Medieval Holy Wars

By Alfred J. Andrea

Holy war is sanctified violence, violence made holy through service to one or many deities or to a set of religious beliefs. Such violence is rooted in antiquity and has found a home in every religious tradition from animism to Zoroastrianism. Contrary to popular belief, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have never had a monopoly on holy war.

Usually, but not necessarily, holy warriors worship a divine being or a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Usually, but not necessarily, they ascribe to authoritative dogmas that clearly distinguish between right belief and theological error. Usually, but not necessarily, they are instructed by a priesthood, and usually, but not necessarily, they are guided by a body of sacred scripture. What they necessarily share is “religious faith” broadly defined, namely their belief that they have a spiritual or pragmatic connection with a transcendental something or someone. That belief can be as simple as a reverence for sacred forces, such as the spirits of nature or of ancestors, as is the case with Japanese Shinto.  It can be a Supreme Cosmic Spirit that governs the natural world and the lives and destinies of all beings, as is the case with Hinduism’s Brahman, an impersonal Universal Reality. Even more abstractly, Buddhist Dharma, the universal Law that leads to Enlightenment, is sufficient. Over the ages, devotees of Shinto’s kami, or spirits, Hindus of every caste and cult, and Buddhist defenders of Dharma have waged numerous holy wars.


The Four Types of Holy War

Holy wars have come in all sizes and shapes, but overall they have fallen into four categories: ritual holy wars; holy wars of conquest and conversion; defensive holy wars; and millenarian holy wars. They are not, however, exclusive. Many holy wars have taken on the attributes of two or more of these classifications.

Ritual holy wars are wars in which violence and sacred ritual are one and the same. Such ritualized holy war includes expeditions aimed at taking human trophies, such as heads and scalps, to satisfy the demands of a deity, the spirits, or deceased ancestors. Holy wars of conquest and (or) conversion are normally wars intended to expand the cult and authority on earth of a particular deity. Defensive holy wars are waged to protect sacred space, sacred objects, co-religionists, or the very existence of a religion or religious way of life. Millenarian holy wars are apocalyptic wars between the forces of Good and Evil, wars of cosmic magnitude in the minds of holy warriors seeking to usher in the End of Time or a spiritual New Age or to recover a lost Golden Age of the Spirit. The term is metaphorical and derives from the millennium, or thousand-year period, of peace on earth that, according to the biblical Book of Revelation, will take place following Christ’s initial defeat of the forces of the satanic Beast. Regardless of the term’s origin, millenarian holy wars are not unique to Christianity.


One element that unites the four types of holy war is the intrinsic belief that out of death comes life. It might be life-giving rains following the ritualized scalp-hunting expeditions that the Hopi conducted. It could be the new life of religious devotion accompanying the conquest and conversion of a previously unbelieving people, or the renewed life given a religious people by those who have sacrificed their lives in its defense. It can also be a heavenly kingdom on earth attained only through the destruction of a demonic old order. It is no coincidence that since the earliest recorded times, the gods and goddesses of agriculture and fertility have also been deities of war.

Among the many life-giving holy wars waged around the world during the later Middle Ages, an era roughly from 1300 to 1600, three stand out. The Flower Wars of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century central Mexico embodied the essence of a ritual holy war. The Ethiopian Wars of 1316-1543 were holy wars of conquest, conversion, and defense, with opposing actors alternating between offense and defense. Finally, the fourteenth-century Red Turban Revolt, which toppled one imperial dynasty and brought another to power, was one of China’s numerous millenarian wars.

Aztec Flower Wars

Sixteenth-century Spanish missionaries in central Mexico encountered a phenomenon, the xochiyaoyotl, or Flower War, that struck them as both familiar and perversely strange and heathenish. It was familiar because, like the tournaments of late medieval Europe, it was a highly structured event that provided training for novices and allowed elite warriors to exhibit their martial skills. It was heathenish and alien to the highest degree because its main purpose was the capture of worthy victims for sacrifice to the gods.

