Understanding peace in 13th century German culture. Were the Rhenish league and town leagues “coniurationes”?

Understanding peace in 13th century German culture. Were the Rhenish league and town leagues “coniurationes”?

By Ossi Kokkonen

Ennen Ja Nyt, Vol.4 (2004)

Introduction: In this article I study the Rhenish league and German town leagues of the second half of the 13th century. Typically these institutions have been scrutinised from the point of view of history of law and of history of administration, and thanks to this their legal standing is well known. My purpose is not to deny the relevance of this kind of approach but to show that the leagues can also be placed in a wider context of European town history. I try to show that they can be portrayed as coniurationes.

Coniuratio is a widely and often contradictorily used term. The Latin noun “coniuratio” has two meanings: the taking an oath together or a conspiracy, plot, treason, or intrigue. Although the corresponding English noun “conjuration” is not widely used, it still bears these two meanings. This basic bipartition is evident also in medieval political, juridical and religious writings. Unfortunately it is not possible to go here into the wider question concerning the various interpretations of coniuratio. However, on a general level it can be demonstrated that various points of views can be reverted into these two opposite views of understanding the coniuratio, i.e. to those who saw coniuratio in a positive light as a sworn union and to those who saw it in a negative light as a conspiracy.

Various meanings have also been given to coniuratio in studies concerning medieval social history. Earlier it was quite often seen in a narrow sense as an early phase of the founding of medieval towns especially in Northern Italy, Flanders and Northern France. Lately, however, it is seen on a more general level as a sworn association between equal and voluntary members that was based on a mutual oath of its participants. Peter Blickle for example sees coniuratio as an oath taken on a voluntary basis by individuals who form a political and moral corporation. This corporation orientates itself towards peace and shows its will in statutes that get their legitimation from the common good. Its members enforce these statutes and reswear their association from time to time.

This brings up the importance of the idea of peace in coniuratio. In the Middle Ages peace was given many ecclesiastical and secular meanings. Thus also peace has to be understood in a wider sense than in our own times when it is normally seen simply as the opposite of war. Because of this in the medieval context lack of peace or disorder (discordia) are normally better opposites for peace than war. Permanent or common peace was a rarely materialized ideal, a utopia on the horizon or a Christian metaphor, whereas open or latent disorder was a social standard.

In this article I exploit a bipartition that is common in law history. In this peace is divided into a pax ordinata (given peace) and a pax iurata (sworn peace). It is obvious that this division is artificial and that in reality different forms of peace worked side by side, completing each other and from time to time causing legal disputes. Pax ordinata was given by a supreme ruler, lord or town lord to his subjects, and it was characteristically “lord-driven”. Most of the medieval national and regional peaces, and also peaces that established the legal standing of different kinds of groups of people, like women, Jews or merchants, can be seen as given peace.

Click here to read/download this article (PDF file)

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email