The Christianization of Knighthood

The Peace before War: Establishing Church and Knightly Relations

In the wake of the collapsing Carolingian Empire, Western Europe and especially Southern France became increasing violent, breaking into territories controlled by feuding nobles and warlords. While the rulers and knightly class battled and plundered, it was the peasantry and the church who, being unarmed and easy targets for violence, suffered the most. To reduce the damage and try to bring some measure of control to the situation, the Church began the Christianization of the knightly profession with the Peace of God movement.

In 989 AD, at the Abbey of Charroux in Aquitaine, a gathering was called from the neighboring regions for a clerical decree. The clergy, led by the Archbishop of Bordeaux and several local bishops, declared any knight who robbed the peasantry, clergy, or churches, or who attacked an unarmed clergyman, excommunicated. This message was spread at several other councils and gatherings through the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The widespread belief in and even fear of saintly relics was used to give the proclamation weight, as any available were collected by the preaching clergymen at these gatherings, giving the orders the implicit support of the saints represented.

Abbey of Charroux where the Peace of God was preached in 989

The church worked in the following decades to extend the effects of this “Peace of God”, and further steer knighthood away from the warring and pillaging it formerly comprised. During the early 11th century, the “Truce of God” was preached, forbidding warring on Sundays and later other days as well, and in 1054 at Narbonne, another council included the declaration that no Christian should kill another Christian, since one who does such “sheds the blood of Christ”. Though the latter decree by no means ended warfare among Western Christians completely, it was a further step in reducing the role of the knightly class in fighting each other – and leaving non-Christians as the only church-sanctioned foes. Thus a movement which began as an effort for peace, for the protection of those who were being victimized with no means to defend themselves, was partly effective, removing from knighthood the aspect of preying on their own society, but also began to focus knights into a weapon for the Church to wield against its enemies.

Holy War and the First Crusade

In many respects, Urban II’s call for the First Crusade represents the earliest conception of holy war and, by the nature of its intended audience, a redefined knightly class framed in Christianized ideology. First of all, it is important to establish what constitutes a “Holy War” or bellum sacrum. The important characteristics are purpose and nature of these conflicts. They sought to advance religious aims, were divinely sanctioned and uncompromising.

On November 27 of 1095, Pope Urban preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont and his words were especially revelatory of both the future nature of this conflict and the knightly class that would inevitably emerge from this endeavor. At the time, these sermons were intended to promote the peace in Western Christendom, but Urban’s message appealed to the conflicting knightly class directly by stating that fighting each other was useless in the face of the true enemy of all Franks. Furthermore, he described this war as one of liberation. The goal, after all, was to restore the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, and territory of Byzantium to the realm of Christendom and away from the clutches of the encroaching Islamic threat.

Urban II preaching the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont on Nov. 27, 1095

Urban’s sentiment is readily apparent in Robert of Rheims’ account of Urban’s speech in which he declares,

“On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength…”

Clearly this is a call to all Franks, but especially those with privilege who have both the means and

duty to restore “…the holy sepulcher of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations”. In some sense, the Church appropriated feudal ideas of loyalty to appeal to would be Crusaders – describing this battle as a fight in service to the Lord as a mortal vassal.

Rhetoric aside, the Christianization of the knightly class was encouraged and reinforced in concrete ways as well. Those who chose to go to Jerusalem were deemed “Crucesignati” or “signed by the cross” and were seen as penitential pilgrims first and foremost. The promised indulgence or spiritual benefit promised to those who went on the First Crusade also clearly aligned martial action with salvation. Bishop of Lambert of Arras’ account describes the indulgence as basically a promise of a blank slate, quoting Urban as saying

“whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance for sin”

. It was now not only justifiable to wage war, but required in order to please God and take back the Holy Land. In this manner, the knightly martial role became intertwined with the penitential role of Christian pilgrimage. In short, the concept of Holy War and the First Crusade gave knights the opportunity to employ their military skills in the name of God and for the purpose of advancing the goals of the Church.

Christian Symbolism on the First Crusade

Christian symbolism in both authentic relics and places as well as other devotional ownership of such a symbol (i.e. the Cross) played an essential role in the first crusades, and perhaps, to some, a literal source of power which shaped the events from 1095 to 1099.

The interesting and perhaps somewhat foreign aspect of religious symbolism, iconography and physical holy items, albeit relic or repro, is the absolute fervor these early crusaders held in the belief of the literal power of these holy items and their power as the invisible weapons like prayer, needed to fight the parallel war of the armies of god occurring simultaneously with the crusades and directly influencing the result of the terrestrial military conflicts to a very significant degree.

