Warrior knight and friend of little children
Join me today as we encounter a warrior who stood firm as the world collapsed around him.
Feast: June 19
Life: 13th century AD
One morning in June of the year 1327, James, a commander of a unit of the Knights Hospitaller, awoke from a very strange dream. In the dream he saw a saint, and the saint gave him a task. He was to go to the town of Caltagirone, in South central Sicily, and find the bones of a man whose quiet saintliness was almost entirely forgotten. That man had also been a Hospitaller. His name was Gerland.
Both James and Gerland were members of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, generally known as the Hospitallers. It was a monastic order that had grown out of a very old Christian hospital in Jerusalem. The hospital had existed for hundreds of years by the time of the crusades, serving Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. But as the Holy Land became Christian, the future Blessed Gerard de Martigues realized that the hospital required a different kind of service that could only be provided by a different kind of monk, a warrior monk.
The Hospitallers quickly grew. The organization contained chaplains, that is, priests who did not fight, and sergeants, that is, warriors who were not monks. But at the top of the order were the brother knights, warriors who lived according to a strict monastic rule. They vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience - knowing that obedience in their case would often mean their lives would be sacrificed to defend their fellow Christians.
Knights were usually members of the aristocracy, and that was probably true of Gerland. When he joined the Hospitallers, though, he would have given up on worldly glory. Unlike secular knights, Hospitallers did not seek personal glory on the battlefield, fighting instead as a cooperative unit. Otherwise they dressed and behaved humbly, for they were servants of Christ, and as their Rule puts it, “it is a thing wrong and improper for the servant that he should be proud, and his Lord should be humble.” (Father Gérard Lagleder version)
Hospitallers ate together communally, only two simple meals per day, and only after the sick in their care had been made comfortable and fed. Of course there were sometimes problems. My favourite part of the Rule explains how the Hospitallers dealt with fighting between the knights. If two knights came to blows, they would have to sit on the floor rather than at the table for a specified number of days, until they could rejoin the table as friends.
Orders like the Hospitallers and the Templars soon became indispensable to the Christian Holy Land. For one thing, they rode out to defend Christian holdings against their regional enemies. But they also played a crucial logistical role. Every year, tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims made the journey. These pilgrims had to be helped and protected, and the Hospitallers had fortresses and waypoints from Europe to the Holy Land to ensure that they were. For a sense of the scale of the operation, in 1233 the Hospitallers - not to consider any of the other orders - oversaw round trips for 3000 pilgrims from Marseille alone. Pope Gregory IX warned the meddling Emperor Frederick II not to interfere in their operations in 1231:
”You must not worry the Hospitallers and Templars, molesting those through whom the [Holy] Land has up to this time been governed among many difficulties, and without whom it is believed that it would be in no way governable” Jonathan Riley-Smith translation
While the Hospitallers existed to show mercy to the sick, they themselves expected little mercy. Their Muslim enemies understood the danger posed by the knightly orders and rarely passed up a chance to execute captured knights. Gerland had chosen a life without safety, glory or wealth, and must have expected to be forgotten when he died in a small town in Sicily.
But then, long afterward, James had his remarkable dream. On the strength of the dream, James summoned his men. These probably included brother knights as well as chaplains and sergeants and servants, and in a large procession they went to Caltagirone, to the church of Santa Maria del Tempio. James searched the church, looking for what he had dreamed was there. And then he found it. The remains of a man who had once been a knight.
Who had Gerland been as a man? James asked the locals, and local tradition began to reconstruct a picture of the severe Hospitaller who had once lived among them. They remembered his long black Hospitaller cloak, marked with the distinctive white cross. They remembered that he was German, or was he Polish? They remembered that Gerland had not been a man to be trifled with, but that he always seemed to find the time to help children who were in need. And - since no one’s business is really private in a small town - they recalled that although he tried not to show it, Gerland’s last years in Caltagirone had been years of self-imposed penance. He fasted often. Under his Hospitaller uniform, he wore a hair shirt, a constant irritant to mortify his body.
