Serious Violence: Church justification for violence in the Middle Ages


Helen J. Nicholson.


This article is based on a paper which I presented at the University of Wales Staff-Student colloquium in Medieval History at Gregynog in 1998. The theme was 'Violence, Sin and Crime in the Middle Ages'.


Introduction: St Bernard of Clairvaux

Violence in the early Church

St Augustine on violence

The Three Orders: those who fight

Duties of kingship: defence of the Church and people

The Holy War

The Crusade



I am indebted for the structure of this talk to Jean Flori's book Idéologie du Glaive: Préhistoire de la chevalerie (Librairie Droz, Geneva, 1983). I have also used the work of Ian Robinson on 'Pope Gregory VII and the soldiers of Christ', History, 58 (1973), 169-192; John Gilchrist on the Holy War, 'The papacy and the war against "the Saracens"', in International History Review, 10 (1988), 174-197; and Jonathan Riley-Smith on the Crusade, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Athlone Press, 1986), and other writers as referenced.

Introduction: St Bernard of Clairvaux

Why does the title of this article refer to 'serious violence'?

Let me introduce you to the work of Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (the man after whom the St Bernard dog is indirectly named). Son of a noble Burgundian family, he became a Cistercian in 1112, and became abbot of a new Cistercian house at Clairvaux in 1115, where he remained abbot until his death in 1153. Bernard wrote a vast number of letters and theological works which were widely read in the Church of his day and he was one of the most influential people in Europe. In the early 1130s he wrote a short treatise for a friend, a knight named Hugh de Payns, in which he made the following remarks about knights:

(this is the Conrad Greenia translation)

'What then, O knights, is this monstrous error and what this unbearable urge which bids you fight with such pomp and labour, and all to no purpose except death and sin? You cover your horses with silk, and plume your armour with I know not what sort of rags; you paint your shields and your saddles; you adorn your bits and spurs with gold and silver and precious stones, and then in all this glory you rush to your ruin with fearful wrath and fearless folly. Are these the trappings of a warrior or are they not rather the trinkets of a girl? Do you think the swords or your foes will be turned back by your gold, spare your jewels or be unable to pierce your silks?

'As you yourselves have often certainly experienced, a warrior especially needs these three things: to guard their person with strength, shrewdness and care; to be free in their movements; and quick to draw their sword. Then why do you blind yourselves with effeminate locks and trip yourselves up with long and full tunics, burying your tender, delicate hands in big cumbersome sleeves? Above all, there is that terrible insecurity of conscience, in spite of all your armour, since you have dared to undertake such a dangerous business on such slight and frivolous grounds. What else is the cause of wars and the root of disputes among you, except unreasonable flashes of anger, the thirst for empty glory, or the hankering after some earthly possessions? It certainly is not safe to kill or to be killed for such causes as these.'

But, Bernard then declares:

'The knight of Christ may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently; for he serves Christ when he strikes, and saves himself when he falls.... When he inflicts death, it is to Christ's profit, and when he suffers death, it is his own gain.'

So when ordinary knights fight, they fight for frivolous causes; but the war of Christ's knights is for a serious cause. So, serious violence. Serious violence, violence for a serious cause, is praiseworthy and will win the warrior salvation.

When Bernard wrote these things he was writing with a particular group of warriors in mind, a new kind of knighthood, as he termed them, the knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Knights Templar. This was a new religious order set up a little over ten years before Bernard wrote by Hugh de Payns and a small group of fellow knights to defend the pilgrim routes in the Holy Land against Muslim bandits. By the time Bernard wrote, it was just over thirty years since armies from western Europe had captured Jerusalem and Antioch and many of the Christian holy places from the Muslims in the course of the First Crusade - a military expedition promoted by the pope. The leaders of the crusade had set up a series of states in the newly-conquered lands, but they were very short of fighting power. The new military religious order was therefore performing a very valuable function, and it was not long before it was being called on to take over custody of castles and take part in military expeditions against the Muslims as well as guarding pilgrims. However, a religious order, an order of the Church - which fought as well as praying, whose members won salvation by fighting rather than through prayer alone - was an innovation, and it is clear from hints in some contemporary sources that not all the clergy were happy with the idea.

