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Église et pouvoir dans la péninsule Ibérique

Philippe Josserand

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1Since the 1970s, the historiography of the military orders in the Iberian Peninsula has developed at such a rate that the thousand references then gathered by the British Hispanist Derek W. Lomax, in his lifetime the best specialist on the subject, could easily be double that today. Despite their importance, the advances in research concerning the military orders in Spain and Portugal have not succeeded in drawing the historiography along at the same pace. Above all, authors are mainly interested in the two chronological periods coming at the beginning and the end of the mediaeval history of these institutions, leaving a largely little-known interval of almost two centuries in between, so that it is not possible to grasp the history of the military orders as a continuous process. It is that period, left out of the mainstream of research in the last few years, that this book addresses in a study of the century and a half that followed the consolidation of the military orders in Castile as the pace of the Christian reconquest picked up. It is generally considered to have ended shortly after the mid-13th century with the annexation of rich lands in the Segura and Guadalquivir basins. This marked the beginning of a period which is generally regarded as one of decline for the military orders inasmuch as, with the passing of the historical context that had justified their implantation and their growth in the Peninsula, they are supposed to have lost whatever it was constituted their raison d’être. Reproducing an explanatory model long accepted for Latin Christendom as a whole, such a schema applied to Spain is very much a historiographic cliché which has been accepted as demonstrated by dint of simple repetition in both general and specialised works.

2Still expounded today without any major qualifications, the notion of the decadence of the military orders in the course of the Late Middle Ages undoubtedly requires comprehensive reviewing. In twisting, not to say falsifying the picture of the difficulties undergone by the Orders starting in the mid-13th century, it nonetheless correctly highlights the fact that these institutions then faced an entirely different conjuncture from that which had prevailed at the time of their initial expansion. Clearly the original growth of the military orders in Castile in the course of the century following their implantation was part of a general process of expansion which, as in the rest of the Christian West, affected all Peninsular societies. That being so, the questioning to which that movement was perceptibly subjected in the second half of the thirteenth century must have been a source of serious uncertainty for these institutions. In that respect the traditional theories evoking the loss of their raison d’être are not wrong. However, they would appear to fall into a double error as regards the answer to the question. firstly, they indulge in an a priori reading, citing the global climate of crisis and the particular difficulties besetting the Christian forces in the Holy Land in support of the notion of a decline of the military orders which they fail to substantiate, or to do so adequately, on the basis of the surviving documentation. Secondly, in treating such supposed decadence as a continuous, one might almost say necessary process, they underrate, and even partially conceal from view, the ways in which these institutions reacted to an unfavourable conjuncture —a conjuncture that they were surely powerless fully to control but which they strove throughout the Late Middle Ages to turn around in order to preserve the position of power that they had achieved in Castilian society thanks to their part in the Reconquest.

3Also, behind the generally-accepted appearance of decadence, would it not be more perceptive to discern signs of adaptation by the military orders to new times, very different from those that had prevailed in their early years of development? Laboured to the point of becoming a commonplace, the notion that these institutions were in decline has always prevented any consideration of the alternative or any investigation of their situation within Late Mediaeval Castilian society, in which the Reconquest had ceased to be the chief point of reference. To do these things one needs to envisage not only the social and political reality but also the way in which contemporaries pictured it. Only in that way is it possible to determine how much truth there is in the accepted notion of the decadence of the military orders following the middle decades of the 13th century. Until recently, the scant knowledge we have of the orders after that time was still attributed to the state of the sources. In order to approach this study properly, it was therefore necessary to gather a varied and abundant sampling of these sources. It would appear, however, that the commonly-bruited scarcity of documentary sources, which in the case of the orders of the Hospital or Alcántara is still a commonplace today, ought to be understood in a relative sense. While indubitably less plentiful than at the end of the Middle Ages, the sources concerning the military orders between 1250 and 1370 are in no way inferior to those extant for the period in which the orders became established. Equal as they are in wealth, their only drawback from an archivist’s point of view is that they are much more scattered and, unlike the latter, largely unedited. This difficulty is offset in large part by the greater availability of other types of source from the second half of the 13th century on. Largely narrative, these are rarely used in the study of the military orders despite the fact that their nature makes them better suited than other sources as a means of placing these institutions properly in the context of the Castilian society in which they grew up.

4To address the problem of the decline of the military orders, we must first determine how they were viewed, in order to ascertain whether their contemporaries really had the impression that they had gone into decline. That is the object of the first part of the book. The question is not an easy one to tackle due to the heterogeneousness of the sources available for analysis. It does however give us the chance to review certain persistent biases in the historiography, and in particular it suggests that we should not accept the idea that the military orders ceased to have a raison d’être after the fall of Seville on the basis of the supposition that the interruption of the process of expansion of the kingdom of Castile at the expense of Islam marked the end of their mission as warriors. And indeed this thesis is consistent only in appearance. There is nothing in the 13th- and 14th-century documentation to suggest in any way that the image of the military orders was called into question, even at the time of the trial of the Knights Templars in 1310, which numerous researchers have nonetheless presented as an event that shook ail of Christendom. To be sure, criticisms of the orders circulated in Castile, fuelled in part by the failure of Latin arms to make headway in the Holy Land; but limited as they were, and moreover unspecific, they do not bear comparison with the stream of praise which continued in the 14th century to exalt the military orders as vaunted defenders of the Castillan frontier. Although it retained all its attraction to public opinion, the image of the orders nevertheless did not remain immutable. In the second half of the 13th century, their religious stature began to decline, a development borne out by shrinking numbers of donations and a relaxing of the bonds of brotherhood; and as they increasingly fell short of the spiritual expectations of the faithful, they lost place in the divine economy. However, this was offset to a great extent by the simultaneous accentuation of the profane side of the orders; by sweeping aside the reservations that had hitherto hampered such a development, this enabled them to attract the Castilian aristocracy, whose codes of behaviour and social imagery they henceforth espoused —so that from the first half of the 14th century on, the general perception of the military orders conformed to models of the chivalric ideal, an image that held well beyond the close of the Middle Ages.

