GOD AND DEFEAT IN MEDIEVAL WARFARE:
SOME PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS
THE most basic principle learned by a military historian is that in every battle there must be a loser. A second principle follows close behind: the defeated in said battle must then rationalize their defeat so that they might not lose royal or popular support. For the medieval military historian, one other principle must be considered when studying a battle lost; the medieval commentator writing about that loss must also demonstrate that God had not abandoned his side despite its lack of success on the battlefield. This is therefore the basis from which I wish to approach the subject: medieval writers and apologists rationalizing military defeat had to explain that God was still with them even though they had lost in battle; also, these rationalizations did not differ whether they were applied to losses suffered at the hands of non‑Christian or Christian opponents.
The problem takes form as early as the fourth century with a simple epistle attributed to St. Augustine and known as Gravi depugna. It states:
Although short, this epistle was used to justify wars by a long list of later canonists and preachers, among them Hincmar of Reims, Hrabanus Maurus, Sedulius Scotus, Ivo of Chartres, and Bernard of Clairvaux. (2) It even appears word for word in a battlefield oration delivered at the 1147 conquest of Lisbon. (3)
Naturally the Gravi de pugna was only valid until the first Christian army lost. Then questions began to arise: Were we the most just army on the field? If not, why did we undertake the fight? And, if so, why did God allow us to lose, especially if we were fighting non‑Christians?
This problem is made even more complex by the statements of popes Leo IV (853) (4) and John VIII (876) (5) which promised salvific indulgences to anyone who died defending the church, even while preferring that the troops not have to die in the endeavor. (The point of war after all, to paraphrase Patton, is not to die for your Church, but to make someone else die for his.) Later, perhaps understanding the difficulty that such indulgences posed, they simply granted them to anyone participating on a Crusade whether they died or not. (6)
It is easy for the victor to claim that his victory came from God. "Victories come from heaven," states Philippe de Mezières (7) while Ordericus Vitalis writes concerning the victory at Falaise, gained in 1106:
Even chroniclers who minimize God's role in connection with a victory often allude to some divine acceptance of the victor. Lodewijk van Velthem, for example, writing on the victory of the Flemings over the French at the battle of Courtrai in 1302 records the appearance of a star over the heads of the victorious forces, the host of the communion disappearing when about to be given to the French general, Robert of Artois, the spectre of St. George appearing among the Flemish ranks and the flight of black birds above the French while above the Flemings there flew white birds. (9) Others attribute victory to divinely‑given prophecies or divinely‑sent omens or comets.
Thomas Bradwardine, in his Sermo epinicus, not only claims that God alone is the author of victory, but also refutes seven "erroneous" attributions of victory: victory due to the stars, to the constellations, to blind fortune, to the fates, to human prowess, to sexual virility, or to women. (10)
We know from Symeon the Monk's description of Alfred the Great's battles against the Vikings that God can promise victory before a battle and then grant it." We know from Fredegar's account of Emperor Heraclius: in the seventh century that God can even grant victory by trickery. (12) We can see where a victory "from God" can give legitimacy to a reign, such as that of Edward IV of England. (13) We know from the Chronicle of Pere III of Catalonia that the fear of God's punishment can keep a king from waging an unjust war. (14) And, finally, from Eusebius's account of Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge, fought in 312, we can see where a divine victory leads an entire empire to seek the Christian God. (15)
Other medieval writers were not so sure about the presence of God on the victor's side. Without directing their thoughts to any particular defeat, some simply "hedged their bets" when it came to warfare. War must be just and. according to Anselm of Lucca (later Pope Alexander II), must be accompanied by constant prayers for victory. (16) Some, such as John Wyclif, believe that God sanctions no warfare. His statement, that "wise men of the world hold their strengths, and thus vanquish their enemies without any stroke," shows a surprisingly modem Christian pacifism. (17) While still others, like the fifteenth‑century monk Philippe de Vilette, recognize that God "according to the Holy Scriptures ... sometimes gives victory to the good, sometimes to the wicked, not by chance or hazard, but for reasons and causes which are very good, even though they may not seem constant or intelligible to men." (18)
However, more often than not, medieval writers were less able to look at defeat in battle in such open‑minded terms. It was the general's responsibility to ensure that the battle was fought justly. It was the Church's responsibility to see that it was fought for righteous purposes.