Flower Wars were ritualized battles between warriors from the Aztec Triple Alliance and select neighboring states that had not been subsumed into the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs, who arrived in the Valley of Mexico around 1325, appear to have conducted their first Flower War in 1375/76, but it was not until the great drought of 1450-54 that Flower Wars became a staple of Aztec culture. By 1500, Flower Wars were an Aztec obsession. Crises such as droughts, as well as the numerous Aztec festivals, annually demanded thousands of sacrificial victims to satisfy the appetites of the gods, especially Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun, fire, and war. Only warriors captured in battle were suitable for Huitzilopochtli, for their blood alone could strengthen him and ensure that life on earth would continue.


Because of their sacred purpose, Flower Wars were conducted with great solemnity and according to strict rules. When the Aztecs decided that it was necessary to wage such a war, it would contact a neighboring state and arrange the date and the number of combatants, with each side sending an equal number. Although young warriors-in-training would be allowed to participate, normally in six-man units, each side’s finest fighters conducted most of the fighting. For the Aztecs, this meant its eagle and jaguar warriors, each of whom had earned those distinctions by capturing a requisite number of enemies.

Various depictions of the Aztec Flower wars – image by Mabarlabin / Wikimedia Commons

The site of combat was always a consecrated field somewhere between the two states and reserved exclusively for Flower Wars. On the day of battle, a priest signaled the start of hostilities by lighting a fire between the two forces and tossing into it copal, a sacramental incense. Unlike other battles, the fighting did not begin with an exchange of missiles. Both sides rushed into the fray, with the sole purpose of capturing an opponent. Whereas elite warriors sought single combat, the novices worked as a team. If they succeeded in capturing an enemy, one or more of them could expect promotion into the ranks of the warrior brotherhood. When both sides had gained a sufficient number of captives, fighting ceased. Each complimented the other on the prowess of its warriors and bid one another a safe journey home, saying they would meet again when sacrificial blood was demanded to keep the sun rising and the universe alive.

Combatants who died in the fighting, as well as those who were captured for sacrifice, were considered to have suffered “flowery deaths,” the most blessed of all deaths, and to have merited a special paradise, the House of the Sun. Consistent with that belief, on the eve of any battle, Flower War or not, Aztec priests prayed for their own warriors:


May all, the eagle warrior, the jaguar warrior,…falter not in fear. May he savor the fragrance, the sweetness of death by the obsidian knife [of sacrifice]….May he desire, may he long for the flowery death by the obsidian knife. 

Religious ideal and human reality rarely, if ever, fully intersect. Surely some captives went to their deaths in fear and trembling, but reports tell us that many also faced death bravely and in expectation of their entering the House of the Sun.

Aztec ritual sacrifices took many forms and involved victims from all levels of society, including slaves and Aztec children. But the festival of the Flaying of Men, which took place on March 6, the first day of the second month of the Aztec calendar and was dedicated to Xipe Totec, the god of agricultural renewal, centered on the sacrifice of Flower Warriors. Moreover, the ceremony involved a second level of ritual holy war.

Xipe Totec mask on display at the Louvre – photo by Rama / Wikimedia Commons

With planting season about to begin, the captives, whose hair was adorned with flowers, were brought out one by one and given alcoholic pulque. They were then tethered at the waist to a large circular stone at the base of Xipe Totec’s temple and armed with a small shield, four pine balls for hurling, and a club. Rather than sharp obsidian blades, it held feathers. Confronting the captive sequentially were two eagle and two jaguar warriors with obsidian-studded battle axes, who wounded the captive in a slow, methodical manner. After the warrior had been sufficiently weakened, his warrior’s knot of hair was cut off and his beating heart cut out. The heart and his blood were then offered to the Sun, and his body was flayed, with both the skin and corpse given to his captor, but without the head, which went to a ceremonial skull rack.


