The Brotherhood of St.John of Rhodes
The precursor of the global multi-national corporation
by Tony Marciniec 2001
The Bodrum castle often inspires visions of medieval romance, but its sight normally does not transport one’s thoughts to the world of business and commerce. So the reader is likely to be intrigued by the thesis that the Order of the Knights of St. John, the builders of the Castle, may be regarded as an early model of a multinational commercial corporation. Usually not emphasized by historians, this aspect of the Order can be readily detected, however, if we but look at the Knights’ activities through a different prism.
There is no reason to suspect, and no available documents to dispute the claim, that the original purpose of the reputed founder of the Order, Brother Gerard, was anything but care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. But the very name of the first secular patron of the Brotherhood – members were known as Brothers – rings with the sound of sinister similitude: Mauro di Pantaleone. We hope that this probably pious merchant of Amalfi will forgive us if we say that his name strikes us with its similarity to that of the notorious Vito Corleone portrayed by Marlon Brando in the film “Godfather”.
With the conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099 the hospice of Brother Gerard clearly gained in importance as an infirmary for pilgrims and Crusaders wounded in battle, but very soon the role of the Brotherhood was expanded. Having accomplished their vows, unemployed knights and men-at arms started to enroll in Brother Gerard’s organization and a new mission for them was quickly found: escort of pilgrims from the coast of the Holy Land to Jerusalem. We do not know if the pilgrims paid for this protection through hostile territory, but obviously financing was somehow available, probably through endowments made by Godfrey de Bouillon, the first Latin King of Jerusalem, and by other lords.
During those first years following the conquest the expansion of the Brotherhood was so dramatic that a need was felt for a corporate status, and in 1113 Pope Pascal II proclaimed the official birth of the Order of the Hospital of St. John. By then the Brotherhood possessed hospices in Bari, Otranto, Taranto, Messina, Pisa, Asti and Saint-Gilles, bringing to the mind of today’s reader thoughts of a chain of the medieval equivalents of Holiday Inns. It is clear that these hostelries were placed conveniently to accommodate the growing stream of passenger traffic between Europe and the Holy Land and we note that they were also put to use as warehouses for goods. Together with Venice, Genoa and other mercantile states, the Brotherhood now became an important supplier of the needs of Outremer, as the newly conquered region was then called, thus branching out into another sphere of profitable enterprise. The maritime passenger traffic competition of the Brotherhood became so keen that the City of Marseilles had to impose a quota on the Order.
Real estate, however, has always been the principal source of wealth and power, and the Brotherhood rapidly expanded its holdings through endowments and conquest. In Jerusalem the hospice was so much enlarged that it attained palatial grandeur; supported by 124 marble columns, with a capacity for two thousand persons it was later used as a palace by Saladin and the Emperor Frederick II in turn. In 1136 the castle of Bethgibelin was granted to the Knights by King Fulk of Jerusalem, followed by five castles given to them by the Count of Tripoli, and by the 1150s their possessions in Europe included vast estates endowed to their priories of Saint-Gilles and Aragon. By 1170 the Brotherhood was in possession of twenty castles, but now it was embroiled in corporate rivalry with another organization, the Templars.
The Order of the Temple, established in 1120, was perhaps more militaristic and predatory than the Hospital, but both of them were acquisitive and both amassed huge holdings in the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus. Here the Hospitallers came into the possession of valuable sugar plantations, thus edging into food processing, and these estates gave them a nearby place of refuge after the resurgent Moslems drove the European Christians out of Palestine in 1292. The Templars’ riches and arrogance soon attracted the avarice and wrath of King Philip the Fair of France who suppressed their Order, but he profited only partially, being out-maneuvered by the Pope who insisted on the transfer of Templar property to the Hospital. The Brotherhood, having conquered Rhodes (1306-1309) and now free from military competition of the Templars, was ready to branch out into other enterprises. Today we call it “diversification”. As masters of an island fief, the Brotherhood now had to place greater emphasis on maritime activities. Having operated passenger services for pilgrims and having built coasters (dromonds) at their shipyard in Acre, it was but a short step to the corso, the legalized preying on shipping for profit. The naval arm of the Knights was never numerically imposing, but apparently their strategy, tactics and zeal sufficed to make the exploits of their corsairs highly profitable. Booty thus taken was divided in accordance with an established share schedule. Ten percent received by the Grand Master while the captives were either held for ransom or used as galley slaves. By 1462, we are told, a sufficient number of Turkish captives were being enslaved to allow the Order to discontinue enforced galley servitude previously imposed on the population of Rhodes.
Bases were established in the Dodecanese and the Southern Sporades, from Rhodes to Leros, thus gaining control of the coastal shipping lanes, and the Bodrum castle was clearly one of such strongholds. Although partisan historians stress that this castle served as a mainland refuge for Christian prisoners escaping their Moslem captors, the excavated dungeons and the recent find of fettered galley-slave remains near the English tower, as well as its prime harbour, invite modification of these claims of altruism.
With the money amassed from the various enterprises the Brotherhood was able to engage in a splendid building program, witness the magnificent Grand Master’s palace in Rhodes, with sufficient funds left over for other investments. Money deposited with Italian bankers, for example, helped finance King Edward III of England in his war with France.
The multinational nature of the Brotherhood is clear from its formal division into seven “tongues” (Langues) or nationalities, of which five are represented by towers named for them in the Bodrum Castle: French, English, Italian, Spanish and German. The number of Langues in the Order varied with time, and some were more influential than others, but the multi-national corporate structure made the Brotherhood an important player on the international political scene, not unlike the roles assumed by some of the multi-national giants of today.
There were some activities engaged in by the Order that are regarded as totally unacceptable today but which were common practice in that less-materialistic(!) age: holding people to ransom and veiled extortion. The case of Prince Jem (a.k.a. Djem or Zizim in some Western sources and known as Cem Sultan in Turkey) illustrates the machinations practiced for power and profit by the Brotherhood. The story is instructive and tragic.
Unable to carry on the war of succession against his brother, Prince Jem requested and was granted asylum by the Knights of Rhodes in 1481. Wined and dined at first as an honored noble guest, the Prince soon became a prisoner when the Brotherhood accepted an annuity of 45.000 ducats from his reigning brother, Sultan Beyazit II, on condition that Jem be kept out of circulation. Transferred to France, alledgedly for his own safety, Jem was kept under “castle arrest”, first in Nice and than successively, in Roussillon, Puy and Sassenage. Here Jem enjoyed the favours of the commandant’s wife, a fair lady named Philipine Helene, while, in the words of the historian Stanley Lane-Poole (“Turkey”, publ.1888):
“Grand Master D’Aubusson was driving a handsome trade in his capacity as jailor. All the potentates of Europe were anxious to obtain possession of the claimant to the Ottoman throne, and were ready to pay large sums in hard cash to enjoy the privilege of using this specially dangerous instrument against the Sultan’s peace. D’Aubusson was not averse to taking the money, but he did not want to give up the captive; and his knightly honour felt no smirch in taking 20.000 ducats from Jem’s dissolute wife ( who probably had not heard of the fair Helene) as the price of her husband’s release, while he held him all the tighter. Of such chivalrous stuff were made the famous knights of Rhodes: and of such men as D’Aubusson the Church made cardinals!”
The story of Prince Jem and his death, believed to have been by poison administered by the order of Pope Alexander Borgia, are among the most notorious in the annals of that age. They lend credence, however, to the more shadowy view of the Brotherhood as a multi-national corporation that can stray into the most repulsive acts when the temptations of profit are sufficiently high.