Post-classical history





We looked for peace, but no good came’ JEREMIAH VIII, 15

The Christian citizen has a fundamental problem to face: is he entitled to fight for his country? His religion is a religion of peace; and war means slaughter and destruction. The earlier Christian Fathers had no doubts. To them a war was wholesale murder. But after the triumph of the Cross, after the Empire had become Christendom, ought not its citizens to be ready to take up arms for its welfare?

The eastern Church thought not. Its great canonist, Saint Basil, while he realized that the soldier must obey orders, yet maintained that anyone guilty of killing in war should refrain for three years from taking communion as a sign of repentance. This counsel was too strict. The Byzantine soldier was not in fact treated as a murderer. But his profession brought him no glamour. Death in battle was not considered glorious, nor was death in battle against the infidel considered martyrdom; the martyr died armed only with his faith. To fight against the infidel was deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable; to fight against fellow-Christians was doubly bad. Indeed, Byzantine history was remarkably free of wars of aggression. Justinian’s campaigns had been undertaken to liberate Romans from heretic barbarian governors Basil II’s against the Bulgars to recover imperial provinces and to remove a danger that menaced Constantinople. Peaceful methods were always preferable, even if they involved tortuous diplomacy or the payment of money. To western historians, accustomed to admire martial valour, the actions of many Byzantine statesmen appear cowardly or sly; but the motive was usually a genuine desire to avoid bloodshed. The princess Anna Comnena, one of the most typical of Byzantines, makes it clear in her history that, deep as was her interest in military questions and much as she appreciated her father’s successes in battle, she considered war a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure.

The western point of view was less enlightened. Saint Augustine himself had admitted that wars might be waged by the command of God; and the military society that had emerged in the West out of the barbarian invasions inevitably sought to justify its habitual pastime. The code of chivalry that was developing, supported by popular epics, gave prestige to the military hero; and the pacifist acquired a disrepute from which he has never recovered. Against this sentiment the Church could do little. It sought, rather, to direct bellicose energy into paths that would lead to its own advantage. The holy war, that is to say, war in the interests of the Church, became permissible, even desirable. Pope Leo IV, in the mid-ninth century, declared that anyone dying in battle for the defence of the Church would receive a heavenly reward. Pope John VIII, a few years later, ranked the victims of a holy war as martyrs; if they died armed in battle their sins would be remitted. But the soldier should be pure at heart. Nicholas I laid down that men under the sentence of the Church for their sins should not bear arms, except to fight against the infidel.

Movements for Peace

But, though the highest ecclesiastical authorities thus did not condemn fighting, there were thinkers in the West whom it shocked. The German Bruno of Querfurt, martyred by the heathen Prussians in 1009, had been outraged by the wars waged by the emperors of his time against fellow-Christians, Otto II against the French king, and Henry II against the Poles. A movement for peace had already been inaugurated in France. The Council of Charroux, in 989, where the bishops of Aquitaine met to protect the immunity of the clergy, suggested that the Church should guarantee that the poor might live in peace. At the Council of Le Puy next year the suggestion was repeated more firmly. Guy of Anjou, Bishop of Le Puy, declared that without peace no one would behold the Lord, and therefore urged all men to become the sons of peace. A few years later, William the Great, Duke of Guienne, carried the idea further. At the Council of Poitiers, which he summoned in 1000, it was laid down that disputes should no longer be decided by arms but by recourse to justice, and that all who refused to conform to this rule should be excommunicated. The Duke and his nobility solemnly subscribed to it; and Robert the Pious, king of France, followed suit with a similar rule for his dominions. The Church was still mainly concerned with the movement in order to preserve its own property from the ravages and exactions of war; and a series of councils were held to this end. At Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, in 1016, a formula was evolved with which the nobility swore neither to impress clerics nor peasants into their forces, nor to raid their crops, nor confiscate their beasts. The oath was taken freely throughout France, while the assembled priests and congregation shouted: ‘Peace, peace, peace.’

This success incited some enthusiastic bishops to go further. In 1038 Aymon, Archbishop of Bourges, ordered every Christian of more than fifteen years of age to declare himself an enemy of all that broke the peace and ready if need be to take up arms against them. Leagues of Peace were organized and were at first effective; but the second half of the Archbishop’s command proved more attractive than the first. Castles belonging to recalcitrant nobles were destroyed by troops of armed peasants led by the clergy; and this improvised militia soon became so irresponsible and so destructive that the authorities were obliged to suppress it. After a great League of Peace had burnt down the village of Benecy, Count Odo of Deols routed it on the banks of the Cher. We are told that no fewer than seven hundred clerics perished in the battle.

