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Nine Centuries of Chivalry Print E-mail
By Tracey Rowland   
Sunday, 10 February 2013

From February 9-15, 2013 the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta will be celebrating its 900th anniversary.  

The Order of Malta, as it is generally known, is the oldest Order of Chivalry in the world and the fourth oldest religious Order in the Church.

The anniversary marks the date when Pope Paschal II issued the papal bull Pie postulatio voluntatis giving his approval for the foundation of the hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. The effect of the bull was that those who ran the hospital became members of a lay religious order.

Today, the Order of Malta functions as a religious order, an order of chivalry, and as a sovereign subject of international law. It has two general missions: the service of the sick and the poor and the defence of the faith.

At times in its history, the defence of the faith took a military form. In 1565, the Orders Knights defeated a much larger Saracen invading force in the Great Siege of Malta. Their victory removed the immediate risk of an invasion of Sicily and perhaps, even more seriously, of the eternal city herself. 

Six years later in the Battle of Lepanto, members of the Order contributed three galleys to the coalition forces, which sailed under the name of the Holy League. Although they were badly outnumbered by the Turkish forces, which sailed in a menacing crescent-shaped configuration, a change in the direction of the wind at the outset of the naval battle greatly assisted the victory of the Christian forces. 

Pius V, the reigning pontiff, attributed the victory to the intercession of Our Lady, to whom whole kingdoms of Christians were then offering rosaries, pleading for her maternal protection. It is because of this event that we now have the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and the title Our Lady of Victories.

The Order has diplomatic relations today with 104 countries and representation at the United Nations and the Parliament of the European Union.  It also has 13,500 members and 80,000 permanent volunteers. It is especially active in helping the victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters by the provision of medical aid. 

It runs general hospitals in Germany, France, England, and Italy, and a maternity hospital in Bethlehem. It also funds medical centers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Madagascar, Togo, and Lebanon. In Senegal and Cambodia the Order has established centers for leprosy sufferers and AIDS-relief programs are underway in Africa and Central America, with special institutions caring for afflicted mothers and their infants in South Africa and the Philippines.

In the more highly developed countries, palliative care is becoming a key concern for the Order. Catholic patients, understandably, do not want to die in hospitals run on utilitarian principles. They want chapels, not prayer-rooms, crucifixes not lavender candles, priests with the power to administer sacraments, not social workers with degrees in grief counselling.

Lawyers and medical practitioners who are members of the Order are now on the front lines, defending the Christian ethos of medical institutions from the ideologies of the culture of death. 

The Order has also founded a Global Fund for Forgotten People. These include people with neglected diseases, children with parents in prison, children born with disabilities, and mothers and new-borns without healthcare.

In Madrid and St. Petersburg, the Order operates soup kitchens for the poor and homeless and in Paris the Order has moored two barges on the Seine River to provide overnight accommodation for homeless men – and their dogs. For many of the homeless men a dog literally is their best friend and not someone from whom they want to be parted at night. The French members of the Order are rather proud of the fact that they have made provision for the dogs. 

In this week, therefore, when members of the Order of Malta celebrate 900 years of service to the world, it is worth reflecting on how much we need such chivalry. 

In popular parlance, chivalry is often associated with the practice of a gentleman offering a lady a seat on a peak-hour train or allowing someone older and frailer a safe passage through some other peak-hour scrum. But fundamentally, chivalry is about people with strength and power using whatever gifts they have acquired from nature or education to help those weaker than themselves. It is the complete antithesis of the survival of the fittest principles which govern life among the lower primates.

Feminists tend to be anti-chivalry because they dont like women to be considered the weaker sex, even if weaker in this context means something like “physically less able to move fallen trees and change flat tyres” – not intellectually slower. Similarly, liberal ideologues dont like chivalry because it suggests that there are actually some people in society who are stronger and more capable than others. The mere existence of such types means that a century of social engineering has failed to bring about the classless utopia.

In contrast, the Christian idea of chivalry simultaneously affirms talent and ability while holding that such talents are best put to use in the one-to-one service of those less able. 

