Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Church and Violence

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.

It was during this period, and in no small part to the sentiment behind the Peace of God despite the lack of consistent application, that the individual was discovered.  Returning to Collins:

Individuality here refers to a sense of self-awareness, personal identity, and moral responsibility.  It also involves spirituality.  As Morris says, “A sense of individual identity and value is implicit in a belief in a God who has called each man by name.”

It was Christianity that identified the individual, and this well before the Enlightenment or even the Renaissance.

The Truce of God

The Truce of God, or Treuga Dei came in 1027, the result of another council meeting this time in Normandy.  The Truce of God is after a temporary suspension of hostilities, unlike the Peace of God, which is intended to be perpetual.

It confirmed permanent peace for all churches and their grounds, the monks, clerks and chattels; all women, pilgrims, merchants and their servants, cattle and horses; and men at work in the fields. For all others peace was required throughout Advent, the season of Lent, and from the beginning of the Rogation days until eight days after Pentecost.

More days were added to the list, until only about 80 days per year were available for fighting. 

From William Ward Watkin: the long sweep from Constantine’s reign until the close of the Hundred Years’ War cannot be considered a period of peace, but a period of seeking peace – to include a search for just causes of war and also establishing a just peace.  Early churchmen expressed that “justice is a quality of the will of God.”

“It is the Divine will which gives to each man his Jus (strict law), for it is the good and beneficial Creator who grants men to seek to hold, and to use what they need, and it is He who commands men to give such things to each other and forbids men to hinder their fellows from enjoying them.”

The feudal system, contrary to the stereotype, was a system of reciprocal obligation: the serf owed duty only as long as the noble kept his oath to the serf.  Yes, the serf was tied to the land – so was the noble; it was an agrarian society, after all.  The serf, unlike slaves before or after, could own and accumulate personal property and could leave it for his heirs.

From about the ninth century through the thirteenth, Christian civilization came into full flower.  While every region had its cultural differences, the over-riding clarity and purpose was one aimed at Christianity. 

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas would challenge the Truce of God, holding that it was lawful to wage war for purpose of safeguarding the commonweal on holidays and feast days.  Yes, there was still fighting – this is the human condition.

Yet, it was the time of the building of the greatest cathedrals: a generation before saw Chartres as well as other cathedrals in France.  From Watkin:

We find civilization at one of its extreme high levels in philosophy, in religion, and in creative construction.  No age has followed which approached it.


As mentioned, the Peace and Truce of God only had a limited effect – the Church had no physical means by which to curb the violence.  Therefore, the Church then sought to direct the desire of violence to something more noble: the chivalric code, a code of honor, developed by poets and writers affiliated with the Church.  Listen to the women; they will not send you off to senseless war but to a cause more noble.

Returning to Reeves: The key figure in developing the chivalric code is Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century.  He was a chaplain, or pastor, in the area of Champagne in France.  He writes stories of King Arthur, including Perceval and the Holy Grail: seek the Church, seek the sacraments; this was the more noble undertaking for the knight.

He also added the story of Lancelot of the Lake, Lancelot who fell in love with King Arthur’s wife Guinevere.  He seeks to win Guinevere’s respect by doing good.  These stories were written not in Latin, but in the common vernacular.  This made it accessible to a larger portion of the knight class.

Hence, chivalry was not a result of male patriarchy or oppression of women; this is reading history backwards, from our time looking back.  Instead, the chivalric code sought to elevate women to a position of soft authority over the warrior instinct of the men.

There were other authors and works as well – written independently and without knowledge of the other works: the anonymously authored poem Ordene de chevalerie; the Libre del ordre de cavayleria, written by Ramon Llull; the Livre de Chevalerie of Geoffroi de Charny.  While differing in detail, they combine to show a way of life where the military, the nobility, and religion combine.


It is easy to point to the history of Christianity and find untoward behavior; we are all human after all.  Yet, every time one digs a little deeper, one finds that it was through Christianity that such behavior was tempered.


The Hundred Years’ War, along with the Black Death, fundamentally terminated this progress.  This long war was between the two powers – France and England – that were most centralized, most consolidated.  In its wake, nationalism grew while the commonality of a Christian culture receded.

In earlier times, the king’s powers were limited by the law – the old and good law or the common law.  This changed to a position where the king was the law.  Here is where one can begin to see a state in our understanding of the word.

World War One was the culmination, the final blow, the suicide of the West.


  1. In his book, VISIONS OF ORDER, Richard M. Weaver includes the essay "A Dialectic on Total War" which asserts that the code of chivalry was one of the great achievements of Christendom. Weaver traces the history of "Total War" from some seeds in Napoleon's campaigns to full fruition in Lincoln's command of the Union Army in the War Between the States. The author states Lincoln's firing of Gen. George B. McClellan, an adherent to old school standards of conduct, and promotion of Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, apostles of the new order of warfare which spared no one and no thing, "...sounded the end of the age of chivalry." Weaver traces this philosophical change, coupled with the modern fascination with technology that is often expressed as, "...if you can do a thing, you should do it." This state of mind is recognized in the common Neocon question that asks what point there is in having a powerful military if not to use it.
    Weaver also dispenses with the Humanist assertion that people abhor war and are only dragged into it by a few powerful figures. He makes the point that war has a long and universal history because it appeals to so many people. This is why war persists despite calls for its total abolition. Weaver observes that the modern movement to abolish war has produced little success and has no prospects of doing better. In contrast, the author points out, "History affords at least one arresting example of success in controlling war, not by outlawing it entirely, but by canalizing it. This was the institution of chivalry,...from which most of our surviving code of war derives."
    Weaver admits that regaining the benefits of chivalry will require a massive change in the hearts and minds of our people. But, he thinks it is possible, "The freedom of the spirit is such that, under the guidance of a dialectic and the impulse of a powerful rhetoric, men might turn irrevocably against what now possesses them and decide that the salvation of happiness requires taking a different course." I think most participants on this blog will agree that the needed dialectic and rhetoric must come from Christian churches refocused on their original mission.

    1. I certainly agree with your last sentence.

      I have written a series of posts in review of FJP Veale's book, Advance to Barbarism. The series of five posts can be found here:

      Specifically, on the turn away from the age of chivalry, this post:

    2. "We find civilization at one of its extreme high levels in philosophy, in religion, and in creative construction. No age has followed which approached it."
      Thus you have the thousand year reign of Christ.
      Now, since the so-called Enlightenment has Satan been released from the bottomless pit.


  2. Great post! Adding this to my favorites.

    This period, the High Middle Ages, seems to me to also be the period of the Middle Ages which most approximates a libertarian order. I wonder if this is also when feudal arrangements between serfs and lords were most just?

    The 30 Years War is often pointed to as the point at which the modern state was created, but I think you're right; the Hundred Years War and the Black Death were probably the major catalysts. I believe it consolidated the many French regions into a united France, and probably did the same for England. As you say it was the birth of nationalism and the consolidation of authority under the state.

    "It was Christianity that identified the individual, and this well before the Enlightenment or even the Renaissance."

    Do you know any influential works around this time that might have led to this occurrence? Maybe John of Salisbury's "Policraticus" in the twelfth century? Or earlier? Perhaps it was the Cluny Abby or a Pope under it's influence in the early 11th century? We can certainly say that Jesus Christ points to the individual, but who (if anyone) was responsible for getting this idea to catch on?

    1. "Do you know any influential works around this time that might have led to this occurrence?"


  3. The only legitimate way to spread Christianity is through His word, not man's sword. The uprising that gave us the Magna Carta has lost its meaning today.

    1. The Magna Carta might not deserve so much credit: