17.05.14, Nakashian, Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000-1250

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David Bachrach

The Medieval Review 17.05.14

Nakashian, Craig M. . Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000-1250: Theory and Reality. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016. pp. x, 294. ISBN: 978-1-78327-162-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

In his biography of Archbishop Brun of Cologne (953-965), the prelate's former chaplain Ruotger offered a spirited defense of the overlapping duties of an ecclesiastical magnate who held significant secular responsibilities. In the case of Brun, the younger brother of the German king and emperor Otto I (936-973), these responsibilities included holding office as duke of Lotharingia, a turbulent border region, where the duke's command of military forces was both routine and frequent. Brun certainly was not the first German bishop to command troops in the field. Indeed, a number of German prelates died in combat during the tenth century. Moreover, the militancy of the German episcopate was not, itself, novel, but rather drew on a lengthy tradition, including both the Carolingian Empire, and its Merovingian predecessor. However, Ruotger's short biography of Brun not only takes for granted his patron's dual functions as an ecclesiastical and secular office holder, but describes them positively, asserting that Brun deserved praise because he secured both the spiritual and physical well-being of his flock.

For many scholars investigating the question of clerical militancy during the Middle Ages, Germany has been treated as an odd case where the episcopate apparently was particularly bellicose and at odds with the canonical teaching elsewhere in Europe. In large part, this characterization of German bishops and, to a lesser degree, abbots is due to the exceptional attention that they have received from scholars, and also the limited attention given to militant clerics elsewhere in Europe. Admirably filling this lacuna is Craig Nakashian in his examination of the role played by prelates in the conduct of war in England and on behalf of English rulers from the turn of the millennium through the mid-thirteenth century.

This volume is organized into eight chapters, divided into two parts, with a lengthy introduction and brief conclusion. The introduction offers a detailed treatment of the historiographical traditions that touched upon militant clergy, noting that they have received some attention from specialists in canon law, the crusading movement, biographies of prominent clerics, and in general military histories. However, scholars, including the author of this review, have tended to see injunctions in canon law against clerical armsbearing as normative in society, and thus to treat militant clerics as oddities or aberrations. Nakashian cautions readers that such conclusions privilege the viewpoints of a vocal reformist trend within Christianity, but are at odds with the actual conception of fighting priests and monks by many of their contemporaries. He also argues against the tendency among modern scholars to conflate worldliness and militancy among clerics, insisting that medieval observers saw these as very different phenomena.

The first part of the book, including chapters 1-3, is focused on prescriptive voices regarding clerical militancy. The first chapter examines early church councils as well as Carolingian and post-Carolingian prohibitions on clerical participation in military affairs up through the mid-eleventh century. Nakashian grants that canons and synodal decisions from this period uniformly depict clerical militancy as illicit, while at the same time showing that clerics, and particularly ecclesiastical magnates, routinely led military contingents on campaign. In addition, Nakashian draws upon the rich sources and scholarly literature on the Peace of God movement, as well as the earlier work of Ruotger, mentioned above, to show that many clerics also identified occasions on which clerical militancy was licit.

In the second chapter Nakashian turns to the issues of the centralization of papal authority and canonical prescriptions against clerical participation in war in the late tenth century up through the end of the twelfth. He examines the main canonical collections of this period by Burchard of Worms, Ivo of Chartres, and Gratian, showing consistent hostility to the concept of armed clerics. Here again, however, Nakashian shows the tension between prescriptive prohibitions on clerical armsbearing, and the actual practice of militant clerics, including on crusades. In addition, Nakashian shows that prominent ecclesiastical officials such as Pope Sylvester II (999-1003) also approved of clerical militancy under at least some circumstances. On the basis of these findings, Nakashian concludes that canonical prohibitions represent a guide to the thinking of church reformers but do not represent the views of many of their contemporaries.

The third chapter considers the treatment of fighting clerics through the archetypal figure of Archbishop Turpin of Rheims, a hero of the Roland epic. In justifying the use of chivalric literature, Nakashian follows the lead of Richard Kaeuper in taking a very optimistic view of the value of this genre in illustrating the values of aristocratic society. In a close reading of the Song of Roland and other chansons de geste, Nakashian is able to show that authors tended to praise fighting clerics, who acted selflessly on behalf of the greater good, and particularly on behalf of their rulers. By contrast, these same authors heaped opprobrium on clerics who fought for glory or other types of temporal gain.