Perhaps a stronger affirmation of chivalry in our school curricula might help overcome a number of social pathologies, including feminism, male chauvinism, mindless egalitarianism, and the idea that the service of the sick and the poor and the defence of the faith is something to be achieved by a bureaucracy rather than by real people.

Somewhat paradoxically, the defence of the faith in the twenty-first century will also entail a defence of the age-old value of chivalry. 

 
Tracey Rowland, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne, Australia). She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II(2003) and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), among other works.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. 

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Comments (17)Add Comment
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written by Grump, February 10, 2013
Historian Barbara Tuchman paints a much different picture of chivalry in "A Distant Mirror," which focuses on the "calamitous" 14th century, one of the worst in history, rivaled only by the 20th in reaching mankind's lowest point. The 21st, if we ever get through it, no doubt will surpass all as the world descends ever further into the abyss.

But it's good to know there were and are some bright spots in what is an otherwise mostly sordid past.
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written by WSquared, February 10, 2013
"In the more highly developed countries, palliative care is becoming a key concern for the Order. Catholic patients, understandably, do not want to die in hospitals run on utilitarian principles. They want chapels, not prayer-rooms, crucifixes not lavender candles, priests with the power to administer sacraments, not social workers with degrees in grief counselling."

Well said. And it seems to me that there might well be some irony to be had in utilitarianism: there are enough people working within its categories who decry utilitarianism when they babble on about "caring," and yet they either knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or not, go ahead and do what's utilitarian, anyway, probably because it's all they really know.

The crux of the irony is that one might well ask them: if you wring your hands about something you say is terrible but know not how to truly stop it for want of anything better, because the categories you insist on working with are really as limited as all that, then what good or use are you and what you stand for?! What, pray, is the use (or good), even, of your understanding of what's "good"?
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written by Mack Hall, February 10, 2013
Yes, Barbara Tuchman paints a picture, but is it an accurate picture? Her vision is of unrelieved misery without one mention of a dance, a village harvest celebration, a good marriage, a picnic, a man plowing his field, children playing, or any other moment of happiness anywhere. And yet these things do happen, in the 14th, the 20th, and the 21st centuries.
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written by Gil Bailie, February 10, 2013
As she does whenever she gets near a keyboard, Tracey Rowland is insightful and stimulating, a gift to the Church.
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written by Graham Combs, February 10, 2013
Ah Chivalry. I still open doors for the old, children, and of course women. In the case of the latter, I brace myself for a snide remark or an angry look. Admittedly I live in South East Michigan which has taken to the literal extreme every bad idea of the past one hundred years. Even in Catholic schools I doubt you could move past the word "chivalry" in attempting to a return to balance and simple good manners -- which are mere consideration. Feminism has been about many things, but respect for women isn't one of them.
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written by Aeneas, February 10, 2013
Ah, the good ol' Hospitallers! Ever faithful, ever true, even to this very day! God bless them.
Personally I wish they were still an active military order, God knows we could use them these days!

@Grump
As a Medievalist, here would be my advice: Drop Miss Tuchman flat on her backside.
The Middle Ages have been unfailry maligned since the 16th century, but it was the "enlightenment" that painted an even more absurd portrait. They were never the ages of misery, backwardness, opression, and superstition some pop historians still make them out to be. Just take Mack Hall's comments for example:

"Yes, Barbara Tuchman paints a picture, but is it an accurate picture? Her vision is of unrelieved misery without one mention of a dance, a village harvest celebration, a good marriage, a picnic, a man plowing his field, children playing, or any other moment of happiness anywhere."

Tuchman has a simply retarded version of the medieval era, drop her like a bad habit.

Also, I don't agree that the past was mostly sordid, but yes the Hospitallers were one of the bright spots, regardless. All the religious orders of knighthood were bright spots, but the Order of Malta was and still is a shinning example of Christian service and charity.
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written by Grump, February 10, 2013
@Aeneas. Referring to Barbara Tuchman as a "pop historian" is like calling Mozart a "tune smith." Mrs. Tuchman does not deserve the calumny you and other critics have unfairly heaped upon her. She had few rivals as a historian, scholar and researcher and her vivid, beautifully crafted prose put the likes of Gibbon and Toynbee to shame.

