Fig. 1. The Hospitaller’s Commanderies of the “German” Langue in 1300 AD
The question about the once mighty and famous Order of the Knights Hospitaller (or just the “Hospital”, as it was called briefly; another official name was “the Order of St. John”), which for a period of more than 200 years (1306-1523 AD) was based at the Aegean isle of Rhodes, and its involvement in the Balkan political affairs between 1300 and 1421 AD is a historical problem that is somewhat neglected or have not deserved much attention in the contemporary historiography. This is due mainly, in my opinion, to the simple fact that this story is not particularly connected to the history of no one of the modern nations’ historical tradition, with the sole exception of the Maltese nation. However, the latter national historians are, for obvious reasons, interested mainly of the history of the Knights during their sojourn in Malta (1530-1800 AD), not in Rhodes. So, therefore, up until the world-wide historiography ceased to be concentrated chiefly on problems connected with their particular national history, this undoubtedly interesting and important subject would not receive the attention it should deserve. It should be considered exclusively as a problem of the “global” historiography, as far as the Order of St. John was one of the first international organizations in the Western world. Its history cannot be connected solely with one nation. Absolutely the same is fully valid to the age and the problems I will try to give a brief description here.
Between 1300 and 1421 AD the Order consisted of seven separate divisions called Tongues or Langues: Auvergne, France, Provence, Italy, Aragon, England and Germany. For example, "Germanic Europe" was separated into a “German” langue, comprising the lands (and the members of the Order) of all of the Holy Roman Empire, including its Slavic-speaking parts like Bohemia, as well as Scandinavia, Hungary and Poland. The land possessions were grouped in so called “commanderies” or “preceptories”, managed accordingly by a “commander” or “preceptor”. A commander was obliged each year to send to the Master (called later the Grand Master) at the headquarters of the Order responsiones– amounts that were estimated at nearly 15 % of the incomes of the commandery and represented a sort of “tax”, which was then distributed according to the needs of the Order; for example: to funding military campaigns. For commanders were appointed only old and honored members of the brethren. The commanderies themselves were grouped into provinces called priories, capitular commanderies or capitular castellanies, whose administrators ranked as capitular bailiffs, because they were theoretically appointed and recalled by the General Chapter of the whole Order. By the late twelfth century the priories had been collected into much larger units called grand commanderies, that by itself were divided to the aforementioned Langues. The headquarters of the Order, which chief mission was to fight the “infidels” in the East, were always situated as close as possible to “The Holy Land” and Jerusalem.
I think that the main reason behind the nowadays' fairly weak interest towards the history of the Order of St. John is its “international” character that cannot involve one or another “national” historiography, as far as the Order was an organization with members from all Catholic countries obliged to guard the pilgrims during their travel to “The Holy Land”. Nevertheless, the Order’s general history and the problem I want to describe, have always attracted the attention of, for example, the “crusading” historians. Among the major Western and Eastern scholar’s works that are dealing larger or lesser with this problem, should be noted these of Vasil Gyuzelev, Christo Matanov, John W. Barker, J. Chrysostomides, J.M. Delaville Le Roulx, Norman Housley, Halil Inalcik, Anthony Luttrell, the contemporary German scholar Professor Jürgen Sarnowsky and many others. So, the subject has never been "fully" underestimated, and, if the (so called) “national” historiography wasn’t still predominant before the “global”, it would have certainly gained much more attention of the broader public.
After its establishment and militarization around the middle of 12th century in the “Holy Land” of Palestine, the Order of the Knights Hospitaller became an organization, which chief mission could be labeled as a “permanent Crusade”. Afterwards, the Order of the Hospital rarely stayed aside from any crusading enterprise in all of the ends of the Catholic world. The Order’s military brethren, the Knights, represented a kind of crusading “elite”. They very rarely took participation in wars against Christians (even if they were “Schismatics”, i.e. Eastern Orthodoxic). Their forces were concentrated towards the most important tasks for the moment, like the defense of the Holy Sepulchre and Palestine. However, after the fall of the last crusading stronghold in the “Holy Land”, Acre, in 1291 AD, the headquarters of the Order was moved to the Aegean isle of Rhodes. With the abandoning the Holy Land, a removal of the main crusading goal occurred: from the struggle for defense of Jerusalem to the struggle with the growing Turkish expansion to Europe. For that reason, the most southeastern European part, the Balkan Peninsula, quickly turned into one of the most important, if not the chief in importance, region for the western crusaders. The latter conclusion applies the most for the Knights Hospitaller and the fateful for their Order age between 1300 and 1421 AD, a notion that I will try to justify with my next words.
