This article asks what religious violence is and why it is relevant. It questions common assumptions by focusing on how monastic violence unfolded in premodern Japan. It argues that there was nothing that set this particular form of violence apart in terms of what the clerics fought for, their ideological justification, who fought, or how they fought. Although myths prevail on the largely fictive figure of the sōhei
, or “monk-warriors,” closer scrutiny indicates that their depiction first emerged as a coherent literary concept in the early Tokugawa period. Regarding the ideological framework in which incidents of so-called monastic violence took place, the paper demonstrates that the individuals involved in such conflicts—including the clerics—cannot be dissociated from their own socio-historical context. This is because the medieval Japanese setting was based on rules of cooperation that also implied competition among various elites. The paper further complicates our understanding by showing that the central issue is not why specific violent events involving clerics occurred, but rather what constituted the mental framework—or mentalité
—of the age, and how it allowed religious institutions to play such a prominent role.
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