Christian warriors, mortal sinners
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Christian warriors, mortal sinners

Thomas Freller:The Sword and the Boudoir
Midsea Books, Malta, 2018, pp. 384.

In the space of a few weeks, two substantial books on the love-life of the knights of Malta have seen the light. The subject is so vast, the surviving documentation so massive, that there is very little duplication between them, and one complements and enriches the other.

Thomas Freller, the manically prolific German scholar, is no newcomer to the Malta cultural scene. Author of some 40 books, most of them on Malta-related subjects, he has specialised in researching the period the Order of St John, an area in which scholars are neither few nor unproductive. But Freller has inserted a new dimension in Hospitaller studies: his easier access to Germanic archives and founts of information, almost unknown and unexplored before he came on the scene. All Maltese scholars had tended to concentrate on Italian, French, Spanish, Latin and English-language sources, leaving virtually untapped lush reserves from the German-speaking word. And in that niche, Freller has the edge on others.  

The exploration and documentation of the sexual mores of past generations has today achieved almost cult status in historical research. Freller rests his interest on the higher values of learning, discovery and inquisitiveness, dismissing the more populist appeal to prurience. His scholarly credentials are of the highest order, his commitment to serious research, beyond doubt. If the book underscores the salacious, the sinful and the scandalous, it does that because those are unescapable components of the human condition.

Freller’s book comes with many disclaimers: that it has no political agenda of discrediting an institution as illustrious as the ancient Order of St John. Nor of being sensationalist, or of giving posthumous publicity to an inventory of deeds and misdeeds that were meant to remain hidden. If it actually ends up being a mixture of the three, that is offset by its fundamental relevance as a mirror of the social, cultural, political and ideological structures of Europe in the late renaissance and baroque ages. It is another essential tessera in the vast mosaics that demonstrate man’s unstoppable quests for knowledge.

The Order of St John imposed on its professed members a number of stringent obligations, principally those of honouring their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Solemn vows were necessary, as these restraints violate fundamental instincts like greed, carnal gratification and freedom of choice – a heroic, perhaps masochistic, promise to battle and overcome nature. While the ‘obedience’ third of the formula was more or less straightforward, not so poverty and chastity. Casuistry, rather than rationality, justified the lavish wealth and extravagant living of individual knights: wouldn’t four-fifths of their wealth at death be forfeited in favour of their Order? – that’s poverty for you.

As to chastity, that could be got around too: privacy, avoidance of ostentatious scandal. Si non caste, caute – you don’t really have to be chaste, provided you are cautious. Giacomo Capello, the caustic Venetian observer, turned quite epigrammatic about what he witnessed in baroque Malta. In a devastating aside he rearranged poverty, chastity and obedience. He recorded the knights as poor in chastity, chaste in obedience.

Of course, the standards of institutional morality changed over the years. In the earlier monastic, ‘convent’, segregated-collachio period of the Order, personal standards of modesty and decorum would have been more strictly followed or enforced. But, towards the middle of the Order’s stay in Malta, the vow of chastity started losing any appeal it may have previously had. Unhidden debauchery became more common and less censured. Not that it turned universal or advertised – a number of knights still held on religiously to their old discipline, risking being dismissed as dinosaur prudes. They became fewer, a species threatened by extinction. Lascivious lives seemed to have been what scandalised visitors to the island. Not that the peccadillos of the religious knights were worse than those of laymen. They only seemed worse because knights were expected to be better.

There are records of knights being expelled from the Order after being found guilty of same-sex acts

This book’s richness lies in its relentless combination of anecdotal narrative always firmly anchored to its cultural environment, temporal and spatial. Nothing happens in a vacuum, everything links to political, social or philosophical evolutions. Yes, men and women fornicate because reproduction remains the basic instinct of biology, but a historian is more interested in why and when, what and whence, than in happy endings. Freller never loses sight of that. Perhaps, being serious, German and sober, he sometimes misses giving added value to the coarse humour lurking behind several erotic stories. Boccaccio would have made a banquet of some of the episodes Freller recounts with a straight face.

And this book has an infinity of these episodes, of overt or covert concubinage, of exploitation-pimping and entrepreneurial-whoring, of sexually transmitted disease, of illegitimate births, of abortions. Not to barge into the pro-life and pro-choice debate as to when protected life begins, but the Order of Malta was probably the last sovereign institution to hang on tenaciously to the old calendar in which the year started on the day Jesus Christ was conceived, March 25. The day of conception was deemed fundamental, not the day of birth.

Who were the victims of uncontrolled lasciviousness in the Order of Malta? Virtually everyone from Grand Masters downwards. Jean de Valette had at least three love children by different mistresses, Romegas, who became acting Grand Master when the mutinous young knights replaced La Cassiere, had illegitimate children too numerous for trained accountants to compute. De Paule kept and wept his concubine scandalously in the open, Nicholas Cotoner was devotedly church-going but could never quite shed his old habit of paying sex workers for services not holy.

Perellos flaunted his women and was thought to have died from mercury poisoning used to treat venereal disease, Vilhena was accused to Rome of having an incestuous relationship, Pinto never ran out of mistresses and died making love to one, Rohan and Hompesch both had very visible and long-term liaisons with serious and less-serious ladies. Malicious exaggerations? Maybe, but quite often the theorem of smoke and fire, works. The public considered Despuig a veritable saint because he hung on tenaciously to his vow of chastity. Bizarre.

Visitors to the island seem to agree on two matters: firstly, that Malta was one of the most prostitute-ridden places in Europe, where local females vied for abundant paid custom with foreign rivals, like Sicilians, Italians, north Africans, Greeks and girls of other ethnicities, a horizontal mini United Nations. Secondly, that a net distinction was to be drawn between country people and the inhabitants of the harbour towns.

The man in the countryside upheld a rigid code of honour, ready to draw a knife if you so much as looked at his wife or daughter. At the other extreme were men from the cities, whose capital ambition was to place their wives, sisters or daughters as mistresses of knights, thus ensuring protection, money and advancement. One estimated that three out of four Maltese women in the cities were happy to live as full or part-time sex workers, as common prostitutes or as mistresses of foreigners. The hospital for women with venereal diseases, in Valletta, always kept busy to full capacity.

And gay sex was also rampant in Malta, though official attitudes towards it seem to have remained consistently hostile. The statues of the Order ranked sodomy with the vilest crimes, like heresy or homicide, and there are repeated records of knights being expelled from the Order after being found guilty of same-sex acts: contra naturam luxuriasse. Expulsion meant that they could be handed over to the ordinary criminal courts which included the death penalty in their menu (the statutes barred the Order from executing knights).

The practice of acts of homosexuality remained widespread, and so did the stigma attached to it. Laws against gay sex provided strict penalties, but it was only the first British Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland, who in early 1823 formally introduced the death penalty for “any lewd, abominable and unmentionable acts amounting to crimes against nature committed with violence”.

Freller’s book does not only deal in lust, its supply and its special offers. It also deals with the influence of women on knights in general, especially political. How, though low-profiled, they manipulated their masters and influenced elections. The best entrée to Grand Master Perellos was through his lovers, who had his ear and their own rapacious purses to fill. They became rich by charging clandestine bribes for obtaining favours from the ultimate wielder of power. The book also has a particularly intriguing chapter on knights and women in literature.  Now that is an exotic subject I had never come across before, tackled thoroughly.

A reviewer’s word-count hardly allows it to do justice to a book so fact-reliant and so passionately documented. I have tried. It is up to you to relish the treasures, often prurient, sometimes bawdy, that Freller has compressed in between its covers.

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