Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity

By Pennington, Kenneth | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity


Pennington, Kenneth, The Catholic Historical Review


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Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity. By Lawrence G. Duggan. (Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, an imprint of Boydell and Brewer. 2013. Pp. xiv, 264. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-84383-865-4.)

Archbishop Turpin's fighting valiantly next to his comrade in arms, Roland, is one of the most dramatic scenes in medieval literature. In the early Middle Ages clerics fought and fought very well. Clerics continued to make their presence felt on the fields of battle during the medieval and early modern period. Duggan paints a broad picture of the moral conflict between a cleric who should never shed blood and the powerful right of self-defense that was a part of the Ius commune of the time. Duggan begins his account in ancient Roman law and carries the story up to the Codices iuris canonici of 1917 and 1983. He points out that by the twentieth century, the issue of warrior clerics had almost disappeared from canonical sources. Duggan writes well and lucidly, and the story he tells will be of interest to historians of many different stripes. The book will also interest people in political science, peace studies, military studies, and maybe even an anthropologist or two.

The medieval prohibition of clerics to bear arms in canon law begins with a series of provincial and legatine conciliar canons promulgated at the height of the Gregorian Reform movement in the second half of the eleventh century. One of them, a canon from the Council of Poitiers (1079), made it into the body of canon law at the end of the twelfth century. Gratian, the father of canon law, had simply repeated the traditional prohibition in Causa 23 on war of his Decretum (1140). Bernardus Papiensis, however, included the canon from the Council of Poitiers that had circulated in earlier decretal collections in his path-breaking decretal collection (1191). The Poitiers canon became the place where the jurists discussed the right of the clergy to bear arms for centuries. Through devilishly clever arguments, primarily based on the right of every human being to defend himself, the canonists quickly turned the prohibition to bear arms into a maybe, perhaps, and it depends. Duggan gives a superficial overview of the evolving rich jurisprudence based on the Poitiers canon in a few, scant pages. Much more research could have revealed a complex and rich concatenation of ideas that influenced legal thought far beyond the Middle Ages. Medieval theologians also had much to say about bellicose clerics. There is very little about them and their thought in this book. The late medieval and early modern canonical jurisprudence is also ignored. One of the most important canonists of the seventeenth century, Emanuel Gonzalez Tellez, wrote on the canon from the Council of Poitiers:

Natural reason permits that we defend ourselves from danger . . . consequently the law that it is permitted to repel armed force with armed force is said to be conferred by nature. . . . Notwithstanding the reason for doubting this above, in spite of the general prohibition, cases of necessity must be excepted and clerics may defend themselves and their home land. . . . By the same reason if a city is besieged by enemies, clerics can take up arms based on the principle of defense. (Commentaria, [1776] to X. …

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