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Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: The Practice of Social Welfare

 Although the Hospitallers started as little more than a hospice, providing care but no cure to those who sought refuge with them, they rapidly assumed other functions and grew into the leading provider of health and social care in not just the Holy Land but across Western Europe as well.


Early on, the Hospitallers took responsibility for burying the dead. They started by burying paupers who could not pay for a funeral. Yet, as their prestige grew, wealthy patrons became keen to pay for the honour of a Hospitaller burial. 
The Hospitallers also provided free meals for the hungry, functioning as what we would now call a ‘soup kitchen’. They supplied clothes and shoes to the poor, not just cast-off clothes or donations from patrons, but newly-made garments. 
As their network of houses grew to many thousands across Europe, the Hospitallers soon found themselves obliged (by their rule) to offer food and lodging to all travellers, rich and poor, on pilgrimage or not — and often at significant expense to themselves. 
In times of crisis, the Hospital and its imitators carried the burden of dealing with refugees. After the fall of Edessa, William of Tyre measured the severity of the crisis by noting that refugees were so numerous, they almost overwhelmed the ability of the Hospital and other religious houses to cope.
In addition, the Hospitallers looked after orphans, a function that was a particular responsibility of the Sisters of the Hospital. Unwed or impoverished mothers and the mothers of twins could give their infants to the Hospital, while abandoned children were likewise brought to the Hospital by whoever found them. Although the Hospitallers ran some orphanages, most of the children were put in foster homes. The foster mother received 12 talents a year from the Hospitallers to cover the child’s costs. The payment was contingent on proper care, and the Sisters of the Hospital annually checked on each child to ensure they were properly fed and cared for. If not, the child returned to the Hospital’s custody until a new foster mother was found. The children raised at the expense of the Hospital were known as ‘the children of St. John’.  On reaching adulthood, they were given the option of joining the Hospital as members of the Order or embracing ‘the seductive allurements of the frivolous world’.[i]

These various activities required legions of workers, the bulk of whom were lay associates of whichever religious order furnished services. Only a small percentage of those providing social services were avowed members of the Order of St. John or any of the other charitable orders. Most of the lay workers were charity cases themselves. They were people without steady employment, jobs or family. They were failed apprentices, runaway serfs and abandoned wives; they were refugees, beggars and vagabonds. They found work with the charitable orders, which acted as massive employment agencies, absorbing and releasing people in response to the demands of the labour market. 

Yet without doubt the Hospitaller's most important function, as their name implies, was medical care, which I discuss next week.

[i] Benjamin Kedar, ‘The Jerusalem Hospital’ in Benjamin Kedar, Franks, Muslims and Oriental Christians in the Latin Levant (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), X 6.

The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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