71: The Peace of God

The French History Podcast
The French History Podcast
71: The Peace of God
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The fall of the Carolingian House ushered in a period of violence and uncertainty for France. A decline in raids from Vikings, Iberians and Magyars did not mean the realm was at peace. Without a powerful monarch France devolved into duchies and counties ruled by magnates who warred against each other. Lesser lords fought against their local rivals as constant small-scale fighting pinpricked the country in conflicts that regularly roped in the great nobles. This was the beginning of the great era of castle building. Stone fortifications pockmarked a country that was constantly at war with itself. Violence between soldiers regularly spilled over against the church and the common people who were not nearly as capable of defending themselves. With the earthly powers against them where could the people turn but to the skies? It was in this context that the Peace of God movement emerged in the south of France.

In 975 Boso count of Périgord and La Marche [roughly modern day Creuse] assaulted the castle of La Brosse, held by Géraud I viscount of Limoges. Violence spilled over into the nearby lands held by the monastery of Saint-Benoit-du-Sault. Géraud I repulsed Boso’s forces at which point Boso renewed his offensive elsewhere. In the process, his son Elias seized the bishop of Limoges and stabbed out his eyes. Géraud I’s son then captured Elias and sent emissaries to the powerful Duke of Aquitaine, Guillaume IV, asking for permission to blind Elias in retribution. Guillaume IV granted his request, but Elias escaped. His punishment was passed on to Boso’s third son, whose eyes were removed. This brutal war in the south was literally eye for an eye. Moreover, conflict between nobles devastated those least capable of defending themselves: peasants and priests.

In the wake of this war, in 975 Guy II, bishop and count of Le Puy, called a meeting of local lords and asked them to take an oath to keep the peace. Guillaume IV supported these negotiations as a means of securing his own power by curtailing the ambitions of upstart nobles. Boso agreed to do penance as he seemed genuinely afraid that God’s wrath had fallen upon him. After the war his eldest son Elias went to Rome as a pilgrim and died along the way. His second son Aldebert was imprisoned and his youngest was blinded. No doubt Boso feared that God’s wrath was upon him and he wished to spare his fourth son. In a series of negotiations Boso and Géraud sponsored churches in each other’s territory and agreed to respect their lands and right to hold their own elections without interference. Violation of church sanctity warranted damnation. Géraud freed Aldebert from prison and the young man married his captor’s daughter to seal the peace. The peace established in 975 was not a general peace but an agreement between a few lords which established marital, religious and economic ties between two families. Yet, this practice set an important precedent of church leaders establishing peace between nobles and addressing their own grievances and those of peasants.

The post-war years were marked by quiet tension. Even though violence abated local lords frantically built castles in preparation for the next conflict. The remarkable pace of fortress-building alarmed the church, who foresaw future conflict as many of the new castles bordered important monasteries and churches. If war broke out, soldiers could easily ransack church lands belonging to their foes and retreat behind stone walls.

To preempt such a catastrophe, in 989 the Archbishop of Bordeaux summoned bishops across the south to Charroux, roughly 60 kilometers north of Clermont, in the middle-south of the country. On the 1 June at the Council of Charroux they declared the Peace of God. The bishops agreed that churches were sanctuaries and could not be entered without the permission of the priest, that soldiers could not “steal from peasants or the poor,” and finally, those who assaulted unarmed clerics would be excommunicated [Bradbury]. Despite many bishops being on different political sides, remember they were also lords wielding secular power, they agreed to uniformly punish any nobles who abused the church, peasants and poor. This was a remarkable assertion of clerical power, as church leaders aimed to fill the vacuum of power left with the fall of centralized authority. Despite all their religious power, these bishops still hoped to work with the aristocracy and appealed to the great power in the south, Guillaume IV. The Duke of Aquitaine enthusiastically joined the movement, donating generously to religious communities and hospices. Guillaume IV supported the Peace of God because it enshrined the status quo with him on top, rather than out of piety. Guillaume IV importantly allowed abbeys to elect their own abbots and renounced secular power over them, though he may have retained veto power.

