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WHAT ARE CHRISTIAN SOLDIER-MONKS?

THE CHRISTIAN IDEAL OF DEATH IN BATTLE

If the concept of militant Christianity or that of Christian soldier-monks is new to you, the following edited excerpts from The Monks of War by Desmond Seward (Published in London by Eyre Methuen, Ltd. in 1972, later revised and reprinted in London by The Folio Society in 2000) form perhaps the most concise and dramatic summary of the topic (In editing this for the sake of brevity, I’ve tried to stay faithful to the original, and any errors are mine alone):

The thought of Christians devoting their lives to warfare in the service of God seems like a paradox. Nevertheless, there have been men consecrated to battle, the brother-knights of the religious military orders—noblemen vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience. They lived a monastic life in convents that were at the same time barracks, waging merciless war on the enemies of the Cross. To enter their chapels was to see monks in hooded habits chanting the office, but on active service the soldiers in black and white uniforms were no different from other troops, save for an iron discipline. The spirit of the cloister had been transferred to the parade ground and the battlefield. Such men tried literally to fight their way into Heaven.

The three greatest orders were the Knights Templar, the Knights of Saint John, or Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights, but there were many others, less well known. These brotherhoods were created in the twelfth century to tame a brutal, warrior nobility and to provide the Roman Church with stormtroopers, for the concept of chivalry had not yet eradicated pagan savagery, and legions were still needed to defend the Holy Land. St. Bernard of Clairvaux took over the new Templar concept of soldiers under religious vows and synthesized knight and monk, producing a strange vocation that unconsciously substituted Christ for Woden, Paradise for Valhalla. Again the syncretic genius of Roman Catholicism harnessed a pagan hero cult—just as it had once transformed pagan gods into saints and heathen temples into churches, it now transformed the ideal of a war band into a spiritual calling. Those heeding the call sacrificed their lives for Christ, not only in the monastery, but on the battlefield as well. They did this with a startling mixture of humility and ferocity. While retaining much of the Germanic war band, by adopting the monastic organization they became the first properly staffed and officered Western armies since the Roman legions.

They fought and prayed in many lands and on many seas. Even Gibbon admitted that in Palestine “the firmest bulwark of Jerusalem was founded on the Knights of the Hospital of St. John and on the Temple of Solomon; on the strange association of a monastic and military life which fanaticism might suggest, but which policy must approve.” Outremer, land of the crusades—and the West’s first colony—was doomed from the start, but because of the brethren’s sacrifices it endured for nearly two centuries. And after the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been finally destroyed, the Hospitallers, first from Rhodes and then from Malta, devoted themselves to guarding Christian merchantmen in the Levant against Barbary corsairs and Turkish pirates.

In Spain the brethren of Calatrava, Alcántara and Santiago were the spearhead of the Reconquista, consolidating the Christian advance and destroying the exotic Moslem civilization of Córdoba and Granada. On the vast and lonely meseta where no peasant dared settle for fear of Moorish raiders, the monastic frontiersmen ranched herds of cattle and sheep, a practice that reached North America by way of Mexican haciendas. In the later Middle Ages, politicians used them to capture the whole machinery of Castilian government. From Portugal they initiated the expansion of Europe with expeditions half-missionary and half-commercial. Henry the Navigator was Master of the Order of Christ (successor to the Portuguese Templars) and directed a research center that employed the foremost scientific geographers of the day, while his ships sailed under the order’s flag.

The strange soldier-monks were equally active in Northern Europe—in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. They also had a part in shaping the destinies of Poland and Germany. All these countries were permanently influenced by them, racially, economically, and politically. The heritage of the Drang nach Osten was largely bequeathed by the Teutonic Knights, whose sovereign state, called the Ordenstaat, reached almost to Leningrad. It was they who created Prussia by exterminating the pagan Baltic race once known as Prussians and by the most thorough colonization seen in the Middle Ages. Their terrible forest campaigns against the Lithuanians have been called the most ferocious of all medieval wars. The Polish Corridor was not a complication invented by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, for it began when the knights seized Danzig from Wladislaw the Dwarf in 1331. The first Hohenzollern ruler of Prussia was also the last Hochmeister of the Teutonic Knights to reign in Prussia. Hindenburg’s victory over the Russians among the Mausurian Lakes in 1914 was deliberately named Tannenberg after the defeat of 1410 when the Hochmeister had been killed and his knights almost wiped out by the Slavs. The brothers’ grim hierarchy foreshadowed the Potsdam parade ground while their black and silver cross is still the emblem of the German army, and indeed was the model for the Iron Cross itself.

