Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jean de la Valette and the Anglicans

I went to visit the Museum of the Order of St John.  The Order of St John, aka the Knights of Malta, is about the only military order of the middle ages that it's sort of OK to like.  For one thing they mostly concentrated on running hospitals rather than killing people, and (in a way that seems unusual for a male order) they emphasised service to the sick.  I've heard it said, and I don't know how true it is, that they were open to the medical skills of people from other faiths, particularly Arab surgeons, who were relatively advanced at this point.  And apparently as part of their policy of honouring the poor and sick they fed them off silver rather than wooden platters, thus inadvertently stepping up the hygiene.  They are supposed to have done OK at helping people get better.

Also there's the semi-legendary Siege of Malta, when Jean de la Vallette and a handful of indomitable knights held out against tens of thousands of attackers, including the whole Ottoman fleet and the frightening Janisseries, at a time when the Turks seemed pretty invincible and a Turkish conquest of Europe was a serious threat.  The contemporary rhetoric was very xenophobic and anti-Islamic, but essentially no one wanted to be conquered by the Turks, and the Knights were prepared to sacrifice everything with little support to defend the vital strategic point of Malta.

Unfortunately the museum, which is in Clerkenwell, turned out to be a bit disappointing, or maybe just interesting in a different way.  It's essentially an illustration of what the Victorians could do with a good story, some old buildings, and an inflated sense of their own importance.  I joined on a guided tour, which I slightly regretted, because although the guide was lovely and very interesting, she said enough odd things that it was hard to know how seriously to take her.  These were only small things and hard to put one's finger on, though I remember her pointing at a picture and telling us it was given by the people of Malta when it had a big sign on it saying it was acquired for the museum by the Art Fund; and she said that Queen Mary Tudor reinstated the Order in England but it failed again when she came to a sticky end -- I wondered if she was thinking of Queen Mary Stuart (e.g. of Scots), but then again I think Mary Tudor did die of flu, which could be described as sticky in a way.  So generally, the sense was of a huge heap of history, rather confused, and it was hard to pick a way through it.

But I think that what happened was this: at some point in the nineteenth-century someone bought up an old pub which occupied the gatehouse of the priory of Clerkenwell.  This was about the only monastic building left except for the Church, which was also bought up, though maybe later.  Clerkenwell had been the English headquarters of the Knights of St John, until the priory was dissolved in 1540.  I think the buildings were bought up and a supposedly "revived" English Order of St John was set up some time before it all kicked off in terms of what's visible there, but basically by the end of Victoria's reign the revived Order was in full swing and heavily associated with the royal family. (They were, to be fair, doing some pretty admirable stuff that resulted in the volunteer St John's Ambulance which we have today.) Queen Elizabeth II is titular head of it today, and one of her relatives is actual head. They have come up with enough ceremonial and busy-work to make Oxbridge colleges look like informal modern places.

But all the actual things you see there are Victorian and early Edwardian reconstructions.  They took the pub buildings and filled them with wooden panels and old paintings people bought up and gave to them.  They received quite a few donations from the 'people' of Malta.  (Was this a dig at Rome, where the actual continuing Order of St John was based?)  They painted up the coats of arms not just of the English priors before the Dissolution, but of post-Dissolution French or Italian heads of the Order of St John, which survived on the Continent untouched by Reformation, even though these heads would have abominated the English church as heretical, probably almost as bad as the Turks. They have nice things that enthusiastic Edwardians gave them which unfortunately turn out probably not to be as relevant as first thought, like the Weston Triptych (from the school of Rogier van der Weyden).  The church may have been quite nice but it was bombed flat in the second world war and rebuilt afterwards.  The twelfth-century crypt survives and is full of religious bits and pieces acquired in the early twentieth century, including two rather nice tomb effigies from completely different places, one of them actually from Spain, and a bit of stone from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, acquired during the British Mandate.

A lot of what we look at in the Middle Ages and think of as forgery can be more easily understood in the Victorians as over-enthusiastic reconstruction.  Sometimes I think we give the Middle Ages a hard time for their attitude to truth when we're so busy having fun with the past ourselves.  And I don't mind it -- it's just that I think that in the Museum of the Order of St John the story is not so much about the medieval Order but about what the Victorians got up to with it.  That would have been an interesting thing to learn about.

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