nicholas von Jeroschin recounts with horror how–– after only three days in the city–– Burchard gathered the Teutonic knights present and resigned his role as Grand Master. The whiplash from his triumphant entrance into the city to his sudden departure was not lost on Jeroschin nor the people of Acre. Lords and vowed knights alike failed to change Burchard’s mind, and even the begging of grand masters of the Hospitaller and Templar orders on their knees was to no avail. Burchard did not leave religious life entirely and joined the Hospitallers soon after. The Teutonic Order still felt bitter forty years later, and Jeroschin emphasized that they refused Burchard’s later request to rejoin.[2] While Jeroschin does not give an explicit reason for Burchard’s abrupt exit, the timing alongside the permanent removal of Teutonic forces from the Middle East has led many historians to conclude that his decision coincided with a larger debate within the order over the theaters where they crusaded.[3] Ultimately, the order would move its headquarters from Acre to Venice in 1291 and then to Prussia in 1302, leaving the city that Burchard had so triumphantly entered only a few years earlier.

This episode highlights the complicated relationship that military orders had with the changing makeup of crusading and their original mission and identity. For Burchard and the Teutonic Order, that conflict took the form of debates about continuing their involvement in the Holy Land or moving their focus to Prussia and the Baltic Crusades. These discussions also took place in other military orders, as the fall of Acre forced them away from crusading in the Holy Land, and they took up crusades in continental Europe. The Hospitallers and Templars faced similar struggles after losing their positions in Acre and the dissolution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in general, becoming landholders in continental Europe as much as they were an active military force. Many of the military orders were founded with an explicit connection to the Holy Land, even going so far as to include it in their names. The Teutonic and Hospitaller orders’ official names referenced the German House of Saint Mary and the Hospital of St. John, both hospitals in Jerusalem. The Templars likewise include the Temple of Solomon, which the Templars believed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was built on top of. These names were not exclusive to the largest military orders, as seen in the Leper Knights, whose name applies to the leper hospital in Jerusalem dedicated to St. Lazarus.[4][5] 

The Holy Land not only loomed large as a physical destination for military orders, but it also had an intense spiritual importance. The names chosen by military orders for themselves had deep spiritual meanings and connections to their ministries. The Leper Knights are perhaps the strongest of these connections, with their hospital ministry with lepers directly connected with the spirituality and suffering of their patron, St. Lazarus.[6] Further, there are connections between the orders and their origins within hospitaller or canonical spiritual traditions. At their core, military orders were religious orders with professed brothers and priests, and their creation and evolution mirrored that of the other medieval religious orders around them. These functions also interacted with the orders’ growing military mission and commitments, a religious charism utterly unique in the church. There has been extensive interest in the military orders’ dual martial and hospital functions in the work of Anthony Luttrell and Malcolm Barber, with the former claiming every military order carried a hospitaller function in their actions.[7] This view has received some pushback among scholars like James Brodman, who have argued that military orders are better understood as either fully dedicated to military service or hospital orders that grew to include military elements, with the military and hospital roles never intended in their Rules.

The ultimate stress test of these spiritual and temporal ideas came from the fall of Acre and the ultimate failure of the Crusades in the Holy Land. The loss of Christian strongholds and Christendom’s ability to wage holy war in the Middle East effectively directly threatened the understanding military orders had of their service in the Crusades and the Holy Land. Because of this, the fall of Acre acts as a clear break from the traditional mission of the military orders, forcing them to reevaluate their positions through the lens of their respective rules of life and spiritual traditions. The new European institutions emphasized their original purposes, focusing on hospital care or new military engagements, continuing to use crusading imagery and ideology from the Levant. I argue that the end of traditional crusading in the Holy Land challenged the orders’ foundational spiritualities and military missions. Drawing on their hospitaller and canon-regular traditions, they repositioned their institutions and spirituality and developed an expanded view of crusading in their European missions.

Lepers, Germans, and Hospitals: The Spiritual Foundation of Military Orders

Military orders were not created in a vacuum, nor did they only see themselves through the lens of warfare. The religious reforms of the twelfth century have long been connected to the development of a new monastic understanding of vocations that expanded them beyond canons serving in parishes or monks in their monasteries. Their creation also occurred alongside monastic movements to return to the roots of religious devotion, encountering Jesus and the church through intense asceticism and the “apostolic poverty” that was lived by, or at least connected with, the earliest Christians. Historians like Jonathan Riley-Smith and Katherine Allen Smith see these desires for authentic Christian living developing and expanding during the First Crusade. In their arguments, these authors highlight the parallels between Crusade preaching on martyrdom and pilgrimage and existing monastic language.[8] The brutal reality of crusading allowed crusaders to quickly draw parallels between their physical struggles and the spiritual combat that monastic communities were dedicated to. The physical violence of the first few crusades is almost unfathomable, and lords and peasants alike felt the suffering. This experience of widespread suffering also existed alongside an idea of crusading as tangibly helping the pilgrims and Christians of the Holy Land, a well-known goal of the First Crusade.[9] 

