Noble Violence in the Middle Ages; The Church Mediates

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Noble violence in the Middle Ages was a huge problem that even the kings could not always control. Discover how the church stepped in, offering a unique solution: the “Peace and Truce of God” movement. Did it work?

Medieval castle, sword and shield
(Image: sergio victor vega/Shutterstock)

The Link Between Lordships and Castles

In the High Middle Ages, the rights of lordship included the ability to collect staggering amounts of money from the lower classes and try others for crimes, which led to abuse of power and corruption. Lords also used their military prowess to profit through looting, providing an economic incentive for noble violence.

However, the ability of nobles to bring others under their rights of lordship varied a great deal according to time and place. Lordship was not equally harsh nor was it equally prevalent in all areas.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Medieval castle of Vitre city in Brittany (France)
Private castles made lords untouchable to any form of justice. (Image: Yapasphoto StefClement/Shutterstock)

The system of lordship appeared in areas that had experienced near-total political collapse during the 9th and 10th centuries, partly as a result of external invasions and partly due to the collapse of the Carolingian Empire.

In kingdoms where kings were able to control the construction of castles and ensure they did not become private property, lordship tended to be less onerous. Lordship was pronounced in areas that lacked a consistent authority to keep them in check; nobles succeeded at building private castles, making them almost untouchable to any form of justice. It could take years to eject a noble from a castle that had become private property.

What did this mean for the map of Europe? Around the year 1000, the part of Europe where lordship was especially harsh was the western half of the former Carolingian Empire: France, northeastern Spain, and even northern Italy.

Not all parts of Europe experienced the same upheaval as the former states of the Carolingian Empire did upon its collapse. Like in the kingdom of Germany and in parts of Europe that had never been part of the Carolingian Empire, such as England, rights of lordship were kept in check around 1000. But whenever royal authority weakened at all in these areas, castles began to appear.

Sometimes the kings would gain the upper hand and exercise their authority, but sometimes they didn’t. Other parts of Europe began to look like France, Spain, and northern Italy.

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Dealing with Noble Violence

In much of Europe around the year 1000, it was all too clear that those whose responsibility it was to restrain nobles and lower levels of nobility—kings, counts, and dukes—could not do so.

The job was simply too difficult for them. As a result, other segments of society devised new and innovative methods for dealing with the problem of noble violence.

One of the earliest and most important attempts to deal with nobles’ infighting, and their willingness to attack the defenseless, was something known as the “Peace and Truce of God” movement.

The Peace and Truce of God movement began around the year 1000. It started in those areas of Europe where the almost-total collapse of central authority was most complete, and where unchecked castle-building and noble warfare was most severe. The phenomenon spread throughout Europe.

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What is the Peace of God?

Charlemagne Tower, Charroux Abbey
Charlemagne Tower, the only remaining structure of the Charroux Abbey where the The Peace of God was first proclaimed in 989. (Image: Photographed by Rigolithe/Public domain)

The Peace of God was first proclaimed in 989 at the Council of Charroux— a church council—held in southern France. The Peace of God granted immunity from noble violence to certain segments of medieval society.

The proclamation granted immunity to the defenseless, including clerics and the clergy, orphans, widows, virgins, peasants, and animals as well, because farm animals could not defend themselves.

The Peace of God was quite specific in its prohibitions. Nobles were prohibited from invading churches, stealing from churches, stealing farm animals, beating peasants, beating farm animals, burning down peasant houses, stealing grain from the fields, stealing grain from the mills, cutting down fruit trees, and so on.

Virtually every violent act that a knight or noble could do to a non-knight or non-noble was included within the Peace of God and forbidden by it.

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The Truce of God

The Truce of God came somewhat later. It was first proclaimed in 1027 at another church council, called the Council of Toulouges, also in southern France.

If the Peace of God protected categories of people, the Truce of God attempted to proscribe any fighting whatsoever within the medieval nobility during certain periods of the year, even certain days of the week. No beating of peasants was allowed on these days and no fighting with one another.

At first, the periods were rather limited. The Truce of God forbade any warfare from, say, the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter season, or on Sundays.

