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The Knights of St Lazarus

Knightfall has returned, following disgraced knight Landry du Lauzon as he faces new tribulations, including the Templar boot camp run by the tough and uncompromising Talus, played with fierce power by Mark Hamill. While new enemies are afoot, including devil worshippers, there are also new allies for Landry, with the latest episode introducing Gabriel – a knight from the Order of St Lazarus.

The forgotten order

While the Templars have become mythologised figures of intrigue and mystery in pop culture, and the Hospitallers and Teutonic knights are also well-known to medieval buffs today, the Order of St Lazarus dwells in the shadows of history, barely known by anyone who isn’t a scholar.

At first glance, the Lazarites had a lot in common with the Templars. Both organisations were founded in 1119 to provide help and shelter for Christian pilgrims trudging the treacherous roads to the Holy Land. Both had their distinctive insignia – a red cross in the case of the Templars, a green cross for the knights of St Lazarus. Both had strict codes of conduct when it came to eating, socialising and interacting with civilians, with punishments doled out to transgressors.

But there was a crucial difference, one that set the St Lazarus faction apart from other warrior-monks, and makes them frankly incredible. That difference was leprosy. For the Order of St Lazarus was originally founded to care for those struck with this awful disease, in which bacterial infection causes skin lesions, nerve damage and gradual disfigurement. 

Not only that, but many members of the order – including the original masters – were lepers themselves.

The myth of the outcast lepers

Think ‘medieval leper’ and sad images probably spring to mind of sick, deformed people being ostracised and hounded out by society, forced to wander with clanking bells around their necks so as to warn others of the ‘unclean’ in their midst. 

Lepers in the medieval period were often regarded as touched by God

Yet modern scholarship suggests the idea of the outcast medieval leper actually comes from the frenzied imagination of 19th Century Europeans who were terrified of contracting leprosy in the various outposts of their empires. As Carole Rawcliffe, an expert in the history of medicine, says: ‘Aghast at the imperial danger posed by what looked like an inexorable epidemic sweeping westwards from the colonies, the medical and intellectual elites of Europe and America turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration. How had these backward and superstitious people managed to defeat the apparently unstoppable monster of leprosy? The answer, to them, obviously lay in compulsory mass isolation.’

But the truth was that lepers in the medieval period were often regarded as touched by God; holy sufferers like the Biblical figure of Job. In the words of Carole Rawcliffe, ‘for many, the leper was not simply elect of God: he was God, or at least an earthly reminder that, in putting on human flesh, Christ had become the most despised and rejected of men.’

An order like no other

It’s likely the Order of St Lazarus was inspired by such notions of leprosy being a kind of holy disease. Indeed, research suggests an early master of the order was inspired by a saintly figure known as Alberic who, according to a chronicler of the period, ‘ate those things which the lepers had left, kissed each one daily after Mass, washed and wiped their feet’ and would even rinse his own face in the same, bloody water afterwards.  

An army made up of diseased men, fierce and formidable despite their ailments.

Alberic may have been an extreme case, but even the great and the good wanted to be seen to be helping the lepers. The king of Jerusalem himself, Amalric, was a notable patron of St Lazarus – this may partly be because his son, who would one day rule as Baldwin IV, had leprosy. (Baldwin’s exploits as the teenage ‘Leper King’ would go down in legend when he scored a famous victory against the forces of Saladin in the Battle of Montgisard, fighting with bandages around his deformed hands.)

By the 13th Century, as more Templar knights with leprosy were encouraged to switch to the Order of St Lazarus, and as more manpower was desperately needed to secure the Crusader kingdom in the east, the Lazarites evolved to become more militaristic. For the first time, the world witnessed the rise of an army made up of diseased men, fierce and formidable despite their ailments. But, while they had many former Templars in their ranks, their skirmishes were catastrophic and saw many Lazarites die.   

One example of this was the Battle of La Forbie of 1244, which saw the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights and members of the Order of St Lazarus take on the Egyptian army. It was a crushing defeat, with every single knight of St Lazarus killed. More losses would follow, and – in 1253 – Pope Innocent IV proclaimed that healthy knights should be allowed to become masters of the Order of St Lazarus, ‘since all the leper knights of the said house have been miserably killed by the enemies of the faith’.

Afterwards

Following the fall of Acre in 1291, which spelt the end of the Crusades in the Holy Land, the Lazarites effectively stopped being a military order and regrouped in Europe, where – like the Templars – they held property. But their operation was on a far smaller scale, a fact which may have actually saved their lives. While the Templars were crushed in the early 14th Century, the Lazarites were actually protected by France’s Philip IV – the very man who sought the destruction of the Templars. 

Some speculate the Order of St Lazarus was protected from royal wrath because of its relatively modest presence, compared to the epic wealth and power of the Templars. As historian David Marcombe puts it, ‘the small wealth of the Lazarites and the widely dispersed nature of their holdings made them a much less appealing target.

By the 16th Century, two main Lazarite branches remained – one in France and the other in Italy. The French part of the order found favour with royal patrons for some time, before the French Revolution led to the organisation being suppressed and eventually extinguished. Over in Italy, the Lazarites were merged with another order, creating the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus. After Italy became unified in the mid-19th Century, it became the new nation’s order of chivalry to be awarded for distinguished service – much like knighthoods in the UK.

Today, an Order of St Lazarus still exists, claiming to stem from the French branch that had been suppressed after the Revolution, and still works to improve the lot of people living with leprosy. Just as their ancestors did all those centuries ago.