A New Order? Westphalia and ‘Modern’ Diplomacy

Dan Jewson, who is just about to enter his third year as an undergraduate and who arrived at Cardiff University through the Exploring the Past pathway, writes about his three-week placement working on the ‘myth’ of the Peace of Westphalia.

I undertook a three week research placement supporting Jenny Benham in her research on international law. My specific tasks were to compile a bibliography on the subject of ‘The origins of International Law’ and to compile further research into a number of specific European Peace Treaties between 1485 and 1918.

At first, I was overwhelmed at what appeared to be an enormous task in an area of history I have very little experience in. I was not really too sure where to start! Very quickly these fears disappeared as I began to read and research the many primary & secondary sources available and quickly became fascinated by the subject. Whilst this was a subject area I had not looked at in any depth previously, the historical skills I have developed during my degree proved to be transferable.

In particular, it was exciting to have the opportunity look in detail at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia (a series of treaties concluded between May and October), which was the culmination of the peace process at the end of the European 30 years’ war. An historical paradigm has grown up around this Peace. Historians and lawyers believe the ‘Westphalian Order’ represents a turning point in international law, heralding ‘modern’ diplomatic and international relations between newly established nation states. However, by reading the text of the treaty in detail I was able to gather evidence which suggested that this historical narrative can be argued to be a myth. Far from being a ‘modern’ peace treaty or a new way of operating international relations, Westphalia drew inspiration from diplomatic practice stretching back into medieval times. It was genuinely exciting to read through a primary source and identify evidence that challenges established historical thought – a fitting reward for trawling through challenging and lengthy pages of 17th century legal text! Having taken a module last semester on the British Civil Wars, it was also very interesting to be looking at the same period but from a European perspective, broadening my understanding of the Early Modern period and also challenged some of the opinions I had developed on Britain during the Civil Wars.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Other Treaties that I looked at in depth included The Treaty of Osnabrück (1648), The Treaty of Pyrenees (1659), The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), The Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle (1748) and the Congress of Vienna (1815). Each of these treaties have also established historical narratives attached to them so it was fascinating to unpick these and consider the evidence. One of the challenges I had with some of the primary sources was finding documents which had been translated into English. This took a long time with some documents and with others proved completely impossible. This was frustrating and slowed down my research at times.

Overall it has been a fantastic opportunity which I have really enjoyed. Looking at peace treaties across a broad timeframe enabled me to understand in more depth the development of international law in Europe and also to challenge some of my own historical preconceptions about the development of European nation states and the background to many European conflicts. It’s also broadened my horizons beyond the Early Modern and Modern Period which are the periods most of my studies have focussed on. Finally, working alongside Jenny and benefiting from her expertise, professionalism and obvious passion for her field has been a real pleasure which has enabled me to further develop my historical skills and knowledge. Thank you very much.

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