The Council of Charroux was the first in a series of councils that codified the Peace of God. At a 994 assembly at Le Puy, bishops expanded protections to include merchants. They also codified new rites to enshrine the peace. Bishops called assemblies of lords and commoners alike to gather in front of their local relics and swear oaths upon the saints to uphold their promise not to abuse their fellow Christians. These relics were central to the ceremony; they served as a lodestone, drawing together the masses in a region for a common purpose. The church and the people pressured soldiers to swear to honor the saints and refuse ungodly orders from their earthly lords upon pain of excommunication. Thus, nobles who broke their oaths to a patron saint could expect their vassals, the people, the church and their saint to turn upon them. In this manner, the church and the people asserted their power against abusive aristocrats during a time of uncertainty. While the Peace of God limited the aristocracy’s power, most aristocrats joined the movement either because of the immense pressure or because it was fairly conservative in its aims. After all, the Peace of God sought to curtail the power of nobles to despoil peasants and church land. Since the powerful lords were in control of the peasants and church land it was in their interest to join the movement and pressure their ambitious lesser lords to join as well. As the movement grew churches pressured more nobility to swear to uphold martial standards of conduct. Finally, as the world neared the year 1,000 many Christians feared the end times were coming and sought to renew the Christian community in preparation of Christ’s return and the Last Judgement.

Despite the high-minded ambitions of the movement, the church was only partially successful in enforcing it. Following the 994 council, Guillaume IV went back on his promise to respect church autonomy and forced monasteries and abbeys to acknowledge his chosen men as their leaders. Then, in either 995 or 996 Aldebert, now Count of Périgord and La Marche rebelled against his lord, Guillaume V, who took over as Duke of Aquitaine from his father. Aldebert angled to change allegiance from his enemy Guillaume V to Count Fulk Nerra of Anjou. Fulk Nerra was then engaged in a war with his rival Odo II of Blois. The tangled series of alliances resulted in a broad war that consumed the west of France, from Anjou and Blois in the north, down into Aquitaine and the middle-south. Castles were razed, walls toppled and many died during the years’-long conflict. During the war Guy of Limoges took a bishop as hostage while his son seized the monastery of Le Sault. Fighting ended in 997 when, after Aldebert’s death, his brother Boso II agreed to a peace with Guillaume V. Boso II performed penance for his family’s role in starting the conflict, while Guy and his son repented for attacking an unarmed priest.

If the war in the west showcased the limitations of the Peace of God movement, it also demonstrated how necessary it was. Councils across France proclaimed their support for the peace until it became a country-wide phenomenon. The pious King Robert II vigorously supported the movement both because it appealed to his Christian virtue and because it maintained a level of tranquility in his realm which he could not enforce given the weakness of the central state. By the year 1,000 the king, aristocracy, church and common people across the whole of France united behind this remarkable agreement.

In the 1020s the Peace of God reached all new heights, as the king and the great magnates sponsored peace assemblies throughout the kingdom, as multitudes celebrated a new era of fraternity. In 1024 King Robert II met with the German Emperor Heinrich II along the Meuse where they proclaimed a universal Christian peace. This was a truly extraordinary declaration given the regular violence between France and the Holy Roman Empire, and it shows how by this time the movement became international. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the clerics and commoners of the Holy Roman Empire, as subjects of a conglomeration of contentious states prone to internal violence, would adopt these French ideas of Christian brotherhood and military prohibitions. In either case, this remarkable campaign that well-preceded modern human rights charters, gripped France and the German lands. In the lead-up to 1033, the millennial anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion, some communities even created peace leagues, what historian Richard Landes calls, “popular arm[ies] of peasants and townsmen, led by priests carrying banners, seeing themselves as the children of Israel fighting the Canaanites, [who] had considerable initial success against the local nobility.”