The captor brought the body to his home, where he distributed small portions to each of his kin to eat along with dry maize. On his part, because he now identified with the sacrificed warrior, he did not eat his flesh. Rather, he put on the flayed skin and wore it for the remainder of the twenty-day month, even as it rotted and stank on his body. In this manner, the warrior-captor symbolized his future death in battle or as sacrifice. At the end of twenty days, in an act that symbolized the germination of new maize seed, the captor took off the flayed skin and cleaned himself. The sacrificial warrior’s thigh bone, which had been scraped clean, was draped with his warrior jacket and set up as a sacred trophy in the captor’s courtyard. Once again, death through sanctified violence brought new life.

Ethiopian Holy Wars, 1316-1543

Christianity traveled south from Egypt into the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum (ca. 50?-ca. 900?), where it became the royal court’s religion in the early fourth century and the official state religion in the sixth century. Over the centuries that followed, it matured into an inseparable part of the culture and identity of the people of the Ethiopian highlands, but all the while the Ethiopian Church remained subordinate to the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, even after Egypt fell to Islam in the seventh century. It was not until 1959 that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (united as one) Church gained independence from Alexandria and obtained its own patriarch.

Subordination to the patriarch of Alexandria meant that he chose the Ethiopian Church’s sole bishop, or chief priest, from his monastic clergy and with the assent of the Muslim lord of Egypt. Usually ignorant of the language and culture of Ethiopia and thereby isolated, this alien bishop’s sole function was to ordain priests and deacons. One consequence was that when the Ethiopians waged holy war against their Muslim neighbors, they did so not at the call of their Church’s chief priest, but at the command of their emperor and with the support of the native clergy, especially monks.

Close proximity to Ethiopia, which is separated from Arabia by the narrow Red Sea, induced Muslim merchants to settle along Ethiopia’s southeastern coast as early as the seventh century. The initial result was Ethiopia’s  “Muslim fringe,” a band of small, disunited Islamic states that traded rather than warred with their Christian neighbors who resided in the rugged mountains to the west and north. One reason for this peaceful coexistence was the tradition that the king of Aksum had provided asylum to a group of Muslim refugees, including Muhammad’s daughter and two future wives, who had fled persecution by the Prophet’s Meccan enemies. Consequently, Muhammad commanded that Muslims should leave the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) in peace, as long as they left Muslims in peace.

Gospel Leaf from an Ethiopian manuscript dating to the first half 14th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mercantile rivalries, however, led to tensions by the tenth century, as local Muslims and Christians contested Ethiopia’s lucrative interior trade routes and as the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt (969-1171) sought to establish hegemony over the commercial waterways of the Red Sea. Yet the tensions did not result in any appreciable conflicts before the fourteenth century, despite the rise of two religiously active states in the twelfth century.

The Muslim sultanate of Shoa established a strong presence in the interior and actively and somewhat successfully promoted the expansion of Islam through missionary activity, and merchants have traditionally ranked among Islam’s premier messengers of the faith. As long as Shoa’s merchants confined themselves to commerce, however, they were free to conduct business in Christian lands. When they turned to seeking new converts, they were subject to persecution, but it ended there and did not devolve into holy war.

To Shoa’s north, a new Christian dynasty, the Zagwe (1137-1270), declared itself the legitimate successor of Aksum.  Although it maintained amicable trade relations with Shoa and other Muslim states, it was instrumental in laying the ideological basis for later holy wars. Zagwe kings, claiming descent from Moses and his Kushite (Ethiopian) wife, increasingly identified Christian Ethiopia with biblical Israel and identified their Muslim neighbors with the hostile “pagan nations” that had encircled Israel.

Moreover, at least as early as the sixth century, the legend had developed that the biblical Queen of Sheba, who had visited King Solomon of Israel, was Ethiopian, and in the course of her visit had conceived a son, Menelik, the son of Solomon and the first monotheistic king of Ethiopia. The legend further credited Menelik with transferring the Ark of the Covenant and its tablets of the Commandments from Jerusalem to Aksum. For this reason, during the Zagwe era, Ethiopian Christians, perceiving themselves to be the latter-day Chosen People of Israel’s God, progressively emphasized their age-old Semitic-Christian rituals and traditions, such as circumcision, dietary restrictions that conformed to Mosaic Law, and strict observance of a Saturday Sabbath.

