"The religious military orders of the Middle Ages are often characterised by the image of soldier-monks, dedicated to combat, prayer and nothing else. This image has been strongly nuanced by contemporary historiography. Today's authors add to the military function of the orders, assistance, hospitality and activities in the economic, social, religious, artistic and other fields. Some examples.
(...) According to the ideology attributed to the military orders, war was a means of guaranteeing peace and security, and the attack was nothing other than a preventive defence operation. For the popes the 'new Maccabees' and 'athletes of Christ' were fighting to defend Christianity. But, on a more concrete level, the fact remains that the orders also had to exercise a role of pacificators, which is less well known than their military activities. This is the result of several phenomena, including the great prestige they enjoyed, their character as universal institutions, and the personal qualities and relations of their members. (...)
The pacifications made by the Orders can be related, to a certain extent, to the accords and arbitrations concluded among themselves. In general, these were settlements of simple territorial disputes, but in some cases the content of the agreements went beyond the geographical framework.
For example, in February 1179, the Knights Templar of Eudes de Saint-Amand and the Hospitallers of Roger de Moulins agreed on a series of rights of possession in the Holy Land. The text of the agreements was drafted in (at least) three versions: a first, detailed one, and two others that have come down to us, which are deprived of any information on the context of the original dispute, but were drafted more carefully, and were intended for the Knights Templar of Catalonia and those of Portugal respectively. The result is two documents that are veritable 'manuals for resolving disputes', indicating the procedure to be followed in the case of disputes at the local and provincial levels. (...)
The role of the orders as mediators is also well documented in the Holy Land, especially in matters concerning the Christian powers. For example, the orders were able to resolve disputes over the succession to the throne of Antioch several times. And in 1255, at the beginning of the War of St. Sabas, they launched unsuccessful peace negotiations to find a solution to the dispute. In 1277, when Charles I of Anjou became King of Jerusalem, he owed his effective power in Acre to the Templar negotiations. (...)
Some of the greatest negotiators or 'diplomats' of the Middle Ages came from the ranks of the military orders. To give just two of the earliest examples, Roger de Moulins, Master of the Hospital from 1177 to 1187, was one of the principal intermediaries between the Latin states of the Holy Land, the papal court and European rulers. Pedro Arias, Prior Hospitaller in the kingdoms of Castile and León between 1170 and 1187, is known to have succeeded in putting an end to the wars between León and Castile. (...) The Knights Templar played a special role in Aragonese diplomacy, which was later taken over by the Hospitallers and the members of the Iberian military orders. The knights certainly formed a minority group among the ambassadors - Stéphane Péquignot counts three hundred and forty-nine in all - but the missions they were given were of great importance. (...)
As far as relations with the Muslims were concerned, the military orders concluded peace treaties with various governments in the Near East and North Africa, but it would be difficult to present these measures as pacification operations. It was mainly a matter of settling political questions or of noting the realities on the ground, as in the signing of the peace of Caesarea with Baibars in April 1272, thanks to pressure from the Knights Templar, Hospitallers and Teutonics. Or in the extension of these peace agreements in 1283 with Qala'ûn. Or in the truces established later by the Hospitallers of Rhodes with the Ottomans. All of which were agreements established in a situation of military defeat or of difficulties on the ground. Peace with the Muslims was seen not as a goal but as a mere instrument (...)
Combat and peace coexisted within the military orders, which produced war-mongers like Gérard de Ridefort and peacemakers like Roger de Moulins. A chronological and geographical evolution can be observed, as well as a distinction between orders. But on balance, a certain pragmatism in the approach to war and a desire to use the order's prestige to pacify the western world, thus defending the interests of all, can be found everywhere. The knights served the kings of Europe and the Latin East, as men of war and as peace negotiators"
This blog quotes freely sections, translated from French and slightly textually edited by TN, from the paper Guerriers et négociateurs de paix: les ordres religieux-militaires by Kristjan Toomaspoeg published on academia.edu. Illustration source