Knights and Chivalry, a video by Ryan Reeves
Given the warring nature of society during the early Middle Ages, especially in the regions of today’s France, and the not uncommon attacks against non-warring peasants, the Church stepped in to address this via a series of actions and decrees.
The first tactic was to scold the knights. This evolved eventually into a meaningful and formal attempt, captured under the banner of the Peace and Truce of God. it was not an avenue to bless fighting; it was designed as a means to curtail the fighting that was in any case occurring.
The Peace of God
The Peace of God or Pax Dei was a proclamation issued by local clergy that granted immunity from violence to noncombatants who could not defend themselves, beginning with the peasants (agricolae) and with the clergy. The Synod of Charroux decreed a limited Pax Dei in 989, and the practice spread to most of Western Europe over the next century, surviving in some form until at least the thirteenth century.
Further protections would be offered, regarding women and children, the theft of farm animals, protection of church property, etc. The penalty for violations could rise to excommunication.
Its origins coincided with the failure of the last Carolingian rulers to keep order in West Frankland, and the accession of Hugh Capet, founder of a new dynasty in 987.
This was a popular movement, as the discussions involved many people in large, open fields, and not merely a discussion amongst the bishops and nobles. Saints’ relics were brought from the region; the warriors would then swear an oath on the relics in the presence of the crowds. Paul Collins would write, in The Birth of the West:
The biggest threat to those breaking the peace was the use of relics and the bodies of the saints to frighten warlords with curses of from the afterlife if they engaged in warfare.
Those who refused to keep the peace were excluded from Mass and Communion, refused forgiveness of sin, and denied church burial in consecrated ground, which effectively condemned them to hell.
Tom Holland would add, from his book Millennium:
Fearsome were the sanctions proclaimed against any horseman who might subsequently go back upon his word. A lighted candle, extinguished by the fingers of a bishop himself and dropped into the dust, would serve to symbolise the terrible snuffing out of all his hopes of heaven. “May he render up his bowels into the latrine.”
The movement gained momentum around the millennium anniversary of Christ’s death – assumed 1033. Such popular movements, however, did not instantly transform the nobility. Many historians traditionally looked at the movement as a failure:
That traditional view, however, by concentrating on the failure of the movement to accomplish its quasi-messianic goals, misses the indirect impact it had. More recently historians accord a central place to the Peace in the transformations of European culture in this period, a period often characterized as the birth of Western (as opposed to Mediterranean) civilization.
The lack of a coercive force behind the demand for peace may have been what moved European culture and tradition:
For without recourse to force, it had to depend on more fundamental cultural activity: building a wide and powerful social consensus, developing courts of mediation, educating a lay populace, high and low, to internalize peaceful values.
In other words, don’t look to the state (or king) to enforce a proper cultural view; the only way to transform a culture is to transform the culture. This had many follow-on effects: it awakened the populace to the possibility of self-organization; it Christianized the nobility, leading to a chivalric code (with more on this shortly); it gave authority to the Church, giving it space as a major player in the political and social life of the time; it opened up a dialogue on the true meaning of Christianity.
The Peace of God evolved to include the idea that the shedding of a Christian’s blood was the shedding of Christ’s blood. This had ramifications for the peace internally, but also toward views regarding those on the outside – primarily Muslims.
Through its high moral vision and its appeals to communal action, the Peace of God furthered the peaceful organization of a violent society.
And this, I think is key: the society was violent; the Church led action to curb this violence. That heaven on earth was not achieved is almost irrelevant; that the culture was shifted toward considerations of peace is both valuable and without doubt.