Between Sword and Prayer: Warfare and Medieval Clergy in Cultural Perspective, eds. Radosław Kotecki, Jacek Maciejewski, and John S. Ott (Hubbart)

Radosław Kotecki, Jacek Maciejewski, and John S. Ott (eds.)

Between Sword and Prayer: Warfare and Medieval Clergy in Cultural Perspective

(Brill, 2018) 608 pp. $156.00/€135.00

Violence and bloodshed represent glaring violations of the biblical and canonical principles that members of the Catholic Church were encouraged to follow, yet history gives us many examples of churchmen spilling the blood of their enemies without censure—some were even praised for it. This contradiction between canon law and actual practice is at the heart of the research compiled in the anthology Between Sword and Prayer as well as the need for greater analysis of historic events that led to these moments of violence. Too much violence or personal glory created villains like Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, described by Henry of Huntingdon as a wicked chimera, “…part corrupt, part monk, and part knight,” while the thirteenth century Bishop Pelka of Cracow was hailed as a hero by contemporaries for his military intervention. [1] These essays address attempts to limit and control military interactions with clergy members, the clergy’s direct and personal involvement in matters of war, and contemporary concerns with legitimizing these behaviors by representing the full spectrum of clerical activity in the military sphere. This wide-ranging work encompasses all of the major regions of continental Europe in an attempt to move beyond the geographic limits set by existing historiography.

Geneviève Bührer- Thierry analyzes two models of portraying bishops of their cities amidst the struggle to fight pagans in the early Middle Ages; first as defenders then active warriors through prayer and physical weapons. This work highlights the power of bishops, especially in Gaul, as they refortified and strengthened cities physically as well as spiritually through prayer and liturgical ceremonies. Micheal Edward Moore also discusses the dichotomy between clergymen seeking to spread the Word of God and protect their flocks against secular rulers’ expectations that they provide military support against pagan societies. He points to several examples of kings and their followers “moving together religiously, because of the demands of socialization” leading to widespread forced conversions as a method of ensuring fides. (59)

Three works focus on Anglo-Norman perspectives on clerical warriors beginning with Chris Dennis’ analysis of their involvement with the Battle of Hastings, specifically arguing that Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, was much more active than previous research believed. This “warrior bishop” had a much more positive view of clergy members participating in war due to contemporary discussions of just war and even early crusading ideals which helped justify his suppression of rebellions and military leadership against his enemies. The justification for more research on warrior clerics is the focus of Daniel Gerrard’s survey of key works on non-feudal military organization of mercenaries, the episcopal and abbatical households-at-arms, and urban militias. He argues for a shift away from the influential frameworks of John Round towards discussions of non-feudal institutions and the “application of cleric’s powers of spiritual warfare to earthly battlefields.” (150)

In the final Anglo-Norman contribution, Craig M Nakashian turns to the twelfth century works of Orderic Vitalis and Henry of Huntingdon to demonstrate the complicated nature of clerical involvement in battle. [2] Orderic, the monastic perspective, condemns clerics like Bishop Odo of Bayeux, which emphasizes his belief that no cleric should personally benefit from acts of violence instead of promoting peace—a belief seconded by Huntingdon. These pragmatic perspectives on violence agree that military behaviors are occasionally necessary, but it is preferred that the clergy avoid active fighting and personal glory in favor of spiritual weapons and political support. In a similar vein, Monika Michalska argues that the twelfth century Casuum Sancti Galli posits that protecting their flock and the church’s lands was a natural duty of abbots—so long as bloodshed did not occur during religious holidays.

Stepping away from questions of proper motives and justifications, Katherine Allen Smith approaches the meaning of weapons in the thought-world of eleventh-century French monks by examining tales of knights rejecting their violent lifestyle to live as a monk. Knightly conversion stories revolve around the pivotal moment of laying down arms and submitting to a spiritual rebirth. Their weapons would then remain with the religious house as a reminder of their former owner’s sacrifice serving as physical examples of an invisible war between the forces of good and evil.

