The Militarization of the Church

Summary: The events leading up to the end of the eleventh century created a cultural environment in which the first crusade, and the beginnings of the militarization of the church that prompted and enabled it, was able to occur. Along with the idea from the peace movements and the Truce of God that some violence is unacceptable, came the complementary idea that some other violence, then, must be acceptable. The traditionally non-violent Christian Church began to justify fighting in the name of God and for the good of the Church, despite New Testament doctrine clearly discouraging violence. This was largely a result of the merging of feudal culture with religious concepts. When Alexius I requests military help from the west to fend off Muslims encroaching on his Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II responds by calling the first crusade. Surely, if any violence in the name of God is acceptable, it must be violence against unbelievers. the Church saw these pagans as having taken Christian lands from Alexius, but more importantly, they were also in control of Jerusalem, the Holy City. For Muslims to call Jerusalem their own was offensive to Christians, to Christ, to Christianity as a whole. As a solution, One could “take up the cross” and follow Jesus to the Holy Land, serving God with arms by expelling the Muslim inhabitants and any others along the way, and simultaneously carrying out a personal pilgrimage for the edification of their faith and the salvation of their soul. The military-pilgrimage of the first crusade was sanctioned and encouraged by the church. Following the first crusade, the church began to institutionalize crusading, and military orders of monk-knights began to emerge.


Just War

Christianity’s shift from a religion of peace to a religion of violence was a slow and gradual process that occurred as ideological obstacles were removed and ideals changed. One major part of this was the transition in attitude towards war over the course of several hundred years. In the ancient Roman Empire it was believed that war was sinful and the belligerents had to repent to absolve themselves afterwards. After several hundred years of minor tweaks to the contemporary thought of war and new justifications in support of it, Christianity found itself promoting warfare and promoting that it absolved the warriors of their sins.

The first tweak or change in ideology towards war came in the 4th Century from the Roman Empire. With the legitimization of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the increase in popularity of the pacifist religion there was a demand for a ruling on warfare. The Greek philosopher Aristotle came up with the term Just War. The three main necessities for war to be considered just were that it must be waged with the motive of :

  • Defence
  • Recovery of rightful property
  • As punishment or to redress a wrong

This definition, while providing a common perspective, still lacked clarity and allowed for some leeway. For example, to address the soul of your enemy fell under the last category and it does not require too much imagination to see how this could be altered or extended to justify even the most unjust wars. Yet this was still a major advancement and while it was not obvious to anyone at the time, the beginning of the militarization of the Christian Church.

Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine (354 – 430)

Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine (354 – 430)

From this definition it could then be justified that all of Rome’s wars with other empires could be determined as Just Wars. Christians were encouraged to fight in these wars to defend the Roman Empire and with it the Christian Religion.

Due to the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, the new definition of Christian Just war was jeopardized. Augustine of Hippo altered it slightly to reflect Christian ideology and morals. “Augustine added a Christian interpretation of moral virtue to right intent and authority. From his diffuse comments three familiar essentials emerged: just cause, defined as defensive or to recover rightful possession; legitimate authority; right intent by participants. Thus war, inherently sinful could promote righteousness.” (Tyerman, 2005, pp 69).

Holy War

With the arrival of the Muslims in Spain, the first concepts of actual Holy War instead of Just War took root. Muslims had taken a stronghold over Spain. Prior to the Muslim invasions, Spain had been a predominantly Christian territory and Christians across Europe disapproved of their presence. The Church promoted the Spanish Reconquista and it was reasoned that the warriors fighting against the Muslims for Christendom were in fact fighting for Christ himself. The next development in Holy War came in the middle of the 9th Century when Pope John VII and his predecessor Pope Leo IX offered salvation and absolution of sin to German troops. This new idea was essential in the development of Holy War.

With Pope Urban II’s call came a new sense of war, this one with a more divine view. It was defined from essential elements of the Bible and was instrumental in the First Crusade and the ones to come after. Its major points were that instead of a legal construct on the soldiers and their actions, it was now a divine command that they fought under. It no longer had the limitations that had riddled the definition of Just war and was uncompromising. What followed were belligerents that identified with the Israelites (old testament) and felt that they were God’s chosen. A major role was that they understood Holy War as an event moving history forward towards the Apocalypse.

