Holy War and the Kingdom of Heaven: Pope Leo IV’s Letter to the Frankish Army (847/8?)

I’ve recently had cause to think about holy war in the Carolingian period again. One of the things that struck me is that this is a subject that suffers from being in the shadow of the Crusades. This is not just because the Crusades are the archetype for medieval Christian holy wars, by which all others are measured and understood. Much of the scholarship on holy war in the Carolingian age has been carried out by Crusades specialists trying to understand how a religion of peace whose earliest practitioners were suspicious of military affairs came to be the faith of people crying out ‘Deus le volt’ as they stormed Antioch and Jerusalem in the last years of the eleventh century. The result tends to be a whistlestop tour across a millennium, hitting a couple of perennial points such as Constantine’s conversion and Augustine’s formulation of just warfare, before racing onto the next stop a couple of centuries later.

One of the old chestnuts briefly paused at is the letter of Pope Leo IV (r.847-853) to a Frankish army in the middle of the ninth century. This letter is important as possibly the first place a Christian religious authority explicitly says that soldiers who die fighting a holy war automatically go to heaven. This is of great significance for historians of the Crusades, because the concept of a papal indulgence for those who participated in the campaign is at the heart of many definitions of a Crusade. But in most scholarly accounts the letter merits half a sentence and a footnote. This is a shame, because it’s a fascinating text. Because of this neglect, and because if people on the internet are going to argue about medieval holy war they should at least have access to decent sources and I don’t think the Fordham translation is particularly good, I thought it might be useful to offer one of my own.

Leo IV, Epistolae selectae, ed. A. Hirsch-Gereuth, MGH Epp 5 (Berlin, 1899), no. 28, 601.

To the army of the Franks

1. Put aside all fear and panic, and endeavour to act manfully against the enemies of the holy faith and the foes of all lands.

2. Likewise. Up until now your forebears have always proved to be victorious when they marched forth in military array, and no multitude of people could overcome them. For we have not heard that they ever returned without the fame of a victory.

3. Likewise. Beloved, we want all of you to know that whoever dies faithfully in this contest of war (which we say not wishing it comes to pass) will by no means be denied the kingdom of heaven. For the Almighty knows that if any of you die, he died for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul and the defence of the country of Christians, and therefore he will obtain the aforesaid prize [i.e. heaven] from Him.

An important thing to note about this letter is that it only survives in later legal collections. The full text is preserved in a manuscript known as the Collectio Britannica (BL Add MS 8873 f.167v) which contains a collection of canons probably assembled in France in 1108. The canonist Ivo of Chartres (d. 1114) included it in his Decretum (X.87) and in slightly shortened form in his Panormia (VIII.30). An abbreviated version of Leo’s letter, attributing it to the more celebrated Pope Nicholas I (r. 858-867) makes an appearance in Gratian’s Decretum (C. 23 q. 8 c. 9). The letter survived because it was used as a legal precedent, but this means we don’t have any sense of context for when it was written, who exactly Leo was addressing or how it circulated before the late-eleventh century (i.e. when the Crusades began), although the Collectio claims to be drawing the letters from Leo’s Papal Register. The conventional date of 853 assigned to the letter has no particular evidence behind it and is not to be trusted, particularly as there was no Frankish army near Rome in that year.

We can say a little more about the context of Leo’s pontificate. It was defined by an event that took place the year before he was elected, when in August 846 a Saracen raiding party sacked the part of Rome that lay outside the Aurelian walls, including the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and San Paolo fuori le Mura. As Pope, Leo responded to this disaster by repairing the basilicas, fixing the city walls and establishing a new set of fortifications, known as the Leonine Walls, which contain what is now the Vatican City. Knowing that the raiders might return, he also sought to mobilise aid from the Carolingian rulers of Italy, Emperor Lothar I (r. 817-855) and his son Louis II (r. 844-875), and from southern Italian cities such as Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi. This preparation paid off when a Christian naval coalition intercepted and defeated a Saracen fleet heading towards Rome at the Battle of Ostia in 849. Despite this success, the sack of 846 was an immensely traumatic moment, which sent shockwaves across Christian Europe and threw Rome into a state of emergency. Although we know that the Eternal City would remain safe from the Saracens from then on, Leo obviously didn’t. In 847 Saracen pirates took over Bari, establishing an Emirate that would raid into southern Italy for the next two-and-a-half decades. This atmosphere of crisis helps to explain the unusual contents of the letter.