Part two of the book, including chapters 4-8, examines the careers of fighting prelates, taking a chronological approach from the Norman conquest of England up through the reign of King Henry III. The focus in the fourth chapter is on Bishops Odo of Bayeux and Geoffrey of Coutances. In discussing the careers of both Odo and Geoffrey, Nakashian stresses that no contemporary authors condemned them for their part in conquest of England. In the case of Odo, as Nakashian argues, this included not only helping to organize much of Duke William's campaign, but also participating directly in combat at Hastings, where Geoffrey also took part in military operations. However, Nakashian does note that both William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis sought to pass over in silence the military role of these bishops by emphasizing the part they played in offering pastoral care to the Norman army. By contrast with this positive treatment of both bishops for their service to William, Odo was condemned for his behavior later in his career, not for fighting, but rather for his worldly ambition, particularly as it came at the expense of his king.

In chapter five Nakashian turns his attention to Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, his successor Archbishop Anselm of Bec, Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester and Bishop Gaudry of Laon. All four men participated extensively in military operations, leading troops in the field and directing sieges of fortifications. The two archbishops and Wulfstan received no criticism at all from their contemporaries for these military activities. The situation was very different for Gaudry, who was selected as bishop of Laon by King Henry I of England in large part because he had captured Robert Curthose, the king's elder brother and duke of Normandy, at the battle of Tinchebrai. Unlike Lanfranc, Anselm and Wulfstan, who never were charged with a desire for worldly glory, Gaudry is depicted in contemporary sources as seeking to live a secular lifestyle, keeping falcons and harassing the region around Laon for the sake of plunder. He ultimately died at the hands of the urban commune at Laon because of his outrageous behavior. In contrasting the depiction of these prelates in contemporary narrative sources, Nakashian concludes that, contrary to the views of the canons, many contemporaries saw it as licit for clerics to defend the king manfully in war, so long as they acted properly as clerics in times of peace.

Chapter six treats the tumultuous period of civil war in England during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154) and treats in detail the career of Bishop Henry of Blois, the brother of King Stephen, as well as offering a brief discussion of Archbishop Thurstan of York. The latter earned great praise for his effective mobilization of the army that defeated the Scots at the Battle of the Standard in 1138. Nakashian illustrates that Henry of Blois, for his part, earned admiration for his loyalty to Stephen even from authors who were otherwise critical of the king. Despite Henry's active participation in numerous military operations, he was never criticized for this behavior. Rather, negative depictions of Henry stemmed entirely from his worldly lifestyle. Nakashian emphasizes, for example, that Henry of Huntingdon was highly critical of Henry Blois for seeking earthly riches, but never criticized him for participating in war. Indeed, the author of the Historia Anglorum was quite consistent in this matter, showering praise on Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, who also served as a military commander but otherwise lived a proper life as a spiritual cleric.

Chapters 7 and 8 consider Angevin England under Henry II, his sons Richard and John, and his grandson Henry III. As in the previous three chapters, Nakashian analyzes the careers of leading churchmen, who were deeply involved in the conduct of military affairs: Thomas Becket, Geoffrey Plantagenet (the illegitimate son of King Henry II), Hubert Walter, Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, Philip of Dreux (Bishop of Beauvais), and Peter de Roches. Following the argument laid out earlier in the text, Nakashian emphasizes that each of these prelates who demonstrated loyalty to their king in the pursuit of military objections won praise from contemporaries and preferment from the ruler. When, however, they sought worldly gain, contemporary writers attacked them. A case in point is Walter Map's treatment of Geoffrey Plantagenet, whom he sought to depict in the most negative terms possible. However, he never challenged the legitimacy of Geoffrey's military service despite the fact that the council of Westminster in 1175 specifically condemned service by clerics in war, either in bearing arms directly or in leading men on campaign.

Rather than summing up the main arguments of the book in his conclusion, Nakashian looks forward from the mid-thirteenth century up to the end of the medieval era. He sketches the ongoing tension between prohibitions in canon law on armsbearing clerics, and the regular participation of clerics on military campaign. The volume is equipped with an extensive apparatus of notes, as well as an index, and a bibliography divided between sources and works of scholarship.

Overall, this text admirably challenges the prevailing scholarly narrative that militant clerks in England either were anachronistic holdovers from an earlier age, or compelled contemporary observers to suffer from cognitive dissonance. Instead, as was the case in Germany, fighting bishops, abbots, and other clergy were broadly acceptable not only to secular writers but also to many ecclesiastical observers so long as this military service was understood as serving a higher purpose. Conversely, clerics who sought worldly glory, whether in the course of military operations or elsewhere, were condemned for violating the boundaries of their offices. In making this case, Nakashian effectively challenges the long accepted paradigm of church reform moving from strength to strength, and all opposition to its agenda as outside the mainstream of medieval thought and practice. Rather, the views expressed by church reformers through the canons were simply one thread among many in contemporary views of proper Christianity. This volume will be of great value to specialists as well as to advanced students in courses on medieval religion, culture, and military history.

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