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The Pilgrim's Routes and the Order of Malta

by Prof. dr. Paolo Caucci von Saucken, Perugia University.
(Published in Rivista Internazionale - December 1996)


Born in Palestine to assist and defend pilgrims, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem's vocation rapidly expanded to cover not only those coming to the Holy Land but all those making a Pilgrimage to one of the major sanctuaries of Christendom.
Both J. Riley Smith and A. Luttrell have pointed out how in 1113, the year in which Paschal II formally recognised it, the Order was already running hospices in Asti, near the Alpine passes, and in the Ports of Pisa, Bari, Otranto, Taranto and Messina. Just as the seats of the four Italian Priories were situated in the crucial points of contact between Italy and the Holy Land: Venice, Pisa, Barletta and Messina.
It is therefore evident that the expansion of the Order of St. John in the west, in what from the perspective of Jerusalem and Rhodes was called ultramare, favoured the communication routes, ports, passes and road junctions. This was not only to ease the passage of those directed to the places where the Order's activity was concentrated, but also to implement its natural vocation for assistance to Pilgrims, addressed to the great Masses of people in continuous movement towards the holy places Christendom.

To see the relationship between the Order of Malta and the pilgrim's routes and to assess the meaning and value of the great pilgrimage season expected for the end of this millennium, we must first of all establish what exactly the medieval pilgrim's route was, how it was organised, what its characteristics were and, above all, how we can reconstruct it for our times.
Besides pointing out historical and archaeological elements of the pilgrims' routes, we will also indicate useful factors for the Roman jubilee of 2000. There are different criteria for defining a pilgrims' route. First of all, this route must end in an important sacred place. The first consideration is that the itinerary must be functional for achieving the goal that constitutes its constant point of reference, and which guides and gives meaning to everything that happens along it.
The route leading to the shrine or the sacred place often takes their name: so we have the vie lauretane, via micaeliche and vie romee. The most famous example of this is the Camino de Santiago, which despite being also a trade and military route, takes its name from its more specific function, that of conducting pilgrims to the tomb of the Apostle James found in Galitiae in the furthest part of the medieval known world, in occasum mundi, or in finibus terrae, as we read in medieval texts.

An iter peregrinorum then needs, besides a well-defined goal, also an efficient hospital structure.
Pilgrims would never have been able to reach their destination, sometimes very far way, on their own. They needed a support system, founded on caritas and on servitium Christians, enabling them to accomplish an often dangerous and difficult journey.
Thus, along these pilgrim's routes, there was a well-co-ordinated network of hospitia, xenodochia, hospitals and hospices which accepted, cared for and guided travellers. Travellers who, pauper et peregrinos by choice, but also often by necessity, could never by themselves have reached the sanctuaries, often thousands of miles away.
These places of assistance were to be found all along the main medieval roads and are the surest factor for determining that a road has been used as a pilgrims' route. They were generally run by the great hospital orders, such as that of St. John, sometimes named only Hospital from its main function. Other orders were also present, such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, or that of the Templars, St. Lazarus, or orders with a more local activity linked to other structures in the territory, such as the Order of St. Anthony of Vienna along the western Alpine passes, or the Order of San Jacopo di Altopascio, mainly operating in Tuscany along the via francigena, but also later expanding with homes and hospices in Spain, France and even in England.
Burgos. Spain. A Hospital for the Pilgrims on the "Camino de Santiago".


