Religion, Violence and the Historian

Religion, Violence and the Historian

By R.I. Moore

Paper given at The Yale Conference on Religion and Violence (February 2008)

Introduction: ‘Just before the third year after the millennium, throughout the whole world, but most especially in Italy and Gaul, men began to reconstruct churches, although for the most part the existing ones were properly built and not in the least unworthy. But it seemed as though each Christian community was aiming to surpass all the others in the splendour of construction. It was as if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the past and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.’

These words of the chronicler Raoul Glaber (the Bald), writing about 1040, may be familiar to a good many of you, for they are regularly quoted in textbooks of medieval history as emblematic of a transformation in Europe’s fortunes at the beginning of the second millennium CE. The past which was shrugged off, according to this firmly established orthodoxy, was characterised above all by violence. Europe had been devastated by the invasions of Vikings, Magyars and Saracens from without and the ceaseless and bloody warring of its ‘feudal’ aristocracy within. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries western Europe emerged from violence in many forms, especially ‘barbarian’ invasion and ‘private’ warfare, or ‘feudal anarchy,’ a form of ‘lawlessness’ so-called because it pursued the family interests of the protagonists rather than a perceived public interest – perceived, that is, by historians – such as state- or nation-building, or ‘the expansion of Europe’ or, more grandly, of civilization – that is, invading and conquering the ‘barbarians’ instead of being invaded by them.

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