Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From Bruno to Grafton

By the time I finish writing this article, I should have put a minimum of meaning into that curious title: From Bruno to Grafton. It's a complicated story, spread over nine centuries, and I'm not sure I'll succeed in relating it succinctly. Let me start at the end: a Google image of a dull red-brick building in my Australian birthplace, Grafton.

It's the local ambulance station. As a boy of eleven, I used to ride my bicycle past this building of a Monday evening, for the weekly get-together of the Wolf Cubs, which took place in a hall just behind the ambulance station.

The symbol on the façade of the red-brick building is a Maltese cross. Indeed, many ambulance services in my native land have been created by a 19th-century British-based charity organization, of an Anglican flavor, known as St John Ambulance.

Now, how and where does Saint John fit into this picture?

Before attempting to answer that question, let me jump back to the starting point in my title: a medieval scholar named Bruno, whose life and actions inspired the foundation of the order of Chartreux monks. [Click the image to access my presentation of this man.] In 1084, Bruno arrived in the Cartusia mountains (not far from where I live), ostensibly to set up a secluded hermitage with a handful of Christian companions. The official tale is that this middle-aged German-born scholar moved abruptly, for spiritual reasons, from his comfortable ecclesiastic quarters in Reims to the wilderness of Cartusia. This account raises certain credibility problems. Personally, I've never believed that story… which necessitates furthermore a miraculous event: a dream in which the geographical location of Cartusia is made manifest. So, what were the authentic reasons for Bruno's arrival in this part of the world? The answer is linked, I believe, to an extraordinary project imagined by one of Bruno's former students, Pope Urban II. That project consisted of organizing a gigantic military expedition aimed at chasing the Muslims out of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The First Crusade...

I've always imagined that the pope had sent Bruno to Cartusia on a geological mission, to negotiate the extraction of iron ore for the manufacture of crusader weapons… but that hypothesis is too complex to be developed here in my blog. Meanwhile, I tend to think of Bruno (perhaps unfairly) as the individual whose teachings apparently motivated the minds of the men who invented the crusades.

This subject of the crusades brings me back to the question of St John and the Maltese cross. Early in the 11th century, a hospital for sick pilgrims was founded in the vicinity of the site of the Holy Sepulcher. It was named in honor of John the Baptist. After the First Crusade of Pope Urban II had transformed the narrow streets of Jerusalem into rivers of blood, this hospital became recognized as the headquarters of an "armed force" of a new monastic kind, known as the Knights Hospitaller, or the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

The order soon became a prosperous institution, with branches—referred to as commanderies—in many corners of the world. In a couple of my recent blog posts, I mentioned the neighborhood of Arles called Trinquetaille. Well, from 1160 on, most of the vast Camargue delta between the Rhône and the small western arm of the river called the Petit Rhône belonged to the Hospitallers commandery of Trinquetaille.

Finally, when the crusaders were forced to leave the Holy Land, the Hospitallers moved the headquarters of their organization to the Mediterranean islands of Rhodes and then Malta… which explains why their symbol has been designated since then as a Maltese cross. Another great organization of a similar kind had come into existence in 1118: the Knights Templar. But, whereas the latter order was disbanded in dramatic circumstances a couple of centuries later, the Knights of Malta have never totally ceased to exist, in one way or another, and their prosperity endured for many centuries. In the neighboring village of Pont-en-Royans, for example, the ancient priory that once belonged to the monks of St Anthony was in fact a possession of the Hospitallers when it was confiscated by the French Revolution.

As for the English branch of the Hospitallers, and its ambulance systems, that's a relatively recent affair, dating from the 19th century. But it's nevertheless a living remnant of the great French chivalric order that came into being at a time when most natives of the British Isles were preoccupied by a more down-to-earth problem: the arrival on their shores of a certain William, Duke of Normandy.


  1. The picture of Hitler with the children gives me the creeps. It never ceases to amaze me that such a silly moustachioed buffoon (and bad artist to boot!) could have caused so much strife and misery in the world. How does the expression go: The of'times banality of evil?

  2. Your comment applies to the post entitled The artist as a young man [display]. I agree entirely. Strangely, at times, I find that the Aryan children have dumb expressions that are no less creepy than the regard of the adult Nazis.