Craig M Nakashian, Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000-1250 (Duggan)

Craig M Nakashian

Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000-1250

(Boydell & Brewer, 2016) 304 pp. $99.00


As with the Crusades, studies of the clergy and violence in the Middle Ages seem to be booming these days, and this is an interesting contribution to this growing literature. Craig Nakashian, associate professor of history at Texas A&M, originally completed this book in 2010 as a dissertation at the University of Rochester under the direction of Richard W. Kaeuper. The focus is on England in the period between 1000 and 1250, although a short Conclusion casts a glance toward “the thirteenth century and beyond.” “Warrior churchmen” embraces a wide gamut of activity ranging from involvement in military planning from afar to the actual wielding of weapons in battle. Given the skewed nature of the sources, “churchmen” usually means prelates, mostly archbishops, bishops, and abbots. It seems from what Nakashian uncovers and discusses that there was much more of this kind of thing than one might suspect. The subtitle, “Theory and Reality,” suggests an additional focus not just on the recorded military activities of churchmen, but on the “theory” of how they were supposed to behave. On the basis of the common assumption that the church interdicted such activities to men of the cloth, he notes correctly that almost no one seems to have been prosecuted for it, certainly not as the sole or primary offense. Indeed, the only instance I have uncovered in all my own work is the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot (1611-33), who in 1621 accidentally killed a huntsman while hunting, was automatically suspended from office, tried, and ultimately dispensed by the King for the irregularity which he had incurred. [1]
Nakashian examines the relevant sources thoroughly to unearth not only what they do and do not reveal about the varied kinds of martial activities in which churchmen engaged, but also what he misleadingly calls “medieval debates” about this kind of behavior. Although one can possibly speak of “debates” that took place later about the Crusades and especially about the emergence of the many military religious orders from the twelfth century onward, I would suggest that before then one avoid such interactive language and speak rather about the expression of a great variety of views which commonly depended on who was under consideration and what he was reputed to have done. Nakashian’s presentation of the evidence in fact reveals precisely that—varied opinions rather than actual debates. Most of the time his treatment seems to be full and trustworthy, but occasionally what seems to be his enthusiasm for detecting either warlike behavior or support for it gives one pause. Thus what Odo of Bayeux wielded at Hastings (baculus) can perhaps be endlessly debated, but Nakashian seems clearly to prefer “mace” rather than “staff.” What gave me even greater pause was his curious interpretation of a passage from Eadmer’s life of St. Anselm, according to which “Anselm saw a role for clerics in secular affairs when he deemed it necessary in the service of a greater good, and provided that they did not fall victims to worldliness in the course of their secular duties. He argued that a monk could perform secular service if ordered by his abbot, and that he could avoid sin by ‘doing nothing for vainglory; by doing nothing that God forbids because of any hope of gain; by so carrying out the task enjoined on his obedience that he both protects and preserves the goods of the church manfully and justly against all men, and yet tries to bring nothing belonging to another into his church’s possession by injustice.’” (163) In this treatment of Anselm’s military engagements Nakashian seems to be insinuating here by his triple use of “secular” “affairs,” “duties,” and “service” Anselm’s readiness to resort to arms, but a proper reading of the whole passage in its full context justifies only Anselm’s encouragement to the monk to employ the full panoply of the law in defense of ecclesiastical property and rights. In fact, Eadmer underscores at several points Anselm’s own personal abhorrence of secular business, so it is utterly inconceivable that he would have countenanced an abbot’s allowing, much less exhorting, a monk to step beyond the law to safeguard ecclesiastical rights and possessions, no matter how disinterested and lofty his motives. Such incautious over-reading of primary sources and misuse of words like “debates” do not inspire confidence in readers.

And this brings us to the issue of “theory” and Nakashian’s understanding of what that was. What he seems to mean is the law of the Church on involvement of churchmen in warlike activities, which he believes were simply forbidden across the board. It was, however, more complicated than that. From late antiquity up to the twelfth century ecclesiastical legislation regularly forbade two things, the bearing of arms (arma portare) and military service. These interdictions do not appear to have excluded direction of military enterprises, especially by prelates. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great not only directed the defense of Rome, but urged other bishops in Italy to do likewise; and Pope Gregory VII in 1074 famously announced that he would personally lead an expedition of 50,000 soldiers for the relief of the beleaguered East. These are significant facts that Nakashian fails to include in his survey of such activities of popes and bishops. (He does write that “Pope Gregory VII saw no contradiction in leading Christendom spiritually and militarily” [70], but this is inexcusably vague.) Furthermore, although Nakashian often cites and discusses my Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity (2013), he completely misses the central point that the “theory” or, more precisely, the law of the Church changed permanently in the twelfth century in the emergence and complete papal approbation of what are commonly called the military religious orders and the correlative acceptance by the popes from Alexander III (1159-81) onward (all the way down to the twentieth century!) that the principle in natural and Roman law of the right to repel force with force (vim vi repellere) applied to the clergy as well as to the laity. For these revolutionary developments I underscore in particular the pontificate of Alexander III repeatedly [2], but none of this appears in Nakashian’s three brief references to him. Instead, he focuses on “legal collections” and the discussions of canonists rather than the decisions of popes, the supreme lawmakers of the Church. This skewed emphasis seems to reflect a more general failure, apparently not uncommon among even medievalists nowadays, to appreciate the centrality of the papacy in the medieval church, especially from the twelfth-century onward. Although Nakashian would appear to grasp it in the title given to the second chapter, “Papal Centralization and Canonical Prescriptions,” he still misses completely what had happened in the twelfth century when he erroneously writes that “in 1311 and 1312 the council of Vienne outlawed all clerical arms-bearing (again).” (257) On the other hand, a few pages earlier Nakashian bafflingly asserts in a note in the Conclusion that “Duggan has argued that significant changes to the canonical ban on arms-bearing by clergy did not happen until after 1238” (254 n. 1), which makes no sense whatever except possibly in a specifically thirteenth-century English ecclesiastical context, which he also completely misunderstands and in any event does not begin to explain for the gentle reader. In what is admittedly a dense discussion, I take up in my book [2] what I call the “crisis of c. 1238-1268” in the formulation of explicit canons for the Church in England on the clergy and armsbearing. These discussions , probably precipitated by the issuance of the Decretales by Pope Gregory IX in 1234, culminated in the legatine council held in 1268 under the presidency of Cardinal Ottobono (and future pope, Hadrian V), which condemned only arma aggressionis for the clergy. In implicitly allowing defensive arms to the clergy, this council (like several later synods in England) was only finally mirroring what had already been decided in Rome in the twelfth century and was now percolating downward into the provincial and local legislation of the universal Latin Church. Whatever flat prohibition on clerical armsbearing that had ever existed was now clearly gone. On “theory,” therefore, Nakashian’s understanding and hence treatment is seriously defective and therefore unreliable.

Lawrence G. Duggan
University of Delaware

[1] See Lawrence G. Duggan, Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity (Boydell, 2013), p. 207.
[2] Ibid., pp. 106, 136-40, 145, and 226.
[3] Ibid., pp. 182-91.

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