Military orders viewed their vows as fundamentally connected to the people they served. Orders often describe their initial foundations through moments of service to the poor and the intense emotions generated. Jeroschin writes about the founding of the Teutonic Order in the same Chronicle that he uses to tell of their exploits in Prussia. His account uses visceral language to connect the suffering of others with the founding knights’ desire to serve. During the siege of Acre in 1190, several German merchant crusaders saw their fellow Germans in distress. They were overcome with “piety and devotion” and constructed a hospital for them in their tents. The story particularly emphasizes the personal and ascetic nature of this experience. The knights only have a ship’s sail to start their ministry, with everything else “generously donated from the possessions with which God had endowed them.”[10] The order’s origins are echoed in a later passage that justifies their crusading and violence, connecting the order to biblical warriors and their common call to destroy evil and sin. A “true knight” risks “death for the honour of God” and “in the abundance of their love…take pity on the sick, lying in all manner of distress in hospitals, whom they tend generously, humbly and ardently in the course of their duties.”[11] The language of this passage ties the knight’s identity as much to their ministry towards the sick and the hospital as their fighting the enemies of God. While the origin Jeroschin tells is contested in recent scholarship by Brodman, who points to the eight-year gap between the hospital’s foundation in 1190 and the assumption of military orders in 1198,[12] it still highlights the knightly ideals that Teutonic brothers saw themselves as living out.

The merchants quickly integrated many German lords and knights into the growing brotherhood. Upon sending delegations to the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, the order was given a “split” rule. The medical members took up the Hospitaller rule, and the brother-knights the Templar rule.[13] Though separated by rules, the pseudo-monastic role of the knights and the hospitaller function of the hospital workers led to the institution of a new understanding of a military order that was both spiritually grounded in a singular place, the German House of Jerusalem yet flexible enough to adapt into a distinctly militaristic role. This development is what Brodman describes as the “military-hospitaller” order, firmly placing military orders as part of larger canonical and mendicant reform movements that intended to revitalize religious life.[14]

Other military orders have more veiled origins that are nonetheless profoundly connected to their hospital ministries. Perhaps the most famous military order, and certainly the largest one still functioning, is the Order of St. John. The order, known as the Hospitallers or simply the Hospital, innovated the “military-hospitaller” tradition through a broader understanding of service as a core of their identity. Formed in 1099, almost immediately after the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, their exact founding is not described as vividly as other orders. However, their focus on acts of service is ingrained in their Rule and Constitutions. These foundational texts ordain brothers to “engaging with the poor.”[15] While the Hospitallers were directly connected to a tangible hospital in Jerusalem, like the Teutonic Order, their ministry also grew to include women and lay affiliates. Female branches were common in military orders, with the Teutonic Order and Order of Santiago accepting women in several forms. However, the Hospitallers’ widespread hospital system engrained women even more within the everyday operation of the order. [16] Both the male and female branches of the Hospitallers followed the same general rule that explicitly laid out the member’s responsibility to help the poor around them.

The Hospitaller rule contrasted overtly with monastic military orders like the Templars, whose Rule called Templars to emulate the poor in their interior spiritual lives rather than the exterior work associated with the Hospital.[17] St. Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in forming the Temple’s spirituality, and he wove rigid Cistercian spirituality into the brothers’ lives. Templar brothers were told to “shun every excess in clothing and on the rare occasions when they are not on duty spend their time repairing their worn armor and torn clothing.” Monastic poverty and the internal purity of the brothers fostered through an intense prayer life within the monastery, would expand into their help with the poor.[18] The female branch of the Hospitallers also took a more intentionally prayerful expression of this service than the brothers. The brothers and priests followed and prayed the same liturgy of the hours and served at the hospitals. However, the female branch was notably cloistered, and many were expected to be literate and able to participate fully in liturgical functions. Likewise, a tradition of noble women entering into Hospitaller convents with the explicit goal of serving the poor or retiring as a widow into a monastic life of prayer also developed as the Hospitallers retreated from the Holy Land and opened more houses in mainland Europe.[19] 

The same emphasis on hospitaller spirituality can be seen in the Lazarite order, also known as the Leper Knights. While their origins are unknown, like the Hospitallers, Lazarite historians were not stymied by the lack of information. Their chroniclers connected the order’s beginnings to physical actions, such as constructing a leper hospital in Jerusalem in the fourth century and important spiritual figures like Judas Maccabeus and St. Basil.[20] Regardless of the mythological elements, the first signs of the order appeared in the 1140s through a donation of land for a church named after St. Lazarus and a convent of the sick nearly forty years after the capture of Jerusalem and the First Crusade. The order’s spirituality was fundamentally rooted in their service to the lepers from whom they took their unofficial name. While the earliest Lazarite knights are anonymous, other stories about their knights mirror the Teutonic founders’ personalization of their spirituality. A twelfth-century Leper Knight known as Alberic was said not just to have served the poor and needy but would submerge his face in the water he washed with as an act of penance and love. The washing and caretaking ground the order’s ministry, but Alberic actions are raised as exemplars of the order’s charism by taking the suffering of those he serves upon himself. The chronicle states that he was “moved … to nausea” by the dirty water, yet he immerses himself in it nonetheless. In doing this, Alberic placed himself at risk of catching the disease and symbolically took the place of the lepers. [21] The description of Alberic’s dramatic, saintly actions demonstrates the order’s desire to unite their spirituality with their physical ministry.