5Having established this transformation in the image of the military orders, the next step was to ascertain to what extent it reflected a real change in the role attaching to these institutions in Castilian society. That is the question addressed in the second part of the book. Outside the sphere of perceived images, the historical ground is much better marked out by the literature and has been thoroughly investigated in the last twenty-five years. As a general rule, the historiography sustains that after 1275 the military orders fell into the hands of the nobility, who despoiled them of their lands and utilised them in their civil wars, with a concomitant weakening of their dedication to combating Islam. Such a reading is not only an extreme simplification —it is also so wide of the mark that one is hard put, in light of the documents, to understand why it should still hold favour with numerous historians. That the military orders were beset by numerous difficulties following the conquest of Baetic Andalusia is undeniable. The situation of general crisis then affecting the entire kingdom sapped the strength of the system on which the initial expansion of these institutions was founded, which in turn depended largely on their military activities. The change is an important one, and there is no denying its existence; but if one interprets it in terms of decline, one is liable not to understand and one may fail to perceive the effort made by the military orders to adapt to the new circumstances. In fact there is nothing to suggest that following the fall of Seville the orders broke faith with their mission to combat Islam. The breakdown of the Castilian advance wrought no reversal of their commitment; it was assuredly affected by the change in the character of the frontier war, but it seems to have been strengthened by the adoption of a defensive strategy. The military outlay of the Orders was such that, constantly in search of new sources of revenue, from the mid-13th century on they were forced to undertake a profound reorganisation of the system of exploitation of their domains, moving from their original extensive model to activities specifically for profit, within the framework —which became generalised there after— of the encomienda. While perfectly adapted to its purpose, for this mutation to be successful the military orders had to relate closely to the nobility, without whose assistance such a reform would have failed. The first sign of this new proximity was an increase in the relative weight of recruitment among the nobility, which although never exclusive before the end of the 14th century, did signal an even closer merging of interests between the military orders and the aristocracy. By means of this merger, the orders Consolidated their power in Castilian society in exchange for outright support from the dominant social group in its drive to control the nascent State.

6Thus, from the second half of the 13th century on, the military orders enhanced their scope of action on the Castilian political stage. This brought them into collision with the monarchy, which was anxious to impose its power on all areas of jurisdiction in a process that came to be known as the birth of the modem State. It is these relations, which from the 16th century on have attracted most historiographic interest in the military orders of the late Middle Ages, that the third part of the book addresses. Here, taking the opposite view from most other historians, the author attempts to explain the cleaving of the masters of the Spanish militias to the Spanish Crown in the reign of Charles the fifth not as marking the genesis of a new relationship but rather as the culmination of a process of intervention embarked on by the monarchy two hundred years earlier. Growing from the mid-13th century in Castile, royal control over the military orders effected a profound transformation in them in less than a century. Gradually edged out of the papal orbit, the orders became still more closely bound to the service of the monarchy, which, starting in the reign of Alfonso X, sought to exercise judicial and fiscal control over their domains. The interventions whereby the monarchs pursued this objective were more regular than the literature has generally allowed, tending to overstate the importance of a time of political turbulence which nonetheless ought not to blind us to the forging of a veritable relationship of de facto patronage. Indeed, in order to assure control over the military orders, starting in the second half of the 13th century the sovereigns sought to place at their heads dignitaries who were entirely in thrall to them. This does not necessarily mean that royal control was imposed to the detriment of the orders: in fact, not only did they retain their role in Castilian political society, but they actually tended to grow thanks to their direct link with the king, who became their passport to prestigious and lucrative offices. Comfortable by the sovereign’s grace in the control they exercised over their institutions, and shielded in their lordly prerogatives at a time when these were threatened by economic crisis, the masters of the military orders were quick to grasp the benefits that bowing to kingly tutelage brought them —and significantly enough, no insurrection challenged that tutelage after the early years of the personal reign of Alfonso XI.

7In this transformation the military orders undeniably lost an essential part of their identity. It is equally true, nonetheless, that this change enabled them to adapt fully to a profoundly different context from that which had seen their genesis two hundred years earlier. Rather than a decline —a term imposed by historiographic inertia— It would be more appropriate to speak of an adjustment, a word that more aptly describes the evolution of the military orders in the kingdom of Castile after the middle decades of the 13th century.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2004

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