By Ryan Chen-Wing
Tiresias, Vol.1 (2012)
Abstract: While the term non-governmental organization and its definition are modern, the common traits of NGOs today can be found in the equivalents of medieval times. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem operated as a prototypical transnational non-governmental organization because of their social missions, their altruistic service, and their relative autonomy from governing powers.
Introduction: The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem trace their roots to a hospital in the Holy Land. The group grew and gained legitimacy as a holy order in Medieval times. In addition to treating the sick, they offered comfort, protected pilgrims and fought as a military order of knights. This medieval organization pursuing a mission of charity exhibits the distinguishing traits of a modern NGO. The term non-governmental organization is accepted and widely used today. It appears in the charter of the United Nations, and is used by other international bodies. The World Bank defines NGOs by three main qualities: that they are “values-based,” that they “are guided by the principles of altruism and volunteerism,” and that “they operate independent from government.” While the term non-governmental organization and its definition are modern, the common qualities of NGOs today can be found in the medieval analogues. In this paper I will show how the Knights of St. John, the Knights Hospitallers, operated as a prototypical transnational non-governmental organization. The Knights Hospitallers operated across borders, and their organization fits the definition with their social missions, their altruistic service, and their relative autonomy from governing powers.
This essay will cover the 12th and 13th centuries from around the official recognition of the Order to its expulsion from the Holy Land. I will draw examples from across Christendom, but mainly from Jerusalem and the crusader states, which were the geographic centre of the knights’ activities to serve pilgrims who were returning to original land of their faith. I will discuss the background of the order, including the earliest known hospices in the Holy Land and how they led to the founding of the Knights of St. John. I will discuss how their operations were international and fit each of the three parts of the definition of mission, service, and independence. In discussion of the social mission, I will also deal with the issue of military service and how the fact that the knights were soldiers does not disqualify them from being an NGO in a medieval context.