Perhaps the best and clearest example which shows the absolute importance in the power of belief by obtaining holy items can be seen with the Holy Lance (or Spear of Longinus-the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ according to the gospel of John with an early first century lance/spear head attached to a wooden staff; of course only the remains of the metal lance itself remained.)  The siege of Antioch was a year long tedious attempt from 1097 to 1098 to capture the city from the Muslims inside as Antioch held important (especially in a region with little to no geographically advantageous locations) spot on the Middle Eastern coast as well as symbolic importance dating well back to antiquity.

Adhemar de Monteuil finds the Holy Lance

Eventually the crusaders succeed and upon taking the city a poor monk and soldier Peter Bartholomew claimed that St. Andrew had come to him showing that the Holy Lance was buried beneath St. Peter’s Church in Antioch and told him to give it to the leading prince Raymond of Toulouse.  After much digging Peter found what would become the Holy Lance, despite skepticism from such religious figures as the papal legate Adhemar of Ley Puy as the true legitimacy of the lance (especially given Bartholomew’s “eccentric” tendencies viewed undoubtedly by the church with concern and thus question the validity of his visions and interactions with St. Andrew and the discover.  

Nonetheless, the magic behind, or reverence towards all other Holy Christian Relics and symbols was undeniably still present. I in fact, devotion even escalated further with the formation of the Christian Knight Orders.  Peter gave the Lance to Raymond, and when Raymond carried not only one of the holiest items in Christendom but arguably the most significant weapon into battle during the battle of Antioch on the June 28th 1198, Christian morale was so high that victory would seem nearly inevitable.  And of course, the crusaders drive away the muslims, win the battle and use the Lance and the source of their power (or at least a good part of it) which ultimately lead them to victory.  Symbolic belief is an extremely powerful motivator, despite the dubious nature of the truth of the lance. Once Adhemar died widespread belief in its power grew – “proven” through the victory at Antioch – and indicated an essential element in the military belief system of these Christian Knights; their values, tactics, standards, modes and operations of practice, and actions which were driven by their faith

The Rise of the Orders

In many respects the military orders of the 12th century were the ultimate personifications of Christian knighthood. These orders combined monastic piety, with the military prowess needed to defend a Latin East hundreds of miles away from Europe.

The first of these military orders did not come out of secular knighthood. Originally dedicated to the care of sick pilgrims, in 1113 the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John (The Hospitallers) broke off from the St. Mary of the Latins abbey and became a separate religious order. In 1136 King Fulk gave control of an Ascalon fortress to the Hospitallers, and eventually the Hospitallers created a military unit to protect Christian pilgrims. By the beginning of the 13th century most of their duties were military focused, and they spent little time aiding the sick and poor.

Perhaps the most famous of these military orders was the Knights Templar. Founded by Hugh of Payns in 1119 under the reign of Baldwin II, the third King of Jerusalem, these knights dedicated their swords, and lives, to Christ. Gormund, the patriarch of Jerusalem, bestowed upon them the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with a fourth vow to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. In 1128 the Templars received formal papal acceptance, and would eventually become a truly international order of warriors protecting Crusader strongholds all over the Middle East.

Symbol of the Knights Templar. This Order’s symbol depicts two knights on a single horse, emphasizing their vows of poverty- a monastic value that all monks obey

Men who took these vows of knighthood did not dedicate themselves to a European lord, but to God himself. Protecting God’s people, and his Holy land, was their ultimate mission. These orders symbolized the complete transformation of the pre-Crusade Miles Christi (Army of Christ), monks who did spiritual battle through prayer, to a militarized Christianity. These knights represented a “new chivalry” where the violence they inflicted was a dedication to God and a means to their own salvation.

With these orders Christianity had completely reconciled the violent demands of warfare and conquest with the Christian principles of peace. Bernard of Clairvaux, a powerful churchman, in praise of the Knights Templar, explained it as this:

“But the knights of Christ may safely do battle in the battles of their Lord, fearing neither the sin of smiting the enemy nor danger of their own downfall, inasmuch as death for Christ inflicted or endured, bears no taint of sin, but deserves abundant glory. In the first case one gains for Christ, and in the second one gains Christ himself, who freely accepts the death of the foe in vengeance, and yet more freely gives himself in consolation to his fallen knight.”

He explains how these knights do not sin when they kill their opponents but in fact honor God. And he will go on to say that Knights of the Templar are not “man-killers”, but “evil killers” destroying the enemies of the Lord and purifying his kingdom on Earth. These orders institutionalized the Crusader ethos and provided a stable military force in the Middle East bound by their oaths of obedience and military discipline.  The formation of the Christian Knight was complete.


Additional resources:

“The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials. Edited by Edward Peters. Second edition. UPenn Press. 1998. Selections.

Jaspert, Nikolas. “The Crusades.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2016

Newman, Paul B. “Growing Up in the Middle Ages.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Madden, Thomas F. A Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.