With the conquest of Rhodes and the nearby islands in 1306-1310 AD, the Knights de facto established their own, self-governed militarized state that served as a barrier to the recently started Turkish invasions against the Aegean islands and the adjacent Balkan littoral. Being a political organization depending only on the Papacy, the Order became the most zealous conductor of its policy in the East. In this age, the popes were mostly concerned with two problems: First was the safety of their subjects (i.e. the Catholics) in the, so called, Orient (lit. “the land of the rising sun”). The latter were presented mainly by the Italian merchants, their colonial government and settlers, and the Catholic population of the Frankish possessions that were left in the westerners’ hands after the re-conquest of the Latin empire of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261 AD. The second problem was the conclusion of the union with the Christian churches of the East (among which the most important was the Patriarchate in Constantinople) that had to recognize the papal supremacy over them.
The safety of the Latins was threatened badly by the Turks who had invaded the Byzantine Empire and, in the end of 13th and the beginning of 14th century, had conquered the whole Asian coast previously held by the Byzantines: from the Straits of Gallipoli and Bosphorus to the furthest continental south near Rhodes. The recently founded Turkish beyliks (semi-autonomous state-formations of warlike nomadic Turkic tribes, most of which had recently come to the region from the steppes of Central Asia) began to launch pirate raids against the Balkans coasts, Aegean islands and the merchant shipping (dominated almost entirely by the Latins in this period). The Turkish fleets, in a short period, grew to such extent that in the historiography their states are generally called the “maritime” beyliks. To deal with this serious problem threatening the Western interests in the region, the Knights, already based at Rhodes, since the very beginning of their establishment there had to fight against the Turkish pirates. The latter, in this age and region, appeared to be so dangerous that Crusades against them soon began to be announced in every major city and region of Western Europe (including the vast lands of the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation", theoretically the biggest and the most well-disposed towards the Hospitallers state-formation in the West). On the other hand, for example, the power and wealth of the pirate leaders, that were the western Turkish beys themselves, was such, that one of them – Umur Beg of Aydin, in the 30's-40’s of 14th century became the most important political ally of the Byzantine emperors, and, ahead of his army on the boards of the numerous galleys and the other vessels of his war fleet, invaded the Continental Balkans not once or twice.
If we base our diversification on the notion expressed above, i.e., about the two aforementioned main "concerns" of the Papacy in the Balkan region, so we can also split the historical age between the 1300-1421 AD into two separate parts, concerning the involvment of the Hospital in the Balkan political affairs. The first one, that continued since 1306 to the 60’s-70’s of the 14th century, was devoted mainly to assuring the “safety” of the Latin subjects in the East, and the second – that lasted to the 20’s of the 15th century – to the Church union. Certainly, even true in its core, that is too simplified point of view, but in such limited volume there would be no space for clarifying of every detail in length. Instead, I’ll try to give a brief description of the politics of the Knights of Rhodes in these, roughly characterized by me, two separate periods, and, in this way, to prove my hypothesis for this distinction:
During the first period, continuing through the initial 7 decades of the 14th century, the Order’s main political activities, mentioned by the historical sources, were connected with the fight against the western Turkish principalities and, at the end of the period, also against the Mameluke sultanate of Egypt. The Hospitallers participated in all of the many “not-so-big” Crusades, announced by the Papacy in these years against the Turkish pirates, including their chief accomplishment – the conquest of the “pirate’s capital” – Smyrna (today’s large Turkish city of Izmir) and inflicting a major defeat on the already mentioned greatest Turkish leader of his age – Umur Beg (who was killed by a Hospitaller’s arrow under the walls of Smyrna). Afterwards, the Knights of Rhodes garrisoned Smyrna in the name of the Holy See, and they held it until 1403 AD, when only the great medieval conqueror Tamerlane managed to drive them out. The Hospital also took participation in another memorable Christian victory: the sacking of the richest Egyptian merchant port, Alexandria, in 1365 AD, along with many other crusaders from all parts of Europe, including Germany. Therefore, their main influence on the political situation in the Balkans consisted of and was expressed in supporting the struggle led by the western trade-countries like Venice, Genoa and Kingdom of Aragon, and local Latin lordships, for maritime supremacy over the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, one really continuous and bitter, but largely forgotten today war, which was finally won by the westerners after seven long decades of victories and defeats. The consequences of this major conflict appeared very significant for the history of the region, because the previous strongest Turkish states in Asia Minor, namely the “maritime” beyliks, were significantly weakened by the war and thus the palm of supremacy between the various Turkish emirates passed from their hands to these of the Ottomans from Bythinia (in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor). The latter were initially not very skillful in the sea war, being situated inferior, but the conquest of one of the previously defeated by the Latins “maritime” principalities – Karasi, opened to them the gates to Europe. Afterwards, they succeeded in crossing the Strait of Gallipoli and conquered the whole Byzantine Thrace during the 60’s and the 70’s of 14th century, attracting with their victories many Turks from other tribes and beyliks to join them.