Truce on Holy Days

Meanwhile a more practical attempt to limit warfare was being made. In 1027 Oliba, Bishop of Vich, held a synod at Toulouges in Roussillon, which prohibited all warfare during the hours of the Sabbath. This idea of a truce to cover holy days was enlarged when, under the influence of the great abbot of Cluny, Odilo, the bishops of Provence, claiming to speak in the name of the whole Church of Gaul, sent a letter in 1041 to the Church of Italy, demanding that the Truce of God should be extended to include Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Ascension Day. The Church of Aquitaine had already followed the Provencal lead. But the duchy of Burgundy went further, reserving for the Truce the whole week between Wednesday evening and Monday morning, and adding the period from Advent to the first Sunday after Epiphany, and Lent and Holy Week to the octave of Easter. In 1042 William the Conqueror, legislating for Normandy, included as well the period from the Rogation days to the octave of Pentecost. In 1050 a council at Toulouges recommended the further inclusion of the three feast-days of the Virgin and the major saints’ days. By the middle of the century the idea of the Truce of God seemed thus to be well established; and the great Council of Narbonne, held in 1054, sought to co-ordinate it with the idea of the Peace of God, protecting the goods of the Church and of the poor from the effects of war. Both were to be obeyed under the penalty of excommunication; and it was further laid down that no Christian should slay another Christian, ‘for he that slays a Christian sheds the blood of Christ’.

Movements for peace are seldom as impressive in fact as in theory; and those of the eleventh century were no exception to the rule. The princes that had most strongly advocated the Truce of God did not abide by its provisions. It was on a Saturday that William the Conqueror fought his fellow-Christian Harold at Hastings; and Anna Comnena was to note with horror that while her Church tried honestly to avoid warfare on holy days the western knights attacked Constantinople in Holy Week; while their armies were full of armed and fighting priests. Nor, as the Popes themselves knew from experience, was Church property ever immune from attacks by the laity. The bellicosity of the West and its taste for military glory could not be so easily quenched. It was wiser to revert to the older policy and to make use of this energy by diverting it into warfare against the heathen.

To the countries of the West the Moslem menace was far more frightening than it had been to Byzantines till the Turkish invasions; and the Turks alarmed the Byzantines as barbarians rather than as infidels. Since the Arab failure before Constantinople early in the eighth century, war on the eastern frontier of Christendom had been endemic but never serious enough to threaten the integrity of the Empire; and it never for long interrupted commercial and intellectual exchanges. The Arab, almost as much as the Byzantine, was an heir of Graeco-Roman civilization. His way of life was not very different. A Byzantine felt far more at home at Cairo or Baghdad than he would feel at Paris or Goslar, or even at Rome. Except in rare times of crisis and reprisals the authorities in the Empire and the Caliphate agreed not to force conversions on either side and to allow the free worship of the other religion. Boastful Caliphs might speak slightingly of the Christian Emperors and might at times exact tribute from them; but, as the late tenth century had shown, the Byzantine was a formidable and well-organized foe.

The western Christian could not share the Byzantine’s tolerance and sense of security. He was proud to be a Christian, and, as he thought, the heir of Rome; yet he was uneasily aware that in most respects Moslem civilization was higher than his own. Moslem power dominated the western Mediterranean from Catalonia to Tunis. Moslem pirates preyed upon his shipping. Rome had been sacked by the Moslems. They had built robber castles in Italy and in Provence. From their strongholds in Spain it seemed that they might again emerge to cross the frontiers and pour over the Pyrenees into France. Western Christendom had no organization that could have met such an attack. Individual heroes, from the days of Charles Martel onwards, had defeated Saracen raids; and the Carolingian empire for a time provided the necessary bulwark. In 915 Pope John X had co-operated with the court of Constantinople in forming a league of Christian princes to drive the Moslems from their castle on the Garigliano. In 941 the Byzantines joined Hugh of Provence in an attack on their castle at Frejus. This was unsuccessful, owing to Hugh’s last-minute tergiversation; but in 972 a league of Provencal and Italian princes completed the work. But such leagues were local, sporadic and ephemeral. There was need of greater co-ordination and a more concentrated effort. And nowhere was the need better realized than in Rome, ever mindful of the sack of St Peter's church in 846.

In the tenth century the Moslems of Spain represented a very real threat to Christendom. The ground previously gained by the Christians was lost. In the middle of the century the great Caliph, Abd ar-Rahman III, was unquestioned master of the peninsula. His death in 961 brought some relief, as his successor, Hakam II, was pacific and was troubled by wars with the Fatimids and with the Idrisids of Morocco. But after Hakam's death in 976 the scene was dominated by a warlike vizier, Mahomet ibn Abi Amir, surnamed al-Mansur, the Victorious, and known to the Spaniards as Almanzor. The leading Christian power in Spain was the kingdom of Leon. It bore the brunt of Almanzor's attacks. In 981 he took Zamora, in the south of the kingdom. In 996 he sacked Leon itself and next year burnt the city of St James at Compostella, which ranked third as a place of pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. He was careful, however, to respect the shrine itself. Already in 986 he had captured Barcelona. It seemed that he would soon be crossing the Pyrenees, when in 1002 he died. After his death the Moslem power began to decline. Pirates from Africa were able to sack Antibes in 1003, Pisa in 1005 and again in 1016, and Narbonne in 1020. But organized Moslem aggression had ended for the moment. It was time for a counter-attack.