Alberic’s desire to serve and take upon the bodily suffering of lepers is also repeated in other medieval mystics, especially women. Much like Alberic’s immersion in the leftover water of the lepers, female medieval mystics like Catherine of Sienna would drink the pus from the lepers and sick that they served to recreate the suffering of Christ physically. Contemporaries even remarked on these incidents among Italian mystics as growing a eucharistic hunger and connection to Christ. In both cases, Alberic and the Italian mystics gained spiritual authority from their acts of bodily holiness. Catherine of Sienna especially attracted the attention of other mystics and church leaders through these actions and was able to spread her spiritual teachings even further. [22] This spiritual authority would have been essential for a military order lacking the distinctive history of its larger neighbors, the position in which the Leper Knights found themselves. The person of Alberic and his extraordinary actions towards their namesake created a perfect opportunity to connect their distinctive way of life to mystical motifs of bodily holiness and the spiritual power that came from them.

The Lazarites did not limit themselves to spiritually taking upon the suffering of the people they served but incorporated lepers as full members. Many secular and religious knights who had contracted leprosy and were rejected from other military orders were welcomed in with open arms.[23] These knights were allowed to serve in military actions as long as they were healthy, transitioning to the order’s medical arm once their condition worsened. Secular and religious legal codes codified these entrances, including the French Livre au Roi for secular knights and the Templar Rule of the Temple. Both mention allowances for knights who had become leprous to transfer or enter into the Lazarites. These transplants were so pivotal to the order’s identity that it was a tradition until 1253 to have the Master of the order be a leper himself.[24] 

The foundations of these orders show an interesting conception of religious life within military orders. Many military orders’ foundations and early spiritualities were rooted in dramatic personal experiences and deep connections to non-militaristic institutions. The visceral descriptions of the first members of the Teutonic and Lazarite orders and the intentional mythologizing in their telling speak to the profound connection to a particular spirituality and expression of Christian love. The Teutonic Order saw their founders’ actions and mission as so important in telling their story that they effectively combined the hospital’s founding with the founding of the order itself, even though eight years passed between them. Similarly, the Hospitaller order experienced a deep sense of spirituality apart from the military role they would develop. Hospitaller spirituality was even more varied when approaching the role and importance that women played in its early establishment, with women doing the physical tasks of the hospital and expanding that into a ministry of cloistered prayer.

“The Wrath God Ordained”: Reactions Among the Military Orders to the Fall of Acre

The origin stories and rules of military orders show an attachment to their non-military ministry and witness within a crusading context. Many of the military orders not only took their names from their hospitals in the Holy Land but administered themselves from various Crusader states. Their official names and rules often directly relate to their origins in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, expanding even further as they began militarizing in the twelfth century. While the Templars always had a clear military focus and were given control of military posts and castles 29, the Hospitallers began as an exclusively medical order in 1099. They slowly gained military responsibilities until the Kingdom of Jerusalem officially assigned castles in 1136.[25] The Teutonic Order was similar. Following their establishment, they began to take up smaller military roles, such as defending sections of Acre’s wall in 1193 and explicitly listing their military role in 1198.[26] The Leper Knights, despite being more medically focused and having a sizable contingent of members actively sick with leprosy, were also active in military engagements. However, details are sparse aside from a devastating loss in the Battle of La Forbie in 1244.[27] The battle, the biggest of the Crusades since the Battle of Hattin in 1187, was so disastrous that the Patriarch of Jerusalem wrote that all the Leper Knights present were killed during the fighting. The Leper Knight’s fortunes did not improve over a decade later as a 1252 raid into Muslim territory resulted in the death of the Master of the order and left only four knights alive. This defeat also led Pope Innocent IV to issue a bull in 1223, permitting a non-leper to lead the order, ending a century-old tradition while acknowledging the necessity of military action for their mission.[28]

By the middle of the thirteenth century, these orders had concrete attachments to the Holy Land through military protection or direct holdings of castles and military posts. This commitment would be pushed to its extreme as the momentum of the Crusades faltered, and Crusader states fell. The Crusader states faced increasingly strong attacks from a rotating list of Muslim empires and powers, each chipping away at their power. Many of the strongholds given to the Hospitaller and Templar orders following the First and Second Crusades were lost in the aftermath of the Battle of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. After several years of incremental warfare and land purchases, the Crusader states regained several strongholds, only to have their progress stopped by the Mongol invasions in the 1240s.[29] These gains and losses also incurred a growing view that the Christian forces in the Holy Land lacked the authority and cohesion to deal effectively with Muslim forces. Leadership in the Holy Land was not limited to the monarchies and counts that comprised the Crusader states during the First and Second Crusades and also included military orders, independent barons, and Italian settlements. Significant disunity was also present in these states’ treaties and actions. The famed Benedictine chronicler Matthew Paris accused the Hospitallers and Templars of betraying Frederick II by dealing with Muslim forces in the Sixth Crusade, although he later recanted.[30] The military orders were not immune from these changes, and the Order of St. Lazarus notably followed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to Acre sometime after the fall of the city of Jerusalem in 1187, re-establishing itself with a new leper hospital and having a gate within the newly fortified city named after their titular Saint and staffed by brothers.[31] Ultimately, the remaining Crusader States and holdings of military orders were pushed back by Baibars and the Mamluks, who conquered the Templar fortress of Safad and massacred its Knightly inhabitants in 1266. The Mamluk force followed up by capturing Krak de Chevalier, one of the largest Hospitaller strongholds, in 1271.[32] Members of military orders did not ignore these struggles, and there were early indications of their reluctance to continue sending men and resources into what seemed to be a losing struggle. The direct obligations that military orders had to their stations in the east were not always clear. The Hospitaller order only allotted one-third of its revenue in continental Europe to the Holy Land and only had about eighty knights and sergeants-at-arms stationed in Cyprus in the early fourteenth century.[33] While Jeroschin’s Chronicle does not lay out specific numbers of knights, there is a clear emphasis on the order’s continued recruitment and diversion of troops to Prussia and the Baltics, even naming a citadel of theirs after their lost stronghold of Montfort in Palestine.[34]

All of the complicated political maneuverings that characterized the actions of military orders in the Holy Land came to a head in the Siege of Acre. Following the destruction of the city and Principality of Antioch in 1268 by Baibars, the only remaining Crusader state was the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre was their only remaining city of any strategic worth. When the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun, the heir to the terrifyingly successful Baibars, began to march on Acre in 1290, the fear and terror that gripped the town were palpable. The description of the Teutonic Grand Master Burchard von Schwanden’s entrance and resignation in Acre that opened this paper shows the tensions felt within religious orders to preserve their presence within the Holy Land. The Grand Master rode into a parade in the streets for him and his men, greeted on all sides by the city’s inhabitants, religious figures, and his fellow vowed knights. His resignation was not a case of cowardice or a desire to leave religious life, as he joined the Hospitallers and remained involved in their Holy Land actions. Instead, his leave corresponded to the appointments of Grand Masters, who would progressively push the Teutonic Order’s headquarters and actions further toward Germany and the Baltics, leaving a clear lack of continued hierarchical support for the very city that Burchard was attempting to liberate.

The aftermath and reactions to the 1291 Siege of Acre fall represent a dramatic turning point with the physical relocation of the Teutonic and Hospitaller order to Prussia and Rhodes. While the specifics of the siege lie outside of the scope of this paper, its impacts on military orders can be felt both at the political and ideological levels. The Fall of Acre was devastating in a political sense, finalizing the destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Crusader states in a general and personal sense. The Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic, and Lazarites all effectively had their Middle Eastern forces headquartered in Acre at the time. They had significant numbers of knights, even with the dwindling support from their continental houses. The intensity of the fighting took a brutal toll on the men present, resulting in the death of the Templar Grand Master, forty Hospitallers, and all twenty-five Lazarists defenders.[35] The defeat was so traumatic that Pope Nicholas IV initiated discussions on combining the Templar and Hospitaller orders to quell rivalries between members in the region and streamline the leadership questions that many blamed for the campaign failures. Talks even went as far as proposing designs for a unified habit and color scheme.[36] The actual members and Grand Masters dismissed the idea readily, and the proposal lost steam after Nicholas died in 1292. The dissolution of the Templars twenty years later in 1312 brought back this discussion, although it was limited to the acquisition of the Templar’s property by the Hospitallers, and discussions advanced no further than before.[37]

There was also an emotional reaction within other orders. Nicholas von Jeroschin reacts with horror at both the loss of life from the siege and the loss of the Teutonic Order’s physical connection to the Holy Land. The siege was so violent that “blood rushed like a torrent through all the alleyways” and went as deep as a person’s ankles. Jeroschin follows up this visceral description with a personal account of what he thinks led to this moment. He noted three things: the feuding of local leadership, the lack of coordination among armies, and Christians’ personal pride and sin. This section is also paired with a long lament for the Holy Land, where Jeroschin gives voice to the Holy Land itself, crying out that its “wondrous inheritance is overgrown and has been given to outsiders.”[38] The Holy Land is still an essential part of his spirituality, and he decries the loss of life and his connection to the land, going so far as to take upon God’s voice in lamenting the loss of his “inheritance.” Jeroschin’s focus on these events in the Holy Land and the Fall of Acre within the context of the Teutonic Order’s Prussian campaigns shows their significance to their Germanic crusading. The importance of the Holy Land is stressed within the Chronicle. The order’s biblical foundations and the deaths of the knights within Acre all take place within this powerful area, only to be betrayed by the sin and foolishness of the Christians. The Crusader states’ suffering and personal failure turned away the Holy Land and left “the wrath of God ordained.”[39] Even though the area has such a deep meaning, Jeroschin still stops short of calling for any return, nor does he mention any further actions of the order in the Holy Land after the Fall of Acre. The location of the order’s headquarters mirrors this tension. Initially located in the iconic castle of Montfort in Palestine until 1265, the order retreated to Acre until its fall in 1291 and stopped in Venice for eighteen years until 1309. The order settled on Marienburg in Prussia in 1309, and their operations would be based in northern Germany for the next five hundred years, much like their gradual movement towards bases further and further away from the Middle East, the Holy Land remained a reminder of their spiritual and biblical past but one that was still in the past.

