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Review of: Katherine Allen Smith, War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture



Book review
Review published in The Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies, 1 (2012), 1434.
Katherine Allen Smith, War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture (Woodbridge,
Boydell, 2011). ISBN 978-1-84383-616-2. pp. x + 236
This volume will prompt conflicting reactions from historians of medieval monasticism and
of medieval warfare. Some of the former, who believe that monks took no part in physical
warfare, will be surprised that there is sufficient evidence for a book-length study, while the
latter are already so much aware of the evidence that they will ask why further study is
necessary. Certainly those familiar with studies on the development of the crusade idea and
the emergence of the military orders will find much familiar material here, for example in the
discussions of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, and of the Old French moniage texts (pp.
15966). For the most part, Smith gives credit to the wide range of work which has already
been done. What her study does is to pull the many scattered studies together, and to fill
numerous gaps for example, pointing out that although there has been considerable study of
the Cistercians’ use of military imagery, there has been little work on the use of this imagery
by other monastic orders.
Historians who maintain that monasticism was separate from and opposed to war can
find ample justification in the primary sources, in the medieval concept of the ‘three orders’ in
which ‘whose who fight’ were separate from ‘those who pray’, and monastic writers who
condemned physical violence. Yet the evidence set out by Smith shows that this is only part
of the story. Scrutinising both day-to-day relations between monks and warriors reminding
readers that monks came from families of warriors and did not generally sever their family
relationships when they joined a monastery and the concept of spiritual warfare, Smith
produces abundant evidence to support her contention that medieval monks ‘applied military
metaphors to every aspect of life in the cloister’ (p. 198). When they called themselves
‘knights of Christ’, they envisioned themselves as real warriors, fighting real battles as
‘opponents of the devil and defenders of the spiritual well-being of Christendom’, but forming
a ‘soldiery of a better sort’ (p. 198), superior to physical warfare. Smith also sets out some
evidence of female religious using military images.
Smith presents a thoroughly-researched, impressively detailed and convincing case
that ‘war was as powerful an agent as peace in the making of monastic culture’ (p. 199). In
response to those who may argue that this view is too sweeping, she suggests further research
into how individual monastic orders, communities and writers used military imagery, and
whether these uses changed as warfare changed in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. This
volume should be studied by both historians of medieval warfare (especially the crusades),
Review published in The Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies, 1 (2012), 1434.
who will find new evidence here, and by historians of medieval monasticism, who will find it
opens up an aspect of monastic culture which has been for too long taken for granted.
Helen J. Nicholson
Cardiff University
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