There was no question of God's allegiance when wars were fought against pagans or infidels. But Christian forces did not always triumph. Thus medieval Christian writers needed to explain why the obviously just failed to defeat the obviously unjust. In. rationalizing these defeats the writers are often extremely clever. One way of rationalizing the defeat of Christian armies was to blame the comfort and complacency of the people. For example, the Venerable Bede claims that this was the cause of the victories of the Saxons over the Romano-British people in the fifth century. He writes:
This abundance led to constant attacks by enemies to the north, and the Saxons were called in to protect the inhabitants of England. Bede continues: "As events plainly showed, this was ordained by the will of God so that evil might fall upon he miscreants." (19)
The same rationale is used by the battlefield preacher at the conquest of Lisbon to explain the initial loss of Spain to the Moslems: "We believe it has already become well enough known in the countries from which you come that through the presence of the Moors and Moabites divine vengeance has smitten all Spain with the edge of the sword.” (20)
But these authors were looking back in hindsight and thus were allowed to harshly indict those who had lost before. Authors more contemporary to military defeats take a different view. A few even play somewhat with traditional theology. For example, the anonymous eyewitness of the Vita Hiltrudis writes that God simply had "the disposition to whip his people" and therefore allowed the Hungarians to ravage the countryside of the tenth‑century Low Countries. (21) However, these writers are in the minority. More often, medieval authors choose more routine reasons for their military losses, even though God was supposed to be on their side. A major explanation for defeat is that the overweening pride of individual leaders gave victory to their opponents. For example, the Old English poem "The Battle of Maldon" recognizes that the Viking defeat of the Anglo‑Saxons came not from God, but from the ofermode (pride) of the Anglo-Saxon duke, Byrhtnoth, who "yielded to the invaders too much land." (22)
King Alfred the Great, in the preface to his translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, attributes the failure of the Anglo‑Saxons to defeat the Vikings to a sin of omission rather than commission ‑ the sin of not learning. He writes: "Remember what temporal punishments came upon us, when we neither loved wisdom nor allowed it to other men; we possessed only the name of Christians, and very few possessed the virtues." (23)
The failure of the Crusades sparked even more controversy. Here were wars called for from the pulpit, righteous and just; yet after the first victories, the armies of the Christian God generally met with resounding defeat. (24) Some writers attribute the defeats in the Holy Land simply to natural perils and difficulties which the Crusaders faced. (25) Other writers are more critical. They allege as the principal reason for defeat are sins committed by the Christians themselves, sins which made possible the victory of Islam, despite the "injustice" of its cause. Roger of Wendover claims that God even used the non‑Christian Saladin to punish these sins:
Others echo Roger of Wendover's words, insisting that the fall of the Holy Land to the Saracens was the judgment of God. Ralph Niger, for example, avers that the Crusaders should have fought the rise of Catharism prospering in their own countries, before venturing into the Holy Land, adding that it is far better to bring the Saracens voluntarily to the faith, for God was not pleased by forced service. (27)
Some blame the leaders of the crusading armies for their defeats, due either to their sins or to their lack of experience or discretion. For example, in commenting on the losses of the Second Crusade, John of Salisbury and Bernard of Clairvaux blame all of the leaders ‑ especially the German emperor, Conrad II, and the French king, Louis VII ‑ for their continual bickering and politicking. The author of the German Chronicon Mauriniacense excuses the German Emperor from blame while accusing the French king alone for the defeat. (28)
After the crusade undertaken by Frederick II, Gerold, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, sent a harsh letter to all the faithful accusing the emperor of conduct unbecoming a crusader. Gerold begins the letter: "If it should be fully known how astonishing, nay rather, deplorable, the conduct of the emperor has been in the Eastern lands from the beginning to the end, to the great detriment of the cause of Jesus Christ and to the great injury of the Christian faith, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head no common sense would be found." The patriarch then goes on to explain at length how the emperor lied to the people, hated the Templars ("you may be sure that he never showed as much animosity and hatred against the Saracens"), and finally attacked his own people because they questioned his tactics. (29)
