The Order of St. Lazarus in the Latin East

By: Natalie Kohout
Grand Prize winning article of the 2005 Grand Medieval Historian Competition

The First Crusade culminated with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and within decades new institutions military orders were founded in the newly claimed Latin East.1 These orders consisted of members who lived according to rules which resembled existing monastic regulations. The defining feature of these orders was that this religious way of life was combined with fighting.2 They existed as the only authority to hold an always ready standing army. These orders also had many rights of exemption and often pursued their own policies, in effect making them a state within a state.3 The Knights Templar, the Knights of St John and the Teutonic Order are all examples of military orders which were born out of the Latin East. However, one military order stood unique above the rest. No where else in Christendom had anyone conceived of forming a military organization which allowed lepers to join and fight. The Order of St. Lazarus was a military order similar to the aforementioned ones, but it was very different in that it allowed lepers to take up military duties in its name.

Lepers have existed as a marginalized group for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and this phenomenon in the Latin East is worthy of attention when one considers the medieval attitudes concerning the affliction. In Europe, a stigma with negative moral implications and severe social consequences was attached to leprosy.4 Leprosy was seen by many, including the church, as a punishment for moral failing.5 Those diagnosed as lepers were often segregated from society for the rest of their lives and in many areas were declared legally dead.6 There was another view of lepers which pervaded the medieval landscape in which the leper was seen as someone enduring purgatory on earth as a special reflection of Christ's suffering.7 Overall, most medieval thinkers appeared to regard the disease of leprosy as something which degraded the individual in both a physical and a moral sense.8 Keeping these ideas in mind, one should be able to appreciate the exceptionality of a military order of leprous knights within the crusader states, the home of Christendom's holiest city, Jerusalem. A brief history of the order, an examination of the leper hospital from which the order grew out of, and an exploration of the known military exploits shall be tackled in an attempt to illuminate the history of the only military order of leprous knights.

Any account of the Order of St. Lazarus must begin with a brief look at the leper hospital from which it sprang. The origins of the leper hospital in Jerusalem are controversial and ambiguous.9 Empress Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius (383-408), was known to have instituted a leper hospital at Jerusalem. However, this particular hospital cannot be concretely linked to the crusading period.10 Others claim that St. Basil founded the hospital in the 4th century11, and even other possibilities such as Judas Maccabeus have been suggested.12 The hospital existed under the protection of the Greek patriarchs of Jerusalem from 629 until 1054. From 1098 until 1187 it was under the authority of the Latin patriarchs.13 At the time of the First Crusade, it stood as one of three hospitals in the city. Collectively these hospitals, St. Mary Latin, St. John the Almoner and St. Lazarus were known as the Hospital of Jerusalem.14 Pilgrim accounts contemporary to the time of the crusades place the leper hospital near the northwestern corner of the city, between the Tower of Tancred and St. Stephen's Gate.15 The hospital had a wide range of benefactors, even noble and royal patrons, these supporters included King Fulk, Queen Melisende, Baldwin III and Amalric I.16

The military order of St. Lazarus was established sometime in the 12th century17 to accommodate those who were diagnosed with leprosy in the crusader states.18 By 1255 the order is known to have followed the Augustinian rule. However, it is unknown which rule the order followed prior to that.19 Another important landmark in 1255 included recognition of the order's existence by Pope Alexander IV.20 Their habits were black and resembled those of St. John. The green cross associated with the Order of St. Lazarus was not adopted until the 16th century.21 While this order is unique in that it consisted of lepers, healthy men did serve alongside the leprous knights, as noted by Pope Alexander IV in 1255.22 These knights with leprosy often came from other military orders after they were diagnosed.23 The Templars decreed that a member who developed leprosy should join the Order of St. Lazarus.24 The Hospitallers stated in their rules that a member who is a leper cannot remain amongst their order.25 Instead of simply ostracizing these leprous knights, those in the crusader states continued to utilize them, through the conduit of the Order of St. Lazarus.

The Order of St. Lazarus remained primarily a Hospitaller order, but did take part in several battles, albeit, not very extensively nor very successfully.26 It is uncertain when exactly the order took up military duties.27 Most contend that the first solid evidence of military activity can be found in 124428, although there is a contention that a small detachment may have been present at the Battle of Hattin.29 In October of 1244, the order participated in the battle at La Forbie. The battle was a disastrous loss for the crusaders and especially for the Order of St. Lazarus since every one of its knights perished.30 During the crusade of Louis IX, knights of the order were present at the debacle at Marsuna in 1250 in which the king was captured by the Egyptians.31 In Acre, the new capital since 1191 after Jerusalem had been lost in 1187, the Order of St. Lazarus was reported to have been entrusted with the defense of a tower and a section of the wall.32 Later, when the city found itself under siege by the Mameluks under al-Ashraf, a force of 25 knights was provided for the city's defense. Again, all of the participants of the order perished, as did the crusaders' last stronghold in the East.33 Overall, the order's military contribution to the crusader states was nominal compared to the other military orders, although this hinged mainly on a lack of resources such as land and manpower.34

After the fall of Acre in 1291 the Order of St. Lazarus was compelled to return to the properties they held in Europe.35 Slowly the order disengaged itself from active crusading and the disease of leprosy.36 The image of knights afflicted by leprosy, surely in some cases literally falling apart from the ravages of the disease, was never again to be seen. In what were the crusader states archeological evidence of the order's life is nearly nonexistent. A mosque covers the site where the leper hospital stood and in Acre almost everything was destroyed. Documentation of the order's history is only sketchy at best. 37 Despite these handicaps a basic history of the Order of St. Lazarus is still discernable and speaks to larger questions of the status of leprosy in the Latin East. Several theories of contributing factors concerning this special treatment of lepers in the Order of St. Lazarus have been debated. The dire, persistent shortage of manpower in the crusader states may have been an aspect to take into consideration.38 To simply ostracize a knight who happened to develop leprosy may have been argued as something unthinkable and so a role was created for them.39 To accommodate such an environment which was so drastically different from their homeland, the crusaders had to reconcile their own customs to the new situations posed to them in the East.40 Leprosy, in and of itself, may have even been viewed differently by those dwelling in the Latin East.41 At any rate, the Order of St. Lazarus is important to take note of because of its unique contribution to history as the only order of leprous knights who performed military duties in the crusader states.

Sources Cited