The Papacy and Christian Mercenaries of Thirteenth-Century North Africa

The Papacy and Christian Mercenaries of Thirteenth-Century North Africa

By Michael Lower

Speculum, Vol. 89:3 (2014)

Condottiero drawing by Leonardo da Vinci
Condottiero drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Introduction: In the medieval period, Muslim rulers frequently hired Christian mercenary soldiers to defend their persons and bolster their armies. Nowhere was this practice more common than in North Africa, a region, then as now, linked to Europe through migration, diplomacy, and trade. From the twelfth century to the sixteenth, North African regimes of all types found it useful to recruit European fighters to their sides. Some of these mercenaries were former prisoners of war, while others were prominent political exiles. Most, though, were of humbler origin, fighting men who found a lively market for their services in the decentralized, fiercely competitive political environment of the late medieval Maghrib.

Though their terms of service were informal at first, by the thirteenth-century Christian mercenaries were a well-defined presence in North Africa. Treaties negotiated between their homelands and the governments that hired them specified their wages, weapons, and supplies in minute detail. Despite the increasingly contractual nature of their employment in the Maghrib, there was nonetheless much that remained uncertain about the status of these Christian mercenaries serving in Islamic lands. The treaties might detail how much barley a mercenary’s horse could eat while on campaign, but they had nothing to say about the larger questions of propriety, belonging, and allegiance that loomed over the mercenary enterprise. In an era of crusade and jihad, when acting against one’s faith was sometimes defined as a crime akin to treason, could fighting for a Muslim rule rever be licit for a Christian? Could one remain a member of the community of the faithful while serving an avowed enemy of the faith in arms? Could one be a good mercenary and a good Christian at the same time?

These were questions for churchmen, not diplomats, and especially for the papacy,which saw itself as the arbiter of Christian relations with the wider world. Even for the lawyer-popes of the thirteenth century, the Christian mercenary in North Africa proved a puzzle. There was no fixed body of legal or scholastic thought on this category of Christian. Canonists and pastoral theologians had touched upon some of the issues surrounding their work, but had not tackled them directly. Yet the stakes were high, for the mercenary and the papacy alike. The mercenary needed to know how seriously he was compromising his prospects in the next life when he joined the retinue of a North African prince. The papacy needed to decide whether the mercenary excluded himself from a properly ordered Christian society by making that choice. Was his exile only physical, or was it spiritual as well? Beyond that pastoral judgment lay considerations of policy. What impact would the decision to condemn or support him have on the papal approach toward there – Christianization of Africa, the land of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine?

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