Over time, the Truce of God, as it was renewed during the 11th century, became more extensive. By 1100, weekends, the Christmas season, as well as the holidays, were a period of peace and restraint.

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The Clergy Takes Charge

These were great ideas. The driving force for those who proclaimed and operated the Peace and Truce of God movement was the clergy.

Bishops and abbots on the regional level were the ones who came up with the idea of the Peace and Truce of God. They leaped into the breach once they saw that kings, counts, and dukes were no longer capable of maintaining order, and their own lands suffered as a result.

Local clergy, abbots, and bishops held church councils, summoning the regional nobility to attend these councils. They would issue invitations demanding that the nobles appear at a certain point in time.

If a noble came to these councils—which were often open-air events, given the large crowds expected to attend—the clergy would bring all the saints’ relics they could find from the nearby churches and monasteries: Bits of bone from the corpses of saints, vials of blood, pieces of clothing from the garments of saints, and any item that had had physical contact with someone who had been venerated as a saint.

Often, they would place as many relics as they could collect in a field, or carry them among the crowd of knights and nobles who had shown up.

The clergy attempted to use the fear and the retribution of the saints to intimidate the nobility into swearing to abide by the Peace and Truce of God.

One should never underestimate the fear of saints and saints’ relics in the Middle Ages. People would travel from miles around to visit shrines at which saints’ relics were venerated, seeking physical cures, seeking advice on what to do in the future. The belief in the power of saints’ relics to alter behavior was very real.

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Did the Peace and Truce of God Movement Work?

Nonetheless, the Peace and Truce of God movement was highly limited in its effectiveness, and in its ability to restrain the fighting of medieval nobles. It was limited because nobles were under no obligation to attend a church council.

You could receive the invitation, tear it up, and not attend. Even if you attended, you might not swear to abide by the Peace and Truce of God.

Even if you swore to abide by the Peace and Truce of God, it was one thing to be intimidated by the fear of the saints while the local clergy waved bones at you; it was another to still be afraid once you returned to the castle with your men, and started to feel the old impulses return once again.

The Peace and Truce of God had to be renewed decade after decade in the areas where it existed. The mere fact of constant renewal suggests that it was not obeyed, or a particularly powerful weapon for restraining noble violence.

The Peace and Truce of God movement was, in certain respects, a failure. The subsequent history of high medieval Europe would include further attempts to restrain nobles, to make them into something they were not, and to transform them into better people.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Movement

Medieval Europe’s Nobility: A Warrior Class

The nobility of high medieval Europe was a warrior class. Its social dominance was rooted in the effectiveness of its knightly fighting techniques.

Through the High Middle Ages, the nobility became much more exclusive and sharply defined. Knighthood and nobility were restricted to those of the proper bloodlines, as specific privileges were attached to nobility.

Besides, nobles tended to use their prowess for their own profit through open warfare, and by imposing rights of lordship upon non-nobles. The need to restrain nobles and bring order to a chaotic time led to various cultural innovations, including the Peace and Truce of God movement.

Common Questions About Medieval Knight and Noble Violence

Q: What made knights and nobles so violent in the Middle Ages?

Medieval knights and nobles were violent in the Middle Ages as it was largely their occupation to keep order in the land. Since they were nobles, there was a sense of entitlement that led to power-grabbing.

Q: How did nobles and knights work together in the Middle Ages?

Medieval knights and nobles were part of the nobility and thus worked together to rule the land for the King. The upper-level nobles were landowners, and the knights acted as the military with equipment and land given to them by the nobles.

Q: Were the knights and nobles violent toward the peasants in the Middle Ages?

Yes. The medieval knight and noble violence toward peasants, and in fact, each other, was largely unchecked until religious figures enacted a code of conduct backed by fear of spiritual retribution.

Q: Were knight and nobles of the same status?

Medieval knights and nobles were in the same class of nobility. However, the nobles who owned land and dealt with money were somewhat higher in status than the militant knights. On the other hand, knights were trained fighters who were treated with respect for this reason.

This article was updated on 10/18/2019

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About Kate Findley 73 Articles
Kate is a freelance writer, novelist, and blogger living in L.A. She has been writing for the Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.