Violence in the early Church

The problem was that in the Gospels, Jesus is recorded making various remarks that tell people not to use violence. For instance, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God'. (Matthew 5, v. 9) and 'do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also'. (ibid. 6 v. 39) and 'Put your sword back in its place.. for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.' (ibid. 26 v.52). This all makes it look as if Christians should not fight. What is more, of course, the sixth Commandment is 'You shall not kill' (Deut. 5 v. 17). As a result, in the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians would not fight. In fact, there were a number of famous instances of soldiers who became Christians and then threw away their weapons and refused to fight again. They were then executed for their refusal to fight.[1]

But contrast Luke 3 v. 14 (John the Baptist tells soldiers how to behave - they can carry on fighting, but they must not rob or bully civilians), Matthew 8, vv. 5-13, Luke 7, vv. 2-10 (the centurion who had greater faith than anyone Jesus had found in Israel), Acts 10 (Cornelius, centurian of the Italian Cohort, who is instructed by God to send for Simon Peter at Joppa) - and all the wars of the children of Israel in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God's people are allowed to fight in their own defence or to destroy evil. In the New Testament, it is accepted that soldiers are a necessary part of society, and can be people of great faith. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 7 vv. 17-24, all Christians are instructed to remain the the job which they had when they became a Christian - which would mean that soldiers should remain soldiers. In addition, in chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that all Christians should obey the governing authorities, since God had appointed them. Therefore, those who were soldiers should continue to obey their commanders.

At the beginning of the third century, the Christian writer Tertullian recorded that Christians did fight, but he did not approve. He believed that God's command not to fight overrode Paul's command to obey the authorities God had appointed. Tertullian observed that one of the last remarks Christ had made before he was led away to be crucified was when He told Simon Peter to put away his sword, indicating that this was His last word on the subject.

So there were different opinions on the matter. It is clear, however, that there were plenty of Christians in the Roman army.

The theological position changed after the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312. The emperor was now not only God's appointee but also a Christian, fulfilling God's commands - and Constantine was emphatic that he acted in accordance with God's instructions. If the emperor said that it was necessary to fight in order to fulfill his duties as emperor, in protecting the people entrusted to him and keeping the peace, then Christians could fight for him. And hadn't Christ said 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's'? (Luke 20 v.25).

But note - fighting was only acceptable when it is in the emperor's service, that is, in God's service. Like St Bernard's violence, it had to be serious violence - not frivolous. And there was no suggestion that this violence was in any way holy. It would not win you salvation. However, it would not win you God's disapproval either.

St Augustine on violence

The great Christian writer Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa (now Annaba or Bône in Tunisia) wrote a good deal on the problem of violence during the early decades of the fifth century. In his City of God he condemned war (Bk. 19, ch. 7; and Letters, 47.5) but violence had to be met by violence in order to keep the peace (City of God, 1.21 and 26). He expanded on this in his letters. He stated that it is clear from the Bible that God does not disapprove of soldiers; it is possible to be a soldier and please God. David was a warrior, and Jesus praised the faith of a centurion at Capernaum (Matt. 8 vv. 5-13), while St Peter was sent to another pious centurion at Caesarea, named Cornelius (Acts 10), and when John the Baptist was asked by some soldiers what they should do to please God, he told them to be content with their pay, rather than telling them to leave the army (Luke 3 v.14). (St Bernard later used the same example to justify soldiers.) But war is inevitable in this world because of sinners, who are allowed to test God's people so that they can be purified and made perfect; but God's people will have to fight against them to restore peace. What is wrong with war is not the fighting itself but the motivation behind the fighting: cruelty, desire for revenge, greed, savageness, lust for power. In fact, in fighting and punishing these evildoers, God's people are actually showing them mercy, by correcting them and enabling them to repent and find the right way. So, war is waged in order to gain peace; soldiers are peacemakers.

Augustine did lay down criteria for a just war. He wrote that war should be waged under proper authority. When the soldiers obey this authority, they should be doing so to restore peace, not to seek plunder or power. But wars which set out to restore peace are authorised by God, and so they must be right.

However, Augustine stressed that although a warrior could please God by enforcing peace, fighting was not the highest form of the religious life. The best way to gain God's approval was by withdrawing from the world and living a life of contemplation and prayer. [Augustine: Political Writings, trans. M. W. Tkacz and D. Kries, intro. E. L. Fortin (Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis, 1994), pp. 219-220. 221-9.]

This is the fundamental difference between Augustine's serious violence and St Bernard's. Even serious warriors, in Augustine's view, can only be second-rate Christians. According to St Bernard, the serious warrior, the knight of Christ, is the equal of a monk; serious violence wins salvation as surely as prayer.

So how do we get from Augustine's position to Bernard's?

The Three Orders: those who fight

Historians have established that warriors, as such, did not have a very high status in society from the late Roman period (where we just were), until late in the eleventh century or even later. One had status from one's noble birth, or one's landholdings, but not simply because one fought. (Of course, many of those who fought were also of noble birth and had large landholdings.) As fighting was not a high status activity in society then the Church was not likely to rate it very highly either. This was the case even though the Church recognised that fighting is essential in certain conditions and then Christians have a duty to fight.