Movements from the East: Ideologically Continuing the Crusade in Europe

Shock and despair were not the only reactions military orders had to the Fall of Acre and their resettlement in Europe. As seen above, physical reactions and discussions followed and hit the heart of the military orders’ role. The crusading instincts of these orders were not wholly abandoned but repositioned into their hospitaller functions and continental military operations. The Teutonic and Hospitaller orders are the most obvious example of the physical shift towards the West through their relocation to the Baltic region and Mediterranean islands. However, they also used Crusader language and relics to promote themselves to new members and to continue their ministry. Likewise, these shifts were also accompanied by renewed stress on their hospitaller and canonical roles within their new environments. The Hospitallers made a point to provide care for the sick, and the Teutonic knights emphasized the protection of pilgrims and the poor in their battle tales.

Turning first to the Hospitallers, as seen in their origins and actions in the Holy Land, their order strongly emphasized care for the sick and establishing hospitals. This focus was not lost during their move away from the Holy Land and formed an integral part of new foundations in the Mediterranean. Upon their defeat at Acre, the Hospitallers moved to the town of Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus in 1291 with a small force of only forty knights and ten men-at-arms. One of their first actions was to plan the construction of a new hospital to replace the one lost at Acre, beginning in 1297, only a few years after their landing. However, funding was hard to come by, and the Master of the Order sent out fundraising requests across Europe, complaining to the court of Aragon in 1306 that he could not even maintain their current level of care for the sick and pilgrims without committing the sin of usury. The Hospitallers would move their operations to Rhodes in 1310, and their plans for a grand hospital came with them. Although the plan for Cyprus failed, the order would finally succeed in Rhodes. Witnesses consistently remarked on the size and scale of their charitable operations on the island throughout the mid to late fourteenth century, noting the number of beds and high-quality medical staff on such a remote island.[40] The construction and maintenance of a physical hospital became a pillar that the Hospitallers could use to mark an area as theirs. Without it, their presence lacked a critical element, which had to be rectified. While the hospital only became a reality in Rhodes, the lengths that the Hospitallers went to secure resources for the hospital in both areas showed intense commitment, beginning plans soon after they landed, sending letters to kingdoms as far away as Spanish Aragon, and stretching their finances to the point of usury. Apart from the holdings and hospitals in the east, they similarly sought to rebuild and rededicate their new spaces.

Hospitaller areas outside the Middle East also demonstrated a connection between their mission and the continuation of crusading. When writing financial appeals to their lay auxiliary confraternities (groups of non-clerical men and women who supported the order’s spirituality and mission and were given certain privileges) in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the English houses of the order made special note of their defense of Rhodes and the spiritual benefits of support. The knights were involved in a nearly biblical struggle, with their hold of Rhodes as the “key to all cristendom standyng in gret paruell betwene the cruell and myghty tirands the Turk and souldan enmyes to all cristendome.”[41] The descriptions of Rhodes as a defense for all of Christendom match the descriptions of Hospitaller roles during the 1291 Siege of Acre and their early actions in Cyprus. The hospital’s mission was restorative, in the sense that it rebuilt the lost hospitals of Jerusalem and Acre, and an act of sacrificial love for all Christians through the brothers’ work.[42] Even removed by time and space from the Fall of Acre, the late medieval Hospitallers’ work still viewed crusading as still relevant to their work. Even more remarkable is the shift from the medical application of their interaction with Christendom to militaristic action against the Turks as an act of defense. In the immediate aftermath of the Fall of Acre and their fundraising two centuries later, the Hospitallers connected the idea of crusading to their particular military service on the islands and their healthcare charity.

This similar determination and effort on behalf of their charism can be seen in the Teutonic Order and their care for pilgrims and the poor. While the Teutonic Order was charitable in origin, their actions during the Baltic Crusades were explicitly militaristic. Far from separating the spiritual from the physical, the language used to describe their new European campaigns is inundated with biblical undertones. Jeroschin’s Chronicle uses the word “heathen” to describe the numerous pagan tribes in the Baltics and Prussia and the Muslims in the Holy Land. Likewise, Jeroschin displays both struggles as extensions of Abraham’s battle against Lot, emphasizing the appearance and blessing of the priest Melchizedek afterward as a sign of God’s blessing of the combat.[43] This language and shared biblical foundation directly connect the “heathen” Muslims that the Teutonic knights fought in the Holy Land with their new enemies in the Baltic. The shared identity of the Baltic and Muslim forces as “heathens” is expanded into the Teutonic Order’s charism towards the poor and the pilgrim within military battles. The Chronicle describes many temporary crusaders that joined the Teutonic Order for short stints of fighting as “pilgrims.” The Teutonic Order paid particular attention to these crusaders, not just because they were some of their only reinforcements in an environment of near-constant fighting, but also because they were lauded for the sacrifices they had made to respond to the crusading call of God. While there is considerable doubt as to the motive and true ability of German “pilgrims” who would come annually for the exact time required for the papal indulgence,[44] Jeroschin still speaks very highly of such “noble heroes” who “put to one side anything which might hinder or delay their propitious journey and set off enthusiastically… to take revenge on the heathens for the injustice evilly and ferociously inflicted on the followers of the crucified Lord.”[45]