Church of St. George at Lalibela – photo by Rod Waddington / Flickr

The greatest of the Zagwe kings, Lalibela (r. 1181-1221), was believed to have had a mystical vision in which Christ commanded him to transform his capital at Roha into a New Zion—a new Jerusalem. Consequently, he commissioned rock churches to be constructed there that collectively recreated the Jerusalem in which Jesus had lived and died. To aid in the churches’ construction, angels descended from Heaven to carve the rock, or so it was popularly believed. Subsequently the city, which became a major site of pilgrimage, was renamed Lalibela, and the Ethiopian Church canonized King Lalibela as a saint. The fact that many of Lalibela’s eleven rock churches predated the king’s reign should not ruin a pious story. Moreover, King Lalibela did oversee the construction of the area’s most impressive church, which is dedicated to Saint George, a warrior-saint.

Armed with this sense of a biblical heritage and identity, it was only a small step to holy war, a step undertaken by the Solomonic dynasty (1270-1974), which claimed that by ousting the Zagwe interlopers, it had restored the bloodline of King Solomon to its rightful throne. The Solomonic holy warrior who instigated holy war on a massive scale and provoked a counter jihad was `Amda Seyon (r. 1314-44). His given name, which means “Pillar of Zion,” signifies the fact that Seyon (Zion) was now the favored name of Christian Ethiopia. Just as significant, his throne name, Gebre Meskel, translates as “Slave of the Cross.”

Map by Ingoman / Wikimedia Commons

The Muslim principality of Ifat had replaced Shoa as the dominant Islamic state in Ethiopia, and its rise precipitated a sharp series of wars with the new Solomonic dynasty in the later years of the thirteenth century—wars that increasingly took on a religious flavor. Beginning around 1316, `Amda Seyon raised these wars to new heights, thereby earning the reputation as Ethiopia’s greatest holy warrior. His victories and subsequent expansion of lands subject directly or indirectly to his rule allow us to refer to his dominion as an empire.

Since the twelfth century, Muslim-dominated lands throughout Ethiopia were cumulatively greater in extent and population than the Christian state `Amda Seyon inherited, but he had several advantages. Christian Ethiopia was compact, whereas the Muslim sultanates were scattered and disunited. His people also had a sense that like the Israelites of old, they would prevail against greater numbers if they remained faithful to their God. In a series of sharp campaigns, `Amda Seyon reduced Ifat and a number of lesser Muslim entities to the status of tributary states. Mass conversions to Christianity followed, and the king established numerous monasteries and churches in these recently conquered lands.

In 1332, however, the governor of Ifat, Sabr ad-Din, rebelled in an apparent attempt to not only free Muslims from Solomonic domination but to destroy Christianity in detail. If we can believe a fourteenth-century Christian chronicle, he boasted, “I will rule the Christians according to my law, and I will destroy their churches.” `Amda Seyon counter-attacked and after an eight-month campaign, he defeated Sabr ad-Din and the Muslim league that he had formed. According to that same chronicle, `Amda Seyon then declared, “I have defeated my enemy who is also the enemy of Christ.”

Christian expansion continued for about a century after `Amda Seyon’s death, but a new Muslim state dedicated to opposing and defeating the Christians also took shape in the late fourteenth century, the sultanate of Adal, which was centered in present-day Somalia. As Adal grew stronger, Christian Ethiopia weakened due to an internal factionalism caused in part by over-extension. By 1527, Adal was ready to conduct an all-out jihad, and its champion was Imam Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Ghazi, the power behind a puppet sultan. His reputation for deep spirituality and an uncompromising devotion to Islam earned him the title “imam” (religious leader). Popular stories circulated in his lifetime that he was a miracle worker and that Muhammad had appeared in a vision to a prominent sheikh prophesying that “through God this man will subdue the country of Abyssinia.” His fearsome reputation as a fighter earned him the further honorific “al-Ghazi” (the warrior). Ethiopians called him “Gragn” (left-handed).