Charlemagne: First Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Also known as Charles I or Charles the Great, Charlemagne was able to set the framework for the Western Church to rise to importance and prestige.  Charlemagne rose to power after King Pippin’s death when power was passed to Charlemagne and his brother Carloman. Charlemagne made an alliance with the Lombards, through an arranged marriage, to gain an edge over Carloman. The power struggle ended in 771 with the death of Carloman when Charlemagne assumed sole control over the Frankish Empire. One of Charlemagne’s main goals was to address the desire of the people to deepen and enhance spiritual life. To focus on this goal Charlemagne began a series of reforms that strengthened the Church and enhanced spiritual life within the empire.

“The reform focused on a few major concerns: strengthening the church’s hierarchical structure, clarifying the powers and responsibilities of the hierarchy, improving the intellectual and moral quality of the clergy, protecting and expanding ecclesiastical resources, standardizing liturgical practices, intensifying pastoral care aimed at general understanding of the basic tenets of the faith and improvement of morals, and rooting out paganism. As the reform movement progressed, its scope broadened to vest the ruler with authority to discipline clerics, to assert control over ecclesiastical property, to propagate the faith, and to define orthodox doctrine.”  — Sullivan, 2016

With these reforms Charlemagne enabled the Church to gain power and establish a strong foothold within his empire. With this relationship the Church reciprocated this alliance and eventually crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor, strengthening his power and authority.

Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768-814), King of the Lombards (774-814), First Emperor (800-814)

Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768-814), King of the Lombards (774-814), First Emperor (800-814).

Charlemagne engaged in numerous military campaigns aimed at expanding the faith and influence of the church.

“The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were dominated by military campaigns, which were prompted by a variety of factors: the need to defend his realm against external foes and internal separatists, a desire for conquest and booty, a keen sense of opportunities offered by changing power relationships, and an urge to spread Christianity.”

— Sullivan, 2016

With Charlemagne seizing the throne in 711, he soon engaged in a long and bloody war against the Saxons (772 – 804). The Saxons, who were viewed as pagans, occupied a large territory to the north. They had been considered a threat to the Franks for a long time and  with the reinvigoration of Christian faith under Charlemagne there was additional motivation to drive out these pagans. In addition, in the years 773-774 at the request of Pope Adrian I, Charlemagne led a campaign against the Lombards in Italy. In 771, upon assuming complete control of the Frankish throne, Charlemagne cut ties with the Lombards. With this expedition, Charlemagne seized control of northern Italy and the Lombard crown. In 778 Charlemagne attempts to take Spain from the Umayyads. The expedition goes horribly wrong and the Franks are forced to retreat, suffering numerous casualties. In 787-788 Charlemagne began another campaign against Bavaria. Following the conquering of Bavaria, this bought Charlemagne in conflict with the Avars. Campaigns in 791, 795, and 796 led to a demise of their empire as well as opened up the conversion of the Avars and their subjects.

The Expansion of the Holy Roman Empire

The Expansion of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne.

“The effect of the conversion of these Germanic people worked in two directions: the Christianizing of their warrior ethic and militarizing of the Church” — Tyerman, 2005




Peace Movement

Prior to the Crusades, in Medieval Europe a Feudal system had developed, meaning the Kings controlled all of the land and distributed it to the Lords. These lords would then distribute it further to other villagers in exchange for taxes. Unfortunately, Kings had little control over the feuding lords who fought for control of land. Widespread violence ensued that caught many innocents and defenceless in the crosshairs, mainly the peasants and the church.

In response, the Church attempted to regulate this violence by assuming control. Although the Church did not have any warriors that could fight for them they did have one advantage over the lords, this being the power over the Saints. Relics were often used as a connection to a Saint, and in turn God. By using these Relics, the Church was able to convince the Lords that the Saints had ordered them to stop fighting. They also had the authority to prevent Lords and other noblemen from attending mass. This attempt at control actually influenced the church by leading it into a more involved military role and accelerated its shift into a religion of violence.

The first of these steps taken to prevent such violence was in 975 when Bishop Guy II of LePuy gathered all the Lords and Noblemen from the surrounding areas and forced them to swear oaths. The Lords were forced to agree that they would not harm anyone not involved with military operations, most importantly members of the church as well as peasants.

This council is seen by many as the beginning of the Peace of God Movement. The Peace of God Movement was a movement that utilized councils like that organized by Bishop Guy II to promote the safety of noncombattants. The influence of Relics or Saints were heavily utilized to sway the Lords and divine sanctions were threatened as punishment for anyone that violated these laws and caused harm to anyone protected.

