The Soldier of Christ in Medieval Hagiography

How did the figure of the milites – the sanctified warrior laymen of the church – grow out of medieval saints’ lives? In her new article (now live on the Cerae website), Sofia Fagiolo tackles this question through the lens of two vitae – she introduces her article, and the inspiration for it, for us here…

My article explorers the ways in which the model of the Christian knight, protector of the weak and defender of the Church, emerged and evolved in tenth- and eleventh-century monastic hagiography. By the turn of the eleventh century, in southern France, the Church tried to stipulate for the emerging chivalry class a specific code of moral behavior through the movement of the Pax Dei (“Peace of God”). The purpose of this movement was not to eliminate warfare but rather to restrict and redirect violence in legitimate forms. In this social context, monks began to write vitae of certain pious warriors as models of behavior for arms-bearers. My paper focuses on two of these vitae: the Vita Geraldi and the Vita Burcardi. The first, composed by Odo of Cluny, is familiar to scholars of the central Middle Ages: it is the first hagiography that narrates the life of a lay saint, St. Gerald of Aurillac (d. 909), who was neither a king nor a martyr. The Vita Burcardi, in contrast, is less well-known: it is a short text that recounts the life of a powerful knight, Count Burchard of Vendôme (d. 1007), who lived during the early Capetian period.

The comparison of these two texts indicates the profound changes that took place in the political landscape in the Frankish kingdom during the tenth and eleventh centuries, a period that saw the end of the Carolingian era and the beginning of the feudal age. The discussion of how violence and the rise of saintly knights are portrayed in hagiography contributes to our understanding of the intellectual and theological trends that influenced major events such as the rise of chivalry and the Crusades. Indeed, both texts examined in my paper reflect the emerging view that arms-bearers could give, through their militia, a saintly service to the Church. By analyzing the most relevant aspects of these narratives, then, I seek to explore the different approaches used by the hagiographers to defining the figure of the pious knight in the dual role of warrior and saint.

The topic for my article came out of research I undertook two years ago for my Master’s thesis defended at the University of Rome La Sapienza in January 2019. My research idea was generated by a book of Esther Dehoux (2014) titled Saints guerriers: Georges, Guillaume, Maurice et Michel dans la France médiévale (XIe-XIIIe siècle) which argues that some of the most well-known military saints were used as exemplars for the milites. The idea of discussing the Lives of St. Gerald and Count Burchard in this light intrigued me. The positive impression of my examiners stimulated me to consider the idea of a publication, so a few months later I started to revise and refine some key chapters of my thesis to develop a journal article. I planned to publish my piece in an English language journal to reach more readers and Cerae seemed the proper choice.

I wish to express my gratitude to the anonymous reviewer(s) and the Cerae editor-in-chief Dr. Christina Cleary for their valuable suggestions. My thanks also to Professor Umberto Longo and Professor emeritus Alfonso Marini, my supervisors; and last but not least, I would like to thank my family for the steady support as this research progressed.

Sofia Fagiolo

University of Rome La Sapienza

Feature Image: Ruins of the Abbey of Saint-Maur-dés-Fossés, centre of Burchard’s cult

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