Daniel M.G. Gerrard, The Church at War: The Military Activities of Bishops, Abbots and Other Clergy in England (Bachrach)

Daniel M.G. Gerrard

The Church at War: The Military Activities of Bishops, Abbots and Other Clergy in England, c. 900-1200

(Routledge, 2016) pp. xiv and 320, $149.95

Gerrard Church and War

The problem of the involvement of clerics in war exercised ecclesiastical authorities as well as secular observers from the early church up through the Reformation, largely because priests as well as higher ecclesiastical magnates were directly involved in every aspect of military conflict throughout this entire period. As a consequence, militant clergy appear frequently in legal, historiographical, and literary texts. Not surprisingly they have received attention in studies of canon law, histories of the crusades, biographies of prominent prelates, and also in general histories of medieval warfare. For the most part, however, fighting clergy have been tangential to such studies, as contrasted with those ecclesiastical office holders whose secular responsibilities, such as servitium debitum, required them to provide fighting men, supplies, and other sinews of war, for military campaigns. Over the last several years, however, the participation of clerics directly in military campaigns as combatants has been the focus of several substantial studies. These include Lawrence Duggan’s Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity (Woodbridge, 2013), Craig M. Nakashian, Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England 1000-1250: Theory and Reality (Woodbridge, 2016), and the study under review here by Daniel Gerrard, whose focus is on the roles played by prelates and lower clergy in military operations within England under Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and Angevin kings.

In examining the participation of clerics, including abbots, as combatants as well as military commanders in England from 900-1200, Gerrard seeks to overturn what he describes as a simplistic model of ecclesiastical magnates being compelled to serve two masters, and particularly the idea that providing soldiers on the basis of territorial obligation was licit, but that actual participation on campaign as illicit. He also seeks to show that the service of ecclesiastical magnates was different in kind from that provided by secular magnates. The volume is divided into three parts, comprising eight chapters, bracketed by a lengthy introduction and brief conclusion that revisits the main arguments of each of the chapters. Each of the individual chapters also is provided with an introduction and helpful conclusion that offer a summary of the main arguments.

The introduction provides a brief but useful treatment of previous scholarly approaches to the question of militant clerics, properly observing that this topic has received considerably more attention with respect to Germany than to other regions of Europe, including England. The author then offers a précis of the arguments that will be made in the body of the book, with a particular focus on the treatment of militant clergy in canon law.

Part 1 of the text comprises a single chapter, which largely consists of an annotated list of examples of clergy participating in military operations, as both commanders and combatants from the early ninth century up through the end of the twelfth century. The purpose of this chapter, as the author explains, is to demonstrate the broad participation of clerics, at a variety of ranks, in military operations in order to justify further investigation of this topic. The examples largely are drawn from narrative sources, although the author does draw upon some epistolary evidence as well.

Part 2 consists of four chapters (2-5) and considers the nature of clerical participation in war through the prism of the provision of fighting men for campaigns, the holding of fortifications and commanding garrisons, the use of spiritual weapons in the context of secular warfare, and the service of clerics as military commanders in the field, holding powers delegated by the king. Gerrard deals with the first of these issues in chapter two, covering the well-trodden ground that English bishops and abbots under the Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings owed troops for the lands that they held. Most of what Gerrard discusses in this chapter will be familiar to specialists in military history. However, he does provide a more detailed discussion of the difficulties encountered by ecclesiastical magnates in mobilizing their men for war than one usually encounters in general military histories. In addition, Gerrard is able to demonstrate that there was an office of the constable, employed by all bishops and most abbots, to command ecclesiastical contingents on campaign. Unfortunately, in this chapter and throughout the text, Gerrard insists on using the anachronistic term knight to designate the fighting men who served in ecclesiastical contingents.

Gerrard’s goal in chapter three is to challenge the idea that castle tenure by ecclesiastical magnates was due simply to their status as landlords. He emphasizes, instead, that most prelates held castles in the context of their role as military commanders on campaign. One can certainly agree with Gerrard that bishops regularly held castles as a result of the exigencies of particular military operations. However, it would appear from the examples provided by Gerrard that from the Norman conquest onward bishops held and built fortifications because of their status as great magnates, and were no different in this context from secular magnates. As such, it is difficult to see how the information presented in this chapter allows the conclusion that we should not see military clerics behaving as barons (p.4).