The new pilgrims also played a prominent role in the Teutonic Order’s battle plans, with the order making their safety a priority during non-combat situations like harsh weather. Campaigns with pilgrims were periodically postponed because of severely cold winters, a precaution Jeroschin points out the Teutonic Knights did not take.[46] This treatment is extended to the non-pilgrim Christians and the poor, who are saved by the divine vengeance of the Crusaders and their pilgrim allies.[47] These passages occur alongside descriptions of a knight’s service and their goals in Prussia. While descriptions of the military and hospital commands have been discussed above, there is also an explicit mention of care for the poor and pilgrims. In addition to “taking pity on the sick,” they are first called to “receive guests, pilgrims and the poor.”[48] In a source unabashedly supportive of the Teutonic Order’s actions and crusading in general, Jeroschin intentionally portrays the order as fulfilling a knight’s virtuous behavior, specifically highlighting the ideal aid they would provide for the pilgrims and the poor Christians around them. The actions of their founders in Acre and other crusaders in the Holy Land are intentionally replicated and held up as signals of their identity. As the founders focused on those made poor or wounded by Islamic armies, the knights in Prussia ensured they could point to times when they liberated Christians captured by the same “heathens.” The order replicated the Holy Land crusades in Prussia through the enemies they faced and the pilgrims they fought for and with.

The crusading continuity also extended to their use of relics and items the military orders brought back from the Holy Land. In making the literal bones and material of the Holy Land accessible to the people in Prussia or the Mediterranean, they, in effect, brought the Crusades with them. Relics are a unique phenomenon in Christianity, and each piece carries a story and presence exclusive to the original saint or item they came from. Relics varied from preserved remnants of saints, called “first-class relics,” including their bones and blood, to “second-class relics,” objects touched to or used by the saint. Just as each saint had connections to particular causes or places, their relics allow believers to feel close to and identify with the saint, even today.[49] The ability of relics to bring a built-in story and theological message with them gave them powerful standing in the first Crusades. The Lance of Longinus and the True Cross held particular importance and were even brought into battle, as seen before the Battle of Ascalon in 1099 when Raymond of Aguilers and Godfrey blessed soldiers and gave rousing speeches while brandishing the Lance and True Cross.[50] These relics were important to the Crusaders because of their explicit connection to the crucifixion of Christ, which they commemorated by sewing a cross into their clothes as a symbol of their oath.

Relics have long been a part of military orders and their crusading justification, even outside the Holy Land. The Teutonic Order included relics within their spiritual observance and battles as early as the 1248 Battle of Dzierzgoń in modern-day Poland, where the head of St. Barbara was found and presented to the church and assembled people. The sight of the relic, appearing after a “daring fight” by the Teutonic brothers, began an impromptu processional with “every last man and woman” in the city. The relic was so spiritually potent that no one who appeared before the Saint left without some blessing, and “miracles… [became] so common that they no longer count as such. It would be a miracle if anyone left there without receiving a pledge of blessing.” The appearance of the Saint and the supposedly limitless miracles that followed were a sign to Jeroschin and the Teutonic Order that their cause was just. St. Barbara’s Turkish origins also point to the explicit crossover and intersection of spirituality. St. Barbara was not only from areas by the Holy Land but lived in a time when the church was persecuted by non-Christians, a connection that the Teutonic knights could make to their own violent battles against pagans. The Middle East and the earliest Christians were present in the minds as much as the eyes of the Crusaders and brought blessings with them. Jeroschin even calls his brothers to “Rejoice, rejoice, Teutonic Order especially, that you have been so blessed.”[51]

Military orders began to explicitly incorporate relics from the Holy Land and the Crusades into their non-Holy Land operations following the Fall of Acre. Fragments of relics like the True Cross, a potent symbol of the first crusade and the Holy Land, became very prominent in the reliquary collections of military orders. The Hospitallers housed pieces of the True Cross in houses as far apart as their headquarters on Rhodes and Belvar in central Portugal. The Hospitaller headquarters also contained various other pieces related to Jesus’ life in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, including thorns from the Crown of Thorns and the thirty silver pieces paid to Judas. At the same time, Belvar had pieces from the Holy Shroud and drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.[52] The Teutonic Order had similar connections to Holy Land relics, with a relic of the True Cross being of particular interest. In 1322, a brother used a relic of the True Cross to resurrect a four-year-old boy from the dead. The relic later jumped out of a fire after being thrown in, proving its authenticity in the eyes of Brother Gebhard von Mansfeld, the commander of the house in Brandenburg. Breaking this story down reveals even deeper connections to the order’s crusading past. Like the previous miracle in 1242, the piece of the cross has special spiritual powers. It is the conduit for several miracles, raising a dead child and surviving an additional test of its authenticity by jumping out of the flames. The raising from the dead can also be seen as an allusion to the raising of the dead by Jesus, whose own life and resurrection are associated with the relic. The relic was also intentionally brought to Prussia by a brother, not being found like the head of St. Barbara. While the knight’s exact reason for returning with the relic is not recorded and could be chalked up to personal piety, it still recognizes the powerful draw of relics of the True Cross and at least some desire to see that same power brought to the Prussian war front.[53]


