The military orders and the conversion of Muslims in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

The military orders and the conversion of Muslims in the twelfth and thirteenth centuriesMedieval Military Orders

By Alan Forey

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 28: 1 (2002)


Descriptions of the activities of military orders only rarely included any reference to theconversion of Muslims, and in practice the orders did not seek to impose Christianity by force.They were at times also reluctant to allow voluntary conversions among their Muslim vassalsand slaves, although claims that they sought to prevent Muslims in neighbouring Islamic terri-tories from accepting Christianity are questionable. The explanation of the attitudes displayedby the orders is not to be found in the fear of losing their raison d’eˆtre or in the extent of their understanding of the Islamic faith: they were adopting current attitudes, which were basedon economic advantage and probably also on perceptions of the nature of Islamic society. Asmore attention came to be devoted in the West to missionary work, some criticised the orders’military activities for hindering peaceful missions, while it was also argued — for exampleby Lull — that the orders should engage in the work of conversion, using force as well aspreaching. But the writings of theorists had little practical effect.

The warfare to which military orders devoted themselves in Mediterranean landsduring the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was seen to serve various purposes. Insome documents stress was placed on fighting as a means of salvation for brethren:‘they do not fear to shed their own blood as martyrs, and thus rejoice eventually toend their lives for God alone’. The practical objective was most frequently described as defence, both of territories and of the Church and the faithful: some scribes likenedthe orders to a wall or a shield. Yet military orders were also seen to be fighting a war of vengeance and expansion. The latter task was usually said to involve thefreeing of parts of the Church from subjection and the recovery of lands which hadearlier been seized from Christians. Charters of donation not only include generalisedcomments about expansion but also at times in the Iberian peninsula refer to assist-ance given in particular campaigns and to possible conquests by the orders them-selves.


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