In chapter four, Gerrard turns to the question of the spiritual power of clerics on campaign. In establishing the historiographical context for his focus on the spiritual weapons of clerics in war, Gerrard asserts incorrectly that this topic has received only limited attention from scholars. He also incorrectly identifies the first clear statement of the requirement for military units to have chaplains capable of hearing confessions to the mid-ninth century forger known to scholars as Benedict the Levite. In fact, this requirement was established by the Carolingian mayor of the palace Carloman in the concilium Germanicum and subsequent capitulary in 742. Among the spiritual weapons discussed by Gerrard are liturgies and sacred banners. He argues that the spiritual powers of clerics were perceived by contemporaries as efficacious in gaining divine support up to the period of the “anarchy” of King Stephen’s reign, but then failed. Gerrard suggests that the perceived efficacy of this spiritual power regenerated in the later twelfth century. It is certainly the case, as Gerrard indicates, that English kings in the period after Henry II’s accession employed clergy for hearing confessions on the battlefield, giving sermons in support of military operations, and leading prayers to gain divine intercession. However, the information provided by Gerrard does not support his conclusion about a general collapse in the perceived efficacy of spiritual weapons during Stephen’s reign. The main source employed here is a comment in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that Christ and the saints slept during the civil war, in the context of a statement that the curses of bishops of looters did not bother the latter because they were cursed anyway. But this example, and other presented to show the ostensible collapse of the value of spiritual weapons on campaign do not actually deal with the kinds of spiritual weapons on campaign that Gerrard mentions earlier in the chapter, such as intercessory prayers and sacred banners.

The fifth chapter, like chapters two and three, provides a brief survey of clerical participation in military campaigns, in this case from the perspective of military command. Here, once again, Gerrard seeks to challenge what he claims is a historiographical tendency simply to see prelates as the providers of troops to be commanded by other, secular magnates. Gerrard correctly points out that the decision of the king to appoint a particular prelate to command an army in the field or to lead the defense of a region depended upon that bishop’s suitability for this task. What Gerrard leaves unsaid is that the same reality applies to the king’s decision to assign these responsibilities to a secular magnate.

Part 3 of the volume includes chapters six through eight, that are focused in turn on canonical, political and judicial, and finally narrative responses to clerical participation in military campaigns. In his discussion of canon law, which is the most substantial chapter in the volume, Gerrard emphasizes the expansion of the production of legal texts and commentaries during the period investigated in his study. He points out that there is a great diversity of opinion in collections of canon law regarding clerical militancy, but the information gathered in this chapter makes clear that armsbearing by clerics and participation in military campaigns in a secular role almost always is seen as illicit.

In chapter seven, Gerrard turns to his central thesis that the provision of troops for campaigns was far less important than normally presented by scholars, and that the actual participation by prelates on campaign, particularly during periods of crisis, was of central importance. What Gerrard means by this is that royal preferment of ecclesiastical magnates was due, in large part, to their loyal service in military operations. To this point, Gerrard provides a number of examples of English kings rewarding prelates for their success as military commanders. He concludes, therefore, that military service to the king was not, in itself, understood as antithetical to a prelate’s clerical status. As a corollary to this point, Gerrard points out that there were objections by the papacy and by prelates within England to punishing bishops and other ecclesiastical office holders for engaging in rebellion against the king on the basis that a secular ruler ought not to punish a cleric. However, rulers including William I and William II, and even Stephen, routinely stripped rebellious prelates of their offices.

The final chapter considers the treatment in narrative sources of militant clerics. Here Gerrard identifies a nuanced approach to clerical participation in military campaigns. Overall, when clerics fulfill their pastoral roles, this is depicted positively by the authors of narrative sources. Conversely, when clerics are shown to be arrogant, worldly, or seeking earthly benefits, this behavior is depicted quite negatively. Perhaps not surprisingly in light of the fact that kings rewarded episcopal military commanders, narrative sources generally are positive about clerics on the battlefield if they are understood to be fighting on behalf of their king and the public good. One final conclusion drawn by Gerrard is that even those authors who demonstrate a familiarity with canon law, do not refer to legal precedent when criticizing clerics for bearing arms and shedding blood.

The volume is rounded out with five appendices that cover in turn: Early Canonical Prohibitions and Restrictions, Papal Decretals before Gratian, Eleventh-Century Conciliar Prohibitions, Anglo-Saxon Sources, and Anglo-Norman Sources. There are also four tables of: Constables and Marshals in Episcopal Service, Castles Controlled by Prelates, Fortified Churches, and the Terms of Service of Oswald’s Tenants. The text is equipped with a substantial apparatus of end notes following each chapter, an index, and a bibliography divided between sources and scholarly works.

Overall, this volume helps to address the lacuna in scholarly studies dealing with the interstices of ecclesiastical and military history. Gerrard certainly is correct to emphasize the many roles that clerics played on military campaign other than merely providing contingents for service. However, the second premise of this study, namely that fighting prelates were not merely barons in clerical dress, falls somewhat flat. If not clerical barons, what were bishops who commanded armies in the field, and held fortresses as part of the king’s strategy of territorial defense? Rather more interesting is the question of why English kings were comfortable with their bishops shedding blood, and promoted and rewarded them for this service when the overwhelming verdict of canon law was that such behavior was illicit. Gerrard hints at an answer to this question in his final chapter, when he observes that service to the king appears to trump any concerns about clerical armsbearing among the authors of narrative sources. But what is missing is a clear understanding of the distinction between canon law as an exposition of the views of a particular type of church reform, and the broader acceptance of some types of clerical armsbearing among both the laity and broad sections of ecclesiastical hierarchy. In short, not everyone agreed that clerics could not fight, so long as they fought for the right reasons.

David S. Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

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