Other writers denounce the crusading soldiers and their sinful behavior as the cause of the defeats in the Holy Land. Such was the case with Fulcher of Chartres, who in trying to explain why members of the First Crusade had failed in their attempt to take Tyre writes: "Already our people were distributing the booty they expected to get ... men trust in their own strength not considering what they owe to God." (30) This is echoed by Henry of Huntingdon who comments on the defeats of the Second Crusade:
Still others accuse the Latin inhabitants of Jerusalem, remnants of the successful First Crusade, for the defeats which followed. For example, in the Second Crusade the German emperor, Conrad II, blames them for the failure of the siege of Damascus, although he leaves doubt about whether the treason was committed by the king of Jerusalem, the Templars or the princes of Syria. (32) Later, in the Third Crusade, Ralph Niger lays the defeat at the feet of Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the other great magnates of Palestine who came forth with their "pomp of riches and abundance," to meet the European princes, but fled when Saladin came near. Niger adds: "Whence it happened that by the judgement of God the land was taken and the princes captured and those who in some way were able to flee went in dispersion." (33)
There are also threads of, a harsh anti‑crusading spirit among some critics. Several feel that the Crusades were frivolous ventures. This is perhaps shown best in the rather cynical "Crusader's Song" first unearthed by H. Pflaum and later translated by Colin Morris:
Gerhoch of Reichersberg and the anonymous author of the Annales Herbipolenses go further in their criticism of the Crusades; they believe that the whole endeavor was the work of the devil. The annalist writes:
In turning to war against other Christian realms, the allegiance of God is less easy to discern. Whereas godliness versus non‑godliness was easily determined when fighting pagans, the Christian apologist of wars who fought against other Christians had a much more difficult task in rationalizing his kingdom's defeat. In some places where Christians fought each other little blood was shed and chivalric rules of war were followed simply because the armies were Christian.
For example, concerning the battle of Brémule, fought in 1119, Ordericus Vitalis writes:
I have been told that in the battle of the two kings, in which about nine hundred knights were engaged, only three were killed. They were clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms; they were more concerned to capture than to kill the fugitives. As Christian soldiers they did not thirst for the blood of their brothers, but rejoiced in just victory given by God for the good of the holy Church and the peace of the faithful. (36)
Other authors, such as Bernard Gui commenting on the French defeat at Courtrai and John of Trokelowe commenting on the English defeat at Bannockburn, simply dismiss them as turns of the Wheel of Fortune. Tokelowe puts it most elegantly: "But let this outcome destroy no one; for the fates of battles are unknown. For the sword consumes now these and now those, and thus with fortune turning its wheel, the victory remained in this one turn to the Scots.” (37)
Still other writers are determined to rationalize these defeats more carefully by blaming someone or something for their occurrence. Several believe that defeat came to Christians because they fought each other instead of fighting jointly against the Saracens. Gerald of Wales, for example, writing in the early twelfth century, attributes King John of England's defeats by the Irish to the fact that "this man ... went not into the East but into the West, not against the Saracens but against Christians.” (38) And, commenting on the battle of Courtrai, fought nearly a century later, the Kronyk van Vlaenderen insists that the French failed to defeat the Flemings there because they went against other Christians rather than against the Saracens who had just recaptured Majorca. (39)
John Gower echoes this sentiment during the Hundred Years War, as he wishes to end the Christian versus Christian conflict in order to make another, combined Anglo‑French Crusade to the Holy Land:
Other reasons for defeat parallel more closely the excuses given for losses suffered to the pagans. An anonymous fifteenth‑century poem entitled "Now England is Perished" is the perfect example of this. It explains that the losses ir the war against France were due to the sins of the people:
Other writers target the sins of the soldiers who lost in battle as the reason for defeat. For example, in the Vita Edwardi secundi the anonymous author writes. "perchance some one will ask why the Lord smote us this day, why we succumbed to the Scots, when for the last twenty years we have always had the better of them." He then answers his own question by charging the English troops and their "proud arrogance" with causing their own defeat at Bannockburn. (42) A further, more curious, example of this excuse for defeat comes from the continuation of the fourteenth‑century Eulogium historiarum. Describing the Bishop of Norwich's loss at the siege of Ypres in 1383, the anonymous author of this chronicle reports that the defeat came because "God hit them in the 'derrieres' " (percussitque eos Deus in posteriora), indicating that God had punished the English with dysentery because of their sins. (43)