A similar movement around the same time period was the Truce of God. The Truce of God was an attempt by the Church to restrict warfare by declaring days on which warfare was unacceptable. This began with the Synod of Elne in 1027, which outlawed warfare on Sunday. The list of days unacceptable for warfare increased steadily and by 1042 it had grown to Wednesday through Sunday, as well as holidays. The Truce of God which had originated in France, spread throughout Europe and was at its most influential when the Decree of Clermont built off of it and declared that there would be no fighting between Christians.

Neither movement could be deemed too successful as the feudal system still promoted violence and warfare across Europe, however it can be argued that the biggest impact these movements had was that they encouraged the ideology of fighting for religion instead of your lord. This ideology was essential for the Militarization of the Church and ultimately the Crusades.

The Justification of Violence in Defense of the Church

In the second half of the eleventh century there proceeded a movement of ecclesiastical reform that ultimately laid the groundwork for the first crusade. There was controversy over the reform, resulting in popes “calling on the services of laymen to aid in the great cause” (Peters, 1971, pp. 1 – 3). The resulting universality of the ecclesiastical reform movement led to the rise of Christendom as an all-encompassing society, ultimately producing the first crusade.

Pope Gregory VII, the predecessor of Urban II, was crucial in transforming the church’s traditional attitude toward war. Gregory used the word fideles, which traditionally referred to a vassal in the feudal system, to mean one who was faithful to God, thus merging the military and political idea of being faithful to one’s lord and the spiritual idea of being faithful to the Lord. Gregory believed it was the Christian’s duty to fight against the enemies of the Church just as one would fight against the enemies of their feudal lord. Gregory has been referred to as a “man of war” and a “Church militarist,” even being accused in his day of having too much zeal for secular militia (Mastnak, 2002, p. 79). Knights had traditionally been seen as sinful because they devoted their lives to violence, something traditionally non-Christian, especially given the pacifism of Jesus in the New Testament. But in the second half of the eleventh century, leading up to and under Gregory VII, there began to be some changes in canon law. Anselm of Lucca in 1086 writes, “do not think that one who ministers with warlike arms is unable to please God.” Bonizo of Sutri in 1090 similarly states, “If it is legitimate to fight for a worldly king, why not for the Heavenly King, …, why not against the enemies of the Church.” Thus, the Church’s traditional condemnation of the military profession begins to fall away as the Church becomes more tied to the European feudal system, analogizing serving God as physical fighting in the worldly sense.

Gregory was perhaps more concerned with enemies of the Church as straying Christians, “bad” Christians, than Muslims. He condemned fighting for secular purposes, calling it an “evil custom,” while urging Christians to take up arms for God. “Many thousands of secular men go daily to their death for their lords; but for the God of heaven and our Redeemer they not only do not go to their death but they also refuse to face hostility of certain men” (Gregory to all the faithful, July-November 1084). Gregory actually planned a military expedition to the east in defense of Christians facing Muslim violence. He was to lead an army “against the enemies of God and push forward even to the sepulcher of the Lord” (Gregory to Count William of Burgundy, February 1074). This never came to fruition for Gregory, but Urban would later follow through.

Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II, born Odo of Châtillon (1042 – 1099)

As Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban II focused more on war against the Church’s external enemies, the whole of Christendom against pagans, rather than internal enemies. This was crucial for conceptualizing the first crusade as a fight against eastern Muslims. While Gregory conceived of typical relations with the Muslims, both war and peace, Urban was truly a “man of peace” alone, and was thus driven to the concept of Holy War. Urban linked the peace movement with the idea of Holy War, conceptualizing the crusade as the realization of Christian peace. The militarization of the Church to fight enemies of God, made possible through Gregory, was a means to ultimate peace under Christendom. It is in this way that the violence in the name of the Church could be justified under traditional Christian values. (Mastnak, 2002, pp. 79 – 90).

In fact, the pagans became increasingly portrayed as outside the law, without rights, and ultimately non-human because they lacked Christian faith. “Because Christians were prohibited from making contracts with infidels, it was also impossible to make truce or peace with them.” (Mastnak, 2002, p. 125). Because of this inability to make peace with Muslims directly, peace had to be made by their extermination. Killing Muslims was not homicide, but “malicide,” extermination of evil, a duty of the Church (Bernard of Clairvaux in Allen, Amt, 2014). To kill pagans exalts the name of God; to die in the military service of God is to go home to Christ. However, to die in secular military activities is to die in sin.

