Another Order that protected the pilgrims on the Camino was the Knights Hospitaller. Like the Knights Templar they had their origins in the crusades to the Holy Land where they worked as ‘protectors of the sick’, which explains the origin of their name.
At the end of the crusading period the Knights Hospitaller became the Knights of St. John. They built massive fortifications on the island of Rhodes near Turkey, but were defeated in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks. The Knights fled to Europe and ultimately Emperor Charles V offered them the island of Malta for a yearly token payment of a falcon. They made this island their new stronghold, from which they successfully fought against piracy and Ottoman domination in the Mediterranean.
Finally, in 1798, the Island of Malta was conquered by Napoleon’s forces and the Order’s influence was seriously diminished. Today the headquarters of the remaining few Knights are in Rome. Their spirit, however, lives on in the form of the St John Ambulance service with the Maltese cross still their emblem.
After the inquisition of the Cathars, there was no longer any prescribed ‘pilgrimage of penance’ to Santiago and by the beginning of the 14th century people were too exhausted from the turbulence of previous centuries and the number of pilgrims declined.
As a result of the Great Famine in 1315 and the Black Death plague between 1348 and 1350, the population in Germany shrunk by about 40%, in France by 50%, around Tuscany by 70% and other parts of Europe were not spared either. Millions of people were decimated in a fairly short time. In the end the population was so drastically reduced that it further affected the pilgrimage to Santiago, which slowed to a trickle.
It is alleged that prior to the catastrophe of the pest the population in most parts of Europe had peaked. Most of the land was occupied by landlords leaving little for subsistence farming and the population could not be sustained. Crop yields were low and food supplies had run short.
The wealth in the hands of a few and oversupply of labour had resulted in drastically reduced income for the workers which negatively affected their living conditions. When decimation caused an enormous population decline, labour became rapidly and unexpectedly scarce. Landowners nevertheless kept wages low for as long as they could, which in 1381 led to the disruptive peasant revolt which eventually brought about higher wages and other benefits, thus resulting in greater economic participation by the lower class. It is said that these events were the onset of the stable middle class that characterizes Europe today.
In comparison, many disadvantaged countries nowadays, including South Africa, lack this substantial middle class and their majority is exploited by the well-to-do. The world is overpopulated once more – with seven billon humans requiring food and shelter the globe is in dire straits again. Despite vastly improved production yields and industrialisation making a huge difference to employment opportunities, but simultaneously causing jobs to be taken over by machines, the uneducated still rely on subsistence farming as Europe had done in the past – or on hand-outs from the government. Sufficient suitable land is, however, no longer available and, should commercially farmed land once more be divided for subsistence farming, crop yields would drop so drastically that famine could be inevitable. With living from the soil not being sustainable anymore and schooling in some developing countries being inadequate, earning a living through commerce and industry is just as much not an option. The poor are trapped in hardship once again. Only education can change this state, which, as has been proven, will also result in desperately needed reduction of population growth.
Today substantial wealth is once more held by a few, disproportionate in whatever way one looks at it. Something, or rather a great deal must change to prevent people from experiencing similar events as they had during the 14th century.