The Friars Go to War: Mendicant Military Chaplains, 1216-C. 1300

Article excerpt

The mendicant orders, particularly the Franciscans and Dominicans, have received enormous scholarly attention, virtually from their inception in 1210 and 1216, respectively, regarding a wide range of topics, but particularly their activities as preachers, teachers, advisors, and missionaries.1 Somewhat less attention has been paid to the role of the mendicants as confessors, particularly confessors to non-aristocratic or royal lay people.2 This lacuna in scholarship regarding the mendicant orders is particularly evident in the consideration of Franciscan and Dominican friars as military chaplains. This study sheds light on an important yet insufficiently appreciated aspect of mendicant pastoral activity during the first century of the Franciscan and Dominican orders.3


Military pastoral care, that is, the religious support provided to soldiers by priests, played an exceptionally important role in the conduct of warfare in both Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, particularly for the maintenance of morale and discipline.4 In the late Roman Empire and its western successor states, pastoral duties largely fell to bishops and a small cadre of priests who celebrated Mass, carried relics, interceded with God on behalf of the army, and preached to the troops.5 By the mid-eighth century, however, new religious practices in the West imposed on military commanders the need to recruit far larger numbers of priests to serve as chaplains in their armies. The old rite of penance, which permitted Christians to confess their sins only once in a lifetime, gradually was superseded by the practice of repeatable confession. This development in church teaching, which can be traced over a three-century period, culminated in the wide acceptance of repeatable confession as an acceptable rite.6 The establishment of this new institutionalized interpretation of confession is marked first in the British Isles and then on the continent during the late seventh and early eighth century by the extensive production and diffusion of penitential manuals, sometimes described by scholars as tariff books. These handbooks for priests, many of which were produced expressly for parish clergy, set out long lists of sins and appropriate penances for each, thereby emphasizing the renewable nature of the rite.7

It was now possible for soldiers to confess their sins before every battle and thereby face the enemy with a clear conscience and a clean soul.8 But this new military pastoral responsibility brought with it the need to recruit far larger numbers of priests to serve in the army than had been the case previously. A bishop and a few priests were sufficient in the armies of the Late Empire and early Middle Ages to celebrate Mass, preach, and even pray. To hear the confessions of thousands, or even tens of thousands of soldiers, however, was far beyond the capabilities of the few clerics attached to the armies of the fourth through the early eighth century. The necessity of recruiting far larger numbers of priests to serve as military chaplains was enunciated clearly in 742 by Carloman, the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace. At a synodal assembly, called the Concilium Germanum by scholars, Carloman, acting in concert with Boniface, the papal legate to the Frankish court, instituted the requirement that every unit commander in the army have on staff a capellanus capable of hearing confessions and assigning penances.9 From this point onward, including up the present, armies in the Christian West have recruited large numbers of priests to serve as military chaplains.10

It is one of the noteworthy aspects of medieval religious history that Carloman's leading role in the establishment of requirements for the provision of pastoral care was recapitulated throughout the early and high Middle Ages by secular rather than ecclesiastical figures. Even in periods of papal strength, the bishops of Rome remained largely silent about the need to provide soldiers with pastoral care, even in the context of the crusades. …


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