For historian Dr. Craig Nakashian, being a self-described contrarian with an interest in cultural and military history inspired a research pursuit about medieval clerics and their role in wartime.
Nakashian, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, recently saw his first book, "Warrior Churchmen of Medieval England, 1000-1250 Theory and Reality," released mid-December by The Boydell Press. The book's arrival even received notice in the English Historical Review.
For Nakashian, studying how the clergy approached war during these years was an extension of his doctoral studies at the University of Rochester. Several things appealed to him about the subject.
"Modern Christians have an image of Christianity as a very kind of pacifistic sort of religion, you know, turn the other cheek and Christ with the lamb and all that," Nakashian said. "And that's all very true and that's all very meaningful."
But the Middle Ages, he observes, was a time for Crusades and holy wars, providing some dissonance between what's thought of today as proper Christianity and what was thought back then. In working on other research projects, he sought to understand what happened with clerics who chose to become involved in war.
"Bishops, primarily, because these guys had obligations. They were major landholders," Nakashian said. What he read indicated that yes, sometimes they were involved but they weren't supposed to be, according to canonical law. The ones who did get involved were anachronisms, it seemed at first.
"Then I started reading the primary sources and I wasn't seeing that," Nakashian said. Canonists were clear that clerics shouldn't be armed, and beginning in the 1000s, he said, there was an effort started to purify the church. As a historian, he was interested in the gray area, though, seen in clerics' actual behavior, as opposed to the ideal.
"What did the people at the time think of this? I know what the lawyers thought of it. I know what the canonists thought of it because they wrote the law," Nakashian said. The law became complicated, but it generally prohibited clergy from getting involved in war.
That prohibition originated with an early church idea that Christianity and violence didn't get along, Nakashian explained. There were debates about whether one could even be a Christian and soldier at the same time.
"This is what happens with St. Martin of Tours where he basically takes off his belt of being a legionnaire and says, 'I can't serve. I have the belt of Christ on. I can't have the belt of Rome on, as well,'" Nakashian said.
Later, though, Christianity becomes an imperial religion, so it can't be entirely pacifist. Still, there was the idea that the clergy shouldn't become encumbered or dirtied by earthly things, Nakashian said. Things of the spirit were seen as their proper realm.
But Nakashian saw that clergy were, by some, actually praised back then for their involvement in war. That intrigued him enough to want more research to read, so, not seeing it out there at the time, he eventually wrote the warrior clergy book himself.
"That's kind of where it sprang from, this idea that there's a cultural kind of disconnect between what some people say they want out of this group of men and what they really want," Nakashian said, characterizing one French bishop, dating from around the 800s, who says, "Look, if you think that as a bishop your responsibility is only to look out for the souls of your flock, you're misreading the gospel. He basically says Christ tells you that the good shepherd lays down his life for his flock, as well."
The motivation for clergy to get involved? That's not as apparent, Nakashian said. They don't say a lot about it directly. "Sometimes we can get insights obliquely," he said.
About episodes of clergy actually getting involved in wars, including one where two bishops fight in battle, including an axe throwing, Nakashian says, "To me that's one of the most clarifying kind of realities of just humanity, that law is great and principle is fantastic and we believe in those things and those things matter. But they're not the only things that matter."
Also important are partisanship, pragmatism, motivation and common sense, he says. He looked at how warrior clerics were discussed by historians and didn't see this subtlety.
His role as a medieval historian isn't to decide what's right and wrong, Nakashian points out. Rather, it's to understand why people behaved in a certain way. "And try to derive conclusions from that. Judging history's tough," he said.
Why'd he pursue this topic? "I've always been a bit of a contrarian," Nakashian said. And no one had really discussed this issue much. Warfare and cultural history intrigue him.
"And I wanted to write something about war and culture and all of that, and this topic kind of appealed to me because I wasn't satisfied with the treatments that I had seen," the historian said.
As a contrarian, he wanted to see if there was more to this subject.
This was his first book, and likely his only one, he admits. It's a huge amount of work, of course, much of which done when he worked on his doctorate, which he earned in 2010. Before then, he earned his M.A. in Medieval History from the University of Durham.
After a year teaching at Southeast Missouri State University and finishing his Ph.D., he joined the faculty at A&M-Texarkana in the fall of 2010, teaching courses that range from Medieval Civilization to Sex, Swords and Sorcery: The Medieval World in Anglo-American Film.
How does he make a topic like warrior clergy interesting and relevant for students? For one thing, people are intrigued by religion and war. But there's more to it, too.
"One of the things that's interesting about this topic in particular is that it forces us to consider interpretations of things that we kind of take for granted," Nakashian said. In a largely Christian society like this, he says, it's a different interpretation of what Christianity means to us.
"We don't normally want our bishops out cleaving people's heads in half," Nakashian said. "So that kind of gets them to think, why'd they think that this was a good idea for a Christian?"
He believes it brings out a consistency in human nature, too.
"In a lot of ways we tend to 'other' the past. We do this the same way in many ways we do it with folks from foreign lands and whatnot," Nakashian said. In a sense, we can see them, and the past, as different from us. And while it's true, in some sense, there's also a common human nature.
Back then, people dealt with the same types of day-to-day issues we do and had the same concerns of making a just society, making our lot better or ensuring we don't wind up in Hell, he said.
"But beyond that human nature is human nature. People are people," Nakashian said.
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