What gave warriors a higher status was when leading Church dignitaries began to assign them a special function in society. This came with the concept of the Three Orders, or - to start with, as Jean Flori points out - two orders, one, the pope and the clergy and two, the prince and his warriors.[2]

However, when clerics wrote about the orders of society they did not always mention the ordinary warriors. Those writing in the eighth and ninth century concentrated on the upper levels of society; and when they talked about 'those who fight' they meant the king and his nobles, whose responsibility it was to lead armies to defend the people who worked and the Church. So this was the same as in the time of the emperor Constantine: it was the king's duty under God to defend the people who had been entrusted to his care. But this did not win him salvation. It was just part of his duty as king.

Duties of kingship: defence of the Church and people

In the Old Testament it is clear that the king is expected to care for orphans and widows and the helpless and to do justice. Throughout the late Roman period and the early Middle Ages the Church was emphatic that the ruler was responsible for defending his subjects by the sword.

Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, writing to King Louis the German in 858, sets out these duties very clearly. So I shall say a few words about this. He developed an image of the model ruler, whose power comes to him from God for a specific purpose: to lead the people to salvation. So, Hincmar wrote, he must be a just judge, protect them, keep the peace and wage war against those who try to attack them. Hincmar regarded this as a sacred duty. So fighting can be a holy task, but only for kings. As for other soldiers, Hincmar wrote that a soldier who killed was not guilty of homicide when he was acting under the king's orders (as Augustine had written), and cited the various New Testament examples of soldiers who were praised by God's servants, or at any rate not instructed to stop fighting.

So, according to Hincmar, kings have a sacred duty to fight in defence of their subjects; and those who fight under them are permitted to fight as they are obeying the king's orders. Fighting was, therefore (in Hincmar's opinion), permitted when it was necessary. However, they would not receive additional spiritual rewards for fighting.

In the tenth century, as central authority in France became less able to ensure the peace throughout the kingdom, Church leaders began to look to local lords to fulfill the function of defending the people. The Church needed protection, because it had considerable property. Although monks and bishops came from the warrior classes and some did fight, and monasteries employed mercenaries to protect them, these monks had gone into the Church to get away from the stresses of the world, not to continue with them. So they preferred not to have to fight - that was not their purpose in society. Their purpose was to pray.

Sometime before 942, Odo, abbot of the monastery of Cluny, wrote 'The Life of Gerard of Aurillac', an account of a pious nobleman who had renounced pillage and given his lance to the service of Christ, protecting the poor and needy and the churches against the bandit knights. So, Gerald was fulfilling the role of the king in this respect. Clearly Odo was holding Gerard up as an example of what a warrior should be like - the sort of warrior the Church needed - and he credits him with some impressive victories. For instance:

'Sometimes he was forced to exercise his power against his will, and to bend the crooked men's necks by force of battle. Just as happened with a man of the very worst kind who was called Arlald.

For Arlald held a little fortress called 'at St Serenus'. Like a wolf coming out at dusk, he launched raids from this castle on the dependants of Lord Gerald. Lord Gerald, as a peaceable man, negotiated with this peace-hater. He even gave him little gifts and knightly arms, to change his wild habits by favours. But the foolish and brutal man thought that he was doing this not because of his piety but out of cowardice, and he raged more boldly against Gerald's people.

Therefore, at last Gerald realised that a foolish man's madness can only be restrained with a whip. He collected a band of knights and headed for his castle.

And having won an incredible victory without killing anyone, he had that beast pulled out of his bed. When Arlald stood before him full of confusion, Gerald spoke to him reasonably, not abusively. Arlald stood, trembling, with very humble and deprecating words. Then the Lord's man said to him, "Sir, you have discovered that your forces can't stand against mine, so beware! If you continue to rage and exercise malice, worse things will fall on your head. And," he said, "I will release you yourself without taking a hostage or any oath from you. And nor will I allow anything to be taken from your belongings, not even in compensation for the plunder which you have been carrying off." So having punished the man in this way, he released him. From then on he was careful enough not to dare to injure Gerald's people.'

So Gerald's violence here was depicted as acceptable violence, violence in defence of God's people. But it was violence very much within strict confines - even stricter than St Augustine envisaged. First Gerald tried every other means of dealing with the enemy rather than resorting to violence. Then, when he did actually fight, he killed no one, and he took no revenge. His only motive was to stop the enemy's attacks. He even took no booty or compensation for the damage Arlald had done him.

