“No one laughs at God in a War…”

If most people know anything about the Middle Ages, they know about the Crusades. As the subject of countless scholarly investigations, popular works of fiction (think of the Knights Templar in The Da Vinci Code), and films, the Crusades have promoted a picture of mediaeval Christianity that not only endorsed violence, but also manipulated it to its own ends.

Armour from the Knights of St John, late mediaeval and early modern, from the Armoury in Valetta, Malta.

In reality, however, the relationship between the Church and violence was always more complex, even contested, and therefore can help to reveal nuances in social attitudes which are inaccessible to us if we take violence in the Middle Ages for granted as the natural by-product of a barbaric age.

For example, the Church in the Middle Ages stipulated that its ecclesiastics should not shed blood. This rejection of violence was in keeping with the teachings of the Bible, but clashed with the ethos of a military aristocracy, whose power was symbolised through and maintained by their force of arms. Because many of the Church’s highest-ranking members came from these elite families, they circumvented the prohibition on shedding blood by using blunt weapons when they participated in disputes. This practice is illustrated by the Bayeux Tapestry (that perennially useful source), which depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux (also the Earl of Kent) laying about him with a club and dressed in war gear.

Odo of Bayeux, the central figure on the blue horse, participating in battle with a club for a weapon (Wikimedia Commons)

Another figure caught between the secular and the ecclesiastical life, Gerald of Aurillac, was celebrated as a saint despite living fully within the worldly atmosphere of the 9th century aristocracy. As the count of his locality, Gerald would have been expected to ride into battle to defeat other rival aristocrats. Because of his sanctity, however, Odo of Cluny, Gerald’s biographer, records that his enemies were laid low by God.

The lives of Bishop Odo and St. Gerald illustrate how two men might attempt to alter the expectations of peace and violence which accompanied their social station. These conflicts, however, were debated far more broadly in mediaeval society, and contributed to the evolution of ‘holy war’ as an idea.

On one end of the spectrum were movements known as the Peace and the Truce of God. The Peace of God is often understood as a response to the decentralised and sometimes chaotic nature of life in France in the 10th century. It extended the protection of the Church (a very old idea) over not only people (particularly monks, the clergy, and the poor) but also property. These ideas were propagated through church councils and popular gatherings, and evolved into a later movement, the Truce of God, which sought to end all violence on certain days. Together, they represent attempts to control the violence of secular society on the church’s terms.

Narbonne Cathedral. Although the current building post-dates the Peace of God movement, the town hosted an important council to approve these ideas in 990. (Wikimedia Commons).

On the other end of the spectrum, however, were long-standing intellectual traditions that worked to incorporate violence into the Christian scheme, albeit in ways that were ideologically circumscribed. This began very early in Christian history, when martyrs suffering under Roman persecution were described as the athletes, or even soldiers of Christ. Some saints, like George, extended this military terminology into an entire saintly identity. Pictured on horseback, they were portrayed as defenders not only of the faith, but also the faithful.

Thus, when feudally-inflected ideas like the ‘patrimony of Christ’ and holy warfare became more prevalent in the 11th centuries, these saints were already available as symbols. When the Normans set out to conquer Muslim-held Sicily, for example, soldiers believed they saw St George himself, mounted on a white horse with a white banner, leading the charge. Then, thirty years later at Antioch in 1099, the Crusaders saw St George, St Demetrius, and St Mercurius leading a host of mounted heavenly warriors into battle to aid them.

Mounted warrior saint confronting a coiled beast, potentially St George, in a Cappadocian fresco.

These miracle reports indicate the extent to which military figures had been incorporated into the popular faith of Norman soldiers as well as Crusaders. They offered an ideal that echoed with the life experiences of these men, and directed their violent lifestyles towards religious goals.