Gerland was stationed at Caltagirone as part of the extended Hospitaller network that protected and guided pilgrims along the way. Caltagirone was Gerland’s last position, and it was likely intended as a position for someone approaching the end of his career. The locals seemed to recall that he had previously been embedded in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
If so, Gerland would have have been able to witness at first hand Frederick’s disastrous intervention in the Holy Land. After contriving to get himself crowned King of Jerusalem without ever being in Jerusalem, Frederick delayed his arrival so long and with so many excuses that the pope excommunicated him. When he finally arrived on crusade he was still excommunicated and so he had very little support. But that didn’t stop him from unilaterally signing a disastrous truce in 1229. It guaranteed Christian ownership of Jerusalem for 10 years, but also stipulated that Christians would not fortify their holdings. The Hospitallers understood exactly what was going to happen when the truce ran out, and advised against this policy. Gerland may have been the knight who pleaded with the Emperor not to sign the truce. Frederick did it anyway.
The patriarch of Jerusalem, Gerold, was so disgusted that he wrote an open letter to all Christians about what had happened. The first couple of sentences give you a feel for the whole thing:
Gerold, patriarch of Jerusalem, to all the faithful - greetings. If it should be fully known how astonishing, nay rather, deplorable, the conduct of the emperor [Frederick II] has been in the eastern lands from beginning to end, to the great detriment of the cause of Jesus Christ and to the great injury of the Christian faith, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head no common sense would be found in him. (Original Sources of European History, vol. 1 translation)
Gerland must have watched with growing apprehension as the truce expired. By then, the balance of power had shifted, and Christians were on the retreat. In 1244, Jerusalem was lost. The Hospitaller Master in Jerusalem sadly reports that a Turkish army attacked suddenly, massacring Christians who sought sanctuary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and “perpetrating in His holy sanctuary such a crime as the eyes of men had never seen since the commencement of the world.”
The Hospitallers and Templars had been unable to stop the invading army, the Master reports, and he himself had barely survived.
[A]s long as we were able to stand, we mutually exhorted and comforted one another in Christ, and fought so unweariedly and bravely, to the astonishment of our enemies, till we were at length taken prisoner (which, however, we much tried to avoid) or fell slain. (Original Sources of European History, vol. 1 translation)
Jerusalem would never be recaptured. Frederick’s disastrous policy was the beginning of a grinding defeat of the Christian lands. One by one, the Christian cities fell, and new enemies emerged, including the cruel master-strategist Baybars, a one-eyed slave who eventually became a Sultan and an implacable foe of the knightly orders. Gerland may have fought in this slow retreat. Perhaps Gerland was even at the last defence of Acre, when the Hospitaller Marshal, Matthew of Clermont, led such a ferocious counterattack that he bought the city another two days to evacuate.
Gerland, in other words, lived at a time when the things to which he had dedicated his life were slipping away. He could not know that the Hospitallers would rise again, eventually becoming known as the Knights of Malta. Gerland would have seen the slow loss of the Holy Land. He may have lived long enough to see the purge of the knights Templar in 1307. Perhaps he wondered whether the Hospitallers would go the same way.
My picture of Gerland, then, is of a battle scarred veteran who lived to see the end of everything he defended. He comes into focus for us, at the end of his life, in his final posting, helping pilgrims to find their way to a Holy Land that his Order could no longer protect. His situation reminds me of the closing words of Spengler’s book Man and Technics.
We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honourable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man. (Charles Francis Atkinson translation)
This passage could, I think, have been written about Gerland, with the exception that Gerland did not share the deep despair that runs through Spengler’s thought. Gerland is manly because, like Spengler’s soldier, he stood his ground. But he is saintly because, unlike Spengler, he had a hope beyond this world. Gerland knew that his war, the real war, had been going on for all of human history, and the prize was an immortality that is much more than symbolic.
One reason I think that Gerland maintained this hope was the wave of miracles that followed after James and his Hospitallers cleaned his bones, put them in a reliquary, and made it available in the church.
What happened next is recorded in six dense pages in the Lives of the Saints of Sicily by the 17th century Jesuit Ottavio Gaetano. Philip, a merchant, had a ten year old son who had never been able to lift his arm. The boy was healed at the shrine. John brought his daughter who had scrofula, and she went home with her throat completely normal. And so on and on and on: deafness, blindness, withered hands. Men and women, young and old, but more young than old. The outpouring of grace through the intercession of Blessed Gerland bore the signature that the locals remembered. His love of children had never gone away.
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