Priests who kill – was it unusual for men of God to fight in the Middle Ages?

We look back to the Knights Templar and it’s odd from our modern standpoint to see men of God dressed in full battle gear off to slay the enemy. Aren’t priests and bishops supposed to be advocates of peace? Well, in the medieval period, it was not uncommon for churchmen to stick on a breast plate, grab a sword, mount a horse and ride off to slaughter their foes.

bishop-odoTake for example Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror who had no difficulty joining the Norman leader when he invaded England in 1066.  He enthusiastically joined the army at Hastings and though not permitted to strike or kill with a sword, he resorted to wielding a club with gusto during the battle.  So proud was Odo of his exploits on that victorious day that he commemorated it in the Bayeux tapestry, which he commissioned, to ensure his contribution was duly immortalised.

Medieval bishops were major landowners in their own right and could be just as ruthless as any secular ruler in their treatment of the serfs.  The downtrodden might decide that their lot was so grim that revolt was the only option.  The people of Drenth, who had been handed over to the not so tender mercies of the Bishop of Utrecht by the Holy Roman Emperor, rebelled against their clerical overlord in 1228.  Bishop Otto was in no mood to tolerate this impudence and rode out in to battle with an army to put his surly serfs back in their place.  Unfortunately for Otto he hadn’t reckoned on the level of hatred he had built up in Drenth and his force was defeated at a village called Ane.  The bishop was cut down and killed.

maxresdefaultThen there was Archbishop Absalon of Roskilde who led a campaign for the Danish king against the Wendish people. He captured their stronghold of Rugen, which he then incorporated into his archdiocese. For Absalon, this campaign was also a crusade. The Wends were resolutely pagan and refused to accept Christianity. So when the archbishop took their fortress of Arkona, he took a particular delight in demolishing the huge image of their many-faced god Svantevit.

Also, consider the astonishing sight of Pope Julius II who was spotted by the great Renaissance thinker Erasmus riding back from a military skirmish in full battle armour. Astonishing to think that even the leader of the Catholic church was not past taking up arms in the service of Christ.

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