Raphael’s depiction of The Battle of Ostia in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, painted in 1514-15. Note Leo IV on the left, bearing a strong resemblance to Pope Leo X (r.1513-1521).

Although Leo specifies that the Frankish army is fighting against enemies of the faith in c.1, the discussion of holy war is mostly confined to c.3, where it is pretty explicit. Franks who die righteously in this war will go to heaven. Leo lays stress on the causes they are defending – the truth of the faith, their souls, and the defence of Christendom. It’s hard to find much in the way of precedent for this statement. This is surprising given how many of the elements that made it were already available. Paul compared Christians to soldiers fighting for the cause. Christian martyrs had been dying for the faith from the very beginning, and they automatically won eternal life for doing so. As I have discussed elsewhere, Charlemagne waged wars that were meant to bring Christianity to new peoples such as the Saxons, or to rescue Christians believed to be suffering persecution in the Iberian Peninsula. Bringing together the ideas of fighting for the faith and going to heaven for dying for the faith seems like an obvious thing to do.

Pope Leo’s letter is perhaps not as isolated as it may appear. Many of the papal letters preserved in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus on Charlemagne’s orders in 791 contain suggestions that going to war on behalf of the pope could ensure one’s path to heaven. A particularly striking example appears in a letter of 756 sent by Pope Stephen II (r. 752-757) to King Pippin III (r. 751-768) and his sons, which purports to be the words of St Peter addressing the Franks. Stephen wanted Frankish help against the Lombard king Aistulf (r. 749-756). St Peter lists the crimes of the Lombards to the Franks before stating that he was:

Offering you the rewards of eternal recompense and the unending joys of heaven – provided that you have very speedily defended my Roman city and my own people, your Roman brothers, from the hands of the evil Lombards.

(Translated in McKitterick, van Espelo, Pollard and Price.)

There are some obvious differences with Leo’s letter. Peter/Stephen doesn’t state that the Franks would have to perish while on this campaign to enjoy this heavenly perk. More surprising is the target of this campaign, the Lombards being Christian, albeit not behaving particularly so from a papal perspective.

Despite these differences, this letter and others in the same collection offer a Carolingian context for Pope Leo’s exhortation to the Frankish army. Something similar appears in material celebrating Gerold, the Prefect of Bavaria, who died fighting the Avars in 799. Heito’s Visio Wettini from 824 declared that Gerold deserved ‘everlasting life’ because he died ‘in defence of the holy church against the infidels’. Fraser recently drew my attention to a sermon of Abbo of Saint-Germain from the 880s, translated by Charles West, which calls upon the listener:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs.

I suspect that such ideas were not unknown elsewhere in the Carolingian world, but they might not have been commonly expressed. This is hinted by the fact that in 878 Pope John VIII (r. 872-882) had to reassure the bishops of the West Frankish kingdom that those who died fighting against pagans would go to heaven, suggesting that it wasn’t an idea that they regularly encountered. Likewise, the importance of Leo’s letter for the canonists was in large part the result of the absence of other authorities to draw upon. When Peter Comestor (d. 1179) sought to defend the point in a tract addressed to a Patriarch of Jerusalem, his only sources were Leo and Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099).

