The Tenth-Century Collapse in West Francia and the Birth of Christian Holy War
By Declan Mills
Newcastle University Postgraduate Forum E-Journal, Edition 12 (2015)
Abstract: The tenth-century social and political collapse in West Francia constituted a major disruption in the order of Frankish society. As the power of the crown weakened, castellans (minor nobles or soldiers who could afford to build a castle) built their own power basses, defended by a new breed of enforcer violent mail-clad peasants who became known as cnichts or knights, across the south of the kingdom. With no central authority to prevent this balkanisation, the Roman Church became the main bastion of peace and law in the region, enforcing ceasefires through religious ceremonies.
This led in turn to a second major disruption: the rewriting of the Church’s theology to sanctify the concept of religious warfare, a move which led, within a century, to the First Crusade. This paper will argue that although these two disruptive changes brought major shifts in European society, and fuelled contemporary millennial anxieties, they were also part of a wider context of greater changes. As such, while the tenth-century collapse and the change in Rome’s view of religious warfare could be seen as major breaks from tradition, they could also be seen as part of a series of evolving processes of slow-change; processes that were also connected to the spread of feudalism throughout western Europe, the slow fragmentation of Charlemagne’s territories, and the spread of Norman power as far afield as England and southern Italy.
Introduction: In 1095 AD the new Pope, Urban II, called a Peace Council at Clermont in France. The Peace Council movement had been an attempt to restore order after the tenth-century Frankish collapse by channelling the energies of knights and castellans into the defence of the Church and the peasantry by making them knights of God, and had succeeded in bringing at least nominal peace to much of present-day France. As was the tradition at these Peace Councils, the Pope extended the full protection of the Church to all Christians without weapons and brought a new innovation to the old hope that the castellans could become knights of God, offering ‘an immediate remission of sins’ for those who died while trying to liberate Jerusalem from ‘the heathen’ and commanding those who went to wear a cross on their foreheads or chests (hence the term ‘Crusade’).