[St. Pachomius Library]

The Knights of St. Catherine

The records of the mediæval Western Church and of some of the royal bureaucracies mention in passing that certain knights were "of St. Catherine" or "of the Order of St. Catherine". Although the oldest instances of this usage are uninformative, by the late Middle Ages it was possible for an upper-class traveller to obtain this title by making the famously arduous pilgrimage to the Monastery of St. Catherine near Mount Sinai, or the considerably easier one to St. Catherine's Church, Bethlehem.

The Monastery of St. Catherine undertook extensive fund-raising campaigns in the mediæval West, and was directly responsible for the initial spread of the cult of St. Catherine in Roman Catholic territory (although the monastery itself was always Orthodox). Not surprisingly, several of the documented Knights of St. Catherine seem to have acted as local sponsors for these projects, and, though probably not secretly Orthodox themselves, were at least friends of Orthodoxy in an hostile environment.

A number of separate Orthodox and Roman Catholic authorities considered themselves empowered to bestow the title; the Abbot of Sinai knighted someone as recently as 1956. Sometimes the leaders of pilgrimages themselves would knight their followers as "Knights of St. Catherine"; some pilgrims seem to have simply knighted each other, or themselves. Apparently it was the pilgrimage itself which validated the knighthood.

Tradition, however, asserts that in earlier times the Order was more than an honourary decoration, that it was a real "Order" like the Hospitallers or Templars. Antiquaries of the late XVII and early XVIII Centuries published detailed accounts of the Order. Its knights were said to have followed the Rule of St. Basil (but without the requirement of celibacy; the knights were married men who served two-year shifts in the desert). They guarded the Monastery and its caravan-lines in the Crusader period or even earlier, and were vaguely associated with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, into which the Palestine branch of the Knights of St. Catherine was eventually absorbed. There is no hard evidence to support any of these claims, and all of the historically documented Knights lived well after the Crusades; on the other hand, the tradition does not seem particularly far-fetched or anachronistic, and many historians accept that the Knights of St. Catherine at least aspired to have an organised conventual life in the Holy Land, whether or not they ever actually attempted it.

--- Norman Hugh Redington

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