Tomaž Mastnak in his book Crusading Peace (2002) explains that the concept of christianitas, or Christendom, was first realized as a society with the first crusade. Christendom was a unification of the Church with all of European Christian society. An enemy of God was an enemy of the Church became an enemy of Christendom and thus of all Christians in Europe. “It was a military community of Christians whose thoughts and will were directed toward the Holy Land and consumed with the struggle against Muslims, who were considered the enemies of God and holy Christendom” (Mastnak, 2002, p. 93). Christendom was established along with the peace movements and the concept of holy war, and thus was simultaneously a unification of western Christians and a deeper partition between them and everything outside of Christendom. And as Christendom came to recognize itself as both political and religious, then first crusade could emerge.

In the peace movements, Urban II condemned Christians killing Christians in the west, calling the westerners to stop feuding amongst themselves. But he also condemned the suffering of eastern Christians at the hands of Muslims in places like Antioch and Jerusalem. “Christian flesh, akin to Christ’s flesh, is delivered up to execrable abuses and appalling servitude” (Baldric of Dol, Historia Jerosolimitana).

Late gothic depiction of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont from the Livre des Passages d'outer-mer, c 1474. From the account of Fulcher of Chartres, Urban preaches, "On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds... to destroy that vile race [Muslims] from the lands of our friends."

Late gothic depiction of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (Livre des Passages d’outer-mer, c 1474, Bibliothèque National). From the account of Fulcher of Chartres, Urban preaches, “On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds… to destroy that vile race [Muslims] from the lands of our friends.”

To stop this shedding of Christian blood required more than peacemaking by simply calling upon Christians themselves to stop their violence. To bring peace required war against the enemy. And the pope had the right and duty to call on his subjects to fight for the Church if necessary. Urban II called the first crusade on November 27, 1095 (See Peters, 1971, pp. 25 – 37 for several accounts, including that of Fulcher of Chartres from the figure on the left). He called for western Christians to stop their local feuds and unite with the Church and their Christian brother in the east against their common enemy. It was to be a war for peace for the eastern Christians, but also a “war of peace” (Mastnak, 2002, p. 94) against the Muslims. It was an escalation and redirection of military action away from Christendom and towards the Muslims of the east. Muslims were constructed as an enemy of Christianity and of Christendom. War was necessary to defend the Church against Muslim unsanctity, but it was also a war to liberate the eastern Christians from Muslim abuses and to liberate holy places, especially Jerusalem, from pagan hands. In any case, it was war willed by God, fought by godly, holy people against pagan peoples, “blasphemous persecutors of the faith, the enemies of Christ’s cross” (Schwings, 1977 in Mastnak, 2002, p. 121). The Church was self-justified in its military pursuits because it was the Church’s duty to avenge the wrongs done against Christ. In fact, to the Church and especially Urban, the first crusade was in some ways a non-war; it was a realization of the peace movement, it was pacifist, a work of peace. Even still, by promising the forgiveness of sins for taking up the cross in the service of Christ in the crusade, military pursuit became inextricably tied to salvation, and thus, because of its importance is the saving of souls, the Church.

A Crusader, giving homage. Note the crosses on the armour worn by the knight. This depiction emphasizes military service as being to God and the Church. (Westminster Psalter, c. 1200, drawing from c. 1250; in the British Library (Royal MS 2 A XXII, fol. 220))

A Crusader, giving homage. Note the crosses on the armour worn by the knight. This depiction emphasizes military service as being to God and the Church. (Westminster Psalter, c. 1200, drawing from c. 1250; in the British Library (Royal MS 2 A XXII, fol. 220))

The symbol of the crusades was the cross. In the New Testament, the cross was a symbol not only of salvation, but also Christ’s peaceful nature, his refusal to fight even when being persecuted. Through the Crusaders, the cross became militarized; it became “a sign of obedience through the physical sacrifice of martial combat, a war banner, an icon of military victory through faith” (Tyerman, 2005, p. 64). In a similar cultural shift, after the first crusade, the Church institutionalized crusading and the term milites Christi came to refer to knights literally fighting for God, superseding the traditional term for monks who “fought” for God through prayer (Mastnak, 2002, pp. 158 – 160). This is most obviously demonstrated in the military orders that emerged after the first Crusade. The stark change in meaning of the symbol of the cross and the term milites Christi through the crusades captures the change in the Church’s attitude toward war that enabled the first crusade to occur.