When Burchard von Schwanden left Acre only days after riding into it at the head of a parade, he must have known that he was seeing the end of an era. The Grand Masters of the other two large military orders had begged him to stay and fight, only to be rebuffed. Acre would fall only a few months later, and of these two leaders, one would die defending the city while the other barely escaped. The orders would also abandon the Holy Land as their base of operations after. The Hospitallers were forced to the island of Rhodes in 1310, the Teutonic Order re-established itself in Prussia in 1309, and the Templars were dissolved in 1312. The loss of the Holy Land forced military orders to reevaluate their place apart from the land and cities they had fought to control for almost two centuries. The Teutonic and Hospitaller orders’ solution was to continue their crusading initiatives in different forms away in their new designated theaters. Military orders had deep traditions that varied in the spirituality and ministries they interacted with. Hospital ministry formed the most prominent of these traditions. As indicated by their name, the Hospitallers were famous for their hospitals and work among the poor. However, the Teutonic Order also originated in hospital ministry, and smaller orders like the Lazarites took their ministry in unique directions, specifically serving lepers and incorporating lepers into their ranks.

These ministerial and spiritual pasts would be leaned on as military orders went through a period of turmoil following their defeat at Acre in 1291. The Hospitallers planned a new hospital upon their arrival in Cyprus in the 1290s, eventually building it alongside their headquarters in Rhodes.[54] The Teutonic Order likewise had very clear ideas for what made a knight virtuous and holy, especially relating to their 1190 origins during the Third Crusade and the care for pilgrims, the poor, and imitating Jesus’ crucifixion. The Order’s Chronicle of the Baltic Crusades consistently refers to these qualities during their campaigns, caring for the German “pilgrims” and the poor during their battles. Additionally, there was a concerted effort in the language and relics employed by both orders to connect their struggles with their Crusading past in the Holy Land. The Teutonic Order used “heathen” for their enemies in the Middle East and the Baltics, drawing a clear relationship between the conflicts. The Hospitallers use similar sacrificial language about their medical service during the Crusades and their new foundations in the Mediterranean. Relics also tangibly brought the Crusades into the new areas military orders occupied. Both the Hospitallers and Teutonic Orders had a special reverence for relics from the Holy Land and the life of Christ, even spreading them to houses across Europe.[55] Relics like the True Cross carried with them the stories and sentiments of the Holy Land and the spiritual power, performing miracles and justifying the Teutonic Order’s fight in the eyes of God.

The Crusades did not end for military orders when Acre fell. Instead, as Burchard von Schwanden realized, it would just mean moving away from their traditional lands in the Middle East. Nevertheless, there was still continuity in their identities and ministries in this shift. Orders brought the hospitals, relics, and knightly qualities they had in the Holy Land to their new establishments. Even physically separated from their origins, they still saw their spirituality, ministry, and fighting as a continuation rather than a hard break that made their vows obsolete. This was a difficult realization for some brothers. The blood spilled at Acre, and Burchard von Schwanden’s transfer to the Hospitallers speak to the tension within military orders and the desire to remain connected to the Holy Land. When the Hospitallers wrote an appeal for their Confraternity members in the fifteenth century, hundreds of years after they retreated to Rhodes, they still spoke of their fight in Crusading terms. The brothers were “redy to shede theyre blode and jeoparde theyre lyves ayenst the Turks and other infydells for the defence and augmentation of Crists faythe for the love of God and for the greate quyetnes comforth and tuytion of Crysten people.”[56]


Image No. 1. Illustration of Krak de Chevalier prior to its fall. Credit: Reprinted from R.E. Dupuy, “When Knights Were Bold this Fortress Flourished,” The Military Engineer 26, no. 149 (September-October 1934): 333-336.

[1]Kevin O’Gorman graduated from the University of Dayton in 2023 with a B.A. in History and Religious Studies & Theology. He recently completed an undergraduate thesis on monastic identity during the Swiss Reformation and is currently working for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

[2] Nicolaus von Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia: A History of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, 1190-1331, trans. Mary Fischer (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), pp. 206–7.

[3] A. J. Forey, Desertions and Transfers From Military Orders (Twelfth To Early-Fourteenth Centuries) in Traditio 60 (2005): 176. A.J. Forey also uses Alan Forey in other works. The name he uses for each book will be the one used in the citation.

[4] The Teutonic Order’s official name is Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, the Templars were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, and the Leper Knights the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem.

[5] David Marcombe, Leper Knights: The Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem in England, c.1150-1544 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K. ; Rochester, N.Y: Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 6–8.

[6] Marcombe, Leper Knights, p. 11.

[7] Anthony Luttrell, The Hospitallers’ Medical Tradition, 1291 -1530, in The Military Orders, ed. Malcolm Barber, et. al. (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1994), p. 65.

