Amalfi and the Hospitallers of St John


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Below is a piece on the Italian town of Amafi well known for its connections to The Hospitalliers of St John, The Mariners Compass and the Pandects of Justinian.

Excerpt from The Catholic World Volume 72 – December 1901

 Amalfi and the Hospitallers of St John 

 Amalfi Panoramic ViewAmalfi was the Athens of the Middle Ages. It is believed to have been founded by emigrants from Melfi, the Greek city lying some seventy or eighty miles inland. We find mention of Amalfi in the sixth century; in the seventh it was governed by doges, and in the ninth Sicardo, Prince of Salerno, came there for the pious purpose of collecting the relics of various saints, and, being opposed in his intent by the no less religious inhabitants of the city, plundered and pillaged the town and carried off a vast number of prisoners. These prisoners afterwards got free, burned Salerno, the rival of their native city, and inaugurated thenceforward a wonderful period of prosperity for Amalfi.

The city now assumed a species of independence. The Emperor of Constantinople fixed there a tribunal for the settlement of all disputes regarding naval matters, and the Tabula Amalfitana, or Code of Amalfi, soon became recognized as the guiding laws for all Europe, and Amalfi was regarded as the foremost naval power in the world.

Amalfi in the time of Robert Guiscard had fifty thousand inhibitants. Its merchants traded all over the known world, and established colonies at Byzantium, in Asia Minor, and in Africa. They also instituted the order of the Hospitallers of St. John, who became afterwards known as the Knights of Malta, and these merchants were the foremost traders in the world, for only after their decline did Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Pisa rise to greatness. It was consequently inevitable that at the time of the Crusades the city swarmed with armed men, and that from its port multitudes of knights, with the cross as a device, set out in the interests of the good cause and to satisfy personal love of gain and adventure.

Amalfi at this period was a proud and haughty city, and took every occasion of defying the Norman sovereigns of Naples. King Roger finally made war upon the city and, after two years of more or less constant attack and circumvallation, obliged it to capitulate in 1131, after which he placed it under a species of suzerainty while still allowing it perfect freedom as to its internal government.

A few years later Amalfi had a quarrel with Pisa. The Pisans took the offensive and, in spite of the efforts of King Roger to protect Amalfi, the enemy raided the city and carried off its greatest treasure, the celebrated manuscripts of the Pandects of Justinian, now one of the principal treasures of the Laurentian Library in Florence, the Florentines having taken it from the Pisans in the fifteenth century. The Pisans returned again in 1137, two years after their first attack, and obliged Amalfi to sue for peace. The little republic had thence forward lost its power and its primacy, and became subject to the Dukes of Anjou.

In 1343 the lower part of the town, which had been gradually undermined by the sea for at least a couple of centuries, collapsed and almost the whole of its buildings, with arsenals and harbor, were thenceforward covered with water. Amalfi from this on was merely an antiquarian relic of its former greatness. It retained, however, the glorious boast of having been the first of the dominating naval powers of Christian Europe, and of having given birth to Flavio Gioja, the man who in 1302, by the discovery for the Caucasian race of the mariner’s compass, led the way to the discovery of America and helped powerfully to spread civilization and practically to revolutionize the world.


Further Reading and External Links

The Hospitalliers of St John

St John Ambulance on Wikipedia

St John Ambulance Association Website

The Mariners Compass

The Pandects of Justinian