Looking at c.3 of the letter alone makes Leo IV look like a solitary prophet of the age of the Crusades. The rest of the text however very firmly places him in the Carolingian world. This is a letter written by Leo to stiffen the spine of a Frankish army, and the consolations of heaven to the fallen is the very last argument he uses to steady the troops. He begins by emphasising the evil of the enemy, who are both inimical to the faith and the peace of all people (c.1). Interestingly, Leo addresses the men in the context of the history of the Franks in c.2, recalling to them the example set by their ancestors. In doing so, the Pope was probably doing more than reminding them of the formidable achievements of Frankish arms over the previous century and a half. He also implicitly harked back to the relationship between the Carolingians and the Papacy that stretched back to the days of Pippin and Stephen, in which the Franks protected Rome against all threats. The sack of 846 was a shocking moment for the Carolingians as well as the Papacy, prompting Lothar and, particularly, Louis II to pay much more attention to southern Italy. The latter would define his reign by his capacity to protect Italy and the Pope from Saracen threats. That bond was acknowledged by Leo as he steeled the Franks of his own day by celebrating the deeds of those long past.  

This may give us a clue for dating the letter. Louis II arrived in southern Italy with a Frankish army in 847, and spent much of 848 campaigning against Muslim pirates while trying to end the civil war that had riven Benevento, leading to the formal division in 849 of the troubled principality. He returned south in 852 to campaign against Bari. This suggests 847-8 or 852 as the most likely contexts for the Leo’s address to a Frankish army. Although it could be either, I’m tempted to go with the earlier date, simply because praising the efforts of the ancestors of the Frankish army seems like a slightly odd move if there had already been an expedition five years earlier in which some of the army of 852 had probably participated. By contrast, before 847 there hadn’t been a Frankish army south of Rome since the days of Charlemagne, a full generation earlier.

Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact year of the letter, we can locate it in a Carolingian milieu. Leo’s comments on the souls of those fallen in holy war were unusual for his period. They would go onto be highly influential in the very different circumstances of the Crusades. But by reading the entire letter as it survives to us, we can see it as the product of the Carolingian world, written not to be an example for lawyers, but as a rallying cry for desperately scared and fiercely proud men in a time of crisis.

Charter A Week 59: Intercession for the Dead

Most of the time when choosing material for Charter A Week, I’m dealing with stuff I already know. After all, I’ve been working with this material for a decade by now – I know what is and isn’t important, and I’ve already got scratch translations of basically all of it. As we limp towards the end of the reign of Ralph of Burgundy, however, the options I knew about were so uninspiring that I went a-searching elsewhere. Specifically, I had a look at the Regesta Imperii for the tenth-century papacy. And there, I found something rather curious: two letters, which once upon a time I had skimmed and dismissed in the cartulary of the Dijon abbey of Saint-Bénigne as mid-eleventh century, redated to the 930s. The reason behind the redating is simple enough: despite the first letter being in the name of ‘Abbot H.’, suggesting the eleventh-century Abbot Halinard, the second letter says that the ‘duke of the Romans’ to whom it is addressed has the same name as the abbot writing it. This is not true of Halinard, but it is true of the tenth-century Abbot Alberic, who shared his name with the lay ruler of Rome Alberic. The text itself is evidently corrupt at points – the Saint-Bénigne text is gibberish in one spot, so I actually went to the cartulary, which is digitised, to see what it said and, yep, it’s gibberish there too. An older version printed by Mabillon has different readings in places – I don’t know the source, he just says it’s ex nostris schedis, which I think means ‘from my notes’ – but these actually make sense so I have followed them where necessary to produce something comprehensible. Anyway, the point is it’s a lot easier to see how an A might become an H than to see how someone would confuse the names ‘Halinard’ and ‘Alberic’, so I’m quite happy to follow the Regesta here. This is doubly so because these letters are still pretty interesting. With that said, a lot of their interest comes from what they show about diplomacy and city planning, so I’m going to need to channel my inner Ottewill-Soulsby… 

Saint-Bénigne 325 (c. 930-935)

To the holy lord and teacher of the whole world, that is, the universal Pope John [XI], [Alberic], humble abbot of the power of Saint-Bénigne, with the entire congregation, sends the faithful service of holy prayers.

