Sheep Struck by the Shepherd: Secular Clergy on the Battlefield in History and Literature

Sheep Struck by the Shepherd: Secular Clergy on the Battlefield in History and Literature

By André Schmidt

Chronica: The Journal of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, No.66 (2007)


Archbishop Turpin heard these words clearly;
No man on earth does he hate more;
He urges on his horse with his spurs of pure gold
And went to strike him with great strength;
He shattered his shield, destroyed his hauberk
And plunged his great spear right through his body.
He gives him a firm push and sends him reeling to his death;
With a free blow of his lance he flings him dead of the ground.
He looks back and sees the wretch sprawling there;
He will not forgo, he says, the chance to rail at him:
‘Vile pagan, you have told a lie;
Charles, my lord, will always guard us well.
Our Franks have no desire to flee;
All your companions will be laid to rest by us.
My news is this: you must suffer death.
Strike, Franks, let no one forget his duty.
This first blow is ours,
Thank God’ He shouts ‘Monjoie’ to hearten the field.

With these words the battle of Roncesvalles began with the Archbishop Turpin striking down the Berber Corsablix, the latter’s taunts having goaded the Archbishop into action. Astride a noble steed, with his good sword Almace, he charged toward his enemy. This foe was one especially odious to the Church, for Corsablix was not only Muslim, but also a practitioner of the dark arts. In a time when the armies of Christendom battled the Saracen in the east, the story of Turpin’s role against the same foe in the west helped to raise enthusiasm for the cause.

The Song of Roland was not the only piece of medieval literature that described the Archbishop Turpin fighting under Charlemagne’s banner. The Pseudo-Turpin, an account of Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain allegedly written by the Archbishop himself, recounts a different version of the battle of Roncesvalles. In the Pseudo-Turpin, Turpin was in the main army with Charlemagne instead of remaining in the rearguard with Roland, and survived the battle. The anonymous author portrays Turpin as both a zealous clergyman and one of France’s great warriors, as highly respected as the other knights in the army. At Turpin’s funeral, Charlemagne and others, including the Pope, lauded Turpin as much for his martial spirit as for his devotion to his spiritual duties.

Both Roland, written at the end of the 11th century (after the First Crusade), and the later Pseudo-Turpin (ca. 1150) portray a member of the secular clergy on the field of battle fighting the enemies of church with his own sword. In a time when the soldiers of Christian Europe were taking the banner of the cross and fighting for the Holy Land, Turpin stands out as a bold example of the newly militant church. He was not content simply to bless the Frankish knights and absolve them from sin before combat, but was out among them in the heat of battle.

The history of the regular orders, such as the Templars and Hospitallars, in warfare is well known, but the role of the secular clergy has not been examined as deeply. Did members of the secular clergy also take up the sword as Turpin did? Or did they leave the waging of war to the secular world while they ministered to their flocks? In some instances bishops, archbishops, and lower clergy were involved personally in warfare. The majority of clerical involvement in warfare was due to obligations to a secular overlord, but there were instances where a priest, bishop, or even the Pope himself led an army and even participated personally in the fighting. Secular clergy, as peaceful shepherds of a flock, were not allowed to participate in acts of violence or shed blood by both custom and canon law. Isidore, in his Etymologies, makes it clear how intimately priests were related to not only peace, but also peacemaking. Priests struck agreements between warring parties by way of oaths, pacts, and appeals to faith. “Priests make peace treaties, as worldly men make war.” Wielding weapons was forbidden as well, though this prohibition did not necessarily exist for the minor religious orders.

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