Carlos de Ayala Martinez and Pablo Dorronzoro Ramirez discuss narratives from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, adding a crusading element to the discussion of clerical militancy. Ayala Martinez uses the campaigns of Alfonso VII of Castille and Leon to demonstrate how bishops could be used for military support, but, perhaps most importantly, to legitimize the war itself. Dorronzoro’s work also supports this argument and adds that with each successful push against Muslim forces in Spain, the ties between the monarchy and the Church became stronger. This endeavor was encouraged with series of rituals that sacralized the wars waged by Spanish kings.

Using the Investiture Controversy as a backdrop to changes in Church structure, Robert Houghton analyzes the shifting power dynamics between the papacy and the empire. Italy’s bishops that were trusted to provide military support by the emperor slowly shifted their allegiance to the Mother Church and away from their traditional role as the backbone of imperial power. Using Parma as a case study, Houghton traces the erosion of the military roles of bishops before, after, and during the Investiture Controversy to prove that Gregorian bishops continued to perform military roles when called on, despite the ideological narratives of reformers.

In Eastern Europe, Polish chroniclers were instrumental in justifying episcopal military activity by creating over exaggerated accounts of high ranking churchmen’s role in war. Radoslaw Kotecki discusses the narrative styles of the so-called Gallus Anonymous and Master Vincentius. The former used the description of Bishop Simon to emphasize his belief that clerics should abstain from weapons and militancy, while the latter encouraged bishops to take an active role in the protection of their region through force, if necessary. Jacek Maciejewski argues that both authors used their chronicles to paint a picture of the prelate of Cracow as a charismatic leader as a symptom of a need to present church hierarchs as valuable leaders in a “world of warriors, without, at the same time, violating their vocation” (361). Both articles allow readers to witness broader discussions concerning clerical violence in the medieval Latin West.

Carsten Selch Jensen provides contrasting contemporary accounts of episcopal warfare from Livonia (modern day Latvia and Estonia) that emphasize the empathetic nature of those involved in armed conflicts. Instead of condemning clerical leaders for participating in war, they were hailed by their chroniclers as the true guardians of the Catholic Church and its’ people against the pagans lurking at their borders. Ivan Majinaric also discusses twelfth and thirteenth century discourse on war in the Eastern Adriatic created by clergy members. Unsurprisingly, local churchmen saw war as a way to strengthen Church structures as a bulwark against the weaknesses of the Arpadian dynasty in the Balkan, the threat of the heretical “Christians” (Krstjani) of Bosnia, and even pirates in the Eastern Adriatic.

Anna Wasko focuses on Swedish bishop’s interactions with the social and military unrest caused by an absent king and uprisings against his officials in the fifteenth century. Bishops became deeply involved in these movements and used their positions to build the political support as well as their military resources. Thus, they performed their role as spiritual guides as well as presenting themselves as the champions of their homeland and people by defending the fealty rights of their ruler.

Finally, in “The Evolution of Latin Canon Law and Clerical Armsbearing,” Lawrence G. Duggen delves into the complicated history of Church law against historic practice. Early Church fathers like Ambrose firmly believed that the arms of a cleric were to be for “tears and prayers” (503). Because of this, legislation follows a pattern of interdictions banning the bearing of arms—but not overseeing military maneuvers or defenses. It is a shame that this article was arranged at the end of the anthology as it provided an incredibly useful overview of canonical reactions to warrior clergy.

While most of the sources and examples used are from the twelfth and thirteenth century, this collection provides a broad geographic perspective on different societies’ views on warrior clerics. Each article demonstrates a common theme of bishops and clergy members taking up their mitres and swords to defend their people and position in medieval society despite censuring views on violence in Christian ideology. They paint a complicated picture of the double-edged sword churchmen wield against contemporary debates on just war and appropriate violence. Despite some minor organizational flaws—the articles are roughly organized based on geography instead of chronology—this anthology is an incredibly useful tool for a new wave of research on warrior clergymen and benefits from the diverse perspectives of each of its contributors.

Courtney Hubbart
Texas A&M University-Texarkana

[1]- Henry of Huntington, ‘Historia Anglorum.’ The History of the English People, bk. VIII, ch. 15, ed. And trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) 610.

[2]- Craig M Nakashian served as my undergraduate advisor.


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