It is not hidden from the whole world that the pastor of the Roman church performs their duties on behalf of the Apostle, so that what he establishes concerning the ecclesiastical order should endure fixed and stable and inviolable forever. Therefore, it is worthy for one who resolves problems that he should have with him always a philosophy of civic virtue, to wit, good judgement, so that he to whom the power over churches has been given should not ignorantly establish because of malicious rumours what, when he knows true antiquity, he should not have any doubts about destroying.

We say this, father, to come before your presence, because it was brought to Our notice that the canons [of Saint-Étienne de Dijon] who neighbour Us, desiring to take away monastic honour, wanted to seek the highness of your authority so that, after gaining permission from you, they could transfer our cemetery into the castle for themselves. You should know, however, that those who wish to change the ancient establishment of the Fathers seek not what is God’s but what is their own. Therefore, We ask in God’s name that you do not concede this; and We will fittingly hold a memory of service.

 Saint-Benigne 326

To the most illustrious lord, chamberlain of the sacred palace, first senator and sole duke of the Romans [Alberic], an abbot holding his same name [Alberic of Saint-Bénigne], sends the service of continual fidelity.

Distance between places can never separate those whom a true connection of charity joins together. For this reason, let it be known to Your Highness that although I am far away in body, nonetheless I am always near you in mind and spirit, and not only me myself, but also my fellow brothers sedulously serving St Benignus, and indeed our lord himself as well, and we cherish your salvation in all prosperity with holy prayers; in the present world, you will have me – who is not unmindful of your good deeds – in your service in the next case as long as I live. Otherwise, because We confide many things in you, whatever should happen to Us, We confidently disclose and request that if any of Our neighbouring rivals should want to plot anything before the lord Pope against Our place, you (as well as you can) should prohibit it from being done.

We don’t ask for anything unjust; instead, We wish that the ancient law of Our place to be safe concerning the graveyard which they unjustly want to move. This was known to you, but will become better known shortly. If you take good care of it, you will cause us to remember you.

[The blessed pope Gregory says that the soul of anyone whose body is buried within the city walls will wander for all time. And in another place it is said that it is not permitted to bury the dead within the city walls, because we read and known that the Lord both suffered and was buried outside the city; similarly St Stephen and many others; and for this reason the holy fathers forbade any cemetery from being made within the walls of a city or a castle. We ought to follow Christ, indeed, in everything.]

(The bit in square brackets, for the record, was included in the Saint-Bénigne cartulary text and clearly relates to the same thing; but it’s on a separate page of the manuscript and I don’t think it was originally part of the letter as sent to Alberic in Rome.) 


The manuscript in question, BM Dijon 591, fol. 62r (source)

I was actually tempted to try and do a parody of Sam’s writing style, but as I’m doing this on the morning I’ve registered (successfully, thank the Lord) at the Tübingen Auslanderamt, which involved both an early morning appointment and little sleep the night before, I’ll spare you and me. Anyway, the fundamental reason that the abbot of Saint-Bénigne is so opposed to moving the graveyard isn’t stated here, but is likely to be, in the most direct sense, the burial fees the abbey would have received for disposing of the dead. More broadly, the home of a family’s dead could expect to have a privileged relationship with that family. We know this most obviously from royal and comital necropoli, such as Saint-Denis. Losing the dead may well have meant losing that relationship. Even worse, from the point of view of the abbey of Saint-Bénigne, was losing it to the collegiate church of Saint-Étienne. A good long while ago now, we looked at the activities of Archdeacon Rather of Langres, prior of Saint-Étienne, who had tried to defraud Saint-Bénigne of a church they owned, something which rankled years on after he did it. It’s a reasonable presumption that there as a rivalry between the two institutions which lent a particular spice to this quarrel. 