Odo of Cluny tells us that Gerald of Aurillac had God's protection, because of his religious motives: 'It was unheard-of for victory to escape him and the knights who had given him an oath of fidelity and fought for him. But this is certain, that neither did he ever wound anyone.... he was so protected by God that .... he never stained his sword with human blood.' Odo was anxious to assure his mostly clerical audience that Gerald really was a holy man even though he fought, because he never shed blood. This is violence so limited that it is hard to see how it could be effective. It is still a far cry from the crusades and the Knights Templar, where blood was shed, but the shedding of blood was part of Christ's service and won salvation. Gerald did not win salvation purely through his just violence; he won salvation by giving all he had to the poor and living a holy life, which included this much-modified violence. ('Vita sancti Geraldi Auriliacensis comitis', Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne., vol.133, cols. 639-702).

Gerald had had to act as he did because royal authority was unable to keep the peace throughout the realm. From the late tenth century onwards in southern and central France the Church authorities took the initiative in keeping the peace by holding peace councils at which all who broke the peace by attacking the defenceless, such as peasants and the Church, were condemned. Clearly, most of these peace-breakers would have been warriors. It is clear, however, that secular lords and Church authorities were also employing knights to help repress the troublemakers. Their violence was permissible, because it was in the interests of restoring peace.[3]

But note - warriors were not only fighting on behalf of secular authorities to keep the peace, but also on behalf of Church authorities to keep the peace.

Military service for the Church in the interests of keeping the peace became a political issue in the second half of the eleventh century, when Pope Gregory VII and his supporters urged all warriors to fight in defence of him, against his enemies - in this case, King Henry IV. In serving the pope, warriors would be serving God, for the pope was the heir of St Peter, and he had jurisdiction over all things, spiritual and secular. This kind of service seems very like the service of Christian warriors under the emperor, when they were permitted to fight because the emperor was appointed by God; and as Gregory claimed to be supreme even over the emperor, how much more should warriors fight for the pope, as God's representative on earth! But fighting for the pope was not the same as fighting for the emperor; it was not simply permitted violence, or violence as duty; it was violence that carried a reward. As Gregory wrote in January 1075, the pope 'promises eternal blessings, absolving them from all their sins'. [Registrum, II. 49, p. 190; I. Robinson, 'Gregory VII and the soldiers of Christ', 174.] In this respect, fighting for the pope was a kind of holy war.

The Holy War

The roots of Holy War lie in the Old Testament, where God is a warrior god, a god of battles, who fights for His people. Holy War, in the Christian context, is war which furthers God's purposes; God's war, in fact. If you are fighting directly for God, you receive an eternal reward.

John Gilchrist has shown that from the creation of the papal states in central Italy in the eighth century, the papacy depicted its wars against its enemies as Holy War. So, Pope Hadrian I depicts Charlemagne's campaigns as recovering St Peter's property to him. Leo IV (847-55) and John VIII (872-82) promised that 'anyone who falls in battle against the [evil and godless] Muslims [of south Italy] and dies in the faith shall by no means be denied entry to Heaven'. [see Wallace-Hadrill, 'War and peace in the early Middle Ages,' in his Early Medieval History (Oxford, 1975), p. 32.] But the enemy didn't have to be non-Christian; Pope Leo IX (1048-54) regarded his wars against the Normans of S. Italy as holy wars even though the Normans were Christian, because they were threatening the papal states.

In the same way, Gregory VII and his supporters depicted his struggle against King Henry IV as a holy war, and promised eternal reward for those who helped him to fight it.

So there were two lines of thought here:

  • On the one hand, violence is justified when you are a secular ruler who has been given by God the duty of defending your subjects, or when you are fighting for such a ruler in defence of his subjects, to restore the peace.
  • On the other hand, violence is justified when it is holy war, directly in defence of the Church - which in practice was taken to mean the pope.

The first kind of violence is a duty, a sacred duty in fact, and part of being a king; violence is permitted, but there is no specific reward and you may have to perform penance for the blood split and people killed.

The second kind of violence wins an eternal reward, forgiveness of all your sins.

Between 1106 and 1109, Guibert, abbot of Nogent, wrote a book called 'The deeds of God through the Franks';. At the beginning of this book he considered when violence could be acceptable. He wrote that, in the past, almost all those who had taken up arms had done so for fame or money to gain land.

'They would be able to offer a morally acceptable excuse for fighting if they were taking up the cause of protecting liberty or defending the republic; indeed, in the case of an invasion of barbarians or pagans, no knight could rightly be prevented from taking up arms. And if this was not the case, then they waged legitimate war simply when they were defending Holy Church.'

So this incorporates the two kinds of violence that I have just mentioned. However, this was not enough.