The counter-attack was planned by Sancho III, called the Great, king of Navarre. In 1014 he attempted to organize a league of Christian princes to fight the infidel. His colleagues in Leon and Castile were willing to help; and he found an eager ally in Sancho-William, Duke of Gascony. But King Robert of France gave no answer to his appeal. Nothing concrete was achieved; but meanwhile Sancho had secured the interest of a far more valuable ally. The tremendous organization of Cluny, under two great abbots whose rule extended for 115 years, Odilo, who succeeded in 994 and died in 1048, and Hugh, who followed him and lived till 1109, began to pay special attention to Spanish affairs. Cluny was always concerned with the welfare of pilgrims and was glad to have some say in managing the pilgrim route to Compostella, and to help in the whole safeguarding of Spanish Christendom. It was probably Cluniac influence that brought Roger of Tosni from Normandy, though his own Norman adventurousness may have helped, to the aid of the Countess Erselinde of Barcelona in 1018, when the Moslems threatened her. Under Sancho and his successors the Cluniac hold on the Spanish Church was strengthened, carrying it into the fore of the reform movement. The Papacy could not therefore fail to view with especial approval any attempt to enlarge the boundaries of Christendom in Spain. Cluniac and Papal blessing accompanied Sancho-William of Gascony when he joined with Sancho of Navarre in an attack on the Emir of Saragossa and encouraged Raymond-Berengar I of Barcelona as he pushed the Moslems southward.

The Holy War in Spain

War against the infidel in Spain thus acquired the status of a holy war; and soon the Popes themselves took a hand in its direction. In 1063 the king of Aragon, Ramiro I, at the outset of a great offensive against the Moslems, was murdered by a Moslem at Grados. His death stirred the imagination of Europe. Pope Alexander II at once promised an indulgence for all who fought for the Cross in Spain and set about collecting an army to carry on Ramiro’s work. A Norman soldier in his service, William of Montreuil, recruited troops in northern Italy. In northern France Count Ebles of Roucy, brother of the Aragonese queen Felicia, gathered an army; and the largest contingent was brought by Guy-Geoffrey, Count of Aquitaine, who was given command of the expedition. Very little was achieved. The town of Barbastro was captured with a large booty, but was soon lost again. But henceforward French knights streamed over the Pyrenees to carry on the work. In 1073 a new expedition was organized by Ebles of Roucy. Pope Gregory VII invited the princes of Christendom to join in it, and, while reminding the world that the Spanish kingdom belonged to the see of St Peter, declared that Christian knights might enjoy the lands that they conquered from the infidel. In 1078 Hugh I, Duke of Burgundy, led an army to aid his brother-in-law, Alfonso VI of Castile. In 1080 Gregory VII gave his personal encouragement to an expedition led by Guy-Geoffrey. During the next years all went well. The Castilians captured Toledo itself in 1085. There followed a Moslem revival, led by the fanatical Almoravids; and from 1087 onward Christian knights were urgently summoned to Spain to oppose them. Pope Urban II gave his anxious support and even told intending pilgrims to Palestine that they could spend their money more usefully on the reconstruction of Spanish towns rescued from Moslem ravages. Till the end of the century Spanish campaigns continued to attract adventurous Christian knights from the north, till the capture of Huesca in 1096 and Barbastro in 1101 brought this series of campaigns to an end.

By the close of the eleventh century the idea of the holy war had thus been carried into practice. Christian knights and soldiers were encouraged by the authorities of the Church to leave their petty quarrels and to journey to the frontiers of Christendom to fight against the infidel. To reward them for their service they might take possession of the lands that they reconquered, and they received spiritual benefits. What exactly these benefits were is uncertain. Alexander II seems to have offered an indulgence to the campaigners of 1064; but Gregory VII only gave absolution to all who died in battle for the Cross. He had given similar absolution to the soldiers of Rudolf of Swabia fighting against the excommunicated Henry IV of Germany. The Papacy was taking over the direction of the holy wars. It often launched them and often named the commander. The land that was conquered had to be held under ultimate Papal suzerainty.

Though the great princes were apt to remain aloof, western knights responded readily to the appeal of the holy war. Their motives were in part genuinely religious. They were ashamed to continue fighting amongst themselves; they wanted to fight for the Cross. But there was also a land-hunger to incite them, especially in northern France, where the practice of primogeniture was being established. As a lord grew unwilling to divide his property and its offices, now beginning to be concentrated round a stone-built castle, his younger sons had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. There was a general restlessness and taste for adventure in the knightly class in France, most marked among the Normans, who were only a few generations removed from nomadic freebooters. The opportunity for combining Christian duty with the acquisition of land in a southern climate was very attractive. The Church had reason to be pleased with the progress of the movement. Could it not be applied also to the eastern frontier of Christendom?

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