By Cox, Rory
History Today , Vol. 60, No. 8
War and human society are familiar acquaintances and for at least 2,500 years, since Plato was writing in the Athenian Academy, intellectuals have debated the justice and injustice of armed conflict. The most famous military theorist of all, Karl yon Clausewitz (1780-1831), was convinced that no laws, rules or limits should or could be imposed on war. It is not surprising that a vast variety of individuals has sought to explain it, to justify it and to condemn it.
Yet the condemnation of war is not something typically associated with the European Middle Ages. Rather, it is the familiar image of knights in armour performing chivalric deeds and tales of bloody conflict that emerge from many surviving medieval sources. In these, such actions tend to be esteemed and praised rather than criticised. However, not all medieval intellectuals held the view that warfare was intrinsically noble and glorious and a number wrote critically about it.
One of the most voluble of these was the 14th-century English theologian, philosopher and eventual heretic, John Wyclif (c. 1330-84). Although better known for his association with the English translation of the Bible and hailed by later Protestant reformers as the 'morning star' of the Reformation, Wyclif also wrote a substantial amount on the subject of war and violence. That he did so is perhaps less surprising when one considers that for most of his lifetime the English were waging war against France in part of what has come to be known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
The effects of such a destructive and persistent conflict waged in the heart of Christendom inevitably drew the attention of the intellectuals of the age. The atrocities committed by both sides produced an ethical revulsion among certain commentators. Consequently, in 1347 Pope Clement VI appealed to Edward III (r. 1327-77) about the plight of the common people of France whose goods had been plundered and whose villages had been burnt. Though the chronicles were generally more concerned with the martial deeds of the knighthood than in critcising violence, the harshest acts were still condemned. The Flemish chronicler Jean le Bel (c. 1290-1370) criticised the treatment of the citizens of Calais who were ejected from the city after it fell to the English in August 1347. The massacre that took place at Limoges in 1370, on the orders of the Black Prince, drew the ire of Jean Froissart (c. 1335-1410), who claimed that 3,000 men, women and children were brutally put to the sword in the city. The Bridlington Prophecy, the highly polemical anonymous tract of the 1360s, meanwhile, chastised Edward III for the 'slaughter of innocent people in France'.
Opposition to taxation and other financial burdens imposed on English subjects in order to pay for the French war is evident from the early 1340s. From the 1360s, however, a more deep-seated moral and religious objection to war emerges from both clerical and lay sources that went beyond economic and patriotic objections to taxes and defeat. This reflects an increasing awareness that war not only caused physical and material losses, but also posed severe spiritual dangers to soldiers themselves.
Fourteenth-century commentators seem to have identified two main areas for criticism: first, the avarice of the nobility and soldiery; second, the moral degeneracy of the military leaders, clergy and population at large. Such themes were pursued by the Dominican preacher John Bromyard in his Summa Praedicantium ('Preacher's Handbook', c. 1345-55); by Bishop Thomas Brinton in his vociferous sermons from the mid-1370s; by the St Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham; and by poets like John Gower in his long poems Mirour de l'Omme ('The Mirror of Man', c. 1376-78), Vox Clamantis ('A Voice Crying Out', c. 1377-81) and Confessio Amantis ('The Lover's Confession,' c. 1386-93). In all three of these works Gower criticised a knight-age more concerned with profit than with the duty of protection entrusted to them. …