Book Review

Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000– 1250: Theory and Reality by Craig Nakashian


Matt Firth (Reviewer) – Parergon 35 (no. 1, 2018)

The warrior cleric is a familiar figure of medieval history – represented on the cover of this volume by the Bayeux Tapestry depiction of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, fighting at Hastings. Yet the warrior churchman is also a uniquely ambiguous figure, straddling the ecclesiastical and secular spheres of authority – at once prohibited by canon law to participate in war, and expected by secular powers to participate in regional politics. It is this ambiguity which Craig Nakashian seeks to explore in this volume, focusing on the military activities of English clerics. As implied by the book’s subtitle ‘Theory and Reality,’ Nakashian aims to contrast the theoretical expectations of clerical behaviour with evidence of English churchmen participating in war. In so doing, Nakashian’s intent is to challenge to perception within medieval studies that churchmen who partook in military campaigning were aberrations and considered as such within their own social milieux. It is a task he undertakes admirably as he analyses the evident reception of such behaviour in the historical record, and what it reveals of societal expectations and understanding of clerical militancy. Central to his thesis is that, despite the prohibitions of canon law, military activity among English clerics was common, and only subject to the censure of commentators when undertaken in pursuit of personal riches or glory.

The volume is comprised of two sections, the first containing three chapters, the second five chapters. The first section, entitled ‘The Prescriptive Voices of the Debate,’ examines canon law and literary archetypes, focusing on ‘theory.’ The second section, entitled ‘The Debate in Practice’ looks toward the ‘reality,’ and undertakes a series of case-studies that challenge the ‘theory’ as prescriptive reality. It is a serviceable structure for the discussion, though ‘the debate’ must be understood as a modern construct contrasting ecclesiastical and secular views on the role of churchmen in war. The nature of Nakashian’s sources are such that they rarely relate the involvement of lower orders of clergy in campaigns, with accounts restricted to prelates and necessarily tying their actions to political agendas. As such, Nakashian is not able to present any individual case study in which descriptions of military service are so varied as to provide evidence of an active contemporary debate relating to the military activities of clerics. Clerical involvement in secular society was an accepted and ubiquitous element of medieval power-structures and, though Nakashian demonstrates that varied opinions on the benefits of clerical militancy certainly existed, these perceptions vary between – rather than within – examples of such activity. This is not intended as an indictment of Nakashian’s methodologies, so much as a semantic clarification to the reader who may expect to find evidence for direct dialogue between coeval sources presented within this volume.

In the first part of the book, chapters 1 and 2 take a close look at church prohibitions on clerical activity in war. Providing necessary background to the discussion, chapter 1 looks at the evolution of canon law on the matter from the early church councils up to the focal period of the study (1000 – 1250). Chapter 2 then undertakes to look at the official position of the church regarding warrior churchmen during the period under examination. Both chapters present clerical militancy as transgressive and widely disparaged, while simultaneously noting the manifold instances of clerics leading campaigns, and even receiving church approval to do so.  Chapter 3 is an interesting study of the Song of Roland and related chivalric literature.  Here Nakashian seeks to uncover cultural perceptions of warrior churchmen as demonstrated in their characterisation as either rightly seeking God’s glory, or wrongfully pursuing personal glory.

Turning to the second section, chapters 4 – 8 represent a chronological series of case-studies. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the Norman Conquest and its immediate aftermath, looking at a number of archbishops and bishops well-known for their military activity, and exploring how these men were represented by their commentators. Chapter 6 considers the ‘Anarchy,’ with a particular interest in the activities of King Stephen’s brother, Bishop Henry of Blois. Chapters 7 and 8 examine Angevin England in the reigns of Henry II through to Henry III. Once more focusing on leading prelates and their military activity, Nakashian emphatically reinforces his thesis on the contemporary reception of such behaviour: praised when in aid of the king and the church, condemned upon the suspicion of worldliness.

Nakashian achieves what he sets out to do. He ably demonstrates that canon prohibitions on clerical involvement in war were subordinated to regional interests; that warrior churchman were not an aberrant phenomenon; and that the reception of such activity as acceptable or transgressive was reliant upon societal perceptions of what motivated a cleric to take up arms. This volume represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the function and reception of prelates as active participants in the political and social structures of medieval England.