During the 1030s the Peace of God movement experienced a number of important setbacks. Robert II died in 1031. His son Henri I was not as committed to peace, though even if he had been he could do very little to enforce it. Under Henri I the crownlands shrunk to their smallest size in all of French history. 1033 passed without Christ’s return and the apocalypticism which fueled popular piety waned. In 1034 the monk and popular scholar Adémar de Chabannes, one of the greatest proponents of the peace, died. In 1038 a peace militia was crushed by the Count of Déols in a brutal mounted assault. Then in 1040 another militia led by Aimon of House Bourbon, Archbishop of Bourges, was defeated.

Even as the Peace of God declined a new, more ambitious offshoot of the movement spread across Normandy, called The Truce of God. Originating in Caen, proponents of the Truce of God aimed to stop most if not all violence between Christians. They called for laws regulating armed conflicts, feuds and prohibitions on war between Thursday and Sunday and on holy days, of which there were many. Yet, this extreme variant did not spread widely throughout France, though it did have broader appeal in the Holy Roman Empire.

By the 1050s these ambitious, locally-organized series of campaigns were winding down, though their impacts were longstanding. Clerics and communities still organized for peace when they were abused by local lords. A few peace militias remained, even into the 13thcentury. Importantly, the peace movement awakened the church to the power it held in medieval society. For centuries the church played the role of junior partner to the Carolingians and was frequently bullied by the Holy Roman Empire. By drawing on popular resentment towards violent and corrupt nobles the church could exert incredible influence upon society. Moreover, the Catholic church claimed more autonomy to elect its own leaders, and it enhanced its role as peacemaker between rival nobles.

The Peace of God movement also had a profound impact on the Crusades. It may seem strange that a peace movement could inspire war, yet remember it was a Christian peace movement. Prohibitions on violence did not extend to non-believers. When Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade on 27 November 1095 at the Council of Clermont he called for Christians to put aside their grievances against each other and engage in holy war against a common enemy and for a common purpose. The Peace of God movement gave an ideological basis and a practical example of how a unified church could use a popular peace movement to override local conflict, even if it meant war abroad.

Finally, the Peace of God was a major precursor to chivalry. What historians recognize as chivalry emerged in France sometime between the 12th and 13th century as a code among knights to defend the weak, protect the innocent, remain faithful to their lord and maintain Christian virtue. The Peace of God may have been the first grassroots, country-wide movement to control the behavior of soldiers and keep them from raiding, destroying and otherwise abusing the helpless and it provided a theological and theoretical basis for these ideas. Two hundred years later and poets and scribes reignited these ideas and created mythologized caricatures of godly warriors, of knights and paladins who fought for divine justice.

While the proponents of the Peace of God failed to achieve their designs, they had a remarkable impact on European and Christian culture. They limited violence between lords, they expanded the role of the church in society and they developed new ideas which spread across the country and were accessible to even the poorest people. In an era of limited transportation and communication it is remarkable that a movement, which relied so heavily on the lowly, usually illiterate people, could so profoundly transform society.

Post-script: To those whose ears perked up upon hearing the word ‘Bourbon’: Aimon was from the first House of Bourbon, which dated to at least the early 10thcentury. The house had no male heir in 1171 and was largely defunct, until the lesser Capetian prince Robert of Clermont married Béatrice of Bourgogne, of the Bourbon house. Through her, they revived the House of Bourbon as a cadet branch of the House of Capet, and which, in a few centuries, would become the royal house of France.

Sources:

Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France 987-1328, 2007.

Daniel F. Callahan, “The Peace of God and the Cult of the Saints in Aquitaine in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, Fall 1987, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Fall 1987), pp. 445-466.

“Peace of God: Pax Dei” by Richard Landes. Website here. Accessed 22/3/2022.

Thomas Head, “The Development of the Peace of God in Aquitaine (970-1005),” 1999.

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