Map by Ingoman / Wikimedia Commons

Prior to launching an offensive, Imam Ahmad crushed an invading Christian army in 1527, and followed that up with a two-year campaign. In April 1529, rallying his army at Shimbra-Kure with the battle cry “Victory or Paradise,” he destroyed a Christian army that reportedly suffered 10,000 killed. Christian resistance was now reduced to local guerilla operations, and the emperor was in hiding. On his part, Imam Ahmad occupied about three-quarters of Christian Ethiopia, forced mass conversions, enslaved Christians who refused conversion, killed resisting priests and monks, and destroyed or desecrated churches, including the rock churches of Lalibela.

In 1535, Emperor Lebna-Dengel sought aid from the Portuguese, who were contesting with the Ottoman Empire for hegemony over the Red Sea and adjacent areas. The Horn of Africa was strategically vital to any party that sought to control these waterways, and for that reason the Ottomans had sent firearms and a small detachment of matchlock musketeers to aid the army of Adal.  On their part, the Portuguese had an additional reason to send assistance—holy crusading. Since the twelfth century, Western Europeans had searched in vain for Prester John, a mythical Christian emperor who resided in “the Indies,” which meant anywhere east of Iran or south of Egypt. The expectation was that if they could link up with this powerful monarch, they could crush Islam in a vise.

Having failed to find him in Central or East Asia during the period ca. 1250-1350, when Westerners had access to the trans-Asian caravan routes to China, they now looked to Ethiopia, with which they had had limited contact since the thirteenth century. For the Portuguese, who had been intimately involved in the centuries-long crusade known as the Reconquista, or reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (ca. 1050-1492), this appeal was a godsend. Consequently, in 1541, 400 Portuguese musketeers arrived in Ethiopia under the command of Christóvão da Gama, son of the navigator-explorer Vasco da Gama. With the Portuguese now countering the Ottoman presence in Ethiopia, the conflict became a proxy-holy war for the two powers to the north.

A European depiction of the wars in Ethiopia. BnF MS FR 2810 fol. 89v

After several successful but inconclusive skirmishes, on August 28, 1542, the Portuguese force was mauled by Imam Ahmad’s army, which had been reinforced by almost 3,000 Turkish and Arab mercenaries. More than 50 percent of the Portuguese contingent was killed or captured, and most of its firearms were lost. Worse, Christóvão da Gama was wounded, captured, tortured, and beheaded by the imam himself after he refused to convert. Subsequently, a series of miracles were ascribed to the martyred Portuguese leader.

The badly depleted Portuguese rearmed themselves from firearms they had stored and continued the fight, joining forces with a reinvigorated Ethiopian army. Meanwhile, Imam Ahmad’s army lost most of its foreign musketeers. He had dismissed many of them, thinking that his victory had been decisive, and others melted away when they thought themselves poorly recompensed. Nevertheless, his army, which still had some Ottoman soldiers and artillery men, was impressive in size and firepower.

On February 22, 1543,  the combined Ethiopian-Portuguese army met the Muslim force at Woina-Dega and won a total victory when a Portuguese infantryman shot the imam dead. According to stories told after the battle, the Portuguese, wishing to revenge their fallen captain, had deliberately marked out Imam Ahmad. With its charismatic leader killed, the army of Adal disintegrated, and the victors entered the enemy’s abandoned camp, where they released a large number of Christian slaves.

In the weeks and months that followed, the emperor was able to retake almost all of the land that Imam Ahmad had conquered, and vast numbers of forcibly converted Ethiopians returned to their faith. Christian Ethiopia would not again suffer invasion by jihadists until 1886, an unsuccessful incursion from southern Sudan.

The Red Turban Civil War, 1351-68

Over the past 3,000 years, countless rebellions and civil wars have wracked China, and religious ideology has driven many of them or, at least, it has given rebellion a celestial justification. One of the most important religious movements in this regard is the millenarian cult of the Maitreya Buddha, which has provided the impetus and rationale for holy revolution since the sixth century C.E.

