bayeux tapestry

I was recently surprised when a group of my students, asked to describe the early Middle Ages, almost entirely chose to describe the period as ‘violent’. More fool me, of course, because everyone knows a lot about early medieval violence (barbarian invasions, Viking raids, etc.), and certainly there was plenty of it. But in fact (as I tried to convince my students) despite the undoubted brutality of their society, people in the early Middle Ages could have surprisingly sophisticated attitudes to violence.

Take, for example, the evidence of the penitential issued by Bishop Ermenfrid of Sion (now in Switzerland), detailing the penance to be done by those who had fought for William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066.(1) William’s troops did not have to do penance because the Norman invasion of England was perceived to be an ‘unjust war’. Quite the opposite: the Normans crossed the channel under a papal banner and declared that William was the rightful king of England, justly fighting against a rebellious usurper. The penitential drawn up by Ermenfrid as the pope’s representative was a response to the sinfulness of warfare even at its most legal and just.

Ermenfrid’s text is actually one of the last of a long line of early medieval ecclesiastical documents which detail the penance to be performed either after a specific battle or after legitimate warfare in general.(2) The morality of the time (at least as presented by the Church) recognised that killing in warfare or on the orders of a legitimate ruler was not the same as murder – but the difference was merely one of degree. Killing and violence were subject to a discourse of sin, which recognised the necessity of violence in human societies but also gestured towards a higher moral code where all violence was wrong.

One finds it hard to believe that any modern political regime would be willing to publically proclaim its own victorious troops ‘sinners’ in the way the Conqueror seems to have been happy to acknowledge. In fact, modern soldiers must be unmitigated ‘heroes’; even the many contemporary remembrance monuments which use overtly Christian symbolism or language rarely engage with the troubling nature of participation in violence, even for a just cause. In other words, twenty-first century British attitudes to certain forms of violence can appear less nuanced than those of a millennium ago.

Interestingly, in recent years modern armies have found that something approaching the nuance of medieval penitentials is the healthiest message for the troops they train to kill. Increasingly western armies train men not to dehumanize their foe, but to come to grips with the moral reality of taking another human life. The intent is not to sap the troops’ will, but to develop a responsible soldiery which will be able to deal with the real consequences of war. Perhaps penitentials such as Ermenfrid’s recognised that humans needed something more than assurance of a war’s legality to expunge their very natural feelings of guilt.

The early Middle Ages may well have been violent – but they were not unthinkingly so.

1. H.E.J. Cowdrey, ‘Bishop Ermenfried of Sion and the Penitential Ordinance following the Battle of Hastings’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 20 (1969), pp. 225-42.

2. David S. Bachrach, Religion and the Conduct of War, c. 300-1215 (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 99-103. The Anglo-Saxon penitentials ascribe much lower penance for killing in public warfare than for other forms of homicide, but still do deem a penance necessary: these texts have been edited and translated by Allen J. Frantzen in a magnificent online resource: Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database (search for ‘Homicide & Injury’ in the index).

Conor O’Brien is a Teaching Associate in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. His new project is on Carolingian political theology. Thanks to Ross Frenett of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue for conversation about modern armies.

Image: The Bayeux Tapestry. Photo by Dennis Jarvis at Flickr. Used under a CC-A-SA-2.0 licence.


Tags : Battle of Hastingsmedieval historyremembranceviolencewar
Conor O'Brien

The author Conor O'Brien


  1. The Crusades are of course the obvious counter-example to the above, apparently a whole-hearted celebration of ‘moral violence’ (and troublingly soon after Ermenfrid’s penitential since the First Crusade was launched in 1096). That is why I said the Hastings penitential was the ‘last of a long line’: the late eleventh century is really a transitional period where we see a new ideology of war and violence really emerge.

    But often the danger is that the Crusades dominates common ideas about medieval attitudes to violence, whereas to some extent they were revolutionary. Much from the early Middle Ages shows the Church struggling with the consequences of violence in quite sophisticated ways – one thinks of Adamnan of Iona’s attempt to impose strict rules of war for the protection of non-combatants.

    You’re going to have changes, complexities, even contradictions, if you try to sum up the attitudes of many centuries. My point is primarily that the reality is a lot more interesting than simply labelling the early Middle Ages ‘violent’ would suggest.

  2. Nice work!

    Is there any evidence of soldiers in the Middle Ages taking their lives as a consequence of war experiences?
    It is often said that more US Vietnam veterans died by suicide than died during the war itself.
    Obviously, the moral climates of the periods are different as is the nature of modern warfare, but it may still be instructive with those limitations.

  3. Interesting question – though I suspect the answer is a simple ‘no’ since finding evidence of pre-modern suicide is so difficult.

    I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been through Alexander Murray’s two volumes on Suicide in the Middle Ages, which is probably about the only work which might be able to provide some detail on the question.

  4. The gap btw the clerical elite and the rest of the society (including many other clerics) is pretty big in this period. It’s not until we get to the period after the Peace of God (ie 11th c) that we see anything like a “bad conscience” influencing on any serious scale – et encore – the warrior aristocracy. As for modern armies, at least democratic ones are vastly more careful about civilian casualties than any In the entire middle ages.

    You say: “One finds it hard to believe that any modern political regime would be willing to publically proclaim its own victorious troops ‘sinners’ in the way the Conqueror seems to have been happy [sic?] to acknowledge.” Given the role of Human Rights NGOs in surveilling the behavior of modern armies, i think that mutatis mutandis we have a far more influential body of “clerics” moralizing about war today.

    In this context, the Israel Defense Forces, for all the vituperation they get in the Western and Muslim press, far outperforms every other army in care for avoiding enemy civilian casualties, and the wide range of forces that surveil it (IDF itself, Israeli Supreme Court, NGOs) plays a significant role in that performance.

    My sense is that quotidian violence by (and the threat of violence from) arms-bearers in the EMA was pretty immense. I’m with your students.

  5. Years ago I read a poem in a literature class in which a soldier (I believe it was when the Vikings were invading the British isles) was torn between his loyalty to a cross that forbade violence and the necessity of fighting for survival. Have you heard of such a poem? I am looking for the name so I can find the poem, I am convinced it did exist and that it was Medieval.

Leave a Response

3 × 5 =