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The female religious branch of the Order of Malta

Nuns and women but no longer by census

 Monache e dame  ma non più per censo    DCM-006
03 June 2023

The history of the military orders of the Knights of Malta, Templars, and Teutonic casts us into a distant, seemingly inscrutable horizon. One wonders how categories of “monks in arms” could have existed among the religious. Were they really monks who fought - and, therefore, killed - to serve God? One imagines a single hued world, with men on horseback with crosses marked on their robes, swords drawn and assaults on castles, steeds galloping and lances always at the ready.

However, the historical reality is far more complex than literary and film reconstructions would have us believe. Moreover, a significant aspect of this complexity is linked to the presence of women in those same orders. Yet, little is known about their presence precisely because there is a tendency to emphasise the military function of the orders. However, behind all that, on the other hand, there is the spiritual and welfare function, which is the founding element that lies at the origin of the “orders of chivalry”.

The presence of women characterises, in particular, the history of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, an institution founded at the time of the Crusades, and commonly referred to today as the Order of Malta. Its headquarters, known as the 'Convent', has moved, over the centuries, from the Holy Land to Cyprus, then from Rhodes to Malta, and finally to Rome, where the Magistral Palace is located in Via dei Condotti. Hierosolimitans, Hospitallers, Knights of Rhodes, and then of Malta; they are all, in a broad sense, synonyms, that are somehow linked to the Order's millenary history. They are, however, declinations that have favoured the construction of a misogynistic identity, which has only been corrected in recent decades.

At the origin of this story was a twin monastery, located a few steps from the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, comprising a structure for men, dedicated to St Mary of the Latins, and one for women, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. The monasteries, flanked by a lodging for pilgrims and the needy of all kinds, was built thanks to the support of merchants from Amalfi, who were in the East for business reasons at the time. St Mary Magdalene was administered by Agnes, a Roman abbess whose name is all that is known about her.

Soon then after, the Hospitaller Order of St John became independent and developed thanks to the support of the papacy and the many donations of the faithful, who supported its twofold activity of the defence of the faith and assistance to the needy. Other lodgings, buildings, land and properties of all kinds depended on the Hospital of Jerusalem. Donations were generically directed to the fratres of St John. In reality, among the “Johannites”, one can distinguish religious, friars-militia (knights and sergeants), brethren and donates, but also sorores. For reasons of expediency, it was decided at the end of the 13th century to block the access of nuns to the Order's houses and lodgings, where until then they had also carried out practical and welfare activities. Henceforth, the nuns were directed towards a contemplative life. It is no coincidence, in fact, that the Hospitaller Rule, gradually supplemented by new statutory rules, was silent about them.

The Order's convents for women spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Holland, Greece and Malta, to give the “Johannites” a new home. The first arose in the 1880s when Henry II, King of England, wanted to bring together the Johannite nuns who were previously scattered throughout England to Buckland. Sancia of Castile, the wife of the King of Aragon Alfonso II, founded Santa Maria di Sigena, and the first Italian women’s convent was founded in Pisa, where Saint Ubaldesca Taccini worked in a penitential spirit, dedicating herself to caring for the infirm nuns. The female convents were independent of the male domus. Instead, they were integral parts of the territorial structures of the Order, which at a provincial level was divided into priories, which in turn grouped together commanderies.

Sigena’s uniqueness lay in the fact that the convent and commandery, including the men's domus, were administered by the prioress. From the outset, the Sigena monastery provided itself with its own supplementary rule (1187), compiled by Archdeacon Richard, who was to become bishop of Huesca. However, this was not followed by the other female monasteries of John, contrary to what has long been thought, but Sigena ended up constituting a reference in some way. This took shape as an aristocratic monastery, not only because it guarded, and still guards, the tombs of the foundress Sancia and her son, King Peter II of Aragon, but because the dominae sorores, who prayed daily for their benefactors, had to come from the Kingdom’s important families. La limpieza de sangre [cleanliness of blood]. There were also the so-called puellae [girls], who, with a substantial dowry, were entrusted to elderly nuns for their education when still children. For example, Bianca of Aragon, the daughter of King James II, entered the monastery doors at the age of five. The Sigena monastery went into crisis from the 19th century onwards. The desamortización - i.e. the confiscation of church property - and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 scarred it deeply. At that time, a papal bull allowed the nuns to disregard the status of nobility, even though, from the very beginning, non-noble laywomen and professed nuns lived around the cloister and were given the most menial manual jobs. On the other hand, cases such as those of St Flora of Beaulieu and St Toscana, venerated in Verona, were taken as a model to recall the example of those who, of noble birth, had entered the Order to humbly dedicate themselves to charitable tasks.

The history of the Johannite nuns is not a closed chapter. While it is true that Sigena was definitively abandoned in the 1880s, the monastery of St Ursula in Valletta (Malta) continues to host around 20 cloistered nuns today. The Maltese nuns remained on the island when the Johannites were expelled by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. Today, they live off the offerings of the faithful and show great attachment to the Order's history, also because they preserve the relics of its founder, Blessed Gerard, who lived at the time of the First Crusade. In Spain, also resisting the shockwave of modernity is the Johannites patrol of the royal monastery of Zamora, which, due to a drop in vocations, has been sharing the cenobitic experience with the local Discalced Carmelites for some years. In addition and, above all, there is the community of Salinas de Añana that significantly bears the title of Saint John of Acre. Acre, in today's Israel, which was the last crusader bulwark, was the last Christian city to surrender in the face of the unstoppable Muslim advance.

Today, members of the Order of Malta belong to the second class (Dames in Obedience) and the third class, the latter consisting of lay people who do not take religious vows, although they live according to the principles of the Church and support the Order's mission, first and foremost by organizing pilgrimages and supporting the sick. Through the latest constitutional reforms, the Order has formally recognised the importance of the female presence, while also granting women the right to vote in the election of the grand master.

Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Naples “Suor Orsola Benincasa”