Your comments are better directed at pop historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and other Lincoln cultists who perpetuate the false myths of America's most overrated and worst President -- a racist and obscene profiteer who was the principal cause of 800,000 needless deaths in the Civil War.

In Distant Mirror, Mrs. Tuchman brilliantly exposed chivalry as a sham. Instead of a code of the Knights that purported to help people it was a corrupt facade that shielded ruthless brigands from law and sanction and glorified a horrible age in which the Church played a major role in staining. She based much of her work on the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, who lived during that time and whose contemporary accounts offer the best reliability of facts, which include the Great Schism in the Church presided over by venal Popes who failed as vicars of Christ.

Mrs. Tuchman's "The Guns of August" was her a Pulitzer and was JFK's favorite book -- one that he ordered all his aides to read.

Your use of words and phrases such as "retarded" and "drop her like a bad habit" reveal an unenlightened mind. To suggest that 6,000 years of human history in which only roughly 100 saw peace is not a sordid legacy is a ludicrous assertion not worthy of further rebuttal.
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written by Achilles, February 10, 2013
jeeze, Grump, I didn't take you for a feminists.
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written by Grump, February 11, 2013
@Achilles. As my grandsons would say, "Whatever."
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 11, 2013
The "calamitous" 14th century, one of the worst in history" - the century that gave us Boccaccio, Dante, Giotto and Petrarch
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written by Grump, February 11, 2013
@MPS. You forgot the Black Plague, which killed a third of humanity from Indian to Iceland, the 100-Years War and a few other horrible things too numerous to mention else it would eat up more bandwidth than TCT possesses.
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written by Achilles, February 11, 2013
Grump, I didn't mean to elicit a “whatever” from you, but I apologize for being rude. I have thought for some time that your good and sharp mind has led you to perhaps too much trust in the ideas of man. At the bottom of the thinking hierarchy is scientific and empirical thought, and propagated militantly by the universities and self proclaimed experts as the highest form of knowing. You show threads of feminism and progressivism, both deeply flawed ideologies. If you were to abandon yourself to revelation you might well become a saint. God bless you Grump. Achilles
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written by Grump, February 11, 2013
@Achilles, no apologies needed, my cyberfriend. I don't know whether you're damning me with faint praise or praising me with faint damns but in either case I appreciate the kind words and reciprocate your good wishes.

Those "threads of feminism and progressivism" are finely woven into a thicker cloth of conservatism which resides in me. I eschew all labels, leaving myself open to countless thoughts, human or divine. This old agnostic is still trying to heed the call and hopefully find a home at last -- in this world or the next.
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written by Achilles, February 11, 2013
Grump, that makes a lot more sense than what I said, thanks and may Christ's peace be with you, Achilles
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written by Tony Esolen, February 11, 2013
By the late 14th century, the breaches of the ideal of chivalry were already being criticized by Dante and Chaucer, which suggests, first, that there were troubles, and, second, that the ideal was still vital. Chaucer's Knight may have been a tad old-fashioned, but he was not THAT far out of people's expectations, either. The worst feature of the 14th century, other than the schism (due in large part to the worldly ambitions of the worst of the French kings, Philip the Fair, whom Dante called "il mal di Francia"), was the climatic cooling that set in and made for bad harvests, setting the population up for the plague. Had those things not happened, the century would have looked far, far different. It does give us the greatest poetry in medieval England, Germany, and Italy, and maybe France too. For northern Europe, the fifteenth century was far worse, and for Germany the seventeenth century was immeasurably worse. It is hard to rival the literary production in Italy in the 1300's, with the big three.
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written by Grump, February 12, 2013
@Tony. "Climatic cooling," eh? Al Gore might differ : )
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written by jason taylor, July 13, 2014
In a way chivalry was a "sham" as all ideals are "shams". The real knights certainly did not live up to it as any medieval historian could tell you. However that does not mean the concept of righteous bearing of arms and defense of the weak is a sham, only that the knights who did not live up to it were not worthy of their armor. Righteousness does not stop being righteousness because men are sinners.

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