The Maitreya Buddha is a messianic Buddha of the Future who awaits arrival on earth until the time when humanity has abandoned or forgotten the Buddhist Dharma. Filling the void are demons, who rule a society that has so degenerated that only a supernatural being can restore right order. After re-establishing Dharma, he will become a world-ruler who presides over an earthly paradise in which there is no suffering or disorder.  Redemption depends upon this messiah-in-waiting, but as is true of other millenarian belief systems around the world, some of its adherents have tried to prepare the way or to hurry matters along through their own actions. More often than not those actions have been ritualistic and non-violent, but when times have been especially desperate, desperate people have turned to sanctified violence.

Seated stone-carved Maitreya, Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China – photo by Ariel Steiner / Wikimedia Commons

The fourteenth century was a time of crisis across Eurasia. From Iceland to Japan societies suffered from climate change that brought in its wake natural disasters, agricultural decline, and severe famines. Added to this were massive epidemics, especially the Great Pandemic that killed off tens of millions and became known in the West as the Black Death. Civil discord and war on every imaginable scale only added to the woes. Some societies were spared some of these horrors, none escaped all of them, and China suffered all of them.

China’s dreadful fourteenth century came on the heels of a disastrous thirteenth century. The Mongols under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan invaded northern China in 1211, and by 1279 had conquered the entire empire and its satellites. The usual catastrophes that accompany warfare devastated the Middle Kingdom. Chinese records, which are among the medieval world’s most complete, show that its registered inhabitants numbered nearly 120 million in 1207. By 1290, that total was halved and failed to grow throughout the century that followed.

Chinese sources also document thirty-six unusually severe winters for the first half of the fourteenth century. Added to that were massive epidemics that broke out in the 1340s and 50s. Major floods of the Yellow River wiped out villages and towns in northern China, killing tens or hundreds of thousands as they raged. The result of all of these disasters was a population that was impoverished, homeless, malnourished, and ripe for revolt. It is too easy, and wrong, to  label these incipient rebels as “peasants.” Evidence points elsewhere. When the first rebellions of 1351 erupted, the perpetrators came largely from the uprooted and dispossessed laborers who inhabited China’s vast cities and numerous market towns and were susceptible to millenarian preaching.

The imperial government attempted to offer relief but its inefficiency, corruption, and profligate spending rendered it unable to do so effectively. Worse, in the eyes of many Chinese, was that the Mongols and their minions were foreign devils. In 1271, before the Mongol conquest of China was complete, Kublai Khan (r. 1260-94), grandson of Chinggis, proclaimed himself emperor of China and adopted a dynastic name, Da Yuan (Great Primal Force). From its new capital, Dadu (present-day downtown Beijing), the Yuan emperors ruled over a populace that it divided into four classes: Mongols; non-Chinese from the West; northern Chinese (who had learned the ways of their Turco-Mongol neighbors on the steppes); and southern Chinese. This class system affected taxation, which was especially oppressive for those at the bottom, judicial procedures, and appointments to civil offices. Many foreigners from Central Asia and beyond, including Marco Polo, served in the Mongol imperial bureaucracy. The result, as Polo reported, was that “all the Chinese hate the Great Khan because he has set over them Mongols or, yet more frequently, Muslims, whom they cannot tolerate because they treat them like slaves.”

Consequently, between 1279 and 1351, there were at least twenty local but significantly large uprisings throughout China, and in the majority of cases, their leaders incited followers with religious expectations, and sometimes with exhibitions of magic and presumed miracles. Prophecies of imminent cosmic doom, unless they arose in rebellion, were common, and some leaders even asserted their divinity. At least four of the rebellions centered on an expectation of the Maitreya Buddha.