Few historical romances have been written about the orders, which is surprising for few stories are as dramatic: the knights' apocalyptic fight to the death at the storm of Acre, Hochmeister Von Juningun's refusal to leave the doomed field at Tannenburg, and the Commanders of Saint John, too badly wounded to stand, waiting in chairs at the breach of Fort St. Elmo for the Turks' final assault. These are only the best known of many deeds of epic heroism. Theoretically, the brethren's ideal was the defense of Christians. Yet this was in direct contrast to the early Church's condemnation of all violence, "Blood will have blood.” To lay down one's life for another became a precept of fanaticism, as the finest death for a brother knight was to die in battle. Only by accepting this monasticism, this love of Christ, the asceticism, and even humility, can one begin to realize the ferocity of their ideal. During all their wars of extermination and berserk Thermopylaes, they themselves never doubted that theirs was a religious calling; “who fights us fights Jesus Christ”, claimed the Teutonic Knights.

Clashes between the Muslim and Catholic faiths induced a rabid intensity of fanaticism which has never been surpassed, and whose most zealous exponents were the military brethren. Simple men, the brethren easily became unbalanced, prayer and mortification intensifying rather than soothing the violent instincts that still lurked in a Woden-haunted unconscious. “Take this sword; its brightness stands for faith, its point for hope, its guard for charity. Use it well.” ran the Hospitaller rite for profession. “Let us all show joy of heart, for lo the heathen feel the smart”, sang the pious Germans. Brethren received the sacraments more often than lay folk, for when they received the Host they were said to have fought like devils. Monasticism had made a sacrament of battle.

It would be unjust to brand the knights as medieval Red Guards or SS, yet the defenders of Malta and Marienburg had more than a little in common with the Nazi and Marxist zealots. The Convent at Rhodes and the Prussian Ordenstaat were the first modern states in the sense of the 1930s and 1940s—totalitarian dictatorships organized for war in the service of an ideal. It is irrelevant that the ideal was religious rather than social or racial. Yet, though one may find it difficult to understand how they reconciled violent and destructive lives with the message of the New Testament, one cannot deny their bravery. Such men possessed extraordinary courage, dying in battle at worst with a twisted love of God, at best with real sanctity. If fanaticism was there, so also were sacrifice, fortitude, a watchman's spirit, and a determination to guard the defenseless—“to defend widows and orphans from the enemies of Christ.” Certainly they became ruthless professionals, but then so often did the most altruistic of Hitler’s opponents. War is evil and yet inescapable, and the brethren’s real mission was to humanize an inhuman trade. Military Christianity was a compromise that at least diverted feudal brigandage, saving countless European peasants from famine and murder. Ultimately the expedient worked, exorcising Woden’s ghost.

Many Christians of the past, including great saints, considered their attitude both healthy and admirable. To comprehend such a paradox, we must see the knights as they saw themselves, spotless warriors of Christ rather than bloodstained fanatics. Whatever their faults, they took their vows in hope of self-sanctification, and thought of themselves as men of God. The intention of this work is not to list shortcomings obvious enough, but to understand an ideal, for the brethren do indeed deserve the title, "monks of war".

"Everything about them was a strange contradiction... monks booted and spurred, armor gleaming beneath their habits; battle banners jostled by processional crosses,
the sound of trumpets mingling with the plain chant; and
the clash of steel rising above the peal of church bells."
— Desmond Seward

"They were an amalgam of all the European nations, a foreign legion of militant Christians, ‘the most remarkable body of religious warriors the world has ever seen’.”
— Ernle Bradford