“A New kind of monster … part-monk, part-knight”: the paradox of clerical militarism in the Middle Ages

“A New kind of monster … part-monk, part-knight”: the paradox of clerical militarism in the Middle Ages: the English and French evidence

By Craig Nakashian

PhD Dissertation, University of Rochester, 2010

Odo of Bayeux in the Bayeux Tapestry

Abstract: The interaction between clerics and warfare was a source of constant tension, debate, and conflict in the Middle Ages. From an early period within the Church, there were reform forces that sought to disassociate clerics from violence and secular military affairs. These reform attempts grew in intensity during the tenth and eleventh centuries, and were finally codified in the canon law collections of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This highly prescriptive view has become the foundation for the modern interpretation of how contemporaries viewed militaristic clerics.


Chapter 1 establishes the normative framework of the question by briefly examining a series of prescriptive sources for clerical behavior, most especially canon law as it developed through the High Middle Ages. The examination begins briefly with the Gospels themselves, and moves quickly to highlight major efforts by the reformers of the High Middle Ages to change clerical behavior.

I also consider the impact of the papal reform movement of the eleventh century, and the codification of canon law in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Canon law was a highly prescriptive source for clerical behavior, but it did not represent the only motivator for clerics. Furthermore, canon law had a much weaker effect on clerical militarism than it had on eliminating simony and nicholaitism. Reliance on these sources has given the impression that there existed a clear consensus during the period that clerical militarism was wrong, and that militaristic clerics were outside the mainstream of clerical culture.


By examining the lives and careers of militaristic clerics, by analyzing how they were portrayed by medieval authors, and by considering the various influences working on them, we can get a much more nuanced view of what was considered acceptable military behavior for clerics. The clerics examined came from a variety of backgrounds and regions, and they held a variety of positions within royal government. Each chapter seeks to codify them according to basic motivations and actions, including clerics who served as military advisors, commanders, battlefield generals, and soldiers who personally fought.

Ultimately I conclude that clerics had motivations that superseded canon law, and that they justified their militaristic behavior on a variety of grounds, but most especially on the grounds of royal service. Observers who commented on their actions did not uniformly condemn them for embracing militarism, but tended to temper their criticism or praise based on their own political ideology and bias. Clerics who fought on behalf of causes endorsed by authors were generally praised, those who did not were vilified.

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