Book Review: Knights of Jerusalem: The Crusading Order of Hospitallers 1100–1565 (World of the Warrior) by David Nicolle

Knights of Jerusalem is not the book you would expect to read about one of the Crusading orders, it is not a list and description of battles the order fought, with blow by blow accounts of the most famous of these battles such as the Horns of Hattin or the Great Siege of Malta.  This is a history of how the order came into existence and how it operated and even continues to operate almost 1,000 years later when so many of its fellow orders in the Church Militant have disappeared.  The book focuses on the history of the order from its founding until the end of the Crusading era in 1565.

As always first the details.  The book is 201 pages of text in six chapters with an introduction, epilogue, and appendices.  There is a bibliography that is not amazingly extensive but for all that is fairly comprehensive.  It also contains a glossary which is useful for people that are unfamiliar with medieval terms and especially for the terms that were specific to the order itself.  Lastly, there is a serviceable index.

The best thing about the book is that it is not just a recitation of battles fought and glory won.  This is the story of how the order of Knights Hospitaller came into existence.  It recounts the orders origins as a small religious community dedicated to helping pilgrims to the Holy Land and how it transformed itself in the early years of the crusading movement from this humble origin to become one of the three major orders of the church militant along with the Knights Templar and Teutonic Knights.  Lastly, the epilogue deals with how the Hospitallers managed to survive down to the present day when the other two great orders have been lost to history.

The chapters are organized topically with chapters dealing the orders history, organization, recruitment, arms and armor, military functions, and death.  Each chapter is fairly detailed and the author skillfully uses anecdotes and examples to get his point across.  The chapter on organization is especially interesting as it shows that the order was never the sort of monolithic organization that many modern military organizations are today.  Instead there was a basic structure that remained with a Grand Master and some lesser functionaries at the top with the mass of Brother Knights and Brother Sergeants falling under them.  The organization evolved over time with some positions disappearing while others were created to deal with the differing circumstances encountered by the order throughout its long history.  There was also a large segment of non-military members of the order such as priests and laymen employed by the order to fulfill its non-military functions, functions that never went away.

The other chapters are just as interesting with many details on how a Brother Knight was armed to how the Hospitallers fought both on land and at sea.  All in all this is a well written and well-rounded book that tells the story of one of the most enduring relics of the crusades.  The Knights Hospitaller fought the enemies of Christianity as they saw it for centuries and when the crusading impulse passed away from Western society they transitioned away from militancy back to their origins as providers of aid and comfort and continued.  A role they still fulfill today under a new and old name as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.  I highly recommend this book for the unvarnished look at the mechanics of Christian religious militancy during the Crusading period and the pragmatic way that faith was put to what was seen at the time as the service of the Lord.