[8] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), pp. 150–51. For other interesting studies on this topic in Britain and France in the Early Medieval era, see Katherine Allen Smith, War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2013) and Conrad Rudolph, Violence and Daily Life (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997).

[9] Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, p. 21.

[10] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 30.

[11] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 34.

[12]James Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe, (United States: Catholic University of America Press, 2009) p. 389.

[13] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 31.

[14] Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe, p. 394.

[15] Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe, p. 396.

[16] Anthony Luttrell and Helen J. Nicholson, Introduction: A Survey of Hospitaller Women in the Middle Ages, in Hospitaller Women in the Middle Ages, eds. Anthony Luttrell and Helen J. Nicholson(Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2017), p. 5.

[17] Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe, p. 398.

[18] Andrew Holt. “The New Knighthood: Bernard Of Clairvaux and the Templars.” Medieval Warfare 6, no. 5 (2016): pp. 14-15.

[19] Luttrell and Nicholson, Introduction, in Hospitaller Women in the Middle Ages, pp. 8–9.

[20] Marcombe, Leper Knights, p. 7.

[21] Malcolm Barber, The Order of Saint Lazarus and the Crusades, in The Catholic Historical Review 80, no. 3 (July 1994): p. 446.

[22] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 171-172.

[23] It is also worth noting that much like the inclusion of lepers among the Lazarites, chronic illnesses did not exclude people from working in hospitals in Europe. Their hospital service came from desires to physically mirror Christ as well as grow in personal holiness despite their age or health conditions. See John Henderson, The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) pp. 215-218.

[24] Barber, The Order of Saint Lazarus and the Crusades, pp. 444–45.

[25] Alan Forey, The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), pp. 15–18.

[26] Forey, The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries, p. 18.

[27] Marcombe, 14.; Forey, The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries, p. 19.

[28] Barber, The Order of Saint Lazarus and the Crusades, pp. 449–50.

[29] Forey, The Military Orders from the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries, p. 61.

[30] A. J. Forey, “The Military Orders in the Crusading Proposals of the Late-Thirteenth and Early-Fourteenth Centuries,” Traditio 36 (1980): p. 318.

[31] Barber, The Order of Saint Lazarus and the Crusades, p. 448.

[32] William J Hamblin, “Muslim Perspectives on the Military Orders during the Crusades,” Brigham Young University Studies 40, no. 4 (2001): pp. 110–11.; See Appendix Figure #1 for a picture of Krak de Chevalier.

[33] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Knights of St. John in Jerusalem and Cyprus, c. 1050–1310 (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1967), pp. 328–47.

[34] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 167. The castle and area around it were named “Starkenberg” which is the German name for Montfort and is used by some historians. For sake of clarity, I use the anglicized name.

[35] Marcombe, Leper Knights, p. 15.

[36] The Spanish philosopher Raymond Lull proposed a black habit with a red cross in the center, combining the black cloth of the Templar habit with the Red Cross of the Hospital. See citation below.

[37] Forey, The Military Orders in the Crusading Proposals of the Late-Thirteenth and Early-Fourteenth Centuries, pp. 320–24.; While the Templars are an essential part of the story of military orders after the Fall of Acre, their dissolution is a complex topic that is outside of the scope of this paper. There has been extensive literature on this aspect of their history, and I would recommend interested readers to Malcom Barber’s The Trial of the Templars, Second Edition, for an academic overview of the topic and Anne Gilmour-Bryson’s The Trial of the Templars in Cyprus which contains very interesting translations of testimonies from the Templar dissolution trials.

[38] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, pp. 238–42.

[39] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 238.

[40] Luttrell, The Hospitallers’ Medical Tradition, 1291-1530, in The Military Orders, pp. 68-69.

[41] Rory MacLellan, Hospitaller Confraternity Scripts, Crusading and the English Reformation, c.1440–1537, in Historical Research 92, no. 256 (May 2019): pp. 449–50.

[42] Luttrell, The Hospitallers’ Medical Tradition, 1291 -1530, p. 64.

[43] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 32.

[44] Sven Ekdahl’s chapter The Treatment of Prisoners of War during the Fighting between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania in The Military Orders, ed. Malcolm Barber, describes the merciless actions that both sides enacted upon each other and argues that these temporary crusaders served more as boosts for the economy than true fighters and their real value came in their capturing and impressment of local Lithuanian and Baltic peoples for the Teutonic Order.

[45] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, pp. 74–75.

[46] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 277.

[47] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 257.

[48] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 34.

[49] Tomasz Borowski and Christopher Gerrard, Constructing Identity in the Middle Ages: Relics, Religiosity, and the Military Orders in Speculum 92, no. 4 (October 2017): pp. 1058-1059.

[50] Jay Rubenstein, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 308.

[51] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 95.

[52] Borowski and Gerrard, Constructing Identity in the Middle Ages, p. 1069.

[53] Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia, p. 275.

[54] Luttrell, The Hospitallers’ Medical Tradition, 1291 -1530, pp. 68-69.

[55] Borowski and Gerrard, Constructing Identity in the Middle Ages, p. 1069.

[56] MacLellan, Hospitaller Confraternity Scripts, Crusading and the English Reformation, p. 452.