In 1351, Han Shantong, who claimed descent from the Northern Song imperial family. which had ruled China from 960 to 1127, proclaimed the arrival of the Maitreya Buddha and gathered a following in southern China that became known as the “incense army” because of its ritual burning of incense to this Buddha. Additionally, they wrapped red scarves around their heads because red, the symbol of fire, wards off evil and destroys devils. When authorities seized and executed Han, his army broke out in open rebellion, and in May 1351, it occupied most of the city of Yingzhou. From there the rebellion spread outward, as other rebel groups, including opportunistic bandit gangs, joined in. Slow reaction by the Yuan government helped turn a popular uprising into a civil war. By autumn, the rebels held about 200,000 square miles in South China. By 1354, the rebellion had spread throughout China.

Following Han Shantong’s death, leadership of the Red Turban faction—the largest of the rebel groups—fell to Xu Shouhui, who claimed to be the incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha and proclaimed himself emperor of the Tianwan (Heaven preserved) dynasty. But he was not the only pretender to the imperial throne. In 1355, Han Shantong’s son, Han Lin’er, who also claimed to be the incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha and had assumed the title “The Young King of Radiance,” was brought out of hiding and enthroned as the Great Song Emperor, with his capital at Bozhou in South China.

A Portrait of the Hongwu Emperor, c. 1377 by an unknown artist from the Ming dynasty. Wikimedia Commons

While all of this was happening, a new star was rising. Zhu Yuanzhang, a former novice monk of peasant stock, joined the Red Turbans in 1352 and rapidly rose to high command. In April 1356, his forces captured the key port city of Nanjing. While pledging his loyalty to the Great Song Emperor, he efficiently worked toward his own ends.

In 1357, a third “emperor” emerged in the person of Chen Youliang, who declared the establishment of the Da Han (Great Han) Empire, and in 1360, he arranged the assassination of his rival and former comrade Xu Shouhui. With Xu’s death the empire of Tianwan collapsed. In turn, Zhu Yuanzhang, ostensibly in the name of the Great Song Emperor, defeated and killed Chen in 1363, thereby eradicating another rival pretender to the imperial throne. Zhu now controlled most of southern and central China. Three years later, Han Lin’er drowned in suspicious circumstances on his way to Nanjing, the seat of Zhu Yuanzhang’s power. Now no one stood in Zhu’s way, and in January 1368, he assumed the title of Hungwu (Vast Military Power) and declared the beginning of the Da Ming (Great Brilliance) dynasty (1368-1644). Marching north to confront the remnants of the Mongol forces, he entered Dadu in September, where he discovered that the last Yuan emperor had fled to Mongolia.

What began as a millenarian holy war degenerated into a grab-bag civil war with various self-serving war lords jockeying for position until only one remained standing. But that less-than-pious denouement did not end Buddhist-inspired millenarian uprisings in China. In 1420, a young female prophet, Tang Sai’er, who called herself Holy Mother and claimed to have the power to command gods and demons, launched an armed rebellion in northeastern China. Although Ming forces managed to defeat her army, she escaped never to heard from again. Folk tradition claims she used sorcery to fly away.

Clearly none of these holy wars was exclusively religious in regard to its stimuli, concerns, and motives. Flower Wars served as training grounds for warriors in the making and as opportunities for established warriors to exhibit their prowess. They might also have allowed the Aztec Empire to intimidate and control nearby states without recourse to costly all-out war. Christian Ethiopia’s wars with its Muslim neighbors, as well as the Ottoman and Portuguese interventions, clearly had certain economic and political objectives. Just as clearly, grievances of every kind fueled China’s Red Turban Revolt, and it degenerated into an unambiguous power grab at the end.

If we look closely, we can discover similar non-religious factors at work in all wars that have been labeled “holy” from antiquity to today. Yet, this does not negate the fact that any war, as was the case with these three medieval conflicts, that primarily arises out of a desire to serve a deity or a set of religious beliefs is a form of sanctified violence rightly deserving the title “holy war.”

Alfred J. Andrea is emeritus professor of Medieval History at the University of Vermont and a past president of the World History Association (2010-12). With Andrew Holt, he has written Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History.