Interestingly, the proof texts which I have put in square brackets are a remarkable call-back to Classical ideas of burial in the city. Famously, during Classical Antiquity, dead bodies could not be buried within the city walls. As Late Antiquity shifted into the Earlier Middle Ages, though, this became a more and more common practice. Here, though, the practice is called back to, although it is justified with reference to a Christian not a Roman past. In particular, it is the need to follow Christian exemplars, most obviously Jesus himself, which is cited. 

It is, as I noted above, not certain whether or not either Pope John XI or Alberic of Rome actually saw these texts. Instead, Alberic of Saint-Bénigne takes a much more straightforward approach. To the pope, he simply offers a quid pro quo, trading on the idea that as monks Saint-Bénigne’s prayers are worth more than Saint-Étienne’s. However, he’s also trying to hedge his bets, hence the letter to John’s half-brother Alberic, a serious figure to be reckoned with in mid-tenth century Rome. This is, unfortunately, the only evidence we have of communication between Rome and Dijon at this time, so we don’t know if the abbot actually did have prior knowledge of the patrician. Nonetheless, this is a really interesting example of how intercession was sought by would-be clients. 

Recently in Tübingen, Sam gave a roundtable discussing the so-called New Diplomatic History, an approach to diplomatic history which aimed to restore individuality, agency, and political culture to what was often perceived as a history of abstractions. He was very gung-ho about the prospects for it, but I was more sceptical. Especially coming from a tenth-century background, where we’re accustomed to talk about everything in terms of negotiation and intercession, it seems to me that this approach runs the risk of dissolving the history of Earlier Medieval diplomacy into being simply a history of political culture. During the round table, one of the questions I asked Sam was whether or not such a dissolution was a bad thing. After musing, and bearing these letters in mind, I now think it does run that risk, but that that’s not a bad thing, at least not for our period. In a world where social and political organisation is simply managed and reproduced differently, I would not care to discuss whether or not what Abbot Alberic is doing is or is not diplomacy – he certainly thinks he’s part of the same structure as John, if not as the patrician Alberic. What strikes me as a more useful approach in an earlier medieval context is how perceptions of different kinds of difference (of status, geography, language, etc) impacted on practices of negotiation, and Abbot Alberic’s problems are a good way into that. 

Shadow Popes: Part 2 of the Tübingen not-conference-report

At one point during the Tübingen conference, Charles West described the eleventh-century reform movement as (to paraphrase slightly) ‘Carolingian ecclesiology with added pope’. The role played by the popes in the eleventh century – particularly Pope Gregory VII – has been and still is subject to major historical scrutiny, as is probably to be expected when an emperor stands barefoot outside your door in the snow asking you to forgive him; at the least, it indicates a good publicity machine. Talking to us about popes was Kriston Rennie of the University of Queensland, and what stood out for me was one comment in particular he made, about how the mixed reputation of the tenth-century papacy does not seem to have had any particular impact on its appeal.

Henry IV at the gates of Canossa, from Wikimedia Commons

The tenth-century ‘not-called-the-pornocracy-anymore’ papacy is notorious for its bad behaviour. Of course, a large part of the reason for that is that Ottonian historians, particularly but not exclusively Liutprand of Cremona, had a lot of fun in the latter tenth century trashing the reputations of Italian politicians in the name of justifying the Saxon kings’ interventions in the peninsula, so quite how badly-behaved the popes really were is a matter of some debate. Nonetheless, tenth-century Rome was home to popes deeply entrenched in often-vicious local politics and possible sexual scandal. Pope Sergius III (904-911), for instance, is supposed to have strangled his rivals for the papal throne and engaged in a number of sexual liasons.

And, of course, none of this seems to effect the papacy’s moral authority. The question this provoked for me was ‘how far can one remove the actual popes from the history of the papacy during this period?’ This is something of an intellectual game, because I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that individual popes had no agency. Nevertheless, if we imagine, say, that after the Cadaver Synod Pope Stephen had dropped dead and they’d just decided to keep Pope Formosus’ body as pope for the rest of the century, how much would have changed?