It is significant that when the Order of San Jacopo di Altopascio had to give itself a Rule (1239), Pope Gregory IX granted it that of the Order of St. John as a base, considered the very best for the reception, assistance and care of pilgrims.
The hospitales were either run by corporations, municipalities, private people, confraternities, or congregations such as that of the reformed canons; or they were part of the big monasteries or abbeys which, besides their own guest houses, opened some on the nearest roads. This was the case of the abbey of San Salvatore, which from Amiata administrated one on the via francigena near Radicofani, or the great abbey of Roncisvalle, which managed those on the two sides of the Pyrenees.
Sometimes they were enormous, like those of San Marcos of León, de los Reyes Católicos in Spain, of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, or of the same Order of St. John in Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, albeit these latter were more strictly health structures. Sometimes they just consisted of a few rooms furnished with simple pallets, but all indicated the presence of a pilgrimage route and not only on land, as in the case of Rhodes which was frequently used as a stopping place for ships carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Another element which can help us to define our theme is the presence of specific cults connected to the civilisation of pilgrimages. Chapels, churches and frescoes dedicated to St. James, St. Christopher, St. Martin, St. Nicholas or other saints linked to the spirituality of pilgrimages, and iconographic series representing miracles occurring to pilgrims are certainly indicative. There are also churches, chapels and shrines connected to the cult of St. John the Baptist, often recalling the presence in that place of the order and one of its Hospitium. For example, the chapel of St. John of Magione, originally an ancient hospital for pilgrims on which the imposing castle, current residence of the Grand Master has been built. The same applies to place names, such as Hospitalet, Ospitaletto, Spedalicchio, St. John or St. Sepulchre, and naturally St. James or St. Pellegrino, indicate the sediment of a civilisation and a presence connected to pilgrimages.
Along the roads to Rome we often encounter references and signs which told pilgrims they were on the right track and which anticipated the devotions they would find at the end, such as the numerous representations of vernicles. At other times, the road is indicated by signs left by the pilgrims themselves, such as graffiti, crosses, mazes, or more generally by the symbol of the shell which became the signum peregrinationis par excellence. Certainly the octagonal cross on the architrave of the hospices carried out the same function, just as in the Holy Land the presence of St. John and Templar castles defended and marked the road to Jerusalem. Often the pilgrims' route outside towns and villages was marked by tabernacles, fountains or crosses set at the cross-roads; signs which the pilgrims recognised and transmitted and which today constitute valuable elements for reconstructing these itineraries.
However, what indicated an entire route with much greater precision was the so-called pilgrims' travel literatura, that is the guides, diaries, Itinera, Itineraries, Tagebucher and Viaggi which offer us a complete and often detailed picture of these pilgrimages. We have them in all the western languages and on all the main centres of devotion, although it is necessary to make a distinction between travel literature for Compostela, generally concentrating more on the description of the route to reach Santiago rather than the goal, and the much more interesting Roman or Jerusalem ones with the description of the mirabilia of Rome or the loca sancta of Palestine. However they all possess an enormous quantity of information on the itineraries, on the devotions to be carried out and on the hospital system. In the map it is possible to see the interlacing of the Compostelan, Roman and Jerusalem routes which have crossed medieval Christendom and created a cultural substratum; that complex Christian civilisation, made up of faith, culture and values, which John Paul II, during his pontificate and especially in the preparation for the Jubilee of 2000, often calls the common foundations of Europe and of Christian peoples.
This is a cultural and spiritual heritage of exceptional significance, and its study could be extremely useful for the role that the Order of St. John played in the great medieval pilgrimages. A study on the Camino de Santiago has led to the identification of dozens of commenda, houses, properties and hospitales incorporated in the Compostelan itinerary.
The research being carried out on the via francigena is revealing much the same, and increasingly stresses the role which the hospitaller and military orders have had in the organisation of Roman and Jerusalem pilgrimages.
Bailiff Emilio Nasalli Rocca had already, in the Order's Anales, emphasised the presence of various hospices for pilgrims along the Via Emilia, both founded by the Order of St. John and acquired by the Templars after 1312. We could dwell on this register for a long time. Hospitalia, originally Templar and then belonging to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or founded directly by the Order of Malta, are to be found along all the main roads of medieval times. A systematic survey in the Malta Study Centre in Magione is showing that the Knights were in much more evidence along the via francigena than was originally thought. The same applies to the research of the Malta Study Centre in Taranto, demonstrating that there was often a hospice for pilgrims in the south of Italy, in commenda or churches dedicated to St. John, recording their passage to the Holy Land.
The Order of St. John has never lost its original hospitaller vocation and its very close and characteristic rapport with the spirituality of the pilgrimages, which it keeps alive with its direct participation in the major ones. Nor does it neglect its direct relationship with and assistance to the numerous travellers who have once again ventured out on the old pilgrimage routes, often on foot. This is happening in Portugal for the pilgrimages to Fatima, in Spain on the Camino de Santiago, in the province of Burgos, in Navarra and in Santiago itself during the Compostelan Holy Years, not to mention Rome with the first-aid stations the Order staffs in St. Peter's Square.
Reinforcing the Order's earliest vocation in view of those great pilgrimages which will once again take off for the millennium does not only mean becoming increasingly aware of the cornerstones of the Order's original spirituality.
It also means reinstating a cultural heritage of great value and actuality, useful for mapping out, with its own physiognomy, one of the numerous "itineraries of faith" which are being prepared for the Roman jubilee.
A great season is opening for the civilisation and spirituality of pilgrimages. 1999 will be the "Compostelan Holy Year"; it will also be the 900th anniversary of the first crusade, so closely linked to the pilgrimages, and it will be the eve of the great Roman jubilee of 2000.
Millions of people will be flocking to Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem.
The pilgrim's routes will once more become arteries pulsing with faith, common cultural elements and solidarity. The great spiritual adventure of the passagium to the next millennium will certainly be enacted on them. An appointment in which the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, now called of Malta, will certainly be actively present in all sectors.

 

Paolo Caucci von Saucken

Aristocratic Monasticism

 

 
 

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