A final example of this comes from John Bromyard who writes (c. 1390) that the wrong motives of the English soldiers had led to defeat in France:
The sins of the military leader was another explanation for loss in battle against other Christians. Giovanni Villani, for example, claims that the troops of Manfred, the king of Sicily, were defeated at the battle of Benevento in 1266 because of their king's heresy and persecutions. (45) And the annalist of the Annales Gandenses believes that the ultimate Flemish loss in their 1302‑05 insurrection against the French was the result of their leader William of Jülich's loss of righteousness:
Finally, the continuator of Guillaume de Nangis' Chronicon blames both the king of England and the king of France for the battles fought in 1340 which opened the conflict later to be known as the Hundred Years War. He writes:
In this year of calamity and misery, of ignominy and confusion, nothing laudable was achieved between the two kings of France and England, because whatever was done during this year was not from the Holy Spirit, but ought to be supposed to have proceeded from the angel of Satan.... in this year the highest confusion prevailed; however it occurred not in any way for the utility of the republics of the aforementioned kings, but, alas, for the degradation and confusion of all Christianity, and of the holy and universal Mother Church, for whom the said princes ought to be the sustenance and the support. (47)
Ultimately, some writers simply recognize God's absence from their army and hope, in almost a prayerful way, that He will soon return. In April 1471, shortly after suffering a defeat in the War of the Roses, John Paston writes home: "The people here are very afraid. God has shown himself in a marvelous way, as Creator of All who can undo the world again when it pleases Him: and I think in all likelihood that He will show himself as marvelously again within a short while, and perhaps more than once in such cases.” (48)
While this look at God and war during the Middle Ages has been brief, there are a few conclusions to be drawn. The first is the distinct lack of difference found in the rationalizations of defeat when suffered at the hands of pagans or of other Christians. Second, in determining why an army lost in battle, the question of justice or of God's presence disappears. Few writers question the justice of their army's participation in a war, and no one admits that God was actually fighting with the other side against his kingdom's forces. Finally, there are a few archetypical explanations for defeat; the sins of the people, of the army, or of their leaders all are used to explain why an otherwise just and "godly" military adventure failed. There is also the belief that the enemy targeted for war is wrong; the Crusaders should have been fighting the heretics of their own land and the Christian kings should have been fighting the Saracens rather than each other.
1 Pseudo‑Augustine, Epistola 13, in Patrialogia latina [PL] 33:1098: "Gravi de pugna conqueris: dubites nolo, utile tibi tuisque dabo consilium: arripe manibus arma, oratio aures pulset Auctoris; quia quando pugnatur, Deus apertis caelis prospectat, et partem quarn inspicit justam, ibi dat palmam."
2 For Hincmar of Reims, Hrabanus Maurus and Sedulius Scotus see Frederick H. Russell, 7he Just War in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1975), 29. For Bernard of Clairvaux, see Russell, 37. And for lvo of Chartres, see Russell, 38.
3 De expugatione Lyxbonensi, ed. and trans. Cook W. David (New York, 1936), 82.
4 Leo IV, Epistola 28, in MGH, Epp, 5, ed. A. de Hirsch‑Gereuth (Berlin, 1899), 601.
5 John VIII, Epistola 22,36, in MGH, Epp, 7, ed. Erich Casper (Berlin, 1928), 20, 36.
6 See Russell, 203‑4, 253‑55 for a list of canonists permitting indulgences for merely serving on a Crusade.
7 Philippe de Mezières, Le songe du vieil, ed. G.W Coopland, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1969), 2:382.
8 OV, 6:92‑93.
9 Lodewijk van Velthem, Spiegel historiaal of rymspiegel, ed. Isaac Long, 4 vols. (Amsterdam, 1727), 4:22,24,29.
10 See Heiko A. Oberman and T.A. Weisheipl, "The Sermo epinicus Ascribed to Thomas Bradwardine," Archives d’histoire doctrinale et litteraire du moyen age 35 (1958): 295‑327 for the best edition of this sermon.
11 See Symeon the Monk, Historia de sancto Cuthberto, in Opera omnia, ed. Thomas Arnold, 2 vols. (London, 1885), 1:205.
12 Fredegar, The Fourth Book of Fredegar and Continuations, ed. and trans. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (London, 1960), 52‑53.
13 See C.T. Allmand, ed., Society at War: The Experience of England and France during the Hundred Years War (Edinburgh, 1972), 40‑41.
14 Pere III of Catalonia, Chronicle, trans. Mary Hillgarth, ed. Jocelyn M. Hillgarth, 2 vols. (Toronto, 1980), 2:514.
15 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, trans. E.C. Richardson, 2 vols. (New York, 1890), 1:489‑91.