Then Byzantium, deadly threatened from the Ottoman advance, asked the Papacy for help. The Holy See agreed, with the condition for conclusion of the long-desired union between the churches and recognition of the supremacy of the pope. As a consequence, we can see how historically, after a certain delay, the politics of the Order of the Hospital gradually shifted from struggle with the western maritime principalities and Egypt, towards a fight against the growing power of the future Ottoman Empire – a move which could be attributed with great certainty to the change of the policy of the Curia. In accordance with this change, the Knights of Rhodes invented a plan which I personally have named “the Greek project of the Order of St. John”. This project presented a complicated political scheme for the transition of the headquarters of the Hospital from Rhodes to Continental Greece (or the so called “Romania” – all the southern part of the Balkans, including former Byzantine Thrace, was known by that name) where the Knights should serve as a barrier to the Ottoman invasion. The Order’s attempts for implementing the several aims of the project (among which the most important was the stemming of the Ottoman advance in Europe) had continued for more than a half century (1356-1404 AD), with significantly much more active efforts after the beginning of the 70’s of 14th century.
In certain periods Byzantines were inclined to give to the Order the power over such important sites (strategically and economically) as Gallipoli and Thessaloniki, and even the whole Morean despotate in Pelloponessos. During that period, the Knights not once fought face to face combat against various Ottoman armies in the peninsula. In the famous battle of Nicopolis in 1396 AD their fleet led by the Hospital’s master Philibert de Naillac joined the crusader’s army of the future German Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, coming through the Straits, the Black Sea and Danube. They suffered the defeat together with the rest of the crusaders but the Emperor was saved at the board of a Hospitaller galley. Sigismund and Philibert de Naillac sailed down following the same road the Knights had chosen to join the army at Nicopolis and he returned successfully in his Kingdom in Middle Europe through the Adriatic ports.
In the same age the Knights proposed many times conclusions of broader Christian military unions against the Sultans. However, the political discrepancies among the medieval Balkan and European Christian rulers were so big, that the realization of the “Greek” project finally proved impossible. So, after many glorious but inconclusive battles, the Knights were forced to abandon the peninsula in the late 10’s of the 15th century, and began a new strategy for their struggle – the so called “corso” - a corsair war using their island bases at Rhodes and the Dodecanese archipelago. The “corso” surely played a certain role for the defense of the Aegean islands, but not so much to the Continental Balkans. The local Christian Orthodox and Catholic states were soon placed under the scepter of the Ottoman sultans.
As a conclusion, I can say that during the years between 1300 and 1421 AD the Order of St. John presented a painful thorn in the Turkish heel, one serious enemy and significant obstacle to the Ottomans’ and other Turks’ advance from Asia to the Balkans. Many German Brethren Knights glorified their names in this unequal struggle, and were important leaders of the Order, like Albrecht von Schwarzburg in the 20’s of 14th century or Hesso Schlegelholtz in the last decades of the same century. Unfortunately for the Christian political cause, the quarrels between the Balkan rulers and the Eastern and the Western churches did not allow the possibility for the Knights to take more active and, why not, possibly decisive participation in these earliest efforts for stemming the Turkish invasion. The Ottomans in that age had still not been that superpower they became later. It’s more, I think, a matter of a personal or a divine judgement, if this was for “good” or “bad” but, what could be said with certainty, is: the ineffective use of the largely forgotten today (but once significant) power of the Knights of Rhodes was one of the missed opportunities for a possible change in the course of history. That course was, for most of the Balkan Christian states, to lose their independence and become part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years.
* This article is based on a report given at the Humboldt Kolleg Bulgarian-German Scientific Cooperation: Past, Present and Future (
, November 2015). The full text (with the notes) shall be published in the volume of the Proceedings on the same event. Sofia