In several cases, not much. Take, for instance, the foundation of the abbey of Cluny in 910. One of the things which eventually turns out to be important about Cluny is that it is, from the start, made subject to papal authority. To quote the foundation charter:

Let the said monks pay 10 solidi every five years to the threshold of the apostles at Rome, to provide them with their lighting, and let them have the protection of the same apostles and the defence of the Roman pontiff… And I appeal and entreat through God and in God, and by all His saints and the tremendous day of Judgement that no secular prince, no count, nor any bishop, nor the pontiff of the aforesaid seat of Rome should invade the things of those servants of God… And I beseech you, O holy apostles and glorious princes of the Earth, Peter and Paul, and you, pontiff of pontiffs of the apostolic seat, that through the canonical and apostolic authority which you accepted from God, you should remove from the company of the holy Church of God and eternal life the robbers and invaders and abductors of these goods… and that you might be tutors and defenders of the said place of Cluny, and the servants of God living there… (translation here mine; link goes to the Internet Medieval Sourcebook)

And so, put under the pope’s protection, Cluniac monks eventually come to be of paramount importance to wider trends in monastic reform, and then Church reform more generally, and next thing you know it’s emperor-in-the-snow time.

Henry IV again. I have no idea about the context of this. Also from Wikimedia Commons.

None of this would have been tremendously apparent at the time, so the question becomes, why invoke the pope? The pope at the time was the aforementioned Sergius III, whose personal moral authority may or may not have been questionable, but who in any case wasn’t going to lead an army into the Mâconnais (the region of France where Cluny is) to defend it.

An important contextual element here is that the Mâconnais, in 910, was a frontier region between two massive personal hegemonies: the Aquitaine of William the Pious, who founded Cluny; and the Burgundy of Richard the Justiciar. (This map is about as good as it gets…) Mâcon was under William’s control, but on the fringe of his sphere of influence, which was centred further to the west. Richard, who must win the prize for ‘tenth-century Gaul’s biggest opportunist’, probably saw an opportunity for territorial expansion at William’s expense (as he certainly did later in Bourges, which was similarly placed). An important method of gaining control of a region was to take control of its most important monasteries, through an institution known an lay abbacy, which is exactly what it sounds like: laymen ruling an abbey as abbot. This gave them access to the abbey’s resources, which could be substantial. Richard’s rise to power in Burgundy had been facilitated not least by takeovers of lay abbacies in this manner, including Sainte-Colombe in Sens and Saint-Germain in Auxerre.

So when William founded an important abbey in this region, it could potentially be a support of his rule there – or it could be a target for a regional takeover. By placing the abbey under papal protection, William effectively removed the possibility of Richard (or anyone else) taking over Cluny’s lay abbacy, whilst retaining a personal hegemony in the form of an informal alliance. As several generations of West Frankish nobles were to discover, being ‘close friends’ with an abbey was as effective a means of influence over monasteries as being the official ruler.  To accomplish this, though, it was enough to invoke papal authority – the pope didn’t actually need to get involved in any way, because the main point was to de-legitimize other modes of interaction with the abbey than the one William was already monopolising, i.e., informal alliance.

This kind of ‘demand-driven’ expansion of papal authority appears to have been cumulatively significant over the course of the tenth century; the influence of Rome expanded organically, without the popes necessarily getting involved at all. However, it carried with it the potential to turn influence into power – to take the Cluny example, once the pope’s authority was invoked, the abbey was inextricably linked with the papacy, at the very minimum because someone actually had to go to Rome to give them the 10 solidi, and friendships, correspondence, and political and personal ties would naturally follow on. This kind of connection then provides a pope who does want to get actively involved something on which to pull to get his way; it doesn’t explain why a pope might want to start interfering in the Church at large, but it is an important part of the picture as to why they can.

        (As a final note, I should mention here that Barbara Rosenwein has a different explanation of the political context here, one where the specific pope does in fact matter…)