An international hospitaller order that assumed military responsibilities. Its origins are obscure, but the Order of St.
Lazarus possibly began as a leper hospital outside the walls of Jerusalem, run by Armenian monks following the rule of St. Basil. The earliest charters referring to the order date to 1142, suggesting that it was founded in the 1130s. Like other hospitaller foundations in Outremer, it adopted the Rule of St. Augustine. The first reference to a master appeared in 1153, and for the next hundred years only lepers were eligible to become masters. The Lazarites remained in Jerusalem until Saladin captured the city in 1187, and thereafter the order moved to Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). After the fall of Acre (1291), the order’s headquarters were transferred to Boigny in France.
Members of the order originally consisted of clerics, brethren to look after the sick, and the lepers themselves. Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is a chronic infectious disease that primarily affects the skin, nerve endings, and mucous membranes. Medieval medical practitioners diagnosed several diseases as leprosy, so it is possible that not all of the invalid members of the order suffered from Hansen’s disease. Leprosy, however, was endemic in Outremer and claimed noted victims, among them King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. Perhaps for this reason, the order enjoyed widespread royal and nobiliary patronage throughout Outremer in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The order’s cartulary, which survives in a fragment of forty documents, dating to between 1130 and 1248, shows that it owned hospitals in Jerusalem and Acre, with some small estates and rental properties in the southern part of the kingdom of Jerusalem. From the mid-twelfth century onward, the order received donations of lands in France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Germany, England, and Scotland. The most noted gift was the donation by King Louis VII of France of the castle and fief of Boigny, near Orléans, which become the order’s headquarters after 1291. The Lazarites’ ties to the French monarchy were strengthened when Philip IV the Fair took the order under his protection in 1308.
Information about the order’s transformation from a hospitaller into a military order is obscure. It possibly occurred through the admission of leprous knights from Frankish families in Outremer and from other military orders. Certainly there is evidence for an early association between the Order of St. Lazarus and the Order of the Temple: early Lazarite charters show the Order of the Temple acting as a kind of guarantor for some property transactions, while Templar statutes of 1260 permitted leprous knights to enter the Order of St. Lazarus. The late-twelfth-century law book Livre au roi stipulated that knights and sergeants who contracted leprosy should join the Order of St. Lazarus. It is conceivable that such men carried out military duties, but it also appears that nonleprous knights joined the order to serve in battle.
The evidence for the military responsibilities of the order is ambiguous for the twelfth century. Thirteenth-century chroniclers placed the Lazarites at major battles and reported high casualty rates for the knights of the order. Joinville describes only four survivors of the order’s mounted sortie near Ramla in 1242. Robert of Nantes, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, reported that all the leper knights of the house of St. Lazarus were killed at the battle of La For- bie in 1244. According to the chronicler Matthew Paris, the Lazarite knights participated in the Egyptian campaign of Louis IX of France in 1248-1250, and fought at the battle of Mansurah in 1248. The order’s losses were so extensive in these campaigns that Pope Innocent IV issued a bull in 1253 opening the office of the master to nonlepers, because all the leper knights had been killed in battle.
Evidently the thirteenth-century papacy considered the Lazarites as a military religious order, but one that lacked the resources commanded by the Hospitallers, Templars, or Teutonic Knights. The order received papal privileges permitting its members to collect money and tithes in Europe. In a resurgence of their original mission, Clement IV tried to place all the lepers of western Christendom under the protection and governance of the Order of St. Lazarus.
The order fell into a decline with the end of the Frankish states in Outremer and the gradual diminution of leprosy in western Europe. In 1490 Pope Innocent VIII tried to combine the Lazarites with the Hospitallers. The French Lazarites refused, and maintained the order, based in Boigny. In 1572 an attempt was made to unite the Lazarites with the Order of St. Maurice. This, again, was resisted by the French knights of the order. Both the French and Italian branches were suppressed in the French Revolution, and the order’s hospitals disappeared. The Order of St. Lazarus was revived in the nineteenth century as an honorific and charitable organization.