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The Military Orders Established in Portugal in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Overview

The Military Orders Established in Portugal in the Middle Ages: A Historiographical Overview

By Paula Pinto Costa

E-Journal of Portuguese History, Volume 2:1 (2004)

Abstract: The aim of this study is to single out the latest directions taken by the historiography of the Religious and Military Orders established in Portugal in the Middle Ages and to discuss the current state of research into them. We shall also examine the main tendencies characterised by such research and the way it has been formally organized, drawing attention to how it fits in with other historical topics. The historical course of the Military Orders in Portugal has influenced the documentary output that supports research into the topic, and also the actual organization of the archives and their use. In this regard, we should first describe the orders, showing how they originated and where they became implanted, as well as their relationship with the monarchy.

Introduction: The aim of this study is to single out the latest directions taken by the historiography of the Religious and Military Orders established in Portugal in the Middle Ages and to discuss the current state of research into them. We shall also examine the main tendencies characterised by such research and the way it has been formally organized, drawing attention to how it fits in with other historical topics. The theme follows the overall trends of Portuguese medievalism, which is opening up to new topics given the expansion of the chronologies covered, the increasing number of historians and the university setting for such coverage. In this context, research into the Military Orders is expressed in academic work related to a university career, and also involves the dynamics of institutionally structured working groups.

The historical course of the Military Orders in Portugal has influenced the documentary output that supports research into the topic, and also the actual organization of the archives and their use. In this regard, we should first describe the orders, showing how they originated and where they became implanted, as well as their relationship with the monarchy. These institutions, apart from the Order of Christ, first came into being beyond the frontiers of Portugal, and this is reflected in the recognition of their canon law and the management of their estates. The Orders became established in Portugal with the acquiescence of the county of Portucalense, represented either by Dom Henrique and Dona Teresa or by their son, Dom Afonso Henriques. There were several reasons favoring the support of this new monachism, emerging from the disputes between religious and civil powers and affiliated with the reform of the Church in the 11th century. In fact, Dom Henrique’s French origins, his empathy with the Crusade project and his close relations with Diogo Gelmires, archbishop of Compostela, in addition to the spread of Cistercianism and the restoration of certain lines of Saint Augustine’s thought, are essential points in this analysis.

All these factors, plus the circumstances prevailing in the Portuguese territory in the 12th century, helped to pave the way for the definition of a geographical area for the implantation of these institutions, which had fairly distinct schemes of operation. The Hospitallers first appeared in the northern part of the kingdom, around Leça do Balio, and were established throughout the North, attending to the needs of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Towards the end of the 12th century, they spread into the southern interior regions, where their focal point was Crato/Flor da Rosa. The Templars, perhaps because of their early installation in Portugal, had a spatial distribution similar in many frontier points to that of the Hospitallers, notably along the whole stretch of the Tagus valley, and were based in Tomar. Underlying this geographical definition was a military program, with a high degree of commitment on the part of the knights, which responded to the interests of the monarchy, ensuring the successful defense of the central region. The difficulties inherent in the southward advance of the reconquest go a long way toward explaining the integration of the Orders of Santiago and Avis into the kingdom in the mid 1170s. The former was entrusted with the defense of the Sado valley, Baixo Alentejo and Algarve, and the latter was to protect most of the Alto Alentejo from the town of Évora.

Finally, the Order of Christ, founded in 1319, was fully identified with the monarchy from the outset. Generally speaking, this was to be the defining direction for the behavior of these institutions in the late Middle Ages, inasmuch as their presence in the kingdom was solid, linked to the affirmation of the border, in its religious and territorial dimension, and to the external projection of Portugal’s sovereignty, specifically at the maritime level.

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