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There was a time when I thought Malta’s history began and ended with the Knights of St John: Grandmasters’ names I was expected to recite for my Year Six exam, outings where we were encouraged to appreciate the breathtaking paintings and lavish palaces the Order left behind. For a long time, the Knights were presented to us as blue-blooded gallant defenders of the faith, chaste men whose lives were dedicated to fighting Islam.
To me they were larger than life – yet oddly one-dimensional. I was slightly in awe and spectacularly bored by them all at the same time.
Fast forward to 2011 and I find myself once again discussing the Knights of St John – this time with Dr Emanuel Buttigieg – recent History PhD graduate from Cambridge University and lecturer in history at the University of Malta. Emanuel’s recently published book – Nobility, Faith and Masculinity – is as dense with facts as you would expect a history book to be – but there’s nothing cold or clinical about his treatment of the Order. The Knights are flesh-and-blood mortals, mostly honourable yet fallible, largely holy yet frequently deviating from the Church’s teachings, truly brave yet plagued by the same fears and superstitions that beset so many others at the time. One-dimensional they are not. “To me, history is made up of angles and curves,” says Emanuel, “not straight lines. History is not a static narrative, but a varied, incomplete and contested set of narratives.”
“There’s plenty of evidence that there were Knights who engaged in a lot of sex,” says Emanuel as I dive headfirst into the topic. But over time,” he says “this was romanticized, popularized and – inevitably – inflated.” The traveller Patrick Brydone – who Emanuel says is frequently quoted and who was writing in the early romantic period – was particularly good at presenting an image of women throwing themselves at knights and knights that couldn’t control themselves with the fairer sex.
“I tried to show that it was more complex than that,” says Emanuel, whose research indicates that a significant number did in fact stick to their celibacy vows. Those who strayed – it emerges – included a mix of Knights who had one female lover to whom they remained more-or-less loyal and others who turned to a variety of prostitutes.
While that would appear to be a major transgression inviting severe punishment, Emanuel tells me that of the three vows taken by the Knights, the vow of chastity, when ignored, was the one that drew the least consternation. Poverty and – especially – obedience, says Emanuel, were deemed to be far more important. The “lax” attitude toward sex was – of course – kept within limits. The Order was very strict when it came to clandestine marriage for example – which Emanuel says was spoken about with the same harsh language reserved for sodomy. Among the reasons behind its uncompromising stance on marriage, says Emanuel, were economic ones. The fear was that the Order’s resources would be inherited by Knights’ children and that marriage would mean the knight had two masters: the Grandmaster – and a wife. The Order of St Stephen in Tuscany – which allowed its members to marry – proved that in some ways their fear was warranted. This Order was far less independent as a result.
Still, outside the formal institution of marriage, sexual affairs continued. In 1581, Emanuel’s book documents how an Apostolic visitor came to Malta and commented that these Knights had women and children all over the place. “It’s early days,” says Emanuel, “but a number of historians are entertaining the possibility of a belief among some at the time that a child born out of wedlock was greater evidence of love and passion than a child conceived within marriage.” It was well-known, for example, that the famous pioneering archaeologist Antonio Bosio was the illegitimate son and nephew of the Hospitallers Fra Giovanni Ottone Bosio and Fra Giocomo Bosio respectively, says Emanuel.
It was also true, however, that those who did disapprove of the Knights’ sexual exploits often found their hands tied. “The Knights were very well-connected people,” says Emanuel. “You find lots of letters written by Inquisitors at the time complaining of their frustration at being unable to really discipline these Knights.” A little nepotism went a long way.
“What I found really surprising,” says Emanuel, “was the extent to which the Knights resorted to magic or sorcery.” The Order’s members frequently dabbled in magic to find lost items, or to increase their chances at gambling. The Knights, it turns out, gambled a great deal – for things like money or silk stockings. They also used chants and love potions – including concoctions made from herbs or a combination of animal parts, human semen and women’s food, for example, to entice women or men. Many of the Knights, says Emanuel, got their herbs and potions from the hundreds of Muslims held as slaves in Malta.
Healing magic was used for self-treatment in battle but it was also provided – apparently free of charge – to non-Knights, including women, who often approached the Knights for this purpose. A number of Knights carried a sketch of a cross with them, believing that arrows and swords would bounce off them. “What I take from that is how genuinely faithful a lot of these Knights were,” says Emanuel, “just not always in the way the Church had hoped.”
Interestingly, in practice, Inquisitors’ response to accusations of witchcraft – a decidedly un-Catholic practice – was measured. Contrary to images of bloodthirsty agents of torture, Emanuel says that Inquisitors, many of whom were Italian, adopted a legalistic, rational approach. “In no sense was the Inquisition a good thing,” says Emanuel, “but the idea of the ‘mad inquisitor’ is mostly based on the experience of the Spanish Inquisition – which was harsher than the one in Malta – and which was itself dramatized to an extent by Protestant authors.”
The first, most obvious way that joining the Order was important in this regard was that those entering the Order were second-born noble sons – they were younger siblings of men whose status as first-borns gave them priority in terms of familial inheritance and other benefits accruing from their noble status. For the second-born sibling, joining a religious institution like the Order of St John was an alternative avenue for a very respectable noble lifestyle, says Emanuel.
But in their day-to-day lives, these men’s male identities were played out and constructed in ways that remain associated with masculinity today. Emanuel’s book includes a whole section on “Knightly Brawls.” At a time when “across Europe and among all social ranks, violence was endemic,” he says, “violence and fighting were an integral – though not condoned – aspect of the modes of masculine expression within knighthood. The list of violent incidents involving Hospitallers is extensive,” finds Emanuel, including “the drawing of weapons during meetings, knocking out of teeth, stabbings, insults and rapes.”
In an important sense, says Emanuel, these men’s masculine identities could never be taken for granted. In contemporary debates over “threatened masculinity” – the implication is that there was a time when masculinity wasn’t threatened – when the “traditional man” was stable and safe. Emanuel’s book exposes the holes in this theory. “What I and other historians try to show,” says Emanuel, “is that in reality, ‘masculinities’ are and were always to some extent threatened.”
Emanuel’s book also gives voice to a number of people who tend generally to get lost on the grand stage of history – sometimes appearing as props or minor characters, at other times forgotten in the darkness backstage. When he notes that two Knightly revolts were catalyzed by the decisions of two grandmasters to expel prostitutes from Valletta and to ban women from Carnival celebrations respectively – Emanuel shows the indirect power that women held over the Knights.
At another point, Emanuel writes about the case of a woman raped by a Knight. The Knight blasphemed during sex. Rape being a civil crime this was a matter for the courts not the Inquisitor. At a time when women’s rights were scant and accusations of rape unlikely to lead to much action, the woman went to the Inquisitor and got the Knight indicted for blasphemy instead. “In a highly patriarchal society,” says Emanuel, “she used the channels available to her.”
In Faith, Nobility and Masculinity, the Knights of St John are thoroughly three-dimensional human beings. Committed to their higher cause but not above the weaknesses of the flesh, men whose honour, nobility and masculinity were continuously in need of defending and proving. They are not villains but neither are they heroes – or at least not in the romanticized straightforward sense, lacking depth and nuance. And they are certainly not boring.
Nobility, Faith and Masculinity is published by Continuum, London (2011).
Text by Louisa Bartolo -§- Photography by Daniel Cilia