From God’s Peace to the King’s Order: Late Medieval Limitations on Non-Royal Warfare

From God’s Peace to the King’s Order: Late Medieval Limitations on Non-Royal Warfare

By Justine Firnhaber-Baker

Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol.23 (2006)

Introduction: One of the fundamental tasks of medieval kings was to be a peacemaker, that is, to settle disputes and to prevent new ones from arising. The later medieval kings of France, whose councilors probably thought more about kingship than anyone else would ever care to, took this task very seriously. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the kings of France presented themselves to the world and to their subjects as arbiters of discord and guardians of peace. They did this through their personal work and that of their administrators and institutions in settling conflicts, but they also proceeded prescriptively by promulgating prohibitions or limitations of non-royal warfare. These ordinances outlawing the so-called “private” wars of nobles and other magnates have been considered, most notably by Aryeh Graboïs, as the culmination of a centuries-long development in the maintenance of order, one that began with the Peace of God Movement around the millennium and evolved into a royally directed program in the reigns of Louis VI and Louis VII.

But if development and change have been observed in the ideas and practices intended to maintain peace from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, this group of ordinances has not received as nuanced a treatment. Traditionally, in an approach that dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these texts were considered a single body of legislation representing a coherent and consistent ideological program directed by the crown. Yet, these ordinances were issued over the course of more than a century, during which time eight kings held the scepter of France. Moreover, as Raymond Cazelles has argued, there is considerable evidence for disjuncture among these texts. Indeed, Cazelles went so far as to assert that the ordinances against non-royal warfare were not at all indicative of a consistent program but rather only ad hoc, unconnected measures meant to deal with temporarysituations. His take on the ordinances has been lauded as a refreshing counterpoint to the supposedly “statist” bias of much of French institutional historiography. Yet, although it is true that the scholarship to which Cazelles was reacting partook of an anachronistic understanding of law in the Middle Ages, a closer look at the texts suggests that he went too far to the other extreme.

The ordinances are a heterogeneous mix of documents. While some of them do seem to have been measures of momentary political expediency, others evince a conscious connection to previous legislation and to the policies of predecessor kings. Those that do exhibit interrelatedness, however, do not manifest a consistent ideological program. Rather from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century, the intellectual content of peace-keeping prohibitions underwent extensive modification. Although early efforts under Louis IX inherited much from the ideological and administrative aspects of the Peace and Truce of God, his successors, particularly Philip IV and John II, increasingly deemphasized the sacral aspects of peace even as they found new rationales for peacekeeping that inhered in new political realities and newly elaborated theories of kingship and governance.

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