Military Orders

Most of the military orders were established shortly after the end of the First Crusade, which saw the Franks capture Jerusalem and subsequently establish the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. To the north, the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Edessa had also been established, and with the Kingdom of Jerusalem, collectively made up the newly minted Crusader states. However, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in a difficult geographic position; straddled by the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate to the east in modern day Egypt, and to the west by the Sunni Seljuk Empire in modern day Jordan and Syria. Despite the considerable consolidation of Frankish power afforded by the formation of the Crusader States, the peace that existed between the Latin Kingdom and the rival Muslim empires was a tenuous one at best, and the lack of sufficient manpower to maintain security both within and without the cities left the Outremer with little in terms of internal security.

Knights Templar

Chief and first among the Christian military orders, the Templars were founded during the reign of Baldwin II to combat the insecurity that permeated the areas between Crusader hubs and thus threatened pilgrims travelling the Holy Land.

Seal of the Knights Templar. On the obverse is depicted two riders, in keeping with the pious asceticism practiced by the order; surrounding the image is “Seal of the Soldiers” in latin. On the reverse is a depiction of  the Temple of Solomon, surrounded by “Temple of Christ” in Latin.

Seal of the Knights Templar. On the obverse is depicted two riders, in keeping with the pious asceticism practiced by the order; surrounding the image is “Seal of the Soldiers” in latin. On the reverse is a depiction of the Temple of Solomon, surrounded by “Temple of Christ” in Latin.

Seal of the Knights Templar. On the obverse is depicted two riders, in keeping with the pious asceticism practiced by the order; surrounding the image is “Seal of the Soldiers” in latin. On the reverse is a depiction of the Temple of Solomon, surrounded by “Temple of Christ” in Latin.

In around 1119, Hugh of Payns, a knight from Troyes in the Champagne region of France, and eight companions made pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the intent of declaring themselves and their swords for the service of Christ. Approaching King Baldwin II and Gormund, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Hugh of Payns proposed the creation of a military order to protect pilgrims making the 65-kilometer trek from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem (Google Maps). Roughly over half a days journey by foot at best, the route was typical as a breeding ground for banditry and violence. Administering upon the nine knights the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Gormund also had them pledge a fourth vow to protect Christian pilgrims. Subsequently, King Baldwin II quartered the knights in the captured al-Aqsa Mosque, which sat atop the Temple Mount and was thus thought to be the site of the Temple of Solomon—from here the Knights Templar derived their name (Madden, 1999, p. 46).

In 1128, Saint Bernard of Clairveaux, the Templars’ main proponent in the Church, facilitated their advancement by attaining formal papal acceptance by Pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes. Prior to official papal acceptance, Bernard had written his treatise “In Praise of New Knighthood”, citing the Knights Templar as the definitive example a new breed of knight who practiced a quasi-monastic lifestyle, extolling their life of pious chivalry as equal parts monk and knight. Concurrent with this appraisal, Bernard juxtaposed his idealized view of the Templars with his sanctimonious condemnation of secular knights and what he viewed to be a self-indulgent and wantonly violent lifestyle (Allen and Amt, 2014, 129) . With papal acceptance firmly behind them, the Knights Templar were able to flourish in the Holy Land, expanding their operations beyond the initial mission on the route that connected Jaffa with Jerusalem (Madden, 1999, p. 46).

Papal acceptance was particularly important in establishing the Order’s legitimacy, as they were now afforded the status of a fully ordained monastic order, as opposed to being one of the many secular orders imbued with the desire to fight in the name of the Lord. It was around this time that the knights of the Order also started donning white tunics emblazoned with a red cross over their armor into battle; this, along with the Templars themselves, would become an everlasting and definitive symbol of the Crusades.

Bibliography and Further Resources

Allen, S. J., and Emilie Amt. The Crusades: A Reader. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2014. Print.

Barbero, Alessandro. Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. Berkeley: U of California, 2004. Print.

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

Mastnak, Tomaž. Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2002. Print.

Peters, Edward. The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1971. Print.

Sullivan, Richard E. “Charlemagne.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Tyerman, Christopher. The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.