How the Hospitallers used slaves

Slavery was widely practiced in the medieval Mediterranean, with the threat of being abducted and forced to work in far-off lands a constant threat for men and women. However, it might be surprising to think that even the Knights Hospitaller had slaves - why did they have them?

Malta in 1572 - home base of the Knights Hospitaller

This was the topic of the paper “The Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes and Malta: The Pious Knight’s Slave”, given by Nicholas McDermott last week at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. He covered the long history the military order had with acquiring and using slaves, mostly from Muslim backgrounds.

Information about the use of slaves by the Hospitallers emerges by the thirteenth-century, with statutes by the order offering rules about when a brother could buy or sell a slave, if they could be baptized, and under what circumstances they could be freed. McDermott notes that the Hospitallers were establishing more control over the use of slaves, so that they increasingly belonged to the order itself rather than individuals.

While some slaves could be used as personal servants and others would be sent as gifts to various European rulers (including the Papacy), it seems that most would find themselves working on sugar plantations. Sugar production was an important part of the Hospitallers’ income, and the military order owned numerous plantations on the island of Cyprus. Records from 1449 noted that one such farm had 400 slaves working on it.

McDermott adds that slaves were also kept on the island of Malta, where they worked on menial jobs for the order. When the Ottoman Turks besieged the Hospitaller headquarters in 1565, about 1500 slaves were present, and 500 of them were killed in the fighting.

17th century image of galleys

The worst predicament for a slave of the Knights Hospitaller was to work on the galleys, being one of the men who rowed the oars. The military order usually owned five ships, with each needing about 300 oarsmen. When the island of Rhodes came under Hospitaller control in 1310, they conscripted locals for this service, but by 1462 this practice was abolished and replaced with a tax. Afterwards, it seems that slaves were used as the rowers.

McDermott points out several pieces of evidence that serving on a galley was considered especially gruelling work - for instance, it was a punishment for regular slaves who committed some kind of offence. Moreover, the Hospitallers had to write laws to discipline or even execute slaves who mutilated themselves in order to avoid working on a galley.

The actions of the Hospitallers would eventually attract the attention of the Catholic Inquisition, who began checking to see if the military order was using Christians as slaves, or preventing them from converting. However, after some diplomatic manoeuvres the Pope put new limits on what the Inquisition could do, and the Hospitallers carried on their practices until Malta was conquered by Napoleon in 1798.

McDermott, a PhD student at the University of Cardiff, is continuing his research on slavery and the Hospitallers. Click here to view his Academia.edu page.

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