The non-problem of Christian heroism

Reading an inordinate number of articles on Waltharius, I have stumbled yet again on one of the more common themes when discussing early medieval texts on warfare: the ‘problem of Christian heroism’. This seems to be particularly common in literary discussions, but is still seen in some historiography: the view that Christian heroic poetry was difficult to write because the church/Christianity was hostile to warfare. This is supposedly reflected in an ambiguous attitude to Germanic heroic poetry, the Waltharius as a monastic satire on German warriors etc, etc. Another strand of this view is the claim that the concept of holy war suddenly developed at the start of the Crusading movement (as seen particularly in Carl Erdmann).

Such ideas are as (as scholars have pointed out before me, but obviously not loudly enough) pretty much rubbish. From the time that Eusebius comes up with his story of the Emperor Constantine and ‘in this sign, conquer’ the vast majority of late antique/medieval Christian writers had no problems about Christian warriors. In fact, it’s probably easier to come up with a list of the few who weren’t entirely happy with warfare in the service of Christianity: after Augustine, Martin of Tours in Sulpicius Severus’ vita, and Gregory of Tours (possibly) I’m hard pressed to think of many other names. Repeatedly in Greek, Roman and barbarian histories by Christian writers, what we get shown is good Christians gloriously thrashing evil non-Christians (along, of course, with Christian armies losing because they were insufficiently Christian). Biblical justification for this was relatively easy to find; you just went back to the Book of Kings to find an expansionist model for whatever empire or gens was now the ‘new Israel’.

Why is it then that so much scholarship still presents a picture of a painful and agonising discussion by earnest early medieval Christians of whether warfare was ever justified? I suppose some of it reflects a view that Christianity is ‘intrinsically’ peaceful, and this therefore must have been central to Christian thought throughout the ages, until it fell under outside influences. In practice, however, though there’s always been an anti-war strand in Christian thought, it’s been pretty marginalised between the fourth and the late twentieth century (arguably, it still is today, if you consider Christianity as a global force).

But I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect a lot of the problem starts from many scholars still taking too seriously the series of binary opposites that early medieval authors tend to set up: clerics v laity, learned v illiteratus, Latin v vernacular, Christian v pagan, Roman v barbarian. (For a summary of some recent scholarship demolishing many of these binaries, see Matthew Innes, ‘Teutons or Trojans? The Carolingians and the Germanic Past’ in Yitzak Hen and Matthew Innes (eds), The uses of the past in the early Middle Ages (CUP, 2000)). Onto these early medieval binaries of pagan German popular barbarism contrasted to learned Latin clerical civilisation, nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship then grafted further binaries that aren’t actually prominent in the original texts, but fitted with modern essentialist views. So early medieval history and literature were also seen as reflecting contrasting ideals of warrior spirit v pacifism, blood feud v forgiveness, glory-seeking v Christian humility, greed for gold v voluntary poverty, manliness v effeminacy, etc. (Which end of the binary was seen as positive depended on whether the scholars concerned identified with Greco-Roman or ‘Northern’ culture, just as the real difference between scholars of late antiquity and of the early Middle Ages nowadays is less the period studied, then whether they think ‘barbarians’ are a Good Thing or not.)

Imposing such binaries is an impediment in seeing what the texts themselves are actually saying about the differences between pagan and Christian culture. Even worse, scholars of vernacular literature and ‘barbarian’ history in particular have tended to see Christianity’s encounter with ‘German warrior culture’ as something entirely unprecedented, requiring new acculturation. But if you want a model of how Christianity reacted to a polytheistic militarised culture, dominated by the search for fame and wealth and obsessed by nobility and honour, then you need to look at the encounter between Christianity and the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries. Once one empire was accommodated within Christian thought, the process was easier to repeat in the future…

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