Jun 29, 2017 Print this article

Knights Who Protected Pilgrims: The Order of Saint James of Altopascio

Often when thinking of military orders, images of white-clad warriors galloping through the rocky deserts of the Middle East come to mind. This article, rather than treating on those noble warriors who trekked to foreign lands and freely gave their lives in defense of the Faith, will deal with the military Order of Saint James of Altopascio. Unlike the Caballeros of Calatrava or the Teutonic crusaders of the Baltics, this order of knights turned their swords to defend the faithful and heal the sick within the borders of Christendom.

Founded in the late 11th century under unclear circumstances, the little-known Order of Saint James of Altopascio was one of the first religious institutions to combine monastic life with a warrior vocation. Due to their early demise, much of their history remains obscure. Originally, most scholars believed them to be an order of bridge-builders, perhaps even the legendary one founded by St. Benézet. This is not the case, however. Their purpose was that of hospitaller-police.

Foundation and Formation

Contrary to the black legend perpetuated by maligners of the Middle Ages, the Catholic knight was not only a man who pledged himself to fight the enemies of Christendom, but he was also someone who spent himself in the service of others to a heroic degree. It was for this reason that the initial “choir of twelve” fratres came together to form the Order of Altopascio. Intent on providing services and care to pilgrims traveling through Tuscany (likely on the famous Camino de Santiago), they were first structured as an order of hospitallers, similar to that of the Knights of Saint John.

Sources indicate that they followed an offshoot of the rule of St. Augustine and that the members of the order donned clothing emblazoned with the Greek letter “Tau”, the symbol of the order, which explains why they are sometimes referred to as the Knights of Tau. Life in the order was intense. Private property was voluntarily surrendered to the community. Infractions to the rule were treated harshly, with punishments ranging from penances lasting one week to forty days and even public flogging at the hands of all the brothers of the house.

Although primarily lay, Sacraments were provided by priests who were either members of the Order themselves or outside chaplains attached to the chivalric institution. In the event of the death of a member, he would be perpetually prayed for on the anniversary of his passing and Masses would be offered by one of those priests for a period of thirty days for the repose of his soul. If, however, it was discovered after his death that he had violated the rule and concealed it from his brothers, this was all forfeited.

The motherhouse of the Order was known as the Hospital of Saint James of Altopascio, from whence it derives its name. There they cared for travelers who had fallen ill or were injured on their journey. So devoted were they to the patients under their care that the brothers of the Order and the servitors (workers who were not fully-professed members) referred to the patients as their masters. Each night they rang a bell so that weary wanderers might find evening lodging. Additionally, they made it a point to remove all tolls from roads under their control so that pilgrims might pass freely. From this deep spirit of charity sprang great combativeness.

Protectors of the Pilgrims

At that time the woods surrounding the roads were filled with “dangerous beasts and still more savage men.” These creatures would often prey on unsuspecting faithful who dotted the roads. Many unfortunate travelers would end up either dead or on a bed in the hospital of Saint James. The hospitallers, seeing the plight of the pilgrims, resolved to expand their efforts to include the safeguarding of those traveling on the Via Francesco, an Italian stretch of the Way of St. James.

As their mission shifted, so did their structure. Rather than continuing to function as a standard order of hospitallers, they adopted elements of military formation. The Rector of the Order began using titles such as “master, Custos, Warden and Lord.” Many of the professed brothers under his command styled themselves as cavalieri (knight). Their hospitals were staffed primarily with servitors, save a select few specialized monks.

The brother-knights left the hospitals and took to the roads to fend off the foul bandits who were intent on persecuting innocent pilgrims, a situation that brought the Crusaders to fight in the Holy Land.

Such was their effectiveness in battling brigands that many secular lords, as well as bishops with temporal holdings, granted the knights lands and fortresses so that they might safeguard more territory. Thus, the order of humble Tuscan origins expanded its presence beyond the paths of the Via Francesco to the kingdoms of France, Navarre, Burgundy, Lorraine, Flanders, Savoy, Dauphiné and the Holy Roman Empire. To effectively monitor their vast dominions, they organized their mansiones (foreign houses) in a fashion modeled after the relay stations that dotted the roads of the old Roman Empire.

Downfall of the Order

Like many of their secular and religious counterparts, the Order of St. James of Altopascio began its decline in the 1300s. The knights, who had once been valiant defenders of the pilgrims of Christendom, gave in to sloth and worldliness. There were even some cases of the Order accepting married men who did not have a vocation, but simply wished to shirk from their duties in the community, which earned the ire of many feudal lords.

In the year 1239, Pope Gregory IX reformed their rule of life to a variation of that of the Knights of St. John – known today as the Knights of Malta – likely in an attempt to reintroduce a rigorous interior life into the Order. This was insufficient, however, to reverse the laxity and lack of seriousness that had taken root in the Order. Instead of corresponding to their vocation, they concerned themselves more with the practical affairs of their temporal estates. As a consequence, vocations dwindled and they became increasingly irrelevant in both the temporal and spiritual realms.

The latter days of their history were not completely without merit, however.

Pope Pius II, inspired by the successes of the valiant defense offered by the Knights of St. John at Rhodes against hostile Moslem armies, consolidated the Order of Altopascio and several other military orders into the Hospitallers of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The mission he charged them with was the defense of the vulnerable island of Lemnos.

Lemnos, which lies between modern day Greece and Turkey, was essential to slowing the advance of the Ottoman Empire. When the Moslems under the command of Mehmet II invaded the island, the former Knights of Altopascio battled under their new banner. In the end, though, the Muslims prevailed.

Those knights who had not made it to Lemnos before the Ottoman victory were granted back their lands. Finally, they were absorbed into the Order of Saint Stephen of Tuscany and the Order of Saint Lazarus.

A Perennial Example

For Catholics today, the Knights of Tau serve as an example. Through their combination of charity and combativeness, the men of Altopascio reflected an often overlooked aspect of Our Lord; His holy and manly militancy which sprang from His infinite love for God and neighbor.

As the faith is under attack like never before, it is essential to resist the urge to compromise principles in order to “get along.” Instead, Catholics should follow the example of the knights by fighting for Holy Mother Church in all facets of life. By doing this with a proper zeal for souls, Catholics can, in the words of Pope Saint Pius X, “restore all things in Christ.”


Walsh, Michael J. Warriors of the Lord: the military orders of Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War: the Military Orders. London: Folio Society, 2000.

Emerton, Ephraim. "Altopascio-A Forgotten Order." The American Historical Review 29, no. 1 (1923): 1. doi:10.2307/1839272.