Potentially the best illustration of this confluence of religious and chivalric ideals is a stanza from the Song of Roland, a mediaeval chanson de geste (or song of deeds,) relating a military confrontation between Charlemagne and the Muslims in Spain. Although the campaign is real, the details are a matter of literature. Here, the sense of a common ethos, both Christian and knightly, is immediately felt:

“Archbishop Turpin, some way across the field,
Spurs on his horse and gallops up a hill.
With these solemn words he calls upon the Franks:
‘Lord barons, Charles has left us here;
For our king we must be prepared to die.
Help us now to sustain the Christian faith.
You will have to engage in battle, as you well know;
For you see the Saracens with your own eyes.
Confess your sins, pray for the grace of God;
To save your souls I shall absolve you all.
If you die, you will be blessed martyrs
And take your place in paradise on high.’
The Franks dismount and kneel upon the ground;
In God’s name the archbishop blessed them.
As penance he orders them to strike.”
(lines 1125-1139, p.65).

Here, although the Archbishop is not directly participating in the battle like Odo of Bayeux, he inspires the Frankish troops with promises of a particularly militant martyrdom, uniting their sense of secular heroism with a divine cause. It’s a long way both from Gerald of Aurillac’s personal piety and the faith of those who contributed to the Peace of God, but it illustrates the variety of the mediaeval religious response to violence, in both life and literature.

Learn More: 

The Song of Roland, trans. Glyn Burgess (London, 1990).

The miracle of the saints during the crusades can be found in:

The Deeds of the Franks and the other Pilgrims to Jerusalem, ed. Rosalind Hill, (London, 1962).

and on Sicily in:

Malaterra, Geoffrey, The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of his Brother Duke Robert Guiscard, trans. Kenneth Baxter Wolf, (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2005).

Holdsworth, Christopher, ‘“An Airier Aristocracy”: The Saints at War’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, vol. 6 (1996), pp.103-122,

may also be of interest.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Laughing With,’ by Regina Spektor.


6 thoughts on ““No one laughs at God in a War…”

  1. can we include Monty Python too 😉 great read…i,ll pop back in again later have a good look through 🙂

  2. Please do! It’s interesting that you should mention Monty Python, because the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail is another instance of a knightly quest married with Christian spirituality. I’m not sure if there were killer rabbits in the mediaeval versions, though…. 🙂

  3. Although the campaign is real…

    Ahem! If by real, you mean, “intended to accept Muslim surrenders but in actuality mainly kicked around the Christian Basques and did not involve any actual fighting against Muslims”, then yes, okay, it was real. But the Chanson really isn’t about anything that actually happened.

    • Of course you are right that most of the characters and almost all of the events in the chanson are invented, but I think it is important for the understanding of the text to realise that it was written not in the spirit of fiction, but of historical fiction. Roland and his duties as a warrior and Christian were deliberately set in an area of frontier contacts between Franks and Muslims, as a way to explore questions which were far more relevant to the turn of the first millennium than they were to the Carolingians. I think the retrospective act of searching for an exemplar of the Christian hero in the past is key to reading excerpts like Archbishop Turpin’s call to arms, among others.

  4. You have a great summary of such a complex relationship. I’ve read (I really wish I could remember the book so I could cite it) that 3 things were expected of the medieval knight: to be a skilled warrior, to be a holy man, and to be the ideal lover. We typically get 2 of these attributes in a fictitious character and 1 in a real person. Do you find that fiction gives a good idea of what the intended audience expected from their knights, regardless of the way men actually behaved at the time?

    • Thanks, I’m glad you’ve stopped by.
      I think that the attributes we find attached to Christian knights in literature is highly dependent upon the context. Roland, for example, very clearly possesses your first two attributes, but nothing of the third. His wife, in fact, plays almost no role in the narrative at all, and isn’t even in his thoughts as he dies. When you look not at the mediaeval epics, but at the romances, however, the third trait, of being a courtly lover, becomes quite prominent. These almost certainly reflect some measure of audience expectations, but I don’t think there’s a simple one-to-one correspondence. After all, literature is also where tensions are explored, roles acted out, and relationships explored. In this sense, texts which present Christian warriors (wether real or fictitious) don’t always present clear expectations, but do betray the preoccupations of their audiences and authors.

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