'However, since everyone does not have this pious purpose, and instead everyone's hearts are full of the desire for material gain, in our time God has ordained holy wars, so that the knightly order and the wandering crowd - who had been engaged in mutual slaughter, like their ancient pagan forebears - could find a new way of earning salvation. Without having chosen a monastic life (as is the custom), and without any religious commitment, they gave up the world; they were free to continue their customary pursuits, but nevertheless, through their efforts, they gained some measure of God's grace.' [Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks, trans. R. Levine (Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 1997), p. 28 (adapted).]

This new sort of holy war which allowed the warriors and ordinary people to achieve salvation just by carrying on doing what they would do anyway was the Crusade.

The Crusades

The crusade was not simply another holy war, as Guibert implies; it had an added dimension. We don't know exactly what Pope Urban II said when he called the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, but it is recorded that he promised that 'Whoever for devotion only, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the city of God, may substitute this journey for all penance'. [Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, p. 29]. Here he seems to be linking the military expedition that he was proposing to pilgrimage, a penitential journey to a sacred place. The link was emphasized by the fact that those who decided to go on crusade took a vow to go and received a symbol in token of their vow - a cross. They also received the same privileges as pilgrims: amortisation of their debts, the protection of the Church over their families and possessions and a stay of payment on all taxes due.

However, the crusade was also, as Guibert states, a holy war. When Urban had finished speaking, the crowd shouted: 'Deus lo volt!' - 'God wills it!' - So God approves it. It is clear from the letters that some of the crusaders sent home during the expedition and from the account of the anonymous writer who wrote the earliest account of the crusade, the Gesta Francorum, that those on the crusade believed that they were fighting for God. As Bohemund of Taranto is depicted saying to his constable: 'Know in truth that this is not a bodily but a spiritual battle'. (Gesta Francorum, trans. Rosalind Hill, p. 37). Pope Paschal II wrote to the crusaders after they had captured Jerusalem: 'Christ dwells in your hearts and through you seems to have vanquished his enemies... through the divine mercy, we have seen the enemies of the Christian faith, oppressors of the Christian people, destroyed by your hand'. [Letter 21, PL 163.42 C-D, quoted by Gilchrist, 191.] The war was to stop the Muslims of Palestine oppressing the native Christians, and to recover the lands where Christ had trodden, which were regarded as Christ's inheritance. So, a holy war, which replaces penance. In 1181 Pope Alexander III expressed the concept most fully in his bull Cor nostrum: 'absolution from all their crimes of which they make confession with contrite and humble hearts' if they went to the Holy Land and fought for two years in defence of the Christian name against the Saracens. [J. and L. Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality, p. 100.] And, in the crusade, it seems that the struggle is a constant battle against evil; there will never be peace until the Muslims are exterminated, because they will not stop attacking Christians. They are not just sinners, as in Augustine's writings, but agents of the devil.

For these popes, and for Pope Innocent III in the early 13th century, Christians should not fight between themselves at all; they should unite to defend Christendom. Everyone who can fight should be ready to go to God's aid against the Muslims, otherwise it is the same as if they had failed their liege lord when he needed their aid, and they will be punished. Even if they are defeated, they will have won a victory, for the fight is a testing, like gold is tested in a furnace, a means for God to smelt away their sin as impurities are smelted from precious metal, and those who fight faithfully will be saved despite their earlier sins. [Gilchrist, 194-5]. So, in Innocent's eyes, violence can be an essential part of the Christian path to salvation, and failure to fight God's wars is a sin.


So, to go back to St Bernard and his argument that violence, when undertaken for a serious cause, is a means to salvation as surely as praying in a monastery. Not everyone believed him, and there were always clergy who believed that Christians should not fight. But from at least the fourth century most Church authorities, far from seeing violence as reprehensible, regarded violence in certain circumstances as necessary and part of God's service. In fact, by the early thirteenth century, the pope could declare that a failure to fight in certain circumstances was in itself a sin. Frivolous violence, fighting among Christians for honour, glory and booty - the reasons why knights usually fought - was condemned, but violence for serious reasons, to keep law and order, and in defence of the Church and of Christendom was not only necessary but could win the warrior salvation.

A Templar riding into battle against the Saracens, when he saw the great number of the enemy, began to speak out his great faith and the joy of his heart, and said to his horse: 'Blackie, good comrade, I have done many good day's work while mounted on you; but this day's work will surpass all the others, for today you will carry me to eternal life'. After this, he killed many Saracens, and at last fell himself, crowned in battle with fortunate martyrdom.

(Jacques de Vitry, Sermon 38).


Background picture by Gawain Nicholson.