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Open Access War and the 'agony of conscience' in Ælfric's writings

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Ælfric's views on warfare and violence have attracted much scholarly attention, giving rise to opposing interpretations of his intended purpose: to some a glorification of war and to others a call to pacifism. Far less has been written, however, on a more controversial issue within this general subject matter: the sinfulness of homicide committed by soldiers in a public war waged with a just cause, and the consequent need for them to atone. This article aims to throw light on this neglected aspect of Ælfric's writings, and argues that his eloquent silence on this ethical dilemma downplays the sense of guilt experienced by warriors who shed blood at the command of a superior. While the clergy's participation in physical combat is incompatible with Christ's teachings, secular soldiers must fight enemies to defend their country: in fact, for this order of society, waging war is not simply lawful, it is a duty, and has the support of God. That no reference to the sinfulness of bloodshedding should be present in Ælfric's hagiographical narratives is therefore crucial, for it probably contributes to remove the 'agony of conscience' suffered by those Christian soldiers who are reluctant to stain their hands with human blood, and thus reinforces the principle that killing in a just war to repel an enemy attack is not an obstacle to salvation.

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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2014

More about this publication?
  • Until a short time ago, in German speaking countries there has neither been a periodical dealing primarly with interdisciplinary research of the Middle Ages, nor has there been a forum for regular publications in other languages. Wishing to close this gap, the journal «Mediaevistik» therefore pursues two aims: 1. To publish research methods and results which deal with studies within the different categories of the Middle Ages as a subject, and 2. to offer a forum for studies in all other important European languages and thus stressing and furthering the internationality of this particular field of research. The time frame is approx. the 8th to the 16th century, corresponding with the geographical boundaries of Latin Christianity in the High Middle Ages.

    All articles in Mediaevistik are published as full open access articles under a CC-BY Creative Commons license 4.0. There are no submission charges and no Article Processing Charges as these are fully funded by institutions through Knowledge Unlatched, resulting in no direct charge to authors.

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