The Medieval Origins of a Modern Phrase- “Kill’em all. Let God sort’em out.”

The Medieval Origins of a Modern Phrase- “Kill’em all. Let God sort’em out.”-

I recall, when I was around nine or ten years old, traveling with my mother to Parris Island South Carolina to watch my older brother graduate from Marine Corps boot camp. It was an imposing and impressive place to be for a young kid, as it is steeped in tradition and legendary for “making Marines.” While there, we had a chance to tour the P.X. (today the Marine Corps Exchange) on Parris Island and I recall coming across an intimidating and imposing t-shirt for sale. It showed a skeletal face wearing a Marine Corps cover with red burning eyes and its boney fingers gripping an M-16. Above the face it read “Kill’em all” and below it read “Let God sort’em out.” I would later encounter the phrase again in other contexts when I became a Marine myself. At the time, I had no idea that the phrase was medieval in origin.

While such a saying is undoubtedly offensive to a lot of modern ears, it’s in no way truly representative of how Marines (highly professional and well disciplined fighters) typically operate. So perhaps the more sensitive minded reader might forgive a moment of hyperbole on the part of those regularly dispatched to engage in deadly combat in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. This aside, the saying “Kill’em all and let God sort’em out” is not unique to the U.S. Marine Corps. It’s often repeated in military circles around the world. One only need google the phrase or search on Amazon and they will find many images (some of which are pictured above) of flags, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and patches for sale bearing the phrase and geared toward members of the U.S. Army, U.S. Marines, and other military organizations.

When I began my studies of medieval history, I recall (at one point) coming across the original medieval version of the phrase in a thirteenth-century source by the German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach. In describing events that took place at the Battle of Béziers in 1209, a part of the broader so-called Albigensian Crusade, Caesarius cited a Catholic cleric named Arnaud Amaury as the originator of the phrase. At one point during the battle, when the crusaders were supposedly hard pressed to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars at Béziers, Caesarius records Amaury as commanding Catholic forces to (translated from the original Latin) “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

I assumed then that the medieval phrase was the origin of its modified modern form and later easily confirmed as much. Indeed a number of online sources, including Wikipedia, no less, now address the origin of the phrase. So my little discovery as a budding medievalist (still an undergraduate) was certainly not novel or new. Indeed, modern writers often use the phrase to highlight the ruthless immorality of the crusaders (click here for an example), who, if Caesarius’ account is to be believed, cared very little about human life.

Yet while medieval historians see no reason to doubt that a massacre (on some scale) took place at Béziers, they do indeed doubt that Amaury ever actually uttered this infamous phrase. As the great French medievalist Régine Pernoud once (somewhat indignantly) explained, writing in 1977:

“Not so long ago a television broadcast reported as historical the famous words: ‘Kill them all, God will recognize his own,’ at the time of the massacre at Béziers in 1209. Now it has been more than one hundred years (it was precisely in 1866) since a scholar demonstrated, and without any difficulty, that that sentence could not have been uttered, since it is not found in any of the historical sources for that period but only in the Dialogue on Miracles (Dialogus Miraculorum), whose title gives a sufficient idea of what it is about, composed some sixty years after the events by the German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, an author endowed with an ardent imagination and very little concern for historical authenticity. No historian since 1866, needless to say, has subscribed to the famous ‘Kill them all’; but story writers still use it, and that is enough to prove how slow scientific acquisitions are in this regard to penetrate the public domain.” (Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages, p. 18-19)- In French, see Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age.

Although some scholars now put the composition of Caesarius’s Dialogus Miraculorum to within fifteen years (c. 1219-1223) of the events at Béziers, there is still good reason to be cautious in accepting his claim about Arnaud’s infamous words. While it is possible Caesarius was citing an oral source, or as one historian has called it, Cistercian gossip, none of the surviving historical sources, such as Arnaud Amaury’s letter reporting on the massacre to Pope Innocent III in 1209, use the phrase. Caesarius certainly wasn’t present at Béziers to hear it uttered. Instead, as the Catholic Encyclopedia has noted, in keeping with Pernoud’s comments above, the purpose of Caesarius’ hagiographical account “was not to relate facts of history, but to entertain and edify his readers.”

Andrew Holt

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2 thoughts on “The Medieval Origins of a Modern Phrase- “Kill’em all. Let God sort’em out.”

  1. Florin Curta

    Caesarius was no innocent witness. See Brian Patrick McGuire’s old, but still excellent article, “Friends and tales in the cloister: oral sources in Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum,” Analecta Cisterciensia 36 (1980), 167-247.

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