16 Anselin of Lucca, Collectio canonum, in PL 149:533‑34.
17 John Wyclif, "On the Seven Deadly Sins," in Select English Works of John Wyclif, ed. Thomas Arnold, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1871), 3:137‑38.
18 Charles J. Liebman, "Une sermon de Philippe de Vilette, abbé de Saint‑Denis, pour la levée de l'Oriflamme (1414)," Romania 68 (1944-45): 463‑65.
19 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Hynors (Oxford, 1969), 48‑49.
20 De expurgatione Lyxbonensi, 76‑77.
21 Albert d'Haenens, "Les incursions hongroises dans l'epace belge (954/955). Histoire ou Historiographie?" Cahiers de civilisation médiévale Xe‑XIIe siècle 4 (1961): 43 5.
22 "Battle of Maldon," in A Choice of Anglo Saxon Verse, ed. and trans. R. Hamer (London, 1970), 54‑55.
23 EHD, no. 226.
24 For example, on the reaction to the defeat of the Second Crusade see Giles Constable, "The Second Crusade as Seen by Contemporaries," Traditio 9 (1953): 213‑79.
25 A long list of these sources include the Historia Wetfonan Weingartensis in MGH SS, 21:468; Lambert of Ardres, Historia, in MGH SS 24:633‑34; the Annales Magdeburgenses in MGH SS 16:188; and the Annales Palidenses in MGH SS 16:83.
26 Roger of Wendover, Chronicon, in Christian Society and the Crusades, 1198‑1229, ed. and trans. Edward Peters (Philadelphia, 1971), 154.
27 Ralph Niger, De re militari et triplici via peregrinationis Ierosolitane (1187/88), ed. Ludwig Schmugge (Berlin, 1977), 187-88.
30 John of Salisbury, Historia pontificalis, ed. R.L. Poole (Oxford, 1927), 4; Bernard of Clairvaux, De consideratione, in Opera omnia, 3:410‑13; and the Chronicon Mauriniacense, RHF, 12:88.
31 Christian Society and the Crusades, 165‑66.
32 Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095‑1127, trans. F.R. Ryan, ed. H.S. Fink (New York, 1973), 204.
33 Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. Thomas Arnold (London, 1879), 280‑8 1. Constable, 273.
33 Ralph Niger, 187-88.
34 H. Pflaum, "A Strange Crusader's Song," Speculum 10 (1935): 337‑39. Translation in Colin Morris, "Propaganda for War: The Dissemination of the Crusading Ideal in the Twelfth Century," Studies in Church History 20 (1983): 86‑87.
35 Annales Herbipolenses, in MGH SS, 16:3 and Gerhoch of Reichersberg, Libri III de investigatione antichristi in MGH Libelli de lite, 3:374‑84.
36 OV, 6:240‑41.
37 John of Trokelowe, Annales, ed. H.T. Riley (London, 1866), 87 and Bernard Gui, Flos chronicorum necnon chronico regum Francorum, ed. Guignant de Wailly (Paris, 1855), 713.
38 Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. IF Dimock (London, 1867), 388‑89.
39 Kronyk van Vlaenderen van 580 tot 1467, ed. P. Blornmaert and C.P. Serrière, 2 vols. (Ghent, 1839),1: 156.
40 John Gower, in Political Poems and Songs, ed. Thomas Wright, 2 vols. (London, 1861), 2:10‑11.
41 "Now is England Perished," in Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, ed. Robin H. Robbins (New York, 1959), 149‑50.
42 Vita Edwardi secundi, ed. and trans. Noel Denholm‑Young (London, 1957), 56.
43 Eulogium historiarum sive temporis, ed. F.S. Hayden, 3 vols. (London, 1863), 3.357.
44 Allmand, 38‑39.
45 Giovanni Villani, Chroniche Fiorentine, ed. and trans. P. Wicksteed (London, 1906), 127‑28.
46 Annales Gandenses, ed. and trans. Hilda Johnstone (London, 1951), 41.
47 Guillaume de Nangis, Chronicon et continuationes, ed. H. Geraud, 2 vols. (Paris, 1843), 2:166.
48 Richard Barber, The Pastons: The Letters of a Family in the War of the Roses (Woodbridge, 1986), 169.