Female Hospitallers in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Female Hospitallers in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

By Myra Struckmeyer

Ph.D. Dissertation, University of North Carolina, 2006

Abstract: “Female Hospitallers in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” is an analysis of the presence of female members in the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, who were associated with the order as lay sisters involved in hospital care, as women devoted to the liturgy, and as commanders. The study gives special attention to the differences among types of female association, the accommodation of female religious, the cooperation between men and women (or lack thereof), and motivation. It is the first large-scale study of women in the military orders in English and first serious attempt to relate the study of military orders to the framework of the study of female monasticism.

With predominantly archival sources as her evidence, the author argues that, 1. the female members of the Hospital of Saint John were not an anomaly to the order but formed an integral part of the order, as they contributed financially, physically, socially, and above all, spiritually; 2. the Hospital of Saint John was, in comparison to other religious orders, remarkably open to receiving and accommodating women. Some of these women associated as fully-professed religious, others as lay associates or semi-religious; consorores, donatas, or the like, depending on when or where the association was made. At the end of the twelfth century and in line with a general trend in the history of monasticism, the Order of Saint John began to segregate the women from the men and established religious houses specifically for them. However, this segregation was never complete, and unlike most other religious orders, the Hospitallers continued to welcome female association in male, female, and mixed-sex congregations throughout the thirteenth century. Its positive attitude towards women was only matched by other Augustinian institutions, and points at a difference between Augustinian and Cistercian-Benedictine oriented military religious orders.

Introduction: “The purpose of this work,” wrote Joseph Delaville Le Roulx in 1894, introducing his article on female Hospitallers, “is to retrieve the female Hospitallers from the oblivion into which they have fallen in comparison to their much more famous brothers and to retrace the essential steps of their history. ” Their brothers were famous as Knights Hospitallers, members of the military religious order of Saint John of Jerusalem, and forerunners of the current Knights of Malta. Their origins lay in the obscure beginnings of the Amalfitan hospital in Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century and their fame rose after the first crusade as they cared for the sick and the poor in their hospital of Jerusalem and defended the Holy Land together with other military orders such as the Knights Templar.

These Hospitaller brothers had sisters. The first known sister was Adelaide, who became a female Hospitaller during a chapter meeting of the Hospitallers of Saint-Gilles and Trinquetaille in 1146. In the presence of the brothers, the bishop of Arles, and consuls of the same town, she gave the prior of Saint-Gilles all her belongings for the redemption of her and her children’s sins: houses in Arles, a meadow and the usage of certain ships. In return, the prior made her “sister” (soror). In her new capacity of Hospitaller sister she went to the East and entered the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, which recognized her accordingly. She died in Jerusalem.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of North Carolina

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine